Friday, July 28, 2006

Political dynasties

Some talk of the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Clintons even, but news comes in of a new political dynasty. On the left is the newly selected Tory candidate for Broadlands in Norfolk. And on the right is Kingsley Wood, Churchill's wartime chancellor.

Or is that the other way around? In any event surely another triumph for the new Conservative Party! Hat tip to Iain for the news (though not the co-incidence).

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The old ones...

On Channel 5 news, just before the cricket highlights, there was a section devoted to "tombstoning", the mildly insane practice of jumping of buildings, groynes, piers etc into the sea that is currently much in vogue among deliquent children in the south.

As if to prove that there is no bad joke that cannot be made by accident, the mother of one of these ornaments of society expressed as her opinion that it would be impossible to stop the little bastards jumping into the sea. The main reason? Why peer pressure of course.

I thank you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Two Cheers

The excellent Natalie Bennett, of this blog, has a piece up on CiF that questions the decision by the FA to forbid mixed gender teams after 14 or so. So say all of us. It's absurd that in any non-contact sport any factor other than ability should come onto it. I've played a lot of cricket in my time, and have faced a rather nifty female opening bowler in club cricket in Hampshire, and an extremely irritating spinner in Oxfordshire who happened to be 16 and have a long pony tail (and was a girl too). Neither was there as a favour, both were worth their place in the side, and hurrah for that.

If it is acceptable for a 16 year old boy to play test match cricket (Sachin Tendulkar in 1990, the Bangladeshi 'keeper last year) why should a woman not play, always provided she is good enough? This is not to say that women should play in football teams, but that there should be no reason why they should not. I do, however, part company with Natalie a touch when she comes to rugby. It is true that there are some half-backs who are as physically weaker than a hulking great forward, but I think Natalie misses a point. She says that most male opposition to mixed rugby would be that physical contact equals sex and that therefore no girls in the scrum.

There's a better, and more likely a truer reason most men balk at the idea of mixed rugby. Even a brief glimpse of a game of rugby (at any level) reveals the huge role violence has to play. In the scrum devilish things go on that no-one knows, and no-one tells. The presence of women in the scrum would either be a horrendous clash between expectation and reality, or else an end to a large amount of the inherent phyisicality of rugby. Because if there's one lesson that all real men get hammered into them from the time they can walk it is "You never hit girls." I think it's better if we stick to that.

When is a child not a child?

When it makes your political point look more defensible.

To say that an article by Gary Younge is a piece of one-eyed misleading nonsense might be thought a tautology, but his latest effort does deserve a little bit of examination. The US senate decided on Tuesday to pass a law already agreed in Congress three times. Younge describes the impact of this law as criminalising young women who go to another state to have an abortion without their parents' consent, but since the law is aimed specifically at minors, the use of the phrase young women seems tendentious. Put it this way, if a law was aimed at imprisoning minors, do you think Younge would use the phrase "young women" to describe them, or "children"? Given that soldiers fighting for the US are routinely described as 'children' in the Guardian I think we can guess the answer.

To make it odder, Younge refers to polls showing that a significant majority of Americans are in favour of abortion laws as they stand but even a brief look at the polls shows no such thing. Roe v Wade makes abortion a constitutional right in all circumstances. The AP poll on the page cited by Younge asks:

Abortion should be?

Legal in all cases: 19%
Legal in most cases: 32%
Illegal in most cases: 27%
Illegal in all cases: 16%

Given that Roe v Wade, by creating a constitutional right to abortion, is a reflection of the "legal in all cases" choice, it would appear that 75% of Americans actually oppose it. If Younge can't even read the polls he cites, why the hell should be we bother listening to him?


When you boil it down, I think it is fair to say that the whole Israel / Hezbollah conflict - which has Lebanon caught as piggy-in-the-middle, is at its heart a hell of a mess.

Why however, can't people admit a few truths about the whole thing:
1) Bush was right - his offhand remarks to Yo Blair at the G8 were spot on. Without the connivance and support of Iran and Syria who make, purchase and transport the katusha rockets Hezbollah would have no choice but to quit;
2) Israel is utterly wrong to devastate Lebanon...
3) ... but Hezbollah is utterly wrong to use civilian residential areas as rocket bases and para-military command posts
4) Israel cannot continue this appalling war...
5) ... but must defend its law abiding citizens from rocket attack;
6) Lebanon is an independant democracy, parts of whose elected government is Hezbollah - and this must be respected...
7) ... but the West cannot allow terrorists to negotiate on common ground with governments even if - or especially where - terrorists are part of the government;
8) Israel must not attack the red cross or UN missions - however when thought about rationally it seems unlikely that Israel who already toil Sisyphus like against centuries of anti-semitism, would act deliberately in destroying Red Cross / UN assets (unless they secretly want to alienate world opinion more...cunning devils);
9) The US must act to stop it...
10) ... but what gives the US the right to act as world policemen;
11) The EU must engage...
12) ... as long as it doesnt anger minority sentiment in EU countries
etc etc

We need a cease fire urgently to stop the deaths of the innocent, but not to allow Hezbollah to rearm. We need a ceasefire to stop this massively disproportionate assault by Israel, but not to allow Mossad death squads to start their black arts; we need a cease fire to stop the rockets raining down on Nablus and Nazereth, but not to allow terrorists (from Hezbollah, or Syria or Iran) to grandstand as statesmen or heroes.

