Friday, March 30, 2007

Of plastic turkeys and poison gas

There's a predictable enough piece in the Guardian today - arguing basically that Iran's treatment of the kidnapped British sailors is fair enough really because of Guantanamo Bay. I can't be bothered going through it, we know all the arguments already, but there is one point that I've seen repeated use of recently that I'd like to challenge.
We all know in our bones that soldiers and civilians in revolt don't mix. Ask any historian. Ask them about what British soldiers did in Kenya, French soldiers did in Algeria, and Americans in Vietnam. While you're at it, ask them what the RAF did in Iraq under British rule in the 1920s (gassed Kurds, in case you've forgotten).
This leads us to Factchecking Pollyanna's interesting question of whether it's possible to forget something that isn't true. The evidence for British use of poison gas in Iraq in the 1920s is usually taken from a speech given by a US Representative Henry Gonzalez (main claim to fame: a 36 hour filibuster to talk out a bill on segregation). He seems to have based his claim on the fact that planes were used against to put down a revolt by the Kurds and that Churchill considered the use of poison gas - therefore poison gas was used from planes.
However, given that the Italian use of poison gas from planes against the unfortunate Abyssinians was widely documented at the time as the first time planes had been used in such a way, it seems extremely unlikely that, 15 years earlier, British planes were being used for that purpose. In short: there is absolutely no evidence that the British used gas at all against the Kurds, and it is moreover extremely unlikely that gas was deployed from planes. In short, unless there is positive proof that this did occur, it is safe to assume that it didn't.
It makes a nice story though for people like Ronan Bennett, because it fits so nicely with their opinions. Like the infamous plastic turkey - a story that seems too good to be true becomes accepted as fact, even though it isn't actually true.

When you only have a hammer

Fabian over at Mediocracy is justifiably enraged by the Government proposal to raise the school leaving age to 18. Perhaps the reasons people are finding it hard to get too worked up over this proposal are two fold. The first is that this is wholly typical of this Government: it's a bureaucratic response to a non-bureaucratic problem. The ne plus ultra of this approach is the drive to expand take-up of higher education. The reasoning, more or less, was 'Graduates earn much more than non-graduates. Therefore, if everyone was a graduate, everyone would earn much more.' It looks lovely and neat on paper, and ignores the laws of supply and demand.
In this case the problem is that too many children leave school unable to read or to write to the requried standard. The solution is 'People who stay at school for A-levels read and write much better than those who leave at 16. If everyone stayed on then everyone would read and write better.' It is as though the Government were tinkering with the data inputs of a programme to achieve the 'correct' output, when the problem is that the programme itself is in need of reform.
The other reason most of us can't muster up the requisite outrage (and the proposal is outrageous - it's a massive infringement of liberty, will be entirely counter-productive and should be squashed at once) is that we don't believe it will happen. It's a consultation document at the moment, out of the office of one of the candidates for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Five will get you ten that this is just a case of running a policy up a flagpole to see who'll salute it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Two good things for England about the World Cup

Having gone and written a few long posts about serious (ish) topics, I thought I'd just touch on the positive things to come out of England's Word Cup so far. It is that England are almost certain never again to entrust the England captaincy with Andrew Flintoff - the best all-rounder for a generation yet the least convincing England captain since Chris Cowdrey. Odd though that the man who is almost certain to inherit that mantle, Andrew Strauss, has yet to play a game. Presumably the thinking is that there's only room in the side for two of Strauss, Bell and Vaughan - each of them being accumulators. Strauss is too talented a player not to come back from this though.
The other bit of good news is that England now has a selection of talented fast bowlers to choose from. With more and more test match and one day cricket being played, it must come as a relief to be able to pick and choose between Harmison, Hoggard, Jones, Anderson, Mahmood, Plunkett, Broad and Jon Lewis, not to mention Graham Onions and Chris Tremlett in the second tier. Not many countries have that much depth at the moment. In fact, for all England's dismal winter, as a test-playing nation the depth is extraordinary. Owais Shah can't get a game; one of the 'current' top order has to be dropped to make way for Vaughan; and will Trescothick come back? If you're picking 5 of Strauss, Cook, Vaughan, Bell, Pieterson, Collingwood, Trescothick, Joyce and Shah there's a fair amount of selectorial head-scratching to do.
For the record, so that I can look back and see how wrong I was in the summer, here's my 12 for the first test match against the West Indies in May: Vaughan (capt) Strauss, Cook, Bell, Pieterson, Collingwood, Flintoff, Davies (wk), Hoggard, Harmison, Panesar, Lewis. Steven Davies, of Worcestershire, is my 'rabbit out of the hat' pick - he's only 20 and averaged nearly 40 last season.
Anyone got any better ideas?

Hari on Cameron

Johann Hari's piece in the Independent today is a good hint of what the line of attack on David Cameron is likely to be over the run up to the next election. It's essentially a variation on the same theme run by Hitchens earlier - with a slightly more pointed focus. For Hari, it is clear, Cameron is disqualified from the leadership by one simple factor: privilege.
Cameron has claimed he had "a normal childhood" and "a normal university experience", but the facts are rather different. He was born to a millionaire stockbroker and a debutante, with a bloodline that connects him to Elizabeth Windsor. As a child he had a swimming pool, a tennis court and nannies.
So no deviation from the the norm can be allowed. The presence of a swimming pool in Cameron's parents' garden disbars him from attaining public office.
At a time when the biggest issue facing Britain domestically is worsening inequality, do we want to put somebody from the richest 0.01 per cent - with no understanding of ordinary life - in charge?
I'd dispute the fact that the biggest domestic issue is inequality - most conservatives would - but even so, it is absurd to suggest that the social background of a politician should be a factor. Incidentally, I have always hated the phrase 'ordinary life' - like 'the real world' I think it's reflective of lazy thinking and a belief that only what is experienced by the writer counts as 'real'.
The rest of the article is the usual rubbish:
In 2005, he called wind farms "giant bird-blenders"; in 2006, he built one on to the side of his house.
No he didn't, he put a small domestic windmill on his house. It's like saying that a diesel generator is the same thing as an oil-fired power station "In 2005 David Cameron said that oil fired power stations were polluting and expensive - but now he's bought one for his house!"
He called Thatcher "Mother", then announced, "There is such a thing as society."
Which is, of course, pretty much what Thatcher was saying. If Hari hasn't read, or understood, what Thatcher actually said then he's a fool. If he has and is using it to misrepresent her views then he's being extremely disingenuous.
Or look at other pro-poor policies the Cameroons cannot understand and would wipe out. The European Social Chapter gives part-time workers - who are often on the minimum wage - the right to parental leave, regular holidays and other basic protections.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this (and it's a justifiable argument to say that, if the Social Chapter acts in this way to cut jobs, by making them uneconomic for the employers, then it is the most equitable thing to so to leave it) to suggest that his opposition to the Social Chapter is entirely because of his rich and privileged background is ridiculous. John Major was fiercely opposed to the Social Chapter - was that because of his fantastically privileged background? David Davis is opposed to it - is that because of his huge family wealth? It's just nonsense.
The people who created the idea of flat taxes - academics Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka - explain, "It is an obvious mathematical law that [flatter] taxes on the successful will have to be made up for by higher taxes on average people."
Well, or by reduction in the size of the state - a concept that Hari cannot even contemplate.
If we do not want to be ruled by a Brideshead Regurgitated clique, we need to get to work now to ensure Cameron's rising star ends up as merely a shooting star. Then he can return to his true vocation - as a shooting-hunting-and-fishing star.
And there, I think, we have the basis of the coming line of argument: that Cameron is a posh person and thus unfit to rule. I think it will be a thumping great mistake by the Labour Party if they follow this line (I know Hari is not attached to the Labour Party by the way, it's just that he is articulating what a significant proportion of that party think is the best attack against Cameron). What evidence there is shows that Cameron is more popular than his party - exposure of Cameron in the press increases Conservative support. Far from neutralising this factor, a campaign of explicit class hatred risks increasing support for Cameron, while simultaneously reminding the electorate of what it was that they disliked about Labour in the 1980s.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hitchens on Cameron...

