Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Blind to the truth
David Blunkett is the most authoritarian Home Secretary Britain has had since the 1950s. He frequently expresses his contempt for 'namby pamby' liberals and has consequently become our no.1 hate figure.
The current media feeding frenzy over Blunkett's relationship with his mistress has probably caused many liberals to think, "It couldn't happen to a nicer man." We should resist such emotional responses.
Rebecca Atkinson, writing in Monday's Guardian, gets to the heart of the matter. The idea of a blind man having an affair with a younger, attractive woman makes us feel uncomfortable. There is an unspoken rule in our society, that sex is a privilege for the young and beautiful (among which we naturally include ourselves). If you're old, disabled or simply not good looking, it's strictly out of bounds.
The media obsession with Blunkett's sex life reveals an unhealthy combination of prurience, schadenfreude and spite. Commentators getting on their high horse about 'ministerial conduct' don't impress. Has anyone noticed, by the way, the irony of Blunkett being accused of "looking over" a visa application?
This affair is a distraction. Let's focus on Blunkett's illiberal policies. We should keep out of Blunkett's private life, and he should reciprocate by keeping out of ours.
Monday, November 29, 2004
The rottenest borough
The 'Speechley Affair' in my home county of Lincolnshire is a major political scandal, yet it has so far received coverage only in the local media, the municipal trade press and the 'Rotten Boroughs' column in Private Eye. It is an appalling tale of corruption by a group of Conservative councillors and it deserves wider coverage.
At the centre of this scandal is Jim Speechley, a Tory councillor on Lincolnshire County Council and former leader of the council. A brief chronology of the affair is here. Far more background than I can include here can be found simply by going to the website of the local evening paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, and putting the word 'Speechley' into the search box.
The key event was Speechley's conviction this April for misconduct. He was jailed for 18 months, having been charged with trying to influence the route of a road improvement scheme near his home in Crowland, in south Lincolnshire, to gain personal advantage from a field he owned. Had he succeeded, the value of his land would have increased ten-fold.
This case was merely the tip of the iceberg. An external auditor's report, published by KPMG in May 2002 after a two-year investigation, revealed a catalogue of malpractice and a "climate of fear" among council staff. Despite this report, and a brave campaign by the Lincolnshire Echo, the Tories on Lincolnshire County Council re-elected Speechley as their group leader.
The case was raised in a House of Commons adjournment debate by Lincoln's Labour MP Gillian Merron on 12 June 2002. It was also reported by Labour MEP Phillip Whitehead in an amusing article in the Lincolnshire Echo the same month. Read both these accounts and weep.
Speechley did not resign as leader until September 2002. He finally appeared at Sheffield Crown Court in February 2004, charged with the road diversion scam. In April, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. His conviction followed a two-year police investigation involving four officers and an eight-week trial, in which Speechley was represented on legal aid. The investigation and trial cost taxpayers more than £2 million.
The Lincolnshire Tories, far from feeling chastened, decided to wreak vengeance. Speechley's close ally and successor as council leader, Ian Croft, tried to force out the council's chief executive David Bowles, whose whistleblowing had helped bring Speechley to trial. Giving evidence during the trial, Bowles described Speechley as "the most deceitful and dishonest person I have ever had to work with." Bowles eventually left the council's employment this September, in a settlement that cost the county council £400,000 plus hefty legal costs.
As if this were not enough, Croft faced a decision by the Lincolnshire Police Authority, of which he is a member, to refer to the Standards Board for England an allegation that he had brought the authority into disrepute, allegedly for blaming 'council systems' for Speechley's jailing rather than condemning Speechley's conduct.
An attempt this May to topple Croft as Tory group leader failed; Croft won the backing of his group by 21 votes to 17, having ignored appeals by Conservative Central Office to step down. Meanwhile, Speechley, despite being in prison, refused to resign as a councillor pending an appeal. He was given leave to appeal at the end of July. On 16 August, after 135 days in prison (a quarter of his sentence), he was released, having been fitted with an electronic tag and made subject to supervision by a probation officer and a 7pm to 7am curfew.
On 20 August, Speechley turned up at a special meeting of Lincolnshire County Council, which had been convened before his release to decide whether he should be disqualified from holding office because of non-attendance. Speechley's attendance rendered the debate academic; he would be allowed to remain a councillor until his appeal was heard. This was, incidentally, the first known occasion in Britain where a councillor has attended a meeting wearing an electronic tag.
In September this year came the news that the Audit Commission would be conducting a Corporate Governance Inspection into the circumstances surrounding the departure of David Bowles. This is a rarely used procedure and indicative of the severity of the situation. It could lead to a suspension of the administration and the government taking over control of the council. The inspectors arrived on 15 November for a week of investigations and their report is expected before the elections next May.
The same week, on 16 November, Speechley's appeal went before the Court of Appeal in London. The appeal was thrown out on 17 November and Speechley finally resigned as a councillor on 18 November. The court upheld Speechley's 18-month sentence and warned that he could have been given a longer prison term.
