Thursday, March 31, 2005

What is this?

I don't have much to say on the Terri Schiavo case. I know for certain that I would hate to be in the position of any member of the family, but I think I would also rather die than live as a vegetable (as an aside, it must be awful for the Pope to be in a position where his mind is still there, but physically he isn't at all).

The best summary of the whole case I have seen is deployed here. The argument that in Florida her husband was her legal guardian is key; she shouldn't have entered into the marriage agreement if she didn't think her husband would have acted in her best interests.

But away from all of this, the question I want answered is this - why is removing a feeding tube in this way not euthanasia? Why is it OK to stop feeding people, which will certainly kill them, but not OK to administer a safe, lethal and fast dose of something? If anything good is to come out of the case, hopefully it will allow us to review this obvious inconsistency. I don't know where the answer lies. But if a decision can be taken on behalf of a person who cannot express their will which kills them, it makes no sense that someone who to all intents and purposes is compus mentis is refused the opportunity to have an assisted suicide.

There Is Such A Thing As Modern History

Certain misguided individuals have recently questioned whether it is possible to study the history of the recent past in an academic manner, suggesting that to do so throws into doubt the status of History (with a capital 'H') as an academic discipline. It is with great pleasure I take this opportunity to refute such a viewpoint.

To begin, we must first establish that we are discussing 'History' as an academic discipline and practice, rather than merely 'history' as 'the past'. Clearly, under the latter definition, my lunch is history. Rather, the question must be whether historical enquiry on the lines of the scholarly discipline which has emerged in the past few hundred years can be appropriately used on events recent to the historian. The key contention appears to be that personal attachments to the issues concerned are so much greater in recent history that it is impossible to objectively consider their causes, course and contingency with any semblence of perspective.

This whole assumption is predicated on historical enquiry being a 'view from nowhere', and the alien gaze of an ahuman observer peering into the past to deconstruct it in an utterly dispassionate and impartial manner. Such a model is, in fact, utterly bankrupt: historians are unintentionally coloured by their own outlooks no matter the period they study or the period in which they write. The middle of the twentieth century has seen a fascination with demographic and economic studies of medieval Europe, with camps reverberating along Marxist or secular Malthusian lines reflective of their own views (and in the case of some- their own experiences in fleeing or living in Communist Russia). To assume that events closer to our own time are necessarily more likely to arouse partisan passions or personal biases is incorrect. We need only consider the place of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Culloden and the Battle of the Boyne, to see events which, 300 years on, are far more politicised than the study of the 1961 Suicide Act or the 1982 Falklands War. The idea that we get closer to an objective and open perspective as time passes is mistaken, and the existence of such a position is impossible. By claiming objectivity, we are merely professing blindness to our own perspective: where we stand in the room affects the way we view the portraits of the past, but we cannot even see them unless we stand in the room. To claim to be outside the room is risible, and I would strongly dispute the notion that there is a defined 'proper' perspective from which view the portraits anyway. We can only do our best to declare our perspectives transparently, and get on with observing the portrait to the best of our ability.

The greatest legitimate indictment of 'modern' History is its access to sources. Whereas we may reasonably assume that our primary evidence of the events of the Glorious Revolution, the Boyne or Culloden have now emerged, there are doubtless documents regarding the sinking of the Belgrano which have yet to emerge. There obviously can never be a 'definitive' History written of any incident or period, when so much of History is necessarily based on judgement, assessment and balance. That a scholarly study of the Falklands will lack certain important pieces of evidence will hinder those written now, and their contentions may be undermined by such evidence, but the work of constructing an empirical narrative and, crucially, offering paradigms through which we may understand the conflict can begin immediately. Indeed, the Falklands highlights a crucial difference between what is routinely billed as 'military history' and military History as historians would understand it: the factual details of the invasion and their exploits, as far as we can empirically re-establish them, are the mere trivia of the historical (with a small 'h') narrative. Trying to understand the ambiguities and judging where to stress significance from the multitude of facts available is History.

A History of that kind could therefore be written about the Falklands now- it could, indeed be written about the second Gulf War, even if the events for its epilogue are still being played out in the blood-stained sands of Iraq. The art - practice - nay, perhaps even 'science' - of History is one developed for the analysis of contingent events from the past, but it is not in itself linked directly to the past, and the age of the subject being considered is relevant only in how it affects the types and volume of the sources available for consultation. The actual business of Historical analysis grows from these, and cannot exist without them, but it is not hampered by the existence of inaccessible sources. They may invalidate past assumptions, and help us get closer to the past as it essentially happened, but that is no reason for refusing to begin consideration of events where the full body of information is not yet available.

Certainly, the idea that our Historical enquiry is less valid in the recent past because of our own proximity to them is no legitimate objection to modern History. A Historians' personal beliefs or political opinions are not lineraly less likely to be aroused by topics the further into the past they reach, and to assume that such opinionated biases are the only biases, or even significant biases, to Historical investigation, and a Historian's perspective, is mistaken. Indeed, the bias will always be with us. We cannot even fully comprehend the extent of our own disabilities in this department, but so long as we seek, and the we strive, to honestly undertake Historical enquiry, we may leave it to successive generations, with their own biases, to judge us and take up our ideas by endorsing and dismissing them. This will be the fate of the medievalist, the early modernist, the modernist and the much-maligned ultra-modernist.

What are people thinking Michael's thinking?

The Conservatives' current predicament seems dire. Howard Flight's comments were dynamite despite the attempts of revisionist sages to claim that it was sacking that made this an issue. It was appalling, because about the only card Howard holds over Blair is trustworthiness, and it is a clever point on which to attack Blair, whose charisma is unassailable, but sincerity is questionable. However, the problem for Michael Howard, now, is that they don't believe, to corrupt his slogan, he'll do what he's thinking they're thinking. Sacking Flight was exactly the right call by Michael Howard- in contrast to his bungling over Boris' bonking -but it will probably not prevent enough of the shrapnel from deflating the patched-up hot air balloon of Tory electoral success.

