Thursday, July 31, 2008

‘The Scottish press conference’

A blasted heath, Westminster. Enter Milibeth, Thane of South Shields, stage centre-left.

Milibeth: Is this a throng of journalists which I see before me, their microphones toward my mouth? Come, let me brief thee.

Reporter 1: Lord Milibeth, are you plotting to become King?

Milibeth: We have got a King. We have got a good King who has got good values.

Reporter 2: But do you seek to force King Duncan out?

Milibeth: I’m not campaigning for anything other than a successful Scottish monarchy.

Reporter 3: Do you think Duncan will still be King at the end of the year?

Milibeth: His leadership has shown itself to be of strong value, and one which shows itself to have brought a team around it who are able to make a contribution. His Majesty will lead us forward and the rest of us have a contribution to make.

Reporter 2: Do you intend to kill King Duncan, though?

Milibeth: The starting point is not debating personalities but winning the argument about our record, our vision for the future and how we achieve it.

Reporter 1: But will you categorically rule out any attempt to kill His Majesty?

Milibeth: Well look, with all respect to you guys, I don’t think there’s much point in doing that. I’d previously categorically ruled out murdering Banquo, and nobody believed me.

Reporter 2: But Banquo was murdered. When will you own up to your role in that?

Milibeth: It’s true that sword crime is a serious problem – although I don’t endorse the scaremongering claims that we live in some sort of ‘broken society’ – but I mourn Lord Banquo’s untimely death as much as anyone else. As to the identity of the culprit, I’m afraid it would be quite inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing police investigation.

Reporter 3: What of reports that you have been consorting with three vile witches to divine a path to power?

Milibeth: I have regular meetings with many party colleagues. Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Charles Clarke have government records they can be proud of, and I’m sure they have a positive role yet to play.

Reporter 1: But you haven’t even mentioned Duncan’s name!

Milibeth: Ah, haven’t you heard? It’s bad luck to utter the name of the Scottish Prime Minister. Now if you’ll excuse me, all I want to concentrate on is getting on with the job of being Foreign Secretary.

Exit, pursued by a barely concealed smirk.

Neo-colonial oppression by means of saying stuff

In a column on – oh, does it really matter? – Martin Jacques announces that Zimbabwe “hurts the British psyche”:

Because we suffer from an acute case of colonial amnesia, we seem to think that we have some unalienable right to lecture Zimbabwe on its iniquities.

Hmm. I’d have thought that it was freedom of speech that gave us the right to lecture whomever on whatever. And some might say that the lecturing is directed at Robert Mugabe, not Zimbabwe itself. Or that he spends far more energy ranting about us than we do about him. But no matter.

Jacques goes on:

Yet Britain's culpability for the country's plight - from tolerating Ian Smith's declaration of independence to the disgraceful land deal that guaranteed the privileged position of white settlers - is second to none.

Mugabe has been in power for 28 years. Britain is certainly culpable for the iniquities of colonial rule, and for bequeathing the colonial state and divided society that Smith then seized to rule over, but really. Mugabe’s had enough time in charge to bear the blame for his own mess. Other former colonies are in much better shape.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


This has been a painful decision, but I feel I have to tell you that I’m switching parties. There comes a point, I’m afraid, where enough really is enough.

The Total Politics political blog directory had, until yesterday, listed Freemania under ‘Conservative’. So disillusioned am I with David Cameron that I have asked the nice people at TP to put me under ‘Labour’ instead. Which they kindly have.

Britain’s divided cities – nothing to do with us, guv

The Tories say:

New evidence has revealed the true scale of the social divide between rich and poor in Britain's cities.
…in Westminster, there are pockets of 100% child poverty right next to areas where no children live in poverty at all.

Hmm, something is faintly ringing a bell in the back of my head. Something to do with the Tories, Westminster Council, housing policy and relocating poor people. But it’s probably nothing. What matters now is that we build stable communities.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lancashire not-plot

I mean, really:

A "Lancashire plot" against the Prime Minister appeared to be gathering pace as two backbenchers from the North-west of England urged him to step down and a third questioned his survival chances.

This “plot” consists of: (a) Graham Stringer – yes, the Graham Stringer – saying last Friday that Brown should go, something he’d previously said back in May; (b) George Howarth – yes, the George Howarth – saying over the weekend that Labour needs to think “long and hard” about the leadership, while denying media reports he was collecting names in support of Jack Straw; and (c) Gordon Prentice – yes, the Gordon Prentice – saying Brown should resign.

And the Independent – yes, the Independent – reckons this amounts to a hill of beans. Welcome to summer.

If you want a little more intelligence, you could check out Hopi arguing that Team Brown have been performing badly but that semi-public plotting (Lancastrian or otherwise) is only likely to make things worse, or Don Paskini’s ten terrible pieces of advice for Labour, or Septicisle suggesting that the worst piece of advice of all might be for Brown to keep buggering on.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Meanwhile, outside Westminster…

Like all decent people, I can’t help but obsess over opinion polls and the options facing the Labour Party. But over the weekend, something else had the nerve to happen. Labour’s National Policy Forum talked about, well, some policies. I know, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? But I suppose that’s the sort of thing we have to put up with when the National Personality Forum is in recess.

