Saturday, July 30, 2005
I wanna be the leader
I have been reflecting further on Simon Hughes's absurd attack on his party's conference (also dealt with in Jonathan Calder's House Points column this week).
Hughes is not the first Liberal Democrat MP to resort to such slander on his own members. Party leader Charles Kennedy launched a more comprehensive attack immediately after the general election, and the echoes can still be heard of David Alton's infamous lies about "people coming in off the street to vote" at the Eastbourne Liberal Assembly in 1986.
What is the real motive for such attacks? I think they derive from a warped notion of leadership qualities. This might be described as the Neil Kinnock theory of political management.
Kinnock demonstrated his grip on the Labour Party by taking on and defeating the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, most notably in his 1985 conference speech.
There's just one snag. The Liberal Democrats don't have a Militant Tendency, nor anything remotely resembling it.
Another Liberal Democrat MP with ill-disguised leadership ambitions, Mark Oaten, anticipated this lack in an interview back in 2001:
According to Oaten, the Lib Dems lack the symbolic dragons that Labour leaders have in the past found useful to slay...Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good tactic? Ambitious men feel a need to demonstrate their virility. More specifically, they need a 'defining other' whom they can take on and beat. In the absence of any real dragons, they will construct men of straw.
"We haven't got a Clause Four, Militants or rot at the core of the party," he says.
"Oddly enough, if we did it might be helpful because we could then make a big demonstration of tackling them and the public could then engage in what [the review] was about."
We should beware of treating this as nothing more than a harmless display of willy-waving. Paranoid fantasies about an 'enemy within' invariably poison the well. Worse, there is a serious danger that such fantasies can get out of control and lead to witch-hunts, purges and a general stamping out of dissent.
No-one in the Liberal Democrats apart from Simon Hughes or Mark Oaten wants a leadership election at the moment, for two reasons: (1) Simon Hughes and (2) Mark Oaten. When a leadership election eventually happens, it needs to take place on a more intelligent basis than a virility test judged on the criterion of who is the most 'tough'.
Watching these idiots play games at the expense of their party brings to mind this poem by Roger McGough:
I wanna be the leaderWhat they will do, apparently, in the absence of any intelligent ideas, is resort to waging war on their own party's members.
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I'm the leader
I'm the leader
OK what shall we do?
Friday, July 29, 2005
It's the quality of life, stupid
To see why capitalism is broadly preferable to communism, one only has to compare South Korea with North Korea. Or to look at the wreckage in Eastern Europe, which will take decades to put right.
Such comparisons answer the criticism that capitalism makes people poor. The problem is rather the damage that capitalism does to the social fabric. This is why I disagree with market fundamentalists (who, as J K Galbraith recently noted, are embarrassed to use the word 'capitalism', preferring the euphemism 'free market').
Paul Krugman, writing in today's New York Times, notes how right-wingers are always banging on about 'choice' and 'family values' while pursuing policies that undermine both. He takes a brave step for an American, by drawing comparisons with France.
Krugman's article is worth reading in full but, since one must register to read it online, I'll quote it in full:
FRENCH FAMILY VALUES[Santorum is Republican Conference Chairman and a leading opponent of social welfare.]
Americans tend to believe that we do everything better than anyone else. That belief makes it hard for us to learn from others. For example, I've found that many people refuse to believe that Europe has anything to teach us about health care policy. After all, they say, how can Europeans be good at health care when their economies are such failures?
Now, there's no reason a country can't have both an excellent health care system and a troubled economy (or vice versa). But are European economies really doing that badly?
The answer is no. Americans are doing a lot of strutting these days, but a head-to-head comparison between the economies of the United States and Europe - France, in particular - shows that the big difference is in priorities, not performance. We're talking about two highly productive societies that have made a different tradeoff between work and family time. And there's a lot to be said for the French choice.
First things first: given all the bad-mouthing the French receive, you may be surprised that I describe their society as "productive." Yet according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, productivity in France - G.D.P. per hour worked - is actually a bit higher than in the United States.
It's true that France's G.D.P. per person is well below that of the United States. But that's because French workers spend more time with their families.
O.K., I'm oversimplifying a bit. There are several reasons why the French put in fewer hours of work per capita than we do. One is that some of the French would like to work, but can't: France's unemployment rate, which tends to run about four percentage points higher than the U.S. rate, is a real problem. Another is that many French citizens retire early. But the main story is that full-time French workers work shorter weeks and take more vacations than full-time American workers.
The point is that to the extent that the French have less income than we do, it's mainly a matter of choice. And to see the consequences of that choice, let's ask how the situation of a typical middle-class family in France compares with that of its American counterpart.
The French family, without question, has lower disposable income. This translates into lower personal consumption: a smaller car, a smaller house, less eating out.
But there are compensations for this lower level of consumption. Because French schools are good across the country, the French family doesn't have to worry as much about getting its children into a good school district. Nor does the French family, with guaranteed access to excellent health care, have to worry about losing health insurance or being driven into bankruptcy by medical bills.
Perhaps even more important, however, the members of that French family are compensated for their lower income with much more time together. Fully employed French workers average about seven weeks of paid vacation a year. In America, that figure is less than four.
So which society has made the better choice?
I've been looking at a new study of international differences in working hours by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, at Harvard, and Bruce Sacerdote, at Dartmouth. The study's main point is that differences in government regulations, rather than culture (or taxes), explain why Europeans work less than Americans.
