Thursday, December 28, 2006

Cometh the hour?

The Conservative Party is many things at the moment, but not even its most ardent supporters would claim that it is overflowing with talent. My opinion of the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has risen recently, but it still difficult to view the Shadow Cabinet as a whole as anything other than uninspiring. There are good men in key places: David Davis is perfectly placed at the Home Office, William Hague has been solidly competent at the Foreign Office, assisted admittedly by the transcendental uselessness of Margaret Beckett, arguably the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory.

But still there is a definite lack of star quality in the Shadow Cabinet; an absence of interest; a lacuna in pizzazz. It is very hard, admirable a man though he may be, to get terribly excited at the pronouncements of Andrew Lansbury, or even of David Willets. There is, of course, languishing, if not on the back benches, then at least in the less than glamorous position of Shadow Minister for Higher Education, one of the most recognisable figures in modern British politics.

What to do with Boris is one of the conundrums facing the Tories at the moment. His well publicised capacity for getting into trouble is much less damaging now than it would have been a decade ago, but endless headlines about Petronella are still a long way removed from the ideal. In appearance at any rate Cameron has given him a job where the capacity to screw up is as present as it would be anywhere else, but the potential political fall-out is significantly less. If he's drinking in the last-chance saloon, maybe he'll be more careful who he buys the drinks for.

If he has determined to straighten up, he is, simply, to great an asset to be ignored. He has wide recognition, is held in some degree of affection by many and is too bright to be dismissed as purely a lightweight. Those who scoff at the accent and appearance are in danger of overlooking one of a very few scholars in the Commons. It is by no means certain that he will ever be able fully to shed the wooly exterior, but it might now be time for the Conservatives to take a punt.

Happy Christmas!

Well, belated (and since I am already sitting in my office somewhat half-hearted) festive Christmas tidings and all that. If there are any problems with the blog over the next little while, put it down to the fact that I have transferred it to the new blogger watch this space.

Oh, and a (again belated) welcome to DK back to town after his exile in the Socialist paradise north of the border.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Aux Armes Citoyens!

I'm a very level-headed sensible chap mostly. There's very little that stirs me from amiable detachment. However, Camilla Cavendish's series of articles on the family courts in this country are enough to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood and generally steam my sprouts. The idea that some under-qualified jumped little nobody from the council could, on suspicion alone, steal my new-born baby from the arms of my wife in hospital and then, even if we were able to take the case to appeal at the ECHR, simply say 'Hah! Too late we've had it adopted!' is so extraordinarily infuriating that I suspect I might turn my life into some unceasing search for vengeance.
The status of the family courts in this country should be a national scandal. The rules of evidence, of proof, of natural justice; ideas for which we have fought for generations; ideas which to a large extent define the concept of Britishness are simply flat-out ignored. Decisions that should only ever be made after a full trial by jury are rushed through without a jury on a balance of probability basis, in secret and subject to draconian rules on reporting. I'm not specifically blaming this Government, for this is a problem that has festered for a long time, but it is one that needs urgent action. So, David, I've stuck up for you on a lot of things, how about a Conservative policy on this? Otherwise there'll be barricades...

The Great Game

I once shared a tutorial session on the process of British decolonisation with someone who forgot to mention the role played by the Suez crisis. It was hard to take his analysis terribly seriously as a result. In today's Guardian there's a piece describing Britain's historic antipathy to Russia. I'm sure its author, Hywel Williams, is not a complete ignoramus, yet he does little to dispel such a suggestion.
For starters his piece is sub-titled: Britain has long cast Russia as a corrupt and destabilising state - because it disturbed the established imperial order. Ignoring the palpably ludicrous implication that Russia was outside of the established imperial order, it's still worth looking at what Williams is trying to say here. The area that he specifies as having caused Britain concern to the extent that it viewed Russia as a threat was, apparently, Pan-Slavism, which was one of the great 19th-century ideologies, and the idea that the Russian tsar was the protector of all the Orthodox faithful also threatened British interests.
Tish pshaw and bibble. Russia's machinations in Eastern Europe, from the battle of Poltava through the Silent Sejm up to the Bolshevik war in the Ukraine were never a real concern to the British. Russia's pan-slavism was a matter of the utmost indifference to all but a handful of British strategists. It was not Russia's 'cultural imperialism' that was a threat to the British - any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.
For it is also a fact that Tsarist Russia figured as highly in British thoughts throughout the 19th century as Bolshevik Russia did in the 20th. Not because of European expansion, never because of European expansion, but because of Eastern expansion. Whenever Britain intervened actively against Russia, both in the Crimean war and in the intervention in the civil war in 1917-920, it was because she perceived her Eastern empire to be threatened. The Crimea was a reaction to Russian expansion in Turkey; when Britain intervened in the Civil War, it was primarily in Baku, to protect British interests in Persia.
Britain feared and fought Russia, not because her pan-slavism was seen as an alternative threat to European imperialism, but because traditional Russian imperialism in the east was seen as a strategic threat to the British Empire. Hywel Williams has done what I would not have believed possible: written an article about Britain's historically difficult relationship with Russia, identified imperialism as the reason for the difficulty, and not ever mentioned the underpinning factor that explains it all. Hywel Williams has written an article about the history of the Great Game, and hasn't mentioned India. Blinding.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Well duh!

