Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Talking heads

In an otherwise unremarkable piece on the growth of rudeness in modern society (I believe Homer had a similar complaint), The Independent on Sunday asked Boris Johnson for his opinion. His response was quite clearly dictated over the phone either while he was washing the dog, seducing the nanny or otherwise occupied in an absorbing and technical matter:
There is an abdication of responsibility by adults. I blame their cringeing wetness in the face of the growth of children's rights and their pathetic inability to reclaim the streets. I blame the Labour government and their general outlook on life. Gordon Brown is a big girl's blouse and Labour should be kicked out as soon as possible.
Simple, concise and admirably cogent.

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What is Osborne up to?

Tony Blair has suffered from disastrously low polls for years now. He is personally associated with a criminal investigation and, above all, carries the millstone of the war in Iraq. He is also gone, history. So why then is George Osborne making a speech that seems to locate the Conservative Party as Blair's spiritual heirs, while making a clear dividing line between post- Blair Labour?
The answer, or so at least it seems to me, is that the Conservatives think they have identified the reasons for Blair’s early popularity and his later unpopularity. From the very first ‘tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime’ soundbite, Blair has consistently smoothed the feathers of the middle class. Everything he says is plausible and ostensibly catered for the concerns of Middle England. And yet, the follow up is either lacklustre or lacking altogether, while other concrete decisions by the Government, from the consistently sizeable and stealthy tax increases to the symbolic assault on the countryside (through foxhunting and the foot and mouth debacle) have seemed designed to injure or annoy those same people.
What the Conservatives are trying to do is associate themselves in the mind of the middle classes with the rhetoric of Tony Blair, while simultaneously laying the blame for the visible failings of delivery on his party in general and on Gordon Brown in particular. This allows them to pursue a line of attack that will irritate Gordon Brown almost beyond reason: that [insert crisis/scandal] would never have happened on Blair’s watch. It also attempts to refocus the view through the rose-tinted glasses - in the same way that Blair has wrapped himself in the flag of, variously, Gladstone, Churchill and Thatcher.
It has the air of a strategy being put in place with an eye to the longer term. In the immediate it might be marginally counter-productive, especially if Blair strongly disavows Cameron and explicitly supports Brown. As his era recedes, however, the temptation for Blair to emulate Thatcher rather than Major and make gentle noises of disapproval if Brown does tack to the left may make the Tories’ line both more plausible and more damaging to Labour unity.

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Close but no...

Evidently running out of domestic loonies to publish, the Guardian goes one better. After all, why run tedious exculpatory pieces on communist dictators by useful idiots, when you can go one better and get one by a genuine communist dictator in person? Reprinting pieces from Cuba's national newspaper is hardly in the crusading tradition of journalism I suppose but what can you do?
Incidentally, the newspaper is named after a national icon: the yacht on which Fidel Castro returned to Cuba to take part in the revolution. It was bought from an American firm, and had originally been named for a close relative of the original owner. That's why the Cuban state newspaper is called Granma. Almost a touching story.
The piece itself is remarkable only for one thing: evidence of the extraordinary dullness of Castro himself.
A few days ago, while analysing the expenses involved in the construction of three submarines of the Astute series, I said that with this money "75,000 doctors could be trained to look after 150 million people, assuming that the cost of training a doctor would be one-third of what it costs in the United States."
We're lucky I suppose that this article doesn't go on for four hours in that vein. It's called Ideas cannot be killed. Unlike, fortunately for Castro, the people that bear those ideas, like democracy, freedom or liberty.

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Oh dear

Oliver won't be happy.


One final thing

It's grammar schools again. Sorry. I've now seen a lot of editorials and comment defending grammar schools. Some, such as Janet Daly's concentrate on the fact that grammar schools offered a first class education to the brightest children, ignoring the fact that the Tories' argument is that the eleven plus exam no longer finds the brightest children - just the best tutored. Others look at the important part aspiration plays, and how no Conservative government should be seen to be the enemy of aspiration.
Both good points, but it's important always to bear in mind that grammar schools admitted, at most, 25-30% of children. 70-75% went to secondary moderns that were underfunded, underequipped and understaffed. So the argument I want to hear from Janet Daly and others like her is why a return to secondary moderns for the overwhelming majority of British children would be a good thing. An educational system that ignores the need of the minority is an inefficient one. An educational system that caters specifically for the minority while ignoring and downplaying the majority is an indefensible one.
When I hear an intellectually coherent argument that speaks of a radical reorganisation of the schools at the bottom of the heap - that considers greater funding for technological schools for example, or perhaps a pupil-based state voucher system that varies the value of the voucher by the 'difficulty' involved in teaching the child - thereby at least creating an incentive for schools to cater for them - then I might be able to see more merit in the argument for the recreation of a two-tiered system. At the moment I hear an emotional spasm by people arguing that, whatever happens to the majority, their children should be educated apart, at greater expense. I wonder how many people would call for the recall of the grammar school if their children would have to go to a secondary modern?

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The only straight in this bar

A fair amount of publicity has attached to this move by a Melbourne bar to refuse entry to heterosexuals. A few fairly obvious objections (even disregarding the discrimination thing) sprang to mind. How are they going to tell? My haircut and chinos might admittedly mark me down as hopelessly straight from the very first sight but I have my doubts as to whether anybody's gaydar is 100% effective. Tim suggests a more rigorous entry system (so to speak) but I doubt whether even Melbourne would go quite that far.
My next thought was probably that this was akin to those '21 and over' bars. The point is not to ban 20 year olds, but rather to have an excuse to evict 16 year olds with fake IDs. Similarly here, I suspect the rationale is to have an excuse to exclude people who want to cause trouble. How do you recognise them though? Most of the cliches of men who go around bashing up gays are, um, slightly ambiguous. Skinheads in jeans and white T-shirts? Blokes with tattoos? Large groups of men? Seeing the problem yet?

Reasons I don't often get taken to the movies I

Given that the weather was so utterly unspeakable over the Bank Holiday weekend, and also given that forthcoming events (of which more later) have created a distinctly stressful atmosphere over at the Reptile House, my fiancee and I decided to go to the cinema on Sunday. Pirates are always fun, so off we went to the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
It's a very silly film. I knew that, I've seen the others. So why do I find it impossible not to think of objections like the following:
1. It's set in the Caribbean, as in Pirates of the Caribbean. The bad guys are called the East India Company. Am I really the only person who sits there and goes "East India Company: East Indies; Caribbean: West Indies"?
2. The bad guys are called the East India Company, and are shown murdering, torturing and generally behaving like bad guys. These guys are called the East India Company, and are the continuation of the original East India Company. Given that it's possible to defame incorporate bodies (ie: companies) isn't the whole premise of this film intensely defamatory? Imagine a fictionalised McDonalds (called "McDonalds") raping and pillaging their way across Africa. Any chance of a libel suit?
I should probably point out here that when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark my initial reaction was "So the Nazis are digging for the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt, which was part of the British Empire, and then escaping by submarine to Cyprus, which was also part of the British Empire? After raiding a bar in Nepal? Which was essentially a British protectorate?" As I say, I don't often get invited to the movies...

