Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bijou conspiracette

The rise from nowhere of Chris Huhne has been difficult to quantify. Where YouGov polls called the Tory leadership right and early, such a repeat has been harder for the Lib Dems, not least because no-one knows who the members are. Accordingly, the only real indication of who's up and who's down has been the betting markets. These showed a surprising and steep rise in support fro Huhne, mainly at the expense of Ming Campbell.

The markets, being the only reflection of intention, have therefore played the role that polls usually do, providing candidates with the most important asset of all: momentum. So, why the conspiracy? Well, Huhne rose really very fast, from nowhere, to become favourite. On two occasions (after Question Time and Newsnight) when Ming was seen to do well, heavy bets were put on Huhne and against Ming, which 'rectified' the odds (see fig.)

Conclusion? Maybe the markets can be manipulated by someone prepared to spend enough money - didn't Huhne say he didn't know if he was a millionaire? Maybe he's waiting to see if his bets come off...

South Dakota - home of the brave...

The state of South Dakota seems to be set to pass a law that bans abortion in practically all circumstances. Dr Crippen has a thoughtful post that addresses the moral issues better than I can, but I do have a couple of thoughts on the issue.

The first is an echo of PJ on this: I can understand those who, from a Christian/moralist perspective are opposed to both the death penalty and abortion. I can understand (ish) those who, on utilitarian grounds, are in favour of both. I really struggle to understand the liberal viewpoint that the death penalty is immoral but abortion is a fundamental right. How do I stand on this issue? Very carefully indeed. I dislike the idea, the more so the more I think about it. I loathe the intellectual dishonesty entailed in the pro-abortion case. Natalie Solent has a good example. Some chap, trying to challenge the emotive term "partial-birth abortion" calls it "D&X". As Natalie says, this stands for "dilate and extract" - nice. Even the term "pro-choice" is a euphemism. If supporters of the right to abortion have the courage of their convictions, stopping hiding behind circumlocution would make the debate that bit more honest.

All this apart, the practical response is that this law is, as it stands, definitely unconstitutional. The passing of Roe v Wade explicitly makes obtaining an abortion a constitutional right. So this law will be challenged in the Supreme Court, and what will happen? First thing to point out is that Roe v Wade is a jurisprudential disaster. It contorts meaning, bends precedent and invents rights pertaining to an 'addumbration to a penumbra" of the constitution. It is unworthy of a great democracy and, whatever one's views on abortion, should be repealed as soon as possible.

I don't think it will be, though. Even though Roberts and Alito have steered the Supreme Court away from the policy of wide interpretation (the constitution as 'living document' so beloved of the Democrats), this battle may too soon for such a radical transformation of the American political scene. So look for a long, bruising and unsatisfactory legal battle over the spring, before a sullen return to the status quo ante.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Oxford, Sussex, Pakistan and Fuckwitistan

Imran Khan manages to look like everyones caricature of a frothing fuckwit

I don’t think the message has got through that for us it’s far more painful than perhaps even the Holocaust for the Jews. Any caricature or any ridicule or any humiliation of the holy prophet is far more painful for the Muslims.”

So...any doubt left that rational argument is total waste of time? It's a bloody good job Jemima left him isn't it - she'd have been slapped in a burqa and forbidden from driving before she could say what-ho.

Tony Blair: Liar or Ignoramus?

It's an article that has attracted a lot of blogging attention. But the contribution of our Dear Leader to the debate on civil liberty and the role of government deserves that little bit more.

There is a charge, crafted by parts of the right wing and now taken up by parts of the left, that New Labour is authoritarian, in particular, that I am. We are intent on savaging British liberties, locking up those who dissent and we abhor parliamentary or other accountability.

As others have said: good summary.

At one level, the charge is easy to debunk. But on another level, there is a serious debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world.

He says this here, but doesn't, during the body of the article, attempt to debunk it - he merely tries to justify the increase in state power.

This government has introduced the Human Rights Act...and the Freedom of Information Act, the most open thing any British government has done since the Reform Acts of the 1830s. We have devolved more power than any government since the 1707 Act of Union introduced transparency into political funding and restricted the Prime Minister's right to nominate to the House of Lords. In other words, I have given away more prime ministerial power than any predecessor for more than 100 years.

Taking these sequentially then: the Human Rights Act has made almost no direct contribution to British freedom in the 8 years or so since its creation. All it has done is add an extra 'why the hell not' element to every appeal of every case in every court. Got evicted from your flat for setting fire to the garden and killing the neighbour? Try the HRA, you might as well. Freedom of Information - unless it's not in the public interest to know what HArold Wilson gave Kruschev 30 years ago. All it has been used for is dishing dirt on the opposition. Tony Blair has created more peers than any Prime Minister since Lloyd George. How dare he try to make out he's restricting power here.

In other words, I have given away more prime ministerial power than any predecessor for more than 100 years.

So, giving away a degree of control over the 2 million Welshmen and 6 million Scots is a greater surrender of control than Atlee granting independence to India? 300 million people over there in those days. Macmillan granting independence to the African empire? Malaysia? In what way can this be presented as the truth? It's nonsense on every level. Blair's Government has been centralising and controlling to a degree that makes Thatcherism look cosily localist. Merely denying it doesn't change that fact.

But the 'rules' are becoming harder to enforce. Antisocial behaviour isn't susceptible to normal court process. Modern organised crime is really ugly, with groups, often from overseas, frequently prepared to use horrific violence.

So anti-social behaviour isn't amenable to law? And they're organised in gangs, using violence? How awful! Hasn't he heard of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861? If people use violence, or even threaten it, they are breaking an existing law. What has changed is that the law is no longer enforced. Rather than invent a new law not to enforce, why not try and see if enforcing the old ones work?

The question is not one of individual liberty vs the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people. In theory, traditional court processes and attitudes to civil liberties could work. But the modern world is different from the world for which these court processes were designed.

I'm sorry but that is flatly wrong. The best gurantee of providing most liberty for most people is not compatible with a system that grants ever more power to the state to correct ever more trivial offences. A system that allows penalty fines for calling a police horse gay, or using the word 'fuck' in a private conversation has crossed a definite line in the relationship between citizen and state. The question is, and always is, individual liberty vs the state. To say otherwise is to begin the intellectual march toward totalitarianism.

People should be prevented from glorifying terrorism. You can say it is a breach of the right to free speech but in the real world, people get hurt when organisations encourage hatred.

People who say 'in the real world' should be put up against a wall and shot. Repeatedly.

On ID cards, there is a host of arguments, irrespective of security, why their time has come.

Great but, as Sam Leith points out, shouldn't you actually say what they are? The article manages to be patronising and offensive, bland and ignorant, meaningless and sinister: a pretty good summary of the Labour Government really.

Six Nations Round-up 3

Dear oh dear oh dear. Well, first things first. Italy continued to impress and France continued to baffle, putting in a woeful first half performance but improving in the second half. France looked flat to begin with, and must try to maintain a higher level of performance throughout a game and not rely on twenty minute passages of play if they want to make an impression in the World Cup.

Wales were demolished. They looked great in the first 15 minutes, aggressive and penetrating. Then it all fell apart. Ireland cranked up the pressure, helped by Jones going off. Gavin Henson must surely have hoped to have made a positive impression after both a long lay off and a controversial book. Unfortunately he really struggled, making important mistakes and looking well off the pace. After the game he even said he felt like jacking it all in - probably nothing more than a disappointed over-reaction but hardly indicative of a happy team.

And England v Scotland. Well, Scotland defended magnificently, making almost all their tackles. In attack they did lack creativity, with only one or two try-scoring chances in the game and very few runs. What they did well was to get the play in England's half and wait for the penalties. The commentator at one point said that the match was proof that tries weren't needed to make a good game. I'd argue almost exactly the opposite - had the game been Leicester v Wasps the on dit would have been that constant handling errors and poor conditions had ruined a potentially good game. What made it a classic was the fact that Scotland won the Calcutta Cup - no more, no less.

If I may be allowed a small hint of carping - I felt that England should have been awarded a penalty try just before the first half - the Scottish pack went down three times, deliberately, on their five metre line. When they did the same thing against Wales they had a try awarded against them - consistency? If that had been given the game might have been very different. Putting that aside, even if Scotland didn't deserve to win England deserved to lose. Watching Ben Cohen muffing a simple pass gave me an evil flashback to big Ben Kay knocking on two metres from the line in the World Cup Final. Kay had an excuse - he was a second row. Cohen (and Lewsey and Ellis who also had shockers) need to take a long hard look at the basics. And Andy Robinson needs to make up his mind who's captain. Pulling off Corry after an hour just hands an unnecessary advantage to the oppo.

