Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Faulty epistemology in Sri Lanka

The debate about ‘multiculturalism’ takes on a particular urgency in Sri Lanka. Nira Wickramasinghe reports that the debate there is on whether Sri Lanka is “a multicultural country where all ‘ethnic identities’ should be equally recognised and protected” or “a Sinhala Buddhist country where other identities (principally the Tamil, though there is a significant Muslim population in the country too) are subsumed in this larger Buddhist culture and hence need only to be tolerated”.

She argues:

While I accept the need for respect and space for all forms of identity, I feel we should try to move away from an overtly cultural understanding of identities. The curse of multiculturalism is that while providing for more freedom and recognition to the group or community it is a closure in that it denies the contingency and ambiguity of every identity. Multiculturalism cannot help but essentialise the fragment. …
Much debate on how to resolve the ‘ethnic conflict’ in Sri Lanka is dominated by a faulty epistemology where it is assumed that each group ‘has’ some kind of culture and that the boundaries between these groups and the contours of their cultures - namely the Sinhalese and the Tamils - are specifiable and easy to depict.

So, essentialising the cultural fragments in individuals leads towards fragmenting the essence of the country.

People often complain that party-based democracy (despite its practical merits) provides too sparse and stale a choice of set menus. The same is true of community-based culture. Across the world, nations are diverse in their populations; people have to accept this. But we have to do so without neglecting the human diversity to be found within individuals.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Independence and resentment

The Institute for Public Policy Research has set up an ‘Independent Commission on National Security in the 21st Century’. Fair enough; should be interesting. But in the coverage of it, I read: “It will also publish an independent national security strategy.”

This phrase is taken from the IPPR press release, but doesn’t appear in the more detailed description [PDF] of the commission’s purpose – so I’d guess it’s just the product of an IPPR press officer.

Which is good, because this talk about being “independent” is a bit daft and can be kind of weaselly too. You can see it most clearly in the phrase “independent foreign policy”. You know exactly what this is getting at: Bush is bad and Blair’s been too close to him. (This mirrors right-wing talk about “national sovereignty” vis-à-vis the EU.)

But is it remotely possible for a country like the UK (or even, frankly, the US) to have an effective foreign policy that’s formulated and implemented independently of allies and international institutions? And is this a respectable position for people who think of themselves as internationalists and who deplore American unilateralism at every turn?

Do they want a ‘not-in-my-name’ foreign policy along the lines of the alternate sulking and posturing that Chirac so excelled at?

Furthermore, I doubt that anyone – Blair included – seriously imagines that UK foreign policy objectives should systematically be determined by what the White House (or the EU, the UN or anyone else in the world) wants.

It’s often remarked that Bush is stupid. What’s more interesting is that he has the power to stupefy others, particularly middle-class European lefties, into a furious knee-jerk defiance.

I think one of the key reasons that the Iraq war has been so unpopular in Britain – distinct from any complaints about honesty, competence, casualties, legality and the other fair points – is to do with the Blair-Bush connection.

Max Weber said in 1918:

“A nation forgives if its interests have been damaged, but no nation forgives if its honour has been offended, especially by a bigoted self-righteousness.”

So, we can accept failure but not humiliation. He was talking about a nation defeated in war being humiliated by its conquerors, but I believe this maxim applies to our situation from late 2003: a nation technically victorious in war, feeling humiliated by its leader and his ally. (Does “bigoted self-righteousness” ring any Texan bells?)

Voters can and do forgive bad judgements, particularly in foreign policy, and particularly when the economy is strong. There may not be forgiveness of deceit and ignoble motives, but after a period of protest there is often a grudging acceptance that this has always been part of politics; people ‘move on’ and focus on other issues.

The key to much of the enduring fury about Iraq is not just that people believe our leader made a mistake and told lies, but that they think he willingly chained himself, and his country, to someone else’s mistake and someone else’s lies – and a buffoonish cowboy, whose manner gets so under our skin, at that. Blair was seen to rob us of our independence and a lot of people cannot forgive him the humiliation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Selection: “character, judgement and consistency”

I know I wrote about this last week, but the Tory row over grammar schools and selection acquires ever more twists and turns.

It was kicked off by David Willetts saying that the party wouldn’t create more grammars:

“We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. …there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

(Although he illogically added that “we will not get rid of those grammar schools that remain”.)

David Cameron seems to agree, saying that school reform should involve “a bar on academic selection”, making sure that it’s “pupils choosing schools rather than schools choosing pupils”.