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The souls of the unquiet dead

Dead, but not gone. That was how ghosts, zombies and various other creatures of superstition and indigestion have been described. It's a pretty fair description of the current government as well. And yet, tomorrow, and next Wednesday, and the one after that, and the one after that, David Cameron and Tony Blair will face each other over the Despatch Box and engage in a PMQs of such utter and complete pointlessness that the job of batting coach to the West Indies would be a comparative joy. Why? What possible redeeming feature can there be? If I were in Cameron's position, this would be my first question:
Is there now anything that a Minister can do that would enforce either their resignation or make the Prime Minister dismiss them? In the last few weeks we have seen a Health Secretary make so comprehensive a mess of the MTAS application system that she has finally forfeited the medical profession's trust in the Government. A Home Secretary destroy, by press release and briefing, a department of state that goes back for two hundred years and then promptly disavow any intention of staying with his newly disemboweled part. A ministerial team having to announce a humiliating climb down over Home Information Packs, all the while squabbling over which of them is really to blame. What on earth does a minister have to do these days to be dismissed?
I would then leave the chamber and take no further part in PMQs at all until this absurd fandango has finished and Brown has finally succeeded to the throne. If you have to have an Opposition member to lead PMQs during this time, make it the most junior member possible. There is absolutely no point in dignifying this ludicrous farce.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Who's afraid of the big Brown wolf?

Dennis MacShane, a byword for mendacity even among Labour's Europe Ministers, has an article in today's Telegraph which peddles the 'steaming juggernaut of experienced attack politics' line about Gordon Brown.
Any careful observer of Brown over the past three decades could have told them that this Len Hutton of a politician, once at the crease, is very difficult to get out.
Hmmm. Len Hutton: exquisitely elegant and tenacious batsman, Yorkshire born and bred. Gordon Brown: Scottish politician. This simile needs a bit of work. If you assembled a group of cricket writers and asked them for a batsman who was primarily known as being difficult to get out there'd be one answer: Geoff Boycott. So, Gordon Brown, this Geoff Boycott of a politician. That works quite well actually. Anyway, MacShane believes Brown will outbattle Cameron.
First, Brown will highlight Cameron's three-front problem. The Tory leader has to struggle against the hard Right of Ukip and the BNP as well as the solid presence of the Lib Dems. So Brown will make Cameron do the splits as the Conservatives have to talk Left to get Lib Dem voters and hard Right to stop a few thousand Ukip or BNP votes preventing Tory gains. Cameron's third front - and his biggest challenge - is to reform his party. Blair and Brown invented New Labour; Cameron has to live with old Tories.
I don't buy this. Both the BNP and UKIP are minimal fringe parties. The Conservatives have, insofar as opinion polls can tell you anything, the stickiest supporters - far stickier than Labour's for sure. On the other front, the defining feature of Labour in Government has been the divisions between Brownites and Blairites: that's not going to go away any time soon. It would be fair to say that Labour have the more divided party, and the greater 'spread' challenge - to appeal to their own disillusioned grass roots at the same time as trying to rebuild support in the South.
Second, Brown will not be outflanked on Britishness or on being tough on crime and against terrorism. Ministers such as Liam Byrne and Margaret Hodge are talking new language on immigration and social housing.
Hang on a sec. A minute ago you were saying that it was Cameron who needed to guard his flank against the BNP, now it's Brown?
Above all, Brown will focus on Cameron...As Blair and his fund-raising team quit No 10, Labour will encourage the media to probe the occult party political financing which the Tories are involved in. Brown has plenty of rough, crude backbenchers trained in the Norman Tebbit academy of polecat politics ready to come out of the traps. By contrast, the Eton, Oxford and Household Division Tories promoted by Cameron have effortless charm but don't yet know how to land punches on Labour.
This needs addressing. The idea that, because Brown has been utterly ruthless in dispatching Labour rivals, he is an unmatched political assassin. If a 'friendly' colleague rings up with a press story about how useless Alan Milburn is, it's a major story: 'Labour heavyweights lose patience with minister!' When a Labour MP slags off the Tories it simply doesn't carry the same weight. And the Labour Party are planning on 'probing' the Tories financing? With a possible court case going on at the same time? With a leader who lied about his role in the Ecclestone affair? C'mon! And I'm sure that the rough crude backbenchers will go down a storm with the sort of voters that Labour needs to retain and regain.
Cameron has yet to show he understands that opposition is a full-time profession. The Bullingdon Club, PR work for Carlton TV and accepting large cheques from Lord Ashcroft are not the best training to enter No 10.
Right - show of hands. What career did Gordon Brown have before politics? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? The nearest Gordon Brown got to having a real job was part time lecturing at the Adult Learning Institute in Glasgow. As far as I can tell he has never had a full time job in the private sector. He has been an MP for 24 years, and trying to be one for nearly 10 years before that. And before slagging Cameron's University photos too much, take a look at Brown's.
Gordon Brown lacks both intellectual flexibility and political courage. I'm with Matthew Parris.
His silence does not betoken strength; his immobility does not betoken carefully guarded plans. His curtness does not betoken honesty. His unyieldingness does not betoken valour. Mr Brown is the most spun politician of our era.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lets go fly...

A brief additional word on l'affair strange de Melissa Kite. Affronted by (I think) the online response to her online response to Iain Dale's online response to her original article (phew!), Melissa wrote another piece for the Sunday Telegraph decrying her rough handling and the rather personal remarks that flowed on Guido's site.
This is a group of internet chatrooms where a certain kind of Conservative supporter, almost always male, hangs out in cyberspace under an amusing alias and holds forth on the issues of the day, unbound by libel or slander laws or indeed any of the conventions of everyday courtesy...
All I want to say is that a week ago I speculated about the shadow cabinet. Tory blogger-boys responded by speculating about whether they would like to sleep with me.
There are two points here, one of them important and one of them not. The first is that, as any fule kno, bloggers (and commenters) are not protected from libel laws. There is American case law to suggest that it will be the person who places the comment and not the site on which it is placed that will be liable. The reason there is an illusion of safety is the same reason that people rarely sue each other for slanderous words spoken at the pub - the straw man principle. Oh, and they're obviously immune from the slander laws, since they only apply to the spoken word. Duh.
The second point is that bloggers and commenters are not synonymous, any more than leader writers are the same as letter writers. The posts written by Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie were innocuous - critical of the article certainly, but on a professional basis. The levels to which comment threads can degenerate is notorious - simply read any Comment is Free thread on Israel - but that's a different thing to blogging. Decrying blogging (and by inference Iain, Guido and Tim) because their commenters are rude or misogynistic is like decrying the Telegraph because it's letter writers want the return of the public stocks for litterers. Although, now I come to think of it...


Cheering if true

Guido has news that Simon Heffer will no longer be editing the comment pieces over at the Telegraph. Regulars will know that I dislike Simon Heffer quite considerably, viewing his choleric squire pose as both unconvincing and irritating. There is an atmosphere of infuriated purism over at the Telegraph, one that would prefer ideologically chaste impotence to any compromise with the electorate.
If the Conservatives manage to win the next election you can bet your bottom dollar that Heffer will write an article saying that, if only they'd espoused low taxation and a return of the death penalty then it would have been a landslide. (If they get a landslide Heffer will have had an aneurism anyway and will be unable to comment).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Variety is, of course, the spice of life and it's also fair to say that England's seam attack, shorn of its two most reliably accurate proponents were fairly woeful at Lords. Even so, the selectors have thrown an absolute curve ball (to misappropriate anoither sport's terminology) in their choice of squad for Friday's second Test.

