Saturday, April 30, 2005

Letter To The Editor

A recent letter elsewhere:

Dear Sir,

While immigration will always be a political issue with regards to which debate, discussion and consideration are reasonable, it is a subject that must always be approached with care. The Conservatives' current election campaign has fundamentally failed to do this and seems to delight in rhetoric that easily encourages racism and xenophobia. If the Conservative Party were serious about producing a system in which there was public confidence, rather than merely pandering to the worst attitudes, there would be no association with fear-mongering, but, on the contrary, attempts to diffuse tensions and misperceptions of immigrants and asylum seekers.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Hanretty (St. Anne's)
Richard Huzzey (St. Anne's)
Ken Owen (Queen's)
Charles Smith (St. Anne's)
Martin White (Queen's)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

10 Reasons Not To Vote Tory

I am indebted to Blimpish, my dear comrade in the General Election blog project. On his own website, he has provided the best 10 reasons not to be a Tory in the form of satirical posters of the LibDems and Labour. (Ignore the Respect ones, he's probably right about them!)

Just look at the values he is mocking in those fake posters... As I say, the principles he thinks are worthy of mockery and derision are exactly those that would push me to any of the big parties *except* the Tories.

What A Difference A Death Makes

When I was in Borders a couple of weeks ago, there wasn't a single Saul Bellow book to be found. Now, there's a whole shelf of his works!

Election Campaign a Bore

So says the BBC entertainment website, anyway.

But do the media admit their culpability? Have a wild guess...

Mr Dignam said: "The figures show that despite all the efforts of broadcasters to connect with real people during this campaign - the process is turning off viewers and failing to connect.

"For all their efforts to 'connect' with viewers, broadcasters are experiencing the same problem as the politicians - TV audiences are simply finding the campaign a bore."

Well, maybe it's the media companies themselves that are to blame? As I said at the start of the campaign, the media are far more interested in trying to fit their own agendas rather than tackling issues in depth. Rather than, say, doing a really good piece about what has gone well and what has gone wrong in Iraq, the papers prefer to find the "human interest" angle. The TV coverage is often even worse - how does a few garbled words from passers-by on the Conservative manifesto (to take an example from Sky News in this campaign) really help us understand the issues behind it?

The media love to have their cake and eat it - report apathy and low turnout and criticise the political parties for not doing enough to engage with the public. The problem is far more that whenever attempts are made to make politics "relevant" (whatever that means), all the companies change is their presentation. It's the lack of content that's the problem!


The BBC is currently broadcasting a "special edition" of Question Time in which all three party leaders appear. Not at the same time, though - no, that would be too much like a debate. Instead they'll troop into the studio one after the other to face "nearly thirty minutes of questioning". Forgive me if I fail to share the Beeb's excitement.

Why? Because the claim that:
It's a step forward from the last general election when each of the leaders
appeared in their own separate edition of Question Time.

is just completely wrong. Last time, when the leaders went face to face with a live audience on their own, they did it for far longer. Nearly twice as long in fact. There's no way that they will be able to carry the argument from one to another effectively, because otherwise the order in which the party leaders appear becomes a major issue, as some won't get the chance to hit back at accusations made against them. My guess is that it will be tremendously anodyne stuff with the leaders trying their best to waffle away to waste the 30 minutes as much as possible. It angers me intensely the BBC are trying to pull this off as a triumph. They're letting our leaders get off scot-free.

If this is true...

... then I think my faith in the EU will have been massively rocked. I can't find any other evidence that corroborates this, but apparently Liege was once considered as a location for the capital of Europe. If that's true, God help us all.


An update courtesy of Private Eye (p.9 of the latest issue): Tory candidate for Hammersmith and Fulham Greg Hands has tastefully distributed leaflets showing a black-coloured picture of Africa underneath the title "Action on Immigration". Nice to see a nuanced and sensitive discussion of immigration issues there, reflecting the intellectual respectability, necessary consideration, and socratic wonder of the Tories' national immigration campaign.