There's a new film coming out called Deja Vu, which is being quite heavily advertised at the momrnt, particularly in the London station near my office. The tag line is 'You'll be sure you've seen this movie before...'
Well, it's a Jerry Bruckheimer movie: to all intents and purposes I have seen it before.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Moral dilemmas

Free Marketeer or 21st century blackbirding?

Those crazy libertarians over at Samizdata once quoted a line (or possibly even coined it) about prostitution:

Prostitution is a combination of sex and the free market; which are you opposed to?

It's a poser really. The cop-out answer is surely that, provided prostitutes are genuinely choosing, unco-erced, to sell their bodies, then it is a transaction between consenting adults, harming no-one outside the transaction and, as such should not be criminalised.

But is it as simple as that? Is it the case that legalisation and regulation would put a stop to the abuse and trafficking of women? It is a fact that a significant proportion of the prostitutes in this country are here against their will, held in what amounts to slavery. Can it be right to legalise prostitution if that means the tacit acceptance of effective slavery?

The problem I have here is that a visceral 'squick' reaction is making rational analysis difficult. I can see the argument that says that legalisation would be, in fact, the best way of sorting out some of the grosser abuses, but there's definitely an irrational opposition.

Sad news

Via Iain, word reaches me of the death of Frank Johnson. I only barely caught the end of his editorship of the Spectator, but I always enjoyed his sketches, which seemed to lack the nastier edge often present in such things. I hadn't realised quite the extent to which he was a 'power in the land' in the early days of Thatcherism, but I'm pleased to hear about it. It's always nice to read someone who's funny and right at the same time: too often the two seem to be incompatible.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

On blogging; or the art of irritating as many people as possible

There been a little bit of a spat recently, all started by this post by Paulie at Never Trust a Hippy. The essential point is that the style of blogging espoused by, in Paulie's example, Justin at ChickYog, but perhaps more extremely by the DK and Mr Eugenides, is infantile; or possibly merely an unnecessary lowering of the tone of debate. This thread was taken up with gusto by the PooterGeek in a post that accused Justin and the others of "head-slapping, irrelevant, adolescent stupidity."

The comment thread is compulsive viewing, with most of the heavyweights weighing in at one point or another, but it also sheds light on one of the central difficulties of blogging. Damien states in the thread that "I wish I could say I hadn’t seen its like since I was an undergraduate" but that sadly it's all too common these days. However, during the course of the argument he also employs one of the classic JCR debating techniques, the sneery hyperbolic rhetoric used to disparage the other's argument.

Don’t curl your toes like that, dear reader; this is part of the Web 2.0 revolution, the new coffeehouse culture, the revival of satire. It’s punk all over again, but, unlike the Sex Pistols, Chicken Yoghurt and The Devil’s Kitchen—crazy names, crazy guys—really will smash the system this time (rather than leave Yes touring stadiums 30 years later with a separate pantechnicon for their money and Johnny “Rotten” appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here).

Hey, it's a usually good, usually funny way of attacking someone's argument and I'm not knocking it as such. The use of the 19th century 'dear reader' is a particularly nice touch - what could distinguish the writer more from the sweary Kevins of the 'bloggertarian' persuasion (which is, incidentally, a very good neologism).

