Thursday, April 26, 2007


Here's a photo, via Reuters, from a rally in Palestine. The caption?

Palestinians attend a demonstration against violence in Gaza April 23, 2007

Is he being secretly ironic?



What on earth should the Tories do and say about Iraq? As the popularity of the war continues to plummet, can the Tories disengage? Apologise? I was an early supporter of the war in Iraq. Admittedly I was stuck out in Zambia throughout the build-up and eventual military campaign, so my sensitivity to the changing news might not have been ideal, but I was pretty sure that Hussein had WMDs of one variety or another, that he would continue to try and obtain more, and that he was an unacceptable threat to the region. As such I was in favour of a military action to topple him. I'll go further - I considered that the worst option was for Hussein to call the inspectors in and make obvious moves towards disarmament, as I believed that as soon as the attention of the world turned to the next new thing, he'd quietly begin all over again.
As such, I felt, and still feel, that I had some degree of 'ownership' over this war. I spent hours arguing over the legal implications (is any war not ordered by the UN 'illegal'? If so, does this mean that international legality is in the gift of China and Russia? That sort of thing), and hours more defending the motives of the US and Britain (no it isn't all about oil!). In the immediate aftermath of military victory, when looting and pillaging were the order of the day, I felt intensely angry - as if I had been let down by poor planning. I was a very minor victim indeed of course, but that doesn't stop you getting a touch annoyed.
Forward to today, when the military precision of the US (and Britain) is a memory, and the peace-keeping failures are a daily presence, and where do we early supporters stand? Painfully, and much less assuredly than I used to be, I am still a supporter. I still believe that the decision to go to war in Iraq was the right one. The arguments for this are always going to be disputed - this may be the one topic more contentious than abortion - but, given the situation at the time, plus the potential upsides to regime change, I'll stick to that.
From this position it comes across as very weaselly to complain about the implementation of plans (or lack thereof). You support the war; you defend it. This is the bind I'm in; this is the bind the Conservatives are in. When Michael Howard attempted to follow the path of criticising the method, while not resiling from the aim it looked cheap. The best response is to continue to support the aims of the war, while recognising that others disagree, and to seek to address specific areas where the prosecution of the war and subsequent counter-insurgency have failed. Tim Ireland specifically identifies torture as one area that needs to be condemned. The Tories should also remember that 'supporting the troops in the field', as hackneyed a phrase as that may be, is still important - sweeping denunciations of British soldiers as war criminals is not going to help any more than ignoring genuine cases for concern.
Ultimately, it is possible to retain some degree of political coherence on the Iraq issue, without having to share total 'ownership' of all the problems with the occupation. The Tories could point out that the Labour Government has systematically underfunded the Armed Forces, while simultaneously calling on them more often than any Prime Minister since the Second World War. They could question procurement, and funding and organisation and lots of important matters. And they could do so without looking like opportunistic little creeps. Whether they will or not though is another matter.

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Certainly better than Dyke...

Matthew Parris poses a very interesting (though I suspect ultimately fruitless) question today: why on earth doesn't John Major stand for London Mayor? He's still quite young at 64, a Londoner through and through, a keen sportsman and experienced politician and, crucially, his stock has been gently rising ever since the gloss came off the shiny New Labour toy.

The mayoral election is such that, despite the importance of the decision, celebrity matters almost as much as policy, and John Major is an equal to Ken Livingstone on that front. There's a base of quite serious anger against Livingstone - a serious contender for mayor would stand a very good chance. It's a pity, therefore, that John Major is enjoying the fruits of retirement too much to re-enter the fray.

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Playing for keeps

England's 'keeper, with his age on his back.
One of the few heartening things to come out of the winter for England was the wicketkeeping of Paul Nixon. He was ebullient, noisy and effective, while he was pretty solid with the bat too. He kept the team more or less organised in the field and was relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. With the exception of Kevin Pieterson and Ravi Bopara he was probably the only England player to enhance his reputation at the World Cup. I'm pretty confident, however, that he won't be donning the gauntlets for the opener against the West Indies on May 17 at headquarters.
There's one very simple reason for this: he's 36 years old. Edward Pearce, whose interest in this question can readily be appreciated, has written in defence of Nixon, and in opposition to age-based discrimination. I sympathise with the general tenor of his argument, but he does himself few favours.
Nixon has performed, in tests and one-day internationals, well above his brilliant, but somehow not awfully successful, young predecessors. He has taken the catches and recurrently got the vital 40 or 50 to stave off a collapse.
Nixon is a good solid cricketer, but in one day internationals he averages 21, and has never hit a 50 (though his top score is 49). Geraint Jones, the probable alternative for the World Cup, averaged 25, with 4 fifties. Nixon played well - but probably not significantly better than Jones. I've looked at One Day Internationals rather than Test matches incidentally, because even though Pearce thinks Nixon has performed very well in them, he has managed this despite the handicap of never having played in one.
As for the rest of Pearce's argument, sport must surely be the one area where discrimination on the grounds of age is not a bad thing. In sport you either pick for the future or the immediate. For the World Cup Nixon was an inspired choice. But at 36, performing a role where flexibility, reactions and concentration are more important than any other, he has a very limited professional future. Picking him for the Test against the West Indies would be pointless - he won't be playing for more than a year, and there are exciting possibilities like Steven Davies of Worcestershire and even the James Foster who Pearce derides as a poor pick. I sympathise with Pearce's view, but international sport is not the best place to complain about agism.
UPDATE: Or possibly not... "The wicket-keeping position remains a competitive area - Paul Nixon and Matt Prior have been included in the squad but will be aware that they face strong competition from keepers outside of the squad." There goes my record as a pundit...


Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Gordon Brown, when he is finally given the keys to no. 10, will be itching to prove that his talents and vision have been held for all these years - that he retains the sort of fresh thinking that led to the independence of the Bank of England. I suspect a target may well be the current system of Prime Minister's Questions. When Blair came to office, one of his first actions was to combine the two quarter-hour sessions into one half hour session. This had the effect of reducing the number of 'topical' questions that could be asked, and diluted to a degree the point of the institution. So, you might think, Brown might reverse that decision and re-instate the twice-weekly session.
I rather doubt this. Brown strongly dislikes being personally attacked, as can be shown by his shouty performance at the no-confidence debate last week. PMQs is, at heart, an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to try and give the PM a kicking. I think it's more likely that Brown will seek to re-invent PMQs or, if he feels he can, abolish it altogether. There would be something of a stink, but he could point, with some justification, to exchanges like these today for his reason why it is not worth retaining.
Tory Nigel Waterson asked what would be the PM's "greatest regret" when leaving office. Mr Blair said the Tories' three election defeats in a row should be "their regret".
Former Tory home secretary and leader Michael Howard said the plan to break-up the Home Office was "ill-considered". Mr Blair said that, under the Conservatives, crime had doubled.
What, frankly, is the point of this? Either the Speaker has to 'enforce' at least some degree of direct response to questions, or the whole process might just as well be called Prime Minister's Random Statements.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A critique of pure unreason

There's something about a Polly Toynbee article that sets the teeth on edge. It's the combination of a lofty contempt for 'the people' and the relentless banging of the Brown drum (and apologies for that mental image). So today's offering is little different.
They complain about fly-tipping round the corner or the kids in the street in an aggrieved tone of voice as if the canvasser were personally to blame. It's tempting to retort, "So what do you ever do for democracy, then?" Patient canvassers treat voters as valued customers and passive consumers when a challenging dose of "Ask not what your country can do for you" would not come amiss.
If someone came around canvassing for my vote, and then blamed me for the problems in the neighborhood, I can't say it would increase the likeliness of my voting for them. What do I do for democracy? I pay the bloody taxes that employ the idle buggers. I've given up on asking what my country can do for me - the only services I receive from my council are rubbish collection and street lighting - and they're talking about reducing rubbish collection.
The clipboard picks out doors where erstwhile Labour voters live: forget the rest. Here are some diehard loyalists, the ones who beam from ear to ear when Labour knocks, the ones who say "All my life", "My late husband would kill me if I thought of voting anything else!" and "We're Labour to the marrow, like our parents before us!", or "Never anything else!" But the sad truth is that these tribalists are very old, the widows and relics from another political age.
I simply cannot see the downside here - people have stopped blindly voting for parties on the basis of habit and an irrational fear that ghosts will kill them if they don't. Polly is simultaneously decrying public detachment from politics and the death of irrational voter loyalty. Which is it?
They need reminding that there was no childcare before Labour.
Eh? I have no idea what this might mean, though I'm guessing it's that Polly believes that if omething isn't done by the state, then it doesn't count. Bloggers are bad, remember, because we don't have sub-editors.
Voters in their 20s can't remember any other government and even for the older ones, 10 years is an eternity. Now every aspect of anyone's life that disappoints has to be Labour's fault. Never mind that their grumbles are so local they only refer to the next street.
Well, these are local elections we're talking about here.
Listening to the sounds and the silences on the doorstep is a salutory reminder that politics is not only about policy but also about atmosphere and mood. Ask what exactly Labour has done wrong and few mention the war, some mention immigration but most put their finger on nothing so specific. Ignorance of almost everything can be breathtaking, but the general leakage of trust is a warning that Labour's time could be up.
Stupid electorate, failing to appreciate everything Gordon has sone for them.
A 10-year chancellor must leap out of the starting gate like a fresh contender. He must electrify the stale air with new ideas and new directions strong enough to reach right down to these jaded roots. That takes high voltage jolts of surprise and optimism. Steady as she goes would be steady as she sinks now. He has to break with the past, renounce past errors and find a way to free the party from defending everything done in its name so far.
Try and visualise Gordon Brown leaping out of a starting gate. Try, for that matter, to imagine him renouncing past errors. I can imagine the articles Polly will be writing in two years time, when Labour loses its majority at the General Election (if it's lucky). Ringing denunciations of the timorous foolish electorate: wilfully blind to the glories of Labour. When the people speak, it means it's time to change the people.

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Sorry for not posting this yesterday, but the first barbecue of summer led to the first food poisoning of same. I fully accept that St George is an odd choice of patron saint for England - a man born either in Roman Palestine or Anatolia who is also the patron saint of Ethiopia, Portugal, Greece and shed loads of other countries. England has two perfectly good alternative patron saints, Saint Edward the Confessor or Saint Edmund (as an Aularian, there should be no prizes for guessing which I'd choose). But for goodness sake, can we stamp on this ridiculous claim that St George was A Turkish Arab? Anatolia was part of the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, and was only conquered by the Arabs some 400 years after the death of St George.
It's like calling the Emperor Augustus an Italian, or like calling Colin Cowdrey an Indian or David Gower a Kenyan because they were born in the British Empire. It's fatuous, ahistorical nonsense. It's also designed to make a 'point': that celebrating St George as representing Englishness is stupid, bigoted nationalism, proven by the fact that George was a foreigner. Well, that isn't the point. we know so little about George anyway that we celebrate him not for his own history but for what we see as our national story - our national pride. If Jack Straw wants to attack English nationalism, there are better ways to do so.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Going mainstream...

Well well well. The DK goes mainstream (in the process knocking the idea that he is an anonynos blogger into touch) on the front page of the Daily Telegraph no less.
Chris Mounsey, the 29 year old behind The Devil's Kitchen blog, said: "There is potential for this to have worldwide application. Free speech is at the centre of blogging. Part of the reason bloggers can tell the truth is because it is difficult to pin them down. This law tries to do it."
Chuh. Sell out.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is it the demography stupid?