The Kenometer

I've just realised what we can use to replace the woefully useless Swingometer: Ken.

While the Swingometer is fatally flawed for predictions as we enter into an era with demographic differences which will create, I suspect, a particularly non-uniform swing. instead, I think the best barometer of political success is Ken, who manages to straggle a territory we would broadly call "the centre" and has no attachment to a particular party. While I suspect he still retains an instinctive dislike for "the left", I genuinely think he would vote LibDem and will vote Labour, if they hit the policies he wanted.

While Ken is completely unrepresentative of the population in many ways- not least his interest in politics -I think he commands such dead central ground that nobody could capture Number Ten without convincing him. (Of course, given the oddities of certain constituencies that does not mean he'd vote for the party that impressed him, but that's not the point).

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Some Thoughts On How To Improve Political Debate

Any reader of this, or the General Election blog, will know that I have been profoundly depressed at the level of political debate that has been shown in the current campaign. Part of the culpability undoubtedly rests with the media, but when political parties treat the public with contempt, or resort to petty slurs, then something is wrong with the system.

The following is a brief and tentative outline of some ways in which the political balance could be redressed. It does not address the key point of the whole matter, which is the electoral system that we have which means the election will be decided by 800,000 people.

What I do think is that the American system of primaries has a lot to recommend it. It is by no means a perfect system, and to a certain extent presupposes the right of political parties to exist. But the election of party leaders by party members is surely becoming increasingly anachronistic in a Britain where party membership is falling?

If the election of party leaders or candidates was extended to a broader section of the population, then there would be a much greater engagement with the ideas of the party, the candidates, and a greater sense of direction could be applied than currently exists. For example, the Conservative party may be able to get a clearer sense of whether it wants to be a small government party, or a big-government party run on different lines to Labour. It should also serve to get more people involved with the political process. Yes, it runs the danger of political overkill - too many votes spoiling the enthusiasm. Yet most people are agreed something has to be done to arrest the decline in turnout. I will develop these ideas further, but actually engaging people in the decision of their candidates may be a very strong way of encouraging greater participation in the political process.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

French Irishmen, Tigers, and the Forward Pass

Regular readers of this blog will know that my incandescent fury with rugby referees can be something to behold (although you need to see my rage in person for the full experience). One of the strange things I find about watching sport is that I can switch a match on as a neutral, and end up passionately supporting one side or the other. So when I have a slight preference for one team, I tend to find myself getting into a match far more than could reasonably be expected.

The was the case this weekend with the Leicester Tigers - Toulouse European Cup semi-final. I'm not the greatest French rugby fan (although Toulouse have played some awesome rugby this season). Now, as the fair-minded guy that I am, I will say up front that Toulouse were the better team on Sunday and deserved to win. Yet their cause was greatly assisted by some pretty dodgy refereeing.

It seems to be a case of the modern game that referees are unable to spot fairly blatant forward passes. Alain Rolland (an Irishman!) was no exception on Sunday. What really gets me is that some of these forward passes actually take place close to the white horizontal lines that lay out the rugby field. Leicester did not deserve to win the match - but the game is ruined as a concept when teams are allowed to get away with infringements of the law with huge rewards.

New Zealand are the biggest culprits - they have turned the forward pass into an art form (I saw one in the World Cup which actually went behind the back of a defending player). Now, many would say that the occasional missed forward pass doesn't really harm the game, and allows it to be played at a much more exhilarating pace. Well, I'm sorry, but that just doesn't hold up. The game of rugby requires a specific amount of skill, and making sure you pass the ball backwards is an integral part of it. Running rugby is beautiful to behold. But it is the control of other faculties whilst running at pace that makes it superior to other games of a similar nature. The number of forward passes missed by top-class referees today is appalling - and the game will suffer if this continues.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Labour Lies and Mr Angry