It was exciting for the media- and probably good for Labour -that it seemed worth hyping up a possible Tory revival and closeness in the election campaign in the past month. Nobody is quite sure if Michael Howard *should* be beating up gypsies, immigrants, abortions and asylum seekers, but they agreed it was working when he saw a few points of joy from the polls. Yet for all the glamour, we must realise that national tracking polls are not great indicators of how the country will vote as a general election approaches.

There is a general didain for Tony Blair at times, but outside of members of the Conservative Party (and, to be fair, members of the Labour Party), Tony's not a man you can hate, in the way that Mrs. Thatcher reached such a status at the start of the last decade. Only those infuriated by Iraq will feel such a way, and there are still many of people- me included -who are angry about the war, but reckon he's a fundamentally decent bloke, even if utterly mistaken on his foreign policy. At least Iraq showed that Tony cared about something- and cared about doing risky and unpopular things -rather than being the smiling, denim-wearing, tea-swilling "y'now"-muttering, focus-group-polling cipher we were beginning to fear.

One wonders exactly what cards the Tories now hold? The 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign is certainly clever, and vocalises Lynton Crosby's 'dog whistle' tatics. But I suspect it won't work for an organisation still suffering such institutional problems as the Tories are. Their actual election strategy, for its populism and awfulness, is actually quite effective. The problem is that elections are basically a marketing campaign for a product, and no matter how much you tell them "we're thinking what you're thinking", consumers are thinking "I remember them, they're rubbish".

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Referendums are a waste of time

There was a very interesting article in the Times today regarding the French "non" campaign in the referendum on the EU Constitution. In essence, its main point was that the Left are organising the non campaign, and gaining success, because they fear it will enforce the Anglo-Saxon economic model on France, and possibly even endanger many of their public services. In short, the complete opposite to the no campaign in Britain.

This demonstrates one of the major problems with referendums. By shoehorning important issues into simple "yes" or "no" options, it forces disparate people to stand together on the same platform, often in cases where a broader discussion would be much more helpful to the issue at hand. Let us look case by case at a few past referendum campaigns and see what groups may be forced into the same position:

Welsh/Scottish Parliament: The "No" campaign can quite easily encompass people who believe in total formal independence as well as those who believe that there is no need for an assembly. Even these can fall into different categories; some may prefer to see more power given to county councils; others may not wish to see any further devolution of powers.

North-East Assembly referendum: I was in a strange position here; I voted yes, but did not like the proposal of the assembly as it stood; I just believed an assembly was better than none. Other people may have had similar queries regarding their vote - for example, they may have been against the idea of an assembly, but disliked the fact that a "no" vote prevented the question from being asked for another seven years.

Australian republic: Perhaps the clearest cut case here. A specific plan for a republic was put forward; one which most people did not agree with. Yet there was widespread clamour and support for abolition of the monarchy. The disagreement came in what to replace it with. The referendum may have been reflective of public opinion on the specific question, but in terms of the broader feeling of a desire for constitutional change, it was not.

I have complained elsewhere on this blog that an adversarial style of politics often shoehorns debate. A parliamentary democracy is infinitely preferable to direct democracy in one key respect, however - it allows much greater chance for debate and does not require that a policy be accepted or rejected in toto. Even the most hair-brained plans may have a kernel of truth within them. Far better that we discover the kernel of truth through informed debate and fashion it into proper legislation than force people into entrenched positions, shady alliances, and grandstanding in place of debate.

For whilst referendums have the appeal of popular participation and the impression of more detailed debate, their effect is more invidious. They suggest that there is a simple yes or no solution to political questions. They see things in terms of black and white rather than in the subtle shades of grey demanded of an effective polity. If we want to raise the standard of political debate in this country, we need fewer, not more, referendums.

We're fools to make war on our 'Brothers in Arms'

Howard Flight is now claiming that he will not back down in his fight against Michael Howard until his local party deselects him. Lord Tebbit, to whom Flight was once an aide, weighs in on his behalf. And then another deselected Tory candidate, this time from Slough, pipes up to fight to reclaim his candidature.

What do these people seriously think they are gaining from such a campaign? I understand their annoyance fully; if I had given my time and effort towards becoming a selected candidate or an elected MP, then to have it taken away would be particularly galling. Yet they were supposedly prepared to stand for election under the banner of the Conservative Party - a corporate identity totally distinct from the persona of Mr Flight or Mr Hilton. And if they are willing to be a public face for this corporate identity, then they must be willing to abide by the company line.

This is particularly so in the case of Mr Flight, who was prepared to sit on the managing board of the corporate entity. If any businessman in the City had acted against the interests of their company in the way Howard Flight did (especially after having been expressly warned by their boss about their conduct), they would have been summarily dismissed.

Such is the way of politics nowadays that this analogy really does stand up. Does Mr Flight really believe that his majority is down to his force of personality? Of course not. People voted because they wanted a Conservative government in power.

When Mr Flight intimated in public that his party were lying about their spending plans, he was immediately playing straight into the hands of the Tories' leading opponents, discrediting his own party and severely hampering their election chances. You cannot say one thing in public and another in a semi-public forum and expect to be taken seriously, especially at such a sensitive time.

And yet he refuses to take his sacking with dignity. Worse still, his grandstanding against the party leadership has encouraged another publicity seeker to come crawling out of the woodwork and damage the interests of their party yet further. If these men were prepared to fight for election as a Conservative member, why are they acting so spitefully now? Do they really think that their public posturing does anything to serve the interests of the party they claim to support?

Does Lord Tebbit really think that his right-wing agenda is going to be better served by a Blair government? Does Howard Flight really think that efficiency in the public services is more likely to be achieved under the Labour Party than under the Tories? Does Adrian Hilton believe that deliberately seeking to undermine the party leadership makes chances of a Tory victory in Slough greater?

If the answe to any of the questions above is yes, then they are all too stupid to be serving in the governmental process in any case. I may disagree quite strongly with the Tories on many issues; but these men are supposedly loyal party supporters. And yet they are doing the job of the Labour Party for them. They have shown in the last few days that they are more interested in getting face time and publicity for themselves than to get down to work and serve their country and their constituents, as they profess to want to do.