Anyway, my thoughts on the leadership situation haven’t really changed in two months: the dangers in sticking with Brown are apparent every time he comes on TV, but the costs and benefits of changing are pretty much unknowable. So I thought I might highlight a few things to come out of the NPF (as reported here and here):

  • Lower the voting age to 16
  • A wholly elected second chamber
  • Make the full adult minimum wage available to 21-years-olds (currently you have to be 22)
  • Improved redundancy pay
  • Extend the right to seek flexible working
  • Extend unpaid parental leave rights to parents of children up to 16 (the current age limit is five)
  • More preventative health check-ups
  • Help with study and training for 18- to 25-year-olds with fewer than two A levels
  • More power for hospitals to terminate cleaning contracts with external providers.

Sketchy, obviously, and far from a full programme for government. But there they are. Good? Bad?

Oh, who really cares when we could be out in the sun, or more importantly debating which of Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon should speak first when they go to tell Brown that he should step down in favour of a Miliband-Johnson dream ticket…

(I am actually now going out to sit in the sun. While I’m there I’ll mull over what colour tie Ed Balls should wear when he rules himself out of the running.)

These are two of my favourite things

Eddie Izzard riffs animated with Lego:

Late-night petrol station shopping

Do you have a flag?

Cake or death?

Death Star canteen

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Andrew R does McGonagall

To put Labour’s Glaswegian travails into verse
Is a blogging development that is most assuredly none for the worse.

Except, of course, that Andrew’s Ballad of Glasgow East is so very much better:

'Twas in the early hours of July 25 2008
That Scottish Labour met its grisly fate
For that was the night that the SNP were elected in Glasgow East
A momentous and politically damaging event to say the least

Perfectly crafted. I bet it’d even make Brown laugh out loud. Go read the whole thing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

“Dear Prime Minister… er…”

Labour’s 26th-safest seat, Glasgow East, has gone west. Now what?

We are writing this private letter as a group of MPs first elected in 2001, all of whom have been involved in the party and the wider Labour movement for a long time.

We have always believed passionately in the same kind of modern, progressive, electable Labour Party that you do.
The permanent advancement of this kind of dynamic, electorally persuasive Labour party is, and always has been, our project as much as yours. And it remains so.
We can and must win the next general election. To do otherwise would be, unforgivably, to fail in our duty to the party and the country.

Sadly, it is clear to us - as it is to almost the entire party and the entire country - that without an urgent change in the leadership of the party it becomes less likely that we will win that election.
That is the brutal truth. It gives us no pleasure to say it. …
But we believe that it is impossible for the party and the government to renew itself without renewing its leadership as a matter of urgency.
As utter Labour loyalists and implacable modernisers, we therefore have to ask you to stand aside.

This letter, sent in September 2006 by a group of normally loyalist Labour MPs, helped to prompt Tony Blair to announce his coming resignation.

At the time, Labour was worryingly unpopular. Of the 30 published polls in May to September 2006, Labour was behind in 28 – and in three of these, the party was as much as 10 points behind the Tories.

How things change.

Of the 23 published polls since the start of May 2008, Labour’s best performance (in fact in the earliest poll in this period) was trailing by 11 points. In 11 of these 23 polls, the party has been 20 points or more behind the Tories.

And while, in September 2006, 65% of people thought Blair was doing badly as PM and 31% thought he was doing well, last month the equivalent split against Gordon Brown was 78% to 16%.

So, what lesson should the anxious Labour MPs learn? That changing leaders wasn’t the answer in the first place? Or that changing leaders is now more vital to their survival than ever before?

Luke thinks it’s the economy, and Conor thinks it’s the lack of a clear narrative. There’s certainly truth in both views – but can Labour get through this politically with Brown in charge? And if not, how to get rid of him without making the party look even worse? Whom to replace him with? What the hell to do next?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Last week I pointed out the absurd practicalities of buying a load of bread with Zimbabwean money. Now, it seems, this problem has been (temporarily) addressed by the issuing of a new Z$100 billion note:

As you can see, to make sure nobody mistakes this for real money that’s actually worth anything, they’ve cleverly printed ‘Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’ on this specimen.

The UK’s Top Ten Political Bogs 2008–09

(Apropos of nothing much.)

It’s that time of year again when Freemania, in association with the National Trust and Cillit Bang, brings you the annual UK Top Ten Political Bogs Competition!

The rules are the same as ever: our panel of experts has toured the UK bogosphere, narrowing down the contenders for the crown to just nine. But which is the best? You can vote for your favourite, and also nominate one not listed to win the ‘readers’ choice’ place.

Who will win the coveted ‘Bog Standard’ award? Only you can decide!

The shortlist of nine, in alphabetical order, is:

Ballynahone Bog is a raised bog, situated in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on low-lying ground immediately north of the Moyola River. It is one of the largest lowland raised bogs in Northern Ireland. Ballynahone played a pivotal role behind the scenes in brokering the deal that saw Iain Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party join Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Executive.

