Friday, September 28, 2007

The twilight of the Gods

One-eyed God of Valhalla

In a clear repudiation of the slur that we Conservative bloggers are crypto-fascists and loons, I've been spending hours (and hours, and hours) of this week immersed in coverage of high drama - where the one-eyed, but undisputed ruler of the gods makes a series of disastrous misjudgements, one of them related to the proper value of gold and its disposal, before a thorough repudiation of someone who was once much beloved led to that person's offspring destroying the source of his power, before teaming up with an heroic warrior maiden, culminating in the total destruction of the homes of the Gods.
The real problem with opera is that it simply isn't topical.

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Balls - Looking like his head's been blown up by a bicycle pump
Quentin Letts gets it absolutely spot on.
If only Mr Balls could learn to pronounce the letter R, and not to stare at an audience with quite such bulbous amazement, he could be an asset for Labour. The stare really is disconcerting. He has the permanent air of a man confronted by bare buttocks.

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Polly on Conservatism

Well, since I had my go at determining what it is to be a Conservative, I suppose it's only fair that Polly Toynbee should have a go as well. I think, however, she has misunderstood to a significant extent what precisely a Conservative is. The first thing she doesn't get is Boris Johnson.
Between now and next May, he [Boris] risks becoming David Cameron's nightmare shadow, a buffoonish parody of the Conservative leader: same generation, same school, same kind of charm - but all done in pantomime....He [Cameron] knows the centre ground of politics has shifted far in the last decade from anti-gay Section 28 and Boris Johnson calling black people "piccaninnies".
This is continuation of a depressingly tedious line of attack that Boris is i) a clown; and ii) a bigot. He is neither. What he is, and one of the reasons for his popularity is due to this, is a personification of a very old British stereotype. In World War II, it is said, the Americans would describe a situation as being 'serious, but not fatal'. The British would describe them as 'fatal, but not serious'. The urge to make a joke out of everything, even while remaining serious on the subject, is not buffoonish, nor is it lightweight. To underestimate Boris Johnson is an error - and one I suspect that the Labour Party and its emanations will regret. However, on from Boris.
No, what upset the party was his [Daid Willetts's] well-argued factual paper explaining precisely why grammar schools fail to promote social mobility. It confronted Conservatives with unpalatable truths about class and education. It demolished the comfortable view that poor children have the same chance at school as everyone else, if only their parents had "aspiration". They could not and would not face the fact that class and income predestine school results long before school, and that school itself drives deeper class divisions.

Willetts paid the price for telling inconvenient truths about social injustice that run to the heart of all social policy. It takes a few intellectual somersaults to accept his undeniable class analysis and yet stay a Conservative. (Time Willetts crossed the floor?)
Willetts's argument was, essentially, that a grammar school system does not help social mobility for the overwhelming majority of children. As such a Conservative Party should be looking for alternatives. The Tory activist opinion was that, for many of them, the grammar school had been their personal ticket into social mobility, and they didn't see why their children shouldn't have the same opportunity. Both a rearguing for social mobility coming about through the ability of the children, rather than by state diktat. They simply disagree on the best method to provide it. Contrast that with the Socialist idea that what is important is equality of outcome - that every child receives the same education, and you can see that Willetts is a very long way indeed from crossing the floor.
It matters not just to Conservatives, but for the politics of the country that Cameron is not dragged back by his something-of-the-night tendency. There are always genuine arguments to be had between right and left about the proper size of the state, how high taxes should be, the balance between punishment and prevention, the balance between nationalism and internationalism.
The thing is that Polly, having identified that there are conflicting arguments over the role the state should play, goes on to say that Cameron should, effectively, side with the Government. That's a rather odd position - there are two arguments, and both parties should articulate mine.
For the sake of progressive politics, the Conservatives need to move with the moving times and stay intimately concerned with the everyday running of schools, hospitals and social programmes, so that they too can see that money must be raised and spent, that the state must be strong, and that capitalism only works when it is robustly regulated for its own good
I hate the word 'progressive': it's dishonest and glib at the same time. And Toynbee's argument is merely that the Tories must not, under any circumstances, articulate any need for political change, still less any new ideas. But 'progressive' is not a Tory word. 'Radical', on the other hand, has been. What Cameron needs to do is not maintain the current orthodoxies on public finance, on the role of the state and on education. He needs to articulate change. He also needs not to listen to Polly Toynbee. No more caravans!

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

If you're going to ask students...

This study has been hailed as showing that English students (as in students in England, not students of English - that would be more believable) are the laziest in Europe - studying for a mere 16.5 hours a week on average.
The director of the institute, Bahram Bekhradnia, said there was also a marked gender difference in the amount of studying that students did. "Boys are down the pub and the girls are in the library, you can characterise that as," he said.
More accurately, I suspect, boys say they're in the pub, and girls say they're in the library. If you go around asking students how hard they work, you're only ever going to get one response: 'Me? Oh I don't do a stroke of work, just sit in the pub all week and then write the essay the night before.' To listen to students is to believe that no-one cracks a book all term - so try going to the library and taking out books on the reading list - either one student's reading all of them, or students are showing off for the researchers.

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What for?

As Labour's poll leads approach the stratospheric (and frankly unbelievable - do we really believe Gordon Brown is more popular in the country now than Blair was in 1997?) it is inevitable that people should consider an Autumn election more and more likely. But, quite apart from the standard arguments about money, candidates and Prime Ministerial timidity, there is a small problem for those who believe that Gordon should go now: it is why?
There is, of course, an entirely convincing argument that Gordon Brown, as a Prime Minister unsanctified by the benediction of a public mandate, must acquire his own electoral legitimacy and therefore an early election is essential. The problem is that this has been so thoroughly dismissed by the Labour Party and the Prime Minister himself that it's not really usable. Brown can't stand up and say, 'You know, on second thoughts, yeah - I do need my own electoral mandate.'
But what else is there? The Labour Party enjoys a worakable - indeed a large majority; the next election does not have to be until 2010; there is no turmoil within his party: there is no need for an election. The only reason that he would hold one is that he thinks he would win - and that's not really good enough, certainly not for such an homme serieux as Mr Brown portrays himself. So what pretext would he select? An engineered defeat of a measure in the House? Or just a breathtakingly arrogant and dishonest reassessment of the 'mandate' question? Either way, it would not be the best start to a campaign.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Entirely irrelevant

Reading the news that William Hague has called for a debate with David Miliband over the European Constitution, my eye was struck by how Miliband had described the question of whether or not it required a referendum.

Earlier, Mr Miliband dismissed calls for a public debate on the treaty - which replaces the defunct EU constitution - as "navel-gazing".

Now, I recently discovered, for the first time, where this rather peculiar phrase originates. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition the way in which one meditated (my information derives from about the 12th century, so isn't terribly reliable on modern practice) was to stare fixedly at one's own belly-button while contemplating the mysteries of the divine. Hence 'navel-gazing'. A mine of information, that's what I am.



