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Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Put that in your pipe and smoke it

Am I the only Liberal Democrat to feel somewhat queasy about the party's enthusiasm for smoking bans?

I regularly visit smoky pubs and cafes with no ill effects, yet the sharp decline in air quality over the past ten days due to the heatwave has made me ill (hence the lack of postings lately). I'm not the only one to suffer, yet there remains far more political enthusiasm for banning smoking than banning cars.

The party launched its crusade at its 2004 spring conference when, in a fit of lunacy, it passed a motion in favour of banning smoking in public places. Now the Liberal Democrat groups in both the Scottish Parliament and the
Welsh Assembly are pursuing smoking bans with abandon.

I have never been a smoker myself and don't particularly like other people's smoke in confined spaces where there is poor ventilation. Nonetheless, I think the decision whether to smoke is a matter for adults to decide for themselves. There cannot be a sentient adult anywhere in Britain who is not fully aware of the risks of smoking and it is not our business to interfere.

Liberals have no business banning things of which they merely disapprove. It is legitimate to employ the law only where innocent third parties are being injured, which is presumably why the concept of 'passive smoking' has been developed by the anti-smoking lobby. While there is no doubt that active smoking is highly risky, the notion of 'passive' or 'second-hand' smoking is based on dubious epidemiology and there is as yet no definitive evidence that it is a cause of disease.

Even if there were, that would be no cause for an outright ban in public places. Already, 90% of restaurants in London are smoke-free. This is not due to any law or regulation, but simply because the owners have decided it is good for their business. Likewise, many restaurants and pubs voluntarily provide smoking and non-smoking areas.

Conversely, there are many small, one-room, backstreet pubs where the majority of customers are smokers and there is no practical way of creating a separate non-smoking area. Why legislate here when the only practical effect of a smoking ban would be to drive such locals out of business?

As customers, we can choose whether to patronise a restaurant or bar if we dislike its smoking policy. By and large, the problem of smoking in public places and workplaces can be dealt with by a combination of commonsense mutual tolerance and air conditioning. It doesn't need legislation, which, apart from anything else, is difficult and costly to enforce.

Ah, but what about the workers? According to the argument, bar staff and waiters are being 'forced' to breathe in customers' smoke. No they aren't. No-one is forced to work in a pub or restaurant and, if it permits smoking, there are plenty of other bar jobs elsewhere.

I do wish supporters of smoking bans were more honest. This is really about social engineering, not 'passive smoke'. The campaign against smoking reduced the proportion of adults in Britain who smoke down to about 25%, but this figure stubbornly refuses to fall any further. The limits of propaganda have been reached and the anti-smoking lobby knows that outright prohibition would backfire. The function of smoking bans is therefore to retain the technicality of smoking as a legal activity while making it functionally impossible. The target remains smokers, not the rest of us.

The whole absurdity of the anti-smoking crusade was brought home in the
Doctor's notes column by Margaret McCartney in last Tuesday's Guardian G2 section. The column was subtitled,

"If a patient doesn't ask, then it is not a GP's job to offer them advice on how to lose weight"
The point against "nagging professionally" was well made, but then McCartney contradicted herself by proceeding to justify precisely such nagging about smoking. She produced the fallacious argument that, because smoking is more prevalent among poorer people, no-one who smoked was truly exercising freedom of choice, and added the bizarre claim that,

"...if you really wanted to make the opportunity to smoke equal, then you would have to start shoving free cigarettes through nice middle-class letterboxes."
I am still trying to work out the absurd logic that, if more working class people smoke, that is added reason to ban smoking in restaurants and pubs.

I fear that public healthism is getting completely out of hand. The campaign to improve public health began in the nineteenth century. Then, the objective was to eradicate disease by providing clean water and sanitation, and through mass vaccination campaigns.

These public health goals were largely accomplished by about 1970, but the momentum didn't stop. Campaigners turned their attention to people's own behaviour, and so we have seen increasing concern about voluntary activities such as smoking, drinking and eating.

I saw on the TV the other week one local council running counselling sessions on eating habits for whole families. This had a horrible whiff of Maoist re-education classes about it.