The batting, once Shah had failed to live up to my billing (although he did get a snorter in the first innings) picked itself. Bell's demotion to 6 for the first game says more about where Vaughan sees himself batting than it does about Bell's long term prospects - he is quality and it shows. The buzz that Strauss might get dropped if Flintoff comes back should remain just that: buzz. He's been a wonderfully consistent performer for 3 years and should absolutely not be dropped for one bad series. If Flintoff is not fit enough to play the role of a third seamer, then he shouldn't play. His form with the bat isn't good enough for him to bat at 6, so he has to play as a bowling all rounder. If he does so, and bats at seven, with Prior at eight England have a solid tail for the first time in a long while.
Prior's performance was good enough to suggest that England have finally found a replacement for Alec Stewart - but there's a very long way to go. So we come to the bowling. With Hoggard injured and a slow pitch to contest with, England were always going to struggle. That Plunkett and Harmison struggled at times to hit the pitch should give grounds for alarm. That the selectors have decided that James Anderson (not notable for his discipline) and Ryan Sidebottom (pictured) are the answers is questionable. Sidebottom played one test in 2002, without causing much of a stir but, crucially, is a left-armer. One thing that both sides lacked in their pace department was variety - and the only successful bowler was a slow left armer.
England squad: Michael Vaughan (Yorkshire, captain), James Anderson (Lancashire), Ian Bell (Warwickshire), Paul Collingwood (Durham), Alastair Cook (Essex), Andrew Flintoff (Lancashire), Steve Harmison (Durham), Kevin Pietersen (Hampshire), Matt Prior (Sussex), Monty Panesar (Northants), Liam Plunkett (Durham), Ryan Sidebottom (Nottinghamshire), Andrew Strauss (Middlesex).


Monday, May 21, 2007

Grammars, again

I was going to post a response in the comments, but I thought this was important enough to have another post. Ultimately, whether grammar schools are the answer depends on what the question is. Grammar schools undeniably provide an excellent quality of education. If the aim is to create a state-educated elite to rival the private sector then grammar schools are the best answer.

If the aim is to improve overall standards of education, they might also be the answer. If, however, the aim is to alleviate or prevent the creation of an educational subclass, then they may very well not be. The FSM figures demonstrate that where grammar schools exist, they are dominated by the children of the middle class. I have no problem with this - I'm middle class after all - but it's not then about broad social mobility: it's then about blurring the distinction between people like me and the DK and people whose parents weren't quite able to afford private schooling.
The Conservatives aren't suggesting an end to grammar schools: the line is that they're more interested in the 24,000 schools that aren't grammars than the 170 that are. So to those that support the grammar school - is the idea that they are re-introduced across the board? That existing comprehensives are re-classified? There are quite a few practical problems here. What to do with the older students? Maintain a parallel school-within-a-school?
Theodore Roosevelt famously said "do what you can, with what you have, where you are." The wholesale re-engineering of the schools system back into one of grammars and secondary moderns is surely impractical. The problem with this for the Conservatives is twofold. Grammar schools are totemic. The represent the idea of self-reliance, and of self-improvement. Insofar as the Conservative Party is the party of the middle-class, grammar schools make up a large degree of the 'foundation myth'. This is linked to the second problem. The current Conservative leaders are disproportionately privately educated. It doesn't look good for public schoolboys to 'close down' grammar schools - shades of pulling up the drawbridge.
So what to do? Place strong emphasis on the diminishing role of the state in education; introduce more variable funding arrangements that would allow independent schools to receive some degree of state funding in return for reduction in fees (possibly coupled with some sort of 'social benefit' requirement); increase the operational autonomy of state schools; encourage the founding of and growth in successful schools; encourage setting within schools. Above all, get people to remember that Margaret Thatcher closed down grammar schools and that despite the rhetoric John Major didn't re-open any. The Conservatives don't have the luxury of making empty and unenforceable promises.
The hereditary House of Lords worked extremely well. It provided a much more effective revising chamber than the current model. Should the Conservatives promise to re-introduce that too?

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The death of the grammar school

In the middle part of the twentieth century the grammar school was, par excellence, an effective engine of social mobility. Providing a quality of education that was at the very least equal to that provided by the private sector, the grammar schools provided for an elite minority of state educated children an opportunity to go to university that had been effectively denied to those who failed the eleven plus. Tonly Crosland's effective abolition of the grammar school was disastrous for the cause of social mobility.
So, why have the Conservatives announced that they no longer have plans to re-introduce them? David Willetts, in a long and thoughtful speech to the CBI lays out the primary reason.
Many people, genuinely worried about social mobility, believe that grammar schools can transform the opportunities of bright children from poor areas. For those children from modest backgrounds who do get to grammar schools the benefits are enormous. And we will not get rid of those grammar schools that remain. But the trouble is that the chances of a child from a poor background getting to a grammar school in those parts of the country where they do survive are shockingly low. Just 2% of children at grammar schools are on free school meals when those low income children make up 12% of the school population in their areas.
In other words, if it is social mobility that is your concern grammar schools are inefficient at providing it. It is better to work to improve the schools that we have, and to improve the standards and methods of teaching within them than to re-introduce academic selection. The implementation of comprehensive schools has been poor, to say the least, but there is still validity in the rationale for them. If you divide children at 11 into the bright and the thick, two things are inevitable. The first is that the quality of the 'bright' schools will be much higher, both in terms of facilities and funding. The second is that these schools will eventually be 'captured' by the middle classes.
Willetts's point that low-income children make up only 2% of grammar school intakes is a reflection of that. Paying for a tutor, or for specialist exam coaching, is still cheaper than forking out for school fees: it's a good deal for the parent. But that sort of advantage is not available to poor parents. In this light, grammar schools are essentially a subsidy to rich parents. Does this matter? Even if most of the grammar school intake is made up of bright middle class kids - so what? Middle class kids are people too - if they're bright enough shouldn't they get the chance to go to the best schools?
That's absolutely right, but it's not really what Willetts is addressing. His argument is that, esssentially, there is in existence a class-based admissions policy. The best schools are those with the fewest poor kids, and the rich kids go to the best schools. Chicken; egg. Creating a new tier of better funded best schools is unlikely to change this. What was an engine of social mobility in the 1960s has turned into an engine of social rigidity.
It is a mantra of the Cameronite Conservatives that policies should be examined for how they impact on the least well-off; the least able to opt out of state provision. Grammar schools are to a very great degree for 'us'; for Cameron's totem. A move to re-introduce grammar schools, to re-stratify the education system into the academic haves and have-nots, would play very well with Conservative voters and potential Conservative voters. I don't believe that it would address the problem of social stagnation.
What we have at the moment is selection by parental income. What the re-introduction of grammar schools would do is blur the edges of that slightly. What Willetts is proposing is something different:
At the heart of our education reforms is creating, in Tony Blair's words, 'self-governing independent state schools'. This involves a lot of painstaking work getting rid of the barriers that stand in the way of much greater and more diverse provision of schools in this country. It means making it easier for successful schools to take over failing schools. It means making it much easier to create new schools including by parents groups themselves if they wish. It means making it easier for new providers of education to enter the maintained sector without facing barriers to entry. It particularly means applying these initiatives to the parts of the country which suffer the most from the blocked opportunities and life chances of a low mobility society.
It may be a rejection of the grammar-school system, but I think it is also an attempt to improve the standard of education across the board - not merely for 'people like us'.