Trevor Phillips appears to have gone a bit odd. In his speech at the Labour conference (sponsored by the Smith Institute! Boo! Boo!) he said that we need to "rewrite British history" in order to make it more inclusive, giving examples. Two problems - he's talking balls in the specific examples, and balls more generally.
Part of the job of heritage is to cognitize - give physical existence - to that national story.
Piffle. This simply doesn't mean anything. Making words up to look clever is rarely a good strategy. I suppose he might mean 'history is important' - but frankly who knows?
"When we talk about the Armada it's only now that we are beginning to realise that part of it is Muslims," Mr Phillips told the meeting. "It was the Turks who saved us, because they held up Armada at the request of Elizabeth I."
Nice story, but it's unfortunately at best grossly misleading, and at worst flatly untrue. The argument, put forward by Dr Jerry Brotton, is that Elizabeth I sought an understanding with the Ottoman Empire (not Turkey, for God's sake - it was 350 years before Turkey was created) that the latter would continue to threaten Spain in the Mediterranean, thereby reducing the number of ships available to the Spanish.
"If the Armada had been bigger it would have taken Britain," said Dr Jerry Brotton.
And that's pretty damn tendentious too. The main reason that the Armada was defeated was that, even though it massively outnumbered the English navy, it was qualitatively inferior in seamanship and gunnery - a larger fleet would have meant more logistical problems - which were already considerable - and not much more chance of victory. In any event, the Turkish 'influence' was insignificant.
The letter, ordered the ambassador, William Harborne, to incite the Turks to harry the Spanish navy. It was written in the mid-1580s
It was written in 1584 or 1585, 3-4 years before the Armada, and had no impact on Turkish policy, because they were busy at the time in the Balkans. It's nonsense.
So perhaps the reason that I am speaking to you in English today rather than Spanish lies not with Sir Francis Drake’s derring-do, but with the first Anglo-Turkish alliance. Perhaps that should count for something when Turkey’s membership of the EU comes to be considered in a few years’ time.
Hmm. Even if you were right, which you aren't, might not the Spanish have something to say about that? Anything else?
But we do know that of all the countries of Europe, Britain enjoyed the most extensive trade with Muslim lands throughout the first millennium after Christ. Happily, today English schoolchildren are learning that there is more to Genghis Khan than the hordes.
I'm pretty certain that Ghengis wasn't a Muslim actually - the Mongols had their own religion I believe. There's more, but it's not really worth dissecting. If the best reason to rewrite British history is that Elizabeth I's spymaster Walsingham wrote letters to her ambassador in the Ottoman Empire then perhaps we'd better leave it as it is.


It's plagiarism Jim...

But definitely not as we know it. What on earth Travel Stream think they're doing lifting a piece of this blog and translating it into German is anybody's guess. That they pick an article about a cricket series between England and Australia 75 years ago is positively bizarre. Any particularly devout Teutonic cricketers want to explain?


Monday, September 24, 2007

Gulliver's Cabinet

One of the most striking things about Brown's first 100 days as Prime Minister has been the staggering degree of party unity he has achieved. Not a voice has been raised in question, let alone in opposition. Looking back to the Blair Government, the first question asked whenever a new policy was put forward was, what is the Treasury's opinion of this? The presence of Brown in the Treasury was enough to maintain a permanent appearance of an alternative regime.
That Blair was Presidential in style is beyond question. The 'eye-catching initiatives with which I should be personally associated' were an ever-present. Decisions made on sofas, kitchen-table cabinets and the like: Blair was never a believer in cabinet-government. Unity thinks (in the comments here) that Brown will herald a return to true Cabinet Government, as under John Major, as opposed to the informal rule of Tony Blair. I'm not convinced, and I'm not convinced because looking at the Brown cabinet is like looking at the England cricket team sent to South Africa in 1999. There are plenty of potential rising stars in people like Ed Balls and the Milibands, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, but there are no 'big beasts' except for Jack Straw - surely the meekest of big beasts.
In John Major's cabinet there were Heseltine and Clarke, Howard and Rifkind, Hurd and um, Portillo. In Thatcher's cabinet there were Howe, Lawson, Major, Patten, Heseltine and Whitelaw. Even in Blair's non-cabinet cabinet there were Reid, Blunkett, Clarke, Cook and Mandelson. All of them substantial figures. Now look at Brown's cabinet. Alastair Darling, Jackie Smith, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman, Hilary Benn. Some of these are, or will be, very successful politicians I'm sure, but at present they are either lightweight or drastically inexperienced. Brown's vision of cabinet Government is one where he always gets his way.
This is, in one sense, good news for the Labour Party. Since there is no-one that could possibly pose a threat to Brown, the briefing and knifing has dropped off dramatically - imagine what Blair couold have done with this sort of loyalty. However, Government is too big a job to be personally managed by the Prime Minister. Delegation is the key to a successful Premiership, and if you try to do it all, you'll end up burnt out and error-prone.
Brown's record so far (and, hey, early days) has delighted Labour supporters because it looks so professional. The fact that it has been calculated for party political advantage has ben ignored or forgiven. But Government is not all about positioning - it is, ultimately, more important to deal correctly with an outbreak of foot and mouth than it is to present to the press how diligently you are working on it. Brown announced with great fanfare that he was taking charge in the early days of the outbreak - is he still? It's hardly an original observation, but the man who has run all along as the end of spin, has done almost nothing as Prime Minister but massage his public image. Appearing as Gulliver in his Lilliputian cabinet certainly adds to his current political stature, but is it a sound long term strategy?
But then, I'm beginning to feel like I did in 1997 again - is it really only me that sees through the 'new Brown' facade? Has the rest of the country obediently rolled over onto its back to have its collective tummy tickled again? There's only so long you can go on shouting that the Emperor has no clothes before getting the sneaking suspicion that it's your eyesight that's defective after all.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Tim Ireland, Craig Murray

Basically, what everyone else said. The English libel laws are an anachronistic disgrace. In their current form they amount to little more than a licence for people sufficiently rich and litigious to bully others.

When such cases come to court they are often farcical, since the burden of proof lies, uniquely, on the accused. But, perhaps more important, it is the threat of going to court at all that is so effective. With no legal aid for the defendant and little likelihood of recovering costs from the claimant, defending a libel action is a no-win game for all but the deepest-pocketed newspapers. The libel laws need reform, and Tim Ireland and Craig Murray both need support.



Unity, in a typically thought-through piece, has a go at deconstructing modern Conservatism, on both sides of the Atlantic. As always with his pieces, it would be to do it a great disservice to look at it piecemeal, so make a cup of tea and go and read the thing yourself.

That said, I do now propose to do him a great disservice, and attempt to answer some of the points he raises (and not just because he was nice about me - if being described as a classic Conservative is nice). The first point is that Conservative and right-wing are not synonymous. This is absolutely right - especially as the term 'right-wing' has largely lost all meaning. It originates, incidentally, from the inter-war French Parliament as a physical description of where the deputies sat - Socialists and Communists on the left, Monarchists and Conservatives on the right, and moderates in the middle. It wasn't a conclusive definition then, one delegate saying that he 'was elected on the left, voted with the right, and sat in the middle', and it's no better now.

