Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cameron - under the radar

Despite the best efforts of the Reptile, David Cameron is, unaccountably, failing to win over the rightwingers who ought to be natural Conservative voters (yes I'm talking about you DK!). Partly this is understandable - for those for whom the undeniable evils of the European Union are a deal-breaker, then UKIP is the only possible home and it therefore makes sense to work to make UKIP more like a professional serious party than sit in the Tory party grumbling. I can understand that.
But there is a peculiarly uncomprehending venom about some of the attacks on Cameron that I find slightly unreasonable - he is seen as betraying Conservatism and people don't understand why. Well, this piece by Brian Micklethwaite goes some way towards answering that question. For what it's worth I think this analysis goes a long way. By de-fanging the Conservative positions on totemic leftist policies (the NHS as a prime example) Cameron has made it 'safe' for the left-wing press to work as hard to demolish Blair and the Labour Party as the right-wing press worked to destroy Majorite Conservatism.
There is a further point. Blair is as El Cid, a dead man strapped to his horse, heading battles he can have no future involvement with. The policy decisions that matter are going to be taken by Gordon Brown - and he has been remarkbaly quiet as to specifics. If Cameron were to set out a detailed, or even a broad-brush, policy review now, it would be handing a hostage to fortune to Brown. Far better then to hunker down on policy, promote an unthreatening image to the Tory Party's natural enemies in the leftist press, and watch the fun as the left destroys itself.
Naturally, this is a tactic derived almost entirely from Tony Blair in the Nineties, who neutralised the worst of the fears about what an incoming Labour Government would do, and then chuckled with glee as the right-wing press attacked the Tories' failings on Europe, on tax and on leadership. Tribal loyalty will always play second fiddle to a journo's ingrained wish to bring down Governments.


American Fascism...

There is still considerable linguistic uncertainty as to what it is precisely that constitutes fascism. The term has certainly undergone significant devaluation over the last half-century. Strictly speaking the term denotes specifically the Italian model of authoritarian government espoused by Mussolini - the use of the word to cover essentially all non-communist totalitarian regimes is itself the product of lazy thinking during the Spanish Civil War.

However, to insist on this terminological straitjacket is to be absurdly restrictive: if it is impossible to describe Hitler's Nazi party as fascist, then the term is of no use whatsoever. So then, what characterises fascism, and does it persist in modern political ideologies? Specifically is the phrase Islamo-fascism useful, misleading or nonsensical?

The first point to make is that it is important not to allow the word to mean, as Orwell famously said, something that the speaker personally dislikes. It is not fascist to allow army recruiting stalls in universities; it is not fascist to restrict abortion; it is not fascist to cut taxes; it is not fascist to raise taxes. All these things may or may not be objectionable, but none of them is fascist per se. This rule alone probably invalidates 90% of contemporary accusations of fascism.

But what is fascism? It is classically defined in terms of its features: glorification of a god-like leader; supreme positioning of the army; racial 'pride' amounting to virulent xenophobia and racism; the overwhelming dominance of the state within the economy. The problem with this, as can be imagined, is that there is little here to distinguish fascism from communism. Avowed Communists will protest and add two further characteristics: that the birth of fascism derives from a minority coup, and that it is, almost primarily, an anti-communist ideology. Another distinction would be that Communism is internationalist in its aims: seeking global revolution, where as fascism is strictly nationalistic: National Socialism.

So, on this debate as to whether Saddam Hussein was a fascist, the answer is clearly that Baathism was a form of Arabic fascism. Even though I would argue that a genocidal persecution of minorities is not a necessary condition for fascism (it never really happened in Spain for example, and Salazar's Portugal was relatively tolerant even in its colonies), the parallels between Hitler's treatment of the Slavs and Hussein's of the Marsh Arabs and Kurds are striking (I leave aside the holocaust here only because it is not an event that lends itself happily to analogy). In all other respects, from the Saddam murals to Saddam international airport to the Leader's continual appearances in uniform, to the total state economic control, Iraqi Baathism was a fascist state.

The counter argument is that fascism is a period-specific term - useful only for describing European totalitarianism of the '30s. There is some truth in this, but of a kind that makes cross-genre analysis impossible. It is also, in the mouths of those who cite it, usually special pleading: check with the next person who says that you can't use fascism to describe Iraqi Baathism owing to its ahistoricity whether it's acceptable then to use apartheid about Israel and the Arabs. The strict adherence to linguistic precision often seems to disintegrate.