Cors Caron is a raised bog in central Wales. The Cors Caron covers an area of approximately 816 acres, and provides a habitat for the endangered red kite, which was once nearly extinct before making a dramatic resurgence in the area. Its tireless campaigning on the issues of post office closures and arms exports have won it admirers as far afield as Merthyr and Aberystwyth.

Crymlyn Bog is a nature reserve and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest of international significance, near Swansea. It is the largest area of lowland fen in Wales. Commentators of all political stripes have praised Crymlyn’s sure-footed first year as Shadow Secretary of State for Administrative Affairs.

Matley Bog is an ancient woodland bog in the New Forest, Hampshire. It is notable for the presence of the rare ant, Formica candida, sometimes called the shining bog ant. An internationally recognised authority on data security, Matley has been the driving force behind the Government’s proposals to conceal the whole population’s personal records on the sports pages of the Financial Times.

Max Bog is a 10.6-hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest west of the village of Winscombe, North Somerset. It has made headlines in recent months with its bold proposals for restructuring the military, with a controversial emphasis on merging the Navy and RAF, and using the cost savings to develop a giant death ray in orbit around the Earth.

Moseley Bog is a nature reserve in the Moseley area of Birmingham. Following its re-evaluation by English Nature the site was denotified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1992, but remains a locally designated Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, which is much like getting a prize for effort. Named after celebrity racist Sir Oswald Moseley, the bog is notable for sucking only dark-skinned people to their deaths, which has sparked a productive debate on multiculturalism in the West Midlands.

Portlethen Moss is an acidic bog nature reserve in the coastal Grampian region in Aberdeenshire. This wetland area supports a variety of plant and animal species, even though it has been subject to certain development and agricultural degradation pressures. Portlethen stood as the ‘Anti-Iran War/Hang Welfare Cheats’ candidate in the Haltemprice and Howden byelection, coming in 24th place with 17 votes. Nobody knows how it managed to get on this list.

Red Moss is a wetland bog in Aberdeenshire, noted for its biodiversity and undisturbed character. The elevation of Red Moss is 113 metres above mean sea level. As Director of the left-leaning Policy Mire think-tank, Red Moss is widely seen as setting the agenda in a range of areas that nobody else cares about.

Yanal Bog is a 1.6-hectare calcicolous lowland mire just north of the village of Sandford, North Somerset. Underlying the site are gravels and clay alluvium. Above this sits a layer of peat. This results in a high water table, creating a distinct domed landscape feature. This shape inspired the Millennium Dome, a fact about which Yanal is still laughing. Yanal is tipped by Westminster insiders as the likeliest challenger to Gordon Brown.

These are the shortlisted candiates – now you get to pick your favourite. Plus, of course, there’s a tenth place open for your own nominations.

Vote early, vote often! And remember: this top ten really matters. And so, by extension, do I.

(No offence, Iain…)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The (comm)unionisation of feelings

Reader, you are a useless piece of crap so lacking in decency, intellect and humour that you’re not fit to rub ointment onto the genital warts of a rabid cockroach.

Have I offended you? Have I hurt your feelings? Well, hopefully not. But if I have, then that illustrates my point: your feelings are not entitled to legal protection.


Three straws in an increasingly pungent wind:

(1) Last month, Bushra Noah was awarded £4,000 damages for “injury to feelings”. She had been turned down for a hairdresser’s job that she had applied for on the grounds that she wore a headscarf covering her own hair. She claimed this was religious discrimination, and took it to an industrial tribunal.

Sarah Desrosiers, owner of the salon and cougher-upper of the four grand, said: “I never in a million years dreamt that somebody would be completely against the display of hair and be in this industry.”

(2) Last week, Lillian Ladele, a marriage registrar working for Islington council, got a tribunal to rule that she need not conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies, on the grounds that her Christian faith holds that marriage (and apparently also secular civil partnerships) should only be between a man and a woman. Requiring her to do that part of her job would be discriminatory.

She said: “Gay rights should not be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their religious beliefs.” But religious beliefs most certainly should be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their sexuality.

(3) And now, Constable Graham Cogman is taking legal action against Norfolk Police (via Brett):

His complaint stems from a circular email sent to officers in early 2005 encouraging staff to wear a pink ribbon on their uniforms during Gay History Month. After receiving the email, PC Cogman sent a reply to his fellow officers featuring biblical quotations about homosexuality being a sin. He objected again the following year when a similar email was again sent to officers. He was subjected to a disciplinary tribunal and fined 13 days' pay.

Pc Cogman says: “The blatant support for homosexual rights in Norfolk Police makes being a Christian officer extremely difficult.” (That’s “blatant support” for the law. From the police.)

Norfolk Police says: “The force will not tolerate any form of homophobic behaviour.”

So there you go. If you have membership of a ‘faith group’, then your feelings – if they are related to how your religious beliefs are treated – can get legal recognition. Hurt feelings, especially in the workplace, are increasingly becoming theologically unionised. But these rights can only be claimed by people declaring themselves part of one of these unions (or rather, communions). If your feelings as a believer have been offended, then you’ve been discriminated against. And where there’s blame, there’s a claim!