The second, linked point is that Conservatism is not the same as Republicanism - which Atlanticists on both sides of the pond often ignore. There was an excellent Flanders & Swann concert in New York where Michael Flanders introduced a song about British politics by saying "now, you must realise about British politics that, like you, we have two parties. We have the Labour Party or, as you would say, Socialist; and we have the Conservative Party or, as you would say, Socialist." That may be less true now, but it's worth remembering that Republicans are not Tories, and vice versa. For God's sake - even the name is anathema to Conservatives!

Unity then identifies a strain of political thought, particularly on the US right, that he thinks is making all the running on the right:

These people aren’t just dumb and ignorant, they’re dumb, ignorant and proud of it. In fact they revel in it to extent that what passes for debate in their circles tends to bear more of a resemblance to a shit-flinging contest at a chimp’s tea party than anything one might reasonably consider an argument.

There's a hefty element of truth in this, and the best place to find these people is in comment boxes all across the web. Realising that tu quoque is a pretty weak argument, I would point out that this phenomenon is hardly unique to any political viewpoint. Read Comment is Free and you'll see that the above is a pretty apt description of that too. But is the Right in terminal decline? Unity thinks so:

Intellectually its already in a state of near-terminal decline, more so for being blind to its own failings, which are perhaps best summed up in the all to common practice of its remaining adherents describing themselves as being:

…an economic liberal and a social conservative.

Well, if that’s how you like to describe yourself then congratulations. Bully for you. You’ve made an interesting lifestyle choice but in no sense can you call that a political philosophy.

Well, for all that I do see myself as a Conservative, I have always (since a nauseatingly young age in fact) described myself as an economic Conservative and a social liberal. I'm a Conservative in the same way that PJ O'Rourke is a Republican - the blog title wasn't just a grab at lustre-by-association. Bluntly, I want a government that leaves both my wallet and my cock alone - but since I use my wallet more often, I'm a Conservative.

Part of the problem here is the woolly and unhelpful use of words like 'liberal'. Neo-liberal economics is essentially a classically free-market position, slightly tweaked. Being liberal on personal matters ought to mean leaving them the hell alone - but 'liberals' often seem to want to intervene everywhere. If the Conservatives want to legislate on encouraging marriage, does that make them more or less liberal than the Labour Party who want ID cards, or the Liberal Democrats who want to ban petrol-engined cars?

Unity identifies, as a fatal weakness, the fact that Conservatism, as a philosophy, is inherently contradictory and hollow. In a sense, though, that's less of a bug than feature. Strong and coherent ideas are quite often wholly wrong. Fascism (in its theoretical sense) is moderately coherent, Communism more so, Theocracy more so than either. None are desirable. When Benjamin Disraeli said that a Conservative Government was an organised hypocrisy, he wasn't being rude.

Conservatism holds, more or less, that Government is usually worse than the alternative - yet when in power, they have, obviously, to exercise Executive power. Often, they will have to extend it. It has always been hard to define Conservatism, as usually it genuinely doesn't stand for anything. There are no great texts that a Conservative can shake and say 'See! It's all in there!'

Unity, in my view correctly, identifies the libertarian right as the most influential (and funniest, best-written and prolific) part of the 'right-wing' British blogosphere. Have a look at my links on the right - Mr Eugenides, the Devil's Kitchen, Dizzy, Guido (though Unity won't like that one): all are from the libertarian side. Of classic Conservatives, probably only Matt Sinclair counts. Since I flirt with libertarianism myself, particularly on social policy, why don't I consider myself one?

PJ O'Rourke said that "A libertarian is a conservative with an acknowledged vice, like, say, a teenage girlfriend." I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that, but I would say that Conservatives are, essentially, sober libertarians. Get a few drinks in us and we support flat taxes, legalised drugs and, when my wife's not listening, probably teenaged girlfriends. But, in the grey mornings, Conservatives tend to think that these might be nice ideas, but they won't work. The inner civil-servant is an ever-present in most Conservative thinkers.

I've gone on a bit, and I'm not really sure whether or not I've addressed the question of what sort of Conservative I am, let alone what Conservatism means. Iain Macleod gave the pithiest summing-up of this view of Conservatism:

"The Socialists can scheme their schemes; The Liberals can dream their dreams: we have work to do."

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Thursday, September 20, 2007


For all the attention that the Liberal Democrats are getting just now, there's no denying that they're in a hell of a hole. A significant degree of the Brown bounce is the haemmorhage of Lib Dem support to Labour. And although this is not entirely due to the leadership of Ming Campbell, he sure as hell isn't helping. It doesn't matter how many times he reminds us that he was an olympic athlete - he looks every bit of 66.
The Patry Conference Broadcast that I inadvertently saw last night was one of the most tragically funny things I've ever seen. The first half tried to portray Ming as a modern, active politician, saying all the right-on things about climate change and so forth. It then ended showing Ming whith (presumably) his grandchildren. It was astonishing - you expected him to get out a bag of Werther's Originals at any minute. It ended showing him arthritically playing rugby in the back garden (still better than the England backs admittedly) before scoring a goal against his 10 year old grandson. The goal was then repeated. In slow motion. Gak.
If that was funny, this is less so. On current polling trends, Electoral Calculus reckons the Lib Dems will fall to 5 seats in an Election. Five Seats. Time to retire Ming. Again.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

By the powers!

Nearly missed it did I! But never did I fail to show all praper respect to a grand sailin' tradition scuttle me for a hornswaggler else.

Ahem. On that note, a joke:

Why are pirates so piratical?

Because they ARRRRR!


Abortion and statistics

Zoe Williams, in a piece in the Guardian that decries the Catholic Church's action in falling out with Amnesty over the latter's policy of supporting abortions in Africa, is guilty of rather muddling her statistics I think, and also of being rather disingenuous. She also makes some rather eye-catching statements:
As happy as I am to defend the right to abortion to all women everywhere at any time, this is not the right moment to start tub-thumping about Catholics with regard to western women and their choices.
Blimey, well, you can't accuse her of lack of clarity on this one I suppose.
The figures on this are almost too outrageous to set down on paper. Where abortion is legal, the maternal mortality rate is 0.2 per 100,000. In countries where it is illegal, the rate is 330 per 100,000. With an estimated 20 million abortions induced, worldwide, every year, that number of women dying - for stupid, pointless reasons, for reasons which boil down to unregulated, unsanitary conditions as often as not - is just suffocatingly unjust.
I'm not actually sure what she means by this. Presumably the first figures refer to death in childbirth - maternal mortality. I don't know how that 20 million figure flows from that. In any event I'm pretty confident that Ms Williams is mixing up causation with correlation here. Countries where abortion is banned tend to be poorer and with a less developed infrastructure than those countries where abortion is legal. Abortion is illegal in Zimbabwe, legal in Sweden. To say that that is the reason why maternal mortality is higher in Zimbabwe than in Sweden is to be deeply disingenuous.
This isn't an anti (or pro) abortion post. I just dislike it when figures are used deliberately to mislead. There's more:
As is the way with these things, young women suffer most: 4.4 million women having abortions each year are between 15 and 19; the World Health Organisation says "it is believed that the majority of abortions for adolescents are carried out by unskilled staff in unsafe conditions".
Avoiding the cheap point that the babies suffer rather more even than the young women, what precisely does the WHO stat mean? That these are backstreet abortions? Or that hospitals are badly funded and staff poorly trained? Given the rise of MRSA in the NHS and the decline in nursing, would 'unskilled staff in unsafe conditions' apply here?
Broken down into region: in sub-Saharan Africa 70% of women who end up in hospital after an unsafe abortion are under 20; a study in Uganda showed that teenagers made up 60% of deaths from backstreet terminations. In short, while we are worrying about whether 15-year-olds should be allowed on catwalks, their peers in the developing world are trying to survive what amounts to a cull.
This is, I'm sure, true but arguing for legalisation of abortion misses the point. African health services are both extremely over-stretched and, crucially, generally not free. Even if abortion were legalised, it would still be out of the reach of the under-20s in Uganda. The sangoma in the village will still be used. Traditional techniques will still be used and young women will still de - unless they happen to be the daughters of rich men.