But the study also suggests that in this case, government regulations actually allow people to make a desirable tradeoff - to modestly lower income in return for more time with friends and family - the kind of deal an individual would find hard to negotiate. The authors write: "It is hard to obtain more vacation for yourself from your employer and even harder, if you do, to coordinate with all your friends to get the same deal and go on vacation together."
And they even offer some statistical evidence that working fewer hours makes Europeans happier, despite the loss of potential income.
It's not a definitive result, and as they note, the whole subject is "politically charged." But let me make an observation: some of that political charge seems to have the wrong sign.
American conservatives despise European welfare states like France. Yet many of them stress the importance of "family values." And whatever else you may say about French economic policies, they seem extremely supportive of the family as an institution. Senator Rick Santorum, are you reading this?
Oh, and one more comparison with a communist country. The USA has a lower rate of adult literacy and a higher rate of child mortality than Cuba.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
That old chestnut
Anyone who thought the Liberal Democrats' president Simon Hughes was slightly barmy would have had their prejudices confirmed by a report in today's Guardian.
Let's leave aside Hughes's interesting suggestion for selecting parliamentary candidates, which I predict will be quietly forgotten once nurse has given him his medicine.
What interests me is that Hughes has chosen to repeat the lies about party policy that came out of the leader's office the weekend after the general election.
In a separate set of proposals, which he will present after the party's autumn conference, he will attempt to toughen up the policy making process.As I explained at length in an earlier posting, almost all the Liberal Democrat policies attacked by opponents or the press during the election were drawn from policy papers drafted by working parties, approved by the Federal Policy Committee (chaired by the party leader) and only rubber stamped by the conference.
"There's no willingness to let a few people get a wacky idea through [as policy]," he said.
Senior Lib Dems are adamant that the party must ensure a handful of grassroots activists do not approve measures that come back to haunt it, as has happened in the past.
The story that "a few people" / "grassroots activists" / "party radicals" / "a loony element" / "radical factions" (take your pick) have hijacked the party's policy making is a complete myth. Despite being demonstrably untrue, this story is repeated ad nauseam because it is an attractive narrative for lazy journalists reared on ancient stories about the Militant Tendency.
Simon Hughes's promised "set of proposals" is, in any case, redundant. The party has already embarked on a thoroughgoing review of policy. Any attempt to railroad this review into accepting one person's half-baked ideas, even if they are the party president's, is unhelpful and unwelcome.
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Head up the arse syndrome
Because of the 'events' on London's tube on Thursday and Friday, this press release issued by Transport for London last Wednesday went largely unnoticed.
As London's transport network continues to return to normal, the system is still suffering large numbers of security alerts due to passengers leaving bags unattended.250 a day? I could never understand the mentality of people who forgot bags on trains, tubes and buses in more peaceful times. But to do so now, given the heightened state of security and nervousness, simply beggars belief.
London Underground staff are dealing with a staggering 250 unattended bags a day since the events of 7 July.
This has led to hundreds of security alerts on the Tube and bus network, resulting in services being delayed or cancelled and station evacuations.
Friday, July 22, 2005
Sent to Coventry
Yesterday (July 21st) was the 80th anniversary of the end of the so-called 'Monkey Trial' in Dayton, Tennessee, when teacher John T. Scopes was convicted of violating state law for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution.
How stupid and backward these people were, we laugh. And when we hear of present-day attempts to reintroduce creationism onto the curriculum in state schools in the USA, it merely confirms our prejudices about the backward culture of Americans.
Well you can wipe that smug grin off your face, because it's happening here and it's happening now - in Coventry. And before you ask, it's not Islamic.
The National Secular Society's Newsline (1st July) reports:
'Academies' are in any case a "hugely expensive" waste of taxpayers' money. But this is doubly scandalous. To hand over control of state education to religious fundamentalists, and allow them to teach creationist superstition on a par with science, isn't 'choice' - it's a disgrace.
Christian fundamentalists anxious to push their barmy creationist theories think all their birthdays have come at once with Mr Blair’s Academy school programme. For a relatively small amount (in fundamentalist terms) they can take over a school and push crackpot theories on to children with no questions asked.
Christian multi-millionaire Bob Edmiston is now proposing sponsorship of a second city academy at Woodway Park School in Coventry. The super-rich Christian evangelist is already putting out propaganda aimed at reassuring the community it is aimed at. The council has agreed to go forward with the proposition.
However, not all councillors are happy with the development. Cllr Dave Nellist said: "This is far more dangerous than faith schools. Forty per cent of the academy sponsors are Christian and they are all fundamentalist Christians. There is the question of other academies teaching creationism on a par with evolution which is going back to the middle ages. If I won the lottery would I be able to open an academy on Marxist principles?"
Cllr Derek Benefield said: "I am concerned that the government is playing politics with our children. A secular state school is going to be replaced, in effect, by a religious school. At the moment, religious schools are optional. In this case, parents who live in the catchment area may be forced to send their children to this school against their will if places are not available in other schools. This totally flies in the face of Tony Blair's talk about parental 'choice'."
Christian groups appear keen to gain a strong presence in the academy programme. Christian charity the Oasis Trust set up an 'academies consultancy ' shortly after the expansion drive was announced to help other religious propagandists to sponsor the new secondaries. Mr Edmiston’s Grace Academy in Chelmsley Wood will replace Whitesmore School and is due to open in September 2006.
Ken Purchase, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East, attacked the move and his party's policy on academies. "I think Labour’s policy on this is an absolute disaster," he said. "I say keep religion out of education. Leave that job to the parents and the church. If churches wish people to become Christian and Gurdwaras wish them to become Sikh and people from the Muslim faith want them to learn Islam they have a perfect right to do so. I absolutely defend their right to do this. But keep it out of our schools."
