Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What rhymes with ‘cuttlefish’?

I’m seriously impressed with the inventiveness involved in writing this:

Two Haikus

I once wrote a pair
Of Haikus, related, but
Willing to fuse--please

Don't ask me how one
Limerick now replaces
The Haikus in twos


A Limerick

I once wrote a pair of Haikus
Related, but willing to fuse
Please don't ask me how
One limerick now
Replaces the Haikus in twos

And the wit required to write this:

I don't usually have quarrels
Over where we get our morals
Ah, but every now and then somebody steps beyond the pale.
Once they know that I'm ungodly
They start looking at me oddly
And If I could walk on water, It would be to no avail.

[Plus a few more verses…]

I’m inspired to poetry myself. Alas, all I can come up with this evening – staying on the irreligious theme – is this:

There was a man nailed to a cross
For claiming his dad was the boss
There followed him churches
Whose prejudice lurches
From brimstone to twee candyfloss

You want better? Fine. Check out the Digital Cuttlefish (hat tip).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Book meme thingy, innit

Matt has tagged me with a meme:

  1. Pick up the nearest book
  2. Open to page 123
  3. Find the fifth sentence
  4. Post the next three sentences
  5. Tag five people and acknowledge who tagged you

This presents something of a problem. The nearest book, which I’ve been avidly reading, doesn’t have 123 pages. Nor does it have all that many sentences per page. Here’s the best extract I can manage:

See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Run, run, run.

The near-Dostoevskian desperation permeating this passage almost overwhelms me. I can’t wait to see how all the subplots will be woven together at the end. But that’s enough for one day.

I’ll tag: Liam, Scribbles, Paul, Bill and, er, David Miliband. Well, you never know.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I’m sorry we haven’t a Humph

Samantha has just had to pop out to the undertaker’s to pick a coffin. She was very impressed when he showed her his wood, and though he initially asked a lot for it, she managed to get him to go down.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Conversion disorder

A really, really, clumsy blunder in the Economist:

To pay for a cut in the basic rate of income tax in his final budget as chancellor last spring, Mr Brown removed the 10p ($0.20) starting rate.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Doing 30% of the right thing

I had some Co-op flapjacks the other day, and very tasty they were too. There was a label on the packet saying:

Made with 30% Fairtrade ingredients

…and 70% Namibian orphans’ tears?

I’d have thought ‘ethical consuming’ would be more of an absolutist affair. You don’t get banks boasting that they won’t invest all of your money in the arms trade or hear swanky supermarkets proclaiming that their smoothies contain ‘not that many’ artificial additives. And how many films do you see where ‘only a few’ animals were hurt during the making?

More generally, I have yet to hear of anyone trying to market Stella to Muslims as ‘94.8% alcohol-free’, and I doubt that any industrialist has ever used the slogan ‘Most asbestos users stay alive!’

Anyway. Those flapjacks were the most fairly traded ones I could find: not completely fair but at least fairly fairly traded. So my conscience is clear. 30% of it, anyway.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

On spotting an open goal

Her: Aw, come on. That wasn’t bad for a very low grade pun. But puns aren’t my forte.

Me: No, you’re right. Probably only your twente or thirte at best.

(Yes, it’s absurdly disproportionate smugness. But what the hell else is the internet for?)

What lies beneath

Greg Clark, Tory front-bencher, says that “tax credits are masking the extent of underlying poverty in Britain today”.

This concept of underlying poverty he defines as covering those people “who either are in poverty or would be without tax credits”. Hmm. So that’s those people who are in poverty plus some of those who aren’t but would be if not for a particular government policy.

But why, among all government policies, just tax credits? Why not child benefit and jobseeker’s allowance too? I bet they’re masking some poverty. Or the minimum wage? There must be plenty of poverty underlying that. Or the Sure Start childcare provision that allows parents the chance to go out and earn money? Or state education? That must help a few people get decent jobs who otherwise wouldn’t. Or Bank of England independence? Without that, the economy would have done less well these last ten years…

It’s almost as if Clark has it in for tax credits. Although he swears he doesn’t:

Let's be clear: tax credits are an essential part of a modern welfare policy, because it is obviously better to increase someone's income in work than to see them either in poverty or out of work.

But there’s a but:

But, surely, something has gone badly wrong with our economy - and our society - when more and more people every year are unable to earn enough to keep themselves and their families off the breadline.

By “unable to earn enough” he really means “unable to earn enough in the absence of certain government policies, namely tax credits”. Has something gone wrong with our economy – and our society – if this is true?