I suspect that this was always going to be a programme that appealed to people who already disliked Cameron and was never going to win over those that did. Iain, understandably, disliked it while Andrew Ian Dodge and Skipper seemed to have liked it more. I found it - gasp - entirely unconvincing, dominated as it was by long build-ups to shock horror revelations. Sadly, it relied for too many of these on such strictly impartial commenters as the Labour MP who defeated David Cameron at Stafford in 1997, and Labour Party press officers.
There were essentially two key allegations: firstly that David Cameron is 'posh' and secondly that he is an unprincipled opportunist. Taking the first one - I don't think it can be disputed that Cameron is 'posh'. Eton and Oxford, married to a baronet's daughter: these are the hallmarks of the privileged. But, in the words of Francois Mitterand when told by a journalist that the papers had proof that he had an illegitimate daughter et alors? Is there seriously anyone in England who hasn't worked out that David Cameron is posh? Are we supposed to throw our hands up in horror and rush to disassociate ourselves from this appalling product of the haute bourgeoisie? Where, to coin a phrase, is the beef? As for the Bullingdon club, I've written about it before, and won't focus on it much again, except to note that, for a couple of toffs who spent their entire time at Oxford buying tailcoats and pouring champagne on poor people, David Cameron and Boris Johnson didn't do half badly in Finals. If they can spend three years doing nothing but debauchery, and come away with firsts in PPE and Greats, then they bloody well deserve to run the country. I suspect, however, that the reality is rather different.
So, on to political opportunism. As far as I could tell, this charge was based on the accounts of Cameron when he was in the Conservative Research Department - apparently in his early twenties DC wasn't possessed of a burning and all-consuming political ideology. This might sound hard to believe, but Cameron actually went into politics as a career! You get that? Not because at 24 he wanted to change the world for the better, nor because he had a cast-iron set of beliefs that only politics could realise, but because he saw it as a career. I think I'll give you a small break to recover from that one......Better? Right.
It also called as evidence the fact that Cameron has a small windmill on his house (which even I think is fatuous) but has described wind farms as 'vast bird mincers'. Well, at least he's right about one thing, you might think. But it's certainly not hypocrisy/evidence of his lack of true belief in 'green' issues. Giant wind farms and domestic windmills are different things. It is entirely consistent to be in favour of one and not the other.
The final point of substance on this was that, in the elections of 97 and 2001, Cameron campaigned on traditional Conservative issues - thus 'proving' that his focus on 'compassionate Conservatism' (gah) is a sham. Well colour me unconvinced. If Hitchens is suggesting that as a new candidate Cameron should not have campaigned on the Conservative manifesto, he's being deliberately disingenuous. Junior candidates, first-time candidates especially, do not have much of a say on the issues they campaign on - that's life.
The rest of the piece was an attempted hatchet on Cameron's 'phoneyness'. He's all media spin; he forms part of a metropolitan elite; his victory of David Davis was entirely because the media played up his speech and played down Davis'. I saw the speeches - I thought that Cameron was good if a little thin content wise, but sparkled on the presentation, and I thought that Davis was reasonable on the content but dismal on the presentation. Hitchens' criticism that this is unsubstantial flim-flam must be contrasted with the evidence - Hague was consistently good on matters of substance, Howard regularly bested Blair in the Commons - what let both of them down was their lack of presentation.
It's not a side issue - politics is, and always, always has been about personality. People hark back to the glory days before personality mattered, when it was about Tony Benn's 'ishues' but it's rubbish. Stanley Baldwin spent hours perfecting his radio manner: all that guff about corncrakes and plough teams; Gladstone spoke to vast public meetings, and in his Midlothian campaign personally rushed around the country getting maximum personal exposure. Politics. Is. Personality. If you don't get this, you don't understand politics.
Anyway, the end result is that Hitchens' polemic will have changed the minds of very few - and missed an opportunity to highlight where Cameron is potentially weak. I don't think, for all the rumblings of Edward Leigh, that the Tories are going to be particularly vulnerable from the Right in the next election. I believe, and have done for a while, that most of the current focus is on re-positioning, rhetorically and image-wise, to a situation from which more traditional Tory policies, tax simplification (if not immediate tax cuts), law and order and defence can firstly be guaranteed a hearing and secondly (you knew it was coming) be presented as part of a coherent and popular narrative. If Hitchens had attacked Cameron from this angle - presenting him as being Tony Blair from the other direction, talking the talk of the enemy, but lining his troops along traditional lines, damage might have been done to the Tories' battle for the middle ground. By shouting about Etonians and wind farms, Hitchens has raged into the wind, but converted nobody.

False dawn in Zimbabwe?

A consensus appears to be building that Mugabe's days are numbered; the failure to extend his Presidential term of office to 2010 has confirmed the belief that he has lost his touch, and control of ZANU (PF), the political party he has dominated since the assassination of its founder Herbert Chitepo in 1975 (the act itself was probably carried out by the Rhodesian CIO - though the internal Zambian investigation fingered Josiah Tongogara, himself later to be killed on Mugabe's orders). This belief is joined by a feeling that this is probably all for the best; that no-one that would replace him could possibly be worse for the country than Mugabe has proved to be.
I hope they're right. I'm not entirely convinced, however. The first point to make is that, for all the press coverage he is currently receiving, Morgan Tsvangerai is by no means certain to be the beneficiary of Mugabe's downfall. The MDC is split, weakened by years of repression and abuse and desperately broke. The MDC had a chance to defeat Mugabe and bring change to Zimbabwe in 2000, and, thanks to cynical and brutal electoral manipulation and Western indifference they were unable to take it. Short of real substantial foreign intervention the MDC are incapable of replacing Mugabe directly. It may be that, given three years of a temperate political climate, they can recover as a political party, and even challenge ZANU (PF) in the elections of 2010.
That's unlikely. For the real beneficiaries of change in Zimbabwe are internal forces within ZANU (PF). For the last five or so years there have been two groups behind Mugabe, jockeying for position, and subject to seemingly capricious changes in favour. The group currently in favour is that led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa is a political operator with a great deal of experience: he was the first Parliamentary Speaker in Zimbabwe in 1980. He is also deeply implicated in the brutality and murder that characterise Mugabe's politics. Appointed Minister for State Security in 1982, Mnangagwa bears a great deal of responsibility for the so-called Gukurahundi in Matabeleland. This (which literally means 'the rains that wash away the chaff') was the campaign against quasi-imaginary Ndebele 'rebels' that led to the end of ZAPU, the other main African nationalist party, amid the slaughter of anything up to 20,000 civilian Ndebele. Mnangagwa, like Mugabe a Shona, remains personally implicated in this. To add to this, Mnangagwa has been named as Zimbabwe's richest politician - no mean feat in a Government as stupendously corrupt as this.
The alternative, Joyce Mujuru, is not much better. Mrs Mujuru (she is married to Solomon Mujuru, the head of the Zimbabwean Army) is another party comrade of long standing. During the Chimuerenga in the 1970s she rejoiced in the name 'Comrade Spillblood' (Teurai Ropa) and claims, rather implausibly, to have single-handedly shot down a Rhodesian helicopter with a sub-machine gun. She owes much of her status to her husband (who was known during the war as Rex Nhongo or 'Goat') whose powerbase in the army pressured Mugabe to grant her the Vice-Presidency. She lives on Guy Watson-Smith's farm - illegally.
So the choice for Zimbabweans is between a blood-soaked, corrupt, career politician, and a corrupt career politician in hock to the army for her position. Perhaps you'll forgive me for not seeming too sanguine about Zimbabwe's future. This is Africa. In Africa, if there is to be change when the Big Men go, they must either be forced out by war, like Mobutu Sese Seko or Mengistu, or by a revitalised democracy, like Kaunda and Hastings Banda. In Zimbabwe there is no viable opposition - no chance either for a 'Cedar Revolution'. South Africa has shown itself unwilling to intervene politically, let alone militarily - and there is no-one but South Africa to do it. So the end of Mugabe will be a squalid internal party affair - the aged Big Man thrust aside by an ambitious new model. There is precedent for this.
If you want to see the future of Zimbabwe don't look at South Africa, don't even look at Zambia or Tanzania. Look at Kenya - not the Kenya of 2002, but that of 1978. After the death of Kenya's first Big Man, Jomo Kenyatta, his replacement did not usher in a new era of openness and prosperity. Instead under Daniel Arap Moi, the rule was more of the same: more corruption, more repression and more poverty. Zimbabwe can look forward to another 20 years of torment and misery. Please will someone prove me wrong?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Peace in the EU