Mark Steyn has been hammering on the subject of demography for a while now, ploughing a fairly lonely furrow it has to be said. The essential thesis is that the catastrophically low birth rates in the developed West (1.2 in Italy, 1.5 in Spain) coupled with the very much higher birth rates among Muslims in particular (3.5 in Europe, 7 and above in some places) is leading to the end of the Christian West - the flag of Islam will fly over Downing Street, it's only a matter of when.
Without going too deeply into the rights and wrongs of this, is it perhaps extending this analysis to another area of world politics Mark is interested in - the war on terror? Because it's a pretty unarguable fact that the group most susceptible to violence and stupidity is young men. Muslim countries have about the highest proportion of young men in the world at the moment (I believe the average age in Iran now is under 25). Is it not therefore entirely natural that the countries most prone to violence should be those with an unusually large proportion of young men? Compare Japan's demographic profile today with the 1930s. Anyway, it's a possibility.

Class - a shorter version

As with class as with jazz: if you need to ask, you'll never know.

Once more into the breach...

It's a subject that almost guarantees an absence of meaningful debate. Two views on the morality of abortion in the Times, one from Caitlin Moran on how it is just another aspect of motherhood, and how it took her 'longer to decide what worktops to have in the kitchen than whether I was prepared to spent the rest of my life being responsible for a further human being'; and one from Libby Purves where she says, basically, that the slump in doctors being prepared to offer abortions is owing to the moral code of doctor - who see that the Abortion Act, for all its apparent hedging and restrictions is an Act that allows abortion in all cases that a pregnant woman asks for one.
Dr Crippen does a pretty effective job of demolishing the facts behind Purves's article and he also criticises Moran's piece - mainly on the basis that its flippancy and contrived contentiousness are unhelpful to the pro-choice cause (I'll use the terms pro-choice and pro-life even though both of them are unhelpful). Emily (whose thoroughly excellent blog Doing It All Again is well worth reading) has covered this topic here and here. On the strength of the two articles: Moran is essentially an amusing sensationalist - a bit lightweight and a lot of fun. It's revealing that she takes her writing name from a Jilly Cooper character. As such her article probably shouldn't be seen as representing considered and weighted opinion - it's a riff on the subject of abortion. Purves is a more serious journalist, but the risk in seeing patterns out of chaos is that you tend to mould the facts to fit your own pre-conceptions.
As to the broader debate, surely the most damaging aspect is the lightning tendency for the two sides in the argument to leap into extremist positions - rhetorically at any rate. For those on the side of the debate who disagree with me, my possession of a Y chromosome is sufficient to disqualify me from comment - oddly this is a line employed by both sides. One side springs to call the other baby-killers, the other calls them fascists. Plenty of heat, very little light.
Where I find the whole debate so difficult (and raised as a good little British liberal, I was primed with a pro-choice opinion) is that there is very little weighing of argument. Those on the pro-choice side often seem, like Moran, not just to disagree with the moral argument against abortion (that's a life in there - basically a baby!) nor yet to consider it valid but discounted by the opposing arguments, but not to see it at all. As Moran says, 'ultimately, I don’t understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life.' Equally, those on the pro-life side don't seem to engage with the argument that, ultimately, it is a woman's body which is affected, and it should therefore be her decision.
Philosophically, I've yet to hear a convincing argument that explains why partial birth abortion is morally acceptable but exposing unwanted babies isn't. Note the 'morally' there - semantic distinctions over the precise moment life begins is better suited to priests and lawyers. What is a little bit off-putting about the 'ideologically pure' wing of the pro-choice movement is not the validity of their argument, it is the, well, enthusiasm with which they propound them - it's one thing to suggest women should not be ashamed of having an abortion - I'd suggest it's quite another to say they should be proud of it - the mind is drawn to Cartman's Mum successfully persuading President Clinton to make abortion legal up to the 60th trimester.
As for the scary side of pro-lifers? Even apart from blowing up abortion clinics and posting letter-bombs to doctors, it's the unpleasant sanctimonious moralising that gets to me. I began with one Shakespeare quotation, and looking at the more vociferous wings of both sides of this debate it's tempting to end with another: A plague on both your houses.
UPDATE: If you want a nice neat example, try going through the comments here. Incidentally, I don't know whether 'disemvowelling' those with who you disagree is an approved method of blogging...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Manufactured Outrage?