Cllr John Blundell, Coventry City Council's cabinet member for children's services, said: "This is the beginning of the process and not the end and there will be opportunity for a full exploration of the issue." He was confident Woodway Park sponsor Mr Edmiston would continue to run the school with input from Coventry City Council and wouldn't impose his religious views on pupils.
Bob Edmiston's right-hand man in charge of the academy project, Steve Chase, tried to soothe the mounting concerns when he said the schools would be open to anyone "of any faith or even no faith" (note that he does not say that those of non-Christian, no-religious origin will have equal access – they might get a place if there are any left after deserving people get in). It will have a "Christian ethos" with "Christian values and principles." So what might that involve?
He told the Coventry Evening News: "They are probably more towards the values society generally would want children to have anyway – honesty, integrity, work ethic, caring, concern for others, a sense of social responsibility, good behaviour, respect for others, tolerance, all those sorts of things."
But then the truth is slipped in ever so quietly. The school will teach creationism as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution, in the "appropriate lessons" and it would teach children about other religious faiths, he said.
Mr Chase told the Evening News: "What we've said is we will teach evolution — because it is a theory still, unless someone has found the missing link and proofs to put it to bed once and for all — and creationism, in the appropriate subjects. Certainly evolution is usually taught in science and creationism is usually in RE, but that would not exclude a closer look at comparative theories of the origins of the world in either subject."
Mr Edmiston, as sponsor, commits to putting £2 million into the academy – which, as one of the richest men in the country, amounts to pocket money for him. The government (through our taxes) will then turn over another £25 million to create a new building for the school. Taxpayers will also be responsible for all ongoing costs – running into tens of millions over the years. In exchange, Mr Edmiston gets the opportunity to promote his mad ideas to a captive audience of children.
Edmiston's fortune comes from the IM Group, which imports Subarus and Daihatsu cars. He also founded the evangelical charity Christian Vision, which has a network of Christian radio stations around the world, broadcasting religious propaganda to South America, India, Africa, China and Indonesia.
Asked to define creationism, Mr Chase said: "If you ask 20 people you'll get 20 different answers. It will range from extreme dogma — and this won't just be Christian, but quite a few religions — (which) say God created and that's that. He did it in six days and then had a day off. That's the Christian version. Many faiths have slightly different slants on that. Many faiths believe in a creator. At the other extreme, even within faith circles, it would be creation through evolution. In the end, none of it is proved conclusively. It's Darwin's theory, isn't it? The theory of evolution. It has various different interpretations of that. I wouldn't want to say, myself. They are not mutually exclusive necessarily."
Council promises to consult on the matter in September and October.
Thursday, July 21, 2005
How times change
Watching Prime Minister's Questions on the TV news yesterday, I was struck by the fact that Tony Blair was flanked by two of Britain's leading young political rebels of the late 1960s.
On one side of Blair sat Jack Straw, the first 'political' president of the NUS (National Union of Students), whose name was a byword for student protest in that era. On the other side sat Peter Hain, a prominent Young Liberal and Anti-Apartheid activist in those days, notorious for digging up cricket pitches. If Tariq Ali had been sitting alongside them, we would have had the complete set.
Today, Straw and Hain are leading members of Britain's most authoritarian government since the second world war. There is a moral in here somewhere but I am not sure what it is.
Tariq Ali, on the other hand, maintains his radical credentials by voting Liberal Democrat.
Not a lot of people know that
Today (Thursday) is the 175th anniversary of Belgium. Before you read any further, please rise for the Belgian national anthem.
July 21st is Belgium's national day and a public holiday. The country was founded in 1830 when it broke away from the Protestant Netherlands. Belgium's creation was the last act in the round of European boundary changes that followed the defeat of Napoleon.
The country was regarded as a joke in Britain until recently. Name ten famous Belgians, we were asked (quite easy to do, actually). The derision has ebbed as more and more British people have spent weekends in Brussels, Antwerp, Gent or Bruges. More of us are getting to know Belgian beer, chocolate and food.
The story that Belgium has more Michelin stars per capita than France is actually true. In the 2005 editions of the Michelin red guides, Belgium (population 10.3 million) has 93 starred restaurants (3 X 3-star, 12 X 2-star and 78 X 1-star) or 111 stars. France (population 60.5 million) has 498 starred restaurants (26 X 3-star, 70 X 2-star and 402 X 1-star) or 620 stars. Work it out for yourself.
The high quality of the food (better even than France in my experience, and not just in Michelin-starred restaurants) provides a clue to the country's relative political stability. Despite its internal divisions, Belgium is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe and has the highest productivity per person-hour in Europe (OECD figures, not mine).
Foreigners are bemused by Belgium's language divide (there are three language groups; Flemish, French and German), the endless disputes and the Byzantine political arrangements intended to manage them.
The consequences can sometimes be comical. One of the festivities planned for today was the provision of 15,000 free portions of 'moules frites' (mussels and chips). Unfortunately, ministers from the Flemish and Walloon regional governments fell out over sharing the cost of the chips and the region of origin of the potatoes. The Museum of Natural Sciences, which is hosting the meal, finally gave up and ordered the whole lot from McCain's.
Although Thursday will be a day of celebration (with or without the free chips), national identification in Belgium is low and there is a much stronger popular affinity to Flanders or Wallonia. It is easy to forget that, given the ethnic divide, Belgium could in theory have become another Bosnia.
While disputes between the language groups are common, however, they rarely extend beyond bickering at lengthy political meetings. The last time there was any serious violence was during street protests in 1961. What is Belgium's secret?