This increasing political concern with our private lives has also been fuelled by increasing public neurosis about 'risk'. All manner of activities, such as mobile phones and MMR jabs, have been deemed risky without there being a shred of scientific evidence to support such claims.

This combination of political interference and mass hysteria is having a catastrophic effect on health policy. Frank Furedi wrote an excellent article in
Spiked (23 March), in which he observed that illness rather than wellness is now regarded as a normal state, that more and more of our life experiences are being medicalised, and that we are encouraged to make sense of our lives in terms of 'health'.

The result is that no government, no matter what policies it pursues or how much money it spends, can ever overcome the crisis of healthcare. As long as our culture normalises illness and encourages endless introspection about our state of health, the public demand for healthcare can never be satisfied.

The political busy-bodying about our health is also a manifestation of a broader political problem. Globalisation has removed many powers from politicians and left them feeling impotent. The public sphere once included, for example, manufacturing industry and the government took a strategic view about it. Nowadays, the public sphere has retreated from this area, so that Rover can collapse and the government can escape without so much as a crease in its trousers.

To compensate, politicians are advancing the public sphere into areas that were, until recently, considered a private matter for individuals. As a result, we get politicians deciding what we should be eating. We get previously legal if eccentric behaviour defined as 'anti-social'. And we get the intrusiveness of the government's ID card proposals.

Liberal Democrats ought to be questioning this trend instead of leaping on the bandwagon. We should be suspicious of any attempt to extend bureaucratic supervision of people's lives and instead be biased towards independence and empowerment.

The 'ban it' brigade in our party must learn to live and let live. They must stop trying to intrude in private matters and stop trying to force lifestyle changes on people who don't want them.

People are not stupid. They know about the risks of smoking, drinking and eating. If they want to smoke 40 a day or eat cream cakes, that's their business. Now will you please get off our backs?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Send in the clones

Last Saturday, I visited one of the finest greasy caffs in London, if not the whole of Britain: the New Piccadilly in Soho. (My passion for the traditional caff was revealed in this earlier posting).

New Piccadilly (address: 8 Denman Street, London W1, just off Piccadilly Circus) is one of the last survivors of the once-commonplace 1950s Italian-run cafe, with Festival of Britain-inspired decor. Nothing much has changed since it first opened in 1951 and it remains a riot of yellow formica. As well as variations on the English breakfast theme, it serves a variety of old-fashioned Anglo-Italian dishes plus a tempting range of rib-sticking sponge puddings with custard.

Sadly, the New Piccadilly is threatened with closure. Westminster City Council has approved plans to redevelop this corner of Soho, and an imminent rent review is likely to price out the last remaining independent traders. Instead, the area will probably become populated with yet more fast food chains and the Starbucks/Nero/Costa-style chain coffee bars, turning Denman Street into another retail clone.

New Economics Foundation has recently drawn attention to the phenomenon of the clone town - towns and cities whose centres have lost all individuality, consisting of a bland and sterile strip of global and national chains. Local traders are driven out, and one High Street looks pretty much like another.

Shouldn't we be celebrating this triumph of free market forces? Isn't this what the customer wants? As Andrew Simms, policy director of NEF, points out,

"Clone stores have a triple whammy on communities: they bleed the local economy of money, destroy the social glue provided by real local shops that holds communities together, and they steal the identity of our towns and cities. Then we are left with soulless clone towns. The argument that big retail is good because it provides consumers with choice is ironic, because in the end it leaves us with no choice at all."
Liberal Democrats in charge of local authorities should use their planning powers to promote opportunities for locally-owned stores. The rest of us should get down to the New Piccadilly before it closes for good.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Don't mention the war

"NOW IT'S WAR" screamed the front-page headline in Friday night's London Evening Standard, reporting the breakdown in talks at the EU summit.

No it isn't. "War" is when countries fight one another with bombs, bullets and missiles. "War" is when thousands and sometimes millions of people get killed. "War" is something few journalists on the Evening Standard have ever experienced.

All that these hyperbolical journalists would need to do to find out the real meaning of war is to step out into the street, stop the first Londoner they find over the age of 70, and ask about the blitz.