So, Saddam was a fascist. Whoop-de-do. Labelling monsters is always so helpful. What might be helpful is deciding whether Islamofascism itself is a useful term. I'm not convinced that it is. Many of the principles of fascism revolve around the centrality of the state. While it is possible to declare that, for example, the Taliban in government displayed many of the characteristics of fascism, I don't believe that it's useful to describe the current Taliban fighters as 'fascists'. They're terrorists for sure, but I don't think they can be fascists. The caliphate-seeking mindset of Al Qaeda and similar groups is autocratic, technophobic (another interesting difference from fascism - which worshipped in 'the dark light of perverted science' as Churchill put it), intensely medieval in outlook. Autocratic religious atavism might be a better term - though I appreciate it lacks elegance.
Islamofascism is a catchy term; Saddam Hussein was clearly a fascist; the links between Arab nationalism more generally and fascism are well established, from the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to the pro-German revolt in Iraq in 1940, but still, trotting out fascism as a catch-all word to mean something you dislike is no more effective when used by the President of the United States than it is when used by a sulky thirteen year old protesting his bedtime.


Well, it's been a year since I stumbled, blinking in the sunlight, into the brave new world of the blogosphere. Since I wasn't entirely sure what it was I wanted to get out of this blog, I can't entirely say whether I've achieved it or not. What I am certain about is that I'm still hugely enjoying the process of writing it. Time has got a whole sight trickier what with the job and everything, but I'm hanging on in.

I paddled in the shallow end for a long time before jumping in, so there wasn't much that surprised me about the tone of blogging. This isn't often a blog that entertains socking great comment threads and I haven't attracted much in the way of personal vitriol, not that I think it would bother me much if it had. On the contrary, the blogosphere has been pretty damn decent to me so far, even as the link-heaviness of my posts has diminished.

Anyway, a rather rambling way of saying thanks for the last year and looking forward to the next one!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Tim's right, it ought to be a cracker on Saturday. And what's more, the Reptile will be up in the new South Stand at Twickers jumping up and down while shouting profanities at the Scots. The team has a slightly funny look to it though. The decision to recall Wilkinson is the right one in my view - when he came back for Newcastle he looked instantly assured and a commanding opresence, even behind a disintegrating pack. Andy Farrell at inside cente is worth a punt, though he won't get too many chances to get it right. Jason Robinson, the other former leaguer, used to be electrifying and even a hint of that spark would be more than welcome. And Mike Tindall? Well, he's still big ebough to burst through a line, even if I'm not convinced he's skilful enough to slide through.
It has the air of a professional outfit though. One with the right number of controlling forces, and one that has a good mix of youth and experience. If we lose at Twickenham to the Scots it'll take the gloss of my skiing holiday, that's for sure...

Monday, January 29, 2007

AC Grayling

A rather extraordinary challenge is laid down by AC Grayling to Madeleine Bunting here:

I challenge her to name one - even one small - contribution to science made by Christianity in its two thousand years; just one.

Well, setting aside the scientific discoveries made by religious men, such as Copernicus or Mendel, I can think of a few pretty bloody big contributions to science made by Christianity. Just for starters, what about the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge? Both foundations set up as places of learning, because educated clergy were considered better at their job than uneducated ones. What about the first public schools, explicitly set up as religious foundations, St Mary's College of Winchester for example?

So, apart from establishing the first organised educational establishments in Britain, what else did Christianity do for science? How about popularising public literacy through the printed version of the Bible (copies of which, and of Foxe's Book of Martyrs were often the only printed material in a household)? How about acting as a storehouse of classical knowledge and philosophy throughout the Dark Ages? How about providing employment and inspiration for a new generation of architects and engineers through cathedral building? That's just off the top of my head, and I don't hold an explicit brief for religion. What the hell was Grayling thinking?

Decision '08

As is becoming a truism, the US elections of 2008 look like shaping up to be a cracker. With the Vice President not standing, a decision now as justifiable on the grounds of basic common sense as it always was on health and age grounds, the field looks wide open for the Republicans. On the Democrat side, we have the unexpected sight of Hillary running on the right, with Barack Obama and John Edwards competing to the left - Edwards making the early populist running.