So, all to play for, money for the title perhaps still marginally with France, and it's been six years since England won in France. But then, it was six years since England last lost to Scotland.

Friday, February 24, 2006

A strange line of argument

Further to l'affair Livingstone, a strange line of attack has been followed by pro-Ken bitter-enders, viz that since Ken was democratically elected and the Adjudication Panel wasn't they should have no power over him and we should all wait until the next election to see what the voters think about it.

There is something of a flaw in this argument. The Adjudication Panel was set up in 2000 by statute to adjudicate on the conduct of publically elected officials. To complain that following its statutory duty is undemocratic is odd to say the least. And to take the argument to its logical conclusion, if Livingstone had cut out the middle man and just murdered Finegold (or, to be reasonable, pushed him over a wall or punched him or something - not that Ken would ever do a thing like that) are Gavron and assorted numpties really saying that any criminal investigation would be undemocratic since the police wern't elected and the Mayor was?

I dislike Livingstone profoundly, from his obnoxious personality to his toxic politics. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see him handed down a trouncing at the ballot. If he were to catch fire in a bizarre newt-related accident a flicker of a smile might even play along my lips. But I think he has a right to be surprised by this ruling. If inviting a bigoted murderous old bastard to London not just once (as with Qaradawi) but frequently, with the identity of the bastards morphing over the decades from Irish terrorists to Islamist apologists for terror doesn't count as bringing his office into disrepute, why should making unpleasant, anti-semetic remarks?

Everyone hates Ken

Even his lawyer apparently. His major line of defense for the Mayor was that his behaviour was unrelated to his office and therefore only brought him into disrepute and not the office of mayor. He compared Livingstone to Jeffrey Archer, David Blunkett and John Profumo as others who had brought themselves but not their office into disrepute.

Poor old David Childs shouldn't consider a jump from solicitor to barrister just yet. The question that sprang to the Reptile's mind immediately also appears to have occurred to David Laverick: all those people resigned, either immediately or eventually. So shouldn't Livingstone?

All I can say is that if I was on trial and saw David Childs walking through the door I'd be asking him to leave the advocacy to someone with a touch of natural ability.

Misleading shorthand

There are some quotations that seem to sum up an entire viewpoint so effectively that they are used as a shorthand. Yet the use of them is almost always either incorrect or misleading.

In 1977 Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, made a statement that came to represent all the stale, hopeless racism of his state. It is always, always, cited as having been

"I don't believe in Black majority rule in Rhodesia. Not in a thousand years."

The reference to Hitler's thousand-year Reich are obvious, and have been made much of. Yet what Smith actually said was:

"I don't believe in Black majority rule in Rhodesia. Not in a thousand years. I believe in black and white working together. I believe that if one day we have White rule, and the next we have Black rule we will have failed, and that will be a disaster for Rhodesia."

The message is clear - Smith was not vaingloriously denying the possibility of Black rule, he was stating his preference for a mixed-franchise. But the look of the line is so good, and portrays an image of the man and the regime so close to what many commentators believe, that it is used as an abbreviation for what the writer believes Rhodesia stood for.

The other, and more famous one, is the infamous comment made by Mrs Thatcher.

There is no such thing as society.

Once again, the actual quotation was longer, and contained a key qualification.

There is no such thing as society. There are individuals and there are families.

The message is that no abstract notion of community will help, cries for 'society' to do something are shouting at an empty address. Yet the impression - that Thatcher was heartless and selfish - is too good for such an irrelevance to be considered. Today for example, in the Guardian (sorry), a comment about schooling states that school reform must:

Prove that Thatcher was wrong that there is no such thing as society

These reforms must, therefore, be based on:

family, kin and community.

In other words, precisely what Thatcher was defining as society. But citing Lady Thatcher as the prime influence for ideal educational reform might leave you excluded from the comment pages of the Guardian.

Incidentally, Tim has a piece that deconstructs the economic aspects of this piece - I just couldn't face it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

New Bumper Sticker?

I can't remember where I saw this but I think it's great:

I'd rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than driving with Teddy Kennedy

Mary Jo Kopechne was unavailable for comment as they say


As Natalie says, Darfur does seem to have dropped off the radar, both on the blogosphere and in the traditional media. I've not written on it largely because there doesn't seem anything useful to say. It would probably take a company and a half of Royal Marines to overthrow the corrupt murdering bastards in Khartoum (Omdurman anyone), or alternatively it's maybe even possible for economic methods to have some sort of success.

But what exactly is the aim here? To restore peace to the Darfur region, obviously, but how? Make the Khartoum Government nice? Can't be done. You could get the Wizard of Oz to give the fuckers brains, hearts and courage and they still would be an incompetent bunch of camel-botherers. Finish off the Janjaweed? Needs military intervention, on which more below. Starve the Janjaweed of weapons? Requires sanctions even if it were at all possible, on which more below. Create a lasting peace in Sudan? Requires the partition of Sudan into Arab and Sub-Saharan African regions. Not. Going. To. Happen. Just try and get the AU to buy into that.

So we're left with toppling the Government of Sudan or imposing serious economic sanctions. Military action would be extremely difficult, and even more unpopular. Iraq's still unfinished, Iran's just starting to bubble and Afghanistan is just about ready to turn over. Another military expedition in the Middle East is not exactly propitious just now.

Economic sanctions it is then. Except that China is Sudan's most important trading partner. They get most of their oil from Sudan and provide weapons, infrastructure and military 'advisers' in return. You can bet your bottom dollar that they'll block any UN action in the Security Council. So economics is no go either.

This is why I've avoided Darfur as a subject - it's all very well shouting 'Something must be done' and banging one's fist on the bar, but if you can't think of anything that is even possible, it doesn't get anyone very far.

Where do they find these people?

Another day, another astonishing farrago of nonsense in the Grauniad. Readers may remember the ridiculous and ahistorical defense of communism by Seamas Milne of a few days ago. The basic tenor was that colonialism was as bad as fascism, while poor old communism was just Jim Dandy. Well today there's a call from Prem Sikka for far more imperialist interventions.

I'm not going to bother fisking this quite so thoroughly, mainly because there's marginally less arrant stupidity in this article. However...

There is no regulation, registration or public accountability of trusts in the UK and it is impossible to know their beneficiaries

Apart, presumably, from the Law of Property Act 1925, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, the Judicial Trustees Act, the Public Trustee Act, the Trustees Appointment Act, the Trustee Act, the Administration of Estates Act, the Trustee Investments Act, the Companies Act, and so bloody on. I've studied Trusts Law and all I can say is that I bloody well wish that there was no regulation of trusts in the UK.

It was alleged that General Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, used British banks to launder money. There is silence from the British authorities. Of the billions stolen by General Sani Abacha, the former Nigerian dictator, at least $1.3bn turned up in 42 accounts at 23 UK banks

Most of this is unsubstantiated allegation; some of it is undoubetdly true. It is difficult to prevent people from opening personal bank accounts, and very hard to prove that the money they deposit was illegally obtained. It is, however, rather beside the point when the Financial Services and Markets Act has, however clumsily, made this sort of money-laundering almost impossible in the UK.

Anyone deterred by the light UK regulation is welcomed to 70 or so tax havens that promise ultimate secrecy to the highest bidder. Over 30 of these "fiddle factories" are British crown dependencies and overseas territories and have close links with the City of London. Britain is legally and morally responsible for their good governance but does little to check their trade.

These 'fiddle factories' include Jersey, Gibraltar and Guernsey apparently. These are Crown Dependencies and consequently not a part of the United Kingdom. Britain has no legal responsibility for their governance, good or otherwise. Whether it has a moral responsibility is therefore irrelevant.

And what do those evil little fiddlers do? Why they emcourage company formation by making it possible that

Companies can be formed online by agents with minimum fuss and are up and running within a few days

I've got news for the little fathead. This describes almost exactly the process of company formation in the UK. I say almost because the actual time needed is more like hours. There's some filing to take care of, but a company can go from shelf to reality in as long as it takes to get a meeting room booked.

And when these companies are formed what do they do?

Major corporations have led the way in developing elaborate "transfer pricing" schemes, which enable companies to allocate costs and profits to various parts of their multinational operations, to dodge taxes. Company auditors keep quiet. Western tax authorities rarely challenge this practice for importing dirty money. Developing countries are routinely fleeced of much-needed capital for local development.