When pushed to defend the EU, and once the arguments over economics and trade have been challenged, the average EU enthusiast will say, with the air of one arguing an incontrovertible truth, that, in the 50 years since the Treaty of Rome, there has been 'peace' in Europe, and shouldn't we all be jolly grateful?
I had a go at this version of history briefly a few days ago - arguing that not only has there not been peace, but that what peace there has been has been largely due to American guarantees. Thinking on it further, I think the argument can be deconstructed as follows: Since it is obviously untrue that the countries that now make up the EU have been at peace for the last half century (given the Prague Spring, the Polish Solidarity unrest, the Greek Colonels, the war in Cyprus, and so on and so on), the argument can only be one of two things: that, once brought within the EU, countries do not declare war on each other, or that the 6 original EU countries have been peaceful since 1957, at least with each other.
Because, after all, it is not as though European countries have not been at war in the past half century, even those of them that were in the EC from the start. France fought in Indo-China, in Algeria and in Africa. Britain has fought in the Falklands, in Cyprus and in the Gulf. So the main point for celebration is that EU member states have not fought each other for 50 years - a claim that can, see above, refer only to the 6 founder states. Without wishing to seem disrespectful to Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland, the only states this can possibly refer to are Italy, France and Germany.
Put like that, the claim can really be boiled down to: "Hurrah for the EU! It's stopped Germany invading France again." No mean feat you might think, especially as Germany invaded France three times in 60 years. However, while accepting that point, it is also fair to point out that Germany in 1957 was territorially divided, materially reduced, largely disarmed and subject to American and British military occupation. It's at least arguable that those factors were rather more central to its unaccustomed military unassertiveness than the Common Agricultural Policy.

Exhuming Jenkins' Ear

Friends, Romans...
Now what do we do? The seizure by Iran of British sailors and Marines, in Iraqi territorial waters, in which they were operating by UN mandate, is an act of piracy. Iran has once again shown contempt for international law, as it did in 2004. This shouldn't be a surprise - after all the Islamic revolution in Iran began with the invasion of the US Embassy, in flagrant breach of every diplomatic convention in history. There is a precedent, of a sort, for this sort of thing. In 1731, a British privateer, Robert Jenkins, was boarded by the Spanish Garda Costa off Cuba, tortured and had his ear sliced off.
The result in that case was an indecisive war, marked by enormous casualties from disease and little permanent change. Britain now lacks the capacity for such adventuring, and would do even if it were not embroiled in two concurrent campaigns. But then: what to do? Issuing protests, summoning ambassadors, complaining about maritime law: all are useless against a regime that has abandoned even the pretence of adherence to legality. Military action? Even if directed by the US and Israel, this is a course whose costs are disproportionate to its benefits. Economic sanctions? Targeted travel bans? Both require muliti-lateral agreement throughthe UN - not always easy to obtain.
We're looking toothless, and in many ways that's because we are. A more rigorous defence of British shipping in the Straits of Hormuz might be one way to go forward - ensuring that sailors cannot be ambushed, or that if they are they are capable of defending themselves. But that looks like a recipe for escalation. As with Zimbabwe, as with Iran - the rights and wrongs of the matter are easy to see; it is the proper response that is a conundrum.
UPDATE: This is, incidentally, an act of war on a member of NATO. So, if anyone's looking for a casus belli...

Friday, March 23, 2007

Slightly odd

Am I missing something, or has the BBC started to caption all stories about the Tories with a picture that makes it look as though David Cameron has been punched in the face?

Prescott on Slavery

The present-day Member for Hull is significantly lacking in rhetorical flourish, especially when compared with his illustrious predecessor William Wilberforce. However, Prescott's interest in the slave trade is commendable - it's always nice to have British MPs showing an interest in history.
"It is one of the reasons why I would like us to pick a date every year. The legacy of this 200th anniversary should be a permanent date when we ask whether there is more we could do, so that every year, like Holocaust, we remind people of the horrors. Each year we should think about it and commemorate and rededicate ourselves to helping people on which such horrors were inflicted."
As with most Prescott speeches, you can see what he means here, even through the tortured prose. The problem with the idea of a specific 'Slavery day' is that it would probably fall hostage to what John Howard in Australia has called the 'Black armband view of history'. In other words it would be a yearly recital of the undoubted evils of the slave trade, seen from a modern perspective, in the context not of the history of slavery, but of the history of Western dominance and the British Empire. Slavery will be held up as something uniquely British and uniquely bad.
The reason many have cited for not issuing an 'apology' for slavery is that in the US it has led to claims for compensation. While I agree that compensation is neither a practical nor a justified response, I believe that there is a better reason for not offering an apology. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was remarkable only in its scale. Slavery was a state of being throughout Africa during and after this period. Mortality rates were appallingly high on the crossings - yet not so high as in the Arab slave trade in Eastern and Central Africa. What was remarkable about the Atlantic slave trade was that it was stopped. It may sound jingoistic, but the most extraordinary aspect of the British involvement in the slave trade was that they brought it to an end. I just doubt that this is what would be the focus of future 'Slavery days'.
UPDATE: Just a very brief word on Ken Livingstone's apology 'on behalf of London'. He states that slavery was appalling, a crime against humanity. This is absolutely correct. He then states:
Material being produced today to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade makes it appear that white people liberated black - the assumption being they could not do it themselves. In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it.
There were slave rebellions, some of which, such as the Jamaican uprising, caused outrage in Britain at the brutality with which they were put down. However, to argue that slavery as an institution was made impossible through the efforts of the slaves themselves ignores the fact that slavery continued in the US until 1865, and in Brazil until 1880. There is no question that, had it been British policy, slavery would have continued in the British Empire indefinitely.
No one denigrates William Wilberforce, but it was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.
Simply untrue. The abolition of slavery was in fact to destroy the economic worth of the British West Indies. At the time of aboliton, the W.I. were responsible for some 60-70% of British imports by value. Following emancipation this collapsed, and the islands never recovered their former economic status. This is not to say that this is a bad thing - wealth built on slavery is morally unsustainable - but to state that economic motives brought about the end of slavery is to state the opposite of the truth.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Simon Heffer: Wrong

Virtually a tautology I know, but really! That the most puce man in Britain continues to bloviate crapulently on the pages of the Telegraph is a source of considerable annoyance. On Saturday he claimed, preposterously, that putting up taxes on consumption made absolutely no difference to behaviour - his evidence being that people still smoked even though it was taxed. The man's a fool.