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End of the road

As part of the Government's outreach program for the intellectually subnormal, John Prescott stood in, presumably for the last time, at PMQs today. William Hague represented the Tories, making the contest about as fair as a boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Woody Allen. It's a source of conjecture whether Presoctt's verbal incompetence masks a shrewd political mind, or is emrely a fair representation of his inner moron. The following exchanges (albeit tidied up by the BBC) may go some way towards clarifying this.
  • Mr Hague said Mr Prescott would be "missed" by the Tories and "wished him well in his retirement" after 37 yeas in the Commons. He asked if the government would apologise for mistakes made over the computer system for junior doctors' jobs.
  • Mr Prescott hailed Labour's record on employment and help for pensioners, compared with the previous Tory government, adding "can I say I am the longest serving deputy prime minister" and had seen off five Tory counterparts.
  • Mr Hague said his question had been about junior doctors. He asked who was responsible in government for the "fiasco" of the online recruitment system.
  • After a pause, Mr Prescott said: "Tories". He said Labour had to increase the number of medical students when they came in.

The man's a fool. At Ruskin his tutor said he had a burning desire for knowledge reminiscent of Jude the Obscure. I wonder when this turned into playground bullying and indifferent ignorance.

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Reasons to hate London

I'm a simple man in many ways. All I really want is a house in the country, a local pub, and a dog. Rather than a flat in central London, a job in the City and a relationship with the outdoors that's like a failing marriage - it used to be perfect, but we hardly see each other any more. So meeting the parents' new puppy didn't really help. Cute though isn't he?


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Kolpak players

The rise of the overseas player in county cricket has been an established fact for a long time now. Simon Hughes remembered going through the list and trembling at the prospect of facing Sylvester Clarke (West Indies & Surrey), Imran Khan (Pakistan & Sussex), Malcolm Marshall (West Indies & Hampshire), Richard Hadlee (New Zealand & Nottinghamshire), Joel garner (West Indies & Somerset) and so on and on.
The argument has always been that the overseas players denied home-grown players an opportunity, and gave them an unnecessary advantage in training them in Englih conditions. This is something of a circular argument of course, looking at the list above it is dominated by West Indians (and I didn't mention Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Wayne Daniel or Ian Bishop, all of played county cricket at one point). Is the fact that only one of the current West Indies side played county cricket (Corey Colleymore, briefly) resonsible for their poor ranking? Or is their poor ranking responsible for the fact that none of them play county cricket?
In any event, this squabble has been made to look rather old fashioned by two cases before the ECJ, the Bosman ruling and now the Kolpak ruling. The first, inter alia, made it impossible for national sporting bodies to set national quotas that excluded EU nationals - more significant for football than cricket as the likes of Nic Pothas and his Greek passport are unusual. Kolpak took it one stage further, so that a national of a country which has an Association Agreement with the European Union (countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, some West Indian Islands etc) and that person is in possession of a valid UK work permit, must be treated for the purposes of employment as if he was a citizen of an EU country.
This means that the likes of Jaques Rudolph, a former (and possibly future) South African Test player is playing as a non-overseas player for Yorkshire - an inherently ludicrous position. The average county team now plays with four non-British qualified players - which looks over-the-top. So is there anything we can do? David Fulton recommends official ECB action limiting the use of Kolpak players, but this is the one thing that can't happen - it would be illegal under European law and any player (or team) denied a place could sue the ECB for restraint of trade - and win. So the only possibility is an informal gentleman's agreement between the counties not to use them. Sound likely to you? Me neither.


Satisfying but untrue

A couple of months ago Christopher Booker wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that Patricia Hewitt, with regard to the Iranian hostage crisis, had said:
"It was deplorable that the woman hostage should be shown smoking. This sends completely the wrong message to our young people."
Christopher Hitchens picks this up as encapsulating the mimsy, tedious nannying intrinsic to the anti-smoking lobby. It has, in fact, really done the rounds this one - a veritable plastic turkey de nos jours, with the same little drawback. As Booker himself said a week later, people ought really to have noticed the date of his piece: April 1st. That said, it fits so perfectly with what we know of Ms Hewitt that people can be forgiven for not picking that up at the time. However, journos as erudite and august as Hitchens and Danny Finkelstein really ought to drop it now...
With regard to the substance of the debate, as one who considers himself at least tending towards the libertarian (of which more later), I find myself deeply conflicted over the coming smoking ban. Intellectually I condemn it as a scandalous imposition of state power over what should be the private sphere. What right, what possible right, does the government have in reaching into my life in such a way? What the hell is it to do with them? Um. On the other hand, it will be nice (as a non-smoker) to go to a pub and wake up the next morning only stinking of stale beer, rather than stale beer and stale cigarettes. So if it's OK, can I sit this one out?


Most unpleasant image

Comes from Jackie Ashley in this morning's Guardian. The piece itself is a non-descript one saying that women everywhere should vote for Harriet Harman or something (I lost interest). But this made me feel a bit ill:

It's significant that most of the younger Brownites - Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls - are backing Harman. That's not because she's one of their tight inner circle - she's not.

A tight Brownite inner circle? She's talking out of her....


Legal principle #1

Never ever go to court. Melissa Kite seems, however, to be spoiling for a battle of the briefs. The trouble stems from an article in the Sunday Telegraph in which she suggested an imminent Tory reshuffle, dropping Liam Fox, dempting William Hague and promoting David Ruffley. Iain Dale smelled Ruffley's influence on the peice, which he saw as improbable in the extreme. Presumably, also, commenters piled in decrying the status of Ms Kite to write the piece in the first place (I admit though that I tend to follow Oliver Kamm's rule on the bigger blogs and usually don't read the comments).
Melissa, smarting at this rather rough handling, takes a swipe at conservative blogs in general, describing them as being close to death and as being almost exclusively the preserve of right wing men of a certain age - which might surprise such bloggers as Matt Sinclair (and me for that matter - 27 is hardly freewheeling into the tomb) or Caroline Hunt. For evidence she condemns the Cornerstone Group's new blog, which is hardly going to cause much disagreement either here or at Iain's - the target of most of her ire. She goes on to blame the criticism she got for her reshuffle article on misogyny and, for good measure, threatens her critics with a libel suit.
Tory blogging is ripe for a libel challenge. And there will come one. I know these bastions of male political debate love the fact that I'm a woman in their world so let me put it in language they might understand:

The next time you guys go into a tizzy in your little chatrooms you ought to ask yourself one question. Do you feel lucky? Well, do you?
In her case, her question is where else could you call a professional every name under the sun and expect them not to uphold their reputation in court? Unfortunately the answer is pretty much anywhere - calling someone every name under the sun sounds like the definition of vulgar abuse and thus not libellous. Just ask Steven Berkoff.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Not too shabby

Well, I may have some way to go on the Nostradamus front, but the eleven I picked here have all made it into the twelve - I was unduly pessimistic as to the condition of Kevin Pieterson's calf. Received wisdom among the assorted punditry is that the final choice is between the extra batsman, Shah, and the extra seamer, Plunkett. Now, I speak as a spin bowler, and as one who loves the easy classical slow left arm delivery of Monty Panesar, but there must be a case to be made, given the bowler-friendly conditions, and the fact that Flintoff is both out of form, and, worryingly, complaining of soreness in his ankle, to play both the extra batsman and the fourth seamer.
Some might see it as unduly cautious - dropping one of England's world-class players - but there are good reasons. Lords in May is never going to be a raging bunsen; the West Indies have a historic weakness against the swinging ball, an ability that Plunkett certainly possesses; and if England have a weakness then it's a long tail with Plunkett, Hoggard, Harmison and Panesar looking very exposed. I rather doubt that Peter Moores will go with this - the West Indies not having a good track record against spin either - but if Shah does get the nod to head back off to Middlesex I think he'll have been pretty hard done by.