Is he really just a copy of Blair

Peas in a pod?

Ever since David Cameron used a touch of glamour - by Tory standards - to win the leadership campaign, and promptly embarked upon a strategy of charm and, to be polite, less than exacting policy commissions, the most common charge has been that David Cameron was trying to be like Tony Blair. He even sort of admitted it himself - with an ill-considered attempt to brand himself as 'the heir of Blair'. While Blair was the Labour leader, winner of three General Elections and still more than capable of sticking up for himself in the Commons, this label was barely derogatory, though it obviously made Conservatives grumble a bit. But now, when Blair is but a distant memory as he swans around the Middle East doing something or other, it has an altogether less satisfactory ring to it.
Received wisdom among the bien pensants, who say this sort of thing to look clever, is that, in the words of 'Gitwizard' in the comments to this piece by Jonathon Freedland:
I think it's a brilliant move that the Tories have discovered Cameron, their-Tony Blair-lite, ten years too late. They're peddling a decade old model no one wants any more. Compared to Brown's seriousness, Cameron has no chance.
It's a compelling idea to be sure, that Blair, and Cameron, represent an era of image-management and presentation over policy that has departed and good riddance, whereas Brown is solidly substantial over style. It isn't, of course, true.
The first point is that party politics today is irretrievably about style and presentation. That's because party politics, as opposed to administration, exists only inasmuch as it is reported. Ming Campbell makes a speech committing the Liberal Democrats to raising tax on high earning households (incidentally - does this only cover married couples? Co-habiting couples? Flat-mates? How would it work?) and the reportage covers only his leadership wobbles. David Cameron makes a speech on the NHS and it is viewed as either a track to the right, or a track to the left, or as an attempt to rally the troops, or anything other than what the speech said.
As a result, party politics has changed. This isn't a whinge about the power of the media - that would be pointless in any case - but about how strange it is to condemn David Cameron as being dedicated to image when that is, essentially, what party politics is at the moment. To back this up a bit, lets look at the avowed champion of seriousness and solidity Gordon Brown.
Brown, as I have said ad nauseam has dedicated most of his premiership to controlling his image - from ostentatiously returning home early to take charge of the foot and mouth to relentlessly poaching ideas (for public consumption) and personnel from the other parties - but I'd be hard pressed to name a single identifiably new policy. Unless you count propping up Northern Rock I suppose. Politics has become almost exclusively the preserve of presentation and to blame David Cameron for realising that is perverse.

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All rather depressing...

Well, things aren't precisely going wonderfully for the Tories at the moment are they? The polls look grim, the near-collapse of the financial sector appears, perhaps bizarrely, to be redounding to Gordon Brown's favour and David Cameron appears beset simultaneously from left and right for being either a red-fanged reactionary or a limp-wristed lefty depending on to whom you are listening. Is there any hope for the Tories, or is the nation doomed to an interminable Brownite terror?

The answer lies more in the nature of Gordon Brown than in anything the Conservatives can do over the next few months (assuming there is no Autumn election). Key to the revival in Brown's personal ratings since he became Prime Minister has been the way in which he has sought to negate all the areas where he was perceived to be weak. So the closed-off schemer has sought to broaden his horizons through a series of lateral hires - Williams, Bercow, Mercer and Eliasch. The arch-centraliser has introduced (ish) the ghastly 'citizens juries' to prove that he is really listening.

But there is an inherent flaw in all these things - Brown doesn't truly believe in them. Mercer, Bercow and the rest haven't been hired for the perspicacity of their opinions but for the embarassment that their employment causes Cameron. Does anyone truly think that the citizens' juries will cause policy changes? Brown's tactics have been very effective - but there will come a time when they are shown to be hollow.

Is that any comfort for the Tories? Possibly not. It is beginning to look as though their best asset - Cameron himself - is becoming, if not actually a liability, then at least less of an asset. He seems to have lost that most significant of all attributes: the benefit of the doubt. The Tories have even reignited their latent regicidal tendencies - which is proving far more damaging than anything Brown can do. 'Labour attacks Tory' is barely even a story, 'Tory attacks Tory' is much better.

The story will change. 'Brown the wonderful' simply doesn't have the wheels to last indefinitely. If the Tories can prevent implosion, then they ought to be in good shape to reap the benefits of a 'Comeback Kid' story. If they're not lucky, however, you can almost see the Lib Dems seizing the initiative with a shiny new leader of their own.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Political crimes

Lewis Harcourt

India Knight perhaps rather overstates the case here, when she writes, in connection with Chris Langham's conviction on child pornography charges, that satirise politicians all you like, but not one of them has ever been accused of sinking as low as Langham, a nice arty liberal. Langham has been convicted of viewing and downloading particularly horrible images of child abuse.

Lewis Harcourt, the son of Gladstone's Chancellor William Harcourt, was a cabinet minister in his own right, serving in Asquith's cabinets as Secretary of State for the Colonies during World War One. He was also an enthusiastic and practising paedophile with, according to Matthew Parris, the widest collection of child pornography in the world. His tastes extended beyond pictorial amusement, however, and it was so widely known that boys at Eton were specifically warned off from going for walks with him.