It’s a curious blend of individualist self-assessment and communalist badge-wearing: you get to decide for yourself when your religious feelings have been hurt, but in order to do so you have to be a member of the right kind of group. Interestingly, the other members of your group don’t have to endorse your pain nor even share the belief that you claim has been attacked. But the group and the supernatural dogmas do have to exist – you can’t just say you don’t like poofs cos they’re dirty.

Brett argues:

It seems it is increasingly impossible for the government to manage comprehensive non-discrimination policies and make space for personal conscience and freedom of association. The only compromise I can think of is this separation of public and private spheres [the public sector must have zero tolerance of discrimination for any reason whatsoever; the private sector can discriminate however they like]. Anyone have a better idea?

There is a better idea: don’t compromise. People, religious or not, shouldn’t apply for jobs that they have freely decided that they ‘cannot’ perform properly because of their prejudices.

That religious people feel that their beliefs need special protection is pitiful; that many of these beliefs veer into bigotry means we have a social menace on our hands.

(And sorry about the cockroach thing. I didn’t mean it.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Genocidal bastard banged up

Radovan Karadzic arrested in Serbia.

(But Omar al-Bashir laughing in Khartoum.)

Obama jokes (we’ll miss Bush when he’s gone)

Liam raises the pressing issue of how hard it is to make jokes about Barack Obama. The trouble is that he’s a bit solemn and not very funny (Obama, that is, not Liam); see here for some efforts that are based on this fact.

I’ve tried to do my bit (have used some US spellings for authenticity):

Barack Obama walks into a bar. It was a bar to fulfilling the hopes and aspirations of millions of America’s children.

Two nuns and Barack Obama were having a bath together. While in the tub, they discussed the vital role that faith can play not only in the individual’s moral betterment and the binding together of a family, but also in the political and social life of our great nation; this inspired the nuns to set up a voter registration program for disadvantaged young people in their neighborhood. And they conserved precious resources by sharing the hot water.

Why did Barack Obama cross the road? Because for too long, we have allowed our ambitions to be dulled by circumstances not of our choosing, our dreams to be stifled by the inherited constraints of what seems possible, and our noble efforts in every just cause to be diverted, so subtly, into the cheerless management of the day-to-day. But we are the ‘Walk’ sign we’ve been waiting for. Can we cross the road? Yes we can!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Communication skills

More cheering news about young people in this BBC headline:

18% of 16-to-17s 'doing nothing'

This means that an impressive 82% of them gave their parents a proper answer.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Think we’ve got high inflation in Britain? No, no, no. Because in Zimbabwe, the only thing worth less than your vote is the money in your pocket. Inflation is now estimated at 12,500,000%. A loaf of bread costs nearly Z$100 billion (hat tip).

This means, assuming you’re using billion-dollar notes and that it takes you half a second to count one out, that by the end of the 50 seconds it takes to hand over the cost of a loaf, you’ll actually owe another Z$3.3 million for it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why trust your own experience when the headlines can tell you what to think?

Crime is down. Again. Violent crime is down, too. But what about public perceptions of crime?

According to the survey [PDF], 65% of people think crime has increased nationwide over the last two years, but only 39% of people think crime is up in their local area.

The difference is even more striking when you distinguish between those who think crime has gone up a little and those who think it’s up a lot. The figures for crime going up a little are pretty close: 26% think this is true locally, 31% nationally. But just 13% of people think local crime is up a lot, while 35% think crime is nationally up a lot. In areas that they don’t have first-hand knowledge of, people are far likelier to think things are going to hell in a handcart.

The conclusion from this is that people’s perceptions of crime nationally – which are influenced far more by the media than by personal experience as compared with perceptions of local crime – are absurdly overinflated. Society isn’t ‘broken’, but the media are. Politicians who feed the frenzy and then base their policies on the resultant ill-informed public fears are doing us a disservice.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Intervention in failing religions

Tony Blair, 1999:

The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts. …the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. … When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as "threats to international peace and security".

And today:

The Pope is leading an unprecedented drive by the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the fragmentation of the worldwide Anglican Communion…
A decision has been taken within the Roman Catholic hierarchy that it is in its interests for the Anglican Church to maintain unity. Despite speculation about a group of conservative bishops breaking away to the Roman church, senior Catholics say such a move would be "premature", and that they are not encouraging defections. …
Some Roman Catholics fear that unless divisions over issues including homosexuality can be healed, they will act as a forerunner to a similar battle in Rome.

Funny old world, innit? Mind you, the last time the C of E had ructions about becoming more liberal, the Vatican was swamped by theological asylum seekers such as Ann Widdecombe, so maybe it makes sense…

In other news:

Key elements of Christian doctrine are offensive to Muslims, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said in a letter to Islamic scholars. … Discussing differences between the religions, Dr Williams acknowledges that Christian belief in the Trinity is "difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims".

