Monday, November 29, 2004

Labour Loyalty Cards

David Blunkett said a couple of weeks ago he was worried about the amount of information supermarkets stored on their loyalty cards. I have now seen new evidence regarding the ID Card proposals mentioned in the Queen's Speech.

Labour Loyalty Card:

Vote Labour: 2000 points
Vote Labour in marginal constituency: 5000 points
Call your dog Tony: 200 points

Redeemable for the following services:

800 points: Preferential appointments at an NHS dentist.
1,000 points: Getting your children into the school of your choice
30,000 points: Peerage

Sunday, November 28, 2004

At last!

The Pet Shop Boys get the credit they deserve for their Elvis cover. I've never been a big fan of Hendrix, so I don't like the choice of Number 1, but I guess most people wouldn't argue, more's the pity. In any case, I've had enough arguments with my friends over this song, so I have some vestige of an argument now! And the choice of key moment is spot-on...

This would be very funny...

... if it wasn't so accurate. This is one of the reasons I am finding it very difficult to support the Tories at the moment. They are offering absolutely no opposition to the Government's crude attacks on civil liberties - ostensibly in the name of protecting terrorism, but in reality doing absolutely nothing to stop any attacks, and only serving to give the police sweeping powers that I would not trust them with in any way, shape or form. I will post on ID cards later, because I think that they are a terrible piece of legislation that will have implications far beyond their intended use. (Note, however, that Blunkett claims to be worried about the amount of information supermarkets store on their loyalty cards!)

What I will concentrate on in this post is the problems the Tories have. It is almost impossible to out-right Blunkett on law and order, and retain a grip on sanity. Tory Party policy, however, is to attempt this. A combination of Howard and Davis as PM and Home Secretary sends shivers down my spine - I cannot think of many things that could be more terrible for civil liberties. Of course there is no Tory opposition to ID cards - they were a hobby horse of Mr Howard's when he was Home Secretary in the 1990s! To think that, for all IDS's faults, he at least had the sense to put Oliver Letwin as shadow Home Secretary. For principled opposition on a liberal basis, Letwin was absolutely perfect and regularly destroyed Blunkett in the House. However, he was evidently too liberal and performed too well for Michael Howard's taste, so instead we get David "pro-death penalty" Davis instituted. He may be uncompromising, but he is also unconvincing in terms of how a vision for the country holds together. And I gather he is unappealing to much of the electorate as well. This worries me greatly. Howard took the star performer of an admittedly poor Shadow Cabinet and shoved him in a role where his freedom of manoeuvre is greatly restricted. Unless the Tories get their best people in the jobs best suited to them, their chances of future success will be greatly limited.

There's a reason adults don't have childminders

So, Margaret Hodge (odious woman) believes in the nanny state. When will Labour learn we are perfectly capable of taking responsibility for our own actions?

All I can say is that any child with the aforementioned Mrs Hodge as nanny would be mentally scarred for life.

Further shame on the ECB

It looks like England will only be playing a four-game series in Zimbabwe. Better than five games, but it is still four games too many. Today's game is already beginning to look like a pushover - and this being an England side, generally weak at one-day cricket, that is without its three best players. The racist policies of Zimbabwe Cricket in targeting players in a contract dispute have weakened the side beyond the realms of credibility, and on cricketing grounds alone there is no reason for England to be there.

What is most shameful and disgraceful, however, is that the ECB did not call the tour off following the refusal to grant accreditation to the British press. Even the ICC, who have acted equally disgracefully throughout the whole process, said the ECB could have called the tour off on such a basis without facing financial penalty. Instead, the officials of the ECB have negotiated with the tyrant Mugabe so that a morally corrupt government, which has already rounded up those likely to use the games for a political protest, can host a tour to pretend that all is nice and rosy.

Furthermore, they are justifying the petty politics of Mugabe and the Zanu-PF party. When the journalists were originally refused access, the world was told that they were being excluded because of the political beliefs of the organs that they represented - for example the Daily Telegraph, which Mugabe apparently believes is an agent of MI5. Yet when the "climbdown" was announced, it was apparently an administrative error that had led to the refusal of entry. Such lying is transparent and it is embarrassing to me, as a passionate England cricket fan, that our authorities are willing to go along with this charade.

Tony Blair's constant refrain was that sport and politics do not mix. Mugabe has used this whole sorry saga as naked politics. Angus Fraser wrote an excellent article in yesterday's Independent saying that all the bodies - Government, ECB and ICC - were motivated solely by money in their concern. This is unacceptable. Sport can, and should be used as a moral force. No-one has come out of this whole palaver with any credit; but the final act of the ECB was worst of all. Being fearful of pecuniary punishment is understandable - negotiating with a tyrant without such fear is morally wrong and reprehensible.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Drowned in a sea of orange?