Widespread prosperity and a cunning system of government have a lot to do with it. But the main reason Belgians can't be bothered to start shooting at one another is that, on the whole, they'd rather be eating out.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
"In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it"
This quote was originally attributed to an American general in Vietnam. Figuratively, it also sums up the mentality of Charles Clarke and New Labour's cavalier attitude to our fundamental freedoms.
Following the London bombings, New Labour is once again suggesting that, to protect us from more terrorist attacks, we must sacrifice our civil liberties. This argument is widely accepted without question yet it is based on a false premise, that security and liberty exist in inverse proportion to one another. False it may be, but it is a clever piece of 'framing' that needs challenging.
Fortunately, there was a good quote in Charles Kennedy's speech on Monday (which the press did not report):
We have a responsibility to demonstrate how the correct balance is struck between liberty and security.The first duty of any government is to keep the peace but that does not entitle it to remove people's basic liberties. These liberties, such as free speech, habeas corpus and trial by jury, are not expendable privileges granted by the good grace of the government.
We need to show that it is not an either/or - but that we can achieve both in a Liberal Britain.
Charles Clarke clearly thinks otherwise. He returned from an emergency meeting in Brussels the other day, brandishing an agreement that phone companies and e-mail providers should be obliged to keep records of all calls. This is pure gesture politics. It would not take much ingenuity on the part of any terrorist to evade such surveillance - encryption and anonymising technology are easily available to anyone. In any case, there has been no suggestion that mobile phones or e-mails played any significant role in the London bombings.
More fundamentally, has it been demonstrated that the London bombings were caused by civil liberties? Correct me if I'm wrong, but mass murder has already been illegal for many centuries, so we should not assume that each fresh atrocity necessarily calls for another raft of fresh legislation.
One part of the legislative package agreed at the cross-party meeting on Monday is a proposal to ban "indirect incitement of terrorism". As I understand it, this means I could write a post on this blog calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, then a few days later some terrorists could attack London citing such a withdrawal as their goal, and I could then be prosecuted.
This attempt to govern free expression carries similar risks to the government's religious hatred bill. According to the Guardian, Liberal Democrat spokesman Mark Oaten
... said there were some concerns about the "looseness of the language" in the new offence of indirect incitement to terrorism but Mr Clarke had promised to clarify the situation.I bet he did. Let's hope Oaten's critical faculties are in better shape than they were during the control orders controversy earlier this year.
Rowan Atkinson hit the nail on the head in a letter in Tuesday's Guardian:
The bomb attacks in London and their aftermath seem to have rendered the religious hatred bill passing through parliament almost an irrelevance. The recent eloquent and vehement condemnation by the British Muslim community of the extremist factions within its midst has successfully disabled much of the irrational criticism from far-right groups which this bill was intended to address.New Labour is not above exploiting terrorist incidents to embarrass its opponents into acquiescing to its authoritarian agenda. We must keep our wits about us and not lose sight of the fact that our democracy is what we should be protecting from terrorists, not sacrificing for them.
It is invariably counter-productive to suppress the expression of unpalatable ideas with legislation. I would oppose equally the gagging of radical Muslim clerics. The more openly arguments are aired, the more easily they can be ridiculed, as long as those counter-arguing can display the kind of courage exhibited this week by moderate British Muslims. Arguments must be won, not suppressed, and yet suppression is a clear intent of the bill.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
What is going on?
Has Charles Kennedy unilaterally changed Liberal Democrat tax policy?
John Hemming MP raised this fear in a blog posting this morning headed "It would be nice to be asked".
The confusion arises from a speech delivered by Kennedy yesterday to a meeting of the parliamentary party. The speech was reported in today's Guardian, Independent, Scotsman and assorted Northcliffe-owned local papers (including the London Evening Standard). The Guardian and more especially the Independent (i.e. the two national dailies favoured by Liberal Democrat readers) suggested that Kennedy had made a pre-emptive strike.
The Independent story led with this angle:
Charles Kennedy has suggested that the Liberal Democrats will drop their policy of imposing a 50p top rate of tax on earnings above £100,000 a year.The Guardian reported that Kennedy's
... comments on its tax commission hinted that he was willing to see the Lib Dems' commitment to a 50p rate for top earners dropped.So, the impression has been created that the party will drop this policy. If true, such a statement by the party leader, though technically not a policy change in terms of formal constitutional procedure, would nevertheless effectively ditch the old policy and pre-empt any debate.
However, if you look at the actual verbatim text of Kennedy's speech, his position is less clear. The relevant words (which do not occur until more than three-quarters of the way through the speech) read as follows:
We do not need and we should not seek a punitive taxation system. High taxes are not a moral good in themselves.These are thinner pickings than the press reports would suggest. And the press release issued in advance of the speech didn't mention top rate taxation at all.
We were correct to point out at the general election that only 1% of all taxpayers would be affected by our proposals on top-rate taxation.
But we must not lose sight of those who aspire to achieve income levels which will bring them into the top rate taxation band in time to come.
If the Independent and the Guardian are placing a particular interpretation on Kennedy's remarks - and giving this topic much more emphasis than might a casual reader of the speech - there can be only one explanation. Someone in Kennedy's office - with or without the leader's blessing - has been putting a spin on it.
Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of the party's taxation policy, such spinning risks pre-empting the work of the party's Tax Commission. Elsewhere in his speech, Kennedy said,
I do not intend to prejudge the Tax Commission that is now beginning its work under Michael Williams, a former senior Treasury civil servant with over 30 years experience working at the heart of UK economic policy.Either Kennedy was telling porkies or someone in his office has other ideas.