Well, that’s two questions. The point of the economy is to… actually, there isn’t a point to the economy. It’s the aggregate of the buying, selling, working, hiring, producing, consuming and other such activities that we all carry out. We carry these out to advance our own interests. If the untrammeled workings of the market would leave some people badly off, that’s no fault of the economy per se.

But most of us don’t want an economy with no government intervention. We expect our governments to do just that, in various ways and to various extents. Our society thus affects the working of the economy. One of the key reasons it does this is to ensure that those who’d lose out from laissez-faire are in a better position. There are many ways of doing this.

Clark mentions skills, and of course the government can make itself useful there. But there will always be a lot of low-skilled jobs. For every office block full of well-educated professionals, you’ll need catering and cleaning staff. If we want these people to be able to keep their families off the breadline, then we can’t imagine that the free market will do that. Society – via government – will have to compel employers to pay them more or will have to add to their wages directly. Or both.

As we do.

‘Underlying poverty’? The notion seems to treat anything achieved by government as somehow illegitimate and even unreal. Perhaps we should also have figures for underlying crime (counting those that would be committed if there were no prisons), underlying child mortality (including those deaths that the NHS prevents) and underlying school league tables (showing what exam results would be if schools stopped getting public funding).

Monday, April 21, 2008

You’ll always have a past

David Edgar has written a piece apparently about “defectors” from the “left” – although, given that he appears to count Hizb ut-Tahrir as part of the left, I may have misread the article completely. Perhaps it’s actually about Bolivian transport policy, or Renaissance dentistry, or fairies.

I don’t wish to add (much) to the good responses that have appeared already (see Andrew Anthony, Norm Geras, David Thompson and Oliver Kamm); I’ll just note one thing.

Edgar says that he’s “interested in the politics of defection”, although he seems to be more fascinated by the psychology of defection (or rather, the psychology of changing your mind when political cliques of some sort are involved). Key to his view is this:

Inevitably, however complete the conversion, what defectors think and do now is coloured by what they thought and did before.

Well, yes, that’s probably true. But you can also make a perfectly good psychological case with which to loftily sneer at consistency of view.

If my now thinking ‘X is bad’ is inevitably coloured by my having once thought ‘X is good’, then of course your now thinking ‘X is good’ is even more so coloured by your record of having thought ‘X is good’ all along. Dare you not be self-critical? Do you magnify, deny or simplify new developments so as to justify keeping your old position? Do you refuse to see things in new ways? Have you invested so much of your life in slogans and tracts and comradeships that to break with that would be more harmful to you than a mere admission of error?

We all have pasts; we can never escape them; our futures will always be coloured by them. Welcome to the human race.

Two short observations

The first is that, given its slow pace and general weirdness, Lost suffers hardly at all if you watch a whole series over one weekend when your brain is half-fried by a really nasty cold.

The second is that the housing market – generally, not just at the moment – is not a market at all but a series of bear traps. You actually have to pay for information about the thing you supposedly want to buy! In fact, it’s maybe more like a poker game than a series of bear traps, except with no order of play and an unknown number of hidden cards. And bear traps.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A tip for Gordon Brown?

From someone I’m sure he’ll listen to - from his own speech in Boston last week:

And although he was President for less than three years I believe that the much of the progress of this half century has been testament to the scope of John Kennedy’s dream, the worth of the ideals he lived for, the breadth of hope he inspired in us, and most of all - amid all the wit, style, elegance and statesmanship that adorned the Kennedy Presidency - his summons to service - one that never fails to inspire people to see farther and reach higher, a call which still reverberates around the world and always will.

(Let’s skip over the wit, style and elegance bit.)

Brown was fond of saying back when he was Chancellor and asked about his ambitions to replace Tony Blair, that it’s not the office you hold that matters but what you achieve with it.

True enough, although I don’t believe anybody ever actually swallowed that ‘non-denial denial’. But then I don’t think we were intended to swallow it.

What’s also true is that it’s not the time you’re in office for, but how you use that time. I doubt that even assassination would lead people decades hence to look back fondly on Brown; but he has the ability to achieve things, even if his time at the top is a brief as JFK’s, that will set the tone for time to come.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The price is…?

David Cameron:

At a time of falling house prices and lack of affordability, the Government should do what it can to support first-time buyers.

Now, I’m not an economist – although I am a first-time buyer – but I think that the falling house prices are rather taking care of the lack of affordability.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Money markets and the rule of law

I’m agog. George Bush has said some ridiculous things in his time, but this may be the most staggering of all.

The other day I wrote about the tension between national security and the rule of law. Bush has identified an even more important principle that may come into conflict with justice: money. Luckily, though, the resolution is (like its proponent) very simple:

We need to reform our legal systems so the people, on the one hand, can get justice; on the other hand, the justice system doesn’t affect the flows of capital.