Langham can at least take some comfort that politicians have the capacity for such great iniquity that his rather pales in comparison. Harcourt's end was poetic justice - a boy whom he propositioned told his mother, wh threatened to make the whole thing public. Harcourt retired to his study, and killed himself. Viscount Esher is said to have hurried round to his house and disposed of his ponographic collection before its contents could be made public. I suppose it's not only Langham who can feel a little bit better: Harcourt certainly makes Mark Oaten's spot of difficulty look postively wholesome by comparison.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Cat among pigeons

When I first saw the BBC headline Lib Dems call for EU referendum I'd assumed that Ming Campbell was just getting a bit forgetful, bearing in mind that a couple of days ago he'd said that a referendum wasn't necessary. I now see that he's actually been entirely consistent - he doesn't want a referendum on the constitution, but on the broader question of Britain's relationship with the EU in toto.
Received wisdom seems to be that Brown might just go for this. It's essentially what Keith Vaz called for, and Brown will probably think that he could win a referendum on this. It would be a bit of a fraud:
do you: a) want to sign the EU Constitution; or
b) want to leave the EU altogether
but that won't prevent Brown from doing it. The question is, would the British electorate vote vote in favour of staying in the EU? It's got a terribly bad press, and the public have been deprived of an effective voice on the matter ever since 1975. I wouldn't be astonished if, on being asked the question, a majority didn't just say: actually, sod you all, I want my money back.

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Jardine: the finest defensive batsman of his generation

So, we're approaching the 75th anniversary of the most controversial of all cricket tours, the 1932/3 Ashes tour, generally known as the 'Bodyline tour'. It now seems to be generally accepted that the English team were unsporting, and out of order throughout the tour, and that Douglas Jardine, the England captain whose prosecution of bodyline tactics made him a hate figure in Australia, was, in the words of Leo McKinstrey in today's Telegraph, cynical, brutal and cold.

Bodyline was, however, an intellectual response to an intellectual problem. The deck was stacked in the batsman's favour in the early 1930s, even more than it is now. The lbw law was such that a batsman could not be given out if the ball pitched outside off stump - encouraging enormously negative pad play. Tactics and techniques had evolved around this, and the Australians in particular had developed some decided peculiarities in technique - of which more later.

As if this advantage weren't enough, Australia were blessed with a prodigy. The genius of Don Bradman should not be overlooked when looking at the origin of bodyline. In the 1930 Ashes he had proved the difference between the two sides scoring 974 runs in the series, at an average of 139.14. At Lords Bradman scored 254, and at Headingley he knocked up 334 - scoring 309* on the first day. England had no answer to the little genius from Bowral, and it wasn't until the final match at the Oval, when the Nottinghamshire fast bowler Harold Larwood got good pace and bounce off a true wicket, that Jardine, who didn't play in the series at all due to business committments, noticed Bradman hopping about a bit. It can't have been too drastic - Bradman scored 232.

Still, when Douglas Jardine was confirmed as England captain, the genesis of a plan was forming. England were strong in fast bowling. Harold Larwood would challenge for a place in any side in history, while Voce and Bowes were pretty rapid too. With support from Wally Hammond, no mean bowler, and Gubby Allen, who was decidedly quick, and with a proper fast bowler's mean streak too, England were heavily reliant on pace.

It was decided that off-theory, bowling on and outside the off stump hoping to induce an edge to slips, was only effective when the ball was swinging. In England, with overcast skies and lush outfields, that could last all day. In Australia conditions were such that swing could only be expected from the new ball for maybe 10 overs. After this it was straight up and down. England could choose to be cannon fodder, or change their line of attack.

Leg theory was simple in conception, but required enormous degrees of accuracy to carry off. Put simply, the idea was to bowl back of a length on the line of leg stump or just outside, with a ring of close catchers on the legside, and one or two men out on the boundary for the hook. Batsman are generally better at picking the line and length of balls on off-stump, and were thus vulnerable to variable bounce on the leg stump - if they tried to fend the ball off their hip, they were likely to offer a close catch, if they went on the hook they were vulnerable to the men in the deep.

The leg trap

Complaints that bodyline was, in effect, an endless stream of bouncers at the head of the batsman are a misunderstanding of the theory - a bouncer is much easier to play than a just short of a length ball that has the potential to bounce sharply. The ability of Larwood in particular to extract bounce from good length balls was the decisive factor in the success of bodyline as a tactic. When bodyline was tried in England, perhaps most notably in 1933 when the touring West Indians used it against England, it was necessary to bowl much shorter to get the required effect. It was not particularly effective as a wicket-taking tactic (Jardine scored his only test century against it) though it did slow the scoring.

The reason bodyline has proved so controversial was the pace of Larwood and the poor quality of the wickets. Though people point to the injuries sustained by Aussie captain Bill Woodfull and the 'keeper Bertie Oldfield, in neither case was bodyline being bowled - simply fast balls being missed by the batsman. It is here that we get to the unspoken truth about bodyline: the Australians were getting hit and getting out largely because their techniques were not up to a leg side attack. Match reports from this site make that rather clear.

Ponsford, after having been struck again, on the rump turning to evade a ball aimed at him, was bowled by Larwood.

Ponsford was cracked on the hand by Voce and ripped his gloves off in agony. Next ball he swayed out of the way of what he thought would be another bullet aimed at his body, only to see the ball smash into his leg stump.

Bowes ran in to bowl the first ball to Bradman. He pitched it short, but not short enough to be a true bouncer. Bradman stepped to the off side and swung a tremendous hook shot at it. The ball, not rising as high as Bradman judged, clipped the bottom of the bat and cannoned into the stumps.
Ponsford's chosen method of dealing with Bodyline was to turn his back to balls aimed at him, and take the blows on his rump and back. He was thus struck at least a dozen times, but thankfully never by a ball rising high enough to reach his head.
Larwood bowled Bradman, stepping back to leg to cut a ball pitched on leg stump.
Bodyline was more in evidence than in Brisbane, with Woodfull again hit several times on the back as he continued to deal with balls aimed at him by turning his back to them.
Larwood hit Woodfull between the shoulderblades, causing a delay as he recovered, then soon after hit him on the thigh
Quite simply the Australian batsman weren't watching the ball. In such circumstances, they were bound to get hit. For any cricketer to get hit between the shoulder baldes he would have had to have turned almost completely around and be looking at the wicket keeper! Look at Bradman's shot above - it was his first ball, and he's - what - two feet outside the offstump having a hook at a ball that's hit the stumps? Bodyline was essentially fast accurate bowling in the line of the batsman's leg stump.
The enormous furore that this caused was attributable in its essence to one thing: England had a strong fast bowling attack and Australia did not. For evidence of this, fast forward to 1948, when the Invincibles came over. As Neville Cardus remembered:
One of the most brightening exhibitions of fast bouncing bowling I have ever seen occurred at Old Trafford in 1948 during the England v. Australia Test match. Lindwall was awesome. He almost paralysed Compton's left arm, then, with a "no-ball" so much over the crease that he let the ball go its vicious way far down the pitch, he struck Compton's forehead as in fact Compton actually tried to hook (no running away!) and the missile flew off the edge of his bat.
The cries of outrage that followed the tactics of the 1948 Australians were less strident than those of the Australians in 1932, but their motive was the same. Bodyline (or 'bumpers' or Holding and Roberts' assaulton Brian Close) was 'unfair' because the fan's nation's batsmen were being hit without being able to retaliate. Woodfull didn't match bodyline tactics with Jardine because, disregarding moral reasons, he didn't have the bowlers. England was unhappy about Lillee and Thomson (who admitted bowling to hit the batsman) mainly because we didn't have a match for them.
One gets the impression reading the outraged cries of 'unsportsmanlike' 'contrary to the interests of the game' and so on, that what the Australian public wanted to see was Don Bradman scoring effortless and sublime centuries, while perspiring but gentlemanly England bowlers floated up gentle half volleys outside the off stump. When Bradman scored 309 in a day at Headingley, Percy Chapman the England skipper retained a silly mid off all day. It may have been jolly sporting, but it was poor cricket. Jardine was far too good a captain for that. He had a plan, and he ensured that it worked. Churchill said of Austen Chamberlain that 'he always played the game; and he always lost it.' Jardine played to the limits of the game; and he won.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Do you think...