The current disputes within the EU are among the greatest in its history. But when the worst that political leaders do to one another nowadays is to push back their chairs and walk off in a huff, and when their most lethal weapons are soundbites at the post-summit press conferences, it suggests that Europe has made some progress since 1945.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Quotation for Ruth Kelly

New Labour needs this reminder (not that they would understand).

"Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire." - W.B. Yeats.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


This is not a snub

Thanks to Will Howells for drawing my attention to the news that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party elected a new chairman yesterday.

Paul Holmes, MP for Chesterfield, defeated the incumbent Matthew Taylor by 36 votes to 23 (59 of the 61 eligible MPs voted). The significance of this vote is that Taylor is close to party leader Charles Kennedy, whereas Holmes is perhaps the most militant of the 'Beveridge' group of left-wing MPs.

Only two media appear to have picked up this story so far, the Scotsman and ePolitix.

Scotsman's initial report last night suggested that the vote was nothing more than the party's backbenchers flexing their muscles.

Mr Taylor, the Truro and St Austell MP, said: "The Parliamentary party had a clear choice to make. They have decided to follow the route of the Conservative and Labour parties in choosing a backbench representative to chair their meetings.

"With a much larger Parliamentary party it was inevitable that sooner or later we would choose this route and with a large new intake of MPs I am not surprised that this change has taken place.

"We now have to reflect on how to build an effective team across the whole of the Parliamentary party and ensure that no unnecessary division between backbench and frontbench develops."
Despite this spin, however, it is clear that rumours have begun circulating to the effect that this election may have a more ideological significance. A second report from the Scotsman this morning was ominously titled Kennedy Denies Being Undermined by MPs' Vote:

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy today denied his authority had been undermined after MPs dumped his choice as parliamentary party chairman.

Mr Kennedy had wanted Matthew Taylor to keep the key job. But he was beaten by Paul Holmes in a vote of MPs last night.

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted the vote was not about him. But he acknowledged he had wanted Mr Taylor to stay on. He had called for a period of stability after the election...

At a press conference called to highlight the party’s pensions plans, Mr Kennedy added: "To be honest I don’t think this has got anything to do with perceived intellectual differences within the parliamentary party of the Liberal Democrats."
ePolitix's report this evening - titled Kennedy plays down Taylor snub - continues in a similar vein:

Charles Kennedy denies his authority has been undermined following the rejection by MPs of his choice of parliamentary party chairman.

The Liberal Democrat leader said his MPs' surprise decision to sack Matthew Taylor this week was not a revolt against the direction he wants to take the party in.

The Commons group of Lib Dems chose to install Chesterfield MP Paul Holmes by 36 votes to 23, despite Kennedy making his preference for Taylor known.

Taylor had held the role since 2003 and was named chairman in Kennedy's post-election frontbench reshuffle, subject to party approval.

As a close ally of party leader, he chaired Kennedy's 1999 leadership election campaign, and authored the Lib Dem election manifesto. The vote was widely seen as a snub against an expected attempt to shift the party to the right.
It will be interesting see whether Kennedy's damage limitation exercise will work or whether there will be further coverage in tomorrow morning's press.


ID card fun for all the family

Here are two rather good animations satirising ID cards:

British song...

... and an
American nightmare.


Ming the Merciless

The Glasgow Herald reports that Sir Ming Campbell has just negotiated a "six-figure" deal for his autobiography. The book is due to be published in time for the autumn party conference in 2006.

Most politicians' autobiographies are deadly dull but Ming seems aware of the pitfalls:

"I was rather surprised to be approached because politicians writing their memoirs have got to be careful that they don't drift into self-justification and self-parody. I shall do my best to be thoughtful and light-hearted at the same time."
One can only assume that, if publishers Hodder and Stoughton are paying such a large sum, they are expecting some juicy revelations.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


What election?

Did you know that the Liberal Democrats held a leadership election yesterday? Neither did I, until I read this report:

Kennedy unopposed as leader

Charles Kennedy has been returned unopposed as the Liberal Democrat's leader.

Under the party's rules, the leader must be re-elected within 12 months of each new parliament.

Mr Kennedy said: "I am delighted to be returned unopposed as leader. This is a reflection of the unity of the Liberal Democrats and the internal strength that lies at the heart of the party, something which cannot be said for either Labour or the Tories."
Steady on, Charlie. I don't think we can attribute such qualities to an internal election that hardly anyone knew about.