No doubt many of you are aware of what is currently going on in Ukraine at the moment. Allegations of widespread corruption had marred the election from the outset - in particular, Mr Yanukovich, the candidate backed by Russia and the outgoing President, was accused of having undue influence over the media outlets in the country. Journalists from two TV Channels walked out of their jobs in protest at the attempts to exercise undue influence. Independent observers, who in the earlier poll had highlighted several irregularities, are saying that the final vote results are hopelessly flawed.

This link, from A Fistful of Euros, is very useful for regular updates. It seems that many people in Ukraine agree with Mr Yushchenko that the vote stinks, and they are out on the streets protesting. Tomorrow I shall be joining them in wearing orange, for I sincerely hope that their protest is successful. There is a fair chance of this, for Kiev city council, and four other major cities have all refused to accept the validity of the election results - a testament to the strength of feeling in these cities; thus forcing the city deputies to respond to people power. However, Donetsk, the major mining area, and a lot of the south of the country appear to be supporting Mr Yanukovich; this will hamper chances of success. The Kiev Post here draws comparisons to the revolution in Georgia; the most telling sentence is this:
If Ukraine's protesters are banking that sheer numbers will prevail - that
they'll compile a critical mass that will convince the authorities change is
unavoidable - they'll likely need far more than have gathered so far.

What has interested me most is the democratic symbolism that has been used so far in the protests. Obviously the wearing of orange - the Yushchenko campaign colour - has been a crucial feature; but the protests at Parliament seemed to be highly orderly (except for a temporary storming of the Parliament building by some protestors) and focusing very much on the democratic norms of the society. In particular, the swearing of the Presidential oath, if on a Bible and not a copy of the constitution, as constitutionally defined, was highly significant as it places in the popular mindset the image of Yushchenko as the figure of authority. Also telling was the absence of the pro-Yanukovich bloc in Parliament; this deprived the sitting of a quorum, but also, to me at least, gave the impression of Yushchenko and followers as the ones upholding democracy.

I suspect that their own attempts to overturn the election results will be unsuccessful. The country seems to be split east-west, rather than an urban-rural split which would have favoured the civil disobedients much further. This is regrettable, because my firmly held opinion is that democracy is much more successful when policed internally. However, the interest then shifts to the Realpolitik of the situation. Yanukovich is favoured by the former President, and has been recognised as the new leader by Russia, because he favours a pro-Russian policy; thus probably keeping a huge amount of corruption within the running of the economy (Yanukovich himself has been convicted of corruption). Yushchenko is significantly more pro-Western; all EU countries have summoned their Ukranian ambassadors; the EU and the US obviously have strong questions about the validity of the poll too. It seems likely there will be a heavy battle for influence if the popular movement does not succeed in getting Yushchenko installed. Thus, the denouement could be an interesting test of popular power and the influence of Russia.

Call it off NOW

I have written earlier about my increased admiration for Steve Harmison, for he was the only England player to remove himself from selection for the tour to Zimbabwe on moral grounds. Whilst reports came out that Andrew Flintoff would not have gone in any case, had he not been "rested" for the trip, he should have said this earlier and not used it as a retrospective justification for his silence on the issue before selection. And while I may have sympathy for Michael Vaughan, as he is in an invidious position as captain, I think he may regret his decision to captain the team in Zimbabwe in later life.

Of course, the government must shoulder a large amount of responsibility for this situation. It is my firm belief that all too often sport IS politics - why else would Labour be so keen on pushing their London 2012 Olympic bid? The internal politics of the ICC made it impossible for the ECB to make a decision not to tour on their own; the threatened punishments were too great. The only way they could get out of the tour was clear and unequivocal advice from the government; the refusal of the government to give this advice shows how risible their claims to an "ethical foreign policy" really are. That said, on purely cricketing terms the ECB should have sent a significantly weakened party to tour; the contract dispute involving most of the leading Zimbabwean players, whilst now resolved, has weakened their team to a level where competition on an international basis is pretty impossible. Even with star players, I predict England to win all their games on this tour.

However, the tour should not go ahead. All the arguments about politics are highlighted by this afternoon's announcement that Mugabe and his odious regime have banned a large number of English journalists from entry to his country. There is no justification for this whatsoever. What is Mugabe frightened of? The fact that his racist and ruinous policies are damaging the country for all; that his human rights record is nothing short of abysmal; that under any vestige of moral standards Mugabe and his thugs have no right to be in power (indeed, the failure of his African neighbours to refuse to take any action against him brings shame on the entire region). His specific targeting of newspapers that have been most vociferous in their denunciation of his regime speaks for itself.