Speechley's close ally Ian Croft remains leader of Lincolnshire County Council, despite his unyielding support for Speechley and all the criticism that has been heaped on his head. In the next few months, Croft can look forward to the verdicts of two inquiries (the Audit Commission and a separate internal inquiry), plus a likely hearing before the Standards Board's adjudication panel.
What stinks most about this case is the sheer brass neck of the Lincolnshire Tories. No amount of damning reports or criminal convictions seems to knock them off course, or even give them pause. Their arrogance and corruption continues unabated. This attitude stems from the feudal culture that persists in much of rural Lincolnshire, which was by-passed by the industrial revolution. Rural Tory landowners remain a law unto themselves and think they have a perfect right to bully and cheat other people.
If there were any justice, the whole Conservative group would be thrown out in next May's county council elections. Unfortunately, for the third time in a row, these elections are likely to coincide with a general election and any local issues will take a backseat to the national political agenda.
That is why Liberals should help make a national issue of this case, to remind the electorate of how low some Tories can sink.
Friday, November 26, 2004
The enemy of my enemy...?
Watching political events unfold in the Ukraine, I always suspected that things were not as black and white (or rather, blue and orange) as they seem.
The west's darling, Viktor Yushchenko, may be preferable to the disputed election winner, Viktor Yanukovich, but it is naive to suggest he is a panacea - politicians rarely are. While Yanukovich is a corrupt, old-school Stalinist, Yushchenko is not exactly whiter-than-white; it turns out that his campaign has a strong anti-semitic element and that his key backer is millionairess Yulia Timoshenko, who made her fortune in dubious circumstances.
Jonathan Steele, writing in today's Guardian, warns that the west is playing with fire if it adopts a simplistic partisan stance. In the same paper, Ian Traynor analyses the way the USA has been funding election campaigns throughout the former Soviet bloc. This investment has helped remove some nasty characters from power but it risks alienating local opinion and creating instability, especially when the primary goal is to establish client states rather than encourage democracy.
There is nothing new in this American strategy. For example, from 1945 until at least the 1980s, many 'moderate' figures in the British Labour Party benefited from CIA largesse.
The choice between two unsavoury East European politicians reminds me of Clement Freud's quip during a late-night Young Liberal caucus at the 1976 Liberal Assembly in Llandudno. Newly-elected Liberal leader David Steel had turned up, with Clement Freud in tow, to justify his controversial strategy of pacts and deals. One YL asked Steel whether he would prefer a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives. Before Steel could answer, Freud replied, "Which would you rather have; syphilis or gonorrhoea?"
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Cheap as chips
Another night on British TV, another profusion of 'lifestyle' shows. And it's the BBC that seems to be broadcasting more of these programmes than anyone else.
They include a particular glut of antiques programmes, with five BBC shows on the go; Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, Car Booty, Cash in the Attic and Flog It!
If you're old enough to remember that genteel TV antiques show Going for a Song (the original 60s version), you'll recall how resident expert Arthur Negus would lovingly describe the features of each antique. In that innocent era, guessing the auction value was almost an afterthought.
In today's crop of shows, aesthetics are out of the window and the focus is firmly on the money angle, with venal suburbanites desperate to see how much cash they can get for their family heirlooms. The BBC might as well merge all its so-called antiques programmes into one big game show called 'What's It Worth, Mate?'
There are even more shows about housing (or 'property' as we must learn to call it). The BBC's offering includes Changing Rooms, DIY SOS, Escape to the Country, House Invaders, Houses Behaving Badly, To Buy or Not to Buy and Trading Up.
Once again, the emphasis is on making money, whether buying, selling or tarting a place up so that it's worth more. The original function of a house, as a place to live, has almost been forgotten. Given that moving house is said to be the third greatest trauma in our lives (after bereavement and divorce), it's a mystery why anyone should seek out this experience unnecessarily.
Gardening, cookery, health, child-rearing, household budgeting and getting dressed also feature on this smorgasbord of televisual domestic advice.
What does this tell us? For a start, this formulaic programming tells us that the BBC is protecting its right flank through shameless populism.
But the popularity of these shows also tells us a great deal about British society. Consumer choice is a relatively recent innovation for most British people, who have had access to a disposable income and a real choice of goods for only about 30 or 40 years. Before then, it would have made little sense to talk of 'lifestyle', because the economic, social and moral constraints of everyday life would not have offered much realistic choice.
Now that we have all this choice, it turns out that most of us don't know how to cope. It's not so much that people are bewildered by the wide choice of options, rather that they wish to exercise their choice within safe bounds. Clothing is a good example. Which of us really, honestly, dresses originally? This is where fashion comes in. Its limits enable us to exercise a degree of choice while minimising the risk of being socially ostracised.
TV lifestyle shows are supplying a form of social guidance, which illustrates a further problem. Most of us have lost our extended families and traditional social networks. With older family members no longer on hand to offer sage advice, we turn to the media.
But the media have advertising space to sell, and rely on PR people to supply most of their story ideas, so the consumer information we receive tends to be an incitement to consume dressed up as friendly advice.