This chap's supposed to be an accountant. Companies allocate profits and losses because that way they are taxed on their total real profits. It's sound business sense. Its legality has just been upheld in the notoriously business-friendly ECJ where Marks & Spencer won the right to allocate between British and European elements of their business. And how have we suddenly switched from 'fiddle factories' encouraging money-laundering to 'major corporations' allocating profits?

Without addressing the secrecy facilitated by corporate structures, trusts, tax havens and business advisers, no government will ever succeed in controlling the flow of funds to terrorists

So his answer is for Britain to regulate Jersey and Guernsey to eradicate this? One small problem (apart from the intrinsic anti-business ethos of a man who thinks it's a bad thing that it's easy to set up a company) - it isn't legal. The Channel Islands are effectively sovereign states. Their financial laws are their business. Nothing to do with the British Government.

How is it possible for someone writing a high profile comment on, inter alia, Trust law, Financial law, Constitutional law and Banking law know so little about any of them?

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

Oh, silly of me. I'm looking forward to reading their coverage of the cricket tour of India, though presumably it will be written by their bridge correspondent.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Irving, Voltaire and the incitement of hatred

Opinion seems divided over the jail sentence handed down to David Irving. On the one hand, people are saying, denying the holocaust is so disgusting that laws should be passed to outlaw it; on the other, what is freedom of speech but the right to say disgusting things?

I've already quoted the American supreme court justice who said that 'sunlight is the best disinfectant' and I'll throw in George Orwell for good measure, when he said, in what context I forget, 'To state it clearly is to refute it."

Irving's credibility as a historian, which once stood high enough for Christopher Hitchens to describe him as "not only a great fascist historian, but a great historian of fascism", has been destroyed by his vainglorious and blockheaded libel action against Deborah Linstedt. This, it seems to me, is the proper punishment for men such as Irving: to have his professional reputation destroyed and his living removed because of the wrongness of his writing. To imprison a man because of his writings seems closer to the mores of the regime he espouses and defends than it does to those of the allies that defeated it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Mozambican magazine in the news...

Oddly not one of these, though the country remains awash with the damn things. Last time I went, admittedly 8 years ago, you could pick up an AK47 for five US, and for 15 you got a cow to use as a target.

This time it's the Maputo-based weekly (thats Lourenco Marques for those of you of an imperialist bent) Savana that has put its head above the parapet by publishing 8 of the infamous Mo-toons. Muslim leaders are apparently keeping a low profile. No doubt this is partly because most Mozambicans have too recent a memory of what real civil unrest looks like to want any repetition. The fact that when I saw them the Mozambican military didn't look like they needed to big a push to take their safeties off might be a factor as well...

Glory Glory Hallelujah

In an earlier post I commented that it wasn't good enough for the Government to use the Elephant definition of 'glorification' or of 'terrorism'. Lo and behold up pops Tony to say that juries will understand glorification "when they see it". He used to be a barrister, as did Jack Straw and shedloads of the cringing little bastards. If a Labour Minister managed to avoid a job as a lecturer at a polytechnic, or a social worker you can bet your bottom dollar that they were a lawyer.

Given this degree of concentration of legal experience (give or take), why are they so cripplingly incompetent when it comes to writing new laws. I accept that I might be unrepresentative here, but, given a background in history and law, my first response to almost any question regarding either is "what do you mean by x?" If the Government can't come up with a definition that isn't a case study, they cannot have a prayer that the law will stand up in court.

The obvious points to make tend to follow examples - do fuckwit students wearing Che Guevara T-shirts count? What about a T-shirt backing Hamas? What about Ken Livingstone's bust of Lenin? Some of these are frivolous - though they do demonstrate the inherent incoherence of the law - but others are more pertinent. What happens whenever a Sinn Fein MP gives a speech? Sinn Fein and the IRA are, to all intents and purposes, synonymous, why should not a speech praising the IRA be illegal under this?

The answer often seems to be that the DPP will only prosecute in clear cases, yet all the evidence is that when silly laws give wider powers, they tend to get abused - ask Wolfgang Whatsisname or the comely lass with the 'Bollocks to Blair' T-shirt. I'll repeat my main point: if a minister of the crown cannot give a satisfactory definition of the legal meaning of either 'glorification' or 'terrorist' what chance does a jury, and if they do, what justice is there in a law that depends entirely on a subjective interpretation of words?

A hare walks into a bar...

Sorry about the long pause (aha ha ha). It was the fault of a monstrous sake-induced hangover followed by a regrettable intrusion of real life. Normal service should be resumed now.

Intelligent Design?

I should first make it clear that this is emphatically not an area of speciality. My level of scientific knowledge is decidedly low - when I did unexpectedly well in my Physics GCSE it caused my teacher to publicly disavow the credability and value of the exam - but even so...

There is very little verifiable evidence that supports the idea of an intelligent designer. Most of its arguments are tendentious or misleading and many of its proponents are creationists, in effect or in fact. Darwin's theory of evolution has compelling evidence to back it up, persuasive arguments in its favour and, helpfully, faces most of its opposition from loonies.

BUT, the key demand of the Intelligent Designers appears not to be that ID and Darwinism are given equal weight in the curriculum, but that Darwinism not be taught as established fact, but as a persuasive but unverified theory. Now, the theory of evolution is just that: a theory. It cannot be definitively proved as a hypothesis and there are, apparently, certain elements of modern science that sit unhappily with pure Darwinism.

In this context, it is clear that Darwinism isn't, and isn't supposed to be, gospel (so to speak). It should be the duty of every good teacher, from a very early level, to teach pupils how to question concepts, how to recognise the flaws in received wisdom, how to challenge perceived truth. It is a widespread complaint of University tutors (and here I can speak with a little more authority) that increasingly students want to know what the answer is - not seeming to realise that the key role of a tutor is to provide guidance as to what the question is, allowing the student to find out the answer themselves.

In this context, provided that it is taught well, allowing teachers to point out to students that there is an argument to be made on evolution should allow students to look at the data, look at the relative strengths of argument and make up their own minds. Or is that completely unrealistic?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The worst British Government of the 20th Century?

In those dark and far off days when the Conservative Party seemed determined to destroy itself in ritual self-immolation I devised a response to the dinner-party interrogation about my politics. Rather than unabashedly avow my conservatism, thereby making me defend whatever inanity had been espoused that day I stated that I was closest in outlook to the 1906 Liberal Party - limited levels of state intervention, embracing of free trade and introduction of a limited level of welfare.

This enabled me both to make any point about classic laissez-faire economics without having to defend Widdecombe or Duncan Smith. On further, more mature reflection, however, I have come to the conclusion that the Liberal Government of 1906-1916 was the most destructive Government ever to exercise office. The reason for this is not to be found in the creation of a state pension policy, nor yet the extensions of powers to Trade Unions. Both these policies, though arguable on ideological grounds, were not disastrous, and may even have been beneficial to society at large.

The area in question was foreign policy. Loath as I am to criticise an alumnus of such a marvellous institution as my alma mater (shared, I believe, with the Pedant-General), the Foreign Secretary Lord Grey was a disaster without parallel. Put simply, the Liberal Government advanced its system of alliances to the extent that full military support for France was more or less guaranteed. The extension of this alliance to Russia arguably made the European confrontation with Germany much more likely.

So the British Government, by its policies, made a major European war more likely. Now it can be argued that the First World War was both unavoidable and, to an extent, necessary, to curtail the aggressive expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. Whan is undeniable, however, is that, at a time when the peacetime German Army measured over 1.5 million men the British Army, while excellently trained, numbered barely a tenth of that number. In addition, the German system of conscription had created a reserve of approximately 5 million, while the British reserves were less than 100,000.

The British Government therefore espoused an aggressive interventionist foreign policy without creating an army suitable to support it. While money was spent on the Navy, policies were enacted that ensured that it would be of limited utility in war with Germany. When war came, the British entanglement proved critical. The action at Mons delayed the German advance sufficiently for the French and British to reverse it at the Marne.

The subsequent military expansion made a swift German victory impossible, putting them on the defensive until the Spring of 1918. It also, however, made a swift conclusion of any kind impossible, making the long drawn out slaughter unavoidable.

If the British had stayed out of the war altogether, France would have been swiftly defeated in 1914. If the British had sent a significant military force in 1914, of a million men say, Germany might have been forced to sue for peace in 1914. By committing a token force that proved enough to delay Germany but not defeat her, the Liberal Government achieved the worst of every world.

This great failing neutralises every success of the Government. Pensions were created - fortunately for the millions of parents whose sons were killed on the Western Front. Labour rights were extended - while the working classes were decimated in Flanders.

It comes as some consolation to think that the Liberal Party never again held office alone after the fall of Asquith.