Although Cameron’s reason for becoming anti-selection seem somewhat different: it is “deeply unpopular with parents” and “a pledge to build more grammar schools would be an electoral albatross”.

But he also maintains: “Of course, we fully support existing grammar schools.” Of course? Why? Why support the entrenchment of advantage? Is there an ideological thread that unites keeping the existing ones because they’re great and refusing to build new ones because they’re bad? Or is it just fear of too big an argument?

For a bit of perspective, Willetts’s predecessor as Tory education spokesman produced a plan in July 2005 a “plan to boost the educational opportunities of children from poorer backgrounds”, of which one vital plank was: “Give schools freedom to determine admissions.” This hapless hack (one D Cameron) insisted: “The abolition of grammar schools reduced social mobility”.

Precisely the opposite of the new line. But Cameron has now given us some insight into the thinking of his naïve, backward self of very nearly two years ago:

“It's completely delusional to talk about these things in the future when we didn't do them in the past. We are debating something that we didn't do, we weren't going to do and even if we did do it, would have been undone.”

So, back then he was delusional (as now are 71% of Tory voters and 73% of Tory members). Or else he just didn’t mean it. Or else he doesn’t mean any of it now.

But, to be fair to him for his U-turn, there has been some important research out since then:

The Times has learnt that Mr Willetts carried out focus group research earlier this year to test his message that there should be no return to the 11-plus. Aides insist that he and Mr Cameron were initially taken by surprise by the reaction.

You know where you stand with David Cameron:

“Real substance is about… sticking to your guns. It’s about character, judgement, and consistency.”

(And today, presumably for a bet, “David Willetts said that he wanted to make it easier for specialist schools to select pupils.”)

Smoking burns itself out

Evidence that the human body has some ironic defence mechanisms:

A man had been a heavy smoker for years. One day he suffered a stroke, almost certainly related to his habit. Upon recovery, he found that he no longer had any inclination to light up – but he insisted that this had nothing to do with wanting to turn over a new leaf (so to speak) after his health scare.

It turned out that the stroke had damaged his insula, a part of the brain known to be involved in addiction.

Poetic medicine?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Building and listening

Shuggy remarks:

“Politicians are always announcing their intention to build stuff. Not houses or anything as boringly tangible as that; it's usually more abstract things like 'trust', or 'communities', or even, when they're feeling ambitious, 'a new society' or something.”

True. And then they almost inevitably fail to get the trust built, which then results in a little more trust being demolished. This seems an endemic problem to politics. But there’s an obvious solution: contract out the building work as a PFI scheme.

If private companies could bid for the contract to build trust, or a fairer future, or a young country, then their entrepreneurial spirit would work wonders against the obstacles that so bedevil politician-led trust-building projects. There’d be a clear market incentive for the contractors to deliver (pause to shudder at that word, if you will) on time and on budget, as any risks would be borne by them: failure would mean they’d forego the payments due as the politicians then leased back the completed trust/caring society/culture of respect.

It is vital to rebuild people’s faith in politics. And what better way to do that than by commissioning a consortium led by Jarvis or Mowlem to rebuild it?

Paulie picks up on Shuggy’s comments about politicians who claim to want to ‘listen’:

“Of course politicians will always promise to listen, and always pretend to be doing it already. But if they actually *do* start listening, they will find themselves on a fools errand, because there isn't really much by way of a decent conversation going on anywhere (outside of the usual rarefied little circles - and even then, it's mostly poisoned by The Ideology of Applied Adolescence(tm)).”

Very often, when people say things like “I just want politicians to listen”, which sounds almost infinitely reasonable, they mean something else entirely.

I don’t think they really have in mind a situation where they sit down with the relevant minister, explain their views, go through some clarifying questions, and then have the minister say: “Well, I understand that you want us to change policy A for policy B on grounds of X, Y and Z, and I accept that X and Y are fair points (although I disagree about Z because of F and G), but we’ve been going with policy A on grounds of P, Q and R. So I see what you’re getting at and I’m glad we had this chance to talk, but in the end we may have to agree to disagree.”

What they often really want is not so much listening as obedience. So when politicians promise to listen, even if they’re not being vapidly disingenuous, they’re bound to let people down.

The only solution would be to set up 60 million government departments, and make each person in the country Minister for Bert Jabbermore of 47 Piffle Street, Frothington (or whatever). They’d then be uniquely and exclusively responsible for listening to themselves and implementing their own ideas.

This is the way to build a politics of obedient listening. Interested parties should submit tenders for this project to the usual address.