Shrewder viewers reassure themselves that the BBC is more trustworthy because it carries no advertising or sponsorship. That popular trust makes the BBC a very attractive proposition to people trying to flog you their wares. Anyone who thinks that BBC lifestyle shows contain no advertising is technically correct while missing the product placements.
What is most depressing about all these lifestyle shows, however, is that they are evidence of a desperate spiritual poverty. They suggest that most people are living their lives on the surface, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. People are seeking happiness through conspicuous consumption, and validation through being self-referential. The obsession with 'lifestyle' illustrates the commercialisation of everyday experience and the empty lives most people now lead.
Still, there is one bright prospect on the horizon. House prices have begun to fall. If the collapse is great enough, people will lose their appetite for property speculation, which might persuade the BBC to find a more creative use for its airtime.
The Great Crash of 2005
There is a remarkable reluctance among politicians even to admit, let alone discuss, the possibility of a deep economic recession. Yet all the signs are that one is on the way.
Our continuing prosperity is built on growing levels of debt, both government debt and consumer debt. It cannot continue indefinitely. We are living in a bubble, which will eventually burst.
And if you thought the Bush administration's foreign policy was delusional, you should see what it's doing to the economy.
A recent corrective to the prevailing fantasy was this article by William Rees-Mogg in Monday's Times. His remarks were echoed by Larry Elliott in Monday's Guardian. The coming crisis is likely to be precipitated by the falling value of the US dollar (which hit a record low this Tuesday).
Meanwhile, house prices have started to fall and investors are rushing to buy gold (always a bad sign). One investor, after hearing US treasury secretary John Snow's dismal speech in London last week, said, "I would sell the currency of any country of which he was the finance minister."
Still, why worry when you've got a wallet full of credit cards?
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Mind your language
I was visiting a pub in London on Sunday evening ('The Green' in Shepherd's Bush, since you ask) and noticed an advertising poster behind the bar.
It read, "Sunday lunch available all day - subject to availability."
If this had been casually written by one of the bar staff on a blackboard, it would have been merely amusing, but it was printed on a glossy poster. The pub in question is owned by the Smith & Jones chain (in turn part of some conglomerate called the Barracuda Group). Presumably this poster is on display throughout the company's chain.
This suggests that professional copywriters and/or marketers sat down and wrote this poster, and senior managers approved it.
You can't get the staff.
Saturday, November 20, 2004
Guide to contradicting dinner party bores no.483
Stuck at a social event with a supporter of the Countryside Alliance? Not sure how to challenge his spittle-flecked arguments in favour of fox hunting?
Martin Shrewsbury, leader of the Wales Green Party, has produced this handy step-by-step guide (with thanks to Peter Black for this link).
Friday, November 19, 2004
I talk to the trees...
Oh dear. Prince Charles is in trouble again - twice in the same week.
First, his antediluvian managerial practices have come in for scrutiny at an employment tribunal. Then he gets into an unprecedented public row with a cabinet minister over his views on education.
Critics of Prince Charles have tended to fall into two camps. One group complains that the Prince's views are old-fashioned and elitist, while the other argues that the heir to the throne should not express his opinions at all.
Both views miss the point while demonstrating the absurdity of a monarchy. One can hardly complain of Charles's elitism - it comes with the job title. Nor can anyone reasonably expect that he should be usefully occupied in good works without expressing an opinion about what he sees.
So far as one can tell, Prince Charles's politics are typical of the old aristocracy; a blend of traditional moderate Toryism and a sense of noblesse oblige. Despite this, his actual political function has been to protect the royal family's left flank. His green sympathies and hostility to modern architecture chime with the sentiments of much of the British left, who assume he is really 'one of us'. It is significant that he cemented this reputation during Mrs Thatcher's premiership, when the left had lost confidence in its ability to achieve its goals through the ballot box.
This is the real problem with Prince Charles. His perceived political sentiments have effectively inhibited any serious debate on the British left about the future of the monarchy, and prevented the emergence of a republican movement. The British left, if it is honest, sees the monarchy as the final bulwark against an elected populist right-wing government. Now who is the elitist?
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown's retort to republicans within his own party was simply to say, "President Thatcher" - to which my retort would be "King Andrew". One only has to think for a minute about the consequences of Prince Andrew being Prince of Wales, mouthing off his boorish opinions in place of his elder brother's sentimental waffle, to realise what a weak argument this is.
There are two basic faults with the British monarchy, neither of which has anything to do with the unfortunate individuals in the royal family.
The first is political. Although the monarch is a figurehead with no political power, the unlimited powers of the Crown survive and are exercised by the government. The checks and balances built into Britain's constitutional settlement of 1688 no longer exist. Most of our constitutional problems stem from this unhealthy concentration of power.
The second fault is symbolic. The monarchy remains the foundation of Britain's system of class-based privilege. British people are legally 'subjects', not citizens. The culture of hierarchical snobbery is rooted in this essentially feudal system. Royalty gives the system a veneer of respectability and keeps this absurd show on the road.