But the problem is that this sort of sneery attack on specific bloggers is no more attractive than those bloggers' own addiction to opprobrious epithets. I don't particularly have a dog in this fight: I read and enjoy all the above blogs, and can find something to chuckle about in all of them too. For what it's worth, I find the attacks from Damien on the three bloggers above arguably more unpleasant than the bad language in a DK post on Gordon Brown for example. I think also that, in so far as he argued from the specific Justin post to a wider theme of shoddy blogging, he misses the point that while it is certainly the case that swearing in and of itself does not make for good or enjoyable reading, its presence in an otherwise cogent piece does not rob that piece of its validity.

Ultimately we can't all be like Oliver Kamm, and post, with slightly ponderous majesty, impeccably well-researched arguments complete with a bumper stack of footnotes. For those of you who like that thing, and I'm one, Kamm is a great blogger. It's not the only way of blogging though.

Crazy Busy

Sorry for the sound of silence emanating from the Reptile House. Work's been the tinest bit hectic, and the usual production of slap-dash half-arsed rubbish has been interrupted.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Prestige, deterrence and great big toys for great big boys

HMS Dreadnought: rendering every other capital ship obsolete overnight.

In reference to the Trident post below, it strikes me that much of the debate as to the validity of the nuclear deterrence is a re-hash of old arguments over old technology. The battleship, first properly evidence by the Dreadnought class was debated in very similar terms. Possession of a battleship fleet was what marked out the major powers, the Empires, from the also-rans. The were massive, expensive, technologically cutting-edge and, in a sense beautiful.

Yet they were ultimately never very good at what they were principally designed to be for. The only time in naval history that battleships confronted each other in a fleet action, the battle of Jutland, the results were deeply unsatisfying. The advent of the submarine and the aircraft carrier were to render the battleship effectively obsolete, although the USS Missouri was still in service in the first Gulf war.

They were ultimately a defensive weapon, a reaction to the possession of similar ships by rival powers. Their utility in time of war was strictly limited, see the demise of HMS Repulse, and their political importance always outweighed their military effectiveness. And the public loved them. "We want eight and we won't wait" was the demand of the press in the great naval scare of 1910. I'm not sure we're so enthusiastic about the modern day equivalent.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Reptile recognised...ish

Oh the excitement! To think that my slightly serious article should end up fronting the Channel 4 newsblog on David Cameron. having scoured Google for a photo that wasn't a: of huskies, or b: excessively dull, I hit upon the blue cross one.
I did this for two reasons: the support of the Blue Cross is a nicely Cameronite position, combining being photogenic with being unexceptional, and in any event tiny puppies are cute. In any event my facetious representation has ended up as the title of this post at C4. Any offers of paid work will have to be carefully weighed...

Rofl or similar

It is some indication of the degeneration in public discourse (pomposity reading getting dangerously off the scale here - bear with me) that when I read Mr Eugenides' latest post I barely so much as blinked when I read the title. After 6 years of the Republican Government, the American left, indeed much of the global left, has become so deranged that Bush-Hitler is an absolutely standard line.
It was only when I re-read the piece that light dawned. Thanks a lot, oh descendant of Thucydides, now I've got tea to wipe off my monitor.

Must read

I've tip-toed and stumbled around the knotty problem of morality and abortion before. It's a subject I feel reasonably strongly about yet, paradoxically, also uncertain. I haven't yet heard an argument that, instead of iterating and re-iterating the opposing points of view endlessly with extra ad hominem abuse, addressed the problem from a moral philosophy perspective.
And now I've found one in the pages of the New English Review: an article which addresses abortion in the light of the Dirty Shirt conundrum (at what point exactly does the clean shirt you put on in the morning become the dirty shirt you take off) and Xeno's paradox.
Either life is, on the one hand (a), a perfectly straight-forward phenomenon in terms of which things are what they seem, common-sense is our reliable guide, and the challenges of living, loving, begetting and sustaining ourselves is challenge enough, and the scientists and philosophers have invented a nightmarish world of the intellect in order ostensibly to “explain” it, characterised by an unintelligible construct like “infinity”, which has no paraphrasable meaning outside of the self-referencing world of mathematics, or, on the other, (b), life as we experience it is permanently mysterious, inexplicable and metaphysical, and our invented constructs are intelligible, consistent, logical, comforting and desirable. But the two worlds never cohere.
Huurah! An article that explains to me precisely why it is I'm unable to come to a firm conclusion on a matter of significance!