While we're on this subject, you may recall that Kennedy issued a statement in January announcing the policy review (the first of at least three occasions when he has "launched" this initiative). The Times (31 January) reported, apropos of the policy review, that Kennedy wanted "more progressive tax plans to help the low-paid".
The party had two policies to achieve that goal; one of them, local income tax, came under heavy assault from some right-wingers in the party immediately after polling day, but has survived for the time being. The other, a higher rate of tax for high-earners, now has a less certain future.
It remains to be seen whether the Tax Commission can suggest any alternative forms of "more progressive tax plans" - or whether such intentions have been abandoned.
Monday, July 18, 2005
One effect of this year's general election is that it marked the transformation of the Liberal Democrats into an urban party. Which is right and proper.
About 85% of the British population inhabits cities, so one cannot win an election without them. Moreover, cities are more (small 'l') liberal places than the countryside - and are therefore more promising electoral territory for the party (see my earlier postings here and here).
Despite the Liberal Democrats' recent success in the big cities, both in national and local elections, I have yet to hear anyone in the party positively embrace urban living or articulate a clear Liberal vision of the city.
Historian Tristram Hunt, in his recent book Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, reminds us how there was great civic pride in the nineteenth century, which was subsequently lost in the twentieth century's flight to the suburbs.
In a stimulating essay in Saturday's Guardian, Hunt reminds us that another difference in the nineteenth century was that the middle classes who built our cities were politically radical.
If the Liberal Democrats are to revitalise our cities - and consolidate their urban gains - they need a coherent vision of urban liberalism. The middle classes in the nineteenth century had a sense of civic pride and public calling. Their twentieth century successors gave that up for the mod cons of suburban life.
This fundamental difference suggests a potential Liberal Democrat strategy quite distinct from that of the Tories or Labour. But rekindling a sense of civic pride and public calling would require the party to do two uncomfortable things; first, to abandon its policy of English regional government, which acts as a barrier to the restoration of civic power; and second, to tell the people they must get up off their arses and not expect the state, the council or the local Focus Team to do everything for them.
Hurry up 'Arry
The hype surrounding the launch of the latest Harry Potter novel has left many book critics and cultural commentators in a quandary, not sure whether to praise a publishing success or disdain the populism.
It is a global phenomenon - Saturday evening's French TV news reported the publication of the latest 'Arry Pott-air as a major news item, even though the French translation will not be available until October.
Gordon Brown may have gone over the top when he declared "I think JK Rowling has done more for literacy around the world than any single human being". And David Blunkett's enthusiasm is beyond reason. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Harry Potter - whatever one thinks of its literary merits - is doing a service by encouraging children to read.
The hope must be that curiosity will lead these children to try something else. Harry Potter is the literary equivalent of Blue Nun, Hirondelle and Le Piat D'Or - a few people still drink these beginners' wines 25 years after their heyday, but most soon moved on to something more adventurous.
The one group I cannot understand is adults who read Harry Potter. This is regressive behaviour for which there is no excuse. The fact that you can buy the books in a 'grown up' edition with a more sober cover design doesn't make it any better.
Come back Gladstone, all is forgiven
Political oratory has gone out of fashion. Most observers attribute this change to the replacement of the public meeting with television. However, playwright David Hare in Saturday's Guardian suggests the culprit is the fashion for the panel discussion.
In Britain, we have long lived with the conventions of adversarial politics. The prevailing wisdom is that enlightenment may best be reached through argy-bargy. And yet in practice how infrequent it is, on television or radio, that the Socratic equivalent of men's tennis - massive slams hit back and forth from the baseline - actually illuminates anything at all. Panels are even worse. Taking part frustrates me as much as listening. What's the point? Why attend a forum in which as soon as anyone says anything interesting, somebody else has at once to be encouraged to interrupt, supposedly to generate conflict, but more often to dispel the energy of the previous speaker? Have you ever been present at a panel on which one person's perceptions built on another's? All too often, a panel degenerates into a marketplace for opportunistic grandstanding, with members rushing to take up positions, however irrational, which they hope are going to seem teenage-sulkier, wilder or more ingratiating than those of their fellow panel-members. If you were asked to conceive of the formula least likely to inspire enthusiasm for the arts - non-practitioners would be invited to sit around on sofas speaking for 30 seconds and competitively show off about how superior they are to the artwork under discussion - then you would come up with The Late Review. If you wanted to make sure an hour would pass in which no serious thing could be said about politics, then you would invent Question TimeTo help revitalise British politics, perhaps we should start a 'Campaign for Real Speeches'. When the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party has its 'awayday' later today, I wonder if anyone will have the wit to suggest that there might be some democratic mileage in emulating the oratory of our Gladstonian forebears?
Underlying this patronising conviction that no one person should be given the floor lies the idea that group discussion is more "democratic" than an individual being licensed to hold forth. My experience is the opposite. The memorable parliamentary occasions have never involved the Leader of the Opposition biting hunks out of the Prime Minister's leg. They have happened when a politician with both insight and strong feeling - Robin Cook, say, or Barbara Castle - has been listened to by an audience, both in the chamber and outside, ready to interpret and weigh the exact impact and value both of what is being said and the manner of its delivery. When one person speaks and is encouraged to develop his or her ideas, then it is we, the audience, who provide the challenge. We provide the democracy. In each of our hearts and minds, we absorb, judge and come to our own conclusions. The dialectic is, thankfully, not between a group of equally ignorant people thrashing out a series of arbitrary subjects about which they know little and care less. It is between an informed individual who, we hope, has thought long and hard about their own area of specialisation, and an audience which is ready honestly to assess what the speaker has to say. Democracy, like everything else, thrives on preparation.