For better or worse, we have an adversarial style of politics which leaves us often with a straight choice between one party or another. For people on the far-right of the political spectrum to attack the right-wing party beggars belief. What it shows, of course, is that politicians like Flight and Hilton place their egos ahead of the country's interest. The whole issue has been a shambolic affair from start to finish. Yet both men should have had the decency to "take one for the team". The issues here are quite clear-cut ones of party presentation. The candidature of both men presented an image of the party which was at odds with the platform the party stands for. In that case, Howard was right to cut them both adrift. And both men are shooting themselves in the foot if they expected to bring respect back to the Tories.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Why people are turned off by politics

Yesterday at a Tory press conference, there was a quite remarkable occurrence. Michael Howard and Theresa May had just outlined new Tory plans for childcare, and invited questions. A reporter from Sky News said that although he was strongly interested in childcare, he had to ask about the ongoing Howard Flight saga. Howard replied, quite rightly, that he wished to take questions on childcare first, but would return to the Flight question after he had finished with that. There were no takers.

We read a lot in the media about people being turned off by politics - that it doesn't appeal to people because of the unnecessarily adversarial style; that both parties seem to offer little change and are interested only by power. Michael Howard was yesterday putting forward proposals that he believed "could make a real difference to thousands of families throughout Britain". And not a single member of the media was interested.

A cynic would argue that he was only making this announcement to try and deflect attention from the Howard Flight issue, giving the Tory Party a bad press at a time when they seemed to have significant momentum. Yet when the media discuss a lack of interest in politics, they always ask the question: what do the politicians need to do? A commonly offered solution is for the parties to concentrate on policy. We saw yesterday that when they do, the media aren't interested. They are bothered only about creating their own side issues which are far more clear-cut. Easily presentable so that they can sensationalise and sell more papers.

You might say that this is their job. And that's fine - provided they aren't outright hypocrites. Whether you agree with their policy or not, the Tories were trying to contribute to intelligent debate. They weren't even doing it as a smokescreen, for Howard was mroe than willing to answer questions about the Flight farce once questions about the policy had been dealt with. If we are to have intelligent political debate in this country, then the means of conveying this debate have to act intelligently too. If all we get in its place is ignorance of issues and a delight in Labour's relentlessly mendacious and negative pre-election campaign, then it is no wonder that turnout is predicted to fall.

101 Ways of Knowing You're Sad: #1

Knowing who Howard Flight was before Friday morning.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Not the "E" Word!

Yes, I'm returning to the case of Europe again. Jacques Chirac has been at his trustworthy statesmanlike best this last week, negotiating a deal with Tony Blair that will allow him to present a much stronger "yes" case ahead of the forthcoming referendum on the EU constitution. Of course, opinion polls in France have leaped alarmingly to the "no" side in recent weeks, so something needed to be done. Just negotiating deals with an ally evidently wasn't enough, however.

Instead, Chirac has gone on an all-out offensive against the rebate that Britain gets. Quite apart from the rank hypocrisy (that word again!) of the president of a country which refuses to reform the Common Agricultural Policy purely to avoid revolt from its farming community, it betrays the entire problem with the EU, and underlies the whole reason why it is viewed with such scepticism. Each country is far too obsessed with their own gain, and France is one of the worst culprits.

It will demand increasing centralisation of powers, but is also one of the worst offenders when it comes to actually implementing central directives - the refusal to remove a ban on British beef imports being perhaps the strongest case in point. Similarly, they have (with the Germans) demanded a rewriting of the growth and stability pact, caused due to their complete inability to stay within its terms. And yet when Britain seems to be getting a benefit (and it shouldn't be forgotten Britain's contribution to the EU is still massively greater than France, of not much smaller economic size), then France is clearly and intractably opposed to it.

Chirac, of course, is doing this for political gain. It's a non-too-subtle reminder to his people that the British will reject the EU Constitution anyway, and so they should support it. After all, France is the historic supporter of the EU, because it binds Germany to it in a way that will prevent it from ever becoming the aggressor. To abandon the project now would be a highly damaging move to Chirac's ego.

When will people like Chirac realise the only way the EU can ever work is if people are prepared to make rhetoric and reality meet? I know that I am a supporter of the EU, but that my support is based on a certain amount of idealism. When the leading figures of Old Europe claim to suport more integration but refuse to accept responsibility for it themselves, then something is badly wrong. To create a sort of United States of Europe cannot happen by France and Germany remaining as an all-controlling symbiotic pair at the heart of the whole deal. Instead there must be a heavy amount of devolved power. Whilst Chirac goes off on his rants, Britain will react against him and derail what could be, if used wisely, a tremendous power for good. Then again, what else should we expect from the slimy toad?

Will this work?

One set of home-grown spin doctors is OK, but flying them in from Australia is obviously unacceptable. Labour must be rattled if they think that this is a remotely sensible strategy. If one party is connected with media manipulation, then it is Labour. The often mendacious ways of the spin doctors really should not have attention drawn to them in a successful strategy.

My guess is that voters will not respond well at all to attacks on campaigning style. If the Labour party have had one huge achievement, it is creating a clamour for substance rather than spin. Unfortunately substance is often too complicated for the media to convey without thought, and it gets lost somewhere in transmission. However, for a slick media machine to criticise another would be just another case of rank hypocrisy. And with the Labour lead in the polls, it is totally unnecessary to boot. Hatred of the Conservatives shouldn't boil over into ridiculous pettiness.

Sick of the hypocrisy of Blair

So Tony Blair wants to keep faith out of politics, eh? Then why the hell is he choosing such an overtly religious organisation to spread his message? Why is he, in the speech in which he makes the aforementioned statement, deliberately commending the work of evangelical organisations in supporting the city academy school, in return for a greater control of the curriculum?

His speech yesterday was deliberately targeting the religious vote - portraying the Labour government as one which wanted to see Christian groups play a larger role in society. I might also add he is by no means above the most base pandering to the Muslim vote imaginable - Fagin posters reminding the distressingly large proportion of the country who would not vote for a Jewish Prime Minister of Michael Howard's religion.

Mr Blair said he valued Christian and other religious groups' contributions to voluntary services and called on them to get still more involved.

"I would like to see you play a bigger not a lesser role in the future," he told them.