And so today, whinnying with pleasure that David Cameron was less quick on his feet than would have been ideal (though the Independent is markedly more charitable), this archpriest of bitter-enders pontificated:
As David Cameron and George Osborne banged on for months with their silly little catchphrase about "sharing the proceeds of growth", we could all see the hostage to fortune. A tax cut by Mr Brown, even one with more downright prestidigitation than would normally be found at a convention of the Magic Circle, would make the Tories look incredibly dumb. And, lo, it came to pass.
So, lets see. The Conservatives find a fluent and moderately plausible answer to the question of how you can cut taxes without simultaneously cutting spending. This phrase is rubbished by the Labour Party and by Simon Heffer. Gordon Brown then essentially adopts the basis of the idea, without doing it properly. This means that the next time the Conservatives talk about cutting taxes, and the Labour Party trumpet their 'spending slashed!' response, the Tories can point to Prudence over in the corner. 'There you are', they can say, 'even this grasping old curmudgeon got around to our way of thinking eventually. Imagine how much better it could be if it wasn't being implemented by an old-school class war tax-n-spender.'
The cosy cadre of Old Etonians around Mr Cameron has been good at coming up with the odd slogan, and better at ensuring that his image prevails over anything so vulgar as a policy.
Heffer as class warrior/man of the people is one of the more ridiculous postures I've seen. Alternatively I suppose it might just be old-fashioned jealousy...
First, consider that eye-watering figure of £674 billion annually of public spending. It may be insane for a potential Tory chancellor to promise a specific tax cut two or three years before taking office; but how sane is it for him to pretend, equally, that in such a gargantuan sum there is no scope for savings? Just one per cent of that would almost fund another 2p tax cut, for pity's sake...Just think of the headlines a Conservative government would get for doing that. Just think of the headlines it would get if it was really brave, and offered to cut a whole two per cent.
Terrific - and every single policy announcement/press conference/PMQs/interview from now until the election could be spent asking the Tory spokesman precisely what he was going to cut, and then sneering at the inevitable answer that 'we don't know yet - we'll find out when we get there.' Of course Public Spending should be cut - it's ludicrously high. But if you make your pledge - the solid basis behind your election manifesto - cuts in public spending you're offering up so large a hostage to fortune you might as well raise a glass to 10 more years of Labour.
Simon Heffer is an appalling idiot. This budget can be turned into a real advantage for the Tories. With any luck it has decontaminated the concept of tax cutting - turning the question from 'Are we spending enough on X?' - which has been the discourse since the late nineties, to 'Are we paying too much in tax?'. This is a much more profitable area for the Conservatives.


I think I've discovered a new line of attack on the Cameronite Conservatives in today's Guardian. It comes from Geoffrey Wheatcroft, and is an obviously heartfelt rant that these modern Conservatives simply aren't racist enough. He pines for the good old days of High Tory anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.
There was once a vigorous high Tory tradition of independence from - if not hostility to - America. It was found in the Morning Post before the war, and it continued down to Enoch Powell and Alan Clark. But now members of the shadow cabinet, such as George Osborne (whom even Cameron is said to tease as a neocon), vie in fealty to Washington - and this when US policy is driven by neocon thinktanks and evangelical fundamentalists, with whom Toryism should have nothing in common.
Is this the first Enoch was right article to appear in the Guardian? Anti-Americanism, while of course desirable, is but a pale reflection of what the Tories used to be about - and could still be again if it weren't for the pesky interventions of people like Daniel Finkelstein and Oliver Letwin of course.
That highest of high Tories Lord Curzon deplored the Balfour declaration. He thought that a Jewish homeland could only mean a grave injustice to the inhabitants of Palestine. It would inflame hundreds of millions of Muslim subjects of the British empire. And as to the Jewish people themselves and the idea of transporting them to the Levant, "I cannot think of a worse fate for an advanced and intellectual community," Curzon said.
Attempts by younger Tories to justify their allegiance to Washington and Israel are curious. One more from the latest vintage is Douglas Carswell MP, who insists that "it is in our national interest to support Israel". He would never wish to say anything critical of Israel, "because I believe they are a front-line ally in a war against people who wish to destroy our democratic way of life. Others may take a nuanced view. I don't." This is extreme, but not unique. The Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) are a successful force, now claiming a large majority of Tory MPs as members.
How appalling! How one longs for the return of good old-fashioned Tory anti-Semitism! I've heard a lot of criticisms of the direction that David Cameron is taking the Tories, but never that he's depriving them of their ancient and noble traditions of anti-Semitism...

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Modern slang

To capsize the pedalo: meaning to get hideously drunk, preferably in humiliating circumstances that have a detrimental effect on your professional and/or love life.

We are all guilty!

Dr Heinz Kiosk writes for the Guardian.

What this budget isn't

It is not a tax-cutting budget - in fact it's almost the opposite, and in a bizarrely regressive way. The tuppence cut in the basic rate is going to cost about £9 and a half billion. This will be made up in two ways - the abolition of the 10p rate (savings of £8 and a half billion) and the abolition of empty property relief (about £1 billion). So it's a shuffle of the burden.
The tuppence cut in corporation tax will also be tax neutral. It will be made up for by the tightening of some reliefs and by the raising of the small company corporation tax rate by...tuppence.
In both these cases therefore, while the overall burden remains more or less unchanged, the prime burden has been shifted down the chain. Low earners will now pay proportionately more to fund a cut for middle-income earners. Big companies will pay a lower rate - and the shortfall will be made up by small companies.
In neither case does it look like a budget that should appeal to redistributionists.
UPDATE: Too complex for Will Hutton I fear - an article praising Brown's reduction in basic rate, without even mentioning his abolition of the lower rate. Tut tut.

I didn't want to have to do this...

Mainly because of the 50th item on the Independent's 50 reasons to love the EU - which is Lists like this drive the Euro-sceptics mad. However, I live but to serve, and someone had to do this I suppose.