Friday, May 18, 2007


This is what a solar eclipse looks like when what’s eclipsing the sun is Saturn.

A cracking good image from the Cassini-Huygens mission.

And if you look really closely, there’s a small speck visible through the rings. That’s us.

(Hat tip to Stephen Pinker at Edge.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Willetts on school selection

David Willetts’s speech on education this week was characteristically intelligent and well-researched. It was entirely in keeping with the new Tory rebranding – in other words, it talked a lot about the disadvantaged but missed some key points and failed to grasp some tough nettles, and was less revolutionary in policy terms than it was spun as. He claims:

“We are all familiar with the lists of countries that have the boldest and most effective education reform - some American states, Holland and Sweden, for example. They all have more per capita funding and greater diversity of provision and without allowing providers to select who they teach. It is very important that we comply with this successful international model.”

This sounds like a commitment to abolish selection and increase spending. But no, he’s promising to keep the existing grammar schools. And one of his colleagues may have words to say about spending commitments.

Willetts cites research showing that poor children on free school meals do increasingly less well than other kids at every stage of education. But these figures show that three-quarters of the GCSE achievement gap is already in place before the start of secondary school, and two-thirds is set by the start of primary school. Yet he focuses his priorities on secondary school reform rather than pre-school nursery and childcare.

He discussed at length figures showing that grammars (as well as well-performing comprehensives) tend to have fewer pupils from poor families than in the general population in the areas they serve, showing that de facto social selection is going on. But he sees this as meaning that clever, pushy, middle-class parents are manouevring their way into the best schools.

What he entirely fails to consider – although he gets achingly close in saying that “in the rush to create more and more Academies before Gordon Brown becomes leader, there is a danger that they are becoming less distinctive” – is that ‘school quality’ isn’t something that exists prior to and independent of intake. One of the key determinants of a school’s exam results is the type of children (and, more importantly, parents) it can get. Nice middle-class parents like their children to go to nice chav-free middle-class schools, with which they can happily get involved. These schools then tend to do pretty well academically.

UCL’s Professor Richard Webber and colleagues published some important yet unsurprising research on this last year:

“The results show that the position of a school in published league tables… depends more on the social profile of its pupils than the quality of the teachers.”

Yes, you can do some good by concentrating resources and innovative ideas on schools in poorer areas. Labour already is, to a degree. But the elephant in the room is the one-sided drive to class segregation: some politicians ignore it because they don’t care; others try to avoid it for fear of being trampled.

Labour deputy hustings

Until last night, at the Institute of Education, I’d been almost completely unsure who to vote for as deputy leader. It was useful, but I’m still not quite decided. They’re mostly OK, and all have their merits, but I’m not really wild about any of them.

Partly this is because the role of the deputy is a bit indeterminate – presumably to be thrashed out by Gordon Brown (what exactly is he going to be doing for the next few weeks BTW?) and whomever wins. But it will likely involve three things: (1) mediating between the membership and the cabinet; (2) helping to build up and mobilise the party grass roots; and (3) being a general campaigner (‘minister for the Today programme’). The third is the most optional, depending on the winner’s media skills and public appeal. Whatever other governmental responsibilities the deputy might take up are entirely subject to negotiation.

I think I’d get the prize for the least effectively asked question of the night – apparently waiting for the microphone and then not getting talked over by the chair helps. It was: “How would you refresh the parts that Gordon Brown can’t reach?” It got a few laughs but no interesting answers (nobody fell into the ‘diss the next boss’ trap), and on reflection I’d have done better to ask about one of the first two (more important) aspects of the job listed above. There was some discussion of this, and all of them said reasonable things, but we didn’t get into enough detail (for me, at least) to see very clear distinctions.

In fact, a lot of the questions, mostly about policies, were perfectly interesting but not entirely relevant, because the deputy leader’s views on policy have no special status whatsoever. Five of the candidates obviously couldn’t go directly against the party line, but a few apparent differences did emerge.

Harriet Harman and Peter Hain seemed most sceptical of faith schools. Harman also questioned the merits of specialising at age 11, and Hain seemed least supportive of grammars (he has a record in Northern Ireland to draw on). Jon Cruddas was critical of city academies. Alan Johnson (education secretary) dismissed abolishing faith schools and grammars as electoral suicide.

On a possible Iraq inquiry, Hain, Johnson, Hazel Blears and Hilary Benn were sceptical that it’d be of much use, as people have their own firm preconceptions and would either use the outcome as ammunition or dismiss it. Cruddas thought that an inquiry could help to provide closure and spur national reconciliation (for the UK) over the issue, but most of the others took the view that inquiries (and calls for inquiries) in recent years have come to be a substitute for proper political argument. Harman thought there could be useful things to look into about the decision to go to war and in the (lack of) planning for afterwards.