So why does he want religion kept out of politics? Quite simply, because he fears that the "moral values" of Britain are out of touch with the values that the Labour Party put forward. They don't want abortion, for example, to be a political issue, because they fear that it will turn the religious vote against them. Be that as it may - as An Englishman in Philly rightly pointed out a few days ago, anything that a government has a right to legislate on is a political issue. Indeed, I would go further and say that anything that a politician may be able to make political capital out of is political.

And so Blair is now trying to have his cake and wolf it down as swiftly as possible. Deliver a speech in which there are huge bones thrown to the evangelical lobby, but try and stop religion casting a shadow over British politics when it might cost Labour some votes. I shouldn't be surprised that Blair continues to be so hypocritical - it just amazes me he is going to get away with such flagrant opportunism, whilst trying to pretend to be principled. Once again, it's say one thing and do another. No wonder apathy is spreading.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The meeting point of politics and culture

Nick at a Fistful of Euros has an excellent post about how culture often is a strong indicator of politics. Apparently Lebanon wanted to enter the Eurovision Song Contest this year, but pulled out when they were told they had to screen the Israeli entry on their TVs. Follow the link, and then you'll get more reading material from his post.

The one thing that disappoints me is that he considers his post to be lowering the tone of the blog. Far from it. There is nothing "low" about looking at national identity and how often unconscious assumptions about politics are embodied in all sorts of pastimes that people don't consider to be political. Indeed, I often question how accurate separating social and cultural history from political history really is. Where there are people, there are politics. Analysing culture is often the best way of finding out people's true political opinions.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Modesty Manchester-style

Never let it be said Alex Ferguson and company are sore losers. So they got dumped out by having to play a superior AC Milan team in the second round. Well, if they hadn't noticed, they were playing in a cup competition! That means that you can get knocked out. The competition has already been expanded beyond recognition to make it all but impossible for most top teams to qualify - and indeed, has reinforced the hold of top teams on the domestic competitions due to the huge levels of funding given to qualifying teams. If you can't put the product on the pitch, you don't deserve the help from the money you get.

Arsene Wenger's comments are a sad indictment on sport nowadays:
"You can't afford to have Real Madrid and Manchester United -
big clubs who invest so much money - going out in the last 16.

You will have a revolt if it continues like that. "

Why? Why on earth should it spark a revolt? The whole purpose of sport is to see competition on as level a playing field as possible; so that the better team on the day wins. Not to reward clubs with huge commercial empires; not to reward clubs with a great history; but to test ability in the here and now. If it had been held fifty years ago, the financial benefits given to clubs such as Burnley or Blackpool may have seen them maintain an unfair advantage. Quite simply, times move on, and the amount of money invested in a club or the amount dependent upon Champions League performance should have NO bearing whatsoever on the organisation of a competition.

No-one was weeping for Leeds when they ran into the wall after gambling on continued Champions League qualification. And rightly so. No sports team has a right to succeed ahead of any other. The only test is that of ability. Manchester Utd have had their nose put out of joint because they are no longer the pace-setters in England and competitive in Europe. The responsibility for that lies with their board, their manager and their players, and no-one else. Rather than whinging about not being up to scratch, they should respond the way all good teams to - going out and winning last year. The name Manchester United does not bring success automatically. It has to be worked for. Whingers should be given no respect.

Negative positivism

The Lib Dems have today unveiled their campaign strategy for the forthcoming election. Although the headline on the advert proclaims there are "10 Good Reasons to Vote Liberal Democrat", in reality, it offers one. They aren't Labour or the Conservative Party. Claiming to provide the REAL alternative in British politics, their advert is in fact an attack job on the policies of the Labour government, with some Lib Dem ideas tacked on as an afterthought. If I was in full deconstruction mode, I'd point out how significant placing what they oppose above what they propose every time was.

For all their rise in popularity, there is little of the Lib Dem programme that really seems to strike a wider resonance. I suspect if the average informed voter was to sum them up, they'd be the anti-war, anti-top-up fees, anti-ID cards party. In a climate where Labour and Tory alike are distrusted by the electorate, it will win a few votes. But, in the same way that I suspect that Michael Howard's political correctness campaign will be a temporary corrective, I do not think that this sort of campaigning - negative positivism - will succeed in making the Liberal Democrats an electable force.

An Englishman in Philly points out all the negative comments made by the Liberal Democrats in the past few days regarding the Conservatives in particular - but they are just the same against Labour. And they are equally keen to personalise politics, for Charles Kennedy remains a popular figure in the country, and by focusing a campaign on him they stand to gain rather than lose.

I wonder how long this hypocrisy can go on. Whilst the two main parties continue their bunfights and remain heavily unpopular, the Liberal Democrats seem to be a nice, cuddly alternative. And having heard a large number of their front-bench spokespeople in the last few months, I'm also fairly sure that they aren't too far away from having a coherent platform to put to the population. One problem they may have is that I get the impression the average view of the LibDem activist and the LibDem MP may be quite far apart. If they can succeed in unifying the two, they could actually have a properly positive contribution to make to British politics. Whilst they insist on positioning themselves as "not the other guys", there's not much chance of a return to reasonable debate.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Playing the race card

Michael Howard today unveiled plans for tougher new laws against travellers - in particular, giving greater powers to local authorities to take action against breaches of planning legislation, but in addition revising police guidelines regarding anti-social behaviour, and giving local communities more say in where travellers' sites are located.

Of course, simply mentioning this ahead of an election campaign has seen the other political parties get into indignation overdrive. The Tories are playing the race card, they say, pandering to bigots and racists. How can a party be taken seriously when they are obviously playing for the populist vote and for nice headlines in the Sun and the Mail?

The uncomfortable proposition for these people, however, is that the proposals just make cast-iron sense. As unfortunate as it may be, sometimes the bigots may be right. It is surely self-evidently wrong that local authorities have insufficient ability to take action against those who refuse to abide by property law - especially when in many cases the law already grants current exceptions to accommodate the travelling community. We should not let worries of distaste stop sensible legislation from being debated and enacted.