In the end there are no simple answers, no black and white division between goodies and baddies and the BBC and 'received opinion' in the West must stop pretending that there are.

I'm back

Sorry - especially to the Reptile and TB - for such a prolonged absence. Life has been rather hectic of late however I am now back in harness and will resume posts (stop that jeering at the back).

Very excited.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Aaargh! Missing the point again

Ross Clark spectacularly misses the point on inheritance tax here. I think I've mentioned this before, but I think IHT is one of the more unpleasant taxes. Reasonable people can differ as to whether the state should remove more taxation from a bequest made out of taxed savings, but the method, the rate and the execution of British IHT is iniquitous.

It is iniquitous not simply because it is a tax on taxed income, but because it is paid almost exclusively by the middle-incomed. The allowance of some 245,000 hardly covers a house these days, so any house-owner will almost certainly be liable. The seriously rich, at whom this tax is routinely described as targeting, do not pay IHT. There are enough ways around it, through trusts and other tax mechanisms, that anyone who can afford proper tax advice should never have to pay more IHT than he wants to.

The result is that it is those whose property have made them wealthy, but whose income is insufficient to make tax advice possible who end up paying. There are better methods of taxation, that raise more money and fall more equitably.

Clark's other suggestion, that we should pay Capital Gains Tax on property is a bit of an eye-opener as well. Given that the largest asset in the UK is property, and that our entire economy is kept out of recession (barely at times) by consumer spending based on that property, why on earth does Clark think it would be a "huge boost to the economy" to place a major disincentive in the way of anyone wishing to sell their house?

I think we need one of our resident economists to deconstruct this further.

Dodging a bullet

2004 was supposed to be the year that all the leaders of the 'coalition of the willing' got their come-uppance at the ballot box. Slugger Latham was poised to beat up John Howard (at the polls I think but it's never entirely certain with him) while the long-jawed French-looking senator for Massachusets would open up a can of whup-ass on the evil Bush.

It didn't quite turn out that way, and judging from subsequent events, the US and Australia dodged one hell of a bullet. The disintegration of Latham and the ALP has been well documented, look around here for more, and Kerry appears to have joined the same path. Remembering John Edwards statement that, if you voted Democrat the lame would walk and the sick be healed, John Kerry has gone one better.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., who was in town Sunday to help Gov. Jennifer Granholm campaign for her re-election bid, took time to take a jab at the Bush administration for its lack of leadership in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict.

"If I was president, this wouldn't have happened," said Kerry during a noon stop at Honest John's bar and grill in Detroit's Cass Corridor.

How could America be so selfish? If only Ohio had voted Democrat the age-old problems of the Middle-East would be solved by now! What were they thinking?

UPDATE: It could be worse: they could have elected a man who apparently doesn't even exist...

Strictly impartial

Stephen Pollard has been getting a bit aerated about perceived BBC bias in its treatment of the Lebanese crisis. He quotes a BBC insider as saying that whereas Sky transmit a proportion of their coverage from Haifa, the BBC is almost exclusively transmitting from Beirut - evidence of where their loyalties lie.

There are better places than here to go to look for evidence of such bias, and in any case, I'm not sure Pollard is quite right here. I distinctly saw on the BBC one reporter in Beirut to report on how Israeli bombs looked on the way down, and another one inside Israel to report on how Israeli shells looked on the way up. What could be fairer than that?

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lessons from Suez

It's the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest ever misjudgments in British foreign policy. The problem was less the decision to attack Nasser, which could be argued was both salutary and potentially beneficial for Britain and for the region, than the failure to consult or even inform the United States. The lesson taken from Suez by the British, and especially by Macmillan, was that Britain was no longer able to take on a major independent world role without US assistance.

What this meant to Macmillan, and later to Heath, was that the future of Britain lay with Europe, Dean Acheson's crack that "Britain has lost an empire, but not found a role" had hit home.

But it is far from certain whether Suez really was a demonstration of Britain's material weakness. It was certainly a demonstration of her failure of will. Possibly deeper and wider lessons were taken than was necessary, it is certainly open to debate whether the European option espoused by the Tories was the correct one: Hugh Gaitskell believed that in turning to Europe Britain was abandoning her certain global trade positions for an uncertain, smaller and less favourable European one.

As for lessons we can take today from Suez, the most interesting can be drawn by analogy, by examining the character of Eden, the instigator and principal fall guy of the debacle. Eden was the gilded heir of a long-term leader: unparalleled leader in his field, a renowned expert on foreign affairs. Yet he had been made to wait too long for the top job, long enough that his strengths had calcified into potential weaknesses: an over-strong certainty of his own infallibility. By the time he finally succeeded to the leadership it was to be cataclysmic failure in his specific area of expertise that was to bring him down. Something for Gordon to ponder as he squats over the Treasury, biting his nails and brooding over the ultimate prize so far denied to him.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fingers crossed

Just a note to wish John McDonnell every success in his bid for the Labour leadership. Given a bit of luck, this IRA-sympathising, hard left old Trot can take the Labour Party back to the heady days of Bennite "no compromise with the electorate" ideoligical purity, and leave the serious business of politics to the Tories again. Time to crack out the old "New Statesman" dvds...