John McCain, who was my ill-informed pick for the 2000 nomination, has the indefinable air of a busted flush about him - an impression that can be countered, but has the horrible habit of gaining momentum. His main problem is that his USP has long been that he is not of the Republican party base and can thus appeal to the independents, while his good history and basic innate fiscal conservatism could at least appease the base. Now, however, he has been so implicated with the politics of the Iraq surge (partly thanks to John Edwards) that his fate and Iraq's are largely intertwined. This is unfortunate for a man whose critique of too few troops, too late, has been consistent for three years. Nevertheless.

Mitt Romney, everyone's favourite Mormon, is still relatively low-profile. His religion is likely to count against him slightly, despite his fierce championing by Kathryn Lopez of the National Review. More to the point is the fact that he lacks glamour and glitz. The former governor of Massachusetts is obviously capable of getting bi-partisan support - but he looks more like a default 'none of the above' candidate at the moment.

There is, however, another potential Republican candidate, yet to announce his running, but not slow in fund-raising or flesh-pressing. The name is still familiar, mostly these days for one particular event, but also still resonant for a remarkable turn-around in the fortunes of New York City. He is, obviously, Rudy Giuliani. Younger than McCain, infinitely more interesting than Romney, and, importantly, more fiscally conservative than George W Bush, Giuliani has the potential to be a fantastic candidate. His reforms in New York were both successful and rooted in conservative thinking: lowering taxes to increase financial activity, leading to raised revenues; focusing on the enforcement of existing laws rather than the creation of new ones, leading to reduced crime. His social liberalism, which is, to me, part of the appeal, is something of a handicap in winning the Republican nomination, but have a look at this article before you write him off as not being a conservative.

He has one further advantage. Discounting Romney, of the five major contenders on either side, four are senators. The last time a senator won the presidency was 1960 - interesting times lie ahead.

Blood diamonds...

Although it may be deleterious to my reputation as a death-or-glory free-marketeer, I have always been quite censorious about 'conflict diamonds', seeing them as a very easy way to fund extremely destructive and bloody civil wars across Africa. The extent of the problem was never in doubt: Congo-Brazzaville, for example, was once in the top ten of diamond exporting countries, despite not producing any of her own - they were all smuggled over the border from the DRC.

As an ethical little so-and-so, the only diamond I have so far purchased was from Canada, and I saw the little laser I.D. mark as well. So I guess I ought to be all approving of the new Di Caprio film all about the iniquities of the trade. Hum. It's really unreasonable of me I know, but if a film is set in 1999, and stars Leonardo Di Caprio, who looks like 17 in most lights, and 30 at a stretch (he's actually 32) should his character really be identified as a Rhodesian mercenary? He'd only have been 10 years old at independence for God's sake - I know that country has a thing about ludicrously under-aged 'war veterans' but this is just getting silly.

His accent sucks too. Mainly because no-one seems to appreciate that there's a difference between the South African accent (even the mild Cape Town one) and the white Zimbabwean one. Try comparing Duncan Fletcher (if you can ever get him to say anything) with Kevin Pieterson (if you can ever get him to shut up). How depressing - I'm reduced to moaning about realism in a Di Caprio film. I hate January sometimes...

UPDATE: Aaaargh! Di Caprio says he has to get involved because 'TIA' ie: This Is Africa. There are two of these acronyms that are used between 15-20 times a day in Zimbabwe by whites, and have been for fifty years: AWA, or Africa Wins Again, and TAB, or That's Africa Baby. No-one has ever said TIA, ever ever ever! Oh and he refers to black Africans as kaffirs. That's a much more South African word, in Rhodesia mostly they said munts or Afs. Petty petty petty.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Jim Webb - shurely shome mishtake?

The new senator for Virginia, Jim Webb gave a widely praised response to Bush's State of the Union speech, widely praised, of course, because critical of his stance on Iraq. But I'm really quite puzzled by it.

"As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be-President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. 'When comes the end?' ... And as soon as he became president, he brought the Korean War to an end."

Well done him and all that, though you can't help wondering how cheery the North Koreans are about it, those not starving or executed that is. Except of course, that Eisenhower didn't end the Korean War - an armistice was declared but North and South are still at war. He didn't bring the troops home either - the US maintains a sizeable garrison in South Korea, six decades after Eisenhower 'brought the troops home'.

So, the Democrat model for the Iraw war would appear to be one that ignores any humanitarian consequences, doesn't end the war, and consists of a minimum sixty year troop presence. Oh and North Korea has nukes now as well. Hmmm. A star is born.