This actually dates back to December 2004; I found it via Steven Poole’s blog (a very good read). Steven comments:

First a hasty sop to liberals – acknowledging that, sure, people should still be able to ‘get’ justice, just as they pop down to the store to get a can of soda – and then the remarkable notion that justice, on the other hand, should never interfere with the operations of money. So justice is a subeconomy within the larger one (you can ‘get’ justice), but it has no right to interfere with overarching systems of profit.

Time to make your mind up

Some well-known experimental work by Benjamin Libet years ago found that action-related ‘readiness potentials’ in the brain could be detected before individuals had any awareness that they had decided to perform the (simple) action in question. The gap was a couple of hundred milliseconds.

This finding has been far surpassed in a new study, by Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze and John-Dylan Haynes:

In the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take up to seven seconds before they consciously made their decision.

Indeed, the paper states that due to the “sluggishness” of the measurement procedure, the left-or-right neural activity was actually present up to ten seconds before consciousness of the decision.

Whenever a finding like this comes out, you hear people pontificating about ‘free will’. But there aren’t really many philosophical conclusions to be drawn uniquely from this work. What it tells us is about how decision-making works and how much of that is conscious. For my money, that’s quite enough.

But the finding is perhaps not revolutionary. Consider this passage from that classic of modern literature, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal. The character in question (not Dr Lecter) has been faced with a duty-or-money dilemma:

…he believed that he was deliberating. He was not. He had already decided piecemeal.
We assign a moment to decision, to dignify the process as a timely result of rational and conscious thought. But decisions are made of kneaded feelings; they are more often a lump than a sum.

The book itself is mixed, even by the standards of a mass-market thriller. But this bit’s both perceptive and nicely phrased.

Boris, the piccaninnies, and Her Majesty’s racism

I don’t like Boris Johnson. He’s perfectly entertaining as a media tart, but I think he’d be a rotten Mayor – due to his politics as much as his competence (although the buffoon persona encompassess a decent intellect).

But there’s one criticism of him that had struck me as a bit iffy. David T mentions it: “if Boris wins, you will end up with a mayor who uses the term ‘picaninny’ to attack other politicians for racism”.

This was in a Telegraph article in 2002, and I’ve always suspected that Johnson was using the word ironically. David links to the piece, and I think these three paragraphs will do for context:

For ages, it seems, Supertone has been orbiting in his taxpayer-funded jet, descending to bring his particular brand of humbug to the trouble spots of the world. He did the namaste in Bangalore, and lo, the warring faiths of the Indian subcontinent immediately rescheduled World War Three. For a full 120 minutes, he and Cherie shone the light of their countenances upon the people of Afghanistan, and, who knows, perhaps the place is now rife with feminism, habeas corpus and multi-party democracy.
What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness.
They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird. Like Zeus, back there in the Iliad, he has turned his shining eyes away, far over the lands of the Hippemolgoi, the drinkers of mares' milk. He has forgotten domestic affairs, and here, as it happens, in this modest little country that elected him, hell has broken loose.

Certainly, there’s irony aplenty. We all know full well that Johnson doesn’t believe for an instant that Blair’s brief presence in India successfully brokered peace. And it’s obvious that he doesn’t even entertain the possibility that Afghanistan might be “rife with feminism, habeas corpus and multi-party democracy” due to the Blair visit. This is deep sarcasm.

The third paragraph, with its “watermelon smiles” and “big white chief”, is clearly ironic. Johnson is painting a satirical colonial-era racism metaphor for Blair’s attitude, and is using this language – which would be beneath contempt if uttered in earnest – to do so.

So what about the second paragraph, that of the piccaninnies? The Johnsonian defence, I presume, is that this, too, was ironic language to satirise Blair’s attitude.

But it isn’t: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair… is similarly seduced”.

This isn’t Blair’s supposed attitude; it’s the Queen’s.

So: Boris Johnson used the pages of the Daily Telegraph to suggest that Her Majesty may be a neo-colonial racist.

(Aside: I think it was suggested on an episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue that ‘piccaninny’ could be redefined as ‘the process for selecting a Mayor of London’.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ooh, Betty, al-Qaeda’s done a whoopsie on the Tube

Charlie Brooker on Boris Johnson:

If butterfingers Johnson gets in, it'll clearly be a laugh riot from beginning to end, like a series of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em in which Frank Spencer becomes mayor by mistake. Just picture him on live TV, appealing for calm after a terrorist bombing - the scope for chuckles is almost limitless.

Not as funny as his rant about David Cameron from a year ago, but definitely more on the money.