Indeed, this election was so discreet that even the leader's own staff were unaware of it. Andrew Pierce observes some lessons for the Tories in today's

If the Tories are serious about becoming popular again, they should abandon the decision to inflict yet another leadership contest on us and copy Charles Kennedy’s example.

Kennedy yesterday won his own four-week leadership contest which even most Lib Dem MPs did not realise was taking place. Under the party’s constitution a leader has to be elected or re-elected within 12 months of a general election. Kennedy, leader since 1999, announced the election in the Liberal Democrat News adjacent to advertisements for a memorial service, second-hand books and bird watching in northeast Fife.

Nominations closed on June 10. There was only one: Kennedy’s. Yesterday was the final date for withdrawal of nomination papers. Despite the criticism of the Lib Dem failure to make greater headway at the election, Kennedy did not withdraw and is now the only leader certain to be at the helm of his party by Christmas.

This was news to some in Kennedy’s office. "What election?" said one official, when I rang. "I think you are mixing us up with the Tories. We are not having an election." Swifter-minded colleagues were quick to issue a statement. So the Lib Dems have spared the rest of us from their election for less than £200, the cost of the advertisement.
Clearly in future we must all pay more attention to the classified ads in Liberal Democrat News.


An expensive form of baby-sitting

Ruth Kelly's statement yesterday about the extension of school hours reinforces my view that the chief function of the state school system is child-minding rather than education.

Apart from that, Jonathan Calder makes some
perceptive comments in his Liberal England blog. I wish I could share Mary Reid's optimism but I fear the government's motives are cynical and economistic.

We are not as affluent as we think. The unimaginative response by Liberal Democrat spokesman Ed Davey (referred to by Jonathan) suggests that the Lib Dems need to do some more profound thinking about the sort of society we have become and wish to be.


One hundred and eighty!

As you no doubt lead very busy lives, this press statement from the Liberal Democrats last week may have escaped your attention:

Belated recognition for darts welcome - Russell

Bob Russell, Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, today welcomed Darts' recognition by all the Sports Councils in the UK as a sport. Mr Russell, who has long campaigned for today's change, said:

"This is great news for everyone involved in the sport, who have campaigned for a great many years to get the recognition the game deserves."
Don't mock. Any 'sport' in which fat, middle-aged men can (and usually do) excel is to be welcomed in my view.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


English, British and European

I never thought I'd be endorsing Geoff Hoon. But in an interview in today's Observer, he had this to say on the subject of our identity:

Despite more people travelling and working across the Channel, the argument had 'gone in the wrong direction' since 1975, with scepticism hardening. Yet it should be possible for Britons to feel European too: 'I can support England if they are playing Scotland at football, I will support the British Lions in New Zealand, I will support Europe in the Ryder Cup. The idea that you have got to choose one identity from another is outrageous.'

Friday, June 10, 2005


Speak now or forever hold your peace

So, the government's religious hatred bill has been brought back from the dead. This is a cynical ploy by New Labour to win back the Muslim vote. And it is also a nod to various noisy religious bigots, such as those responsible for last December's Sikh theatre protest and January's manufactured anger about the BBC's screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera.

Liberals, whatever their religious beliefs, should be unanimous in their opposition to this bill. We believe in democracy and pluralism. Everyone has the right to express their point of view but the price one must pay for this freedom is being exposed to other people's opinions that one may not like.

Feelings of hurt or offence are not a legitimate reason for censorship. Every expression of opinion offends somebody somewhere. If we were to accept 'offence' or 'feelings' as a criterion for restricting free expression, we would end up with complete censorship.

We must distinguish between believers and their beliefs. People have no choice regarding their racial origins, but religion is what people choose to believe. If I assault someone or deny them employment because of their race, then that is wrong. But if I wish to criticise their beliefs, no matter how cherished, I should have every right to do so.

People should be free to practice their beliefs and should be free from persecution or discrimination. But we should never place anyone's beliefs beyond ordinary debate or criticism. The concept of 'blasphemy' is inherently illiberal. Indeed, it is vital that all ideologies - religion included - are held up to close scrutiny and critical examination. And they should remain open to satire and mockery.