On civil liberties vs security against terrorism, Hain and Harman seemed to lean more in a liberal direction, with Johnson and Blears tending the other way.

My estimation of how they line up politically from left to right goes: Cruddas, Hain, Harman, Benn, Johnson, Blears. If that matters. I don’t think any of them are really beyond the ideological pale,

Now some (utterly subjective) observations on how they came across:

Hain’s speaking tended towards the mid-range oratory. Good and articulate, but clearly a politician. In answering questions, he was sometimes waffly, verging on the evasive.

Harman spoke fluently and earnestly, but also obviously as a politician (albeit a talented, polished one). She veered from the engaging to the borderline touchy-feely to the dull.

Johnson spoke like an ordinary person; not only was he very direct, but he also came across as more thoughtful than I’d expected.

Blears had an almost constantly cheerful tone (genuine, rather than an act, I think). Her rhythms of speech sometimes felt as though she was addressing children, stressing simple points in a way designed to make them sound insightful. Certainly sounded chattier than most politicians, but in a way that suggested she’d be doing most of the chatting.

Benn came across as intelligent without being wonkish, passionate without being shouty, and morally concerned without being hand-wringing. He was also wittier than I’d expected.

Cruddas was down-to-earth and straight-talking, sometimes tending to laddishness, sometimes towards seeming maybe a bit of a wide boy.

There was thankfully little managerial jargon from any of them, and not too much sloganising either. It was all pretty good-natured.

One thought that crossed my mind is how I’d vote if they were the candidates for the leadership itself. No contest: Benn is by far the most prime ministerial. Harman and Hain might be passable; Johnson iffy; Cruddas and Blears just too lightweight. So that’s one way of looking at it, and probably not the best way. Who should be deputy?

I’m now pretty convinced that Benn should become foreign secretary, but I don’t really think I want him being distracted by the party deputy role. Hope he gets a decent showing, though.

Cruddas is dead right about the importance of reconnecting with the working-class voters who’ve drifted into abstention or towards the BNP, and if we ignore him on this we need out heads examined. But I don’t understand his aversion to having a target seat strategy. And I’m a little worried that his idea of representing members’ views to the leadership may end up a tad confrontational. During his campaign, he’s at least singed some of his bridges with the current government. Criticism is fair and often justified, but I could see the Tories throwing some Cruddas quotes in Brown’s face.

Harman has a fair point that there are merits in Brown having a woman deputy, but her repetition of this (and of the fact that she is indeed a woman) wore a little thin. The rest of her pitch didn’t seem to amount to much. She’s certainly talented and reasonably media-friendly (in light of Cameron) and deserves some sort of job – and doubtless Brown will have a number of prominent women in the cabinet – but I don’t know why warming the hearts of the party faithful should be the job for her.

Blears has some good points about local party involvement with community activities, and her enthusiasm shouldn’t really count as a minus (I can be a cynical old sod sometimes). She said she wanted to be a “campaigner-in-chief”, but whatever her party organisational abilities, I just can’t see her doing the public barnstorming role without starting to grate with anyone not already a big Labour fan.

I don’t really have any strong feelings about Hain. Like Harman, he’s an accomplished politician and if we want somebody who’s visibly leftish (by the standards of this government) but not a risk of becoming an internal dissident, he said he’d be “loyal but independent-minded”.

But I think perhaps Johnson (with his strong union background) might be better equipped to have a good relationship with the grass roots. He also seems to have his head firmly screwed on about electoral strategy, and – as I said – sounds like a normal human being. Then again, he’s not entirely fresh-faced, and he might be a tad rightish for some of the rank and file.

I’m not sure. Right now I could lean towards Johnson, which I wouldn’t have predicted a day ago. But I’ll see what they all say and do in the next few weeks. Some opinion polls of former Labour voters would be nice.

[Update: more write-ups of the hustings here and here.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Relationships: prejudice and evidence

With all this leadership hoo-hah going on, a couple of government policy reviews have just been published to precious little attention. One’s on the role of the state (about which I may write once I’ve had a look) and one’s on the family.

Some excerpts from the latter (all italics mine):

“couples who are living together without being married are still more likely to break up than married couples. For example, among parents of children under three, when comparing couples of an equivalent age, income, education level, ethnic group and benefit status, an unmarried couple that is living together is around twice as likely as a married couple to break up. This may reflect, simply, that married couples may, on average, be more committed to one another.”