Aussie Aussie Aussie!
Tanya Aldred is quite upset that there isn't much coverage of the women's World Cup football that's currently being played out in China. Well I can think of a few reasons straight off the bat.

This perhaps? Or this? This one? This for the Scots among us?

OK, so the tone of this blog is facetious, and the picture is not entirely serious either (I'd say tongue-in-cheek but I think that could be misconstrued). But lets face it, we're not exactly struggling to fill the Sport pages just at the minute, and a semi-amateur football competition over in China is always going to lose out isn't it?

(Congratulations to the Matildas by the way for their stirring win over Ghana. Since I married an Aussie girl I can at least support their women's football team.)


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Petraeus Porphrygenitus

Mosaic of Justinian in Basilica S. Vitale, Ravenna

General Petraeus has the most fabulous name. He sounds as if he should be commanding his cataphracts against the Abbasid kingdom, or defending the Theodosian walls against King Boris of the Bulgars. He can take some consolation, however, from the fact that whether he succeeds or fails in Iraq (against the forces of Sultan Harun al-Rashid no doubt) Petraeus is unlikely to suffer the traditional Byzantine punishments for failure of nose-slitting, blinding, castration or, if he was very lucky, being tonsured and locked up in a monastery.

The picture, incidentally, probably shows Byzantium's most famous general, Belisarius. He's probably the bearded chap standing to the left of the Emperor Justinian (memorably described as looking like a hungover saxophonist). Although it's patently obvious which of them has more force of personality, if you look closely you can just see that the Emperor's slipper is placed firmly over his General's sandal. If you want to know who was really the boss of the Byzantine Emperor in the sixth century, then turn around and look at the mosaic behind you.

The Empress Theodora looks like precisely what she was - a jumped-up over-decorated trollop, dripping with diamonds and surrounded by far better-bred retainers. But crikey, you wouldn't mess. She was also responsible for a saying so utterly filthy that Edward Gibbon refused to translate it, and left it unglossed in Greek in a footnote. Dirty girl.
UPDATE: Apparently, General Petraeus's father was called Sixtus Petraeus, which would have been even better.


Is it just me?

I don't know, Ramadan just seems to come around earlier and earlier...


Foot and Mouth

Since it has been established that the recent foot and mouth outbreak was caused by negligence at a Government-run laboratory - a laboratory moreover that had repeatedly flagged poor maintenance as a matter of concern - how much political damage will be caused by today's news?
I suspect that, since nobody in Government seems to care very much about agriculture and rural affairs generally, that it won't have the same sort of impact that, say, BSE had in the 1990s. A problem for the Government then was that they were trying to placate the farmers and the EU simultaneously - this Government doesn't give much of a stuff about the farmers.
Still, a test for Hillary Benn. I suspect he'll find it a lot harder at DEFRA, where his job is to be shouted at by farmers and defend the CAP, than he did at DfID, where his job was to dole out spondulicks in great profusion in exotic locations - a conscience and a sun tan at the same time.


We are all idiots

Nigella - because I can
So, in another contender for the most useless way in which our mmoney is being squandered, a new Government study has been published that examines the style of English used in cookbooks. First things first - what the bloody hell are they playing at? What on earth makes them think we should be paying for their opinions on the literary styles of chefs? Secondly, the report is really the most astonishingly patronising rubbish.
They may look easy enough, but the recipes of Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith are actually very tricky to follow, a Government study has found.
Crikey! How tricky?
The long sentences, complex measurements and complicated words mean aspiring chefs must be equipped with GCSE standard reading and numeracy skills in order to understand them.
GCSE reading eh? Positively prohibitive standards of literacy required then.
According to the research, Gordon Ramsay's language is so easy to read that his cooking methods could be followed by a seven-year-old.
He'd have to be a particularly profane seven year old I'd have thought. The point appears to be that while male chefs like Ramsay or Jamie Oliver concentrate on making their recipes as straightforward as humanly possible, presumably so that men will be able to follow them, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith are criticised for, God help me, having too many different stages to her instructions and using unnecessary adjectives. Lord preserve me from unnecessary adjectives.
Some fathead from the Plain English campaign (who should clearly be drizzled with aromatic olive oil, and then slow roasted over a medium flame for approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes, basting occasionally) spouted the following fatuity:
People just want to know how to cook a basic recipe without all the little anecdotes. Sometimes chefs are guilty of trying to tart up a very easy recipe by adding a few adjectives here and there to make it look more difficult.
This is clearly why Nigella Lawson's Nigella's Express is currently Amazon's best selling title.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Case proven!

The BBC are quite clearly dismissive of the prospects and success of the US 'surge' in Iraq - look at what Stephen Pollard says about their radio coverage here - despite the evidence submitted by General Petraeus to suggest that violence is decreasing and progress looks better than it has for some time.
Even allowing for that, however, there's a bit of disingenuousness on display in their report, as well as a classic instance of the famous 'meanwhile' tactic beloved of commenters across the blogosphere:
The military objectives of the US troop surge in Iraq "are largely being met", the top US military commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, has said. He told a Congressional panel that although improvements were "uneven", violence had declined significantly since the surge began in February....Meanwhile, at least eight American soldiers died in Iraq.
Well that told old Petraeus eh? Eight dead...
including seven killed in a vehicle accident in western Baghdad.
Car crash in Baghdad - evidence that US military strategy misguided.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Guppy? Hedges?

Sorry for revisiting the London Mayoral theme - it's becoming something of a theme here - but that's partly because it's becoming so interesting. In an article in the Guardian Ken has an extended attempt at attacking Tories in general and Boris in particular, and it's the angle of attack that is so fascinating. In a classic 'play the man not the ball' Livingstone goes onto what he must think is a winner:

Boris Johnson, is in an extraordinary position. He has advocated a policy of the public individually intervening against yobs. But this contrast sharply with his own recorded behaviour. When approached by Darius Guppy, a person later convicted of fraud, to aid in the beating up of a journalist - Stuart Collier - Boris Johnson failed to report this to the police, discussed how badly the journalist would be beaten and agreed to supply his address. Can he explain how anyone who did this can present themselves as a candidate in favour of law and order in London?

But is this a wise line of attack? Boris does after all have a perfectly credible defence, as outlined by the man who actually made the recording that first brought this matter to light, and holds no particular torch for him:

I don't especially support Johnson, though I loathe Livingstone, but I'd like to see a fair contest. So let me just explain Johnson's role, as far as I can make it out from the tapes I made at the time.