Chris Dillow often writes scathingly of the fallacy of managerialism: that all that is required to turn around a failing enterprise is a more talented leader, or at least a leader better at managing. He detects this in plans to revitalise the health service by appointing private sector CEOs, in the disporportionate pay-offs received by those CEOs within the private sector, and in the personality-led attacks on political departments: the belief that John Reid would be able to turn the Home Office around is a classic piece of managerialist delusion.

But, but, but. I don't know what Chris's view is on this, and would be extremely keen to find out, but I think there is an argument that managerialism is not a universal fallacy; that the personal skills of a leader are not always irrelevant, or even largely irrelevant, to the fortunes of the team. England's recurrent humiliation in Australia goes some way to prove, in my opinion and in the sporting arena at least, the importance of having the right leader. The only match in the entire winter when England competed properly with Australia, ought in fact to have beaten them, was when Michael Vaughan was captaining the side.

For his many and great talents as a player, Andrew Flintoff lacks the ability to lead. He is a great player, but a poor captain. As if to demonstrate our incapacity to learn from analogy, Ian Botham was a great player and a poor captain - not least because he was unable to get the best out of himself. When Vaughan is skipper, the side looks different, more focused, than when Freddie is. This is hardly a comprehensive attack on anti-managerialism, but is it possible to take lessons from the sports field and apply them to business?

Oh and by the way *gnnngh* happy Australia Day.

Marriage, feminism and the Blogdaddy

Tim W gets himself into a spot of trouble over the fall-out from a New York Times story that, for the first time, a bare majority of American women are now not living with their husband. The story is a little forced in fact, as the numbers not only count women whose husbands are away, for example, serving in the army (an admittedly small number) but also the starting age is 15. Note to American 15 year-olds - you're letting the side down! Hurry up and get hitched! Don't make me come up there...

In any event, James Lileks, whose charming, rather inconsequential Daily Bleat has been a Reptile reading ground for a while now, wrote rather wistfully that this seemed a bit of a shame, and that late divorces so that the wife could 'find herself' were, somehow, not playing the game:

To my parent’s generation, divorce for no good reason was proof of moral failure. If someone cheated, that was a reason. If someone knocked you around, that was a reason. Decades of long nasty fights over things great and small, that was a reason. But splitting because the kids were out and it was time to have a room in which no hairy saggy-arsed ex-satyr would wad up his underwear and toss it in the corner? Not a reason.

Amanda Marcotte was scathing of this, to my mind not especially provocative, view, saying that it speaks volumes of the disrespect and loathing for women that is behind the nostalgia for the 50s exhibited by Lileks and his ilk. Up to a point Lord Copper. Marriage *is* a sacred contract, the words *do* mean something, and if it is treated as a point of convenience only, then that contract is devalued. Ms Marcotte dislikes the patriarchal elements of marriage, and sees it in terms akin to how a Euro-sceptic views the EU - any reduction in personal/national sovereignty is a bad thing: a diminishing of self.

I'm getting married in the summer, and although of course marriage is partly about the subsumation of elements of the individual within the marital whole (not to self - doublecheck spelling on this), it is also about that whole being greater than the sum of its parts. What Lileks was mourning was the existence of 'can't be bothered' divorces - a divorce for no real reason. If you believe that a marriage is no more than a relationship with a party at the start, there's no reason why this shouldn't be par for the course - if you believe, as Lileks does, and as I do, that it's more than that, then it is fair, and not misogyny, to feel a little saddened by it.

Tim, unfortunately, compared a woman wanting to divorce her husband because she's tired of clearing up after him, to a man wanting to divorce his wife so he can shag younger women - and Amanda picked him up on it - though I'm not entirely convinced that this displays Tim's inherent sexism. But Amanda extrapolated a touch from what Lileks said as well. Her version of the reverse situation was a man who was being used by his wife as a nanny and a housekeeper and emotional support system, and when he complained, she said, “Hey, I have a job,” even though he also has a job.

She counsels that man to divorce his wife. I'm just not convinced that running away from a problem is always the best way to solve it. It also strikes me as a touch odd to accuse James of being a primeval woman-subjugating dinosaur, when he's their kid's primary carer and a freelance-ish journalist while his wife's an uber-corporate lawyer. But then, what do I know, I'm just a man.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Death of a Statesman

On this day, in 1965, Winston Churchill died, after a severe stroke. I am inappropriately delighted to discover that the pre-eminent neurologist who treated him in the immediate aftermath was none other than Dr Brain. But then I had a schoolfriend whose father was, I believe, a urologist named Dr Dick. It all goes to show something, though I don't know what.