The controls and the final caveat are welcome, painting a far less simplistic picture of the causal power of rings on fingers than certain people have done. The review goes on:

“children generally benefit from being raised within a stable, two-parent family rather than a single-parent family.
“But this does not necessarily mean that the family type causes these outcomes. Rather it is the combination of factors [prosperity, education and strength of parental relationships]… that result in better or worse outcomes for children. This is illustrated by evidence that growing up in a lone-parent family as a result of bereavement or of donor insemination is not associated with the same negative outcomes as growing up in a lone-parent family resulting from divorce. Similarly, inter-parental anger and conflict are strong predictors of, and risk factors for, child maladjustment regardless of whether a child is living in a family that is intact, divorced or a step-family.”

Type of family structure is a poor proxy for quality of family relationships. Yes, good adult role models are essential – but bad ones are damaging, and they won’t be made good by getting them to stick around.

“the Government cannot create [relationship] commitment… where it does not already exist. … Similarly, policies that aim to provide incentives for couples to stay together when relationships have broken down do not help to reduce parental conflict, and may therefore not be in the best interest of children’s well-being or benefit those within the relationship. The Government should therefore not act to incentivise specific forms of relationship. …
“The children of less committed fathers seem to suffer more deprivation and show more behavioural problems than those whose fathers are more committed – the key factor is whether fathers are actively involved in their children’s upbringing. This applies to both one- and two-parent families.

In the light of all this (there are plenty of footnotes citing research papers), there really is no honest reason for saying that children’s lives must be improved – particuarly those in poverty – and yet focusing overwhelmingly on the crude, facile, ineffective promotion of marriage.

Walzer on executing tyrants

Michael Walzer asks: “Is it possible to oppose the death penalty and still be in favor of killing tyrants?” (He means executing through legal process after an overthrow, rather than assassinating a reigning tyrant.)

He thinks the answer is yes, and is aware of the tension this position creates. After a brief discussion of the historical acceptance of executing deposed monarchs, he suggests that:

“kings were killed because ordinary criminals were also, routinely, being killed. In Iraq, Saddam was killed because the death penalty was legally established and widely accepted. So here is an easier position than the one that I began with: I want to abolish the death penalty, but I don’t want to mark the abolition by saving a tyrant. Let the first person saved by abolition be someone like you and me, who has never been all-powerful, who has never been a brutal and cruel ruler of millions. … And then, after [the tyrant] has been convicted, he is executed, because only execution makes for the definitive end of tyrannical rule. Only execution provides the closure that the political community needs.
“But now imagine that the death penalty were already abolished: would I still favor the execution of a tyrant? I don’t think that question will ever arise, because tyrants-as-we-know-them have never ruled without the death penalty. A tyrannical state is always in the killing business, so perhaps a state that is out of the killing business cannot be tyrannical. If that is right, then the execution of a tyrant should be the last execution.”

There are three things seriously wrong with this argument. The first is that it accepts the legal system that licenses execution – which has come into being under a brutal tyrant – as legitimate. The second is that it demands the execution of all relevant ‘ordinary’ criminals who happen to be convicted before the (doubtless lengthy) tyrant’s trial and appeals are concluded.

The third problem relates to the fact that opposition to capital punishment generally involves a belief in the inalienable value of each human life and that the state should not coolly, calmly, deliberately kill a now-defenceless individual. But Walzer’s case for executing tyrants is based on the wider good for society: providing “closure”. This consideration, though, could perfectly well be (and frequently is) applied to ‘ordinary’ murderers. The reason for the exception he makes has a logic that would lead to its becoming the rule, so I’m not sure on what grounds he can consistently oppose the death penalty in general.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The parable of Mark Oaten

While I wouldn’t vote for John McDonnell with a ten-foot barge pole, I’m pretty relaxed about his candidacy. Gordon Brown is bound to win by a mile anyway; a contest would dispel any nonsense about an illegitimate ‘coronation’ as well as making clear that’s Brown’s not an ‘old Labour’ throwback; and frankly, McDonnell does represent a significant strand of party thinking. The political differences between him and Brown are far realer than those between Brown and, say, Alan Milburn.

But here’s a cautionary tale.

Once upon a time, there was a little orange boy called Mark. He and his little orange friends wanted to make Orangeland more modern.

One day, the orange leadership was up for election. Mark stood, and all his friends cheered him on, as the only other candidates were a couple of boring oldies and a new kid whose name nobody could remember.