One way of putting it

In a contribution to the 'is Hillary electable?' debate (probable answer: not really) the wonderfully named Katrina vanden Heuvel makes this observation.

Then there's the vexing matter of polls, which show Hillary - in general election match-ups - besting every Republican but New York's ex-mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and Senator John McCain.

So, the polls are saying that against either of the two galloping front-runners for the Republican nomination, Hillary is coming second. Remarkably, Ms vanden Heuvel appears to be using this data as evidence that Hillary is indeed electable. This is like asking 'is Gordon Brown electable?' and saying "Brown polls ahead of every party leader except Cameron and Menzies Campbell," not exactly a clinching argument anyway.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A fork in the road...

A visual metaphor for the Trident debate. Yesterday
I'm kinda conflicted about the Trident debate. On the one hand I've always been in favour of the idea of the programme, believing that it was important for Britain to have a quasi-independent nuclear deterrent. But I'm becoming less convinced. None of the arguments put forward now seem to have much in the way of sense.
Argument 1: Nuclear weapons are a deterrent.
The original justification for nukes was that people will think twice about messing with you if you've got them. The problem with this idea now is that the principle only really applies to state actors and, unless you count France, there are no nuclear armed states who are likely to have a nuclear quarrel with us specifically. I can't envisage a re-run of the Opium Wars with China, nor yet the Marathi Wars with India. Any looming conflagration is very unlikely to be aimed at us in isolation. And even if it were the 200 warheads we currently possess are dwarfed by the 2,000 or so our biggest ally has. Whereas in the Cold War, the British nuclear presence was, as much as anything, a symbol of our alignment alongside the States against the evil, Godless communist oppressors, these days support for the US, if that is the aim, can be much better achieved through other methods.
Argument 2: Nuclear weapons are our ticket to the top table.
Unconvinced by this one too I'm afraid. This was certainly true in the early days of the Cold War, with Churchill declaring the hydrogen bomb to be the ticket of admission to the world elite. Is this really true now? Is Pakistan really going to be considered a bigger world player? I'm not convinced. I'm certainly not convinced that this is a clincher.
Argument 3: Nuclear weapons are insurance.
OK, this is the most convincing argument of the lot. We can't predict what the global position will be in 30 years time, we can't rely on existing arrangements and we may need a nuclear deterrent then. This is fine as far as it goes, but it's essentially a 'we might as well' argument: not very strong when you're talking £20 billion or so.
So, I might be tempted to veer towards the Matthew Parris line, especially when you think what else that money could do. I'm not talking here about shovelling it into the NHS's gaping maw, nor of reducing taxation (in general, yes of course, just not with this bit). Our armed forces are chronically over-stretched and under-funded. Our surface navy is smaller than France's for the first time since the 17th century, our army can't even afford flak jackets, and tends to buy its own boots, and our air-force's best plane is still the Harrier.Maybee the money should be spent on a re-equip of our armed forces and (per Eu-referendum, far and away the best source for defense spending) lets get Richard North as Minister for Procurement (at least he wouldn't have bought his job, eh Lord Drayson?).
Unfortunately, as with all arguments, I tend to look at the people on either side of the debate as a guide to where I should be. Apart from Parris, the antis are a godawful shower of bastards, albeit fewer of them than when Moscow was meeting the bills. Their arguments are fatuous, suggesting as they do that North Korea might disarm if we did first, or that we cannot object to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons if we have them. So reluctantly I'm having to support Trident, through sheer repulsion at the side opposing. Oh well.