I mean, really. Imagine reading: ‘Discussing differences between the parties, Mr Brown acknowledges that Labour’s belief in redistribution of wealth is "difficult, sometimes offensive, to Conservatives".’ If your case has anything that an outsider could recognise as merit, then you can just make it, and engage in debate, and see any such ‘offence’ caused in your opponents as a sign that their own case lacks merit itself.

Williams goes on:

What we need as a vision for our dialogue is to break the current cycles of violence, to show the world that faith and faith alone can truly ground a commitment to peace which definitively abandons the tempting but lethal cycle of retaliation in which we simply imitate each other's violence.

Now, do you see me asking for him to apologise for the ‘offence’ this passage gives to atheists and agnostics, in saying that we can’t be “truly” peaceful? No. I take it on the chin, point out its falsity and utter ungroundedness, and get on with life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Grave matters

The Guardian is running an online poll: “Should Margaret Thatcher have a state funeral?”

Fine. I’ll fetch my shovel. Where do you want the hole?

Monday, July 14, 2008

‘But it’s not-’

Quote of the day, from Scott Adams:

As you know, fairness is a concept that was invented so that children and idiots could participate in arguments.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Gordon Brown and Heathcliff

Some women say you remind them of Heathcliff, I suggest. Brown is, after all, brooding and intense. "Absolutely correct," he jokes. "Well, maybe an older Heathcliff, a wiser Heathcliff."

Really? Yes, really:


I’m bored out of my tiny mind. So I’m writing topical limericks:

A Tory MP sought to raise
The issue of 42 days.
So he stood for his seat,
But with no one to beat
His win disappeared in the haze.

OK, so far I’m only writing a limerick. Maybe more as the day drags on and I get some other ideas.

Update: OK, another:

A blogger had some time to kill
And space that he thought he should fill
But ’twas a slow news day
So nothing came his way
And where there’s no way, there’s no will


(Tom, Tom, Andrew and Chris – no Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub as yet – are doing rather better in the comments box below.)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Secular liberalism and social theocracy

Aidan Nichols, a Catholic theologian, says that secularism is detroying the fabric of society and that Christianity is vital to make us behave morally. I might have just let this go, but I’m starting to really worry about how much power and influence a Conservative government would give these people, what with David Cameron arguing that “public morality” is the answer to poverty, as he plugs the role that faith groups could play in public service provision, and in turn the C of E making doe eyes at this Tory rhetoric.

Nichols does not, at least not in this article, call for fully theocratic government, nor does he deny religious freedom. But he does insist that the key purpose of the state is “to guard the spiritual civilisation of its own society” – that spiritual civilisation being Christian. I’m going to describe his view as ‘social theocracy’.

He says:

Typically, secular liberalism finds it impossible to base rights discourse on anything other than the parity of each and all as they choose the way of life they prefer to follow, whether their preferences be well-founded in the objective moral order or not.

Well, no: if “the way of life [someone] prefer[s] to follow” involves causing undue harm to someone else, then secular liberalism decries it. And if the social theocrat thinks that his scriptures are a “well-founded” guide to “the objective moral order”, then good luck to him in convincing the rest of us..

Inevitably, this is a recipe for irresoluble quandaries in matters social: how should one adjudicate the preference of a feminist employer not to accept a polygamous employee?

These are clearly the comments of someone who has failed to think properly about liberalism. If polygamy is OK, then there are no grounds for discriminating against polygamists in the workplace. So is it OK? To judge that, we can look at the power relations involved – are the wives being coerced into accepting a husband’s dominant status? Through most of history, marriage has given husbands greater advantage than wives, which is a noxious condition – however many people are involved. Notably, most polygamy in the West today is religiously motivated.

If a group of people are, freely and equally, happy to join in a many-sided relationship – whether this involves a formal contract or not – then, if they injure no more than anyone else’s sensibilities, so be it.

(A libertarian, by contrast, would insist that any employer has the right to choose employees on any basis; the difference between that and liberalism is that the latter has more capacity to take note of power relations.)

Nichols says:

The human poverty of secular liberalism can already be inferred from the results of contemporary secularisation. In modern England, moral discourse is in danger of becoming a parody of infantile egoism. What I want becomes what I need, which in turn becomes my 'right'.

A vicious and preposterous lie. We all know of selfish people who feel entitled to all sorts of things that they merely happen to want – or rather they feel frustrated when they don’t get it, and may rant using the language of rights and entitlements – but liberalism, because it must apply equally to all, places no burden on anyone to satisfy anyone else’s mere wants. Likewise, Catholicism per se places no burden on choirboys to satisfy the wants of a priestly paedophile. Bad people will exploit the customs and practices of whatever culture they find themselves in.

It is true that the moral life begins with desire. But such desire, as Plato argued, is not the desire that leads us to pursue “enlightened” self-interest, in the form of the hedonistic calculus that asks how I can maximise pleasure. The desire that impels the moral life is, rather, desire for the good because it is beautiful.

And who gets to say what is beautiful? Most of us atheists find homophobia for example, a source of very little beauty indeed. Unless we accept that a necessarily human authority should tell us all what is right and wrong, then we must grant that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We must let each other be free to live as best we can. And of course we can learn from each other about what makes a life good. That’s part of – if I may say – the beauty of secular liberalism: social theocrats such as Nichols are free to make their case, and the rest of us are free to take as much or as little as we think worthwhile from it.