A progressive foreign policy?

When Robin Cook announced that New Labour would embrace an ethical foreign policy, pundits on the left were ecstatic: at last a British administration would stop handling foreign affairs on a reapolitik basis and introduce progressive ideas into a traditionally cautious and reactionary department. It didn't quite work that way (as right-wing pundits had predicted) for the reason that life is not as simple as goodies and baddies. When I taught modern African history the first thing I tried to make clear was that no-one was wearing a white hat: there were no untarnished heroes.

Blair's subsequent foreign policy has had the attraction of adventure, without the benefit admittedly of much ideological coherence. Andrew Murray, writing in the Guardian, makes a call for a new progressive foreign policy and lays the blame on current world unrest at Washington's feet.

Iraq? US illegal and bloody occupation generating terrorism and perhaps civil war. Afghanistan? US determined to prop up a failing regime - while also sponsoring the Pakistani military government which is helping destabilise Karzai. North Korea and Iran? US pressure for regime change and threats of military action generating an unsurprising response.

Leaving aside the matter of describing Afghanistan as a 'failing' regime (though surely 'new and uncertain' might be more accurate) it does seem a bit much to portray Tehran and Pyongyang as poor little fellows who are only playing up because the bad old US is threatening them. What Murray is doing is setting up a theory of a world war: US v everyone else. Whose side should we be on.

Well, as he makes clear, the other one. He proposes three specific policies: troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic sanctions on Israel. He says the Iraqis and Afghans are "well able to sort out their own problems" ignoring what they say themselves. There are arguments to be made for a moral element to foreign policy, though not by the mendacious Murray. As has been made clear many times he and his crowd of STWers are not anti-war in any meaningful sense. They are pro-war, just on the other side.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Wilful misinformation?

I have no very strong views on the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research. I probably diasgree with the notion that it is tantamount to child murder, but am unhappy with the slightly gung-ho approach of the other side. But for the BBC to get the basic facts of the case so completely wrong seems either staggeringly incompetent or deliberately misleading.

Bush is accused of 'blocking embryonic stem cell research', and his attitude is described as being out of step with opinion polls that say that 'three in four are in favour of research on embryos if it could save lives'. But Bush hasn't banned embryonic research, or vetoed a bill legalising it. What he has done is vetoed a bill that allows federal funding for such research. There are other BBC articles that make this clear - so why isn't this mentioned at all in the feature article? The tagline is 'Weighing the political impact of the Bush veto on stem cell research' - a fundamentally inaccurate line.

Do they think we won't notice, or are they unable to see the difference?

All you need to know

I know I've posted on this before, and that it's not an area that I claim any expertise in, but the sheer level of vitriol that appears on the Guardian site whenever Israel is mentioned always leaves me gasping open-mouthed. Almost every one of the 'most-commented' articles are about Israel, and a lot of the comments are like this:

Frankly, I see no value anymore in reading opinion pieces from people with Jewish names. Entirely predictable knee-jerk support for Israel and whatever its army does! If Jewish commentators do not have the guts to identify evil on either side, what is the value of their contribution? It's just another piece of propaganda.

The term "zionazi" is unpleasant and a little unkind, but the inevitable conclusion from reading your justification for mass murder is that you bloody well deserve no better. Sharon must be nodding in his coma.

Israeli actions in the last month have had one highly desirable effect - the whole world now knows which is the really dangerous fundamentalism in the Middle East. First Gaza, then Tyre and Beirut and a hundred smashed villages have made it plain beyond doubt. The state is Israel, the fundamentalism is Judaic, the 'philosophy' - 'one Jewish fingernail is worth a million Arab lives'.

Why is it that anti-Jewish bigotry is considered acceptable? What is there in the make-up of this sort of world-view that allows only one form of racism? Why on earth do the Guardian allow such inflammatory language on their site? I genuinely do not understand.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Privatisation sand-box

Simon Jenkins writes a piece supporting the Tories re-think on rail nationalisation. The piece itself is unremarkable, but it's the comments, as always at the Guardian, that raise the eyebrows. Almost without exception the line that some services can only be provided by the state is towed. Water, electricity, telephone lines (god help us) sewage, health all must be controlled by the Government.

As might be expected, I disagree quite strongly with all of this. The introduction of provate sector mentalities, reward systems and incentives has transformed every sector it has touched. The transformation of (for example) British Airways is instructive. As a state-run service it was expensive, subsidised and provided a poor service. Privatisation created a much better service.

The idea that the Government must provide telecoms gives me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know I have one reader who works in Africa. The reason that mobile networks have spread so quickly throughout Africa is that the state-run phone system is chaotic, expensive and corrupt. It took a friend of mine seven months to get a phone line installed in Lusaka. When I was in Zimbabwe, the entire region I was in survived on one party line. If anybody else in the district was using the phone no-one else could.