Pollard talks balls

In his new home at the Spectator, Stephen Pollard has taken issue with David Cameron's Observer article about Islam and terror. Entitled Cameron plays into terrorists' hands he suggests that David Cameron's words, above, should be put on posters and plastered at the scene of any future Islamist murder, implying that Cameron will somehow be responsible for the murder.
Cameron's point is that, just as the IRA were not referred to as 'Catholic' terrorists, but as 'Republican' terrorists, neither should terrorists who commit outrages in pursuit of a political objective be characterised by a religious term. Ah ha, you might say, but the political objectives of the Islamists are inherently about their religion. Surely therefore it is fair to refer to them in religious terms. Besides, you might add if you were particularly disingenuous, everyone knows that there's a difference between Islam and Islamism.
Well, the first point is a fair one, and I more or less agree with it. Since the political basis behind the modern terrorists is rooted in Islam (whether theologically correct or not) it isn't necessarily wrong to refer to it as Islamism. What it is, however, is unhelpful, and for the reasons that Cameron identifies. By using the word 'Islamist' to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues' work for them, confirming to many impressionable young Muslim men that to be a 'good Muslim', you have to support their evil campaign.
What Pollard, through agreeing with Melanie Phillips, is arguing is that Islam is distinct from Islamism, and that those like David Cameron or the British police who refuse to use the term ‘Islamist terrorism’ are doing far more than merely sanitising the language; they are actively conniving in the lie that enables this horror to replicate itself.
So Phillips and Pollard believe that Islam and Islamism are two different things: that it is perfectly possible to be a Muslim who derives spiritual solace from the faith in a way that threatens no-one — and that it is essential to distinguish such Muslims from Islamists and protect the former, along with all of us, from the latter. Cameron believes that the use of the phrase "Islamic terror" is different, because it is important to distinguish between the faith and the terrorists.
To me these positions are wholly reconcilable. Islamism, though definable as different from Islam, is essentially used interchangeably with Islam. This is counter-productive if your intention is to keep the Muslim population of this country on board. This is, of course, a different objective to stamping out extremism, by banning Hizb-ut-Tahir for example. What Cameron is doing is drawing attention to this - that what might be a coherent philosophical or etymological position may have unfortunate and avoidable social consequences. To leap up and down virtually accusing Cameron of pre-emptive culpability in any future terrorist atrocity is both ridiculously over-the-top and unpleasantly inflammatory.
UPDATE: Stephen has retracted the bit about plastering the poster etc. thus taking some of the heat out of the thing. The indispensable Daniel Finkelstein sums up the point at issue: that 'Islamism' is not a particularly helpful term, but that neither he, nor Cameron, can come up with a better one. Which is more or less where I was.

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Dodgy numbers

The front page of the Observer proudly blazoned "Poll surge as Brown lays out new vision." I'll admit that my heart sank rather: pinning your hopes on the unpopularity of Gordon Brown leaves you sensitive to signs that the electorate may disagree. Reading the story, however, it became clear that the poll referred to was a Sunday Times YouGov poll. This rather confused me, as I'd bough the Sunday Times, and remembered that they had interpreted the poll in a rather different way.
The figures are that the Labour Party has recovered slightly, to sit at 34% to the Tories 38%. So, obviously an Observer Brown surge? Well, no. For the same poll asks for intentions for a Brown led Labour Party. The numbers? 32% to the Tories 42%. The Sunday Times's take on this: Poll is grim reading for Brown. Phew eh? For a moment I thought that the Observer had some evidence that the people like Brown - now it turns out that they are merely ignoring the evidence that people don't.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Quick! Act natural!

Since he had his teeth whitened and straightened, you hardly see Gordon Brown without a grin stitched all over his face. Clearly aware of his reputation as the gloomiest thing to come out of Scotland since salted porridge, the Chancellor has been making strenuous efforts to acquire the same sort of lightness of touch that Blair retained right up to the end. References to his personal failings, from 'character flaws' right the way up to 'Stalinist tendencies' haven't helped matters - the public image is one of a nail-biting, grudge-bearing obsessive.

So we have been treated to an extended 'get to know you' session. He has a near-permanent smile on his face, and has been ready and even eager to talk about his family life and personal tragedies, such as the loss of his first child - again referred to during his campaign launch. Simultaneously, of course, the spin has been put out that the new Brown regime will be a new world devoid of such shallow fripperies. There's something almost zen about this: an aggressive spin policy to show that in the future there will be no spin.

It's also missing the point. The reason Blair (and Cameron) have an easy rapport with the press and the public is because they are, inherently, beau dans ses peaux - at ease with themselves. it's the same reason that John Major had a difficult relationship with the press. Brown is the epitome of a man ill at ease with himself - look at the tortured body language and the mangled fingernails. Grinning widely and talking about your dead child - however affectingly - is not enough to transmogrify yourself into a man comfortable with himself. In fact, since we are told so often that the Chancellor is intensely private, and hates discussing family matters, it might make him less comfortable.

Leaving the last word with a character who seemed intensely comfortable with who she was, Mrs Thatcher said (about power as it happens, but it applies more widely) "Having power is like being a lady, the louder one protests that one is, the less likely is it to be the case." There is, after all, something profoundly odd about anyone protesting loudly about how normal he is.


Studies in patriotism

George Orwell, whose reputation grows ever greater but whose alignment with the modern left seems ever more tenuous, had this to say on in 1944 the subject of patriotism and nationalism.
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.
Having chided Ming Campbell for calling Tony Blair's description of Britain as 'the greatest nation on earth' as being chauvinist, what then to make of Polly Toynbee today?
He was embarrassingly BNP-dreadful when he added: "This is the greatest nation on earth."
For Ms Toynbee, to express love of one's country is redolent of bigotry and racism. I suppose I could attempt to demonstrate the crass stupidity of this idea, but Orwell once again does it better (though describing Polly Toynbee as a member of the intelligentsia is admittedly something of a stretch.
One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007


Richard Murphy apparently doesn't understand the point of derivatives.

As for derivative traders, we simply don’t need them. Gambling isn’t smart.

Derivatives (a financial instrument whose value is derived from an underlying asset) are not gambling. They are largely used now not for speculative purposes but for risk abatement. It is, as Tim says, a transfer of risk from those less able to bear it, such as farmers, to financial institutions who are able to. The derivatives market creates stability and increases liquidity. It also provides a lot of jobs (much of the work of the City is bound up in this - the derivatives market is the fastest growing part of the financial sector). Ultimately, gambling or not, as DK says the derivatives market is smart.
So who is this 'we'? Who is decrying traders as unnecessary?
Richard Murphy (48) is a chartered accountant.

An ounce of prevention... worth 0.4536kg of cure. The decision not to force Britain to abandon completely the imperial measurement system is both the right one for Britain and for the EU. Why it's right for Britain is patently obvious. The imperial system is infinitely more instinctive. How many of you think of your weight in kilograms? Or your height in centimetres? If Steve Harmison bowls you a ball at 94mph, I think that's a lot more descriptive than 151kph (although that's a bit academic if it's you he's bowling at I suppose).
So many if not most people prefer to use the imperial system for domestic and informal measurements. That's one good reason to keep it. A better one is that parallel measurements allow us to sell both to the US (imperial) and the EU (metric) without having to use different packaging - a not inconsiderable saving. So both for practical and more emotional reasons, it's best for Britain to keep using the imperial system. It's also, frankly, bugger all to do with the EU. What the hell is it to them that we use miles, inches, pounds and ounces?
And that's why this is the right step for the EU. It's hard to stir the British out of their habitual apathy to the EU - you ask the DK or Trixy. But one thing that would have virtually guaranteed rebellion and mayhem would have been the removal of the right to drink a pint. I shudder to think of it.