Sleeping, eating and policymaking

Schmoo has spotted a scandal:

Gordon Brown is quoted in today's Telegraph saying that he spends "every day that I wake up" trying to keep the economy on track.
Is Gordon Brown is now admitting that he does not wake up everyday?

Good call.

It reminds me of that time Michael Heseltine said that he would intervene to save British industry “before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner”.

Well, no wonder industry was tanking if he was doing all his intervention on an empty stomach.

National security and the rule of law

I was glad to see the High Court ruling that the Serious Fraud Office acted unlawfully by dropping its corruption inquiry into a Saudi-BAE arms deal. The arms trade is notoriously corrupt, the Saudi government is loathsome, and UK governments of both parties have colluded with this for too long.

The judgment itself [PDF] is a fascinating read; quite apart from the details of this case, parts of it could serve as a lecture on the separation of powers, and the relationship between national security and the rule of law. Some parts of it also serve to illustrate that law isn’t as apolitical as some might think.

The argument, roughly, runs thus:

The SFO Director cited a threat to national security as the reason for stopping the investigation. But the word ‘threat’ is ambiguous. The normal sense in this sort of context is that of a risk or danger to be faced, but in this case:

representatives of a foreign state had issued a specific threat as to the consequences which would flow from a refusal to halt the investigation. It is one thing to assess the risk of damage which might flow from continuing an investigation, quite another to submit to a threat designed to compel the investigator to call a halt. [para 57]

This threat, that the Saudis would stop cooperating with UK counterterrorism intelligence if the investigation went ahead, “was not simply directed at this country’s commercial, diplomatic and security interests; it was aimed at its legal system” [58]. This made it the business of the courts:

The courts are entitled to exercise their own judgment as to how best they may protect the rule of law, even in cases where it is threatened from abroad. In the exercise of that judgment we are of the view that a resolute refusal to buckle to such a threat is the only way the law can resist. [78]
Surrender deprives the law of any power to resist for the future. [79] …
Certainly, for the future, those who wish to deliver a threat designed to interfere with our internal, domestic system of law, need to be told that they cannot achieve their objective. [80]

This seems very unambiguous and uncompromising; regrettably so, because the ruling goes on to note the potential for legitimate exceptions. It accepts “that there may be circumstances so extreme that the necessity to save lives compels a decision not to detain or to prosecute” [82] – although it would be for the courts to rule on the legality of such a decision.

No attempt is made to specify exactly how such rulings should be made in general:

It is unnecessary for this court to attempt to identify those circumstances in which necessity may justify submission to a threat, designed to prevent a prosecutor from exercising his power to continue an investigation. [84]

But the ruling notes that:

there was no specific, direct threat made against the life of anyone. The threat made was to withdraw co-operation in relation to counter-terrorism. In order to assess the risk to life, it is necessary to hypothesise that a terrorist outrage was planned within the United Kingdom or elsewhere against British citizens or servicemen, of which Saudi Arabian intelligence had become aware and which it deliberately withheld. We readily accept that in 2006 and even now there is a serious risk of unpredictable terrorist attack, the greater the sources of intelligence the better that may be avoided and, as we are told, Saudi Arabia remains an irreplaceable source. But those factors do not, in our view, require us to accept that the Director was faced with [an adequate] degree of compulsion… [85]

And there is another relevant issue: “the courts are bound to question whether all the steps which could reasonably be taken to divert the threat had been pursued” [86]. They see “no evidence whatever that any consideration was given as to how to persuade the Saudis to withdraw the threat, let alone any attempt made to resist the threat” [87].

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, though, so there may be protests that this is a case of suggesting the authorities be presumed guilty of negligence until proven innocent. On this, the judgment states:

The defendant and Government were well aware that the accusation was that they had surrendered too readily; it was for them to show not only that the consequences of the threat were dire but that the threat itself could not be mitigated or withdrawn. [88]

But even if this isn’t wholly convincing (and here I interpret for myself), this part of the argument isn’t vital. It is one of the two grounds on which the judgment rejects the SFO Director’s decision. If this one failed, the other (insufficient threat to national security) would still hold up.

Indeed, the judgment also contends that there is no “true distinction between national security and the rule of law”, as “preserving the rule of law constitutes an important component in the means by which democracy is secured” [98]. Thus, in this case, “adequate consideration [was not] given to the damage to national security and to the rule of law by submission to the threat” [102]. So, decisions such as these are not weighing national security against the rule of law but rather different aspects of national security against one another.

I wonder. Absent a clear definition of what constitutes sufficient danger to tolerate a subversion of the justice system, is there a conflict of interest in allowing members of that system to decide whether that subversion would be worse than other, non-judicial, dangers? There is always the danger that institutions with power will tend to gradually accrue more and to prioritise their sphere of influence over others.