Attention span of a...

Iain Dale unleashes his inner toddler (in a good way, natch) in a post about the infuriating ineptness of the old blogger system. I once had to look after someone else's toddler, and it was really very sweet the way that sunshine and storms were but a second apart.

One second it's all tears and frustration, the next? Oooh it's snowing! I hope he remembered his mittens...


It seems like only yesterday that I was talking about a stylistic spat between the Pootergeek and Paul on one hand, and Mr Eugenides, Justin and the DK on the other. That little spat was really about the tone that should be taken in blogging - with Paul and the PG claiming that sweary ranting was juvenile and lowered the tone with the others repying, basically, bollocks.

There's a new, but slightly similar, little fight going on between Tim Ireland, of Bloggerheads and Guido. Tim has called for Guido to be sent to for various high crimes and misdemeanours such as:

1. Guido, through a number of deceits, renders any meaningful interaction with his weblog inert... above all, he's a comment cheat and a disgrace to blogging.
2. Guido is practically inviting politicians to avoid blogging or work to restrict the activity. It is honest bloggers who will pay the price.
3. Most of Guido's 'scoops' are nothing of the sort
4. Guido is a shameless opportunist and he's using your own frustration(s) against you.
5. Guido is lower than tabloid scum... and that's saying something.
6. Watch out for the switch, when Guido secretly starts (or continues) batting for those in power that he favours.
7. Guido is a stat-whore.. and a figure-fiddling one at that.
8. Guido insists on knowing where the funds come from for politicians/interest-groups, but he's awfully secretive about what funds his activities.
9. Guido is nothing but a smart-arse arsonist... and that's only if we take his word for it.
10. Guido may not realise it, but he's a bit of a homophobe... and (surprise, surprise) like attracts like.
11. Guido betrays his readers and his informants.

The prime accusation, beyond the political ones, is that Guido manipulates and deletes the comments his posts attracts, and that his style of blogging, being gossipy, bitchy and personal, is an assault on the true calling of blogging, which should be serious, high-minded and important. I'm more with Tim on this one, believing that an Englishman's blog is his castle and all that, and that since Guido goes out of his way to stress that he will delete or amend comments he finds tedious, you can't really complain.

The only reason I don't have Bloggerheads on my blog-roll is pure administrative laziness - I still have the Pedant General up there for God's sake - although I do remember that I was accused by him of hypocrisy, or callousness or some such thing when I compared Guantanamo Bay to the Laogai and other non-newsworthy prisons. But honestly, this seems to be a combination of inflated self-importance (Guido might get a law specfically against bloggers enacted!) and humourless conformity (I think everyone should post this way). I might eventually stir myself out of my apathy and updat my blogroll, but Guido will definitely be staying put.

Celebrity Big Deal

I've been extremely underwhelmed by the 'debate' triggered on racism by CBB. While I can't go so far as Simon Heffer in dividing my life into the era before I'd heard of Jade Goody and that after, I will say that I have never watched more of Big Brother in any incarnation for longer than it takes to identify what it is and change channel. I don't say this in a particular spirit of pride, just that the concept of watching seemingly tedious people do nothing for ages has never seemed to me remotely appealing: I've worked in academia.

So the fuss that Jade Goody and her mother disliked a pretty, educated Indian actress and consequently 'bullied' her using potentially racist remarks has seemed peculiarly irrelevant. Headlines of 'Stupid graceless person acts with graceless stupidity' are not Pulitzer-worthy stuff. There is a slightly more interesting angle from the class perspective - but the people writing the Shilpa-victim pieces are also those who, presumably, would espouse Jade as their class-victim.

So can we all agree that what Jade Goody may or may not think is of no more significance to the culture of Britain than what I think is. And for God's sake talk about something else...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Slavery - again

Well, this being the 200th anniversary of the unilateral abolition of the slave trade by the British Empire, it's inevitable I suppose that a rash of articles and comments would emerge. Perhaps the strangest so far has been that by Richard Gott, former KGB man now writing for the Guardian. For starters there is the obligatory reference to the economics of slavery:

The personal and public wealth of Britain created by slave labour was a crucial element in the accumulation of capital that made the industrial revolution possible.