Mugabe's refusal of press visas shows more than anything why this tour is a political one. He has made several purely political appointments to the cricket authorities in the country; attempts to enforce a racist selection policy are justified by quota. The refusal to open up to any criticism is shameful, and what is more shameful is the number of prominent English cricketers who refuse to take a moral stand against it. If the whole team were to take decided action, any of the ECB threats that other players have intimated would have forced the board into action themselves. I feel sorry for the players; a fine would hit their projects hardest. But I cannot help but feel that non-refusal to tour will do a great deal of damage to the perception of English cricket. We should not acquiesce whilst others are refusing to uphold standards of freedom and decency. Yet another reason has emerged why the tour of Zimbabwe is a disgrace. The bigger disgrace is that our government, our sporting authorities, and our cricketing representatives, are refusing to take a stand against this immoral regime.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The frightening nature of logical positions

I know I'm not in the habit of just linking to articles, but I followed the Illinois Senate race with some interest. Not just because the new great hope of the Democrats, Barack Obama, was standing, but because the Republicans couldn't find anyone to stand against him. They were so desperate they even approached the former Chicago Bears coach, "Iron" Mike Ditka, to oppose him. He refused. In the end, they were left with Alan Keyes, who is perhaps best described, if somewhat euphemistically, as a maverick. However, he does have a frighteningly consistent logic to his arguments. Search the 'net to find out more... Thankfully, his positions are so wacky, that their end result is a 43-point difference in the race. Here's how he took his defeat...

A quick note on fox-hunting

To all those concerned about the ban on fox-hunting - get over it. No, I don't approve of the ban either. I have no intention of ever fox-hunting, but I think it has served a useful purpose in pest control in the past, and it obviously maintains a focus for a rural community. Yet there are strong animal welfare arguments, and I think the image painted of the fox-hunting community as largely angelic is a complete charade. They are more than willing to catch foxes and keep them alive purely to be released for the chase; they hold little regard for the sanctity of farmer's property and roam almost wherever they like.

That said, I still do not think it is the government's place to take such measures. Ultimately it does not harm other people and providing that the hunt stays within the limits of the law in its actions, then I have no problem with people hunting if they wish to spend their time in such a way. However, the reason that this illiberal measure has been passed is because of the "unwritten constitution" of the country so much vaunted by the conservative sections of the media who defend the right to hunt with such passion.

To which I say: the ban on fox-hunting serves you right. The entire reason that the government can get away with a ban like this is because there is no written constitution that delineates the powers of the government. Furthermore, the checks needed upon a government are sadly missing when the second House is prevented from blocking legislation due to the Parliament Act (although, admittedly, the idea of an appointed House having power is also wrong), yet in the House of Commons there is no separation between the legislative and the executive branch of power. You keep vaunting the merits of an unwritten constitution, but it is precisely this lack of clear governmental control which allows such measures to be passed through.

Fighting on two fronts

A poll in Holland earlier this week found that the Dutch population considered Pim Fortuyn, the assassinated right-wing politician, to be the greatest Dutchman ever. Apart from the fact that this shows up the tremendous limits of any sort of poll of this kind (a similar poll in South Africa highlighted only the lingering racism and deep divisions of that society), it also highlights the problems that have been caused by the assassination of film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic fundamentalist. Or, as my fellow blogger Frans Groenendijk puts it, by a walking time bomb.

In not entirely unrelated news, Germany is also experiencing strong difficulties with Islam. A report in the Times earlier this week details how Islamic preachers may be ordered to preach in German, rather than Arabic, so it is easy to monitor what they are saying. This comes after a controversy in which an imam was preaching a directly anti-German message. "The Germans, he said, would only support Turkish entry to the European Union if the Turks ripped down the minarets and bulldozed the mosques."

Both of these instances are demonstrative of the extremes of free speech, on both sides. I agree wholeheartedly with people like Stephen Pollard when they say that the comments of the Index on Censors, namely that van Gogh "abused his right to free speech" with his production of the short film "Submission", are completely out of order and that he has the right to say it. I watched the film, and although explicitly provocative (an Islamic woman wearing a semi-transparent veil, for example, with several scenes in which she is clearly aware of her being a sexual being; or Quranic verses being written on a female body) the points that he raises are particularly valid. Islam, in many cases, does allow the treatment of women in a manner completely out of kilter with Western values. And if these people cannot tolerate free speech being allowed to criticise their beliefs, then they shouldn't be taking up residence in such countries. We should also be careful about granting citizenship to these groups.