1. The end of war between European nations. Apart from the wars in Yugoslavia, and the rebellions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary etc - all of which took place on the EU's watch so to speak. The peace between Western nations since 1945 can be more fairly put down to two factors - the presence of a common enemy, and the military and diplomatic presence of the US.
2. Democracy is now flourishing in 27 countries. To an extent, see above. The prime cause for democratic expansion was the collapse of the Soviet bloc - not notably a triumph of the EU. We'll come back to this one...
3. Once-poor countries, such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal, are prospering. Fair enough, up to a point, though the prosperity of Ireland is due more to a low tax business ethos that runs counter to standard EU practice.
4. The creation of the world's largest internal trading market. Or to put it another way, the world's largest protectionist zone - imposing poverty throughout Africa. Not great for Britain particularly either - given that we run a trade deficit with the rest of the EU.
5. Unparalleled rights for European consumers. Kinda vague this one don't you think? Just what are we talking about here - without any further explanation it's as meaningless as saying unparalleled weather for European consumers.
6. Co-operation on continent-wide immigration policy. Like at Sangatte presumably... Or alternatively like the complete mess over Eastern European immigration.
7. Co-operation on crime, through Europol. I'm prepared to stand corrected, but I thought Interpol existed before Britain's entry into the EC. In any event, I'll let this one slide...
8. Laws that make it easier for British people to buy property in Europe. Terrific - though I do remember the likes of Peter Mayle, Eric Newby and Gerald Durrell seeming to rub along somehow...
9. Cleaner beaches and rivers throughout Europe. Chalk one up for the good guys! Although this is more of a exhortatory EU power - with censure being the only weapon. Still, credit where credit's due.
10. Four weeks statutory paid holiday a year for workers in Europe. Although what concern private business contracts between individuals are of the EU I'm unconvinced.
11. No death penalty (it is incompatible with EU membership). Two points - this is supposed to be about why Britain should be grateful - and we abolished the death penalty in the 60s. Secondly - doesn't this rather conflict with the democracy point above? If a sovereign state wishes, through the views of its people, to enact such a policy, isn't that its democratic right? Moving on...
12. Competition from privatised companies means cheaper phone calls. Are we suggesting here that privatisation was an EU project? You don't think you could chalk this one down to Thatcher perhaps?
13. Small EU bureaucracy (24,000 employees, fewer than the BBC). I'm assuming this refers only to the European Commission - the total number employed by the EU might come to a rather higher figure, higher even than that paragon of under-staffing the BBC.
14. Making the French eat British beef again. If that's the best you can do... The French ignored EU rulings on this for years, having previously bullied the EU into destroying the British beef industry. Not a plus, in my view.
15. Minority languages, such as Irish, Welsh and Catalan recognised and protected. Well thank God for that eh? Or, as the Welsh would say ffrdg sfguig wyfyfg.
16. Europe is helping to save the planet with regulatory cuts in CO2. Run for your lives! ManBearPig is here!
17. One currency from Bantry to Berlin (but not Britain). Why don't you ask the Italians how that one's working out huh? Or the Germans.
18. Europe-wide travel bans on tyrants such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Except when Mugabe is invited to EU conferences of course. And, in any case, name me another!
19. The EU gives twice as much aid to developing countries as the United States. The EU is, of course, very generous with other people's money. The US gives far more charitably of course - but that's only people so it doesn't count.
20. Strict safety standards for cars, buses and aircraft. Because without the EU, Britain's car's would be made out of string and asbestos, and it's German-made buses would spontaneously burst into flame - oh no, wait, they did!
21. Free medical help for tourists. Hurrah - but didn't the NHS do that anyway? Isn't that rather problematic with 'tourists' from sub-Saharan Africa for example? Anyway, carry on...
22. EU peacekeepers operate in trouble spots throughout the world. Apart from the European countries of Bosnia and Macedonia (sterling examples of how the EU eradicated war in Europe) the only other place EU soldiers operate is the DRC. Worthwhile mission and all that but three countries sounds less impressive than throughout the world doesn't it?
23. Europe's single market has brought cheap flights to the masses, and new prosperity for forgotten cities. Compare and contrast with no. 16 above.
24. Introduction of pet passports. Per-lease.
25. It now takes only 2 hrs 35 mins from London to Paris by Eurostar. The EU - making trains run faster!
26. Prospect of EU membership has forced modernisation on Turkey. While I do agree that the prospect of membership has a salutary effect on possible members, lets see how this one goes shall we?
27. Shopping without frontiers gives consumers more power to shape markets. Meaningless drivel! As in: this sentence means literally nothing.
28. Cheap travel and study programmes means greater mobility for Europe's youth. While all in favour of a mobile youth (stop sniggering), I think you have to question whether a massive supra-governmental body is the best way to achieve it...
29. Food labelling is much clearer. All hail the EU and its marvellous clearer food labelling!
30. No tiresome border checks (apart from in the UK). Hurray for the end of border security eh? Marginally more convenient until you get killed by a crack dealer.
31. Compensation for passengers suffering air delays. Also see no. 23 about cheaper flights. Ignore the fact that the one is scuppering the other.
32. Strict ban on animal testing for the cosmetic industry. Fine. Though as with the death penalty, might there not be queries as to democratic sovereignty?
33. Greater protection for Europe's wildlife. Which, given Britain's reputation as animal haters, is enormously relevant to us.
34. Regional development fund has aided the deprived parts of Britain. So, we give them vast amounts of money annually, they give us back a small proportion of this, and we're supposed to be grateful?
35. European driving licences recognised across the EU. With, as they say, hilarious consequences! Any suggestion that, say, Polish driving licences are less rigorously obtained that British ones is xenophobic nonsense.
36. Britons now feel a lot less insular. Than when? 1972? And the only reason is the EU? Not the Internet, the spread of satellite TV, the spread of globalisation generally? No? Just the EU then.
37. Europe's bananas remain bent, despite sceptics' fears. Oh my aching sides...
38. Strong economic growth - greater than the United States last year. In France, the UK, Germany and Italy? No? Oh, so Ireland, Poland and the like... There aren't many in Italy who believe the EU has done all that much to stimulate growth.
39. Single market has brought the best continental footballers to Britain. And helped to destroy the English county cricket scene thanks to the Kolpak players. Swings, roundabouts.
40. Human rights legislation has protected the rights of the individual. You pays your money and you takes your choice on this one. I dislike the practical effects of 'Human Rights Law' but there you go.
41. European Parliament provides democratic checks on all EU laws. Ho ho. What was it Daniel Hannan was saying about each MEP having 90 seconds to speak?
42. EU gives more, not less, sovereignty to nation states. Than what? Full sovereignty? It bloody doesn't you know. Seriously, I'd love to know how this one was worked out - any thoughts?
43. Maturing EU is a proper counterweight to the power of US and China. Boo to the rotten old US anyway (they're swankpots anyway). But I assume this doesn't mean militarily.
44. European immigration has boosted the British economy. Debatable, but anyway...
45. Europeans are increasingly multilingual - except Britons, who are less so. Good point - the EU has entrenched English as the European language.
46. Europe has set Britain an example how properly to fund a national health service. Europe has? Not much to do with the EU then is it? Funnily enough, the two are not co-terminous.
47. British restaurants now much more cosmopolitan. I hadn't realised India and China were even in the EU.
48. Total mobility for career professionals in Europe. Ish - there's still the barrier to movement created by having to move countries/families and all that (by the way I love career professionals - as opposed to what? Hobbyist professionals?)
49. Europe has revolutionised British attitudes to food and cooking. They're stretching it! Europe/EU again - are we really suggesting that we need to surrender legal sovereignty in order to learn about olive oil?
50. Lists like this drive the Eurosceptics mad. And to prove that this is the only wholly correct point of the 50, I will now stick two pencils up my nose and say 'wibble'.
UPDATE: See also Tim, DK, and, most fully, Scott for alternative take-downs.
UPDATE UPDATE: Ooh! And Mr Eugenides, and Trixie and The Englishman. Can you say 'Bitchslap'?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Iniquity!

There's been a lovely little spat between, among others, Tim Ireland and Unity on the one hand, and Prague Tory on the other. This is mostly that bloggy stuff that seems to crop up quite a lot at the moment and can usually be ignored. The one area that has generated most heat has been an accusation of bias and partiality against Prague Tory (surely not!) to the effect that, becuase he was so quick to express his shock, horror and outrage at Cllr Terry Kelly (living evidence that a pig's bladder on a stick can achieve elected office) when he implied that a right-wing Scottish blogger wasn't to be trusted around children.
Given that Guido famously made a similar statement about Mark Oaten shortly before his exposure as a rent-boy using coprophiliac (though to be honest, I've wondered whether there wasn't an element of the David Mellor about this one - an false accusation of toe-sucking in a Chelsea strip stuck in the middle of a true allegation of an affair), Ireland and Unity have called PT on hypocrisy - if you are outraged by Kelly, you must be equally outraged by Guido.
Well, I wonder where and how Simon Hoggart fits into this galaxy of outrage? In his sketch today he writes, of Tony Blair the following:
I don't know what it is about Tony Blair and schools. He can't keep away from them. If he didn't arrive in a limo, they'd get the police to keep an eye on him during netball practice.
That's exactly the same humourous nudge-nudge that Guido (drunkenly) and Kelly (leadenly) used. According to the blogging rules, do we expect a post denouncing Hoggart from all three? Watch this space (well not this one obviously, but this one, this one and this one.)