Johann Hari, whose writings seem to irritate me more and more, has a piece in today's Independent that might be a precursor to a new generation of left-wing excuses for failure. I say a new generation, but actually this looks very similar to that peddled by Kinnock, Foot and Hattersley in 1983, 1987 and 1992: the 'right wing press' systematically distort and subvert the ideological message of the left to dupe the public into voting Tory. Apart from displaying a level of belief in the electorate commensurate with an ideology that holds it as an article of faith that the state is better qualified to determine the spending and behaviour of the individual than is that individual, this article seems to me to get so much wrong in so short a space of time that some degree of fisking is in order.
For a start the title: Don't let this Labour government drown in a sea of lies and distortions. You might think this to be a reference to this government's remarkable talent for mendacity and to the arts of suppresio veri and suggestio falsi. It is, however, with regard to the media. It's hard though to repress the reaction that, if this government wishes to avoid drowning in lies and distortions it should first look to its own sluices.
Getting as far as the sub-headline in the piece, and there's still not much right: I have not seen any evidence that the decision to let the hostages speak caused any harm to anyone. What evidence are you looking for? There's little doubt that the British Armed Forces have suffered considerable damage to prestige; the rather supine nature of the surrender (for all that it was the correct decision in the circumstances) can very easily be seen to encourage similar operations: does Hari have to wait to see a repeat performance before he sees the damage done?
Des Browne's sweaty appearance at the despatch box will be a swift sequel to the Pensions Scandal, the Gold Sales Scandal and the Budget Scandal, all hyped into life by the right-wing press over the past few months.
So none of these, all of which involve economic issues of varying complexity (to be honest, even I noticed at the time that the decision to sell gold during an asset price slump, and to pre-announce the sale thereby guaranteeing further price falls smacked of economic idiocy - that Gordon Brown not only should have known this, but was explicitly told it is not a non-story) is a genuine story? Surely they all go to the heart of biggest political story there is - whether Brown is a bona fide economic genius, or a clunking ham-fist.
Scandal One: Bravo Two Hero-to-Zero. What, exactly, is the problem here? See above: a catastrophic loss of prestige and face in a conflict in a region where prestige and face are extremely important. It was a very poor decision to allow the sailors to sell their stories - apart from anything else it transferred ownership of what those stories contained from the MoD to the Sun or the Mirror.
Allowing them to sell their stories helped Britain too. The truth about their longest-fortnight has gone all over the world, and rebutted the Ahmadinjadhian propaganda that the hostages were held in golden chambers and fed caviar. Far from "respecting" women, as the institutionally misogynist Iranian regime claims, the world has been reminded that they single out women for abuse and sexual intimidation.
Well, it might have done if the stories had been designed for that purpose. Instead we got Mr Bean in tears because they took away his iPod. This isn't to say that the hostages were weak, or wrong to 'crack' if indeed they did. It is to say that allowing your emotions to ooze onto the pages of the Sun means that the story will be designed to make you look like a victim - not an image the Royal Navy should be cultivating.
Scandal Number Two: The Great Pensions Robbery that never was. In 1997, Gordon Brown did something brave and authentically left-wing. He ended a fat government subsidy for people wealthy enough to pay for private pensions, and ploughed the money into the NHS to bring waiting lists for everyone - rich and poor - crashing down. The effect on the pensions system was minimal: the removal of a £5bn subsidy cannot bankrupt a £1,000bn industry.
We've seen this sort of version of events before - from Polly Toynbee. Take £5bn (or £7bn or £8bn) a year for ten years and pretty soon you're talking real money. Take into account the opportunity cost of that money (ie: it wouldn't have been stuffed under a mattress but making returns) and you're looking at something in the region of £100bn. A 10% fall in the value of an industry is significant and substantial.
Look for example at the recent decision to require all students applying to university to state on their UCAS form whether their parents went to university. This was reported as an act of incomprehensible madness and spite. The government's reasonable - and left-wing - argument was never heard. Imagine two students. One went to Eton, enjoyed one-on-one tuition, never had to have an evening-and-weekend job, and was the sixth generation of his family to go to university. The other went to a comp in Hackney, had A-level classes of 25, worked every night at Pizza Hut, and has no relatives who went to university. If the second student got three Bs, isn't it likely she is smarter than the Etonian with three As?
Likely? Who the hell knows? But in any event that's not the argument Hari's trying to make. Imagine two students: One went to Eton, enjoyed one-on-one tuition, never had to have an evening-and-weekend job, and was the sixth generation of his family to go to university. The other went to Eton, enjoyed one-on-one tuition, never had to have an evening-and-weekend job, and was the son of a self-made millionaire and the first of his family to go to university. Isn't it likely that if the second got three Bs, that he is smarter than the first with three As? Well, no it isn't. By all means take into account the educational background of the applicants - Hari is right to suggest that it is easier for the privileged to get good grades at A level - but taking into account the educational background of the parents of the applicants introduces a bizarrely arbitrary element to application.
It is, in fact, indicative of the distorted logic of the left that I highlighted earlier. The problem: not enough 'poor people' are going to university. The solution: make it harder for rich people to go to university. I'd be inclined to think that it would be a better solution to improve the quality of primary and secondary education in the state sector - rather than fiddling with entrance to university.
All I am saying is that we should praise the good as well as damn the bad, because if we carry on as we have over the past few months, leaving the government undefended before a torrent of right-wing lies, we will end up back under Tory rule soon. Then future will not be Brown; it will be black.
Together comrades! Forward with Brown future! Death to definite article!
UPDATE: As mentioned in the comments, this post is referenced on Hari's website - which I agree is extremely decent of him.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Lib-Lab pact?

Iain has highlighted some intriguing figures regarding the forthcoming local elections. No! Don't go! This might be important, if not particularly interesting. The relevant figures are as follows:
· Labour are only contesting 60.6 per cent (6,360) of all the seats up for election (5% down on last time). There is no nomination fee for local elections and just 10 local signatures are needed to sponsor a candidate.
· Conservatives are contesting 88 per cent of seats (9,264) – the best ever performance in these seats.
· Liberal Democrats are contesting just 64 per cent (6,667) – only marginally better than Labour (only a tiny improvement on last time)
What would be interesting to know is how many councils are being contested by neither the Labour Party, nor the Lib Dems. The Labour Party was born out of a pledge by the Liberal Party not to stand against it. It was the end of this agreement in 1929 that finally destroyed the Liberal Party. If this is the first sight of a new co-operation between the two parties it's potentially extremely significant - if not at a national then at least at a local level. It's also fraught with danger - as it leads to the accusation (justifiably) that there is no difference between the two parties.
In any event, the fact that two of the three main parties are unable even to run a candidate in 40% of the available wards is pretty damning. If the Tories have serious problems in the north of the country, it's fair to say that Labour have virtually disappeared in the south. The May elections are going to be extremely embarrassing to say the least.

Moderation in all things...