However, the German case provides a much more difficult situation for us. Because if we accept the right of Mr van Gogh to make his speeches, then we also have to accept the right of the imam to speak his mind. The difficulty arises in that whereas the message of Submission is calling for a reform of the attitudes of the Islamic male, the message of some imams is far more radical, and argues for the destruction of western civilisation. People in the West may criticise the Islamic faith heavily, but they would never call for its absolute destruction. However, those who portray the West as the Great Satan will seize on any attempt to restrict fundamentalist Islam as proof of the corruption of the West; let alone attempts to restrict things which to them may seem far more moderate.

The quote I used above from the Times is quite clearly inciting the worshippers at the mosque to believe that the official policy of Germany in particular, and Europe in general, is directly anti-Islamic. But our values of free speech demand that we let them say this. What we have to be more militant about is telling people that statements like these are false, derogatory and dangerous, and set about showing them they are wrong. Being cowed by political correctness is perhaps the worst thing that we can do, for it allows the promulgation of lies.

Religious questions are always fraught with danger, for there tends to be a section of irrationality to belief that is difficult to overcome in rational argument. At a certain level, issues have to be put down to faith and disagreements accepted - unfortunately this rarely happens on issues of such an emotive nature. However, if we are not clear in the way we promote our own values, then we run the risk of losing large amounts of disaffected youth to fundamentalist movements.

There is a direct link between the actions of Islamic fundamentalists and a growth in Islamophobia which allows the growth, in turn, of anti-immigration parties like the Vlaams Blok about which I blogged last week. But we have to fight a war on two fronts, which is one fraught with the danger of the religious issue that I referred to above. Those "walking time-bombs" who do nothing but spout anti-Western hate have to be stopped. They are a threat to our civilisation, both in a physical and a metaphorical sense; they are hell-bent on our destruction, but this can come about too by forcing a retreat from our values. In terms of physical militancy, this requires an approach which involves killing them before they can kill us. I make no bones about this statement - if we believe Western values are right, we have to be prepared to fight to stop them. And yet, on the other hand, we have to prevent people from believing their rhetoric. This creates a dilemma in itself - for attacking Muslims will always be presented in some circles as being fundamentally anti-Islamic. Yet if we handle matters correctly, I am sure this problem can be limited. How the wars should be fought, I am as yet unsure.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Poking fun at politicians

This link from the BBC tells how the Georgian political establishment is upset over a maths book that pokes fun at some rather amusing incidents in their parliament. Thankfully, the education ministry is not going as far as actually banning the book, although they are showing themselves to be somewhat unhumorous by declaring it to be educationally unsuitable.

However, I think the person in charge of the national curriculum is missing the point somewhat when he declares "I don't think anyone would really meet a situation like they have to calculate the time when the leg of the table will be sawn off." Oh really? Well I don't recall ever sitting down and working out exactly how long it would take for a bath to empty if I had the taps running at a certain rate but the plug out, but I had to calculate it in maths lessons. I don't recall ever being particularly interested in the mechanics of how a see-saw worked, but I was asked about that at A-Level. The whole point of the exercises in maths textbooks is that they provide means through which people can test out the skills that they learn.

And from my recollection of the maths that I did learn, most of these textbooks are resoundingly boring. Just page after page of symbols and meaningless questions that most of the time appeared highly irrelevant. Now, I still enjoyed Maths, but I think that is largely because a) I am a nerd and b) I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of working out a problem to its unarguable solution. There will, however, be hundreds of thousands of children who would not be intellectually stimulated by those pages of questions. So, my point is brief but simple. If, by poking fun at yourself, you can get the attention of the children who need these mathematical skills, then it is more than worth it. They may represent "unrealistic" situations, but it is more essential that they take an interest in their learning.

Affairs of state

Yesterday Michael Howard took the extraordinary step of sacking Boris Johnson from the Conservative front bench. On one level, the reasoning sounds consistent and reasonable - Howard did not think Johnson was telling the truth, and given the amount of time that Howard has spent proclaiming that people do not trust politicians because of their mendacity, it seems a reasonable position to take. However, I would be amazed if Howard's decision does not backfire dramatically.

Not least among my reasons for this is because Boris has a reputation for saying what he thinks. Whilst many people were offended by the Spectator's printing of an article highly critical of Liverpool in the aftermath of the execution of Ken Bigley, they at least recognised that he had the right to print it, and were, I think, respectful of an editor who was willing to publish challenging and unpopular points of view. Furthermore, they were respectful of the fact Boris took full responsibility for the article published in his journal.