We need to speak out more forcibly about these threats to our liberty. If we don't, the religious bigots will succeed in eroding them. So it is good to see Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris in the vanguard of the opposition and we should give him our full backing.

Today's National Secular Society
Newsline presents this good round-up (including a statement by Evan Harris):

The government has launched the fourth attempt to get a law banning incitement to religious hatred on to the statute book. The development was immediately condemned by the National Secular Society as "an invitation to religious extremists to use the courts to silence critics of their activities".

The NSS says that the Government's proposals will pose a severe risk to free expression in Britain. Those who denounce religion or a particular religion as untrue and dangerous will be at risk of being jailed.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: "The House of Lords Religious Offences Committee pondered over the reintroduction of this legislation for over a year, but it decided against recommending it. The Committee had examined the matter from all angles but could not see a way round the many problems such a law would create, the most worrying of which relate to restriction of freedom of expression.

"The UK law already offers protection to everyone from incitement to violence and against harassment, so this proposed legislation is unnecessary. The inevitable consequence of it would be also to protect religious dogmas and beliefs from insult and mockery, and that would be dangerous. When the election was called and Parliament was about to be prorogued, the Government pulled the incitement provisions from some flagship legislation, as otherwise they would have lost that too. When they did so, they promised to listen to the critics of the incitement provisions. Yet they have done the complete opposite; they have re-presented the same provisions, ignoring all the opposition and even threatened to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through the Lords. The law will be draconian; the maximum penalty will be 7 years in jail and the prosecution thresholds are absurdly low. The law will be a gift to religious extremists to silence their more moderate brethren, as well as political commentators and secular campaigners."

Mr Porteous Wood said that "while race is immutable and a genetic characteristic, religion is an ideology that could be embraced or rejected at will. With religion come ideologies with their proscriptions and prescriptions, and sometimes political ambitions. We must be able to vigorously call religion to account. Does the Government really want to give extremists more power to control our reactions to their activities?.

"A similar law that was introduced recently in Victoria, Australia has resulted in much religious tension and both Christians and Muslims - who were enthusiastic about the law when it was introduced - are now begging the Australian government to repeal it after a court case found evangelical Christians guilty of insulting Islam. A similar law in Italy has seen well known author Oriano Fellaci charged with insulting Islam."

NSS honorary associate and Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris told politics.co.uk: "The Government's measure would stifle religious debate and feed an increasing climate of censorship. Freedom of expression is a precious liberty that once lost may never be reclaimed." However, while he raised concerns about the Bill, Dr Harris proposed an alternative change in the law to deal with the problem of Islamophobia. "Liberal Democrats recognise the problems caused by extremist groups and Islamophobia. Our proposals, which have cross-party support, would ban the use of religious words as a way of inciting racial hatred, closing the existing loophole and putting all religions on an equal footing."

The Bill has been widely condemned already in editorials in the
Times, Independent, Telegraph and even the Daily Mail. Polly Toynbee has written a swingeing article attacking the plans in her Guardian column [Friday 10 June].
Salman Rushdie and Iqbal Sacranie debated the bill on this morning's BBC Radio 4's Today programme. You can listen again here.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


It's all Greek to me

A six-day gap between blog postings can be explained by a short visit to northern Greece.

Normally, whenever I am away anywhere, it is not long before I try to track down an internet connection to check my e-mails, visit favourite websites and add another blog posting. Not so this time.

Compared with most other developed European countries, Greece has an unusually high level of mobile phone ownership but an unusually low level of internet penetration. The reason why becomes obvious once you spend any length of time in Greece.

The Greeks are among the most sociable people on the planet. Mobile phones are an aid to sociability (or at least they are when the Greeks use them), enabling people to meet and foster relationships. The internet, on the other hand, is essentially a solitary pursuit. The idea of sitting alone in front of a computer screen for long periods of time is anathema to most Greeks. In the company of Greek people, I soon lost any compulsion to go online.

The virtual relationships we create over the internet are no substitute for the real thing. This ersatz sociability was satirised over forty years ago in Tony Hancock's
The Radio Ham.