For instance, there’s a notable jump between “Threats to the administration of public justice within the United Kingdom are the concern primarily of the courts, not the executive” [60] and “So too must the courts patrol the boundary between the territory which they safeguard and that for which the executive is responsible” [65]. The latter seems to hint at the right not just to protect their territory but also to decide what belongs there.

(I’m reminded of Lord Bingham’s somewhat expansionary take on the definition of ‘the rule of law’.)

Just a thought. I’m also well aware of the opposing pressures, whereby politicians seek to restrict what the judiciary can do.

Anyway, the judgment is: threats intended to disrupt the rule of law must be resisted; there may be exceptions to this rule in awful situations; this case was not such a situation; furthermore, no evidence suggested that efforts had been made to divert the threat. The decision was an unlawful capitulation.

I think that’s fairly sound. All the same, I’m concerned about one principle that has now been written into legal chapter and verse, in paragraph 85 (quoted above). It noted that there was no “specific, direct threat”, and argued that “to assess the risk to life, it is necessary to hypothesise that a terrorist outrage was planned… of which Saudi Arabian intelligence had become aware”.

This seems to imply that any non-quantifiable danger, where specifics are not known, must be disregarded legally. Notions such as “a serious risk of unpredictable terrorist attack” and factors that will increase or reduce such a risk should not be written off so lightly.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stayin’ alive

A perfect stranger just saved my life.

I was crossing Tottenham Court Road, wrapped up in my thoughts as great men so often are, and it somehow slipped my mind that traffic on that road goes in the same direction in both lanes. Most of the way over the first lane safely, I glanced in the other direction and of course saw nothing coming. So I was about to step out when suddenly a woman put her hand to my shoulder, stopping me as an angrily honking taxi zoomed past.

I mumbled ‘thanks’ and reeled at my stupidity. but before I could properly express my gratitude and/or hit on her, she was off.

So, on the laughable offchance that the kind, alert and really very attractive 5'9ish young woman with short blonde hair and an iPod is reading this: thank you so very much. You’re a lifesaver. Can I buy you a drink?

Brown isn’t the problem. It’s older than that

Gordon Brown’s poll ratings fall; so do Labour’s. Defeat seems to beckon, and the man at the top is blamed.

But I don’t think it’s quite his fault – at least, not in the sense that many of his enemies suggest. Of course, the various mistakes made since last autumn are his responsibility, but the mere fact of his identity is not, I think such a drag on the party as many people make out.

Consider how things were back when he seemed such a party asset as the new PM.

Brown’s newness in the job had two main effects on public (and media) opinion: first, to make him look good; second, to make him as an individual seem the defining feature of the government. These two in combination lifted Labour’s poll ratings.

Despite many previous polls suggesting that people would be less likely to vote Labour if Brown replaced Tony Blair, the opposite happened: the (pleasant) shock of the new. However, while his ratings and Labour voting intentions rose significantly, overall satisfaction with the government did not change much.

Look at the following graph, based on YouGov polls (figures via UK Polling Report). The blue shows where Blair’s net approval rating as PM (satisfied minus dissatisfied) was last March; the brown line shows the equivalent ratings for Brown, and the solid red line net is net approval of the government. The dotted red line is Labour’s poll lead/deficit against the Tories.

The novelty of Brown as PM from June gave Labour a poll lead, and also improved the government’s satisfaction ratings a little. As Brown’s ratings later collapsed, so Labour’s lead reversed itself and government approval fell back to what it had been. But Labour’s lead/deficit is clearly linked more closely to overall government approval than to approval of the PM.

Labour’s poll rise last summer was built primarily on a short-term illusion. To show how fragile and shallow this lead was, consider how it was lost. It fell apart in the space of a week, as a result of four events.

In the aftermath of the Labour conference, the party had had an extra boost, with four polls showing double-digit leads. Talk of an autumn election was deafening.

The following Monday, 1 October, George Osborne told the Tory conference that he would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million. The activists, and the right-wing press, loved it. On Tuesday, Brown made a surprise visit to Iraq, where he talked about forthcoming troop reductions; for the Tories, Liam Fox tore into him with a fury that was only partly theatrical. On Wednesday, David Cameron made his ‘unscripted’ speech, which was well received, even if the content wasn’t earth-shattering.

By the end of the week, polls showed Labour’s lead dissolving quickly (as it was always likely to do at least in part, as it was in part a conference bounce). On Saturday, Brown gave an interview to Andrew Marr in which he ruled out an early election, notably not giving the turn in the polls as a reason. The interview wasn’t fully broadcast until Sunday, giving the Tories a chance to flood the media with their own spin on the story.