Sunday, July 17, 2005
Vive la difference
Tonight's BBC1 show Secrets of the Sexes has attracted hostility from the left before it has even been broadcast.
As one would expect, a pop science programme on BBC1 in prime time is likely to oversimplify scientific knowledge. Further, the argument between nature and nurture is not new and much of the existing science remains highly contentious. However, I fear some commentators protest too much.
Natasha Walter, writing in yesterday's Guardian, clearly holds to the feminist dogma that all gender differences can be attributed to nurture rather than nature. Meanwhile, a report in today's Observer seemed equally keen to pooh-pooh the science used in the programme.
One should treat all scientific claims with scepticism - indeed, that is what all reputable scientists, as professional sceptics, do. However, a knee-jerk reaction against any suggestion that some gender differences might be due to nature rather than nurture places the left on very dangerous ground.
Scientific knowledge regarding genetics, the brain and psychology is advancing all the time. These advances are uncovering some innate differences between people, whether we like it or not. If left-wingers and liberals automatically and stubbornly reject such science, the intellectual field will be left clear to conservatives to frame the debate and thus define the political consequences.
This would mean the political interpretation of scientific discoveries to justify discriminatory policies. This might apply not only to gender and racial differences, but also, for example, to the potential use of DNA tests to discriminate against people with a genetic predisposition to a particular disease.
Essentially, the Liberal response to such science is that the discovery of innate differences between people does not alter our moral belief that all human beings are entitled to the same degree of dignity. Far from fearing the science, we should be celebrating difference instead of using it as a means to rank people.
Scientific discovery will only be a barrier to social justice if we allow our opponents to define the issues.
... a growing army - coined the 'new puritanicals' - who would be happy to see restrictions on the hedonistic activities their parents once freely indulged in.The job of Liberals is, of course, to challenge such busy-bodying views. Judging by the Liberal Democrats' enthusiasm for smoking bans, however, I fear the party is all too ready to jump on board this puritanical bandwagon.
Cigarettes, alcohol, sweets, chocolates and holidays are just some of the vices on the hit list, says a new study carried out by the think-tank, the Future Foundation.
Its report 'Assault on Pleasure' reveals that more than a third of Britons believe we should think twice before giving anyone sweets and chocolates, eight out of 10 think alcohol should be banned at work and nearly half think chocolate vending-machines should be forbidden in schools and hospitals.
The bans should be policed, say the puritanicals, by strict punishments.
Friday, July 15, 2005
New MP, old YL
Congratulations to Mark Hunter, who has successfully defended Cheadle for the Liberal Democrats in the first by-election of this parliament.
Mark will make an excellent MP. I have known him since the late 1970s when we were both in the Young Liberals. It struck me seeing tonight's result how few of that promising YL generation ultimately made it into parliament.
The leading Young Liberals and Liberal Students of the 1970s and early 80s, now aged in their late 40s or early 50s, were the last generation before youth membership of political parties shrank dramatically. Most of those who stood for parliament did so as young candidates in the 'Alliance' years of 1983 and 1987, when the breakthrough never came.
Some eventually dropped out of active politics while others became councillors or party officers. One even became a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly.
For this generation, the trick is clearly to have first had a 'proper job' and not stand for parliament until one is middle aged. Besides Mark Hunter, the only other Liberal Democrat MPs from that youth and student activist generation are Nick Harvey, Martin Horwood, David Howarth, Paul Keetch, Paul Rowen and Richard Younger-Ross. Chris Davies and Graham Watson are now MEPs, while Liz Barker is the only one to have yet achieved a peerage.
Other Liberal Democrat MPs of a similar age were not active Liberals in their youth. Indeed, youth activism is no guarantee of a long-term political career - look at New Labour. While Jack Straw and Charles Clarke are both former NUS presidents, Tony Blair didn't even join the Labour Party until he was in his late 20s (and some might argue he never really did).
Thursday, July 14, 2005
We can't blame Johnny Foreigner
Why does everyone seem surprised and shocked that last week's suicide bombers came not from the Middle East but from Middle England?
In an article in Spiked published yesterday, British-born bombers: not so shocking, Brendan O'Neill explains that most al-Qaeda supporters are a home-grown product.
The harsh reality is that these young Brits would appear to be pretty typical al-Qaeda types. For al-Qaeda is not, as many have claimed since 9/11, a bunch of foreigners brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo or Ramallah and hell-bent on launching war against a faraway West; they tend to be young, respectable, often middle-class and sometimes naive men, many of whom were born or educated - and even radicalised - in the West. For all the talk of a 'clash of civilisations', al-Qaeda is a largely Western phenomenon.The gradual realisation that the answers might lie closer to home is not necessarily leading to any greater wisdom on the part of our leaders.
...earlier official denial about the nature of al-Qaeda is giving way to something equally problematic: an official panic about the threat posed by homegrown fanatics to the fabric of society... They've gone from denying that al-Qaeda was in anyway a Western thing to claiming that al-Qaeda representatives are running rampant in the West and warping young minds.We need to understand why here, why now. Simplistic explanations about ruthless al-Qaeda recruiters - and the consequent easy, pat solutions - won't wash.
The peculiar end result is that our leaders now overstate the problem of homegrown terrorism and the role played by ruthless recruiters, while underestimating the depth of the crisis in Western society that has allowed something like al-Qaeda to arise.