There are other questions that arise from this. Why has this become an issue? Because the Sun has published some highly inflammatory front pages declaring "war on gypsies" and very definitely pandering to a racist streak. Howard knows he can make a sly nod to these groups whilst producing legislation that holds up. Distasteful - yes. And I question whether travellers should be made such a huge election issue. But, at the end of the day, the proposed legislation makes sense. Sometimes it is necessary to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Chris White is a spineless coward

I watched the second half of the Wales-Ireland match today, and I'll have more comments on that later. But there was one incident which so thoroughly disgusted me it stopped me from enjoying the rest of the match. With about 20 minutes to go, some fight erupted between Paul O'Connell, the Irish lock, and a Welsh player I was unable to identify.

This fight resulted in O'Connell pinning the Welshman to the ground, and landing at least three punches, and possibly more, whilst his opponent was completely undefended. Now, the Welshman most likely did something unacceptable first - such a complete mental breakdown is almost unexplainable otherwise. Yet Chris White, the referee, called the players over for a chat, and told them to be "very, very careful".

If ever there was a red card offence, that was it. That match was a Grand Slam decider - the most significant match Wales have played for over 20 years. Any young player watching the match now thinks that to punch a defenceless opponent pinned to the ground is acceptable. Chris White's decision was unfitting for a man supposed to be a highly respected referee. Quite simply, he bottled the decision. He is a spineless coward and should never referee an international again.

Thuggery has no place in sport. Clear cut examples of thuggery should be punished. O'Connell should be given a ban sufficient to keep him off the Lions tour for what he did today. For him not even to get a red card was a travesty of any notions of sporting justice.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Baseball needs to get its house in order

There has been much fanfare recently regarding a Congressional hearing into steroid use in Major League Baseball - seven leading names from baseball's recent past were subpoenaed to testify before the hearing. Many big names denied using steroids, but the big story was Mark McGwire giving a highly equivocal answer to questions put his way.

His response - that if he said he hadn't, everyone would see him as a liar regardless - does hold up. But the reason that no-one would take him seriously is because there is such clear visual evidence in many cases that steroid use happened. "Before" and "after" pictures of Jason Giambi, for example, demonstrate that he bulked up significantly. Some highly improbably home runs have been hit in the past few seasons. Improbable, that is, if steroid use is denied. One of the big acclaimed strengths of steroid use is improving the speed of the hands, allowing top players to make hitting decisions later yet maintain their power.

Baseball's new policy to combat steroid abuse is derisory. Rene Sandberg, about to be admitted to the Hall of Fame, believes that the new policy should be given a chance. But simply publicising the name of a steroid abuser isn't going to stop them. Indeed, Jose Canseco has made millions by writing a tell-all book casting accusations left, right and centre about steroid abuse. The first player to get stung by these allegations will get notoriety, for sure. But he will also garner serious media attention.

Nor is a 10-game ban sufficient. In most sports, a positive drugs test sees you banned for several months, and steroid abuse would be sufficient to warrant a two year ban. A 10-game ban in baseball doesn't even last two weeks.

If you want to tackle the drugs problem in baseball, you have to make martyrs. You have to take offenders and ban them for large amounts of time, and give them a punitive fine. Because taking drugs is different to most other forms of cheating - there is something intrinsic in it which runs against the entire moral fibre of sport. And it is that moral fibre which makes it mean so much to so many people.

I'm not sure if MLB actually wants to face up to a drug problem. The NFL has already bottled out of punishing known THG users heavily, and a large part of the reason must be that big guys, heavy tackles and the like make for great highlight reels. So it is in baseball. Home runs draw more fans than pitching duels. And steroids lead to more home runs. Bud Selig and his cronies therefore draw up a policy which pays lip service to stopping drugs but doesn't really scare anyone. It's as much a PR exercise as the Congressmen lining up to sit on a hearing which will play well with the voters. And it stinks. The only way to tackle drugs is a zero tolerance policy.

BBC Bias?

Much of the UK blogosphere is particularly bothered about the license fee - in particular, they object to paying a license fee for a BBC whose news content they see as biased. Indeed, many bloggers spend much of their time detailing what they see as examples of BBC bias - one of them being An Englishman in Philly. Often I agree with them, and in general, I think that the BBC does have a slightly left-wing bias. More often that not, it's quite easy to spot.

But the one thing that never gets picked up on by the blogosphere is examples of bias running the other way. There may be less of it, or at least less prominent, but some programmes do broadly favour the Conservatives. The classic example of this is "This Week", just after Question Time on a Thursday every week. It fits the BBC bill - Diane Abbot representing Labour, Michael Portillo representing the Tories, Andrew Neil asking the questions. Yet all three of them are somewhat cynical towards the Blair government - Abbot being more of a Brownite, Portillo (although critical of the Tories also) having obvious axes to grind, and Neil just being a general cynic. Its general tone is critical towards Labour - and yet it never seems to get picked up on by those clamouring about BBC bias.

Fantasy Manifesto

Ahead of the forthcoming General Election, Phil Hunt at the Cabalamat Journal has come up with an excellent idea - that bloggers come up with their own fantasy manifesto. Over the next few weeks, therefore, you'll probably see the odd posting from me explaining roughly what sorts of policies I'd like to see introduced in certain areas. I can't pretend to be a total expert in many areas, so I'll limit it to areas I am particularly interested in. This probably means a lot of constitutional waffle, but I apologise for that in advance. If we didn't have such a mess of a constitutional system, I wouldn't need to bother about it.

I'm going to start off with a sketch of what I would like to see in the education system. I was worried this morning when I read the Times and found out that I agreed entirely with a Simon Jenkins article. The number of Latin and Greek words required for GCSE has just been slashed once again, so about 350 words of Greek and 450 words of Latin would suffice. We really do suffer from a dumbing-down culture where the political imperative to improve exam results leads to a massive dilution in quality.

The major part of the problem lies in the prevailing orthodoxy that because all sorts of education are equally valid, they can all be marked according to the same criteria. Thus we have the UCAS nonsense that a Vocational Double A-Level is worth twice the amount of points of an A-Level in an academic subject - these 'points' being used as part of a 'tariff' system for university admissions. Worse still, the Higher Education Funding Council (now a political rather than an academic body) uses this points system to set the offensive "benchmark" quotas for the elite universities on how many pupils from state schools they "should" be admitting.