Fortunately, I can fall back on a little more than anecdote. The water providers in the United Kingdom provide a perfect test case. The four regions have four different systems, ranging from fully private in England, to fully state-run in Scotland. On every indicator, from price, to leakage, to water quality, to reliability the privatised system is ranked as the best; the state-run as the worst. It's not quite QED, but it's not far off.

The death of the Seller's Pack

I hesitate to believe that anybody in Government has a scintilla of nous, but the reversal of the most expensive part of the seller's pack may point that way. As I have argued before, the seller's pack is a waste of time and money. Clive Aslet mentions a few of the reasons for this, predominantly that the extra expense involved will affect supply, by putting off potential sellers. This argument is perhaps overdone. The real reason that they are a waste of time is that mortgage providers will require a proper survey done in addition to the now-dropped schedule of repair.

In other words, the packs propose an unnecessary and expensive duplication. Julian Glover defends the idea and blames mortgage providers and solicitors for refusing to play along. But it isn't a game. A survey is done just before a house is sold: days before. This is required for mortagees to feel secure about what is an enormous investment. It is also required for solicitors not to be worried about getting sued. Unless the home information was as up to date, it would not be adequate. If it was that up to date, it would have to be done every week - prohibitively expensive. It was a bad idea, poorly executed, and has now fortunately been dropped. Just like ID cards, police mergers, Prescott's building plans....

PMQs - what is the damn point?

Blair's performances at PMQs have never been precisely assured - he was ritually slaughtered every Wednesday by Hague - but the whole damn thing just seems so pointless. Cameron asks a question that can have no answer "doesn't this show a lack of judgment?" Blair responds by talking about Conservative policy and jeering, Ming Campbell asks a fatuous and stumbling question that Blair dismisses and then a whole host of brown-tongued little bastards pose a series of complete non-questions reiniscent of Fatty Soames and Winston Churchill ("Grandpapa, is it true you're the greatest man in England?").

Why bother? What is the point? If the Speaker can't be bothered to ensure that only sensible questions are asked, and then that they receive an answer we may as well just watch feeding time at the zoo for all the enlightenment it provides. As it is, all that we get out of it is a reflection of party morale by how hard they wave order papers and shout. Marvellous.

Mind you Cameron's joke about getting Blair to answer questions (mentioning Scotland Yard) was pretty good.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Casual abuse

Anyone who has spent any time reading the Comment is free site at the Guardian will be unsurprised that the main reaction to the arrest of Lord Levy has been one of Jewish conspiracies and Zionist plots. Every article referring, even tangentially, to Israel at the site leads inexorably to two hundred comments about ow the evil Jews rule the world.

David Hirsh attempts to confront this unpleasant attitude here, listing a number of points he's making. One of them made me double take:

(3) The comments box is a Guardian space, not a BNP space or a Jihadi Islamist space or a Daily Telegraph space.

So those three entities are synonymous? Or equivalent? It is apparent to anyone with even half a brain that currently the more the political viewpoint moves to the left, the greater the risk of anti-semitism. There are no Hizb-ut-Tahir columnists writing for the Telegraph, which of course employed Barbara Amiel and until recently was in a stable of papers with the Jerusalem Post. Hirsh is being offensive both in his intent and in his stupidity. Incidentally, the first three comments to an other Comment... piece on how Britain had military plans for war with Israel in the 1950s all lament the fact that such a war never took place, and call for it to happen now. Anti-semitism? Not at the Guardian surely.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Clash of civilisations

It would be hard to find a confrontation between two teams that were more different in culture, approach and style than the game tomorrow between England and Pakistan. The Pakistan team is now extremely bound up in its religious identity. Yousuf Youhana has converted, becoming Mohammed Yousuf, and even the only non-Muslim in the squad, the Hindu Danish Kaneria, liberally salts his conversation with inshallah. England, on the other hand, are a supreme reflection of a secular society, although significantly more appealing than their footballing counterparts.

Does any of this matter? It's true that series between the two sides have attracted more than their share of controversy, from ball-tampering to dodgy umpires (it is not Parliamentary language to refer to a member as a 'Pakistani Umpire'), but is there anything to read into it? Osam Samiuddin believes so.

Much of his piece is an unexceptional rehearsal of history, but one or two points caught my eye.

England's heroes have been plodding, but with innate goodness and uprightness of spirit - a Colin Cowdrey or a David Gower. Their villains have been pantomime - racist, colonialist and obnoxious like Mike Gatting and, of course, Ian Botham.

Now, there is no way that anyone with half an eye and a tenth of a brain could describe David Gower, the supreme elegant left hander as 'plodding'. Colin Cowdrey may have been a bit on the large side, but his strength as a cricketer was timing and technique. To describe either of these as plodding is ridiculous. John Edrich. Geoff Boycott. Mike Atherton maybe. These could be described as 'plodding', though not as heroes.

It's also extemely tendentious (not to mention defamatory) to casually dismiss Gatting and Botham as pantomime villains, and as being racist colonialists. In what possible way is Mike Gatting a colonialist? What point is being made here? That he seeks to dominate foreign cultures? That he is himself an empire? He's bigger than some of the former British colonies admittedly. The line against Gatting rests on one incident.