The drift of young Muslims, whether Western-born or middle-class foreigners, to radical mosques and fundamentalism also surely says something about a malaise at the heart of Western society. Many of these terrorists are not made in Kabul, Cairo or Tehran, but in London, Hamburg and Montreal. Such terrorism, it seems, is less a consequence of far-away fanaticism infiltrating the West, but rather suggests a failure on the part of mainstream institutions in the West to cohere society or to provide individuals with any meaningful sense of identity.Before one can produce the right answers, one must ask the right questions. Read the article in full, not for pat solutions, but as a guide to the sort of questions we should be asking.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
An object-lesson in brevity
Amid all the hours of TV coverage and acres of newsprint devoted to last week's London bombings, this Letter to the Terrorists was brief and to the point:
What the fuck do you think you're doing?Makes you proud to be British.
This is London. We've dealt with your sort before. You don't try and pull this on us.
Do you have any idea how many times our city has been attacked? Whatever you're trying to do, it's not going to work.
All you've done is end some of our lives, and ruin some more. How is that going to help you? You don't get rewarded for this kind of crap.
And if, as your MO indicates, you're an al-Qaeda group, then you're out of your tiny minds.
Because if this is a message to Tony Blair, we've got news for you. We don't much like our government ourselves, or what they do in our name. But, listen very clearly. We'll deal with that ourselves. We're London, and we've got our own way of doing things, and it doesn't involve tossing bombs around where innocent people are going about their lives.
And that's because we're better than you. Everyone is better than you. Our city works. We rather like it. And we're going to go about our lives. We're going to take care of the lives you ruined. And then we're going to work. And we're going down the pub.
So you can pack up your bombs, put them in your arseholes, and get the fuck out of our city.
Monday, July 11, 2005
Liberator 303 - out now!
The latest issue of Liberator magazine has just been mailed to subscribers, and the focus in this edition is on Meeting the Challenge, the controversial Liberal Democrat policy review.
Highlights in this issue include:
- Duncan Brack and Jonathan Hargreaves explaining the policy review
- David Boyle suggesting that a radical form of decentralisation may supply the Liberal Democrats with their missing 'narrative'
- Wendy Kyrle-Pope and yours truly on the aftermath of the French and Dutch 'no' votes in the referendums on the European constitution
If you are an active member of the Liberal Democrats, you can't afford to miss it, so subscribe now! Send a cheque for £20 (payable to 'Liberator Publications'), together with your name and full postal address, to:
24 Alexandra Grove
London N4 2LF
(If you live outside the UK, details of how to subscribe can be found on the home page of the Liberator website).
Sunday, July 10, 2005
Fox News is shite
Yesterday I criticised CNN's coverage of the London bombings but, where CNN was merely inept, the Murdoch-owned Fox News was positively callous.
I wonder how most British subscribers to Murdoch's BSkyB, The Times or The Sun would react if they knew what Fox News has said?
Thanks to Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to the glee expressed by two Fox presenters. It turns out that these are not the only examples.
Yesterday's Guardian carried this report, which is worth quoting in full:
Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel was under fire yesterday for comments by some of its leading journalists in response to the London bombs.You can read the original Fox quotes in full at Media Matters for America. You can read more about Fox's callous behaviour at the American Chronicle and at Counterbias.
Speaking about the reaction of the financial markets, Brit Hume, the channel's Washington managing editor, said: "Just on a personal basis ... I saw the futures this morning, which were really in the tank, I thought 'hmm, time to buy'."
The host of a Fox News programme, Brian Kilmeade, said the attacks had the effect of putting terrorism back on the top of the G8's agenda, in place of global warming and African aid. "I think that works to our advantage, in the western world's advantage, for people to experience something like this together, just 500 miles from where the attacks have happened."
Another Fox News host, John Gibson, said before the blasts that the International Olympic Committee "missed a golden opportunity" by not awarding the 2012 games to France. "If they had picked France instead of London to hold the Olympics, it would have been the one time we could look forward to where we didn't worry about terrorism. They'd blow up Paris, and who cares?" He added: "This is why I thought the Brits should let the French have the Olympics - let somebody else be worried about guys with backpack bombs for a while."
Media Matters for America, a watchdog and frequent critic of Fox, criticised the comments on its website. "I think it's absolutely sickening three Fox anchors had such callous reactions to the bombings that took dozens of lives," said the Jamison Foser, of the group.
The Fox News media relations office had not responded by the time the Guardian went to press yesterday.
Sadly, no other British media apart from the Guardian appear to have covered this story yet. It's a safe bet that Sky News, The Times and The Sun won't.
PS: Fox News's absurd vitriol gets worse. See this - amongst other things, the BBC is described as operating as "as a foreign registered agent of Hezbollah and some of the other jihadist groups." We can laugh but, unfortunately, there are millions of dupes in the USA who take this nonsense seriously.
Tough on wristbands, tough on the causes of wristbands
In a posting yesterday, Susanne Lamido reports,
Islington's Lib Dem Mayor Jonathan Dearth has called on all 48 councillors to wear the white wristbands throughout July in support of the campaign 'Make Poverty History'.She adds,
Good on Jonathan for taking the initiative.I couldn't disagree more and I would urge all Lib Dem councillors to ignore their mayor's silly advice.
Don't get me wrong - I'm all for concrete steps to aid development in the third world. If one wishes to do something practical, there are plenty of reputable organisations to which one can donate money or time.