Criticism of the monarchy is often labelled 'republican' but has yet to mature into a genuine republican movement. This is largely due to respect for the present Queen, who has become part of the furniture. She has been on the throne for 52 years and most people have no memory of anyone else doing the job. It is hard to imagine Charles, assuming he ever becomes King, commanding the same broad popular assent.
In the meantime, respect for the royal family has been in gradual decline. In part, this reflects a series of public embarrassments, including the whole Diana saga. But mainly, it is due to the slow death of deference and the emergence of a more meritocratic society in Britain. The more this development continues, the more the monarchy will become incompatible with the rest of society.
Apologists for royalty on the British left point to the so-called 'bicycling monarchies' of Scandinavia and the Benelux countries as a model. They argue this demonstrates that it is possible to 'modernise' monarchy and remain in tune with the wider society. Yet it is inconceivable that the Eton-educated, polo-playing British royals could or would make such a transition.
Sooner or later, the British political classes will realise that the monarchy is no longer credible. If they want to shape a sensible alternative, they must anticipate rather than wait for a constitutional crisis. This issue deserves more serious thought than it is getting. And we need better ideas from the left than clichés about a 'bicycling monarchy'. The British constitution can't be fixed with a pair of bicycle clips.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
The poor are always with us
It's become a commonplace for politicians and commentators to claim that Britain's class war is over. Social class has become less a determinant of how one votes. A myriad of advertising-driven stereotypes (yuppies, dinkies, etc.) has replaced the simple class-based categories we once used.
But the reason the class war ended is not because the working class disappeared. It's because they lost. Half the working class became middle class, while the remainder were stripped of what little political power they had and became an underclass.
Despite Britain's state of denial, social class remains the greatest determinant of educational success, health and longevity.
Ruth Lister's article in today's Guardian reminds us that poverty is not just about economics but also about human dignity. It's a question not only of a lack of money but also a lack of respect. And Britain's poor have just been deprived of even more respect.
A significant change in British attitudes to poor people was marked recently by the entry into the cultural mainstream of the 'chav' phenomenon. Americans have been able to poke fun at their poor white people thanks to the 'trailer trash' label. The British used to baulk at such humour. Now that we have a derogatory term of our own, we are free to mock poor people on the superficial grounds of their dubious taste in leisure wear.
Far from there being an end to a class-ridden society, this upsurge in popular contempt suggests the opposite. Britain's class divisions have become wider. Despite (or perhaps because of) more than seven years of 'New Labour' government, disparities in wealth have continued to increase. Income inequality in Britain is still higher than at any time in the previous 18 years of Conservative rule - and probably for at least 20 years before.
One can argue about the causes and solutions. Whatever one's view, in a relatively prosperous society, widescale poverty is an indictment of the political and economic system.
But to tackle a problem, one must first acknowledge its existence. Pretending that class divisions don't exist prevents us getting even to first base. Using pejorative terms actually makes the situation worse.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
I learned to drive in the mid-1970s in an Austin Allegro. Indeed, my first lessons were in one of the early models with a square steering wheel.
I was reminded of this by two pieces of news. First, the BBC has just published a book called Crap Cars (produced in time for the Christmas gift market in 'humour books'), which "lists the 50 worst cars ever to grace the roads of Britain." At no.2 on this list of shame is the Austin Allegro (the East German Trabant achieves only 9th place, which gives you some idea).
Second comes the news that an Austin Allegro has been preserved for posterity by the Lincolnshire Vintage Vehicle Society (owners of a museum in my home town of Lincoln, where I spent many a childhood Sunday helping to restore the engines of vintage buses, armed only with a wire brush).
It's official: my first car is a museum piece. You can see it here (click on 'Vehicle List' then 'Austin Allegro Saloon').
Future generations will now be able to see for themselves why British Leyland was such a bad political idea.
I am no free market fetishist but the Austin Allegro and its grim stablemate, the Morris Marina (no.4 on the list, by the way), are a reminder that there are some things the state should not do, and making cars is one of them.
A geographer writes...
You may be forgiven for feeling overfed with analyses of the recent US presidential election.
But this article, Mapping the Election, casts a fresh light on the results. Detailed county-by-county maps reveal a more complex picture than you might have imagined - and a few surprises.
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Are you local? (pt.3)
More grist to my mill; an article by Tim Luckhurst in today's Observer.
How does one explain the paradox of people's desire for more power over their own lives with their hostility to English regional devolution? Luckhurst's answer is simple; a "nigh universal contempt for the political class".
A further unpalatable message for politicians is that political parties are no longer credible mediators. "Charter 88 was, for years, concerned about whether regional assemblies would actually represent an enhancement of local democracy. It was right to worry. But equally right is the ideal of local power in local hands. The dilemma facing those who consider it a dream worth pursuing is that it may only be achieved if we can bring ourselves to accept that the party is over. Political parties as agents of mass participation in democracy have less credibility in today's Britain than Catholicism among friends of Ian Paisley. Sensible people neither join them nor trust them. We regard with suspicion anyone who does."
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Are you local? (pt.2)
As a postscript to my posting on devolution yesterday, the results of an interesting poll have just been published (also here).