Ahh... The breakfast of Empire builders
I love food: it's a hobby as well as a necessity. In student days I used to love the Covered Market in Oxford (in which, apparently, Chelsea Clinton was always guided by her minders in routes that didn't lead past the hanging deer and pig carcases outside Feathers), and took great pleasure in finding things like a bag of pigeon breasts for a couple of quid (very good on rocket - good mix of pepper and salt tastes). Sadly, the hurly burly of working life has led to a rather more utilitarian viewpoint on such things - though life's never too short to make a bit of an effort.
When I was living the life of an expat in Zambia, however, given that distractions were few and time could hang rather heavily, I did give myself the time to order my culinary affairs more thoroughly. Apart from having lunch at the Lusaka club (where eventually I had my beer ready poured by the time I sat down), I was also able to have the finest breakfast possible. The butchers in Zambia (which I think are actually state run - by the worrying-sounding Zambeef) provided an entire beef fillet for about £4. A thick fillet steak every morning, with a fried egg on top is, I can safely say, the best way to prepare for a hard day's reading the papers from 1956.
Much as I loved this - plus usually dinner at the cricket club where I played - I'm not sure whether I could have coped with life as an Edwardian gentleman. The thought of consuming 5,000 calories each and every day, plus hardly ever drinking anything non-alcoholic (OK, that one might be easier) makes me feel rather uneasy. What with working and everything, my usual breakfast these days seems to consist of a cup of tea and a fingernail or two. Now, where are my kippers...
UPDATE: This on the other hand is rather scary. I've always thought that much of the motivation behind the drive for pure skinniness is wholly irrational. Most men prefer backsides you can balance a pint on and park a bike in. I hadn't properly appreciated, however, the extent to which weight-loss can be addictive. At least I am heroically resisting this terrible scourge, armed with nothing more than bacon sandwiches and pints of bitter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Now, more than ever

This, I think, helps to explain why the Republicans are less than enthused about their range of options for 2008. He casts a long shadow does Ronnie...

Maybe Giuliani could take them, but I'm pretty sure Mitt Romney couldn't.

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More bloggery bloggocks

Well, the spat between Guido (and Iain and Dizzy and so on) and Tim Ireland (and Unity and Justin and so on) seems to have been somewhat ahead of the curve (or is this merely a reflection of the MSM taking a while to catch up to us uber-hip young gun-slingers?). Jonathan Freedland, Terence Blacker and Oliver Kamm have all opined on the problems facing the blogosphere (sorry Oliver, I know it's a grimly pretentious neologism - and crikey you should know about those). While Kamm concentrates on the deleterious impact blogging, and political blogging in particular, has on democracy, politics, life in general etc, both Freedland and Blacker are talking about the new attempt to police the blogosphere.
Kamm's dismissal of the bloggers as un-edited, un-fact-checked, ungrammatical mono-maniacs (is this slightly deflated by the fact that in the article linked to above in the Guardian the new media site is referred to both as 910am and 901am?) seems to indicate a conflation of blogging with commenting. It is absolutely true that the comments section of Comment is Free inevitable degenerates into a pointless 5 minute hate within ten comments. But there is rather more to the blogosphere than the comments section. It's like dismissing newspapers because of all the people who write to the editor. In any event, Oliver's article has been better responded to here, here, here and here. No need for my tuppence worth.
Freedland and Blacker, on the other hand, are essentially making the same argument that Tim did in his campaign against Guido and Iain: that unless rules are expressly made and expressly kept to, the value of blogging is diminished. For what it's worth I broadly agree with that - though on what should constitute these rules I suspect we're further apart. There are problems with the concept of a guide to blogging etiquette (by Emily Poster? Arf). The most obvious is the 'You and whose army? point. Who is supposed to police and enforce these rules? What possible sanctions could they bring to bear? The whole point of the internet is that it's not easily conducive to censorship - look at the blogs that come out of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even if we posit that the Government would get involved, is that a desirable outcome for anybody? Will the blog police come and take way my licence if I don't delete anonymous comments?
This leads to the conclusion that any 'blogging code' would obviously have to be voluntary. But the basic nature of the code (which is a slightly tidied up version of Bill and Ted's 'be excellent to each other') is such that anybody who would sign up to the code would probably already be following its spirit. It's rather like those signs in buses saying 'Please do not spit on the floor'. If you're the sort of person who is likely to be swayed by polite notices, then you're almost certainly not the sort of person likely to be spitting on the floor in the first place.
The blogosphere (gah, twice now) is an inherently self-policing area. If people dislike sites, then they stop visiting it. This could be because it's badly written, abusive, rarely updated or just dull. Visitors to the blogosphere (OK now I'm just doing it on purpose) have an absolute democratic right to vote with their, um, index fingers and get the hell out of Dodge. If they really object to a person who refuses to allow comments, or edits the merry hell out of them, they can start up a parallel site designed to attack/expose that person. Or they can not read what he writes.
Incidentally, if Freedland thinks that women don't blog, or that they can't get as angry or as articulate as men, he's not been looking very hard.