Beverley Hills Veep

I'll return to the more serious aspect of 'Quailgate' another time, pausing here only to dismiss the story that Cheney muttered 'Tort Reform' as his unfortunate shooting partner lay prostrate.

However, a more sinister paralell has emerged. Dick Cheney is the spit and image of the fella who played the cantankerous police chief in Beverley Hills Cop I.

Has the United States Government policy been determined by the scariest policeman in Beverley Hills? Can we expect Eddie Murphy (possibly played by Colin Powell) to fool the Vice President? I think we should be told.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Silly Money

In 1997 I spent several months teaching in Zimbabwe. I decided to go there mainly because I knew they played cricket and I wanted to see the Victoria Falls. The economy was reasonably stable, based as it was on the most efficient commercial farming sector in Africa. The country was beautiful and the people were friendly. The two notes above are indicative of something that was very close to any student's heart. In 1997 a beer, a Castle lager with frost on the sides, bought from a posh hotel like the Meikles in Harare cost Z$5, the equivalent of 25p. I didn't often buy them there, preferring the Z$3 bottles from bars and shops but the 5 buck note was the smallest one and I can't find a photo of a Z$1 coin.

In Zimbabwe now, the same beer costs Z$50,000. The cheque above is the largest denomination note available in a country where the overwhelming majority of transactions are cash-based. When I was in Zambia recently the largest note is worth approximately £1.20 - a Kw10,000 note. A visit to the cash-point left my wallet bulged out like a Rockefeller.

I played a good deal of cricket in Zambia, and once, off to do a spot of umpiring, I asked at the bar if anyone had six coins. The response was one of total incomprehension - they hadn't even seen a coin since the seventies. The old rule was that Governments that print money face inflation. In Zimbabwe this has been demonstrated so effectively that the face value of most of the notes are less than the intrinsic value - the money isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Comments policy

I've opened up the comments section to anyone capable of transcribing the verification thingy. Do feel free to comment if you agree or disagree on anything. I'll try not to edit them, but if it all gets libellous I may have no option...

Ignorance and bigotry

Seumas Milne in the Guardian, in an apologia for communism that is really quite sickening, denies any possible equation between Fascism and Communism while simultaneously describing Fascism as morally akin to colonialism. If ever an article demanded a fisking, it is this one.

"For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. "

Huge advances in social equality? That everyone was subservient and rightless except party apparatchiks? Rapid industrialisation? The Russians used to have a saying about this: "We have huge machines that can dig out coal and ore. We burn the coal to smelt the ore to make huge machines that can dig out coal and ore." Writing for a newspaper that continually excoriates the West for its pollution, Milne here manages to ignore the uncomfortable fact that the Communist countries were responsible for the most blatant and irreversible acts of pollution in history from the disappearance of the Aral sea to the explosions at Chernobyl.

"It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment, captured even by critical films and books of the post-Stalin era such as Wajda's Man of Marble and Rybakov's Children of the Arbat."

Man of Marble was so idealistic and pro-Soviet that the Polish film company was forced into liquidation as a result. In Children of the Arbat, the idealistic Communist boy is exploited and ultimately destroyed by the Party. So both of these examples of Communist freedom and idealism are actually about the stifling nature of Communism in reality. Good examples.

"Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination."

And the counterweight argument - because any power - even a malign one - is better than the United States. If Milne had experienced the delightful form that the Communist inspired 'anti-colonial movement' took he might be less gushing (although probably not). It encompassed mass killings in the rural areas of Africa, shot down passenger planes, bombs in pavement cafes and kidnap and murder on a horrific scale. Most of the violence was perpetrated against the ordinary people, not the colonists, let alone the colonial military.

It would be easier to take the Council of Europe's condemnation of communist state crimes seriously if it had also seen fit to denounce the far bloodier record of European colonialism - which only finally came to an end in the 1970s.

So European colonialism was "far bloodier" than Communist state crimes? Including Russia, China, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Cuba? Aren't best guesses that the victims of Mao numbered between 60 and 70 million? And the victims of the Gulag numbered, conservatively, 15 million. This doesn't include those killed in the initial revolution and civil war, perhaps another 20 million. Nor does it include the 6-7 million killed in the delibreately engineered famine in the Ukraine. So European colonialism was "far bloodier" than a system which deliberately killed upwards of 100 million people in a seventy year time span? There's a word for this...

[Colonialism] was a system of racist despotism, which dominated the globe in Stalin's time. And while there is precious little connection between the ideas of fascism and communism, there is an intimate link between colonialism and Nazism. The terms lebensraum and konzentrationslager were both first used by the German colonial regime in south-west Africa (now Namibia), which committed genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples and bequeathed its ideas and personnel directly to the Nazi party.

So German politics was influenced by German history - imagine! It's a more reasonable point if one says that the German colonial experience, which included attempts at genocide in German South West and Tanganyika (the maji-maji rebellion) indicates a degree of continuity between pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany.

Around 10 million Congolese died as a result of Belgian forced labour and mass murder in the early 20th century

Hands up to this one - but a small caveat. The Congo at this point (and it was more in the late 19th than early 20th but lets not split hairs) was not Belgian. It was the personal property of one man: King Leopold. This is an important distinction. Read King Leopold's Ghost for the full story, but to describe the Congo Free State as typical or even representative of European colonialism is misleading at best.

Tens of millions perished in avoidable or enforced famines in British-ruled India

Presumably Milne is referring to the two famines that affected Bengal during British rule. The first was in 1769-73, six years after control of Bengal had been established. Culpability on behalf of the East India Company has been adduced by the increase in taxation, and the unfortunate effect of a law designed to avert famine - that of preventing hoarding. The reason for the famine was that the two previous harvests had failed. This really cannot be blamed on the British, much as Milne might try. Total number of deaths are unknown, but though to be about 10 million over four years.

The second famine happened in 1943. This was less severe and better ameliorated, but deaths were still in the region of 3 million. The dearth was largely the result of the fact that Burma, which had provided up to a third of Indian imports of rice, was at this point almost entirely overrun by the Japanese, while scarce food was concetrated on Calcutta, in an attempt to protect the city from defeat or siege.

Together, the death toll was some 13 million. Neither famine was 'enforced'. The only 'enforced' famines have occurred in Communist countries - the Ukraine, Ethiopia under Mengistu, North Korea. To talk of 'enforced famines' in British India is both ignorant and malicious. To do so in an attempt to make them seem worse than Communist countries that did enforce famines is revolting.

Up to a million Algerians died in their war for independence, while controversy now rages in France about a new law requiring teachers to put a positive spin on colonial history

The war in Algeria is a tricky one. Can the deaths of French teenagers in milk bar in Algiers by a terrorist bomb really be a European atrocity? Can the deaths of thousands of farmers and labourers at the hands of Islamic nationalists? It was a war, and to ascribe all the deaths as the fault of the French is absurd.

Comparable atrocities were carried out by all European colonialists, but not a word of condemnation from the Council of Europe - nor over the impact of European intervention in the third world since decolonisation. Presumably, European lives count for more.

So the Council of Europe should now apologise to the people of Bangladesh for a famine in 1770? And what European intervention in the Third World has there been since decolonisation? Massive amounts of foreign aid, and that' about it. If there's one thing that the Council of Europe really should apologise for it's the CAP, but there's even less chance of that than there is of Milne throwing away his bust of Lenin and little red book.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The real problem

One of the most disturbing aspects of this Government is its remarkable propensity to legislate at the drop of a hat. There are now some six co-existing Bills that criminalise carrying knives and consecutive Home Secretaries seem to believe that all that is needed to reduce crime is another one. Added to this is an even worse problem - the remarkable incompetent way in which these bills are drafted. Historically drafters were paid by the line - with unfortunate results as seen in the infamous Prescription Act (you really don't want to know). However, the current problem is less a tendency towards the prolix than a general lack of ability.

The Act prohibiting 'demonstrations' within '1 kilometre' of the Palace if Westminster is a clear case in point. 'Demonstration' is left undefined leaving the diverting possibility that a Maths teacher could be criminalised in Westminster School for demonstrating Pythagoras' theory; Kilometres are not a traditional form of measurement in UK legislation and are not used to describe areas of control. Even more derisory is the fact that this Act was designed to catch one specific demonstration - and has failed to do so through its vague wording and focus on 'organisation' of a demonstration.