And how many captains have, like Mike Gatting, vigorously indulged in a finger-pointing slanging match with an umpire? Faisalabad, as Simon Barnes argues, revealed nothing more than an absolute refusal by an Englishman to bow to a Pakistani authority.

Alternatively, it involved an umpire so strictly neutral that he used to officiate wearing a Pakistan sweater accusing Gatting, quite unfairly as a 'fucking cheating cunt' as the opening shot. That's not authority, that's offence.

What, too, to make of reverse swing? Righteously condemned as an illegal concoction of bottle-tops and fingernails in 1992 when Wasim and Waqar were rampant, it is now an art form to be marvelled at. In 13 years, like an ex-con it has undergone a complete and successful rehabilitation. On the back of reclaiming the Ashes, it has become legit.

Pakistan bowlers were caught, on camera, altering the surface of the ball using their fingernails. Sarfraz Nawaz allegedly admitted to taking a bottle-top onto the field of play in order to do do this quicker. England's bowlers last summer relied on keeping one side shiny, and one side dry. No artificial help needed. I'd say read the whole thing, but ultimately there's little to recommend it unless you like cheap accusations of racism against individuals followed by cheaper accusations of racism against an entire country.


Levy does the long-awaited perp walk! Guido has been banging on about this for months - so credit where credit is due. It's hard to see how Downing Street can distance this from Blair - Levy is a personal friend, fund-raiser and tennis partner to the PM. The absurd attempt to dismiss it as purely a personal matter when Levy is envoy to the Middle East and has a desk at the Foreign Office will not hold water.

Hard to know, however, just how much further this has to run. One thing's certain though: there's no point reading Nick Robinson if you want to find out...

Nothing to hide?

Following the widespread media sneer at Cameron's "Hug a Hoodie" speech the other day, I have been having a bit of a think about this much-debated sartorial issue. As anyone who lives in a built up area will agree, clusters of swearing, spitting and behooded youths are intimidating and, whether justlifiably or not, give the impression to passers by that they are contemplating or have just been engaged upon a mini crime spree. There is something about the furtive nature of the Hoodie. He can see you (and size up what you are wearing or carrying and who is with you), but you can't see him. In fact, you'd be lucky to catch a glimpse of his nose or eyebrows, even if you were brave enough to risk a quick sideways glance in his direction (never an obvious look, unless you're looking for a fight).

Defenders of the hoodie point out that Hoodies are merely trying to protect their identities, in a reaction to the fact that we are, as the inhabitants of these fair isles, among the most photographed people in the world. In fact, William Rees- Mogg writing in the Times in January states that "Britain has four million CCTV cameras, which gives the UK a quarter of the world’s cameras to photograph 1 per cent of the world’s population."

And I would tend to concur with this reasoning. Why should the local Council, the police, petrol station owners, shopkeepers, your pervy neighbour, etc, be entitled to record your image and whereabouts on their CCTV cameras? This rings especially true if you are doing nothing wrong.

The problem is, a significant (albeit small) number of Hoodies cover their identities precisely because they are considering doing something wrong. These thugs are well aware that in order to secure a conviction of crime, the police are going to have to produce some proof that they were involved. In the absence of witness testimony, a grainy CCTV image of a hooded figure at the crime scene might just fail to nail the defendant.

I disagree with the governmental line which is being used to justify everything from ID cards, databases, increased CCTV, phone tapping, etc, that if you nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear, however, I do think it somewhat fictitious and downright naive to pretend that Hoodies are simply troubled youths in need of some TLC. Come on Mr Cameron, do you seriously believe that someone who chooses to wear a hooded top, in the middle of Summer, is not up to no good? We don't.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Since Iain has become a media darling (or slut depending on your allaegiance) a strange thing has happened to his comments. Once predominantly a bit of an echo-chamber, though not in a particularly sycophantic way, they do now see a lot of contrary comments. I reckon someone at Millbank (or wherever they live now) has put out an all systems call to comment.

Unfortunately, as almost every single one of the comments that support the Government and blame the Conservatives are styled as 'anonymous' its hard to be sure, but this lot:

We are all groaning under the new 18th century monopolists created by Thatcher-Major and have no appeal and no recourse. Anon

well said anon. there's also the point that GNER / Sea Containers donate to the Tories as well......

There's a place for you on the Daily Mail newsdesk just waiting to be filled! Anonymous

It just seems to me that if you're going to put a NuLab point of view on a Tory blog it's better to put some sort of name on it - it's a lot easier to dismiss an anonymong.

Here we go again...

Mumbai has been rocked by a series of terrorist bombs on its train network. Timed to explode at the peak of the evening rush hour, to catch innocent commuters on the way home, the incident has all the hallmarks of a now-traditional Islamist outrage. No-one has claimed responsibility as yet, but the last lot of bombs in Mumbai were linked to the Kashmiri militants.