This is simply not the case according to most recent economic historians of empire. John Darwin (who taught me incidentally, and supervised my doctorate) has estimated that the role of slavery in British capital accumulation was in the very low single figure percentages of total capital creation. When I taught history in Zimbabwe the text book contained the phrase: 'according to one historian the buildings of Liverpool were mortared with African blood.' I often wondered who the hell that 'historian' was - but he was talking emotionally rather than historically. The truth is that, though the slave trade was profitable to those involved in it, it was not a particularly significant factor in British industrialisation.

Then there is the rather unstructured call for financial reparation to be given to the descendants of slavery:

Black people whose forebears were slaves, victims of that other Holocaust, are simply asking for the stolen fruits of their ancestors' labour power to be given back to their rightful heirs.

This is bizarre in the extreme - if one of my forebears was exploited in the eighteenth century, should I get the right to compensation now? What if one of my ancestors was a slave? How much compensation should I get - an amount in proportion to the 'slave' blood in me?

More historical inanity is on the way.

Third, in considering the British achievement of 1807, we should remember that other countries got there first. Again, it is customary to record the decision of the French convention to abolish slavery itself, on February 4 1794.

It is also customary, if one is not to be accused of misrepresenting history, to state that this decision lasted less than 10 years, with Napoleon rescinding it in 1801. Slavery was only officially abolished in France in 1848. But wait! there's more.

The vote did not put an end to the international trade by other nations, nor did it terminate slavery.

While Gott is certainly correct that other nations did not recognise the ban on the trade, he is wrong to suggest that the ban did not put an end to the international trade. The Royal Navy unilaterally supervised the ban, ignoring international conventions by boarding ships from other nations if they were suspected to be slavers. The Royal Navy policed West Africa and the South Atlantic trade routes for many decades after the ban was imposed, and the trade was enormously diminished.

The strangest thing of all, and one that Gott might not have had control over, is the title of the piece: Britain's vote to end its slave trade was a precursor to today's liberal imperialism. Does he mean that it was a bad thing that Britain abolished the slave trade? Or that today's liberal imperialism is a good thing and should be praised? I would tend towards the latter, but I doubt Gott is as much of a fan of Niall Ferguson as I am.

One point that was raised in the comments to the piece made me smile, however.

Speaking of context, Richard Gott's former employers were practicing slavery up until 1960 in the form of the gulag system. As a beneficiary of their slave labour perhaps he should be named as a co-litigant in their compensation claim, or at the very least apologise to them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Martin Amis

I haven't read much recently by Martin Amis, but I might just have to now. In a style worthy of the DK himself, witness this little e-mail exchange with an Independent reader:

The phrase "horrorism", which you invented to describe 9/11, is unintentionally hilarious. Have you got any more? JONATHAN BROOKS, by email

Yes, I have. Here's a good one (though I can hardly claim it as my own): the phrase is "fuck off".

Such talent expressed in so few words!

UPDATE: He's a snarky little so and so...
Whats the worst thing that's ever happened to you? NESA GARDEZI, by email

One day I returned home from a book tour in the US, and I noticed that the leading edge of the toilet roll in the bathroom wasn't folded into an inviting V - as it was in all those American hotels.
Not only that. I then had a tedious five minutes issuing instructions about the new arrangement to my wife.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Constitutional conundrum

The new additions to the European Union, bringing to 27 the number within, have led, predictably, to calls for the re-introduction of the European Constitution. I leave to others the tedious, but necessary, task of deconstructing this remarkably turgid, verbose and disquieting document. My point is rather simpler.

The Constitution was rejected by both France and the Netherlands at the last attempt. Both the prospective Presidents of France, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, are less enthusiastic about the European project than was Chirac. Equally, both would be extremely reluctant to be seen to be railroading through the Constitution without a further referendum. In its current form, and nothing has been suggested that would alter it, the Consitution is un-electable. From the left it looks like a facilitator of Turkish entry and even (somehow) a paean to liberal economics. To the right it looks like further enlargement of the role of the supra-national bodies, with a commensurate reduction in national sovereignty.

Referenda will have to be held in France and the Netherlands through sheer political expediency; in Denmark because that's how they always manage things like this; and in the UK because Blair promised one and Brown is unlikely to have the muscle or the balls to avoid one. It seems at least probable that the referendum result will be negative in at least three of these cases.

Completely ignoring the political/diplomatic reasons why the Constitution should never be accepted by the European Union; there is a cast-iron electoral reason why it cannot be. Calls for its re-introduction are fantasy.

Interesting use of words...