The Act proposed to criminalise the 'glorification' of 'terrorists' is another case in point. Neither of the quoted terms are defined. What do you mean by 'glorify'? What do you mean by 'terrorist'? With legislation the elephant defense (I can't define it but I know it when I see it) is inadequate. Certainty in the law is the most important aspect of a well-governed society. In Britain, unlike Europe, our laws are interpreted as literally as possible. If a law says something, you can be reasonably certain that it means it. There are cases where this principle is stretched (see any judgment by Lord Denning to see what I mean) but it remains. In Europe the 'teleological' approach is in favour, where the motivations behind the law are considered more important than its literal words. This has led to an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty, with no-one being able to say for certain what any new law actually says until it has come up before the court.

Until the Government is able to say definitively what is meant by glorification and terrorist this Act should be resisted vigorously. This definition cannot be satisfactorily passed off by example as it always seems to be when defended by Charles Clarke.

UPDATE: I am reminded that it is, of course, Pythagoras' theorem, not theory. I'm just relieved this was picked up before the P-G noticed.

Henry VIII resurrected?

The blogosphere has been buzzing with comment about the new Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. The charge is that this bill will enable Ministers to re-write legislation without Parliamentary approval. Famous sausage-machine Clifford Chance have described the Act (probably in a message sent at 2.30 in the morning) as a severe limitation of Parliamentary sovereignty.

There can be no doubt that it is a disturbing shortcut through legislative control. It is not, however, quite as apocalyptic as might be imagined. Owen has quoted safeguards, dismissed as inadequate - there are in fact little more than a description of the grounds for Judicial Review. Fortunately they are not the chief restrictions on the power.

For those brave few that remain, the most important element of the Act:

Section 4

Subordinate legislation
Provision under section 2(1) may not confer a function of legislating on a Minister of the Crown (alone or otherwise) unless the conditions in subsections (2) and (3) are satisfied.
The condition in this subsection is that the function is exercisable by statutory instrument.
The condition in this subsection is that such a statutory instrument—
is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament; or
is not to be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
Subsection (1) does not apply to provision which merely restates legislation.

In other words, for those who dislike reading statute, the new Act merely applies to Statutory Instruments, in restricted areas, and is only exercisable on a vote of both Houses of Parliament. It is an alteration from the current situation, where prospective legislation is 'scrutinised' in committee (or not depending on the committee) to one where altering legislation is devised by the Minister and then voted on by Parliament. It is a reduction in Parliament's power, but not a resurrection of the ghost of Henry VII.

Mind like a box-room

I was reading something the other day which referred to the city of Callao in Peru. Instantly, and for no real reason my mind flitted off to a small snatch of verse that I remember from one of P G Wodehouse's books:

"On no petition/ Is extradition/ Allowed in Callao"

The book in question is 'The Gold Bat" but where the hell do the lines come from? Any assistance on this point would be gratefully accepted.

UPDATE: Hurrah! Problem solved thanks to a marvellously thorough (though unfortunately anonymous) commenter. Thankyou whoever you are...

Goats for Africa

For the discerning bien-pensant last Christmas there was nothing that shouted 'I care!' louder than giving as a present a goat for the Third World, arranged through the good offices of Oxfam or Christian Aid. It was noted at the time that it might be significantly more generous to forgo one's own presents rather than other peoples', but most people were happy to accept the basic generosity of the principle.

I remember making it clear at the time that if anyone attempted to give a goat on my behalf they could expect a distinctly frosty reception, not through my inherent selfish greed (although that too obviously) but more because of the inherently fatuous and damaging impact of the whole hare-brained scheme.

It seems that I'm not alone in this belief. Put simply, the argument in favour of this scheme is that a goat represents material wealth, can be used to accumulate such wealth, and provides an otherwise uncapitalised family with some degree of security. Lovely. On the other hand, the goat is single-handedly (or single-hoofedly) responsible for the desertification, soil erosion and general destruction of the African bush.

In the 1950s and 1960s, as the Times points out, the EEC was busy providing assistance for the de-stocking of Southern Mediterranean goat herds on this very basis. At the same time in Africa, colonial administration were agreed that the root of the trouble in 'African agriculture' was not under-capitalisation or even over-population, though both were indeed deleterious, but over-stocking. In well-managed colonies such as Northern Rhodesia or Kenya Government agencies made explicit attempts to reduce the size of African farmers' herds and improve their quality through Government bulls and regular dipping.

Mostly the attempts were ineffective, since cattle of all kinds were and are used as much for their symbolic value as their inherent utility. If one chap had 30 head of cattle, there was nothing for his neighbour but to accumulate 35, regardless of the actual value of the stringy beasts. The resultant over-stocking on smallholdings led to soil erosion and de-forestation thereby hastening the rural de-population and urban expansion consistent with almost every newly independent African state.

What was true for cows is doubly and trebly true for goats. The bloody little things eat absolutely everything, leaves, branches and roots together. If you want to see the damage wrought by goats I advise you to travel to any of the old 'Tribal Trust Lands' in Zimbabwe (although perhaps not just now) and see the dust and mud and bugger all that characterises them.

Faith, Hope & Charity

The law regarding charities is antique, dating as it does to the 17th Century. As such it has been significantly re-interpreted by the courts and a broad consensus now exists as to its provenance and provisions. One of the most important elements of a charity, apart of course from being non-profitable is that it cannot be a political organisation. This is why Amnesty International has never attained charitable status for its activities are explicitly political.

It has thus remained a matter of significant bafflement as to the shenanigans concerning Britain's two most prominent charities, the RSPCA and the NSPCC. The RSPCA has, effectively, ceased to be anything other than a pressure group designed to alter the law regarding animals. This has been seen most prominently in its ampaign to ban hunting. The attempt to ban hunting is, and cannot ever be anything but, a political campaign. For an organisation to retain its charitable status, it cannot become openly involved in politics. The RSPCA is therefore in breach of its duties and must, according to the law, lose its charitable status.

The NSPCC, while perhaps a less obviously open and shut case, is also vigorously engaged in political campaigning - most notably over its attempts to criminalise smacking. I'm open to debate on this point, but how a campaign to alter the criminal law can be anything other than a political one leaves me unconvinced.

Any bets as to whether this is addressed in the forthcoming re-appraisal of the Charities Act? Or will the focus still be Public Schools? Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Corruption in Africa: South Africa and Kenya

Two states, both of which were once considered economic powers in the continent, admittedly rather longer ago on Kenya's case, are currently enmeshed in scandal. In South Africa Jacob Zuma, a hero of the revolutionary movement, has been entangled in numerous corruption scandals and is now in court charged with the rape of an Aids activist, while in Kenya George Saitoti has resigned as education minister amid charges of mass corruption.

When Kibaki was elected two years ago, my immediate thought was 'old wine in new bottles'. Kibaki himself was a former Vice President, as was Saitoti, a man deeply implicated in murder, not to mention one of the most corrupt men in Africa. The Government has proved glacial in its attitude to reform, a pace no doubt dictated by the self-interest of thieving ministers and civil servants.

In South Africa, the economy is not in freefall, society is more or less stable, despite crippling Aids rates, but the political situation is worrying. The monolithic rule of the ANC is unhealthy for any democracy, and the only real opposition, the DP of Tony Leon, looks too much like a white man's party to enjoy any real multi-racial support. The fate of Zuma can be read as a pre-emptive putsch by Mbeki, or as justicvetaking its course. There isn't too much cause for optimism in any event.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The most obnoxious man in Britain

I dislike Simon Heffer. I find his choleric squire pose unconvincing and his political views more reminiscent of awful people in the bar at the Oxford Union (usually in suspiciously new tweed jackets) than of serious commentators. This post is, however, not about Mr Heffer. For, in a 'stopped clock' moment on Saturday, Heffer hit the mark precisely. All it takes to wake me up in the morning is the merest hint of Prescott. As soon as his incomprehensible bile-fuelled ramblings hit the airwaves my heart rate soars to new heights.

What is this fat fucker for? I don't usually devote this space to invective - through no spirit of superiority, I'm just not very good at it - but something about Prescott demands it. This man, this shambling hulk of furious mediocrity, is the last remaining relic of a bygone era; an era of Red Robbo and Arthur Scargill; of unbridled class warfare and empty Gramscian phrase-making. Not that Prescott is capable of that - he can't even pronounce Gramsci, let alone any of his asinine political theories.

Anyway, this obnoxious fuckwit has been wheeled out to perform "attack dog duties" on Cameron - a choice that casts serious doubt on Blair's motives. Cameron is seen by many of the intelligentsia as representing a new type of Conservative politics. Whether that is right or not is debatable, but putting up this Pleistocene pillock to denounce him in a five-minute hate from the podium serves as an excellent opportunity to remind us just why we hate him and all he stands for. His major attacks on Cameron were that he was 'from Eton' and a 'fox-hunter'. He did also describe his as a 'chameleon' but he was probably just mispronouncing his name.