Subsequent polls showed Labour falling farther behind: momentum was with the Tories.

And that was that. After about six months of swinging, the polls were more or less back to where they were in Blair’s last months.

The four events, I suggest, were not in themselves particularly significant. Opposition tax cut promises are typically received with scepticism (will they really do it? Will I really benefit? How will they really pay for it?). A misjudged photo-op is nothing new. The Cameron speech showed people that he was a talented communicator, but that was already well known. From these three things the polls had already significantly turned, and the embarrassment of the non-election wasn’t an issue that affected anyone’s life; it merely confirmed that Brown was a politician and not some sort of demigod.

(Recall that there was stern talk about whether Blair was playing politics with the 2001 election date. His widely leaked plans for a May poll were put back a month due to foot-and-mouth – but there was no need for a general election until 2002. As Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo said: “He has dithered about handling the foot-and-mouth crisis because he has been thinking about the election. Now he has dithered about the election because of the foot-and-mouth crisis.” It did Blair no harm at all.)

That an apparently comfortable poll lead could be destroyed by such small potatoes suggests that the poll lead had been artificial all along. Brown’s newness had temporarily created a lull in the anti-Labour storm, which by contrast with the previous couple of years made it feel as though the party had the wind in its sails.

But the general discontent with the decade-old government had not really abated. As soon as the electorate (not to mention the media) found itself presented with a few pretexts to revert to form, that’s exactly what happened. Familiarity had bred contempt, and novelty briefly concealed this. Neither was he the demigod nor had the old (non-Blair-specific) complaints about the government vanished.

Setting aside his strengths and weaknesses as PM, and just looking at public perceptions, it seems to me that Brown the man isn’t really the problem for Labour. But the problem for Brown is that he was never, in himself, really the solution, either. The government as a whole has been around a long time now, and has accumulated a lot of public resentments: more and more people are fed up with it.

Whether Labour can now recover a poll lead, with or without the change of leader that some of the pundits are now touting (another? Who? To do what?), is the problem. I don’t know the solution.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hyperinflation spreads to Mugabe poll figures

Zimbabwe is going to hold a 'partial recount'.

And partial it most certainly will be.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Latin phrase for the day

Cui Bono?Who performs a benefit gig?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A bad case for religious privilege

Stephen Law argues (hat tip):

One way in which the secular character of a society can begin to be eroded is if the religious start insisting their views are deserving of special, institutionalized forms of privilege or "respect”.

If you agree with some of these claims that religion deserves special institutionalized privilege or respect, cross out the word “religious” and write in “political” instead. Then see if you still agree.

If you reject the political versions of these claims, why suppose the religious versions should be considered differently?

Stephen considers (and rejects) a number of grounds on which religious belief might be deemed ‘special’. I agree with pretty much all he says, but I want to look further at one of his proposed reasons, as I think it approaches one significant, yet flawed, argument:

Religion often forms part of a person's identity in a way that their politics doesn't. That’s why we should institutionally privilege religious beliefs.

I think this could have been better put – largely because politics does form a key part of some people’s identities. The pro-religious privilege argument that I think this gets very close to is this:

Political beliefs are inherently public in that they relate to how we are governed, which will necessarily affect others of whatever political views or lack thereof. Religious beliefs, though, while they may well have outward-facing aspects that would relate to others, are at root a matter of private, personal faith.

We cannot privilege all political beliefs in the public sphere, as their policy implications are contradictory; to pick some for special treatment would undermine democracy. So the public sphere should be politically neutral ground as far as is possible.

Religion is different. Yes, there is proselytisation, and also there are times when religious individuals or groups make specifically political claims – but, excepting these, religious faith is a matter of personal and private concern. Certain sorts of attacks on such faith therefore cut deeper than criticism of political views, which are essentially matters for debate. Futhermore, the law should allow for religious people, individually and collectively, to live their personal lives according to their faith – this will relate, for instance, to matters of dress, education and jobs that ordinarily require actions contrary to their faith. So some specific allowances in public policy will be required.

I don’t buy this at all, but I hope I’ve given it a passable hearing.

The (main) reason I reject it relates to something else Stephen said:

very often, religious beliefs are political beliefs. … But why should the addition of a religious dimension to someone’s political beliefs mean that those particular beliefs are then deserving of a special, institutionalized form of privilege or “respect”?

All true. But what we’re looking at here isn’t a case of adding religion to politics; rather, the demand for special treatment in the public sphere is a case of adding politics to religion. It starts from the fact that religion is (at least at root) a personal matter, but then, by seeking exemptions from certain laws, funding for schools, privileged protection from criticism and the like, the personal (to coin a phrase) becomes political. Religion starts making demands on the rest of us.