But truly, if you want “human poverty”, then social theocracy won’t let you down. Key to the wealth of humanity is our diversity, and a moral outlook that denies this, preferring Bronze-Age dogma to the intricate business of finding mutually rewarding ways to live with each other, is impoverished indeed.

He goes on:

Too much modern human-rights talk elevates freedom over virtue, not realising that any significant freedom – as distinct from my indifferently choosing a vanilla rather than a chocolate-flavoured ice cream – is always freedom for the good.

At this point I start to wonder whether he’s writing such drivel as part of a bet. Because if his Church gets to say what counts as “the good” for all of us, then that’s not “freedom” at all. Can it really be said, for instance, that Zimbabweans have the “freedom” to support Robert Mugabe? Giving people freedom allows them to show and develop and share their virtues. It’s the opposite of telling them what’s virtuous and then corralling them into a pen where they’re “free” to do just that.

And liberalism prevents no one from discerning the difference between more and less “significant” choices. Say you see a man clutch his chest and fall to the ground: you could walk on by, you could take his wallet and run off, you could stop to help as best you can. Does anyone imagine that this is far more morally freighted than vanilla vs chocolate?

And ponder this: how wrong would it be for the state to ban an arbitrary flavour of ice cream, with stern punishments for those found in possession? Some freedoms may seem trivial, but their denials are always serious.

But on one count I agree wholly with Nichols: “secularisation is not an inevitable process”. Indeed it is not. It is fragile and must be defended from its enemies.

The Guardian has recently been running a series of pieces on liberty. I’ll just quote a few as a contrast to Nichols.

Richard Reeves:

"The only freedom which deserves the name," according to John Stuart Mill, "is that of pursuing our own good in our own way". …
Equality before the law, and rights to fair trial were important precisely because they allowed people to live the way they chose, even if eccentric or even disgusting to the majority, so long as they did not actively harm others in so doing.
For Mill, liberty could therefore be threatened as easily by peer pressure, majority opinion and social intolerance, together creating "a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression". The state could coerce and oppress: but so could the citizenry. Society could "issue its own mandates" and when it did it left "fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs also protection against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling."

Shami Chakrabarti:

As we are essentially social creatures, our rights and freedoms are not isolating or selfish but protect us within the social units in which we thrive – family, trade union, faith community, democratic society, etc.

AC Grayling:

Liberty – individual liberty, the autonomy of the human – matters because no one has the right to dictate to others how they should live, what they should choose, whom they should love, or what goals they should pursue, except if any of these things threaten harm to others, where harm includes limiting others' freedoms to choose. …
Only in a pluralistic dispensation can all [human] variety express itself, and pluralism needs liberty because it is impossible without it.
No one should be the property of another, or of a system. We should each be volunteers in society, and should choose our place in it.

And Martin Bell:

Freedom is a secular state of grace which exists in permanent tension with tyranny and which we can claim for ourselves only if we never, ever, seek to deny it to others.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

British values

A week after the 7 July 2005 bombings, there was a two minutes’ silence. I’ve never seen Euston Road, where my office is, so crowded and so still. The buses and taxis pulled over. Nobody spoke, nobody moved. It felt very powerful.

On the one-year anniversary, another silence was scheduled. This was thinly attended, we weren’t quite sure when it began and ended, and the traffic didn’t stop this time. Likewise assorted passers-by. It all felt a bit forced.

On the two-year anniversary, I heard no mention of anything for the general public – as opposed to those directly affected – to commemorate it. It felt as though we should just get on with our lives.

I hadn’t even realised yesterday was the three-year anniversary until I was in the train going home and glanced at someone’s paper. It felt like a normal day.

The bombs didn’t, as the saying goes, change our way of life.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Food fights

Of all the things Tony Blair did, there were far more serious misdeeds that the one that infuriated me the most. Asked whether he opposed the teaching of creationism in faith school science lessons, he ducked the issue and gave some generalised flannel about how faith schools got good exam results. That really got under my skin.

Gordon Brown has just made me strike my forehead with similar force over an equally minor thing. He’s said:

If we are to get food prices down, we must also do more to deal with unnecessary demand such as by all of us doing more to cut our food waste which is costing the average household in Britain about £8 per week.

Chris Dillow is pretty acerbic on this, noting that people will economise without being told if they feel the need to, that if they don’t feel the need than being told will have no effect at all, and that Brown seems to feel the need to be seen ‘doing something’.

I’d add that it’s not the best of ideas right now to tell people, in effect: ‘You are about to become so painfully impoverished that you will need to save the scraps from your dinner plates to feed your children in the morning.’ Austerity rhetoric is political stupidity beyond belief. It’s not quite saying that we should eat all our food because of the starving kiddies in Africa, but it does evoke the less-well-nourished people of Glasgow East, which Labour held in 2005 with 61% of the vote.