So, just to relieve my feelings, John Prescott is a talentless, embittered, obnoxious, illiterate, inarticulate, unintelligent fat fuck. Bastard.

6 Nations Roundup 2

A slightly topsy-turvy round of matches this weekend. To begin with the best game of them all, Ireland against France. France were quite simply magnificent in the first half, looking every inch potential world champions. They had warned of a backlash after last week, and here it was. 50 minutes of marvellous attacking rugby. And Ireland were poor, missing opportunities, making basic handling errors, and generally looking very second-rate. And then, for the last half hour, they play inspired attacking rugby against a French team that were, metaphorically, taking an early shower. Verdict: if France want to win the World Cup, they have to stop taking off the pressure when games are half won, and Ireland just have to start games better - taking an hour to get in the game isn't really on.

Italy continued to show how much they've improved, with a spirited performance in defeat against England, who looked pretty flat and one-dimensional. The danger of having what is universally acknowledged to be an overwhelmingly powerful pack is that it starts to dominate your attacking play to the detriment of all other aspects of play. Watching England's pack batter fruitlessly at the Italian line in the first half was to be reminded of the Sprinboks of 2001 - strong, powerful, heavy and dull. In the end, however, class told and the eventual victory was more comfortable than the score suggested.

And finally Scotland v Wales. In truth, you're always going to struggle when you're reduced to 14 and Scotland were no different. However, watching the Welsh pack - so comprehensively humiliated at Twickenham - drive the Scots to their knees and to a penalty try lent weight to the adage that its the battle of the forwards that determines the victory and the battle of the backs that determines the margin. Bright point for Scotland: the lack of moral collapse that allowed them to steal two tries in the final two minutes. The new coaching system seems to have accentuated the positives, and the Scots seem to have reacted well to it.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Heirs Apparent and Crown Princes

Stephen Pollard reports the reaction of a Blairite ally to Dunfermline as being a kicking for Gordon Brown; Mike Smithson reports that the price on Brown succeeding Blair as leader has eased since the loss. Hopes that the Brown inheritance might re-juvenate the flagging Labour Party are fading.

But how plausible were they anyway? The belief that a new Prime Minister automatically benefits from a 'honeymoon period' when he seems to represent all that is new and exciting is remarkably persistent, with John Major's surprise election win in 1992 often being cited as evidence. But there is a good argument to be made that no such honeymoon will exist for Brown.

Brown is in the uncomfortable position of being the Crown Prince, and has been since 1994. 12 years as the heir to the leadership have reduced his novelty value to the extent that, even though Blair is Prime Minister, it is Brown who looks the staler and more tired of the two. His titanic sulks, though not yet in the Ted Heath category, have made him look dour, miserable and intensely Scottish. His honeymoon will be shorter than Ann of Cleves's.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Of Blair, Brown and by-elections

Well, not many saw this one coming. Commentators are searching around for who has lost most, with most divided between Blair, who is after all the leader of a party that has seen a majority of 11,500 overturned, and Brown, who lives in Dunfermline East and was greatly exercised in his campaigning. Labour apparatchiks scrabbling for a grain of good news noted that the Conservative vote also fell, from 10% to 7.5%, thus 'proving' that the Cameron effect was illusory.

Overall, however, I am inclined to pick out Brown as the greatest loser here. Blair has acquired a certain degree of detachment, knowing that the hurly-burly of party politics will not detain him for much longer. His jokes about missing a division that caused the defeat of the Government was indicative of a man who has finally realised that he no longer cares.

Brown, on the other hand, has been acting as if he were Prime Minister already for a while now. Speeches about foreign policy, policing and family have cascaded on cutesy interviews about his home life. He campaigned vigorously in Dunfermline, over-stepping his authority with regards to the Forth bridge and helpfully providing his boss with a photocopy of a Cameron newsletter.

The shattering defeat does seem to underline the point that, even in Scotland, the figure of Gordon Brown inspires little affection, and still less loyalty.

National Government

Diane Abbot has described Blair's position of potential reliance on the Conservatives as being 'Ramsay MacBlair' in a reference to the first Labour Prime Minister's role as the leader of the National Government that followed the Wall Street Crash and resultant Great Depression.

There is, however, a crucial distinction. When Macdonald was running the National Government (or at least pretending to) he was doing it with the support of a significant number of National Labour MPs (35 compared to 52 non-National Labour MPs). Blair increasingly looks like a coalition partner of 1. His latest attempt to stave off defeat in the Commons by running up the white flag smacks of desperation. How long before a Scottish MP tugs at his coat telling him to "sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy"?

Incidentally, isn't it interesting that Gordon Brown has written a biography of Maxton...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Punter spits the dummy

Poor old Ricky Ponting has shown great exception to comments made by Phil Tufnell at an award dinner down under. He has also since contrasted Australia's results since losing the Ashes to England's. Australia have polished off the West Indies and South Africa at home, while England lost to Pakistan away. Reversal ahoy? Not necessarily. England have not lost a home series to South Africa since their re-introduction to Test match cricket. Draws in 1994 and 2002, and victory in 1998. As for the West Indies, England have won the last 3 series home and away, and haven't lost at home since 1988.

So what then? Well, Australia's defeat came about through an inability to combat good quality swing bowling - both orthodox at Trent Bridge and reverse everywhere else. England are, at the moment, the only team in the world to have mastered both these skills. South Africa are a good side, but with a strike force dominated by Pollock, who bowls at 78mph, and Ntini, who has never swung a ball in his life (and has an acquittal to prove it) they aren't shooting the right bullets to trouble Australia. As for the West Indies, I've seen club sides that could challenge them, and county sides that would beat them.

All in all, the Ashes down under will be a great contest - but the edge is still with England since the two most threatening Australian bowlers, McGrath and Warne, will be 37 and 38 by the time the coin is tossed at Perth.

Funnier cartoons still

This isn't particularly new, but never fails to make me splutter. They must have known, surely?

Where's a white rajah when you need one?

Word comes that the Sarawak Tribune, in Malaysia, has lost its publishing licence after publishing those cartoons. I think it's time that a mad Englishman re-conquered the place with his trusty sloop The Royalist, and re-established the sort of enlightened rule that used to characterise the place.

More cartoons

But - aha! - of a different sort altogether. I was never a real fan of He-Man, finding the ten minutes of incomprehensible plot followed by a stern moral - 'By picking up litter we were able to defeat Skeletor' - somewhat irritating. No, give me Dangermouse's totally surreal plotting, complete with welsh twigs and perhaps the finest pun ever in the history of the English language.

Greenback: Careful DM, I still have something up my sleeve
Dangermouse: Look out Penfold, he may be armed!


However, for those of you who remember He-Man with any degree of affection, allow me to spoil your recollection with this open letter to Skeletor (hat-tip to the Devil's Kitchen)

Pre-season blues

This is always a difficult time of year. The evenings begin to draw out, you get occasional beautiful days (like today) when the plaintive call of the cricket pitch becomes almost audible, and pre-season nets begin.

Last year I only managed to get to one session (it's something of a mission to get there) during which my bowling was collared to an embarrassing degree. Later, while batting, and desperately trying to remember which foot was which, and whether I was right or left-handed, the third ball I received cut back sharply and caught me right in the inner thigh.

There are worse places to get hit, but none that manage to bruise so effectively. I spent the next three weeks with a slowly fading kaleidoscope and an arthritic limp. Sadly, even this memory is failing to dampen my enthusiasm. It is a common delusion among cricketers that this season will be the one. This morning when I picked up an apple for breakfast and, before eating it, spun it from hand to hand a la Shane Warne, I knew that the fever had struck early. It's going to be a long pre-season.

A case of identity

Living in a particularly multi-racial area in London, I have often idly wondered, when seeing groups of women so heavily veiled that only their eyes are showing, just how they manage to meet anybody for coffee or a shopping trip - how do they recognise each other?

From this excellent site I find a partial solution. 'He takes me to where my mother is waiting. I can only tell it's her because I recognise the glasses.'

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The left and 'earnestness'

Or stupidity gone to college, as defined by the master, in an essay bemoaning the tedious seriousness that defines the left. It is the lack of po-faced seriousness that characterises the right-wing humorist, like PJ, or even Mark Steyn who, while he lacks the lightness of touch that PJ attains nevertheless hits the funny bone with reasonable regularity.