I returned from Greece nicely chilled out, to a large backlog of e-mails but no anxieties. I'll still be e-mailing and blogging, of course. But I'm more aware that these devices are an adjunct to life rather than a substitute for it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Planet Sbarro

Fears of globalisation are clearly not confined to the militant anti-capitalist protestors, who will probably be indulging in an attack on the Edinburgh branches of McDonald's and Starbucks during next month's G8 summit.

Underlying the "no" votes in last week's French and Dutch referenda was a more widespread fear about the speed and nature of globalisation. Yet it seems odd that the European Union should be the focus for fears of a loss of identity, when the overwhelming force for cultural homogenisation comes not from Eurocrats but American-owned multinationals.

A flight from Brussels to Thessaloniki (in Greece) last week illustrated these alienating effects.

I had to change planes in Budapest. With 90 minutes to spare, a cup of coffee would have been nice. And, since I'm briefly in Hungary, how about one of those nice cream cakes for which the country is famous? Sadly not.

Terminal 2A of Budapest airport has just one catering outlet: a cramped and uncongenial looking branch of
Sbarro. I decide to give it a miss.

I arrive in Thessaloniki, one hour before a colleague's plane is due to land. With time to kill, I head for the airport terminal's only catering outlet. Since we're in Greece, is it a taverna, perhaps? No, it's another branch of Sbarro.

If you are the only person in the western world not yet to have encountered a branch of Sbarro, it is a chain of pseudo-Italian fast food outlets, offering a corporate American idea of pasta and pizza.

The President of Sbarro's Quick Service Restaurant Division, Tony Missano (who probably got the job on account of his authentic-sounding Italian name) is quoted on his company's website:

We invite you to come and taste Mama's recipes.
Whose Mama? Not any self-respecting Italian mother, that's for sure.

Elsewhere, the Sbarro website promises "an authentic Italian atmosphere" and "fresh, inventive Italian Cuisine". But the atmosphere isn't Italian, authentic or otherwise. The food is mass-produced and the cuisine unoriginal.

For all its protestations of authenticity, freshness and inventiveness, Sbarro is just another standardised American fast food chain. It's the same wherever you go. There are now more than 1,000 Sbarro restaurants (or "units" as the company calls them) worldwide. And it's depressing.

It is particularly depressing that the owners and operators of European airports are incapable of showing more imagination. They could reject the global fast food chains in favour of more distinctive and local catering experiences, which would promote local culture and (if nothing else) help relieve the monotony of international air travel.

The EU, for all its faults, cannot be blamed for this homogenisation. It has been doing a great deal to help local food producers to protect and promote authentic local foods and drinks (and has done so in the face of fierce American hostility in international trade negotiations). It has also been supporting the efforts of local communities to defend minority languages.

People have every right to protect their distinct identities. But if we're going to tackle the threats to our identity, let's hit the right target. The threat of cultural homogenisation comes not from Brussels but from further away on the Planet Sbarro.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Sell the paper, build the party!

Liberator 302 - out now! Posted by Hello

The post-election edition of Liberator is published and mailed to subscribers today. And the magazine's controversial assessment of the recent general election has been reported in today's Guardian.

Highlights in this issue include:

If you are not yet a subscriber, now is the time to sign up. Liberator has been published since 1970 and remains Britain's foremost vehicle for liberal debate. Details of how to subscribe are on the Liberator website.


Physician heal thyself

The Liberal Democrats have, rightly, been strong opponents of the government's plan to introduce ID cards. However, it appears that no-one has informed the party's own conference staff.

The booking forms for passes for the party conference have been redesigned to be more invasive, to a degree that would make Charles Clarke proud.

I have just downloaded from the party's website the
registration form for an exhibitor's pass, in preparation for September's conference in Blackpool. It is reasonable to request contact details and to ask whether you've been to conference before. However:

Similar questions are not asked of delegates but, besides exhibitors, they are being asked of everyone else: diplomatic guests, journalists, media technicians, exhibition technicians, fringe event organisers, and commercial and NGO observers.

What next? Will the party's Cowley Street HQ be demanding iris scans?

The person responsible for designing these forms is either an authoritarian or an idiot. Whether the explanation is hypocrisy or merely irony, the party ought to be ashamed.

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