Then, disaster struck. Mark was disgraced and had to pull out. The orange modernisers were forlorn, and one of the boring oldies won.

Now, let me be very clear: I don’t think Gordon Brown has been seeing rent boys. In fact, I’d bet the public sector borrowing requirement against it.

But there are many types of bus that a political career can suddenly fall under. If (admittedly, a big if) something should emerge during the contest that sinks Brown, there’s no cushion to prevent McDonnell from becoming PM by default.

Just an idle thought.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The kind of stupid thing I worry about

A glimpse inside my brain:

‘…well, it’s only slightly raining, really not enough to justify putting my umbrella up – in fact, it’s kind of refreshing – but I do have a 25-minute walk ahead of me, and while I guess that at no moment will I feel excessively rained upon, it’s quite likely that by the end I will have accumulated enough droplet hits to make my clothing damper than I’d like, so maybe I should put my umbrella up, but on the other hand that really seems like an over-reaction to the current level of precipitation, so perhaps I should just carry on as I am for the moment and then reassess the situation if it gets heavier or if I start to notice moisture building up on my clothes…’

Tom Freeman – Man of Action.

The only thing that saved me from going the rest of the journey like that was overhearing a snippet of conversation, which completely distracted me from all thoughts of weather:

Woman 1: I really like that girl, but I can never remember how to say her name.
Woman 2: Is that Naomi?
Woman 1: Yeah, that’s her.

Tom Freeman – Not Quite the Stupidest Person in London.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Style over substance

I’ve just ‘upgraded’ my blog template (not that it’s a major change), and I have to say, it ain’t user-friendly. At least, not if you’re a moron, it isn’t. I’ll be tinkering some more over the next few days to get back all the nice things I used to have in my sidebar.

And I presume my feed’s still playing up.

(Maybe I should go back to sticking handwritten rants on lamp-posts…)

Stormy disenchantment, theatrical departure

I don’t really feel like adding to the torrent of obituaries for Tony Blair’s career. Almost everyone’s opinions of him have been fixed for a long time; any novel insights you can take where you find them. So here’s something completely different:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

Right. What’s next?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Comparative government

So, that’s that, then. Or rather it will be in seven weeks.

Timothy Garton Ash makes a fair point:

“For all the problems that remain, you must ask yourself this question: who is better off? Britain after 10 years of Blair, France after 12 years of Jacques Chirac, Germany following eight years of Gerhard Schröder, or the US in the seventh year of George Bush?”

Or Italy after five years of Silvio Berlusconi, or Australia in its 12th year of John Howard… or Britain after seven years of John Major?

Labour: the past and the future

To the LSE, for a panel discussion on ten years of Labour. I wouldn’t dream of trying to précis it all, but I’ll give you two highlights.

Biggest laugh of the night was for Ed Miliband. He was talking about the social changes of the last decade, and said that before this government came to power, the idea that attitudes to gay rights, racism and poverty could shift as much as they have would have seemed “as outlandish as some of the stuff we had in our manifestos in the 1980s”.

Gentle chuckles. Then we remembered that Neil Kinnock was sitting next to him, and we started roaring. Then Miliband remembered.

Before yesterday, I’d only laid eyes on Neil once – briefly, in 1987. I’d never heard him speak in person.

He’s great. There was a Q&A where the five panellists were supposed to have about three minutes each, but the chair, Oona King (who seems to be possessed of remarkable yet down-to-earth charm – we have to get her back in parliament), wisely gave him free rein for what must have been a quarter of an hour.

You very obviously have to be there to appreciate the sheer electricity of Neil Kinnock when he gets going, but some of the substance I think merits even my clumsy paraphrase.

What Labour has to do, he said, is (among other things) to clearly link its achievements to its values. The improvements in health and education – which are real – and the falls in poverty and unemployment – which are real – are not just the natural way of things, not just a piece of good luck, not just a result of clever management. These things have happened because there’s a party in government that deeply believes in its soul that these things matter, and that will never tire of the constant effort that’s needed to make progress on social justice. These priorities are a matter of choice, driven by values – not tactical positioning, driven by expediency. A party whose instincts lie elsewhere will only exploit this agenda to betray it. (But, he warned from experience, if people think this is a matter of the poor versus everyone else, then the whole mission is doomed.)

I tend to think Neil was the best leader Labour’s had – perhaps not in terms of electoral success (although, unlike Blair, he did leave the party with higher ratings than he found it). His achievement, despite it taking longer than he’d hoped to really pay off, was to save British politics from collapsing into a Tory hegemony. He endured relentless media fire, he urged reasonable compromise when zealotry tempted, and he managed to keep Labour alive. He talked the party down from the ledge.