The problem seems to be a desperate effort to attach meaning to every gag - just listen to such tiresome old marxists as Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel on Radio 4. Every sinlge bloody routine must have as its centerpiece how evil the States is, or why all Tories are embodiments of evil. Delicate allusions are not allowed, presumably in case someone, somewhere hasn't heard that George Bush is really stupid.

Good humour doesn't have to have a message - it's better when it doesn't. Leftists often shoot themselves in the foot over this by their insistence that there are some subjects about which it is impossible to joke. Inevitably, these are the subjects about which jokes are funniest. PJ gives the example about the one where Helen Keller falls down a well and breaks three fingers calling for help.

The leftist, humorist or not, looks at the world and sees what needs changing. Look at how many politicians 'go into politics to change the world.' The rest of us can see what's funny, and laugh about it.

By the way, what do Charles Kennedy and Mark Oaten have in common?

They both like to get shit-faced. And there's nothing funny about that.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The royal prerogative

The BBC rather breathlessly announces that David Cameron wants to 'strip the Queen of some of her historic powers.' Even the BBC aren't quite so obtuse as to leave that remark unqualified, and sure enough, a further perusal reveals that the Beeb are talking about Cameron's remarks that the royal prerogative powers need re-examination.

The first thing to make clear is that the so-called 'royal' prerogative is nothing more than the untrammelled power of the executive in a few restricted areas, regardless of the powers of the legislature. The power owes its existence to the absolute powers of the British Crown, and thus ultimately to the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. The range of prerogative powers have been increasingly restricted by the judiciary over the last fifty years, with a noticeable acceleration in the last twenty.

To the specific point addressed by Cameron - is it right for the executive to wield unlimited power with regard to the declaration of war? This is not so straightforward as it might appear, since there is a reasonable argument that the Government needs to be able to act on foreign policy matters swiftly and without lengthy debate. I would argue, however, that the prerogative is an anachronism that lacks the benefit of obvious utility. As was seen with the Iraq war, in a foreign policy crisis if the Executive are unable to persuade the Legislature of the rectitude of a forthcoming war, perhaps they do not retain the control of the House, and accordingly, cannot continue in Government.

A final practical point. Since the brouhaha over Iraq, which lets remember enjoyed the benefit of a Parliamentary vote, it would be a very foolhardy Government indeed that exercised these powers in any case. This makes it an ideal political point for Cameron to champion - it looks radical and forward-looking without making a blind bit of practical difference.


A nice little discussion is ongoing at the wonderful Natalie's site, about the true causes for the end of slavery. Options so far include the horse collar (via Tim Worstall), the Black Death, General Sherman, the Little Ice Age, the Royal Navy and the capitalist system itself. The argument is hampered slightly by an absence of defining terms.

It is of course ridiculous to talk of slavery as an institution being ended by the Black Death, since it continues to this day in Africa. It is equally absurd to credit General Sherman, when slavery on the American continent continued until the 1880s (in Brazil). It is quite reasonable to argue, however, that the required social strata for serfdom in England and much of Western Europe was shattered irreparably by the Black Death and its subsequent social upheaval. It is equally fair to argue that slavery in the United States was ended only by the overpowering military force represented by Wild Bill.

Much of the debate has focused on European slavery, hence the focus on the Black Death and the horse collar. I think it interesting to note that much of Western European antipathy toward slavery concerned only white slaves at home. Black slaves were a common enough sight in ancien regime France. Yet, in mainland Britain, which was after all by far the largest exporter of slaves, and had few scruples in using slaves in the West Indies, slavery was not just illegal, but impossible.

So my nominee for the cause of the end of slavery is Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England, who said in the case of R V Somerset "The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it." This judgment confirmed a general belief that the institution of slavery was immoral, and gave invaluable aid to the nascent abolitionist movement.

Freedom of Speech part 2

Abu Hamza gets 7 years for soliciting murder, stirring up racial hatred and possessing a 'terrorist encycolpaedia'. He won't, of course serve 7 years, but will get out in three and a half - less time that Archer served for perjury. This case illustrates precisely where the British lines on freedom of speech are drawn. He has been jailed not for what he has done, but for what he has said.

Some might find this unpleasant, or at least disturbing, but in may ways the British compromise is a classic fudge, retaining the basic principle of freedom, while addressing some of its associated difficulties. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the American jurist, once defined untrammelled freedom of speech as 'the liberty to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre.' In Britain, such a shout lays the shouter open to prosecution for any resulting injury that might have been expected.

With Hamza, what is less clear is where this leaves him vis a vis the impending American extradition order. He's wanted there for his alleged involvement in setting up a terrorist training camp in Oregon. Maybe 7 years is only the beginning...

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Devil's Kitchen

I'm going to declare an interest. I like the Devil's Kitchen. I think it's one of the best written and funniest blogs in the business. But, just occasionally he does make an error, as the Pedant-General would agree. This one isn't grammatical, but historical. Boris makes the point that all empires eventually make explicit the resonances between their empire tand the Roman Empire and the DK takes up the cudgels on behalf of the British Empire.

I defer to very few in my admiration of the British Empire, but on this the tale is fairly clear. take a brief look at the statues in London, specifically those of viceroys such as Lord Canning and Lord Curzon. There they stand, in imperial splendour, with Latin or latinate tags. Canning stands resplendent in a toga, not the standard costume of 1815.

The British Empire used Roman Imperial symbolism, just in a different way to Nazi Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was used in its symbolic form of a force of civilisation, of culture and of liberty. It was also used as a reflection of military power. This may not be palatable, though I don't see it as regrettable, but it was the case. Sorry.

Rational debate

I said earlier that I'm less comfortable writing about the cartoon wars, becasue I can see no counter-argument that should detain us for a minute. I much prefer questions where there is some degree of validity to both points of view. Such a one (grammar) is the question of sellers' packs for houses.

There are those who believe that it is ridiculous that every person seriously considering buying a property should be compelled to arrange, at their own expense, a survey of both structural and legal defects. With a house in a rising market, there may be several potential buyers, and much resulting unneccesary duplication of work. How much easier, they cry, it would be if the seller had to prepare one such survey for the use of any potential buyer. It would prevent duplicate surveys, and reduce the number of people who put their house on the market purely speculatively with no real intention of selling. It is a solution tantalising in its simplicity. Yet, it is wrong, and wrong to such an extent that the proposed benefits are either entirely negated, or even inverted.

The first point is a tediously procedural one: how often should such packs be prepared? Once a year, a month, a week? If it is infrequent, then they will be unreliable; if frequent, they will result in almost as much duplication as the exsting system. This point is, I'm sure, one that could be brought to an unsatisfactory compromise that pleases no-one - standard parliamentary procedure; my second objection is more serious, though perhaps more readily soluble. If the survey proves to be negligent, after the sale is completed, the buyer would have to sue someone. But who? The surveyor has no contract with the buyer, and thus cannot be sued under one. The seller is not responsible to the buyer for the negligence of the surveyor under ordinary contractual law. So, especially given that the potential get-out, the Contract Rights of Third Parties Act, is routinely excluded in property transactions, where does the buyer go for justice?

As I said, I'm sure that, by considerable re-writing of the contractual laws of privity, this problem can be averted. But, given this potential pit-fall, what sensible, responsible buyer would choose to rely on a survey that he has had no control over? Any solicitor worth his salt would recommend to the buyer that he get a second survey to challenge the sellers' pack. If he didn't and there proved to be a problem he would almost certainly be liable for negligence himself. So, the introduction of a sellers' pack would probably not reduce the amount of duplicated surveys currently carried out, and might actually increase them if the laws of privity are not re-written (itself no small task) .

What's nice about this, however, is that an almost equally compelling counter-argument can be made, without either exponent having to march in the streets carrying banners calling for decapitation for those who seek to mock the proponents of sellers' packs

Phil Edmonds and the heart of darkness...

I used to love watching Phil Edmonds play cricket - although to be fair I can only remember the latter stages of his career. Tall, with a beautiful pivot in his action, he was probably the last classical slow left-armer to play for England (both Giles and Tufnell are quicker through the air, and rely more on change of pace than flight and guile for their wickets). He was also, from an early stage, a bit of a wheeler dealer - just read Simon Hughes' boom A lot of Hard Yakka for a few examples.

He's also been in the news a bit recently, both with his White Nile shenanigans in Southern Sudan (the share listing is, I believe, still suspended) and now with a bit of a fuss being made about CAMEC's dealings with Billy Rautenbach - a fellow with a finger in a lot of Zimbabwean pies (a phrase which would make an excellent Google search string). The charge seems to be that Billy has a lot of previous in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more friends than is seemly in the Zimbabwean Government, including Emerson Mnangagwa, a less pleasant chap than whom it would be hard to find, even in Zimbabwe.