There has been much speculation as to when exactly Blair would announce the schedule for his departure - would he do it before the local elections to draw the sting, would he wait until immediately afterwards to take the headlines away etc. I, however, know the real reason he waited until today. It was, of course, to provide a suitable birthday present for my occasional co-poster and best-man to-be. Happy Birthday mate!


Nellie Blair

He does like saying goodbye does our Tony. After last year's conference speech, not to mention the original sign-off, now some 900 days ago, today's bravura performance was a thing to behold. Lip a-quiver, chin a-tremble he managed to be full of both braggadacio and a rather nauseating apologia pro vita sua. He even managed to sound an almost Rhodesian note.
The British are special - the world knows it, in our innermost thoughts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.
As if to demonstrate the opposite, the Sedgefield crowds waved hand-written placards reading "Sedgefield Loves Tony", "10 Great Years", "Thank You" and "Britain is Better", the only question being by whose hands they were written. Ming Campbell demonstrated the instinctive patriotism of the Liberal Democrats by describing Blair's description of his, and Campbell's, country as the greatest in the world as chauvinist.
Over all it's hard to be sure who'll be happiest at Blair's departure, scheduled by happy chance for the day after my birthday, the Conservatives or the Labour Party. William Hague was right when he said that Blair was really the most dangerous opponent the Conservative Party has ever had partly because of his ability to persuade people that he is really, secretly a Conservative even though he is leader of the Labour Party. For it will be Blair's ability to persuade his audience that, really, he agrees with you that will be his defining charactersitic. From Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins over Lib-Lab coalitions and PR, to the simultaneous courting of the Independent and The Sun over Europe, Blair has always managed to make his 'true' feelings known.
Yet in truth it was something of an uneasy coalition between Blair, an instinctive modernist, delighting in change for its own sake, and a Labour Party that has a tradition of preferring unpopular ideological purity to the messy practicalities of politics. Looking at the Labour Party today, Blair seems closer to left-wing Conservative figures like Chris Patten, Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine than he does to Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell or even Roy Hattersley.
One prediction I will make. The first problem encountered by the new Gordon Brown Government; the first time opponents need to be charmed or the media placated: that's when the realisation will hit the Labour Party - they have just defenestrated the finest presentational politician of his generation.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ho Hum

I'll say one thing for the Royal Opera House - their 'hold' music is really very good...

Mice, men etc

Well, things have definitely ganged agley. Two of the names one would have inked in for the First Test at Lords (where I shall be, oh frabjous day etc) are now scratched out, leaving a need for a new captain and another frontline batsman. The obvious replacement, in cracking nick on what is, admittedly, a sumptuous batting wicket in Taunton, is still not ready to return to the fray. So, to whom should the selectors turn on Sunday?
The captaincy question shouldn't trouble them for more than half a minute. Despite the calls for Paul Collingwood to take the one-day role, the step up to Test Match leadership is too big a jump for someone who isn't even a county skipper. And it's unnecessary anyway when in the England team, now doubly guaranteed his pace through Vaughan's injury, there is a player who has an unblemished records as Test skipper: played four, won three (admittedly one by default). So, Andrew Strauss it is, easy.
As for the replacement batsman, there is one natural candidate and one or two outsiders. Ed Smith has been in good form for Middlesex for the last couple of seasons, having put the trauma of the end of his Kent days and mixed England experience behind him. Ravi Bopara wins a few supporters too, especially after his performances at the World Cup. I suppose there's even a case, as a one off replacement, for John Crawley or Mark Butcher or Mark Ramprakash, though I doubt that a new coach would want to look so far back so soon. So the probable candidate is Owais Shah, who currently holds the unenviable record of the highest score made by a one-cap player. Shah's also in good nick, knows Lords as his home ground and would let no-one down.
Flintoff's collapse with the bat leaves him an unlikely Test number six, so England have two choices: play as 'keeper someone who can bat at six, or play only four front-line bowlers, backed up with the medium pace of Collingwood (it is an irritant that both the two part-time spinners will be injured). Matt Prior could, at a pinch, justify a six slot, so I'd give him the nod.
This leaves my team of: Strauss (capt), Cook, Bell, Collingwood, Shah, Prior (wk), Flintoff, Plunkett, Hoggard, Panesar, Harmison. The tail looks long largely because of the absence of a plausible number 8 - a role Giles used to fill. Hopefully Stuart Broad will come to fill this position, but I'm not convinced that a Test at Lords is the right place to blood him. We'll see, I don't exactly have an excellent predictive record on such things.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Of springboards, breakthroughs and other nonsense

An interesting set of elections really. Labour lose Scotland, lose their majority in Wales and get shoed in England but manage to avoid meltdown; the Liberal Democrats win Eastbourne but suffer losses everywhere else, and the Tories apparently fail to achieve a breakthrough. This at least is what seems to be the accepted wisdom. I'm not entirely convinced by this: I think the Conservatives did really very well, with one area of concern. I think the Liberal Democrats did as well as could be expected given their limitations, and I think the Labour Party did poorly, and that avoiding total catastrophe is not the same as doing well.
For a while now the consistent complaint about David Cameron's Tories is that he is failing to take the north with him - that Notting Hill charm doesn't play so well north of Watford. Well, I'm not sure that that's quite right. What the results in the north look like to me is that, whereas the Conservatives have done very well in London and Birmingham, elsewhere in the country they remain much stronger in the country than in the towns: the Conservatives have more councillors and councils in the North East and in Yorkshire than either the Labour Party or the Lib Dems - it's in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle that they have yet to make an impact.
Does this matter? Up to a point of course it does. It's not a good thing for a party that seeks to win elections to have large areas of the country where it doesn't even have a presence. Is it fatal, as is being suggested by straw-clutching Labour supporters? No, it isn't. Just as the Labour Party will unquestionably be decimated in the south and midlands, the Conservatives are always going to do better in some areas than others - it's ridiculous to think otherwise. The Tories performed extremely creditably in the elections - gains of 898 seats are remarkable. The perceived wisdom was that anything less than 500 would be a failure, anything over 700 a triumph. 900 looks pretty good on that measure.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they are now hit by two factors. The first is that 26% is actually not a bad result for a third party. The problem is that they have ambitions to be a second party - at least in local government. These elections have at least demonstrated that there remain practical constraints to their ambitions - and that a quarter of the electorate looks like both the ceiling of Liberal Democrat support, and the floor of Labour support. The second is the effect of the Cameron love-in. This has two effects: both a direct switch in the vote from Liberal Democrat to Labour, as seen mainly in the south-west (which has potentially dire portents for the general election) and the second is the reduction in anti-Tory tactical voting. This sort of tactical unwind could have serious implications for the Liberal Democrats in a General Election.
What to do? Well, the move to drop Ming Campbell is the most obvious reaction. But what could either Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne do? Clegg, in particular, would be a great threat to the Tpries - he's is articulate, bright, young and more genuinely liberal than most of his party - but isn't that a problem for the rest of the party? The Lib Dems have long been an uneasy coalition of a left-wing opposition to Labour in the north and a centrist opposition to the Tories in the south west. Choosing Clegg would be tantamount to taking sides - and not the side favoured by much of the membership.
So to Labour. While one has to admire the chutzpah in claiming that this result represents anything other than a disastrously bad one, is there an element of bunker thinking on show? In other words, has the Labour Party started to believe its own propaganda? The precedents for this are not encouraging to say the least. In any event, the architect of the new Labour machine is going - announcing the schedule of departure on Thursday. The last of the Blairite big beasts go with him. The list of the fallen, Blunkett, Milburn, Clarke, Prescott and Reid, is formidable - there will be a dearth of 'big names' in the Brown cabinet that cannot be made good by a clutch of Milibands and a Balls.
Ultimately, however, one suspects that a poor result in this election has long been factored into the calculations of the next step - although whether Brown will have any room for manoeuvre is debatable. What should be causing concern is the extent to which the Labour Party is being hollowed out - the party organisation no longer exists in a meaningful sense across much of the country. The long-delayed rise of the Conservatives means that they are finally taking back some of the votes lost to Tony Blair in the heady days of 1997. It also explains the marginalisation of the protest vote repositories in UKIP.
For the first time in a decade the Conservatives look a plausible party of Government. They have reconquered their home territory, and have started the slow process of encroachment onto Labour's. Whatever Labour supporters might say, only one party headquarters would have been celebrating these results.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Why they need the Gipper