Red star in decline

Given how very much more acceptable it still is to declare allegiance to Communist ideology and Communist 'heroes' than it is to do the same for Fascism and fascists, an odd line of argument has been developing within the pages of the Guardian. Apart, of course, from anything written by Richard Gott, who was after all a paid agent of the KGB, or Seumas Milne, whose article comparing colonialism disfavourably with communism was the subject of one of this blogs first ever extended posts, there have been a few pieces now that have declared that Communism was not as black as it has been painted, and that modern historians are artificially condemning the Communists while rehaibilitating the far right.
My initial response is that this is nonsense. No-one wears a wristwatch with a picture of Himmler on it - not even ironically - while Che or Mao or Lenin are considered chic. George Galloway can describe Stalin as a hero of his, and Ken Livingstone has a bust of Lenin in his office. Even Alan Clarke didn't take his regard for Hitler that far. But, here we are, and another piece seeks to defend the Soviet Union and claim that unprincipled politicians are manipulatin history to rehabilitate the far right and condemn the Soviet Union.
The first point to make is that, for Eastern Europe, the Second World War was hardly a clear cut case of good against evil. Nazi Germany invaded and occupied through brutal puppet governments until they were defeated by Soviet Russia who invaded and occupied through marginally less brutal puppet governments. The claim by Hegyi that millions of Soviet soldiers died for the freedom of Europe is nonsense - they died for the conquest of Eastern Europe. As such it is hardly surprising that war memorials to the Red Army are being removed in Poland, Lithuania and Lavia - you don't expect to see war memorials to the English dead in Aquitaine, who fought to liberate France in the Hundred Years War do you?
The Baltic republics should remember Stalin's victims, and we have to understand their mixed feeling towards Russia. But those who sacrificed their lives against the Nazi regime should be heroes for every democrat.
Again, this is rubbish. Those who died fighting in the Red Army in Eastern Europe were undoubetdly very brave men, but the replacement of one brutal left-wing dictatorship by another is not cause for celebration by democrats the world over. Talking of the Soviet occupation of Hungary she writes:
They had come as liberators but, due to the geopolitical reality, they became oppressors.
What on earth does this mean? It wasn't the geopolitical reality that 'turned' the Red Army into oppressors - it was the nature of the Red Army, the Soviet Union and the ideology of Communism that did that. The statue of Soviet soldiers in the Baltic states, in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are memorials of oppression and of subjugation. It is not only right for them to be taken down; it is wrong that they have stayed up so long.

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Dear Lord...

I have been known, in the past, to ruin other people's viewing pleasure of historical films by pointing out the gross distortions/mild inaccuracies they make. This usually gets me hit, or at least tutted. I am, however, going to acknowledge the master of pedantry... Mr Iain Dale.
I do have one slight niggle though. [pedant alert] The gold Ford Cortina driven by Chief Inspector Gene Hunt wasn't actually available in 1973. It has a vertical dashboard which were only introduced in late 1974 models. The high rear seats were also not available in the 1973 model. The 1973 models also never had GXL headlights. The whole interior is of a 2000E, yet it is badged GXL[/pedant alert]
Breathtaking, magnificent pedantry of the highest order.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What the 15 mean

So, is Iran's release of the 15 sailors a triumph for British diplomacy? For Iranian diplomacy? A humiliation for Britain? An indication that Iran blinked? Symptomatic of the long decline of British prestige? All of the above? None of the above?
There has been a lot of ink spilled to the effect that the sailors first of all should not have surrendered (though I doubt many servicemen would propound this - it's easier to be insouciant over other people's lives), then should have offered nothing but name, rank and number in captivity, and finally should have kept their mouths shut when they finally did get released. I disagree with the first proposition - though I strongly believe that the fact that they were put in such a vulnerable position indicates a cock-up somewhere along the line.
Despite the harrumphings to be heard, once in captivity the sailors were in something of a bind: they had no sensitive information to spill, they were not being held prisoner by an enemy state (in the legal sense of the word anyway) and it is therefore understandable that they took the route that promised a speedy conclusion to their captivity. It's easy to criticise this on the grounds of spinelessness - but which of us are prepared to sacrifice 7 years in an Iranian prison in return for our pride? Some of us possibly, but it's again a decision that's easier to make in the comfort of our living room.
An awful lot of Krugers have been killed by the mouths of the press on both sides of the Atlantic over this affair. But it's worth remembering that America didn't go to war over the hostages in Iran in the 1980s, Britain never went to war for Terry Waite, and even Victorian Britain preferred targets like Theodore of Abyssinia - rather than the estimated 350,000 strong Iranian army. Iran went into this for a propaganda victory, and it's worth reflecting that, as has been said about blogging, that's a little like wrestling with a pig - you both get muddy, but the pig likes it. As a bonus, that comparison ought to irritate Ahmedinajad.

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Any lessons?

Watching the aftermath of that '92 election shock, a number of thoughts also struck me. The first was the absolute loathing for the press shown by every Labour supporter interviewed. This was such that Michael Foot could describe an election with the highest turnout for twenty years, that gave John Major the highest ever number of votes, as a disaster for British democracy. This led into the second reaction: that the Labour message was the right one, though maybe it had compromised to the right too much, and that what was needed was not a different message, but a different electorate.
Luminaries like Ken Livingstone, John Prescott and George Galloway all opined that what was needed was a clearer delineation from the Conservatives: an identifiably Socialist message. Looking back, as a conservative, I suppose I ought to regret that they didn't take this route: a truly unelectable Labour Party would surely have resulted.
The danger for the Labour Party today is that many will consider that the alternative - the centrist repositioning of New Labour - has been tested to destruction and that only by a return to true Socialism can Labour be reborn. If Brown becomes leader and goes on to lose the election, not only will this hypothesis look more reasonable, but the opportunity for Labour to elect someone like Miliband will have receded - a more ideolgically 'pure' candidate will have to be found, like John Hutton for example.
Labour would then be in danger of falling into precisely the same trap as the Tories did in 1997 - retreating into ideolgically pure water, refusing to compromise with the electorate - and thus rendering themselves unelectable all over again. They dodged the bullet in 1992 - can they do the same again in 2009?

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Early signs?