So, to publicly exploit whatever ‘privileged position’ religion might claim in people’s private identities, it has to abandon that position for a public political stance. That’s why the argument is worthless.

Flogging a dead princess

I’ll always remember where I was when I heard the news about the Diana inquest. I was on the sofa, watching the news.

I’ve mentioned before that, weird and unpleasant though he is, I feel sorry for Mohamed Al Fayed.

A little sympathy is also perhaps in order for the Daily Express, whose raison d’être for the last decade has been to feed a Diana death cult. The revelation yesterday that what we all knew all along is in fact true might have taken some of the wind out of its sails (and its sales). But it’s having none of that:

In a sensational inquest verdict yesterday, the jury found that both drunken Mr Paul and the photographers drove so fast and dangerously that the couple’s deaths were the equivalent of manslaughter.
The unexpected 9-2 majority verdict…

And, like the doomsday cults that emerge from their caves after their chosen date, blinking in the daylight of an utterly unended world yet utterly unembarrassed, the Express has found a way to carry on:

While Henri Paul is dead, the drivers of several other vehicles on the streets of Paris that night should clearly now face manslaughter charges.
If the wheels of French justice move as slowly as the wheels of its British equivalent such an outcome may still be years away.

You can hear the licking of editorial lips…

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Not licensed to sell spirits

This delights me. ‘Psychics’ and ‘mediums’ are going to be subject to new consumer protection laws:

Promises to raise the dead, secure good fortune or heal through the laying on of hands are all at risk of legal action from disgruntled customers. Spiritualists say they will be forced to issue disclaimers, such as 'this is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed'.

Except, of course, that both parts of that disclaimer are false: séances and the like aren’t scientific experiments, and the (lack of) results can be guaranteed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The sound of 3350 kazoos kazooing

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue at the Hammersmith Apollo last night. Producer John Naismith reckoned it was a world record for a kazoo ensemble, having called the people at Guinness earlier in the day. So that’s two world records I hold (the other, admittedly unofficial, being least competent shopper).

And the show was fantastic. The rapport between Humph and Samantha was excellent, and Jeremy Hardy’s ‘Thank You for the Music’ made me wish I’d had a lighter to hold up. I love the fact that it’s just a bunch of blokes sitting at some tables. Totally unassuming.

It’s a kind of ‘best of’ tour, and I recognised a fair bit of the material, but it was still tears-rolling-down-the-face funny. I wish I had a better memory for jokes. The letter exchange between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson was clearly new, and a real treat (done in pairs, with players taking alternate words – then the other pair replies):


Now I’ve seen it, I can die happy.

(If you don’t know the show, then the above will mean utterly nothing to you. Here are some clips and an alarmingly thorough fansite.

In honour of the game, let’s have an open thread playing Uxbridge English Dictionary. In this game, the teams are asked to suggest some well known words for which they have identified some brand new meanings.

I’ll start you off with a few of my own:

  • Sorcery: like a small plate
  • Passable: to issue a Papal edict
  • Impolite: when a pixie gets off a train
  • Seizure: the French coast
  • Ovaltine: a moderately rounded adolescent
  • Dichotomy: surgical procedure to remove a lesbian
  • Incandescent: coming down one of the Andes
  • Diarrhoea: a bad behind

Over to you…

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Transcending mere humanity

There’s a condition called prosopagnosia that results from very specific brain damage. People affected are rendered unable to recognise faces. Their eyesight remains fine, as may their abilities to recognise other objects, to describe or draw faces they’re currently looking at, and to remember descriptions of faces.

But they will look at their close relatives and friends, or pictures of themselves, and not have any idea that they know these people – unless they can rely on non-facial cues.

Against that background, this case study of a prosopagnosic Italian woman is a real curiosity:

A patient (V.Z.) is described as being affected by progressive bilateral atrophy of the mesial temporal lobes resulting in semantic dementia. Vis-a-vis virtually nil recognition of even the most familiar faces (including those of her closest relatives) as well as of objects and animals, V.Z. could nevertheless consistently recognize and name the face of Silvio Berlusconi, the mass media tycoon and current Italian Prime Minister. The experimental investigation led to the conclusion that Mr Berlusconi's face was seen as an icon rather than as a face. This telling effect of Mr Berlusconi's pervasive propaganda constitutes an unprecedented case in the neuropsychological literature.