He didn't know the heavies were planning to rip Guppy off. It must have seemed a serious plot. Guppy made it clear that he could try other means of finding the journalist's address. Johnson assured him he didn't have to - and did absolutely nothing at all to find it himself. I actually had that confirmed by Clive Goodman, the now disgraced formed News of the World royal correspondent who listened to the tape. Johnson said he would approach a specific third party. He specifically didn't. The only conclusion I can draw is that he was trying to make sure Guppy didn't manage to have the man attacked. Rather, he was stalling, waiting for Guppy's attention span to expire - a safe bet for those who knew him well.

Not entirely a clean bill of health, but neither an open and shut case of perversion of the course of justice either. And is Livingstone wise to bring up matters of character on violence and helping the police? The matter was dropped and no charges were eventually bought, but cast your mind back 5 years to the summer of 2002 and a birthday party...

When the front door was shut, said Mr Hedges, "Ken wanted to get back into the party. He was uncontrollable and went up to the door and was hammering on it. He was going ballistic and we were trying to calm him down and restrain him. We were grabbing on to his arms and trying to hold him. The last memory I have is of Ken’s arm lunging towards me."

Mr Hedges said that his next memory was coming to, briefly, in the ambulance and then again after he had an X-ray at the Whittington hospital.

Hedges later went further in his allegations: Livingstone was behaving like a drunken lout, physically abusing his pregnant partner, making me fall over a wall and then using the resources of the Greater London Authority to try to cover it up. I'm not entirely convinced that he's in the best position to be throwing stones on this one.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Doctor Doctor

In an extremely disobliging piece on Condoleeza Rice (mind you, there is a reputation that has been accelerating downhill faster than George Bush's) Andrew Stephen refers to her as "Dr" Condoleezza Rice, going on to say
Her family had moved to Colorado when she was 12 because her father was appointed assistant dean at the University of Denver; predictably, she duly pressure-cooked herself through that university, emerging with a doctorate in politics at 26. Earlier, I used inverted commas to highlight her use of "Dr" to describe herself because it is telling; even erstwhile colleagues like Paul Wolfowitz, who earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago before teaching at Yale, would not dream of calling himself "Dr" in the same way.
Apart from noting in passing that acquiring a doctorate at 26 is not exactly evidence of pressure-cooking, this strikes me as renmarkably mean-spirited. PhD's are not just meaningless window-dressing, people who are awarded them do have the right to use the title Dr. Just ask John Reid. And, irrelevant twitch though it is, why is it even Paul Wolfowitz? Is he particularly known for this sort of thing?


Of Bercow, Eliasch and Mercer

Seducer's smile: another successful romance

Three little turncoats in a row? Evidence of Brown's 'big tent' mentality? A baffling display of political ineptitude by David Cameron? What they certainly represent is that for all Brown's talk of 'new politics' the primary focus of the Prime Minister remains the detabilisation of the Conservative party and of David Cameron. As Nick Robinson says, the move by Eliasch in particular is evidence that the old power of patronage - the only direct power wielded by a Prime Minister - is still alive and well. Ultimately, while an opposition can talk the talk, a Government is able to do concrete things - and offer real jobs.

As for Bercow and Mercer, this is a piece of, ahem, naked political opportunism by the Prime Minister. Neither of them are natural consensus politicians, let alone closet Labour supporters, though Bercow has doubtless been subject to a prolonged domestic ear-bashing on the subject, and Mercer in particular ought to remember the forced outrage from the Labour benches when he was described as a racist dinosaur. Brown isn't after them for their looks - this is a seduction aimed at embarrassing David Cameron.

And seduction is more or less what Brown is doing. He's the equivalent of the older boy at school who has his own car and sets out to seduce the girlfriends of less fortunate kids by offering them a sweeter deal - whether it's a genuine 9-carat gold necklace or a chairmanship of an advisory committee. The aim is, in any event, to stamp your dominance on the other boys. The potential problem for Brown is that each successive steal looks less like an attempt at consensus politics and more like what it is - a party political attempt to embarrass David Cameron or Ming Campbell.
On the Today programme Brown was asked by John Humphries whether, since Brown was portraying these moves as a part of a new consensual politics, he had discussed them with the party leaders. If this is consensus, shouldn't you have cleared it with the other leaders? Brown's evasive response (he always steers clear of direct answers to direct questions) made it look all the more shifty.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with politicians acting politically to discomfort opponents. But the facade of consensus is soon dissipated. Brown is starting to look more like a serial home-wrecker than a big-tent centrist.
UPDATE: In a piece defending this tactic, Jonathan Freedland rather gives the game away by saying how all this cross-hiring demonstrates Mr Brown's pulling power.

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Don't hold your breath

So, in relation to the foot and mouth outbreak.
The breaches at the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, four miles from where the disease was found, are shown in two reports due on Friday. They include a leaking pipe; drains inadequate for floodwater; and failures in monitoring people and vehicles.
I assume that Johann Hari will be issuing a grovelling apology for this then? I mean you can't just casually assert that foot-and-mouth disease has somehow seeped out of an American pharmaceutical lab and into the animal population well before the publication of the report into the incident, and then ignore the fact that the breach was actually from the Government run laboratory can you? That would mean that you had made the story up entirely, on the basis if nothing but prejudice, and then didn't even have the decency to acknowledge it.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007


I hadn't realised until just now precisely what Gordon Brown said when he accused David Cameron of being trapped by a Tory faction. That's because in most of the coverage it has been hidden in an ellipsis thus:
If I may say so, I think the problems with the Conservative party today are this: that there are two factions ... and the leader is a prisoner of the factions rather than the factions being led with conviction.
But when you look at who Brown apparently identifies as heading up these factions it makes your jaw drop. Who are these political titans, leaders of the almight Tory factions that have imprisoned the nominal leader of the party? Michael Ancram and Michael Portillo. You can see why Cameron's running scared can't you?