The last paragraph contains another clue as to why the sacking was such a bad idea. The fact that Johnson is known by his first name, rather than by his second, demonstrates just how popular he is. Indeed, he is most probably the most popular politician in the country. His "bumbling idiot" persona - although somewhat contrived and to a large extent a ruse - has led to him being considered the coolest politician in the country. And anyone who saw his first appearance as a guest presenter on Have I Got News For You must at least have great respect for him, even if they don't like him. His comments after that appearance go a long way to summing up why he was so popular - to paraphrase, he said that unless politicians appear on shows like that, even if they know they are going to be ridiculed, then they have no chance of actually striking a chord with those currently disengaged with politics.

On those grounds alone, then, it was a risky decision for Howard to take. The actual affair over which he was accused of lying was an extra-marital one. My gut reaction is that sacking Boris over a matter such as this, when it is so clearly non-political, will reconfirm in many eyes the perception of the Tory party as the "nasty party". Yet again, the Tories are making the headlines for non-political reasons whilst offering seemingly no sensible alternative to Labour.

But I think my opposition to the sacking goes further than this. Why the hell is it anyone's business who Boris Johnson is sleeping with? If we are worried about his ability to serve his country properly, it is far more worrying that he is continuing to edit the Spectator at the same time as he was supposed to be representing his constituents in Henley-on-Thames, and while (until yesterday) we was supposed to be opposing the brief of Culture and the Arts. Is anyone seriously suggesting that Boris's libido was affecting his political performance more than his doubling up of duties?

One of the things we should realise in this day and age is that the public and private spheres should be kept separate. It is none of our business who Boris Johnson is sleeping with, unless this actually starts to become detrimental to his ability to do his job - something no-one has suggested in all the media furore this has caused. Why do we hold our politicians to higher standards of personal morality than ourselves? One of the things that the Tories claim to stand for is smaller government; to give people more control over what they do with their lives. Their leader's decision this week stands in stark contrast to that. If the state should keep out of regulating what goes on in the bedroom, then we should stop our fascination with what our public figures get up to in their own time. The only affairs by which we should judge our politicians are the affairs of state.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

In Flanders Fields...

Tomorrow will be the day that the country commemmorates those who have fallen defending our nation and our freedoms. For the past few weeks now, people up and down the country will have been wearing their poppy as an act of remembrance for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. Would we be as willing to fight for that as those our age were sixty and ninety years ago? Somehow I doubt it, but it is still important to have a sense of where we are coming from. The two World Wars were the formative events of society as we know it; both in a realpolitik and a cultural sense. It may sound particularly morbid, but one of the things I find most fascinating about WWI is the change in attitudes it brought about with regards to death. Previously the burial and the sanctity of the body was tremendously important; yet once countless soldiers had fallen, never to be retrieved, the spirit became the defining factor of someone's memory.

The battlefields of the First World War are some of the saddest places in the world - made particularly poignant because the slaughter itself was not just horrific, but in so many ways totally senseless. Whilst it is interested to compare the attitudes of different nationalities to the way that they treat their dead and the after-effects of the war (compare, for example, the Langemarck German cemetery with the French Ossuary at Douamont Ridge), the one factor that unites them all is the sense of sadness. I make a point of buying my poppy as soon as I see them on sale; usually I end up buying several.

And yet, i have been thinking recently about the strong limitations of Remembrance Day. It pleased me greatly when, talking to a friend last night, he told me how many of his foreign friends had expressed an interest in what the poppy actually signified. It irritates me greatly when pompous idiots llike Yasmin Alibhai-Brown write about how they buy poppies but do not display them for fear of being associated with war - an act of self-importance and disrespect to those who gave their lives. And I feel there should be a far more public demonstration of observing the two-minute silence at the time of the Armistice Agreement on November 11th itself.

What remains essential, however, is that we do not only think of the war dead come November. It goes without saying that I am not calling for a reduction in the commemmoration service, but we have to be careful about focusing all our attention on a particular date or time. The freedoms that were secured for us by those we remember are around the whole time, and should never be forgotten. I blogged earlier in the week about the importance of some particular dates and how public perceptions of them were crucial to understanding the community identity that is the key motor of history.

However, the public fanfare given to the Poppy Appeal every year, and the observing of the two minute silence become less worthwhile unless accompanied by true understanding of what those sacrifices really mean to us. Otherwise the silence becomes a sign more of our guilt than our appreciation of what these men really mean to us - in a similar manner to the way that proliferation of tributary silences for popular figures becomes less a measure of our sadness at their passing than a semi-obligatory act. Instead, we should take the time to visit the Battlefields; take the time to read fully about the true significance of the war and how much human life was wasted for now-invalidated ideals. For unless we use the memory of the war to inspire us throughout the year, we are not truly respecting those who fell for us. So much was lost then for us to gain today. The least we can do is remember it the whole year round.