That quite frightens me. So, in fact, does this:

Italy's court has suspended a trial of opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi until after general elections in April so that he can focus on campaigning.
The trial concerns alleged fraud at Mr Berlusconi's private TV company.
The case will now resume the week after the 13-14 April poll, when the accused could be Italy's new prime minister.

If the ‘icon’ can work the system like this even when he’s not in power, it’s hardly surprising that he can get inside people’s heads so well.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Vacant thoughts on immigration

John Wakeham, whose House of Lords committee has just produced a report on the economic effects of immigration, argues:

The government also claims lots of migrants are needed to fill vacancies created by Britain's booming economy over the past 15 years. This is beguilingly simple, but badly flawed. Once migrants fill some vacancies they spend some of their earnings. This increases demand for goods and services, which leads companies to produce more. But to increase production, companies need more staff, creating more vacancies and so defeating the objective of reducing vacancies. The total number of vacancies has remained at about 600,000 since 2001 despite high net immigration.

Does this seem wrong to you? It does to me. Let me explain.

You’re a car dealer. At present, you sell eight cars a week and have two cars in any given week that you fail to sell. You engage in some marketing to expand your customer base, and then find yourself selling ten cars a week. You use the increased takings to buy two more cars a week, and keep the marketing push up to expand sales further. Before too long, you’re selling 18 cars a week, with two on your book that you fail to sell in a given week.

You still have the same number of unsold cars, despite all your marketing. So are you better off or not? Wakeham and colleagues would have you believe that you aren’t, and that neither is the local car market.

Back to immigration: sure, the number of vacancies in the economy has been numerically steady. But the proportion of vacancies relative to the size of the workforce has fallen.

The report itself [PDF, paras 103-4] contains the same argument, concluding:

In other words, because immigration expands the overall economy, it cannot be expected to be an effective policy tool for significantly reducing vacancies. Vacancies are, to a certain extent, a sign of a healthy labour market and economy.

I agree that vacancies are good insofar as they constitute opportunities for people to get jobs; the flip side is that they’re bad insofar as they prevent (or at least delay) employers from getting the work they want done.

The effect of immigration on these two aspects is thus: first, if the absolute number of vacancies has stayed the same, and the number of native-born Brits looking for work has stayed the same, then these people’s opportunities are unchanged. Second, the employers can now get the extra work they wanted done, but find that the resultant economic growth means there’s even more they want done. As the vacancy level has stayed the same, they face an absolute labour shortfall that is no larger and a proportionate shortfall that has got smaller and smaller – as, all the time, their businesses have expanded.

Poor things.

(Philippe Legrain sums up the anti-Wakeham view.)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Missing person alert

A police manhunt intensified today as the London-wide search for Brian Paddick entered its 21st week. Mr Paddick, a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, was selected as Liberal Democrat candidate to be the capital’s Mayor, but has not been seen or heard of since.

Police are searching through thousands of hours of footage from TV news, focusing particularly on candidates’ debates and Lib Dem press conferences, but as yet have uncovered no trace of Paddick.

A concert is due to be held in Hyde Park this weekend in support of the search effort. It will be fronted by U2, and feature appeals by the Green Party’s Siân Berry, English Democrat Matt O’Connor and independent candidate Winston McKenzie. Organisers will distribute orange wristbands to raise awareness of Paddick’s case.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University said: “As you’d have expected, a candidate with solid liberal credentials as well as such a strong law-and-order background was bound to be runaway favourite against an unreconstructed Tory buffoon and an unpleasant Labour opportunist.” So it has proved, with Paddick’s poll ratings surging into double figures – although some speculate that part of this may be a sympathy vote arising from his disappearance.

Releasing a new likeness of the missing candidate, Chief Inspector Rolf Alipo said: “As you can see, Mr Paddick has a number of highly distinctive policy positions. We urgently need to hear from anyone who may have seen him, heard of him, or considered voting for him.” He added: “I’d also like to make a personal appeal to members of the media fraternity. I respect the code of honour that keeps you from revealing your sources, but if you at any time have interviewed Mr Paddick, or covered any of his photo-opportunities, you may have vital information. You can call me personally and in the utmost confidence.”

At a police press conference, tearful Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, flanked by Simon Hughes and the other one, said: “Please – somebody in London must have noticed Brian. He loves people, he’s hard-working and full of bright ideas – the best campaigner our party’s had since Menzies Campbell. I just hope that nothing’s happened to him – nothing usually happens to Liberal Democrats, and I’m not sure how we’d all deal with it if something has.

“Brian, if you’re listening, please get in touch. Make contact with the voters. Let London know you’re OK.”

An unidentified voice from the back tastelessly blurted out: “But I’m over here – I’ve got a new leaflet on affordable housing,” before being ushered outside by constables.