Last night I had a glimpse of how he did it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Is something wrong with my feed?

I wish I was savvy enough to be able to answer this myself. Here’s the thing: on a couple of sites that aggregate lots of blogs, most postings appear with the post title and then a line or two of body text.

But lately my posts are being shown as title-only. I don’t think I’ve changed my settings.

Any bright ideas?

Oliver! (or ‘Please, Mr Letwin, we want some more’)

Oliver Letwin has been waving his brain around [PDF] about what the new Conservative political theory is. First he suggests the terms of debate:

“Politics – once econo-centric – must now become socio-centric. If the free market is a matter of consensus, the debate must change its nature. Instead of arguing about systems of economic management, we have to discuss how to make better lives out of the prosperity generated by the free market. Growth in well-being hasn't kept pace with growth in domestic product. ... Instead of being about economics, politics in a post-Marxist age is about the whole way we live our lives; it is about society. Politics today is socio-centric.”

Then he offers the Tory answer, in contrast to “the provision-theorists of Brownian New Labour [who] see the state as the proper provider of public services and of well-being through direction and control”:

“The framework theory of the modern state sees government as having two fundamental roles: to guarantee the stability and security upon which, by common consent, both the free market and well-being depend; and… to establish a framework of support and incentive which enables and induces individual citizens and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities.”

Hmm. You could remark that given Brown’s record on growth and employment, it’s not surprising the Tories don’t want to talk about the economy. And you could also argue that Labour’s (including Brown’s) use of public-private partnerships, promotion of social enterprise and increasing involvement of the voluntary sector in public services suggests that they’re not the dogmatic ‘provision-theorists’ Letwin paints them as.

But what I want to pick up on is that despite Letwin’s undoubted intellect, this vision is a tad flimsy. Once you get down to the nitty-gritty, it amounts to either ‘shrink the state’ or (if you generously add in some sensible caveats that his speech curiously omits) ‘shrink the state where possible without hurting anyone’. Whichever of the two he means – and this doubt testifies to the lack of clarity – it’s either standard right-wingery or fluffy warm words (albeit polysyllabic ones).

Another clear hint that this political theory doesn’t amount to much is that he himself mischaracterises his own description of it. He says:

“The Cameron Conservative framework-theory of the state… takes the same place in the socio-centric political debate of the twenty-first century that free market theory once took before it triumphed in, and hence outdated, the econo-centric debate of the twentieth century.”

But it doesn’t. Free-market theory (not that Thatcher or anyone else ever really implemented such a thing) is, as the name suggests, about freedom. Prosperity is the motivating factor for private enterprise; government should merely ensure the enforcement of contract rights, property law and the such, and individuals and companies will be free to engage in economic activity as they see fit. The profit motive obviates any state-based system of incentives.

What Letwin is suggesting, however, is that the state should “establish a framework of support and incentive” to promote fulfilment of “wider social responsibilities”. In other words, the state will define how it thinks people should live and then use its top-down centralist levers to skew people’s motives in that direction (marriage bribes, for instance).

I’ve used somewhat ‘grumpy right-wing’ language in that last sentence to illustrate that this theory actually goes against the grain of the liberal wing of the Tories that Letwin apparently belongs to (ditto Cameron), using statist manipulation to promote somewhat authoritarian ends. Then again, you could also use this ‘framework theory’ to justify scrapping environmental and labour laws in favour of ‘inducements’ and cajolery (thus making the ‘free’ market that much freer and more dangerous).

It really seems that it’s the spin and PR makeover driving all this talk, rather than a clear, new policy analysis or philosophical outlook.

But one thing that I accept does accurately represent a core belief of Cameron Conservatism is in the suggestion that “we have to discuss how to make better lives out of the prosperity generated by the free market. Growth in well-being hasn't kept pace with growth in domestic product.”

This takes for granted that the nation’s prosperity (of which there’s quite a bit) is fine economically, and now that we’ve got that, we just need to think about how to use our money to make our lives better. It ignores the fact that the fruits of growth go mainly to those who are already well-off (although far less so than under the Tories [PDF; see p17 fig7]).

There’s not a hint about poverty or redistribution. All this talk of creating ‘frameworks’ to ‘enable and induce’ people to fulfil ‘social responsibilities’ neglects the fact that market-defined merit will leave plenty of people impoverished and that only direct state economic action can plug that gap. Under Cameron and Letwin the poor will always be with us – but they’ll be helped to be so much happier with their lot in life.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Moral logic and parliamentary arithmetic

The Scots have voted; now the manoeuvring for coalition partners begins.