In defense of David Cameron

The Conservatives: in favour of tiny puppies

Right, it's time to roll the sleeves up and step into the breach. While I fully understand the disillusionment felt by many on the right over the steps taken by Cameron to re-brand the Tories, and agree with a lot of what they say, I am going to try and explain why I am still a Cameron fan, if not quite a Cameroonie.
I do this partly because I'm getting a wee bit tired of the animus being generated from various parts of the blogosphere. It is, of course, absolutely none of my business what, for example, the (at all times estimable) DK says about Cameron, especially since he's become a UKIPper, but the invective emanating from the usually more detached Richard North is a bit alarming. In response to a slightly unfortunate Telegraph interview North, incensed at the dropping of the old Tory fishing policy and the Bovine TB policy let rip with this:
That said, I am going to rip the throat out of that detestable, smug, self-satisfied little turd – unfortunately, only metaphorically. How dare he! That closed-minded, ignorant, fatuous little prat. He needs to take his head out of his backside once in a while and look around, once he's cleared his own shit out of his nostrils. Then he should turn round and crawl back in his little hole and pull the lid down over him and never, ever re-appear.
I'm not entirely sure that the weight of the diatribe was entirely aimed at fishing and badgers but it still seems slightly over the top. The reason, I suppose, is that there is a feeling of definite betrayal on the right: a sense that Cameron has ripped the right-wing heart out of Conservatism and replaced it with soggy pulp. I'm not sure that's absolutely right to be honest. But this sort of comment, whether it's the club-room harrumphing of Simon Heffer or the more 'howling at the moon' effort above, almost invariably combined with lofty patronising of Cameron's age, or disdainfully arranged quotation marks around "Dave"is getting reminiscent of the Bennite raging against the tyrannies of New Labour. So I'll lay out some of the reasons I think he is doing a good job.
1. David Cameron's strategy is extremely clear. He intends, by projecting an image of Conservatism that is avowedly 'moderate', to gain rights of audience and, if possible, the benefit of the doubt for the policies that are to come. The underlying instincts of the Conservative front bench remain broadly the same as they have been for years: pro-market, Atlanticist and Euro-sceptic. Hague, Osborne, Gove and the like are not sopping wet liberals, and it is unrealistic to pretend to believe that they are. What they are is pragmatists, just has the Conservative party has always been, in victory at any rate.
Cameron is seeking to avoid the instant Mandy Rice Davies response that has greeted every Conservative policy since 1992, when John Major, William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith stated that the aim of policy X was to help the poor, or to try to salve the hurts ofsocietyy, all they got was a curled lip and a 'they would say that wouldn't they'. If Cameron can manage it so that the policy is listened to before being dismissed he will have made real progress.
2. He has brought a sense of professionalism to the party. There is little in politics so damaging as a sense of squabbling. The Conservative party gave up on being an organisation in the proper sense of the word in about 1994. For ten years there was absolutely no sense of unity, of purpose or of direction about the rump at Westminster. Since Michael Howard re-introduced a sense of discipline, Cameron has been able to take his party with him. Even the rumblings from Norman Tebbit have been both good-natured and self-aware, Tebbit being aware that dissent from him was actually rather good news for the Tories' public image.
3. He has transformed the Conservative polling position. Despite the readiness of many right-wing commentators to play this down, or even to deny it, when David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party enjoyed a lead in the polls of about 5-6%. In a year he has turned this into a consistent Conservative lead of about 4-7%. For those who complain that this is nothingcomparedd to the stratospheric Labour leads of the 90s, Mike Smithson has voiced considerable reserve against the validity of comparing polls now with those twenty years ago. For those who stress the weighting of the electoral system, the news that Lib Dems now marginally prefer the idea of a Cameron-led Conservative Government to a Brown-led Labour Government has the intriguing prospect of shifting the balance of tactical voting.
The Conservatives have won elections most consistently with a moderate, optimistic leader. They have lost most consistently when they become fixated with an issue of over-riding importance to them, but little resonance in the population at large. There is a hint in the criticisms of Cameron of a Goldwater Republicanism (or even a Footite Labourism): better ideological purity in opposition that the messy compromises and hypocrisy of government.
I bang on about post-modern narrative creation far too much, but that is precisely what Cameron is doing at the moment: creating a framework upon which to hang future policies. Once the basic premise of Cameronite Conservatism is accepted, it becomes vastly much easier to persuade the electorate to view policies in that light. So there we are. I doubt that I will have changed anyone's mind on the subject for an instant, but do feel free to let me know how wrong I am.


It's a miserable morning, I have a streaming cold and I was woken this morning by a bulletin from Adelaide. All I want to do is put my heads under the blankets. This being impossible, I am left to fall back on the one remaining crumb of comfort: there is no-one now who can look out at the rain and gales and order me to play rugby.

For small mercies oh Lord...