Thomas Jefferson once said, 'We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.' And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying. And just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states.

When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.

Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement.

But there are advantages to being elected President. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret.

Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.

Government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

Governments tend not to solve problems, only to rearrange them.

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The Tebbit Test

Everyone's favourite semi house-trained polecat returns on the pages of the Guardian today, in a piece adapted from a speech given to the Bruges Group. It's a piece about the decline of a sense of British national identity (badly treated by the sub-editors, who clearly want Tebbit to sound an ein volk, ein reich note: Sold out by its political class, Britain is in dire danger of disintegration. Only a strong leader can save us).
The comments bring back memories of the 1980s, with spittle-flecked students shouting incomprehensibly. One charge always brought against Tebbit is also present, the infamous cricket test: are immigrants British? Which side do they support at the Test Match? I've always thought this was actually a good way of determining where someone's loyalty lay: if you support India or Pakistan when they play against England, you clearly identify more with India or Pakistan than you do with England.
The odd response these days seems to be whether this should apply to English expats in Spain and elsewhere: shouldn't they too be taking the Tebbit test? Well of course they should! If I moved to Australia to live, I would be trying to become Australian: even if I was never able to bring myself to cheer on the Aussies, I would expect my children to. If, on the other hand, I was retiring to Spain, I would continue to think of myself as English and would continue to support England - but I wouldn't be pretending to be Spanish, and I wouldn't be playing it both ways.
The Tebbit test is, ultimately, a question of where ones' ultimate loyalties lie - and there's absolutely nothing racist in asking that question.

In the Beginning

A Welsh Conservative AM candidate reportedly referred to homosexuality as a sin (he has denied this) and made references to the acceptability of creationism being taught in schools as well as Darwinism. David Cameron, caught in the controversy, states that what is taught in faith schools should, ultimately, be a matter more for the headmaster and governors than for a political party to decide.
"Personally I don't support the teaching of creationism," but he added, "I'm a great believer that we need to trust schools and governors of schools to get these things right and I think that's the right approach." He said he advocated a "more devolved system" for deciding what schools were allowed to teach.
So, the Conservatives support a decentralised approach to the curriculum. All well and good, but the suggestion that schools teach creationism in science lessons angers many scientists - who rightly see creationism as a superstition rather than a science. So the question to Cameron is refined: not, Should creationism be taught in schools? but Should creationism be taught in science lessons?
"No, I don't think we would. Basically, we think creationism has got its place as part of a religious curriculum, but not as part of a science curriculum."
So the Conservatives support the freedom of schools to set aspects of their curriculum, but would disapprove of attempts to teach religion as science. And this is reported how?
David Cameron's ambiguity about creationism provides yet another example of politicians taking the benefits of science without defending its principles.
There's a headline with no relationship to the story if ever I've seen one...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Awful temptation

Some subtitle translator at TV France 2 allows his political feelings to run away with him slightly... I believe the original was "To rally together so that we can build that dream."

Fascists under the bed

Daniel Davies suggests that the reason that there is a rise in support for the BNP is the remodelling of the Conservative Party under David Cameron - that the tiny minority of British 'fascists' no longer feel at home under the blue banner and have moved over to the BNP. Unprovable of course, but reasonably convincing. Except that the areas where the BNP are starting to make inroads aren't mainly in Conservative areas - and even where they are it seems to be the Labour vote that's every bit as affected.
The reason, I suspect, is that in the main new BNP voters are not terribly politically sophisticated and will often vote for a party out of habit/tribal instinct etc. What seems to be happening (at least according to the shrieks of pain emanating from Polly) is that such tribal voters are widely re-considering their habits. Endless newspaper analyses of whether and how the Conservatives have changed will do that to the right; loans for peerages and the War on Iraq will do that to the left. Make people re-evaluate their long unquestioned allegiances and you'll generate churn. Throw into the mix that a small minority of people are bigoted zealots and you'll see an increase in support for the party that matches their beliefs.
On top of that, add a whole plethora of news and comment of the sort that Laban so cogently writes on, and it's not hard to see why support for the BNP increases. Especially among the sort of person who doesn't like politicians and doesn't trust the media.

Mbissing the point

Madelaine Bunting, here accusing Sarkozy of being sexist and patronising for telling Segolene Royal to 'calm down' after she called him immoral and brutal, manages entirely to miss the point of the French Presidential debate. Royal is behind in the polls, and fighting against a sense that what is needed for France is change, the sort of rupture that Sarkozy represents. Against that is a feeling that Sarkozy is too angry a figure, too thin-skinned and arrogant.
Trying to make sure that this aspect was revealed during the debate, watched after all by 20 million voters, Royal tried to provoke Sarkozy into losing his temper. She called him immoral and brutal, referring back to a pre-election smear that Sarkozy was dangerously anti-democratic, and even fascistic. In response Sarkozy made a point of remaining extremely calm (zen-like according to Le Figaro) and telling Royal to calm down. Royal gambled a little on making Sarkozy lose his temper, and lost. Worth a try, but no cigar. What it isn't is indicative of misogyny.

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With a captain who secured a double first in history from Cambridge, has written two (very good) books, and who brought his former Kent captain, recovering from a serious eye injury, a copy of the Economist in hospital, Middlesex have less trouble than most sports teams in throwing off the image of macho stupidity. But then, with a batting line up that includes that skipper, Ed Smith (Tonbridge) Andrew Strauss (Radley), Ben Hutton (Radley), Nick Compton (Harrow) and Jamie Dalrymple (Radley), my local club are hardly dominated by grim-faced professionals in the Brian Close mould.
Even so, the new 20-20 kit (above) is a bit of an eye-opener. BUT! It's OK, because it's all for charidee...



In analysing constituencies, some figures are illuminating. It's instructive that average property proces in Kensington and Chelsea are £715,000, while in Rhondda they are a mere £61,000. What is less insightful is the 'urban intelligence' quotient. This figure, which is highest in Battersea, gives the proportion of academics and students and public sector professionals in the constituency. In the past I would have qualified under two of these (no prozes for guessing which) and have a reasonable amount of day-to-day contact with the third, and I dpn't think I'm entirely alone in questioning the title. Perhaps 'urban emotional immaturity' would have been better - unless you genuinely believe that Battersea is the home of British intelligent society.
Incidentally, it's 'Who or why or which or what/Is the Akond of Swat?' Isn't it lucky these guys have editors...