La Toynbee, in an otherwise uninteresting defence of the ridiculous jobs advertised, at our expense, by her employer, describes Lord Browne's severance package with BP as "£63m legally purloined from a public company holding all our pension funds"

Purloined: v. pur·loined, pur·loin·ing, pur·loins
To steal, often in a violation of trust.
To commit theft.

If it's legal, it isn't theft. Legal purloining is like consensual rape - a definitional impossibility. So it might be best if she only used words she understood in future.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Wigs and Gowns

In relation to judges rather than to transvestites. An article about anonymity in rape cases (about which, incidentally my view is clear: anonymity before conviction, if any, should be extended to victim and accused) touches on another point - that of wigs for barristers and judges. They are to vanish from the civil courts, but to remain in the criminal courts.

Marcel Berlins disapproves of them in any court, and believes they should go altogether. The most common practical point cited in their favour is, as he says:

The judge sentences a young thug to prison. The accused's friends vociferously demonstrate their displeasure. Later, the judge is on his way home, on the same bus as the thug's burly friends. Shorn of his wig, he escapes unnoticed. Result: he does not risk a beating.

Berlins rather sniffily observes that there is no evidence at all that the lack of a judicial wig would endanger their safety. The fact that it can be hard to find evidence for assaults that haven't taken place appears to have slipped his mind. Then comes his conclusive paragraph:

It is also argued that the wigs give judges and trials dignity and gravity. And a survey finds the public wants them in criminal cases, by a majority of two to one. Those are not good reasons for keeping a tradition that no longer has any practical or symbolic validity.

So. A centuries old tradition that those who administer justice want to keep in place for reasons both sentimental/symbolic and also practical; and one that the overwhelming majority want to keep also. So what would be a good reason to keep it? If everyone wanted to and wigs were an anti-carcinogen? It should really be up to those wanting to effect to change to demonstrate why the change should be made, not the other way round. Careless vandalism of tradition and custom has led to the awful, botched House of Lords Reform, to Cash for Peerages and to the destruction of the constitution and the civil service. It would be nice to think someone might have figured out the connection.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Ballerinas and the BNP

Off with her head!

I've been unable to get remotely worked up about the story of Simone Clarke's membership of the BNP. The fact that, after a concerted campaign to alter the image of a political party to a more middle class one, that political party attracts more middle class members should barely be in the paper at all, let alone a major news story. Nor, really, is the fact, that so-called 'anti-fascists' should respond by attempting to get people fire for holding political opinions different to their own. So far, so blehh.

But this story by Matthew Taylor of the Guardian rather takes the biscuit for chutzpah. He was the chap who 'infiltrated' the BNP and stole a membership list, subsequently publishing it for the Guardian. Among the 'interesting' names was Simone Clarke, a prima ballerina for the ENB, who hardly fits the classic racist image, her partner being a Cuban of Chinese extraction. A campaign has been launched, including someone who I bloody well pay for called Lee Jasper,to attempt to get her fired for her non-kulturny opinions. However, the line that really yanks my chain is this:

But following yesterday's demonstration the company, which is publicly funded and is therefore obliged by the Race Relations Act 2000 to promote good race relations, is coming under increasing pressure to explain why one of its highest profile employees is allegedly using her position as a platform for the far-right party.

Simone Clarke never spoke publicly about her political views until she was, without her consent, 'outed' by Taylor in a national newspaper. This is not 'using her position as a platform', and to pretend that it is, when it is in reality your own reports that have raised her to this degree of prominence is mind-blowing cant.

There is, in fact, a good word in existence for those who believe that anyone who hold a political opinion that differs from the state-approved version should be fired from their job. The 'anti-fascists' might not like it though.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


'That's Africa Baby!' was the incessant and, if truth be told infuriating, cry of the old Africa hand. Produced in response to any complaint about bureaucracy, sickness or any other sort of inconvenience.

I went over to Zimbabwe on my Gap Year and taught in a really very remote little Mission School in the middle of the bush. None of you will ever have heard of it...or at least now you might have, because, slap in the middle of the dusty, parched and, above all, uninteresting and quiet little region diamonds have been discovered.

To be honest you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw this. Admittedly the only reason it was newsworthy was that Mugabe was appropriating the mine without compensation, but still... But I was really quite tickled by this story that emerged recently. Some poor Belgian has been picked up with illegally acquired diamonds in Mutare (a once-lovely city).