Edmonds has long ties to that part of the world. He was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) making him one of two international sportsmen to be born there (anyone?) and has a string of links out there. Having played a spot of cricket in Zambia myself, I can only assume that standards have declined somewhat of late. Long exposure to business practices in Central Africa does tend to have a corrupting influence. Mnangagwa has been described as Rautenbach's 'fixer' in the Zimbabwean Government - and it's even more depressing that such a character is so necessary than it is that the Telegraph, which really ought to know better, described Edmonds as a 'former British and Middlesex spinner.' Anyway, England could really do with a spinner of Edmonds' ability and class in India next month, but the lot of the spinner in modern English cricket is not a happy one...

A-List blogger

In light of the fact that Iain Dale is considered an A-lister by the Tory party, it seems only right that he gets a link here. Drop by and take a look.

Semi-retired Satan

Mark Steyn - always readable, usually on the money - hits the nail squarely on the head in this article. I quite like the idea of Britain as "the Original If Now Somewhat Arthritic And Semi-Retired Satan!'' The rest of the article is the obvious point that modern brave and transgressive artists unaccountably concentrate on transgressing Chritian sensibilities, and not Muslim ones. I find this subject quite hard to post about. The correct approach is so obvious that it's difficult to work up a good head of steam.

Some chucklehead said that freedom of speech wasn't the same as freedom to insult. But that's exactly what it is. Exactly. What. It. Is. Freedom of Speech isn't, as some have claimed, indivisible and absolute. Libel laws, laws of incitement and of slander all serve to restrict our freedom of speech, for reasons that are usually apparent and, though debatable, not arbitrary or oppressive. However, within those laws, our freedom should not be trammelled by any reference to offence to third parties.

Publishing rude cartoons might mark someone out as rude, offensive or unfunny (or in the case of Steve Bell all three) but the correct response is to snort, turn the page or stop buying the publication. It isn't to attempt to stop the cartoons from being seen, threaten to kill the cartoonist and publisher and run around like a child having a tantrum kicking your heels and burning flags (and by the way the Danish flag is the one where the cross extends all the way to the edges. That other one is the Swiss flag. Morons.).

6 Nations Roundup 1

Well, the championship has kicked off with one of the best weekend's rugby in years. I've already noted Italy's surprise performance against Ireland, where they demonstrated that the best backline in the world will struggle if denied the ball by an aggressive opposition pack. What was so nearly the case for Italy was underlined twice by England.

England are still a team in transition, with a persistent question mark hanging over the centres, but it was a massive performance at Twickenham on Saturday. They simply annihilated Wales in the forward line, regularly putting the Welsh scrum under pressure, and dominating the lineout. With regular possession guaranteed, the backs could show off their skills, without the sort of pressure that can paralyse them. Still unconvinced by Tindall and Noon as a pairing, but they have at least preserved their places on this showing. Poor old Wales demonstrated that they simply do not have the depth of talent required to withstand an injury crisis. They tried to play expansive rugby, but without proper pressure up front it looked like desperation. If they can't get a fit squad together this is going to be a long hard championship.

Scotland, on the other hand, were magnificent. They played within their limitations, played positively and focused on the major French weakness behind the scrum to great effect. It's hard to believe that Michelak was considered the best fly-half in the world two years ago - his handling errors were extraordinary and, even allowing for his injury, he looked slow and off the pace. France came into this match as favourites for a Slam - they certainly didn't look it afterwards.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Ireland 26 : 16 Italy

Very, very unconvincing by Ireland. They were run ragged by the Azurri who outthought them tactically and were cruelly robbed by virtue of a try that looked at the time, and has been confirmed by replay, not to have been touched down.

Better things were hoped for from Ireland, but their pack was sluggish and their vaunted back line was much less imposing than might have been thought. We'll see just how well England do today against Wales, but Ireland won't have caused any tremors to pass through the big nations by this performance.

A Long Overdue PJ Post

While doing a professional degree in a London University, I remember having a beautiful argument about the difference between conservatives and leftists. Eventually I tired of the perpetual merry-go-round of individualism against collectivism and freedom against security and invoked the might of PJ's allegorical skill. I went for the 'Why God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat' argument from Parliament of Whores.

'God is an elderly, or at any rate, middle aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men strictly accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well-being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without thought of a quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.'

Friday, February 03, 2006

More on cartoons...

What the jaw-dropping fuck does Jack Straw think he's playing at? Freedom of speech isn't an 'open season on religious taboos'? What the fuck does he think it means? If it means anything at all it means the right to say whatever the hell you want, provided only that your words don't directly impinge on the legal rights of others. How does this Stravian pronouncement square with Jerry Springer, Piss Christ and The Last Temptation of Christ? Personally I am going to mark this unedifying spat by frying up a delicious Danish bacon sandwich, on (Lurpak) buttered toast washed down by a pint of Carlsberg.

On reflection, I don't quite see how a proposed Saudi boycott of Danish produce is going to bite - surely it's only the Saudi Royal Family who use any of those products?

Frieze motherfuckers!

This just in! This outrageously offensive and un-Islamic depiction of Mohammed must be removed immediately and only lavish and grovelling apologies will suffice to assuage the immense tide of grievance unleashed in today's 24 hour hate. (He's the one in the turban by the way). Tip o'the titfer to the Religious Policeman.

UPDATE: Incidentally, it's from the Supreme Court of the United States in case anyone was wondering

Thursday, February 02, 2006

On Britishness, Englishness and Kipling

With a somewhat belated response to the jelly-bellied flag-flapper and his ludicrous spoutings about the manifold glories of Britishness, I have always though that the concept of Britishness is and has always been a fudge, designed to create an Imperial construct that could unify the British Isles with a view to supporting aggressive expansion (but in a good way natch). It is not, therefore, surprising to find that the Scots, the Welsh and the White English identify themselves forst and foremost by their regional identity and only subsequently by their Britishness.

I would argue that English, Welsh and Scottish are primarily ethnic descriptions while British is national. My fiancee was born in Australia, and acquired British citizenship only shortly after the Test match defeat at Lords (I think it was this that tipped the balance actually). While happy to confirm her Britishness, she is much less comfortable when described as English.

I feel a good deal of national pride in both my Englishness and my Britishness, tending to agree with Cecil Rhodes that "to be born English is to draw first prize in the lottery of life." I wouldn't go so far as Lord Curzon, who believed that the British Empire was 'the greatest unalloyed force for good the world has ever known,' but I incline very much closer to Niall Ferguson's view on the subject that John Hobson's. One thing I am sure of though, Brown has done more to disassemble any sense of united Britishness than he can hope to make up now.

Constantinople, Byzantium and Istanbul

So what should you call it? Well, Istanbul, obviously - I can only explain my lapse by reference to listening to John Julius Norwich on Radio 4 yesterday. But shouldn't that have made me call it Byzantium? What is going on? Incidentally, I recommend Procopius' 'Secret History' to anyone interested in Byzantine history. The dirty bits are on page 40 (and indeed much of the rest of the book).

Spain v Egypt

I note that Hamas have called for the return of Seville to the Dar Al-Islam. Ninme offers an exchange for Constantinople, but why stop there? If they get Spain, we should at least get Egypt and Syria, home of the Coptic and Suriani Christian Churches. And if its empires we're talking I believe that India and Singapore have come on quite marvellously in recent years...

Irrelevant, but mildly diverting

Talking about my economics teacher, his transcendental uselessness at economics was amply compensated for by one magnificent moment that still makes me snort milk out of my nose when I think about it. Picture the scene, 12 students desperate with enthusiasm and a desire to learn, confronted by our tracksuited master, casually bouncing a large string bag of footballs as he got the supply and demand curve wrong again. As a peace offering, he said that if any student could trap a thrown football on the back of his neck, we could have the rest of the lesson off (presumably to allow him to read chapter 2 of 'economics for the feeble minded'). One brave student (fortunately not me) took him on and the ball was thrown to him as he sat at his desk.

This stout fella, in an attempt to trap the ball, accordingly ducked his head sharply and, with quite astonishing force, smacked his face into the desk. The thud echoed through the building and our budding economist remained slumped over his desk for a little while as his considerate classmates fought unsuccessfully to control their hysterics. After a minute or so he raised a head that now had a large red bruise stamped in the middle of his forehead, thus proving he was at least alive. In partial compensation for semi-concussing himself, he was allowed to take the rest of the lesson off, albeit to go to the San to be checked for permanent damage.

This all goes to show something, though I'm sure I don't know what.