Among the varied geeky pleasures of watching the re-run of the 1992 General Election coverage on BBC Parliament yesterday (I was tidying up at the same time OK?): seeing Oliver Letwin as the unsuccessful candidate against Glenda Jackson; realising that Francis Maude has looked and sounded identical for the last 15 years; seeing George Galloway breaking party ranks to criticise a Labour leader for being insufficiently left-wing. Something was missing though. We saw John Prescott wheeled out to try and explain the Labour failure (not left-wing enough), we saw Robin Cook asked if he would stand against Kinnock, we saw Donald Dewar asked the reason for the Tories increase of their vote in Scotland, we saw Margaret Beckett, we saw John Smith, we saw Roy Hattersley, we even saw a jejune Tony Blair, sounding unaccountably plummier than he does these days.
Galloway identified the two likely candidate to replace Kinnock as being John Smith, the shadow Chancellor, and Gordon Brown, with Galloway predicting that Kinnock would prefer Brown, since Brown was a man in his image. As shadow at the DTI, Brown had played a prominent role in the campaign, he was tipped to be Kinnock's replacement and he had been partly responsible for the economic side of the Labour Party manifesto - the area that sunk them. But where was he on election night? The programme felt like a roll-call of the major players in British politics in the 90s, but Gordon, when the night turned sour, was nowhere to be seen. I doubt this has any real relevance but, in light of his Macavity reputation, it did seem rather striking.
Hope you all had a Happy Easter by the way.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Utterly repulsive

There's a newish blogger operating out of Kenya, the reluctant memsahib, who, in this post, reminds me of one of the reasons why, when I went back to Africa in 2003, I went as an expatriate rather than as a hairy student teacher.
Mango flies lay their eggs on laundry on the washing line. They are canny and know that during the hot, dry weather their larvae, which needs moisture to survive, would curl up and die. So they wait until the rains when the laundry – bearing mango fly nursery – gets taken inside still damp. They are especially canny because, in order for their species to survive, they have identified those houses where a) there is no drier and b) housekeeping a bit slack so ironing not up to much (ironing, you understand, would have same effect on baby mango flies that tumble drier would: i.e.desiccate them so that they curl up and die). Donning clothes that came off the line damp, didn’t see inside of a tumble drier and had only cursory brush with lukewarm iron (power being what it is – or more correctly, what it isn’t) means exposing yourself to mango fly infestation. Resident larvae, delighted to meet warmth of human skin, leap off bra, pants, inside of jeans and burrow delightedly into your flesh. You don’t notice at first. Not until the mango fly has begun to grow which makes your skin itch and swell in an angry lump which eventually develops a head. For a while you kid yourself that you’ve got a boil – the result of the stresses of living in Africa.

But one morning in the bath you have a stab at squeezing the head and to your horror a little white maggot slithers out and wriggles its way across the tiles to begin its own hatchery on your washing line.
When I was teaching in Zimbabwe, the mission school I was at had uncertain running water and only occasional electricity, making washing one's clothes largely a matter of timing, and ironing them afterwards very hit and miss. However, once I had my first fly-bite (luckily enough in my left arm) I was incredibly careful about the ironing. Especially given that I hadn't been ironing my boxer shorts at all. Makes me quite faint to think about.
Anyway, there is in fact an easier, less clinical way of extracting the fly larvae from out of the boil. It's not for the squeamish, but it is quick and effective. What you do is you take a coke bottle (empty) and hold it over the boil. Light a match, throw it into the bottle and then clamp the end of the bottle firmly over the boil, so that the flesh of your arm (say) seals the open end. As the match burns inside the bottle it will burn out the oxygen, forming a partial vacuum inside the bottle. With a thoroughly revolting noise 9and a sensation that is making me squirm at the keyboard in remembering it) the larvae will be sucked out of the boil, and into the coke bottle, together with the usual ick.
You're left with a mark on the affected part of the body that looks like you've been given a love bite by Janet Street Porter, a coke bottle full of ick and a deep and abiding resolution always to iron your shirts off the line, and to iron your boxers twice - because there are parts of you that you really don't want to stick a coke bottle to. Happy days...


Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Via Tim Blair, I've been reading an analysis of the crisis in Zimbabwe as seen from the perspective of the Communist Party of Australia. It's mostly boiler-plate stuff - another demonstration that slogans act as a barrier to clarity both of thought and of expression - but there are some rather lovely touches of, presumably, unintentional hilarity.
Zanu PF is the result of the amalgamation of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU)...separately and then later together ZANU and ZAPU led the national liberation struggle first against British colonialism and then against the white racist regime of Ian Smith.
It's a short passage, but it manages both to gloss over the circumstances of that amalgamation (20,000 dead in Matabeleland) and get Zimbabwean history wrong. The 'British' effectively ceded control of Southern Rhodesia in 1923 to a succession of white minority governments. The regime of Ian Smith was far more of a continuity with its predecessors than a revolution.
[Zimbabwe's] anti-imperialist foreign policy saw Zimbabwe despatch 8,000 troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo...
Gotta love this.
[The main imperial powers] have connived with Zimbabwe's (white) commercial farmers, relics of British colonial rule, in causing a serious food shortage....The Commercial Farmers' Union manipulated food production to create shortages while prices rose...
Yup - food shortages are the fault of the farmers.
Ironically and tellingly, the White farmers had generally voted for the former party of apartheid, Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front. Until 1999 that is, when they struck on the more sophisticated weapon of the MDC.
Leaving aside the fact that the RF changed its name in 1980 (to the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe) and had effectively disbanded by 1987, how the hell does the author know who all the farmers voted for?
The rest of the pamphlet carries on in the same vein - all problems in Zimbabwe are the work of economic saboteurs, the elections are all free and fair, Tsvangirai is a Western puppet, the usual stuff. Opposition to Mugabe from within Zimbabwe that comes from the left is even dismissed as Trotskyism! Published in 2002, incidentally, it contains the memorable prediction that 'land reform' would increase production - since the wreckers would have less ability to stifle yields.
Communists. Is there anything they're ever right about?

Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition

The constitutional role of the opposition is a central part of the Westminster system. It is important that politicians are allowed to oppose the Government of the day without being considered unpatriotic, or 'disloyal'. It is a convention that has not always taken particularly well in the countries to which it has been exported - witness Zimbabwe for an extreme example. The freedom of the opposition to oppose is complemented by the freedom of the press to oppose, to expose and to vilify without being shut down. In countries without these established freedoms, a favourite tactic has been to portray opponents of the government as mad or bad or both.
Polly Toynbee is not, inshallah, an emanation of the state. Her writings are not policy, her opinions not hugely important. But have a look at the language she is using to describe people who disparage the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Times, rabid yesterday...
The Tories hunt for a hint of taint...
The malevolent Andrew Turnbull...
The overbearing power of the rightwing media...
The enemy's one aim is to destroy Labour's best asset...
The words used are very revealing. Others have speculated, somewhat graphically, on the reason that Polly is so defensive over the Chancellor. I'll leave it by saying that viewing the political opposition as an evil 'other' is damaging, and believing that while writing columns that perpetually seek to defend Gordon Brown from any slight, however, trivial, you somehow represent a saintly left-wing press that refuses to be as doggedly partisan and tribal as the right-wing press is spectacularly self-deluded.

Reheating stale argument

Which might actually be a subtitle for much of the blogosphere as a whole. In this case, however, I'm referring specifically to the arguments over the justice of the Falklands War. Mick Hume, the former editor of Living Marxism who now writes for the Times, writes today about the difference between the Britain of Margaret Thatcher, and the Britain of Margaret Beckett. While Thatcher could summon up the last dregs of British Imperial power and retake the Falklands from Argentine attack, Beckett's sheer provincialism is indicative of Britain's reduced standing in the world.
I think the comparison between the Falklands War and the current hostage crisis isn't terribly helpful. For one thing, had Iran captured 15 British sailors in 1983 there is simply no way that Mrs Thatcher would have responded with a full military invasion. Then, as now, we simply lack the military capacity to engage, independently and on its home soil, a country with a far larger army in a situation where the ostensible 'war aims' would be so ill-served by military action. In any event, Hume finishes by reminiscing fondly over his anti-war protests in the 1980s.
In contrast to the widespread acclaim for woolly antiwar protests today, we revolting students were threatened with being charged with treason, for marching behind a (historically and geographically correct) banner declaring that “The Malvinas are Argentina’s”.
The Falkland Islands are 300 miles off the coast of Argentina - why should that make them Argentine? The Channel Islands are closer to France than to England - should they be French? The Canary Islands are closer to Morocco than to Spain; Lesotho is entirely subsumed within South Africa: there is more to sovereignty than geographical proximity. As for historically, there were British settlers in the Falklands before Argentina existed as a country. The argument between Britain and Argentina boils down to a question of which of them should have possession of a colony. Argentina as a nation has never occupied the Islands; there are no historic links between 'the people' of the Falklands (since the islands were uninhabited) and 'the people' of Argentina.
The future of the Falklands must be in the hands of the current Falkland Islanders. The right of self-determination has to be observed. Accordingly, given that the 3,000 islanders have full British citizenship and consider themselves to be British, there is little or no prospect of the islands leaving British control in the foreseeable future. That aside, it would presumably come as little surprise to Nick Cohen to see that avowed Marxists were marching in the street to oppose action taken against a quasi-fascist military dictatorship. The seeds of the Stoppers were clearly sown a long time ago.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Bias and hypocrisy!

This is, as a close observation of its title might suggest, a broadly Conservative supporting blog. That's because I'm a broadly Conservative supporting person. It's also a blog that, so far at least, has been in favour of David Cameron as a Good Thing for the Tory party. If and when scandals or 'scandals' erupt that make the Lib Dems or Labour look bad, I do tend to report them/luxuriate in them/laugh at them. Looking back, however, I seem to be less inclined to dwell on Tory scandals. This may simply be because, in the year and a bit that I have been blogging, Tory scandals have been rather few and far between. I can remember the Patrick Mercer 'scandal' - which I did cover - but not many others. Conservative involvement in the cash for honours affair has seemed to me both elss blatant and less constitutionally significant than Labour involvement - and that's a view that's widely shared across the media too.
Is it then indicative of my inherent bias that I haven't, for example, rushed to criticise David Caermon's use of his House of Commons office to fund-raise? Maybe, but there is also the point that it's a very tedious 'scandal' indeed - certainly compared to the Lib Dems' issues with fund raising. On the wider point there is the fact that most of these 'political' blogs, from Guido to Tim to Iain, are either overtly party-political or carry a heavy personal slant. In this light it's not surprising that more weight is given to news that makes your opponents look bad or your friends look good.
The charge of bias is pretty much undeniable - for this blog at any rate. I am biased. I have a decidedly partisan set of opinions, and since I very rarely go in for fact reportage here those opinions colour what I write. Hypocrisy is a nastier charge, and one I think is harder to make stick. If I had written that the fact of Charles Kennedy's alcoholism made him unsuitable for office (which I more or less believe) it would be hypocritical to defend (say) Boris Johnson if that august figure added chronic alcohol abuse to his list of vices. But if I simply didn't write about Boris's excessive toping? Can you be hypocritical by omission? If I ignored Boris it would certainly be biased of me, it would probably be enough to reduce any reputation for analysis that went above the predictably partisan, but would it be hypocritical. I'm unconvinced.
On that last subject, I now find my eyes glazing uncontrollably when Ed Balls makes any public announcement. Given that this is the man supposed to provide a human face to the Brownite camp, why is he so desperately unconvincing as a human being? He speaks as though he's had a 1980s punch card fed into his brain. In the interests of balance I suppose I ought to criticise John Redwood, but Ed Balls actually makes Redwood look spontaneous. Almost.