Just two thoughts on this. Firstly, I hope to goodness General Musharaf's hand will be forced to crack down on the terrorist groups, which are armed and trained by the ISI in any case. The second is that the Indian Government will by measured in its response. The last thing we need is for a nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Last year

I was tangentially involved, through my fiancee who got on the tube at Edgware Road and was under Kings Cross on the way to Liverpool Street when the bombs went off. Looking back my overwhelming impression is of attempting to control a sense of panic, and feverishly checking websites for news.

I'd refer anyone to Rachel's blog. She manages to convey a sense not of anger, but of a search for understanding. Not for the perpetrators so much as for herself. I won't pretend to understand all she went through, but I would just like to tip the hat in genuine respect.

Best not to read the comments in this piece though. There are times when I wonder about the collective sanity of people on the net...

Blogs and libel

People are starting to notice what's being said on these things. The rather chilling advice of 'friends of Prescott' (now there's a club that could meet in a phone box) was to "sue or close down" websites naming names. Tom Paine has mused that libel cases may prove to be the end of the British blog. He specifically names Guido as at risk, since his readership is now larger than Private Eye's. There are two reasons why British political bloggers shouldn't worry, and one why they should. The bad stuff first.

Libel is best used as a threat. Establish a reputation for litigiousness and people will hesitate before attacking you, no matter how well-founded their attacks might be. Robert Maxwell did this to great effect in the 1980s, and George Galloway does the same thing now. However, for this to be effective, the subject of the defamation must have deep pockets, and no sense of shame. This is a shorter list than it used to be. Tom writes about 'wealthy supports of Labour' funding actions. I'm not sure this is a problem: it is not possible to defame 'Labour' only individuals. If a Labour politician received financial contributions to fight a legal case, that would be as big a scandal as whatever he was suing. It is a worry, but at present no more than that; and there is better news as well.

The first is the man of straw point. Since very few bloggers have any money, the suer must be prepared for the fact that he will not even recover his own costs, let alone damages. So he'd need to be incredibly vindictive - a point frowned on by judges and juries alike.

The second will principally be of comfort to the Devil's Kitchen, who seems a touch concerned that it is "unlikely that any jury would agree that repeatedly calling Prescott a fat, ignorant, corrupt, sexually-aggressive cunt is "fair comment" No they probably wouldn't. But I'm pretty sure that this is 'vulgar abuse' instead, so that's all right. Bloggers who like to insult and be generally rude about their targets have little to fear from the libel courts.

The final point is that the other preferred weapon of the legal bullies, the injunction, has been proved to be ineffective over blogs. When Guido published the fake sheik's photo it was in spite of an injunction against the British press doing any such thing. But Blogger is a US company, and it's legal representation is in the Cayman Islands. British injunctions have no legal effect, as Ferrer's were forced to accept.

Is it time to lay off Prescott?

#1 in a series of questions to which the answer is no.

The Times, the Guardian, even the Telegraph have articles declaring close season on Prescotts. All of them say that it's time to stop probing into the DPM's personal life; that further attacks are mean-spirited and hypocritical and that the BBC had no right even to ask him to deny rumours. A slight whiff of sour grapes is detectable in the tone of much of this: this story is being driven by the blogs, predominantly Iain Dale and Guido, and the MSM have yet to come to terms with the style and nature of the blogosphere.

More disconcertingly, the tone seems to be that it's just not fair to pick on Prescott. Whose concern is his personal life anyway? It's a point, and yet not a very good one. It is ridiculous that if Prescott had been a start of Coronation Street every one of his tawdry affairs would have been published instantly, on suspicion, and yet his elevated title seems to make him immune from press speculation. It is also richly ironic that the self-styled scourge of Tory sleaze should seek privacy for himself when the tables are turned.

But the point that everyone seems to be missing is that Prescott's infidelities are inextricably connected with his failings as a minister. The women were in his office, subordinate to him. To have affairs, and to offer preferment in return is not just unpleasant for aesthetic reasons, but for legal/ethical ones as well. To ignore a story of this significance is a deriliction of duty. To attempt to downplay the allegations as coming from 'Tory blogs' is fatuous. It isn'y time for us to lay off Prescott, but for Prescott to be laid off.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

English votes on English matters?

Ken Clarke has said that the fairest solution to the West Lothian question would be for MPs representing Scottish constituencies to be ineligible to vote on matters that do not affect their constituents. Otherwise the anomaly remains that measures that affect only England and are opposed by a majority of English MPs are nonetheless voted in on the strength of MPS who are unaccountable to their constituents.

This has already happened with tuition top-up fees, where the Labour majority of 5 included some 20 Scots, whose constituents had no dog in the fight. So, as a solution to Tam Dalyell's old question, how does it stack up? Well, the Labour Party are unhappy, as are the Lib Dems. A variety of arguments are used, that range from the trivial, to the wifully wrong-headed via a few reasonable ones.

Tony Blair (I suppose we ought to start with him) has said that the plan is a 'constitutional abortion'. Presumably that means he's in favour. Wait, I've double checked and he thinks this is a bad thing, in flagrant disregard of an electorate's right to choose. Disgraceful. Blair thinks that the entire British constitution, about which I waxed so lyrical, is predicated on not having two classes of MPs. Well, he should probably have thought about that before he created the current system, which creates two classes of MP.