Fortunately for Ibrahim [the Belgian], the State will not be able to produce the exhibit because the diamonds disappeared in the hands of a police sergeant. The sergeant will soon be arrested in connection with the theft, police sources said yesterday.

I love Africa...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Getting the hump with the Horn

A strange consensus seems to be building about the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts rebel regime in Somalia. The first is that this was little more than a popular drive for greater stability in war-ravaged Somalia. This is patently absurd. The UIC was an oppressive theocratic dictatorship that was making it a capital offence not to pray 5 times daily, was banning music, dancing and most inter-sex mixing and, which would probably have guaranteed its eventual demise, was trying to ban qat the mild narcotic that's chewed all over the horn of Africa (hence the title, clever wasn't it?).

The second is that the Ethiopian intervention was entirely without justification. Given that the UIC was calling for the re-unification of all 'ethnic Somalis' into a 'Greater Somalia' the threat to Ethiopia, which has had a significant 'Somalian' population for centuries is clear - it's akin to Hitler's call for a Greater Germany in the 1930s.

The third is that Ethiopia's response has been an illegal invasion. Wrong on both counts in my opinion. The Ethiopian army is in Somalia at the invitation of the legally-constituted, internationally recognised Provisional Government. It's no more an invasion than the American airbases in the UK are.

Given the tacit US support for the toppling of a potentially very nasty regime in Somalia, it is obvious where most of the new support for the UIC comes from of course. In determining whether or not a regime is for supporting or opposing, chaps like this simply determine the attitude of the US and then kick against it.

Leading with the head

One for the purists
In the aftermath of the most dispiriting winter tour that I can remember (I wasn't really concetrating on the 85/6 blackwash tour) England have recalled the most elegant batsman in England to be their captain for the one-day tour and World Cup. Having not played Test cricket for over a year, and never having been a particularly effective one-day player, Michael Vaughan might have been considered an odd choice: a team struggling to make runs and take wickets recalls a man out of any sort of form with a long injury list. I think, however, that England have done precisely the right thing.
For the stength of Michael Vaughan is not simply to be found in his beautifully elegant and pure cover driving, nor his swivel-pulls over midwicket. Vaughan is also the best captain in world cricket, with only one possible rival in Stephen Fleming of New Zealand. I argued before the Ashes that the captain's role ought to have gone to Andrew Strauss, who displayed much better captaincy in the summer, and didn't have the stress of the all-rounder spot to cope with. I'm too down to feel particularly vindicated, and England would have lost in any case, but the recall of a captain picked primarily for his captaincy abilities is evidence that the England set up have remembered that the captain is, in effect, already an all-rounder.
In the far-off days of 2005, England just out-bowled Australia, matched them with the bat and, crucially, distinctly out-generalled them. Ponting was made to look like an extraordinary batsman and an ordinary captain. Just as you should always pick the bowlers most likely to take wickets (and then as Michael Atherton says make sure they get good enough to score runs), you should almost always pick the best wicket keeper available and you should, if possible, pick the man with the best captaincy skills as captain. This winter, England not only did not pick the best captain for their team, they didn't even pick the best captain in their team. Lets just hope to goodness that Vaughan's knee can stand up to three more years of Test cricket...

The story of the year so far...

To steal a phrase from the great Mark Steyn, it was a capital concept, but the execution was lousy. In fact the coverage of the death of Saddam Hussein made me rather depressed. It provided to a murdering tyrant the sort of dignity in death that was the worst possible outcome. It made Iraqi justice look like a squalid tit-for-tat two-bit hit. It risks turning Hussein into that most potent of things: a martyr.

Before the event I was broadly of the position that, although personally opposed to the death penalty, the execution of Saddam Hussein was the only practical solution to a difficult problem: partly at least the king-in-exile problem. Ask yourself, I remember thinking, which makes a more potent slogan, 'Free Nelson Mandela' or 'Remember Steve Biko'. This is still true up to a point, but sadly the execution of Hussein, and especially the circulated video of it, risk a scenario closer to Our Blessed Martyr King Charles I.

Not dead...

Just not very well at the moment, and stuck at work feeling sorry for myself. To put it into perspective, I found myself on way home on the tube quite late last night reading Anne Applebaum's Gulag (which I thoroughly recommend by the way) and thinking 'Huh, that's not so bad...'. I exaggerrate, but an unhelpful January inspired ennui has affected me just at the time when there are things to write about.

I think I'm back though - we'll see.