Friday, November 12, 2004

You don't have to go to America to find illiberalism

Yesterday, the Vlaams Blok party in Belgium was declared racist by the Belgian judiciary and ordered to close down. This is, in itself, worrying enough - especially given that the VB was the largest political party in Flanders. Hundreds of thousands of voters have literally been disenfranchised in a court. But the linked article raises several points regarding freedom of speech and the political process which perhaps go further. I would like to emphasise at this point I am not arguing in favour of the Vlaams Blok policies. I do not know them well enough; many of their words could be construed as codewords for racism, but of itself, campaigning to maintain the integrity of the Flemish culture is not racist (and indeed, there are imperatives regarding the division of Belgium between Flanders and Wallonia that operate on the political scene). Yet for the judiciary to close the party down is scarcely believable.

The state funding of political parties is a terrible idea. To begin with, it takes money off taxpayers to prolong the lives of political parties which they themselves do not support. By giving political parties a lifeblood, they are immediately made less dependent on the electorate for their existence, and this can only be a bad thing for the engagement of parties with the people. In addition, it is a superfluous use of tax monies. But worst of all, it implies that the state has a right to control political parties. Democracies are supposed to function by allowing the people to choose the representatives that they desire. By making them entirely dependent upon state funding (and in Belgium they are; the maximum personal donation to any political party is 125 euros) the state is saying, in effect, that democracies exist because the state allows it to. Parties are the generous gift of the state, and can be recalled at any time when the state disagrees with them.

In this case, the ruling is a particularly stark illustration of this. From what I can understand, the Flemish half of Belgium (a classic example of a country created through ideology rather than any sense of nationality) has the more vibrant economy, but is somewhat in the shadow of Wallonia, and the European importance of Brussels, a French-speaking island in the Flemish-speaking sea. Understandably, if this admittedly simplified rendering of events is true, the Flemish are seeking to try and assert their culture and their independence. Instead, the voice of the majority of the Flemings has been cut off. Because the state has the ultimate control over the political process, both in granting parties the right to exist, the right to funding and the right to public exposure, it can cut down its opposition in such a manner.

Of course, discussion at the samizdata blog has rightly emphasised that the rights of the Belgians not to have a fascist government to be imposed on them must also be considered. However, this is the whole point behind national and European declarations of rights. Policies pursued by governments must be within accepted constraints that have been laid down for the people by the people. That is why the judiciary exists - to make sure these bounds are not being transgressed; not to deny people their democratic right to have their voice heard.

In any case, if the views of the Vlaams Blok are so dreadful and racist, then Belgium is not going to achieve anything by banning them outright. By trying to silence them, they increase their likelihood of support amongst a constituency that is anti-establishment - and it seems that in Belgium, there is a pretty large anti-establishment vote in Flanders. The question will be asked, why do they seek to silence us? Banning these parties outright is giving fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to develop and work their evil ways. Because the leader of the VB has already stated his desire to found a new party - and rightly so. A democratic society demands debate, even if it is uncomfortable. The way to combat opponents with whom we may disagree vehemently is to defeat them in such debate. If their arguments are incoherent and rambling, then demonstrate this to all and sundry and they will quickly disappear.

In theory, documents like the European Charter of Human Rights are great ideas. They provide the parameters of a democratic society that we should be very careful to transgress. Unfortunately, they are invariably expressed in such vague language that it is very difficult to distinguish their true meaning which, in turn, becomes decided on by lawyers. And so they don't become true expressions of the people at all. Inevitably this ruling will confirm the impression that European countries seek to surpress any dissent from the accepted norms of political engagement. Democratic societies must give people the right to say things other people don't want to hear. It is a profoundly worrying matter that the judiciary in Belgium think otherwise.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Importance of some dates

Here's something I wrote a couple of days ago, before it got mangled by Blogger in the publishing process (OK, a lot of it is rewritten). However, I was just thinking how many of the comments expressed would also be valid for Remembrance Sunday.

It's amazing how important some days can become. Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall - but it was a highly significant day throughout German history. (Visit "A fistful of euros" for a link to more information).

Of course, November 9th is not the German national day. Instead, October 3rd, the day in 1990 when politicians from both sides signed the re-unification agreement. Why? Because yesterday was also the sixty-sixth anniversary of Kristallnacht, and the German government were understandably reluctant to honour a day with such dubious connotations. However, the consequence has been that the "Day of National Unity" does not really inspire any national celebration at all, as it does not hold a popular significance.