Monday, March 19, 2007


This story starts stupidly but rapidly becomes moronic. Toni Comer, who was extremely drunk and had just caused over £3,000 worth of damage to a car, assaulted a police officer, and was rapidly and firmly restrained. She maintains that the force used was excessive, but given that she had just tried to kick the policeman in the groin her case is unlikely to proceed. Comer has not made any allegations of racial assault.
So... Only sensationalists would compare this beating to the infamous Rodney King episode. Technically, only morons would do so, but fire ahead.
Still, it remains difficult to imagine a petite middle-class white woman being beaten like this. I don't know - the level of force used by the police at the last countryside demo was pretty high - they used batons on tweedy chaps and chapesses rather than fists.
Iconic pictures of white women tend to tell stories of victimisation by vicious crime (Abigail Witchalls). There is no useful comparison to make here. Comer was a violent drunk resisting arrest, Witchalls a pregnant woman out for a walk with her toddler.
Ms Comer was drunk, disorderly and culpable of criminal damage. She was also committing that unpardonable female offence, "ball-busting", as she resisted arrest. Perhaps a guy, whether rapist or policeman, has gotta do what a guy's gotta do, including dragging this young woman to the police van with her trousers around her knees, while she, an epilepsy sufferer, flails and foams at the mouth.
So, a policeman arresting a criminal is the same as a rapist? Isn't this seriously defamatory? Hasn't the Guardian just accused this particular policeman of acting in the same fashion as a rapist? What the fuck?
It is now "reasonable" use of force to shoot an unarmed "Asian-looking" man at an underground station on suspicion. It is reasonable to bomb an entire nation "into the Middle Ages" for harbouring an elusive criminal, for kidnapping a soldier, or on suspicion of possessing weapons of mass destruction; even more reasonable to spend £20bn of public money to refurbish Britain's own WMD arsenal to deter an unspecified future enemy. It is reasonable, as the Baha Mousa case suggests, for the armed forces in Iraq to punch and kick civilians to death, resurrecting stress positions outlawed 35 years ago.
Ignoring the fact that perpetrators of the Baha Mousa case were convicted of manslaughter and assault, meaning that the use of force was not deemed 'reasonable', the writer is using a legal term of specific meaning ('reasonable') to cover both legal and non-legal scenarios - the debate on whether such an act is reasonable morally, politically or philosophically may be useful, but does not relate to whether it is reasonable legally. To return to the subject of this rubbish, Toni Comer, she assaulted a police officer, who used force to restrain her. She was drunk, had caused criminal damage, and had just assaulted him. The force he used in response would have to have been much much greater than it was to be considered 'unreasonable'. Any lawyer knows this; anyone with a modicum of legal understanding knows this; anyone with the capacity for basic common sense should know this.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India.
Fantastic. A Post-Modernist 'tab. And I thought the Guardian could sink no lower.

Precise attribution

Since Munich in 1938 the word appeasement has become synonymous with the foreign policy of one's opponents. But it does have a specific meaning: we should give this aggressor precisely what he wants, for no consideration, because otherwise he will do something deleterious to our interests. Furthermore, if we do so, his demands will cease. If you want a case study, have a look at this article in the Guardian. Arguing that Iran is right to seek a nuclear bomb and we are wrong in trying to stop them, Cox argues that:
It is entirely understandable that they should now wish to maximise their security. Any regime in Tehran that neglected to develop nuclear weapons would arguably be failing in its duty.
And why?
The Iranians have warned that military action against them would provoke a military response. They might block the Strait of Hormuz, through which 18% of the world's oil supplies pass every day. They might annex southern Iraq, prompting a Sunni response that could bring about a regional conflagration sucking in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
There you have it - they threaten us, so lets give them what they want, and hope they go away satisfied. Didn't work last time though...
It is, I suppose worth pointing out two further points here. The first is that Iran itself voiferously and continuously denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons. For what that is worth. The second is that the Guardian opposes Britain retaining nuclear weapons, but argues for Iran to acquire them. That's not Chamberlain-style appeasement, that's a George Lansbury style foreign policy.
I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world "do your worst".
What could possibly go wrong?


I haven't seen the new film 'about' the battle of Thermopylae - though I might if I haven't anything better to do. It is, however, irritating all of the right people. To describe a representation, however pop-art and comic-strip it might be, as a racist fantasy seems to be something of a stretch. Moreover, this article in Comment is Free displays a bewildering lack of knowledge - as well as a predictable absence of humour.
What is most worrying to me is the idea that "western civilisation" is not, as I had understood it to be, the cultural, economic and militarily power dominating the globe, but a civilisation on the back foot, cornered, victimised and under siege.
Rather the point of Thermopylae, and the earlier battle of Marathon, was that the cradle of Western civilisation, as we know it, was on the back foot - threatened by the world's largest empire. The reason for this threat was precisely because its ideas of democracy (not to be confused with modern democracy of course) were anathema to a widely spread, highly centralised Empire such as Persia. So an enormous army, and vast navy, was sent across the Hellespont to wipe out Athens and Sparta. It was an existential threat to the entire Hellenic world.
It may not surprise anyone that King Leonidis repeatedly makes reference to "freedom" and calls the Persian troops slaves. The average audience of 300 - which I assume to be 16-year-olds taking time off from playing computer games - would not know that the Spartans were notorious as slavers, and that Persepolis was built by wage earners.
The Spartans, and Athenians and Minoans and Hittites and Egyptians and, despite what Golsorkhi might say, the Persians were indeed slavers. The reason for the Spartan armies pride themselves on their freedom, is precisely because they disparage the subservience of the Persian army to the king - the Spartan king was, after all, selected by the Spartans themselves - and often bumped off when they failed to perform. Also if you're deriding the stupidity of the film's audience, it helps to spell the name of the Spartan King correctly. Leonidas - it's not a tricky one really.
I suppose I should be grateful that this hasn't developed an 'Islamaphobe' theme yet - make sure to say thank you to Ahura Mazda in your prayers tonight...

Forza Italia!

I love Italy. There's been a new edict that there should be no mentioning of the private lives of the rich and famous - particularly not the more, um, intimate aspects - such as the photos that exist of Silvio Sercano, Official Government spokesman for Prodi's Government speaking to a transexual prostitute. In the UK the press is inclined to descend into self important diatribes about the freedom of the press. In Italy? Well, Il Foglio's editor had this to say in a reply to a letter referring to the edict(apologies for the sketchy translation - I don't have a dictionary to hand):

Caro Boncompagni, per difendere Maurizio Belpietro dalla ridicola Inquisizione dell’Ordine, da oggi metto a disposizione una breve rubrica di privacy erotica della nostra comunitа. La prima è in pagina due ed è doverosamente la violazione della mia “sfera sessuale”. Contribuite allegramente. Siate brevi. No maniaci.

(Dear Mr Boncompagni, to defend Maurizio Belpietro from the ridiculous Legal Inqusition, from today we put at your disposal a brief series on the erotic private life of our community. The first is on page 2 and is, dutifully, the violation of my own "sexual sphere". Contribute quickly. Be brief. No maniacs.)

There goes the fertility rate

For God's sake don't tell Mark Steyn! The Labour Government has announced its new policy, clearly designed to ensure that no more babies are conceived in the UK at all. Caroline Flint has issued stark warnings to be placed on bottles of wine, alcopops etc. instructing us to 'avoid alcohol while pregnant or trying to conceive.'
No booze while trying to conceive? How many sober conceptions are there? What woman in her right mind, knowing the awfulness of pregnancy and child birth would ever agree to such a thing if we weren't able to cloud her judgement with judiciously applied Laurent Perrier Rose?


I watched this unfold with a widening grin. It seemed to represent the very best in sport - the unexpected triumph of the underdog - which I had not believed this World Cup had the potential to provide. It doesn't seem very important now.

Sport gets built up in importance to the stage where a defeat in a league game is a 'calamity' and a victory in a five match series leads to open-top bus tours through the centre of London. Keith Miller had a better perspective on the importance of sport: pressure, he said, was 'having a Messerschmidt up your arse'; cricket was fun, a hobby. It's worth keeping that in mind the next time you see defeat in a second round cup tie described as a 'tragedy'.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Julie Bindel says, perhaps rather plaintively, that among some Guardian readers I am considered a man-hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. It does seem unfair. Where on earth could they have got the idea from?

Wait a minute...



The weather today is 10 degrees hotter than it was a month ago! If it continues to get hotter at this rate, by August we'll all be burning alive! Run for your lives!

La La La - I can't hear you

More intellectual engagement on display from Denis McShane here.

My wish for the next 12 months is that there will be agreement on a new rule-book for Europe so that the Europhobes take a bath and leave us in peace to try and make the next 50 years of Europe as successful as the last half-century.

It would be good if in a year's time those who want Britain to work in Europe and with America could feel they were not a minority.

In other words: I wish people who disagreed with me would just disappear, so we wouldn't get distracted by them.