These results bear out my view. True devolution is not about relocating centres of political power. It is about diffusing power and making it accountable.
End of a taboo
Robin Cook's article in yesterday's Guardian (echoing a speech he delivered on Tuesday) about Britain's relations with America is significant, not because he said anything particularly new, but because this possibly marks the end of a taboo in British politics.
The 'special relationship' has always been more special to Britain than it has to the United States. But it has remained an article of faith for British politicians across the political spectrum and has tended to be criticised openly only from the fringes. It's been one of those issues where supporters of the established view inhibit criticism by co-opting the language of 'realism'.
It's therefore been easy to dismiss scepticism about relations with the USA when it has been expressed by the likes of Clare Short or Alan Clark. But Robin Cook, even though he resigned from Blair's government, is a former foreign secretary. And he has gone so far as to describe the special relationship as a "national delusion".
Following Cook's speech, the media tended to focus on his attack on the bombing of Falluja and ignored his wider criticisms. But the wider issues are just as topical.
Tony Blair's visit to Washington this week is intended to vindicate his Atlanticist strategy by winning tangible concessions from the Americans. If you think Blair will succeed, however, you have to believe that his voice will be stronger on the Israel-Palestine issue than that of the Israeli lobby, and more influential on pollution issues than that of the oil industry lobby. You have to believe that next year's elections in Iraq will bring the insurgency to a swift end. You have to believe that there will not be worsening trade disputes between the US and Europe. You have to believe that Bush will ignore the neo-con think tanks that advocate the US should actively undermine European unity.
It is reaching the point where even mainstream British politicians are asking what we are getting in return for this loyalty. If Blair doesn't deliver the goods, and soon, we can expect many more speeches and articles like Cook's.
Friday, November 12, 2004
Are you local?
The heavy defeat for the government in last week's North-East England regional devolution referendum has been portrayed mainly as a defeat for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Well, you've got to have a scapegoat, and he's a good a choice as any.
What no-one seems to have noticed are the problems this vote has caused for the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have been long-standing champions of a devolved system of federal government. And their key policy on the public services, the Huhne Commission report (a painstaking compromise approved two years ago), is predicated on there being a system of regional government in England.
Suddenly, a major plank in the Lib Dem election platform is looking wobbly. If even the most regional of English regions rejects regional government by 78% to 22%, can the Liberal Democrats still credibly support this policy for the whole of England at the next general election? Certainly, the Labour Party has abandoned English devolution for the foreseeable future.
The Liberal Democrats had begun to distance themselves from the 'Yes' campaign even before the referendum result was known. Sensing a defeat, they prepared a critique along the lines that the result might have been different if the government had promised the regional assembly more powers. This view was shared by many other critics.
I'm not so sure they're right. Nor do I agree with this article in Spiked, which, though it challenges conventional wisdom, seems to suggest that what's missing is the smack of firm (central) government.
The political concept of English regionalism has gained momentum only because the pace has been forced by Scottish and Welsh devolution. Faced with the famous West Lothian Question, politicians are trying to mould some equivalent identity for English regions where none exists. English people do feel alienated from decision-making but the answer is not to create artificial regions with no authentic popular identity.
The problem runs much deeper than regional boundaries. The widespread alienation from politics is part and parcel of a growing sense of insecurity that people experience because they feel they no longer control their own lives. This lack of agency is partly the product of centralisation and globalisation, but also stems from the loss of all the anchors of solidarity people once had; the neighbourhood community, the extended family, the church, the local pub or club, the trades unions and other forms of mutual support.
I do not share a rosy nostalgia for these traditional community institutions - they could often be oppressive - but the point is that they have been removed without anything better being put in their place.
Creating new tiers of political authority, albeit at a more devolved level, does not necessarily address popular insecurities. People in Lambeth, who can see Westminster from the windows of their council flats, feel no less alienated than people living on Tyneside.
Liberals in Britain once had a very good analysis and remedy for this problem. It was called community politics. Its goal was to enable each individual to fulfil their potential rather than simply offer passive voters an alternative set of leaders.
The Liberal Democrats still practice something they call 'community politics', but it has degenerated into a technique, a purely tactical and ultimately debilitating round of electioneering and casework, which wins council seats without achieving any radical change.
Instead of supporting the creation of new layers of managerialised political authority, the Liberal Democrats need a period of reflection and greater intellectual rigour. They might then realise that the answer lies in releasing people's energies rather than seeking new ways to manipulate them.
If our local politicians spend their time being put through government-approved management training courses and learning how to be more 'professional', the mere fact of being 'local' does no good at all.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Talking of Remembrance Day, I have just heard author Jilly Cooper plugging her not-so-new book Animals in War on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (which you can hear online here for the next seven days only - click on Thursday 08:22).
In all our commemoration and sorrow for dead soldiers, Cooper sobs, we have forgotten the death and suffering of the animals used in battle. A special mention was made of the brave glow worms used by British Army officers to illuminate maps in the dark.
So now we've reached what's important.