What I object to is 'conspicuous compassion', the trend for ostentatious gestures such as wristbands, lapel ribbons and ten-minute silences, all of which are intended more to make us feel good than to help others. Nowadays, it seems that people's prime concern is to compete with one another to show how much they 'care'. (Read my earlier posting on this subject).
I object not only to such ostentatious displays of 'empathy'. I object also to the faddish emotional incontinence that such gestures demonstrate. Most of all, I resent the unpleasant element of mob rule, the insidious moral pressure to conform by wearing these things.
The ultimate irony is the news that anti-poverty wristbands were manufactured in a third world sweatshop.
My message to Lib Dem Mayor Jonathan Dearth and his emotionally incontinent friends is to get a bloody grip.
Saturday, July 09, 2005
CNN is rubbish
Yesterday I read that 1,500 people had blogged about Thursday's terrorist attacks in London. I felt no desire to be the 1,501st.
What can one say? One can add either to the emotion or to the facts. The former would be fatuous. In the highly unlikely event one is capable of the latter, one's first duty would be to call the police, not write a new blog posting.
So I'll add nothing about the events themselves. CNN's piss-poor TV news coverage is another matter.
Despite its claim to be a 'global' news service, CNN has a tin ear for non-American cultures. This was already evident within an hour of the explosions in London, when a scrolling banner across the foot of the TV screen reported that one of the affected tube stations in central London was "Margate subway station".
Since Thursday morning, CNN International has reoriented its whole coverage around the London bombs, to an extent that no British TV station has deemed necessary. Even now, 60 hours after the bombs went off, CNN regularly splashes the legend "TERROR IN LONDON" across the screen, accompanied by one of its comically sombre orchestral jingles.
Well, it's the biggest global event of the week, so one can hardly complain if it dominates the news. Where CNN has misfired is in its complete misreading of the mood in London.
Anyone who has ever lived in London would have grasped the culture of phlegmatism and stoicism that customarily accompanies terrorist attacks. Instead, CNN has been trying to project an Oprah Winfrey-style culture of gushing and ostentatious 'emoting' onto Londoners. It is a picture of London that no Londoner would recognise.
The mood of London was caught far more accurately by Simon Hoggart in today's Guardian:
It's become a cliche, but what was most startling about Thursday in London was the lack of alarm. There was much resigned tongue clicking, and some anxious expressions, but even within earshot of the explosions nobody seemed too troubled. One of the gloating claims from a group that may have carried out the bombings announced that "Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic". Well, it didn't look like that. "London is now a bit fretful about how it's going to get home," would have been closer.The British are frequently criticised for their emotional constipation but, in this instance, CNN's problem is that Americans suffer from emotional diarrhoea. Also, the attacks of '9/11' were a genuinely shocking event for a people largely isolated from the rest of the world, who had imagined themselves to be immune from global problems. In contrast, Londoners are rather more seasoned than most American observers imagine.
It would be understandable if a local newspaper deep in the USA's Midwest had misread events in London. A TV news outfit with pretensions to a 'global' culture has no excuses.
Gratuitous emoting was not CNN's only problem. The London bombings have led the news throughout continental Europe. TV reporters from French, German, Belgian, Dutch and Spanish stations were, like their British counterparts, being filmed in locations close to the scene of the bomb incidents. Not so CNN.
In case any of its viewers were unsure where London was, CNN decided to set up shop in front of Tower Bridge. I half expected Dick Van Dyke, dressed as a 'chimbleysweep', to wander onto the screen and bring us the latest news delivered in Hollywood Cockney.
To anyone who knows London or the rest of Britain, CNN's whole approach is simply not credible and no British person would take it seriously. Indeed, its ham-fisted, cliché-ridden and culturally insensitive portrayal casts doubt on the credibility of its news coverage from anywhere else.
A few years ago, I was in Washington DC and delivered a presentation to some American PR colleagues about the European media landscape. Their jaws hit the floor when I told them that CNN's audience share in the UK was less than 0.01%. This statistic would have come as no surprise to anyone in Britain, where the reputation of CNN is - at best - as the foreign hotel bedroom TV station of last resort.
CNN originally won a high reputation by being the first international 24-hour TV news channel, in particular because of its coverage of the first Gulf War. Back in 1991, it had no competition. Now it has plenty.
Culture, language and perceptions are highly diverse and it is doubtful that anyone can produce a news service with genuinely global relevance (the BBC's World Service radio station perhaps comes closest). In 1991, an international 24-hour TV news station was a novelty. Nowadays, most speakers of major languages can find an equivalent international news service in their own language, produced by people who understand their culture better than does CNN.
Most media produce their messages with an imaginary stereotypical audience member in mind. In CNN International's case, such a stereotypical viewer would seem to be a travelling American businessman with little knowledge of the outside world, stuck in a foreign hotel bedroom and needing a basic primer on world events. This is a real and legitimate audience. CNN's mistake is to assume that the rest of the English-speaking world is in the same cultural boat.
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Alas, poor Newham...
What's the betting that, in the next 24 hours, at least one American media outlet will report that the 2012 Olympic Stadium is to be built in Stratford-upon-Avon?
Monday, July 04, 2005
I have seen the Liberal future and it is here
Yesterday I was passing through Cologne (as one does) and, with a couple of hours to spare between trains, left the station and walked into the nearest pub, the cavernous Alt Köln.
I also walked inadvertently into the city's three-day gay pride festival.
As I sat among the fake oak beams, nursing a glass of the local kölsch beer, a man aged at least 60 walked in to the bar, wearing only a black leather thong held up with some sort of black leather harness. He chatted amiably with some of the waiters and no-one batted an eyelid.
Which is how it should be.