Using humour as a tool

A Tool

When using humour to make a political point, it can help actually to be amusing. As regular readers of this blog will know, this is an ideal from which it is very easy to fall. There is, however, very little excuse for this column by Mark Steel. Tim has already properly dismissed the column and its author as not being worth the effort, and while I agree with this diagnosis, I also feel that some of his stupidity might benefit from a little examination.
The basic premise of the article appears to be that the Adam Smith Institute are fools/knaves. To demonstrate this he makes excellent use of a method pioneered by Germaine Greer on the death of Steve Irwin: make up something that the target did not say, and then ridicule it. Greer imagined Irwin saying that a stingray could kill a horse, and 'pointed out' that stingrays don't eat horses. Steel does this:
So you'd read stories like: "A new report from the Adam Smith Institute has discovered babies are lame-duck enterprises who contribute nothing to the economy, costing the country nine million pounds a day, and demands this subsidy be stopped by selling them off to a gangster from the Ukraine. Ministers are said to be considering the proposals carefully."
Or they'd insist the Army should be divided into competing regiments and sold to private enterprise, claiming: "Once competition is introduced, there'll be an incentive to see who gets to bomb a Middle-Eastern slum first, increasing efficiency, especially if we do away with bureaucratic restrictions regulating who can and can't destroy whom. Also, they'll be free to capture foreigners and force them to build a railway until they starve, which proved a huge economic success for the Japanese."
It's a good tactic. This group is silly. To prove it here are some silly statements that they didn't make. It's this sort of rigorous engagement with the opposing side's arguments that has made the left the intellectual powerhouse it is today.
While he supported the idea of "free trade", he insisted that wages should be sufficient to allow the worker to enjoy leisure, culture and beer. Surely the Adam Smith Institute should lead a boycott of anything made in Third World sweatshops, until the 12-year-old machinists are given a week off, a free pass for art galleries and a six-pack of their choice.
As Tim says, the ASI would stand for the engagement, through open and free trade, with third world industries, allowing wages to rise to the level where such amenities are possible. Real wage levels in 18th Century Scotland were no higher, and often lower, than in modern 'sweatshops' in any event. If the alternative to low-wage employment is no-wage unemployment, which do you think is the better option? It may come as a surprise to Steel, but the alternative to low-paid work in, say, Zimbabwe isn't sitting on the sofa watching Trisha waiting for a better offer. Even Nike sweatshops are better than starvation.
He certainly wouldn't recognise the insatiable greed of modern business, in which nothing is assumed to have any value unless it makes a profit. If someone turned up on Dragons' Den, saying they needed a few grand because they'd love to set up a home for destitute sick people, the panel would go: "How dare you waste our time? This crackpot scheme's going to lose money hand over fist."
Because in Smith's time, businesses were aiming to make a loss? Really, I can't believe this one. It's iniquitous, and an entirely new phenomenon, that businesses should seek to make profit? It's such a transparently fatuous argument that it is genuinely not worth the energy to rebut. I suppose I ought to point out that the majority of Britain's hospitals were built originally on the back of charitable donations - private money. That wealthy industrialists are often also philanthropists. But the vacuity of Steel's argument has left me vaguely stunned.
Could there be a more shambolic way to organise everyone's houses, than leaving it to the free market?
Yes. It could be left in the hands of the Government. So, Mark Steel then. Not funny enough to make up for his stupidity.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Much better

9 years ago I was sitting in a bar in Beira drinking Manica beer from litre bottles and watching an inspired England take the All Blacks down to the wire in a game that eventually ended in a draw - 26-26 I think. England's performance was directed by the fly half, who controlled the back line, kicked his points and generally bossed the show. 5 years later I watched the same player, subbed on in a World Cup quarter-final, moved to inside centre, calm down the fretful Jonny Wilkinson and put in a mature performance that helped England to the semis, and later of course to the final.
On Sunday I watched him provide a sense of purpose and unity to the England back row that has been missing since that night in Sydney 4 years ago. Mike Catt, despite being as old as the hills, and despite some dodgy handling early doors, played out of his skin. David Strettle, the only good news to come out of Croke Park since (I'm not making this joke, you'll have to imagine it), was again superb, Toby Flood quick controlled and solid and Shane Geraghty provided a moment of the sublime. Oh, and the pack turned up to play, which was more than last time.
So reasons to be more cheerful. When Jonny recovers from his hamstring twinge, I'm not sure he's automatic for fly-half. But Catt's only got one more season left (generously) . I've said for a while that I'd be inclined to play Jonny at inside centre, with a more of a playmaker at fly. Flood and Geraghty, Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson - England aren't short of playmakers all of a sudden are they?

Joined Up Government

So, the Government want houses to be more affordable, they've promoted '£60,000 homes' (ignoring the cost of planning permission etc) and they've lambasted developers for high prices.

They're also introducing much tighter building regulations designed to make sure that new builds are 'carbon free' by 2016.

Anyone else spot the teensiest inconsistency?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Patrick Mercer

Um. I have occasionally thought about pursuing a political career. If that is an ambition, I'd better remember to watch my mouth. Discussing the allegations by Commonwealth soldiers of inherent racism in the army I made a comment to the effect that it was important to distinguish between racist treatment - such as the Ku Klux Klan allegation - and what might be termed rudeness. I may even have said that Sergeant Majors on training runs telling two stragglers to hurry up, calling one a fat bastard and one a black bastard probably wasn't evidence of racism.
Well, good job I wasn't Shadow Minister for Homeland Security eh? To be fair, it was probably more his comment that a lot of ethnic minority soldiers use the racism slur to cover up laziness that did for him. But the reaction to these comments has been really very excessive. To force Mercer's resignation was bad enough - though I'm open to the argument that Cameron had no real choice on the matter - but to argue that what he said was itself racist is absurd.
It's also instructive to note that Colonel Mercer (retd) possibly has a touch more authority to speak on such matters than any Labour or Liberal Democrat MP, given that of the whole pack of them only one has served in the Armed Forces - and that's the egregious Eric Joyce. So, for my money it's manufactured outrage and a non-story. But that's probably more a sign of my lack of politico-racial antennae than anything else.


Boris breathlessly reveals the shocking chain of events that led to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - the conspiracy to end all conspiracies!

I will reveal how the Duke of Edinburgh secretly trained the Loch Ness Monster to swim up the Seine until it reached the Pont d'Alma and then I will explain how Philip then gave a kind of ghillie's whistle and Nessie reared out of the water and so startled Henri Paul that he swerved into the path of Elvis Presley in the white Fiat Uno, at which point Prince Charles - hovering overhead in a Luftwaffe helicopter - switched on the supermagnet installed by MI6 in the concrete pillar of the tunnel and sucked the Merc to its doom. That is the story I will tell. I got it from the horse's mouth - Shergar, that is.

Seems plausible enough to me - better than his story about who really wrote that Speccie editorial about Liverpool anyway.

Can opened; worms everywhere

So the Commons voted, in a bizarre alliance between the idealistic and the cynical, to turn the Upper House into a fully-elected body. This is not yet Government policy, no bill has been promoted and no timetable laid out, but it does look as though the times are a-changing and the British Constitution will need a comprehensive overhaul.
Something had to happen. The current Government, by ejecting all but a handful of the hereditary peers, had made the Upper House a body of legislatures appointed by the executive - vast numbers appointed by this executive. This was clearly unsustainable. Whatever the arguments, time-worn and always controversial, for an unelected House whose members were drawn from broadly non-party lines (as the hereditaries predominantly were, conservatives mostly, but not always Conservatives) the demolition of the status quo has been so complete that radical reform was needed.
Blair, it must be said, has always given the impression that he was quite happy with an appointed body - why wouldn't he be? That way it will mostly follow along behind him, and when it doesn't its views can be dismissed as non-representative and inferior to the supremacy of the Commons. The arrival of an elected body would be the death of that argument.
But goodness does the heart sink at the thought of who these elected representatives will be! Party lists, proportional representation, a combination of retirement home and political remedial class: these are what await. One of the benefits of punditry, even on such a tin-pot scale as this, is that the inevitable short-comings of proposals can be pointed out and bemoaned, without the pundit having to put forward any better ideas. So it is here. I though the old idea of a hereditary house, supplemented by modest appointment of life peers was, while entirely indefensible on point of principle, and never an idea that would be suggested as a model, still better than most of the alternatives. Wholly appointed removes the raison d'etre of an independent house; wholly elected removes the basis for the supremacy of the Commons.
Sumus ubi sumus (says he in execrable Latin). I hope that our politicians can see a way out of this mess that neither transforms the House of Lords into a second-tier house for second-rate politicians, nor entails the destruction and remaking of the entire British Parliamentary system. I'm not enormously optimistic though.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Deo Datum

A Boston woman with the rather unfortunate name of Katharine Raper is suing her doctors for failing to abort her child. The child in question is now 2 years old and has no medical problems, and Ms Raper is therefore not suing for incurred medical expense, but for the ordinary cost of raising a child.