This will collapse, but whether to the point of losing the seat is hard to say. I almost wonder if Labour’s candidate-selecting troubles are a cunning plan to avoid having to actually fight the byelection. Just as David Davis’s win will be rendered hollower through lack of a proper contest, so an internal cock-up that kept Labour out of the ring in Glasgow would be deeply embarrassing for a couple of days – but might at least be less painful than getting crushed by the voters in an ultra-safe seat.

But surely not. Labour will fight the seat – although, perhaps, on an empty stomach.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Official: having too much Dr Who in your brain can kill you

Right, I’ve seen it now. And the fate of Donna is perhaps a lesson to us all.


Part of me agrees with David:

My overall impression was of RTD shovelling Doctor Who characters and plot fragments into a bin liner and shaking it violently in the hope that something vaguely coherent might fall out afterwards.

But I also share a lot of Lisa’s take on it - she’s divided her review into ‘rational’ (i.e. critical) and ‘irrational’ (i.e. “I was thrilled and excited and giggling and I just did not care”) reactions.

So yes, despite the fact that Davies insisted on being allowed to play with all the toys at once as his price for getting the hell out, it was a treat in any number of ways.

Doctor Who is pretty much the only thing I have religion about. My love of it is unconditional and my awareness of its flaws involves effortless doublethink. What else is there to say? Oh yes:

Exterminieren! Exterminieren! Halt! Sonst werden wir Sie exterminieren! Sie sind jetzt ein Gefangener der Daleks! Exterminieren! Exterminieren!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Warning: contains no spoilers

A troiler is trailer that contains spoilers. There are far too many of these. As in: ‘Next week in Doctor Who, Bille Piper returns, Captain Jack has sex with a Cyberman, Donna accidentally goes off to work for Josh in The West Wing, David Tennant regenerates into Chris Evans, and everything gets sorted out when Davros turns out to be Old Man Withers from the amusement arcade.’

This sort of thing is really bloody annoying. Ministers get stick when they ‘pre-announce’ things in the media that they ought to be saying to Parliament, so surely the BBC deserves a kicking for this kind of crap?

This is also one of the few things I really loathe about the internet – there are just so many conduits of information that things no honest, decent person would want to know in advance will leak out and get discussed at great length online before the programme’s even been broadcast. It’s easy to accidentally stumble into one of these things for the few seconds needed to have the plot twists lobbed at your retinas.

I’m sure there’s some clever time-travel joke to be made about how apt this is, but really, people, this is no laughing matter. Suspense and surprise are precious things, and those of us who get all our emotional stimulation from television need our innocence protected.

I’m out for most of the weekend, so I’m going to have to ferociously avoid all TV and internet (plus Sunday papers) until I can get home and watch the damn thing normally like a proper fan who wants to actually enjoy watching it. I’m considering getting some tinfoil to wrap around my head so that I can keep the spoilers out.

(There is, of course, no comments box on this post.)

Basket cases

While I was growing up (a thankless process that I no longer feel obliged to continue), I had a bike with a basket. Now and again I’d find mini-manifestos left in the basket by paranoid overeducated obsessives. They were actually in green ink often enough to suggest even less self-awareness than the Microsoft Office Assistant, which does at least give you the option of telling it to bugger off.

But in the modern 21st-century knowledge economy – which has also produced a thriving ignorance economy – these people no longer need scribble their thoughts out and target them at random individuals. Today, we have the web comments box.

Via Don, I’ve just come across the Twat-O-Tron. Click on the button and it generates a new comment in the style of those found on the BBC News site’s ‘Have Your Say’ pages:

Twas ever thus. did you know that the tax-man is inviting in paedophiles and AIDs. We must stand up and be counted. Next stop WAR!!
[Saint George] Wirral


Is this what the BBC licence tax gets spent on??! studies show that The EU will soon be peddling their lies. Somebody should riot in the treets.
Persecuted_in_his_own_country bury st edmunds

It makes me sick. does anyone realise that Muslims are turning prison into a holidaycamp. Its time we string them all up. What would Churchill say?!
NuLabour MUST GO London, United Kingdom

Frankly, I think anyone who devotes time and energy to pouring out their opinions online needs their head examined.

Select Cuts

Highlights from Parliament’s select committees

I hadn’t expected to do another of these so soon after the first, but it’s been a good week.

The Lords Select Committee on Communications has looked at The ownership of the news. It warns: “Owners can and do influence the news… [having] significant political impact. The consolidation of media ownership adds to the risk of disproportionate influence.” There is a “lack of investment in news gathering and investigative and specialist journalism”; and the ‘public interest test’ applied to media mergers “does not include any requirement to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering”. The Committee is concerned that only ministers can issue public interest intervention notices, and recommends that Ofcom be able to as well.

The Commons Treasury Committee issued a report on the Budget Measures and Low-Income Households. Alistair Darling’s raising of personal allowances to offset losses from abolishing the 10p income tax band “was probably the least bad option, with the benefits of simplicity, transparency and greater incentives to work” – but more is needed in future years, it argues. It recommends that the Treasury should publish regular assessments of “the impact on individual, family and household finances of Budget measures and other changes to the welfare system”. The Committee also says: “The advances made in tackling poverty among those out of work in the last decade has not been matched by comparable progress in tackling poverty among those in work”, and calls for a ‘Poverty Commission’ to be established.