Silence is golden
Today is Remembrance Day. This day was chosen because it is the anniversary of the armistice in 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - the end of 'the war to end all wars'.
On the first anniversary in 1919, the practice began of observing two minutes' silence at 11am. It is difficult for us now to imagine the magnitude of that first commemoration. In four years of war, Britain had lost more than 700,000 dead, at a time when its population was only about 45 million. Most families and communities had lost somebody, and everyone knew someone who had been killed.
For most of the twentieth century in Britain, while one minute's silence would occasionally be observed for the death of a sporting hero or public figure, two minutes was strictly reserved for those who had died fighting for their country.
Then, during the 1990s, something changed. Patrick West, in his recent book Conspicuous Compassion, reveals how compassion inflation has set in. For example, in 1999 at a mass to commemorate the Labroke Grove train crash, five minutes' silence was observed, while in 2001 children in Newcastle observed ten minutes' silence for cancer research.
West observes of these silences, "They are getting longer and we are having more of them, because we want to be seen to care - and increasingly are compelled to do so."
He adds, "There is seemingly a case of compassion inflation, with individuals and organisations seeking to prove how much more they care by elongating the silences. This is a reaction to the minute's silence being practiced so frequently. It is as if by extending these periods, there is competition to prove who is more empathetic. When a group called Hedgeline calls for a two-minute silence to remember all the 'victims' whose neighbours have grown towering hedges, we truly have reached the stage where this gesture has been emptied of all meaning."
And there is a nasty element of mob rule. "Anyone who voices unease at this exponential growth will feel the anger of the crowd... Like paedophile-hunting or Diana-mourning, the custom of inflated minutes' silence is a cultural phenomenon that feeds on the mob mentality and the desire for conformity. It betrays the hallmarks of a society not 'in touch with its emotions' but one that is intolerant of dissent."
Today, let us remind ourselves of what the two minutes' silence is for - and respect it on the one day in the year when it is justified. We dishonour our war dead when we indulge in conspicuous displays of 'mourning sickness' on just about every other occasion.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Morality or nastiness?
In a posting last Wednesday on the US elections, I predicted that some British Conservatives would draw the wrong lesson and advocate a 'values'-based campaign strategy.
Sure enough, the right-wing Tory MP Edward Leigh has come up trumps. On Monday, he claimed (also here) that the Conservatives could gain an electoral boost by aping George W. Bush and promoting "old-fashioned family values".
Yesterday, Leigh put his theory into practice, when he led a failed attempt to wreck the government's Civil Partnerships Bill (which will give gay and lesbian people the right to form legally binding civil partnerships, and thus avoid financial hardship when one partner dies).
Strip away the cant about 'family values' and you quickly get to the simple truth: right-wing Tories hate gay people. It's pure bigotry. Its only practical effect is to make more people miserable. The Tories' own Theresa May famously warned her colleagues that they were seen as the 'nasty party'. It seems that some of them just don't get it.
I'm all for morality in politics. But, as Polly Toynbee points out in her column today, the things that deserve our moral outrage are poverty, war and injustice. Mind you, her appeal is directed at the Labour Party, so it will probably fall on deaf ears.
Monday, November 08, 2004
Mind how you go
Last Saturday's train crash in Berkshire, in which seven people were killed when a high-speed train hit a car on a level crossing, has reminded me of the public's curious attitude to travel safety and their often irrational perceptions of risk. People demand higher safety standards for rail travel, regardless of the cost or practicality, while resisting stricter driving laws. This double standard translates into populist government policy.
The Hatfield train crash in 2000 (caused by a broken rail) led to the imposition of severe speed restrictions throughout Britain's railway network for several months while rails were checked for cracks. But the Selby train crash in 2001 (in which the driver of a Land Rover fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the highway, down an embankment and onto the tracks) did not lead to any equivalent speed restrictions on the roads, nor were the parapets of road bridges over railways systematically inspected.
For all the recent fears about sloppy railway track maintenance, rail travel remains an extremely safe form of travel. Tragic though the seven deaths in last weekend's accident are, we should remind ourselves of the remarkable fact that so few people were killed when the train in question was carrying nearly 200 passengers at 100mph. It is 18 years since a train passenger in Britain was last killed in a collision with a vehicle on a level crossing. In contrast, ten people are killed on average per day on British roads.
While Sunday's tabloids described last weekend's train crash in terms of "carnage" (and other predictable hyperboles), the daily toll of road deaths rarely makes the news, even in the rural weekly press.
Meanwhile, the renewed demands for rail 'safety' have bordered on the ridiculous. For example, the trades union RMT has called for the replacement of all level crossings with a tunnel. There are nearly 8,000 level crossings on the British railway network. Replacing each one with a bridge or tunnel, at an estimated cost of £1 million each (probably a conservative estimate) would cost around £8 billion - a totally disproportionate investment in view of the few lives it might save. Ironically, the Selby disaster occurred despite there being a bridge rather than a level crossing.