There is American precedent (and British for that matter) that exceptional medical costs caused by negligent medical treatment (like a botched delivery causing brain damage) can be recovered. But this is not at issue here. This woman is attempting to claim for the damage done to her bank balance by bringing a child into the world and raising it. British law is clear on this (though I'm not going to flog my aging brain for the case referral): a child is a gift from God, as such it cannot be seen as a loss. Accordingly natural costs of child-rearing cannot be recovered.
If all Ms Raper sees her little girl as is as a financial burden then there is a straightforward remedy. She can put her up for adoption. Otherwise, though she should have the right to claim for any physical damage suffered as a result of negligent medical treatment, she can have no right to claim financial compensation for giving birth to a child.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Burning bridges...

Re-record, not fade away...
With all apologies for the dismal quality of the photo, but Ming Campbell has always reminded me of the Toshiba skeleton. He might not, however, have the same sticking power as the mighty Scotch Tape VHS, especially after his speech to the Lib Dem Spring conference. the Lib Dems have thrived in recent years for two basic reasons. The first was that they were, somehow, the 'nice party', above playing petty party politics like the Tories and Labour did. The second was that they were able to cut their cloth to their customer - offering a Euro-sceptic low-tax face in the South-West to encourage wandering Tories, and a big-state , pro-European soak-the-rich version in the north and the big cities to attract disillusioned Labourites.
The bumbling but genial Charlie Kennedy personified this amiable incoherence perfectly. In his defenestration, however, the Lib Dems sacrificed their nice reputation on the altar of expediency. Furthermore, by electing Menzies Campbell, who is not a good dissembler, they brought closer the day when they would have to choose which side of the fence they were going to have to jump down to.
In his speech, in which he set Gordon Brown some 'tests' which he must satisfy if he wants to rely on Liberal Democrat coalition support and mocked David Cameron, Campbell essentially choose Brown. At a stroke the carefully cultivated fog of ambiguity that has shrouded the 'true' nature of the Lib Dems has been dispersed. This fog has not only helped its electoral prospects, it has also enabled its internal unity. If the Lib Dems, finally and irreversibly, come down as a left-wing opposition to Labour, young Turks like Nick Clegg will find it an increasingly hostile environment.
The winner here is, of course, David Cameron. At a stroke Campbell has made his electoral prospects in the South West significantly worse, at the same time allowing Cameron to make the same 'A vote for Liberal Democrat is a vote for Labour' slogan that helped John Major and doomed Paddy Ashdown in 1992. Fading away? Maybe sooner than you think...

Fifth Columnist!

At the Telegraph no less. Melissa Whitworth writes a rather surprising blog post, essentially bemoaning the fact that the worlds most unconvincing human being (possibly excluding John Redwood, but it's close) failed to win the 2000 Presidential election.

In a mock Oval Office address, Gore told the world that over the last six years his administration had been able to stop global warming and parts of Maine and Michigan were under attack from "renegade glaciers."

The budget surplus was eleven trillion dollars, cars now ran on trash, the cost of oil was 19 cents a gallon, Afghanistan was one of the world’s top tourist destinations and Americans could no longer safely travel abroad for fear of being hugged.

Oh if only, if only.

The unswerving conviction of swivel-eyed Democrats that the election of 2000 was a fraud, that Bush stole the election and that Gore really 'won' is undimmed by any evidence to the contrary, and undulled by the passage of time (c'mon people, it's bloody ages ago!). But what Whitworth fails to notice is that, had President Gore taken office in 2000, the universe itself would have ceased to exist. As Crispin Sartwell says, a vote for Al Gore is a vote for the complete annihilation of all possible worlds. I'd say were were lucky to miss that one.


Twue Wuv Rewarded

Ever since the Conservatives ventured a policy over the parapet (or almost a policy, or sort-of a policy) on the desirability of marriage, there has been comment from all sides of the political spectrum, from the Simon Heffer's of this world harrumphing that whatever it is that the Tories are going to do it isn't enough, and from the Yvonne Ridley's of this world wringing their hands and saying that this reflects a 1950s view of the world and discriminates against other equally valid lifestyles.

As I have previously stated, I have views on this - dictated by my own forthcoming nuptials. Every time this issue is debated there is an inevitable response: look at me, look at my family, we're not/they weren't married and they did a splendid job. Anyone who says that marriage is the better choice is denigrating all non-married parents. I'm not convinced by this logic. Marriage is the best state for raising children, not because of the symbolic power it possesses, still less because it is a holy and blessed state, but because all the evidence shows that married couples stay together longer - the ultimate pre-requisite for effective child-raising.

Now, this is not, of course, to say that some single parents are not fantastic, and some married couples appalling. But, faced with a nonagenarian smoker and drinker, and that jogging pioneer who didn't smoke, didn't drink and keeled over with a heart attack at 50, would we say that we shouldn't pick which lifestyle was 'healthier' because both are equally valid? It is tempting, but ultimately futile to generalise from anecdote.

So marriage is best. Does it therefore follow that the state should step in to encourage it? Since I've only just linked to Picking Losers I really ought to be chary of promoting state intervention. And in fact, I'm not wholly convinced that it is necessary. What certainly is desirable, is for the Government to stop punishing low-income couples for staying together. It's insane that the combination of reduced benefit and reduced services effectively reward a married or co-habiting couple for separating.

It might be socially desirable for the Conservatives to introduce measures such as making the tax-free allowance transferrable between married or civilly-registered couples. It might also be politically impossible. But Cameron has a belief that talking about a situation can help to imprrove it. He likes to cite drink-driving, which fell more as a result of social unacceptability than of legal changes. Resurrecting marriage might take more than mere precatory words, however.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Jeremy Clarkson, in a development that I suspect will be temporary, writes here about how seeing the terminal results of a motorbike accident in South Africa has left him driving more carefully. This caution has paid swift dividends, as by playing safe he avoided hitting a little girl who charged into the road in front of him.
I was musing the other day as I drove down to the West country to my grandfather's 95th birthday party why it was that I seemed to have eased off the throttle in recent years. I've done a lot of driving, but the last three years have seen me move to London, and away from regular access to a car. I'd put my slowdown down to that.
But on reflection I think I can date my slight speed aversion to an event on the Livingstone-Lusaka road in the summer of 2003. Driving back in my ancient and much-loved Toyota Corolla (500,000 km on the clock - beat that!) I was passing through a village at more or less top speed - albeit only about 110 kmh - when about 500 metres in front of me a man of about 30 or so, but emaciated and extremely out-of-it, lurched into the road, turned in my direction and started staggering up the road towards me. I slammed on the brakes as hard as I could (though I suspect that they also had seen half a million kilometres of use) and, leaving molten rubber in my wake managed to stop with approximately an inch clearance - certainly no more.
If I'd been a second slower in reacting, I'd have killed him, there's no question of that. He didn't look robust enough to have survived even a mild impact. I actually wasn't going a particularly inappropriate speed but the shock still made me feel distinctly uneasy all the rest of the journey, and killed off most of my affection for risk-taking on the roads. Apart from anything else, I still see his face occasionally in nightmares.