This is indicative of two false orthodoxies. Firstly, it assumes that numbers and systems are more effective in deciding educational strategy than an approach based on the need of each individual student. Secondly, it suggests that merely being taught is sufficient to attain merit in any field. A qualification in tourism does not qualify you for a hard academic course at Oxford - just as much as an A-Level in English would not be much use on more vocational courses. Different types of education ARE valuable, but that does not mean they should be equated.

The "one-size-fits-all" system we have at the minute does not good for anyone. Instead, I would like to see a system instituted that is something like the German model - academic grammar schools, and then varying levels of technical and vocational education at two separate levels. The system is also flexible - so that different development levels can be accounted for. The failure of the grammar schools was because it didn't make sufficient provision for vocational education for those failing the eleven-plus, not because the system was inherently wrong.

We need to create a system of vocational education that is not equated to the academic structure. While the two are linked, they are both cheapened. No-one takes vocational qualifications seriously, and yet the academic criteria are changed subtly which reduces their rigour as well. There is nothing wrong with vocational education, and the way to recognise this is to treat it as something totally different. Equating it with GCSEs and A-Levels assumes there is a point to prove. The best way of achieving this is to institute a continental system where different schools teach different skills to better reflect the aptitudes of their pupils.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

The Yorkshire Ranter has a great post regarding the failure of the Tories or the Lib Dems to oppose the Prevention of Terrorism Act. As he so rightly points out, the "climbdown" of Blair to promise a review in 12 months is no climbdown at all. Parliament always has the right to repeal bills, just as no Parliament can bind its successor. A "sunset clause" would have been a concession, because then an active and conscious decision would have to be taken to reinstitute the law. As it stands, if everyone sits on their hands and does nothing, the law remains in force.

We seem to be losing sight of what we are supposed to be fighting the war on terror for. We are supposed to be fighting to defend our civil liberties against the Islamofascists who want to dictate exactly how we live our lives. We must make sure that we maintain them. The Tories and Lib Dems were scared that to fight for what we believe in would see them blamed for a terrorist attack. It is disappointing they could show such moral cowardice. The Prevention of Terrorism Bill, quite simply is wrong. Any person being detained has a right to know why they are being detained, and the reason for their so being must be provable to an independent judiciary. That is the only free and fair basis upon which the rule of law can work. Eroding it in the name of defending our "freedom" is wrong.


Frans Groenendijk has an interesting post regarding Scottish relations with the EU. In it, he quotes a member of the SNP as saying "Scotland needs a little friendly goodwill from mainland Europeans on its path to independence". Frans's response to this message is "Of course it is in the interest of smaller nations in Europe to actively encourage a non-xenophobe intention for more independence in regions and states in the bigger ones!"

The response is self-evidently true. The more the EU can break down traditional country barriers, the more it will be able to assume powers that are currently considered to be sacrosanct issues of national sovereignty. One of the interesting features of the growth of the EU is that it has led to growing regional sovereignty movements in many areas - Flanders, Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, to name the most prominent (but the movements stretch further afield than this). Countries which don't have movements as strong as these are often federal in character anyway - most notably Germany, where the concept of the EU as the top level of a hierarchy slots in very nicely with the basic hierarchical model.

Now, is this separatism something that should be encouraged? This is always a tricky question to answer - but in the main, I think that having the EU at one end of a spectrum and increasingly autonomous regions at another provides a very good solution for this. Government needs to operate over a certain area to be effective. This area, however, depends greatly on the task at hand. Some tasks are definitely dealt with best at a micro-level, others at a macro-level. That's where the EU steps in, for it can tackle some issues (notably asylum) far better than national governments. National governments are much better, on the other hand, at setting tax rates. And an integrated transport policy is best achieved on a municipal level. These governments are not incompatible.

Going back to the comment of the SNP member, it is indeed right that Scotland should have more help from mainland Europeans - although I suspect if Scotland was to declare independence, it would soon find life very difficult as many of its programmes are currently subsidised heavily from England. More broadly, all Europeans should get more help from the EU. The biggest problem the EU has is that it is seen as more interested in regulating the legal height of rocking horses than it is in actually making a positive difference. People will never relate to a bloated bureaucracy.

And yet a hierarchical model of European government makes perfect sense. Indeed, it is thoroughly achievable, for the balance of power means that no powers are conceded to the EU except those which governments consider to be absolutely necessary. At any point, any country could stop the flow of powers, if indeed that exists anyway. A model of Europe not far detached from the American Articles of Confederation is exactly what Europe should be aiming for - largely devolved powers, but with essential issues passed up the tree. The constituent nations can then decide which way they want powers to be shifted.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


The army has just been criticised heavily in a damning report regarding its culture for new recruits. Critics have been quick to say that it is necessary for training to be tough - after all, they are training people to be killing machines. Yet perhaps more serious than the culture of institutionalised bullying that is obviously tolerated within our armed forces is the fact that the Army were clearly prepared to cover up murders. At least one of the people in the Deepcut scandal was killed with two gunshot wounds to the head. It sounds pretty unlikely to me that anything other than foul play was involved.

If we have an Army culture where people willing to commit these sorts of crimes on their own people - the people with whom the other recruits are supposed to be working as part of a team (hence the justification for the hellishly difficult training course) - then we should not have any confidence in them whatsoever. In particular, when we see the pictures of soldiers torturing Iraqi captives, we should not be surprised at all. Our soldiers are being trained in an environment where bullying the people they are in a team with is accepted, and when it goes tragically wrong, is not just tolerated, but is actively covered up by the Army itself. If that's what they are doing to friends, then what the hell do we expect them to be doing to people completely in their own power?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Feeling Frisky

Anders Frisk, international referee, and namesake of a Grand National winner, has decided to retire fully from all his refereeing duties. Frisk was hit in the head by a coin during a Champions League match earlier this season, and then (after making a highly controversial decision) received hate mail and death threats from Chelsea fans following their defeat in the first leg against Barcelona. They later prevailed after the second leg, but the bitterness and rancour that surrounded the match will not be forgotten for a long time.

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's manager, has come in for particular criticism. He attacked the referee strongly after the match, and made comments that were tantamount to accusing him of bias - namely, that the Barcelona manager spoke to him at half-time. Now Mourinho is being blamed for Frisk quitting football - being described by a high-ranking UEFA official as an "enemy of the game".