Popular emotions run one way on rail safety but in the opposite direction on road safety. Despite all the deaths each day on the roads, there is little popular support for tougher road safety measures. Speed cameras are hugely unpopular and the tabloids have turned the people who vandalise them into folk heroes. The BBC TV car show Top Gear is largely devoted to promoting high-performance sports cars and regularly gets cheap laughs by lampooning speed restrictions and other safety measures. A popular middle class whinge against the police is that they should be "out catching real criminals" instead of policing the roads. Really? When ten times as many children are killed by motorists as are murdered in Britain each year?
Sensing a popular mood, the Conservative Party complains of a "war on motorists" and has even promised an election platform of raising speed limits and removing speed cameras. Few people seem to consider this irresponsible or odd.
What explains this hypocrisy? My theory is that it is about power and autonomy. Driving a car gives people a sense of freedom and control (even though they may be crawling in first gear in a traffic jam). Take a train or a plane, however, and you are in someone else's hands.
In this, as in so many issues, it all boils down to selfishness and unreason.
The personal and the political
The name of Senator Gary Hart produces guffaws in British Liberal circles these days, less because of the sexual scandal that brought about his downfall in 1987, more because of the schadenfreude at seeing former Liberal Party leader David Steel's plan, to manoeuvre alongside a future US president, turn to ashes.
But you would be mistaken to dismiss Hart's article in today's New York Times, about the proper role of a politician's religious faith in a secular society.
Hart has avoided the hysteria of many other commentators and produced a sober argument, with which any reasonable person, whether liberal or conservative, ought to be able to agree.
In the highly-charged atmosphere of US politics, whether anyone will listen is another matter.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
My Pet Goat (and other stories)
Amid all the press comment on that election, here's the first original insight I've come across all week.
Children's author Philip Pullman has written an excellent piece about the value of reading, (edited version here in today's Guardian; originally published in Index on Censorship).
Pullman argues that reading is a democratic activity, which is why theocracies (whether of the religious or Marxist variety) suppress it. Pullman points to "the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them."
Given this choice, in which direction do President Bush's instincts take him?
They're not our sort
The controversy over where Yasser Arafat should be buried (and the man isn't even dead yet) prompted this revealing comment from 'a senior Israeli security official':
"We have to take into account that his grave could become an attraction for hundreds of visitors every day. And we wouldn't want them traipsing through our country."
Thursday, November 04, 2004
Get a grip
Because of all the excitement about the US presidential election, this story did not receive the media attention it deserved.
There is a high risk of a measles epidemic in London this winter because of a low uptake of the MMR vaccine (which provides a 3-in-1 protection against measles, mumps and rubella). Only 62% of toddlers in south-east London have been immunised over the past year. 95% is the figure recommended to provide 'herd immunity' (a charming phrase). There have already been outbreaks in Britain this year of measles and mumps.
Parents have been frightened away from immunising their children because of an unfounded scare story that claimed the MMR vaccine caused autism. This claim has been completely discredited by fresh scientific research.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the idiots running the campaign against the MMR vaccine are still at it. This campaign is a symptom of a more fundamental and disturbing political trend; the belief that personal testimony trumps science, that feelings trump reason and that emotion trumps rationality. In the case of MMR, this unreason may cause the unnecessary and preventable deaths of dozens of children.
In December 2001, Tony Blair refused to be drawn when he was challenged over whether his baby son Leo had received the MMR jab. Blair turned down an opportunity to show some moral leadership on this issue.
The more our leaders cave in to this sort of illogical campaign, the worse it will get. Our politicians need to regain their critical faculties. Just because some people start a pressure group, it doesn't necessarily mean they are right.
My previous posting lamented the demise of enlightenment values in the USA. In Britain, the enlightenment is threatened not by religious fundamentalism but by the exaltation of 'feelings' over reason.
Our children need the MMR jab and the more credulous of their parents need a good slap.
What it means
Bush's victory has left many people in Europe puzzled. We just don't get the power of Bush's 'faith-based' appeal.
This article The Day the Enlightenment Went Out in today's New York Times is a frightening analysis and reveals an alien world.
Fundamentalist Christianity does not have a purchase on voters in Europe, yet other unenlightened forces are at work. Anyone in need of a wake-up call should read Francis Wheen's excellent book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
In Britain, we have few Christian fundamentalists, but plenty of people who create roadside shrines of flowers and soggy teddy bears; who swear by assorted quack remedies and New Age therapies; and who launch a mob attack on a doctor's house because they can't tell the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile.
We had better understand these irrational forces and ensure that they can never triumph here. I never want to wake up the morning after an election in Britain and have to read or write an article like this.
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
No values please, we're British
At the time of writing, a Kerry victory in the presidential election remains a mathematical possibility but a political improbability. In the unlikely event Kerry has won, the Republicans will nevertheless have strengthened their grip on the Congress (latest results here).
Either way, many Conservatives in Britain will no doubt be looking at the US results to see whether they can learn how to defeat New Labour by replicating the Republicans' strategy. The key question is how the Republicans have managed to persuade working class voters to support economic policies, such as tax cuts for the rich, that are not in their self-interest.