The current system, as has been said many times, is ridiculous. It is inequitable for it to continue in the same way. Something must be done ((c) Daily Mail). The Tories have come up with a solution that will have absolutely no financial cost, and yet seeks to address the main issue. Blair has derided it as detrimental to the greater Union, but from the man who has done more than anyone since Bonnie Prince Charlie to diminish that Union such words are meaningless.

Lets look further at contrary arguments, stretching our gaze to the blogs that the BBC hateso much. Some chap called Alex Wilcox, a Lib Dem, attacks Clarke's idea thus:

So, let’s recap: it’s wrong for Liberal Democrats to point out Four Jobs Bob isn’t local to Bromley because he lives somewhere completely different – which is a statement of fact. But it’s all right for the Conservatives to say the leader of a country that’s a union of different nations can only come from the bit that the Tories have all their votes in, ruling out Scots not because of their ability or their ideas but simply because of where they live.

This objection appears to be based on the fact that it is unfair for the Tories to object to a Scottish Prime Minister because that would be racist. I'll attempt to address this point with a modicum of seriousness. There is of course no problem with a Scot becoming Prime Minister. Indeed, Cameron is a very Scottish name. The argument is not on where they were born, but where they are representative MPs. It is a philosophically harder point as to whether an MP should become leader of a country where his constituents are hardly affected by the laws he passes but where the people who are affected are not his constituents. When the British did that in India it was called Empire.

I assume Alex is exaggerating for comic effect. Ha ha ha. It is important to stress that the idea of English votes on English matters is not in any sense racist. As someone said, there is no issue with what nationality an MP is, merely where his constituency is.

More serious complaints have come from more interesting bloggers. Particularly MatGB, who I must get round to blog-rolling. Mat also uses the constitutional argument - that the introduction of differential voting rights is an affront to the constitution. But I think he misses a few key points.

The UK constitution, on paper, simply doesn't work, it makes no sense. But in reality, we know it has worked for centuries. Squaring the circle of competing demands is difficult. Trying to brush it under the carpet as the Tories are doing isn't the way to deal with it.

Well, of course the constitution doesn't work on paper: it's unwritten. More seriously, the damage that it is claimed the Tories would do to the constitution by intriducing differential voting rights has already happened thanks to devolution. What the Tories are proposing is an imperfect solution to an intractable problem: now that really is the spirit of the constitution.

The final area of opposition I would like to deal with comes from a blog that is, shamefully, new to me, though I have noted the sterling work it has done over the Prescott business. The Ministry of Truth, for it is he, has pointed out that the Tory plan might lead to a situation where:

[A party] has the parliamentary mandate and majority to form a government unaided by any other party, and therefore the power to introduce legislation as sees fit, only for it to be entirely unable to pursue that legislation when it comes to English issues by virtue of being in the minority in the face of an English Lib-Dem/Tory coalition in the House of Commons.

Well yes, that's democracy. In such circumstances, a party would be unable to pass legislation that was opposed by the majority of English elected MPs. What's the problem here? In such a case the ruling part would have to seek consensus in matters in which it did not automatically command a majority. Is this really a problem. Is it really better for a non-majority party to force legislation through with the votes of unaffected members?

As so often with Cameron's Conservative Party I am forced to put some words into their mouth. Jeeze, if I don't who's gonna? If some matters only affect England (or England and Wales in the case of legal matters) why should Scottish MPs, whose constituents are unaffected, have a say? What reason is there? The only ones I've heard are the 'it'll break up the Union!' which is absurd, and the 'it's racist!' which is ridiculous. Ultimately the frenzied Labour/Lib Dem opposition looks like the famous Christmas Bill, voted down by an organised Turkish majority in 1877.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Hurrah for the British Constitution

And not just because I couldn't pronounce it on Saturday night. I've been thinking (slowly of course) in my absence about matters both high and weighty. What shade of duck-egg for the bedroom? Why does Nadal wear a singlet to play tennis? How much is the bathroom going to cost? Is an unwritten constitution more desirable than a written one? Just one of these is the subject of tonight's post, and luckily for all of you it's the last one (though if anyone knows any Polish plumbers...).

The American Constitution is a thing of beauty; perhaps the greatest and most permanent product of the Enlightenment. It's language is concise, and even melodic. What it conveys is simple in its construction, and beautiful in its simplicity. The British Constitution is ever-changing, undefinable, a fudge, a compromise. Yet it is also peculiarly effective. I would much rather our current system, whereby all the Constitution does is provide parameters of power, than the situation in the States, where misinterpretation causes conflicts irremediable by the will of the people. I will try to explain why I prefer it this way; but it should be borne in mind that most of this is extemely subjective: I am absolutely not advocating the Westminster model for adoption abroad - of which more later.

1. If we were to adopt a written constitution now does anyone believe that it would have the stark elegance of "We the people..."? As a reference I cite the godawful monstrosity of the European Constitution - that was described by one of its authors as literally unreadable. This leads me to my first point. An ideal written constitution should be more remarkable for what it doesn not say than for what it does. Any document that includes policy on transport or even education is unsuitable. With the managerialist, worthy types currently in power, (of any party and of none) a British constitution would be prolix and banal.