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Life on Mars

While the process of completing a doctoral thesis may be wearisome (and in my case almost unbelievably protracted) there are some slight compensations. In my case it is the chance to elaborate just a little on the story of Edward Mukaka Nkoloso, a science teacher and once head of Zambia's National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.

His story has previously been used to demonstrate the unreadiness of Zambia for independence, as well as to show the optimism and 'can do' atmosphere of a new country. But the main point is that it is extremely funny. Nkoloso was disappointed that he wasn't able to fire his rocket (developed with reference to a catapult system) on independence day itself, October 24 1964.
It is a great pity. All is ready at our secret headquarters in a valley about seven miles from Lusaka. The rocket could have been launched from the Independence Stadium and Zambia would have conquered Mars only a few days after the independence. Yes, that is where we plan to go - Mars. We have been studying Mars from our telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained spacegirl Mata Mwambwa, two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary will be launched in our first rocket. But I have warned the missionary he must not force Christianity to the people if they do not want it.
Training for the mission was fierce and highly professional.
On the outskirts of Lusaka he assembled four young men, his first trainee astronauts, or afronauts as Matshikiza put it, dressing them in drab overalls with some old British army tin helmets. Then, in front of the press, they would take it in turns to climb into an empty 44 gallon oil drum which would be rolled down a hill bouncing over rough ground. 'This, Nkoloso explained to the fascinated gentlemen of the press, was to train young men in the experience of weightlessness and get them used to the feeling of landing on the ground on the return of their mission, the way the Russians did it.'
I’m getting them acclimatised to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day [said Dr Nkoloso]. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill. This gives them the feeling of rushing through space. I also make them swing from the end of a long rope. When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope—this produces a feeling of free fall.
Unfortunately, Nkoloso was unable to see his dream fulfilled; the Zambian flag was fated never to fly on Mars; it never even reached the moon. There were two reasons for this: the rocket couldn't get off the ground because of money...and love. Dr Nkoloso explained:
To really get going we need about seven hundred million pounds. It sounds a lot of money, but imagine the prestige value it would earn for Zambia. But I’ve had trouble with my space-men and space-women. They won’t concentrate on space-flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon. Mata Mwambwa, the seventeen-year-old girl who had been chosen to be the first coloured woman on Mars, has also to feed her ten cats, who will be her companions on the long space flight…
They weren't her only companions either. Mata had to cancel her moon studies when she became pregnant and her parents took her away. The cruelest blow fell when the Zambian Government, clearly alarmed by the white heat of technology, distanced itself from Dr Nkoloso's agency. Nkoloso tried to keep the flame of African space research alive, but given the unaccountable absence of funding, it was doomed to a premature end. Bad news for everyone, except possibly the afronauts themselves, who would otherwise have been blasting off into space in a 10ft by 6 aluminium and copper rocket.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

No more clothes pegs required

The ever predictable Polly in today's Guardian delivers a spirited party political broadcast which essentially boils down to this: no matter how bad the Labour Party have been, the Tories would be worse. It's not really worth extended analysis - her articles rarely are - but there are just one or two points.
Frankly Prof King should remind the Telegraph that never before in history has a Labour leader won three elections.
Apart from Harold Wilson, in 1964 and twice in 1974 of course. And Ramsay Mcdonald, who won as leader of the Labour Party in 1924 and 1929, and as Labour leader of a National Coalition in 1931. So apart from those two Labour leaders then. In fact, given that there have only been five Labour Prime Ministers, one of whom never won an election, this is not much of a boast is it? Three of the five won three elections, one won two (Clement Atlee) and one won none (Jim Callaghan). It doesn't speak to the wonderful uniqueness of Tony does it?
Will a Labour wipeout make the next Labour regime turn left, or frighten them into caution?...A mighty Labour thumping will only foster fears that there is indeed some ineluctable rightward tide. If that leads to dull timidity while the right looks livelier, it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So, the best way to ensure that the Labour Party changes direction is to vote for it in these elections? While voting against it because it has drifted to the right (in the slightly off-centre view of Toynbee) will make it, um, go further to the right? I'm unconvinced by this. Political parties, when given a kicking by their core vote, tend to track towards their base to rediscover support. That'd be excellent news for the Tories, but rather less good for Brown.
UPDATE: Wilson, of course, actually won four elections in 1964, 1966 and twice in 1974.

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Making the good the enemy of the best?

Something of a spat has developed on this little right-win corner of the blogosphere. It all started when Jackart attempted to scotch the idea of voting for UKIP over the Tories on matters of principle. The argument is simple: UKIP can never win; the Tories are the most Eurosceptic of the three main parties; voting for UKIP takes votes away from the Tories and makes it more likely that a pro-EU party will win. The John and Jackie Kennedy of the UKIP world responded, with Trixy providing a fisk of the post, and the DK provided two responses: one to Jackart and one to Matt Sinclair's view of matters (which were supportive of Jackart).
So, if one broadly ascribes, as I do, to UKIP policies on Europe (though I'm perhaps slightly less exercised than most UKIPpers), on education, on health and on tax, what reason could there be not to vote UKIP (apart, of course, from the fact that there aren't any elections where I live this week)? As the banner on the top of this blog indicates, I'm a conservative, and veering towards being a Conservative too. I'm broadly supportive of Cameron, when I can work out what it is he's doing, and would, if I had a vote, give it to the Tories this week; barring extraordinary circumstances I'll be voting Tory in the next General Election.
How so, given that I'm more bullish than the current Tory position on Europe and taxation in particular? There's the 'practical' point mentioned by Jackart: that the Tories might win, but UKIP will not. There's also the theoretical point made by Matt that by sticking with the Tories you can change them from within - though the difference one member can do is perhaps overstated. Personally I have one reason that I consider to be a good one, and one that I consider a bad reason.
The first reason is, essentially, that in a first-past-the-post parliamentary system the right cannot afford to make the good the enemy of the best. Viewing both the Lib Dems and Labour as being the left, the Tories very rarely outpoll the two combined: splitting the right wing vote carries the danger that the left win by default - the reverse of what happened in the French Presidential election of 2002, when the fragmentation of the Socialist left allowed Le Pen's nationalist socialism to win through to the run-off. It's a position that stands open to being accused of being unprincipled - that if one believes in a principle, then one should vote only for the party that most clearly stands for that principle. I have sympathy for that view, but there is another consideration.
In politics it is best to temper ideological purity with practical realism. It is worth considering what the practical outcome of your vote is likely to be. The Referendum Party, in the 1997 election was never likely to win seats. What it was likely to do, and what it did, was to diminish the Conservative vote sufficiently to make the Liberal Democrats or Labour win the seat. It is distasteful to some, but General Elections in this country are essentially a choice about which of the two or three parties competing in your seat you would most like to win. If you take a 'plague on both your houses' approach, considering them all to be as bad as each other, then this consideration is irrelevant, and you ought simply to vote for the party you like most or, of course, not vote at all.
The less good reason, and one I'm not proud of, is that most of the UKIP people I've met have been rather odd. I'm excluding from this the obviously delightful DK and Trixy of course, but most of them have been, well, peculiar. One of the reasons I have never joined the Conservatives, and was indeed not terribly supportive of them for a while, was the sort of people who made up my University Conservative Association - weirdos to a man.
Ultimately it's a question of what you want your vote to achieve - a win for the better between Labour and Conservatives or a true reflection of your political principles. Both are valid motives, but I've taken the line that principles out of power are not a lot of use

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