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Stalinist tendencies

In light of Gordon Brown's much heralded call for a new era in politics, with consensus to the fore and co-operation over party lines, it's perhaps instructive to recall those 'Stalinistic' comments made before Brown ascended to the leadership. Particularly in light of Andrew Bacejevitch's review of Geoffrey Robert's new biography of the man in question (Stalin, not Brown. Keep up).
For any great power, the essential prerequisite of "peace" is that others should accede to the aspiring hegemon’s own requirements.
This is, of course, what Brown means when he calls for 'consensus' - that everyone should agree with him.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Compass responds

Since Boris Johnson announced that he was throwing his hat into the ring in the race to become London Mayor, I've commented a few times on the line of attack that the left has tried. It boils down to two, linked, arguments: one that Boris is a member of the 'Tory hard right', and two that he is a racist. The Compass charge sheet, which I looked at here, essentially followed the Livingstone tactic of reading Boris's back catalogue and pulling out quotations where they look like they fit the smear sheet.
Andrew Gilligan picked up on this, noting that the article cited to prove that Boris was an avid supporter of George W Bush was one that described the President as a cross-eyed Texan warmonger, inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy; that the article cited to prove that Boris Johnson was a strong supporter of grammar schools was a 1997 piece in support of the Tory position (then, and now) of retaining existing grammar schools, rather than opening more, etc etc.
Compass have responded to this article in an almost impenetrably badly written piece here. There are really only two possibilities for most of their defences of their piece: they do not understand what Boris is saying in his articles; or they do understand and are deliberately misrepresenting it. Take their first 'slam dunk' argument: that Boris Johnson is (or as they now say 'was') a fanatical supporter of the Iraq war. To justify this they take two articles. In the first he notes that he was awe-struck by the extent of American military power in the war (and it's worth pointing out that Boris draws a distinction between the 'war' when Saddam Hussein's forces were defeated, and the insurgency that has followed). Nowhere in the article is there approval of the war stated - what there is, is respect for the military achievement.
To extract from this article the statement that Boris Johnson’s support for the war in Iraq was extreme – indeed to a point that even many supporters of the war might find distasteful in its treatment of issues such Iraqis themselves is extraordinary (apart from being ungrammatical).
Another area of dispute is whether Boris Johnson is a fanatical Thatcherite. Compass's logic here is again somewhat tendentious: Someone who considers Margaret Thatcher Britain’s’ greatest peace time prime minister’ is self-evidently a very strong Thatcherite. Quite apart from the use of 'fanatical' as a pejorative, the two positions cited by Compass are not co-terminous. Most people would consider Winston Churchill to be Britain's greatest wartime Prime Minister. Few Britains would consider themselves 'fanatical Churchillians' on such matters as price controls, or Indian policy. Boris may be a Thatcherite, but to prove it you need rather more than an article saying he thinks she was a great Prime Minister.
The Compass report and the associated City Hall creeps who infest websites and newspaper comments at the moment are mining a barren seam. They sound shrill, humourless and ridiculous. To believe, as they seem to, that Boris is unelectable because he describes a car as 'chick pulling' is so reminiscent of ghastly student JCRs that it can hardly help but send people over to the Johnson camp.
One final point. Compass has described Boris as extremely right-wing; a hardline right-winger; Norman Tebbit in a clowns uniform; and uses the phrase hardline right-wing almost reflexively to describe such policies as being pro-nuclear, or anti-Kyoto. But Boris is not, has never been, and never will be on the right of the Conservative Party. In 2001, as a newly elected MP, he supported Ken Clarke over Portillo and IDS. In 2005 he was such an early supporter of David Cameron that he wrote an article in the Spectator which started off by explaining just who exactly Cameron was. Johnson sits on the left of the Conservative Party - and that's so easy to back up that it's incredible that Compass thinks it can get away with claiming anything different.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Tory spending plans

Further to a post by Iain Dale on tax credits, I've been musing a little on what, beyond the obvious avoidance of Labour 'Tory cuts' slurs, the Tories are playing at with their pledge to match overall spending levels for the next three years. On the face of it, it seems absurd: we can all pinpoint huge areas of Government waste, from tax credits to quangos. If £147bn (or whatever) is being spent on a plethora of quangos, which appear to have sprung from dragon's teeth, surely any half-competent Government with an aim to trim the state could find substantial savings?
Tax credits similarly are a fiscal black hole that spend so much more money than the alternatives (increasing the tax allowance for a start) that it seems incredible that it is not at least being considered at CCHQ. So why bother to pledge equal spending? Well, as has been repeated as nauseam, partly to rebut Labour 'cuts' arguments. But there are other possibilities too. The Tories have mildly ambitous spending commitments to meet - both in areas like law and order that have been loudly trailed, and in areas like defence where the tone has been quiter, but everything in Conservative tradition and inclination suggests a propensity to increase spending.
So, is it possible that what the Conservatives are going to propose is not 'more of the same' but a reshaping of what the State spends our money on - rather than, at first anyway, how much of it is spent?

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Poppy fields

Daniel Hannan again touches on a subject that I've mentioned before. Namely that the criminalisation of the opium trade worldwide causes us far more problems than it is worth. Legalise the production, regulate the market and purchase the produce. That way, the poppy producers become small farmers, producing a cash crop - as Hannan says, a more orderly and conservative bunch than smallholders is hard to find.
The DK in the comments advocates the legalisation of drugs generally - a policy I've always thought more sensible than the current alternative - but you wouldn't even need to be this radical. There's a huge market for the legal product of opiates - morphine, novocaine, lidocaine and so forth. There's a global shortage of analgesics and a limited supply (Tasmania is the world's largest producer of legal opiates).
Taking poppy production in Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taleban and introducing a legal market looks like a no-brainer. At the moment troops' primary role is as destroyer of crops - for which read livelihoods. Vast amounts of money are being spent on an inherently impossible job. It's akin to sending out the army to lower the sea level by giving each of them a bucket.
Is there a cogent objection to this? Convertion of the Afghan poppy fields from illegal opium production to legal opium production should easily be feasible. The farmers would probablt get a better deal - they're not the ones benefiting from the profits of the drug trade after all - and the army in Afghanistan could move from oppressive job-destroyers to a more constructive role. Someone please tell me why this wouldn't work.

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This does rather seem to capture the essence of the inner Paxman rather well.
Dismal weather today, but I have no umbrella. As I walk between my car and the office, I say withering things to every raindrop that comes my way, and thus remain dry.



Ever since David Cameron put his name forward to be Conservative leader his economic policy has been dominated by one central idea: that by increasing public spending slower than the rate of economic growth, it is possible simultaneously to incraease public spending and cut taxes. It's moderately counter-intuitive, but it works. Last year, for example, economic growth of approximately 2.75% led to an increase in tax revenues of £5bn. Inheritance tax, for example, brings in an average of less than £4bn a year. So, on that basis, you could increase spending by £1bn and abolish IHT. Straightforward idea - and one that Brown didn't agree with. In his final pre-budget report as Chancellor he hailed an unexpectedly large increase in revenues, and then explicitly said he would rather spend this on increased spending on education than on tax-cuts.
Except, of course, that now things are different. The public sector finances are looking decidedly less healthy than they were, deficits are larger in the UK than anywhere in Western Europe and the Prime Minister has decided to curtail the growth in public spending to, er, below the expected level of economic growth. In other words, the Prime Minister has more or less adopted Conservative economic policies.
Unsurprisingly, given that these have been Conservative policy for nearly two years now, the Tories have confirmed that they'll stick alongside these plans. And what's the reaction? Largely that the Tories have tagged along with Labour - in an echo of Labour's own pledge to stick to Tory spending limits in 1997 - and that, as a result, the Tories have denied the public a choice at the next election. But, given that it was basically already Tory policy, surely the question should be why Labour, having routinely rubbished Conservative economic proposals, should now be applying them.
At the moment the line of attack seems to be: "The Government have tacitly accepted that you are right about the economy - shouldn't you now change your policy to be different to them?" Which is rather odd.

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