The press have loved this hyperbolic reaction. Firstly, they have completely ignored the need for referees to make good decisions. As ever, respect needs to be earned and not demanded, and many referees fail miserably on this count. Often they simply lie to the press to explain away their bad decisions, and yet demand to be treated with greater respect. As if they weren't protected enough by heavy fines levied on managers for criticising their decisions!

Secondly, the press ignore their own role in all of this. They are the first to criticise referees for their bad decision-making - often castigating them to a high level. It should be remembered that the Sun encouraged the targeting of the Swiss referee of the England-Portugal match in Euro 2004. When the TV and the newspapers analyse referees so much, and criticise them so heavily when they get things wrong, a culture of blame inevitably creeps up. They are now reaping what they have sown, and are trying to avoid responsibility.

The article I linked to above castigates Mourinho for his use of the "dark arts" to try and gain his team any sort of advantage he can find. Well, again, the press are to blame. There is such a media circus that follows football now that any comment by any player or manager gets plastered right across the back pages, and scrutinised intensely. For many years, the press have lauded managers that are able to play mind games and win. Ten years ago Kevin Keegan had a memorable outburst on Sky, and the media were crediting Alex Ferguson with winning the battle of the mind games. Similarly most contests between Ferguson and Wenger over the last few years have been treated with hyperbole. Once more, the press are reaping the whirlwind, and failing to cope with it.

UPDATE: Fantastic article today by Martin Samuel dealing with some points I raised here.

The Americanisation of UK Politics?

The last couple of weeks have been fantastic for the Tory Party - almost their first good news in over a decade. The discussion over Margaret Dixon's shoulder operations completely took the wind out of Labour's sails over health; since then, the Government have shot themselves in the foot over the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. And now, the Catholic Church is putting its weight behind the Tory party due to its new stance over abortions. The front page of today's Times, as well as the BBC website, both led with this story - good press at a time when it is most needed.

Yet I feel distinctly uneasy about abortion being turned into a political issue. The labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are two of the most immoral phrases I can think of in the political landscape, and are made even more offensive by the attempt to place the debate over abortion at the forefront of a debate over "moral issues". The decisions behind an abortion must be very, very difficult to make, and to turn them into an entrenched political debate is unhelpful.

For we can see from America just how divisive the issue of abortion can be. On one side, we have the religious fundamentalists who believe that, once conceived, there is a human life; on the other side we have raving feminists who insist it is the woman's right to choose at all times. I have no truck for either side. But this is an emotive debate, and passions run strongly on both sides. I don't know exactly how strong the Catholic lobby will be in this country, but weighing in on such a debate in this manner isn't going to help anyone.

From the doctor's point of view, abortion is a very strange subject. A baby to whom the doctor is committed to saving one day, may be aborted the next. And the idea of time limits seems somewhat arbitrary as well - how big a difference will cutting four weeks off the limit for abortion really make? Especially when pregnancies are today known earlier and earlier.

My personal opinion is that of Bill Clinton - abortions should be safe, legal, but rare. Forcing desperate women into the backstreets for dangerous life-threatening procedures is not the act of a civil government. But neither is allowing abortion on demand. Yet these are tricky issues - and emotive for a reason. Demonising either side, therefore, is not the answer. People are supposed to be put off politics by a macho, name-calling style. If we are going to go down the US route of campaigning on moral values, I fear even more people may tune out.

Monday, March 14, 2005


For recent lack of posts. I hope to get up to major speed tomorrow, but will make no promises.

Friday, March 04, 2005

RIP Rinus Michels

The greatest football coach of all time passed away yesterday. Rinus Michels was responsible for some of the most exciting and talented football teams of all time - most notably the Ajax team of the late sixties and early seventies, and then the 1974 Dutch World Cup team. Yet he also led the Dutch to their one major trophy - the 1988 European Championships - and is highly regarded for being the creator of "Total Football".

Of course he was lucky to work with such outrageously talented players as Johann Cruyff, Johnny Rep, and Johan Neeskens. But all truly great teams have a core of truly great players; individual skills added up do not make a team of greats. Indeed, there have been some rather average teams who have been able to overachieve due to well-designed tactics, self-belief, and a genuine team ethic, where the sum of the whole was greater than that of the constituent parts. Cliched, but true.

What made the Ajax and Dutch teams of the 70s so special was that they were truly able to combine some of the most talented players ever to grace a football field with a system that allowed them to utilise their talents to the full. I don't always agree with the Guardian, but it was right today when it described players like Cruyff as artists. Total Football was an art form - and in many ways, Rinus Michels was the chief painter.

It is very easy to dismiss sport by reducing it to the absurd. Yes, football is twenty-two men kicking a bit of pigskin about. But if that was all there was to it, then it would have no means through which to captivate millions of people and to be so utterly enthralling. For part of the complexity of football lies in its simplicity. The basics of the game are easily understood, but to beat the best teams you have to display a level of tactical ingenuity of a different kind. All too often this rests with the most defensive sides - for a case in point, look at the continued success of the German national side (although I would argue their football style is much misunderstood).

Michels succeeded because he was able to combine being a disciplinarian with allowing the players their freedom of expression. His ideas were challenged by his sides - being Dutch, they were never going to accept anything without question. Yet Michels had the strength of character to lay down the framework within which the many talents of his team could function. There is something intoxicating about the idea of Total Football which leaves me enthralled despite not being around at the time it was played. Let us hope that will be Rinus Michel's legacy for many years to come.

NHS at War Again

It is a strange feature of British politics how the most aggressive exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time always seem to be over the NHS - we had Kinnock crossing swords with Major in the War of Jennifer's Ear; Iain Duncan Smith made an extraordinarily ill-fated attempt at it when he raised the case of Rose Addis (at a time when he had an open-and-shut case of exam board incompetence to focus on); now Michael Howard has launched into an attack on Labour's claims on the NHS by focusing on the case of Margaret Dixon, whose shoulder operation has been cancelled seven times.