Recap: the SNP leads with 47 seats, followed by Labour with 46, the Tories with 17, the Lib Dems with 13, the Greens with 2 and one other.

Alex Salmond argues that for a coalition to have “moral authority”, it would have to respect “the wishes of the electorate and the verdict of the people”. The principle he appears to be working from is: the larger the party’s representation, the more legitimate its place in government. Which sort of sounds reasonable.

(Unless, of course, he’s just saying such things to try to dissuade the Lib Dems from getting together with Labour again. But never mind that.)

This principle, however, logically has implications not just for who should be the senior coalition partner. There’s talk of either Labour or the SNP joining up with the Lib Dems and the Greens. But what moral authority do these minor parties have to form part of the government? The Tories, in third place, would surely have a better claim than either.

Indeed, on this logic the most morally legitimate coalition would be between the two largest parties: an SNP-Labour ‘dream ticket’. None of that unseemly mucking around with the minor parties – who are, by definition, the least popular.

No takers? Then you need a different moral logic.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Daftest post-election comment of the day

Yes, dafter than mine. It’s from Martin Kettle:

“There has been no pre-post-Blair bounce.”

Voting for paternalism

From the English local election results so far, Labour’s performance suggests that ‘drubbing’ rather than ‘wipeout’ will be cliché of the day. The party’s also fallen back in Wales, and Scotland (at time of writing) is too close to call, amid problems with ballot papers. How to make sense of the big picture?

At times like this, wise psephological eyes turn to the critical weathervane seat of Queen Edith’s ward in Cambridge.

This has been a safe Lib Dem seat for years, with the Tories consistenly in second place. But last night, the Labour candidate, Len Freeman, pulled off a stunning turnaround.

Not only did he fight off a tough Green Party challenge for third place, but his vote surged from last year, smashing through the psychologically important 8.5% barrier.

This is a great result, with obvious implications for the next general election. The Labour fightback starts here!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Take a deep breath.

Pictures of People Who’ve Been Pictured in Magazines magazine has secured a legal ruling saying that it was wrong for People Who’ve Been Pictured in Magazines, Pictured magazine to print pictures of two people who’d often been pictured in magazines, given that they had agreed that Pictures of People Who’ve Been Pictured in Magazines magazine was going to print pictures of them that day.

I’d like to sneer, but sadly Freemania has just become Blog about News Reports about Legal Disputes between Magazines that Picture People Who’ve Been Pictured in Magazines, so I really don’t have a leg to stand on. Dammit.

Yawning at victory

Ten years ago today, I finally went to sleep at about noon.

Ten years and one day ago, after many hours of frantic running around with telling sheets and clipboards and ‘don’t forget to vote for Anne Campbell’ leaflets, I gathered with everyone else round the TV at 10p.m. and saw the exit polls putting us a billion points ahead.

This was a nice contrast with 9 April 1992, when I’d collapsed into a chair with despair at the exit polls. But even so, I (only partly for show) said “well, it’s still just a poll”. Then I got on my bike and went off to the count in the Cambridge Guildhall.

I don’t know why, but it took for ever. Ages to separate the general election ballots from the council ballots, then an interminable wait. Luckily I’d brought in a walkman with a radio, which allowed me, a bit before 1a.m., to yell “Basildon! 13,000!” with a grin a mile wide. There was also, we discovered later, a side room with a TV, where we entertained ourselves while trying not to be too beastly to the devastated, hard-working Tory activists.

After Portillo, the count proper got going and we swaggered/danced/slouched back into the hall and did our stuff. At various points I found myself whistling The Red Flag. The result finally came through at about 5a.m. Somehow, from somewhere, somebody produced champagne in plastic glasses.

By then the knees-up that the local Labour party had organised was long over, as I saw when I biked past the designated pub and went home. I slumped in front of the TV with first a beer, then a coffee, watching – I’m a bit hazy actually, but it may well have been Blair en route to the Palace, then to Downing Street; Major en route to Lord’s to watch the cricket; utterly redundant punditry…

My eyelids became heavy. After just a few hours, I’d grown tired of Labour.

I’m glad the Tories didn’t win a fifth term. I’m glad Hague didn’t bring them back to power in 2001. I’m glad Howard couldn’t make them rise from the dead in 2005. Britain is better for these three elections. Even with all the mistakes and failures, I’m glad. I’m proud.