The Treasury Committee has also interviewed Mervyn King and other senior Bank of England figures on the economic outlook.

While the debate on 42-day detention has raged, it still remains the case that 28-day detention is subject to annual parliamentary renewal – which is coming up. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has examined the case for Annual Renewal of 28 Days. The Government is of course seeking renewal, although nobody had been held for longer than 14 days since the last renewal. The Committee is sceptical: “Once again the Government has failed to provide sufficient information to allow us to ascertain whether the power to detain people without charge for up to 28 days is necessary.” It says that “strengthened safeguards” are needed, or else there will be a risk of “breaches of both the European Convention on Human Rights, and the common law right to liberty.”

Finally, the Commons Liaison Committee has had its second six-monthly session with Gordon Brown as PM. Brown said that he had “the best job in the world”, but that he was “looking forward to a holiday”.

Subjects covered included constitutional reform, anti-terrorism laws (and any illicit offers that might have been made to win votes on 42-day detention), oil and food prices, global trade and the EU, transport and fuel duty, inflation and public-sector pay, poverty and welfare, climate change and green taxes, bank regulation, immigration, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe, and the ‘responsibility to protect’ and UN reform.

On that last issue, Brown – tellingly – said that while it was “far preferable” to work though the UN, “there will always be ad hoc alliances. Where you cannot reach agreement internationally in the United Nations you will work with those countries where you can do so”. I think that may be a very significant statement of foreign policy. He also gently dripped cold water on John McCain’s idea for a ‘League of Democracies’.

Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce asked whether there was “anything we should be doing to try and level off the world population” – a suggestion that, thankfully, Brown didn’t take up. And Labour’s John McFall accidentally addressed Brown as “Chancellor” several times, to the (eventual) amusement of both.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Where there’s a Will, there’s a Norm

In the middle of a perfectly intelligent piece, the extremely knowledgeable Timothy Garton Ash says:

The legal, accepted immigrant should have the same rights, duties and life-chances as any descendant of Norman the Conqueror or Aethelred the Unready.

This illustrates the importance of good editing. You can see what probably happened: he started off thinking ‘the Norman conquests’ and then switched to preferring ‘William the Conqueror’, but haste or distraction meant he only got halfway though the change.

‘Norman the Conqueror’ is so funny that any sub not under the most preposterous pressure would have picked it up immediately.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The 14 whoops

Why nail theses to the church door when you can just as easily post them online? That’s what the harrumphingly conservative ‘Global Anglican Future Conference’ (GAFCON) has done. And while Luther needed 95 theses, they’ve managed to sort Anglicanism out with just 14.

Because I’m so very, very respectful of religion, and concerned that its messages should travel far and wide, I’ve produced a digest of these – in accessible, popular language for the modern media consumer:

  1. Go Jesus!
  2. Go the Bible!
  3. Go the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds!
  4. Go the Thirty-nine Articles!
  5. Go Jesus!
  6. Go the 1662 Book of Common Prayer!
  7. Down with women priests!
  8. Down with gays!
  9. Go preaching! (Do you see what we did there?)
  10. Make poverty history!
  11. Agree with us!
  12. Go diversity and freedom of opinion except in all those areas where we say boo to diversity and freedom of opinion!
  13. Agree with us!
  14. Go Jesus! And come again Jesus!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

‘Lorry carrying 12m bees overturns’


There is much that goes on in this world of which I am usually happily unaware. The fact that bees are transported by lorry, millions at a time, is in this category.

Climate security

Language matters in politics. It turns out that not everyone, in fact not anyone, is a wholly rational evaluator of things on their merits alone. Presentation is important.

Calling inheritance tax ‘death tax’ makes it sound nastier; calling employment rights ‘red tape’ makes them seem a pointless nuisance; calling inept spasming in the face of a world you don’t understand ‘the war on terror’ makes it sound tough, brave and noble; and calling ID cards ‘liberty badges’ would make everybody want one.

The right is generally much better at framing debates this way than the left. I don’t know why that should be.

So I was interested to see the assessment from the US National Intelligence Council on the security implications of climate change.

Americans are (partly unfairly) notorious for not caring much about ‘a bunch of tree-hugging hippy crap’, so different ways of bringing home the range and severity of risks from climate change could help to motivate a political shift as much as any number of Al Gore slideshows.

Post-9/11 (yes, I’ve checked the calendar, and we are still post-9/11), anything with security implications gets treated a lot more seriously. George Bush has regularly promoted tax cuts for the rich as necessary for America’s ‘economic security’. Nice trick.

So how about a shift in green politics to talking about ‘climate security’? Then opponents of restricting greenhouse emissions would be ‘soft on climate security’ or ‘taking risks with America’s climate security’ and so on. It seems to be happening already, as I’m not the first person to have thought of this phrase: Google reckons I’m about the 245,000th.