The Labour Party have been extraordinarily disingenuous over this. They castigate Mr Howard for politicising such an issue - "ruthlessly exploiting a woman's pain" - and yet they are quite happy to use their well-worn political mantras accusing the Tories of running down the NHS. Indeed, when John Reid, the Health Secretary, went to the hospital at the centre of the issue this week, he didn't say that he would be trying to get to the bottom of the problem, he said instead he would "ask people whether the NHS was better than under the Tories." If that isn't politicising the issue, I need to find a new dictionary.

It is easy to understand why Labour are incredibly touchy about the issue. They have poured huge amounts of money into the NHS, and yet the benefits are not easily seen by the public - much like the Commons select committee report on education, which suggested the amount of money that had been pumped in was in no way proportional to the marginal benefits received in return. And the law of diminishing returns must apply at some stage - the marginal benefit to the community as a whole is too small to justify its outlay.

The other difficulty is that most voters have a strange picture of the NHS and other public services. They will pick up on individual experiences that they see as characteristic of the service as a whole, even if they are extreme examples. We expect to be seen at the time of our appointment; if we aren't, we remember and get annoyed about it. Thus the personal cases that hit the headlines, largely because they sell newspapers (damn that human interest!), manifestly affect our opinion of the NHS - especially if it ties in to personal experience. No matter what raft of statistics the government can produce, word-of-mouth can be extradordinarily damaging. Especially when there are literally matters of life and death at stake here. Hence the willingness to launch into unseemly political scraps over small matters.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

There is no justification for an attack on our civil liberties

One of the great paradoxes of Tony Blair's government is that whilst he supports Bush's desire to bring the benefits of freedom around the world (a desire which I wholeheartedly share), he is more than prepared to destroy the freedom of British citizens which lie threatened by fundamentalist terrorists.

If we are supposed to be defending freedom, then we must have fundamental principles that cannot be breached - even if we put our citizens at risk by upholding them. As a free people, we have the right to a fair trial. We have a right to defend ourselves, no matter how dangerous we may be considered to be, in a court of law. Any attempt to restrict our freedom MUST be proved in a court of law.

I am not prepared for any of my rights as a citizen to be eroded on the say-so of a politician - and especially not a politician as blundering and incompetent as Charles Clarke. To place someone under house arrest on one man's judgement flies in the face of freedoms that have existed in this country for hundreds of years. I am not a great fan of reliance on the argument of tradition. If something has a purpose, it can be justified without reference to its longevity. Fortunately, opposition to the Prevention of Terrorism Act rests on many key points:

1) Laws should be written in a manner which is applicable in all possible circumstances. The granting of powers of house arrest to the Home Secretary should not be. What if, God forbid, the BNP were ever to get into power? Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, their Home Secretary could have the power to arrest leaders of the Asian community pretending there was some spurious threat - and this only being challengeable by a court after the event. There need to be checks and balances on the exercising of any power, and this means that one man should never be given the powers with which Labour currently want to invest the Home Office.

2) If a man really is a threat to national security, it must be provable in a court of law. I maintain an open mind as to whether this has to be in an open court - I can see, for example, that it might be better to have a rigorous appeals procedure but the judicial process takes place in camera to prevent the publication of important and sensitive materials. That said, the matter must be provable to an independent judiciary. The judicial process must not become politicised.

3) This is bad legislation rushed through because the Government was embarrassed by the ruling of the Law Lords that indefinite imprisonment in Belmarsh was wrong and flew in the face of all our laws. So, blinded by their own hubris and determined not to have to actually admit they were wrong, they have concocted a scheme to allow them to incarcerate someone and remove them of all their liberties. Do they really think that if someone is under house arrest, using the Internet is a danger to anyone? Do they really think that if someone is going to be considered to be under house arrest, the security services will not know exactly what they are looking at at any given time, and with whom they are communicating? Indeed, removing them from networks one they are identified as a threat may even be harmful to national security - prevents the security services from using known sources to infiltrate the groups.

What depresses me more is that we never hear any coherent opposition to such profoundly illiberal measures from the Tories - and the Lib Dems are ineffective in making any of their points count. Instead, it is the media who have been taking the lead in opposing such dreadful legislation.

We may live in dangerous times. But the reason we are in danger is because there are people who wish to destroy our freedom. We should be against them not only because they wish to kill us, but because they wish to destroy a way of life which guarantees freedom, and forms of government which give people real personal choice. To erode these away is no defence at all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Will Somebody Please Shoot Jonathan Kaplan?

I resisted the urge to post a rabid rant here on Sunday, at the height of my anger, but the more I think about it the more angry I am at the laughable excuse of a referee that was given the responsibility of the England-Ireland match at the weekend. I'll start with a confession - I remember Jonathan Kaplan from the England-Samoa match in the World Cup, and it was the first time that I thought a referee was biased rather than merely incompetent. What I saw on Sunday gave me no reason to doubt that opinion of him.

Just about every single marginal decision that was made on Sunday went the way of Ireland. "Knock-0ns" which went backwards were universally against England; if the opposite happened, it was in Ireland's favour. But by far the worst decisions related to two 'tries' scored by England but disallowed for other infringements. The first was a clear-cut try. Mark Cueto was NOT offside, and for the referee, who was in a bad position, to make such an instant call was nothing short of a disgrace.

Simon Barnes wrote in the Times that playing the referee was an integral part of rugby. To a certain extent, this is true - Ian McGeechan used to say that the most vital part of game preparation involved compiling a dossier on the referee of the match and working out what he was strict on. But for the Cueto try at the very least, Kaplan made a bald-faced blunder at best. And a blunder unbecoming of a supposedly top-drawer international referee.

The second 'try' was less certain. It was definitely hard to tell whether the ball had been grounded or not. What was undoubtedly wrong about the decision was that England had not been driven back over the line by the time the referee blew his whistle. So even if the video ref (who should have been consulted) could not see the ball had been touched down, England should have maintained possession.

It infuriates me that incompetent cheats of the likes of Jonathan Kaplan are allowed to referee international matches. The head of the RFU referee panel today admitted that if a referee of his had refereed so badly there would have been an immediate investigation. Now the press are full of talk of an England crisis - when in fact the game was probably theirs (especially given the time at which the Cueto try was scored). Rugby is a professional game and to have close games like the match on Sunday ruined by referees does nothing for it. I now have no faith in Kaplan as an international ref and the sooner he is condemned to the local South African circuit the better.