The concept of celebrating any sort of day for its "historical significance", on the other hand, is highly questionable in itself. America may have officially declared independence on July 4th, but the Congress passed the motion two days earlier, and the actions of the preceding years had led to a position where independence was as close to inevitable as anything can be in history. Tomorrow we celebrate Armistice Day; changes in the war and in the domestic situation in Germany made this a determinable outcome much earlier. And arguably the opening of the Austria-Hungary border was a far more significant event in the ultimate collapse of the Berlin Wall than the actual tearing down of the Wall itself.

Yet the physical removal of the barrier is the event that has its hold on popular memory. I see it myself; my parents made me watch the event taking place, and it is one of the memories that sticks in my head from my childhood clearer than most others. Of course the Monday demonstrations were important; of course foreign changes were important; of course the proximity of a successful capitalist culture next to a struggling economy had the effect of discrediting the totalitarian government. But at the same time, the removal of a physical barrier which set them apart (much like the high rise roads guaranteeing a safe passage from West Berlin to West Germany) was far more important. The impact of these single moments that are more the markers than the determinants of an event should not be underestimated.

Any historian hoping to understand the problems of a reunified Germany, when he comes to look back on the period sixty years hence, therefore, will have to assess the cultural impact of these seemingly comparatively inconsequential moments, and their effect on the popular mindset. For in many ways they are far more significant than their political antecedents, for the simple reason that it is these moments which shape the community identity that pushes the rest of history forwards.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Throwing darts at a white elephant

The "No" campaign in the North East regional assembly referendum had one of the most amusing electoral campaigns I have seen - namely the inflatable white elephant that went on a tour of town centres across the region. Ultimately, the perception that the Assembly was going to be nothing more than a talking shop doomed the referendum. The astounding margin against it (I never expected the Yes campaign to win, but was surprised by just how overwhelming the result was), however, indicates that there was absolutely no popular will for the Assembly. That despite their much-vaunted cultural identity being different to the rest of England - something, incidentally, I very definitely believe in - they have no desire to be represented differently. Even if the people of the North East had been given powers similar to those of the Scottish Assembly, I still think that the results from Thursday suggest that a referendum would have been unsuccessful.

Despite this, I still believe that I was right to vote yes. I agree that the powers of the proposed Assembly were limited, although greater local co-ordination of transport and more accountable and public business planning were desirable ends. Whether that would justify the cost of them or not is a different issue, and one I do not know precisely where I stand. What I do know is that I wanted the regional assembly to be put in place so that we could then campaign for a greater allocation of powers from the central government. As it stands, a new referendum cannot be held for seven years, and in reality it will take much, much longer before plans for regional devolution can be introduced again.

Anthony Sampson, writing in today's Independent, makes a very good point that the regeneration of the North is undependent on regional assemblies, and that instead a community confidence and a greater drive is needed. The basis of this thesis I agree with entirely - the North as a whole became used to seeing itself as reliant on State help following the collapse of the traditional industries. That said, I am not entirely blaming them for this, as I feel that funding to the North has been shoddy and unacceptably low. Speaking about the North-East in particular, the region has been decimated since Thatcher launched her witch-hunt of the mining communities, and many parts of Durham and Northumberland are now highly depressing places. Indeed, 7 out of the 10 most deprived areas in the country are from this region; the North East is the poorest region in the country and yet the Barnett formula sends money away from the region towards Scotland and Wales.

The attitude of many Scots is particularly infuriating. I travel to Scotland fairly regularly, and like the people there immensely. However, amongst some groups there is a nasty anti-English sentiment. Nowhere in England would you find a car sticker saying "Dump your rubbish in Scotland"; sadly, I cannot say the inverse is also true. I know of many Englishmen asked why they are taking Scottish jobs - this ignoring the fact we are all part of the United Kingdom. And in any case, it's not as if Darlington, to take a random example, isn't full of Scotsmen in regular employment. And yet, the freedom afforded to the people of this region by their Assembly allows them to use English money to spend on getting rid of up-front tuition fees, better healthcare provisions for the elderly, and so on.

Allowing for the fact that devolution is a process we cannot go back on, is it right that some areas of the UK should have markedly better provision than others? Returning to the old West Lothian question, should Scottish MPs have the right to vote on English matters when English MPs have no influence over Scottish ones? Any good political system would act with a certain degree of uniformity over all its people - even if that uniformity allows great latitude in the taking of local decisions. One reason for the institution of regional assemblies across the country, therefore, is that will release many of the anomalies from the current constitutional operations.