This question is examined by Nicholas D. Kristof in today's New York Times, and in the recent book What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank.
The basic answer is that the Republicans have created a series of moral issues to take people's minds off the economy. This 'value'-based agenda features religion, guns, abortion and gay rights.
Could it work for the Tories in Britain? Let's look at each item on the Republican menu.
Religion is a non-starter. In the US, one-third of the population consider themselves evangelical and more people believe in the creationist myth than in evolution. In Britain, just 5% of the population attends church regularly.
Guns? Most British people have never owned one and tough legal restrictions enjoy wide popular support. After the Dunblane massacre in 1996, overwhelming public pressure forced a Tory government to restrict gun ownership still further.
Abortion? During the 1980s, attempts by Catholic backbench MPs to reintroduce restrictions all floundered. Advances in medical science, which enable younger premature babies to survive, may lead to some legal changes but, on the whole, the issue is regarded as settled.
Gay rights? For the baby boomers and subsequent generations, it's no longer much of an issue. The Tories learned the hard way that there is little electoral mileage in opposing sexual liberation. John Major's government in the 1990s launched a 'Back to Basics' crusade, only for the strategy to backfire as the press had a field day, exposing the peccadilloes of one Tory MP after another.
America is a foreign country. The Republicans have had the good fortune to be able to work with the cultural grain, but the same evangelical culture does not exist in Britain (apart, perhaps, from parts of Northern Ireland - but that's another story).
While reactionary 'values' are an asset to the US Republicans, they are a liability to the British Tories. Disapproval of liberal social values still goes down well with the Tories' elderly suburban and rural core voters, but it repels just about everyone else. So if the Tories decided to copy the Republicans, they would reinforce an existing trend, where they appeal to an ageing and declining minority, but lose support among younger and more educated voters.
The Tories have never done well whenever they have tried to poke around in other people's bedrooms (both literally and metaphorically). They traditionally relied for their political success on a reputation for economic stewardship, but they lost that on Black Wednesday. And since everyone now believes in capitalism, the Tories no longer have anything distinctive to say.
It makes you wonder what the Tories are for.
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
The real thing
Occasionally, there is some justice in this world.
This article in today's Guardian cheered me up no end.
Hold the champagne
How Americans choose to vote today is basically their own business. But their choice will have a profound effect on the rest of the planet, which is why many people in other parts of the world will be watching the result (assuming there is a result).
Polls outside the USA have shown overwhelming support for John Kerry. But if Kerry's non-American supporters are honest, they must admit they prefer him for only one reason. He is not George W. Bush.
If Kerry wins, there will be a sigh of relief throughout the world, followed by a honeymoon period in which outside perceptions of America will improve dramatically. But expectations are unrealistic and disillusionment will quickly set in.
While Kerry may be able to ameliorate the situation, he cannot meet the optimistic expectations of the outside world, for three reasons. First, the Republicans are likely to retain control of the Senate and House of Representatives. Second, however much Kerry may regret the Iraq war, he cannot just pull out, but would be constrained by circumstances (at least in the short term) to follow similar policies to the Bush administration's. And third, while Bush has to play to the Christian right, Kerry also has to satisfy his own constituency of American workers and farmers looking for a more aggressive policy on international trade.
An article by Wolfgang Munchau in yesterday's Financial Times (access to the online article only for subscribers, I'm afraid) explains why Europeans should expect a deepening rift with America, whoever wins. The insensitive tone of the Bush administration towards the outside world has caused deep offence but is not the cause. The basic problem, says Munchau, is that "Europe and the US no longer share the same global interests."
Besides the worsening problem of international trade, Kerry will not sign up to the Kyoto protocol or the International Court of Justice. Nor will he risk confronting the Israeli lobby by doing anything serious to help bring a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
If Kerry wins, we may at least rejoice in the symbolic defeat of the neo-con fruitcakes who believe in the theories of Leo Strauss or the prophecies in the Book of Revelations (or both). Worth cracking open a beer, I'd say. But not a bottle of champagne.
Monday, November 01, 2004
If, despite my posting yesterday, you are still avidly reading the tea leaves and poking about in the chicken's entrails for clues about whether Bush or Kerry will win, may I recommend the Electoral Vote Predictor website (with thanks to Peter Black for recommending it).
It is the most thorough analysis I have seen online, frequently updated as fresh polling data comes in. And its author's prediction? "We have the most studied election in the history of the world. And what's the conclusion? Nobody knows."
So much for psephology.
In 2000, the American TV networks got their fingers burnt issuing premature declarations about how Florida had voted. This year, the networks have promised not to make provisional declarations for any state until after polls have closed on the West Coast. For those of you in Britain planning to sit up all night in front of the TV, the practical consequence is that you're unlikely to get much hard news before 4am at the earliest.
Stay logged on to the Electoral Vote Predictor, however, and you may get the news a little earlier - assuming, of course, that there's a result. The site's author (an American living in Holland) promises, "I will stay up all night election night and update the site in real time. I am NOT promising to stay up until we know who the president is. I would definitely like to go to bed sometime during the month of November."