2. A written constitution would merely embody the prejudices of the day. This is the point the fragrant Natalie was making when she said that she wouldn't mind an old constitution, but would hate a new one. By definition, a constitution is a founding document; a document that embodies the character of the nation. What do you reckon this lot would give us?

3. For me the most important reason I don't want a written constitution is that it removes entire areas of policy, philosophy and ethics from public debate. Looking at America, the main reason that abortion is as divisive as it is, is that it has been enshrined as an ersatz constitutional right. If it were the preserve of public debate, and State law, I cannot belive it would be as corrosive an issue as it is now. The correct place to debate national law is in Parliament, not in a Supreme Court. This argument stands even when the legislators are incompetent, venal idiots. We can chuck those bums out eventually. We can't deselect judges (in fact it's almost impossible even for the incompenent, venal jackasses). With a written constitution interpreted by judges, the final arbiter of the laws of the country is removed from public accountability.

4. There are three reasons why I don't want a written constitution. A reason why I do want an unwritten one is that it provides a better framework for Government. It is a system primarily based on precedent, tradition and decency (which explains why it has taken such a pounding recently). But there is always one recourse for those unhappy with a decision of government - elect a new one.

Four reasons, sort of, with which one can disagree if one chooses. But the underlying theme here is that an unwritten constitution is fundamentally more democratic. The US constitution seen above is elegant and brief. The Diceyan explanation of the British constitution is briefer and perhaps more elegant still. As put by one law lord (Eldon?) "The legislature write the law; the executive carry out the law; and the judiciary interpret the law." I rather like that idea.

Scots, Welsh, Irish...European?

There's been an awful lot of hooh-hah about nationalism in these islands of ours recently, prompted by the World Cup. It's been an established fact for as long as I can remember that Scotland will support anyone who plays England, even in cricket for God's sake. I suspect the same is true for the Welsh, and probably for the Irish, though probably not Ulstermen. It's never particularly bothered me, though it can get a bit vitriolic.

I obviously concur with DK's views on the sort of scum who beat up children for wearing an England kit, and I was mildly surprised by the Newsnight feature that showed a car with England flags having its windscreen and windows kicked in after 20 minutes parked in daylight on a Glasgow street, but to be honest, the strength of feeling leaves me vaguely baffled.

I got home from Henley on Saturday (but my dear chap where else...) depressed about the football, albeit somewhat tired and emotional as well, but when I saw that a Scot had beaten the third seed at Wimbledon I was genuinely delighted. I read today in the Guardian that it is or should be debatable whether Englishmen should support Murray or not. It's nonsense. He's a fantastic player from the home islands. No question.

In rugby (which is the best way to look at this because of the Six Nations) one is forced to put a hierarchy on support for the nations. Obviously I'd support anyone over France, and England over anyone, but in home nation tussles I have little partisan spirit at all. When the same nations play foreign teams, my natural support lies with the home nation.

Interestingly, but hardly surprisingly, if there is no home interest, my support will always go to the 'anglosphere' nation (except New Zealand maybe, but it's not like they need it). I feel a greater affinity to Australia than Austria, to South Africa than Spain. I suspect most Brits feel the same. Which rather makes a mockery of our shared European culture and heritage n'est-ce pas?

UPDATE: Curse of the Reptile! That leaves rather a poser as to who to support now. Supporting Federer seems wrong somehow (cf New Zealand) even though he is the most talented. Any suggestions?

Hunger in Africa

A rather flaccid article on Comment is Free about hunger in Africa, Malawi in particular, that points out that, even though there is no longer a 'food shortage' there is still a great deal of hunger. The only reason offered is that the country is chronically poor. I have every sympathy for Malawi and Malawians. They are still recovering from the economic mismanagement of Hastings Banda, and have in any event always been poor.

But there are specific reasons why Southern Africa remains not only poor but starving. The most immediate and dramatic is the AIDS epidemic. It's the cruellest disease in Africa, though malaria kills more, because it takes the adults at their most productive, leaving orphans and grandparents. Shorn of the hard-workers, the basic inadequacy of African agriculture is left cruelly exposed. This inadequacy is rooted in two causes: one cultural and one political.

The cultural problem is that land tenure has always been either communal, or strictly inherited. Nothing so very bad in this, perhaps, but the outcome has been for an average plot size of an acre or less: just enough for a patch of mealies and few bloody goats.

This is exacerbated by the political problem. Most African Governments are either still avowedly Marxist (Mozambique, Zimbabwe) or quasi-Marxian in their land policies. The effect is that security of tenure of land is almost non-existent (it is illegal to own land in Mozambique and Zambia: all done on leases). Africa has never been surveyed for this, and as a result, no-one can use their land as capital, and even if they could there is little incentive to improve it, as there is no guarantee that it will be yours for the long, or even medium term.

By all means abolish the CAP, that really does more than anything to make meaningful African growth impossible, but be aware that a good deal of the underlying problem is domestic, and the only people who can resolve it are Africans themselves. Pith helmets worked OK last century, but aid workers make unconvincing and ineffective imperialists.