But my major motivation behind such staunch support of regional assemblies is that I believe that the closer you get to local control of affairs, the more optimal a system of government is. This may lead to increasingly hierarchical strutctures, for another concurrent belief of mine (and one that I believe to be wholly consistent) is that some powers need to be delegated upwards because they affect a much wider area than that constrained by national boundaries. However, part of my belief in libertarianism is that the individual must be free to exercise as much influence over his own life as possible. And if this means giving a more local basis of control to the public services, then I am all for it, provided that there is sufficient supervision from the national government to ensure that minimum standards are adhered to (although, of course, people will have the right to "vote with their feet" if they do not like regional politics - seen, for example, in the exodus from what Mark Steyn calls 'Taxachussetts' to a less punitive tax regime in New Hampshire). No national system of government can truly achieve what popular government is supposed to - the expression of the popular will.

It must seem ironic I can use that phrase to support regional assemblies at a time when the expression of the popular will has been to reject them. Yet, my optimism leads me to believe that despite the crushing rejection of regional assemblies for the time being, a well-organised system of devolution, giving real local power to local governments, and a clear organisation of hierarchical power, can succeed in this country. What is more, it would improve engagement with the political process at a time when this is badly needed, for politicians on the local level would have true power to be held accountable for. I dearly hope this will not be a crusade that joins the long list of personal opinions in the file "lost causes". But if we are to trust the people of this country, then we need to give them a much greater control of their own destiny. And we can start by taking turns to throw darts to burst that blasted white elephant.

Some quick thoughts on the US election

OK, I'm somewhat disappointed. I'd hoped Kerry would win - I fear how far Bush may try and carry out his neoconservative foreign policy; his fiscal irresponsibility could be seriously damaging to the world economy; I personally oppose his stance on stem cell research (speaking as a diabetic, I think that almost any methods of research that can alleviate the problems caused by this disease are worth pursuing).

However, unlike most of the Kerry supporters in the UK, it seems, I am not totally shattered by a Bush victory. Launching war in Iraq was inadvisable, for, as I have stated before, it is impossible to force democracy on people at the point of a gun (although the continued war in Iraq has masked the success of introducing democracy in Afghanistan). Stories of the world's demise are greatly exaggerated. Accusations that the terrorists wanted Kerry to win are probably accurate; it gives them the confidence that they can genuinely affect the democratic process through terrorising countries. That alone would not be a reason to vote for Bush, however, and it is still worrying that his actions in Iraq are encouraging the growth of insurgency there. However, it is doubtful in the extreme that Kerry would have provided different leadership to Bush in Iraq - the major fear must be if Bush turns his attention elsewhere. Sadly this is unprovable.

Admittedly, one of the reasons that I am not totally shattered by a Bush victory is that it has been tremendously amusing to see the hard left squirm. They have lost their favourite argument, that Bush should not have been elected in the first place, that he had no popular mandate. Yet more than that, they have shown the intellectual vacuousness of their position, as their beliefs are based far more upon a crude and uninformed anti-Americanism than upon a constructive criticism of Bush's foreign or domestic policy. In particular, I focus upon the argument that evangelical Christianity and Bush's social conservatism was what cracked the election. Yes, Karl Rove did deliberately target this constituency, and it served him well. But many of the states in which this constituency voted were locks for Bush in any case; it will not have made a great deal of difference in Ohio where the election was ultimately decided.

Ah, I hear the critics say, but the exit polls kept showing up that religious issues were paramount in the decision making process of those who voted. Are those the same exit polls that showed up that Kerry would win reasonably convincingly? Having travelled in (admittedly Blue) America this summer, my belief is that those who consider specifically religious issues to be their main motivation is small, probably about 2-3 %. Bush was very clever in managing to give enough of a public impression this was a major concern early in the campaign so it did not become a distraction in the latter stages, where Bush was able to play his strong suits. I dislike intensely the dirty tricks campaigns almost inseperable from Bush candidacies, but despite their odiousness, he is a smooth operater in these matters. And if evangelicalism was such a big factor, then it would have been a much clearer plank of the campaign than it was.

If, on the other hand, you were to say to me that an evangelical culture explains the difference between support for Kerry and support for Bush, then I would be far more inclined to agree with you. Kerry looked statesmanlike in the debates; but the one thing about Bush is that you know where you stand with him. When he speaks, it is usually clear what he means. He has a direct clarity in abundance - something which Kerry lacked significantly. If the certainty and the clarity of belief that is represented in evangelicalism is seen as a broader cultural factor, then talking about religion is valid. Blaming it on social conservatives who lack the intellectual finesse to understand the economy is sour grapes from people who do not understand what they are talking about.

One last comment - please, God, do not let Hillary Clinton win the 2008 elections. In my nightmares, we are seeing another Clinton-Bush election. NOOOOO!!!!!