The more I think about the Labour campaign this election, the angrier I become. I have been very disappointed by the lacklustre opposition that both the Tories and Lib Dems have put up against it, but the one thing I do agree with Michael Howard about is my desire to see the smirk wiped off Mr Blair’s face. Especially when so far, the Labour campaign has been full of lies from top to bottom. It is no wonder the public have no faith in a political process where “cuts” means “slower growth”, and where facts are twisted to the point of unrecognisability. The Sunday Telegraph ran a superb article yesterday attacking 10 Labour lies - although it didn’t have the nerve to put lies outside of inverted commas.

The one Labour response which angered me more than any other was this:

• Lie 8: “Interest rates halved with Labour” (Labour poster).
The truth: The bank base rate in May 1997 when the Conservatives were last in office was 6.25 per cent. The current figure is 4.75 per cent, a fall of around a quarter, not a half.
Labour’s response: Under Labour, interest rates have averaged 5.2 per cent; they averaged 10.4 per cent between 1979 and 1997.

What a load of disingenuous rubbish. Under that interpretation of “falling interest rates”, interest rates could have increased every year since 1997 and Labour could still have claimed that interest rates had fallen under Labour. Would anyone accept their logic in that case? No. So why should we now? Why are Labour being able to get away with lie after lie after lie, and have no serious opposition?

• Lie 9: The Scottish Labour website stated on April 3 that “Scottish Labour has ensured that no full-time undergraduate student has to pay up-front tuition fees in Scotland”.
The truth: Full-time undergraduate students have to pay up-front tuition fees in Scotland unless they are Scottish domiciled.
Labour’s response: No full time Scottish undergraduate has to pay up-front tuition fees in Scotland.
Oh, so missing out a key part of a sentence is OK then. Well, I suppose that was their justification behind releasing a dodgy dossier removing all caveats. A further example of Labour’s crusade against truth and transparency.
What really irks me is that Labour continue to treat the electorate with absolute contempt. Let’s look at the following words Tony Blair’s constituency agent had for the Independent today:

“Iraq is not an issue,” he said. “And if people do talk about Iraq it is to say how good it is that we got rid of Saddam, and now there are democratic elections.

“I also don’t understand all this thing about the Prime Minister misleading the country. I have spoken to Tony directly about this, and he told me that he wasn’t just depending on MI5 or American intelligence, but the intelligence of other countries as well.

“He said he wasn’t misleading anyone, and if he says that, I believe him 100 per cent. Reg Keys has no chance of winning here, or even getting many votes.”

I happen to agree that it is wonderful that we got rid of Saddam and that democracy has a chance of taking hold in Iraq. I have said before I find it telling that the anti-war campaign squirm whenever they have to face the uncomfortable truth that the progress now being made in Iraq was only possible because of “pre-emptive action”.

But to say that we used the intelligence of other countries to say that there were WMDs in Iraq only holds up to a certain point - the point at which caveats are included within the public reports. As Lord Butler found in his report, these were all too often omitted. Blair overstated his case, and should have to face up to it.

I love the fact that John Burton believes what Tony Blair says 100%. That suggests to me that his knowledge of what is and isn’t an issue is somewhat flawed. The fact is there are millions of people up and down the country who now no longer believe anything Mr Blair says. And yet his party is heading towards another heavy electoral victory. The effective sidelining of Iraq - and the continued, repeated failure of the Tories to make any sort of coherent opposition to Blair on that issue - will allow Labour to continue ahead with their incredible arrogance. Whilst the New Labour project continues, we will continue to see the standards of political debate collapse and flounder.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Via the BritBlog Roundup

The results of Arthur's Seat's mini saga contest. My favourite is the best saga on a sporting theme, replicated here:

First in war, first in peace and last in the American League, they said. A quest for glory; the same old baseball story. But Washington’s Senators leave for Minnesota then, after a brief second coming, for Texas. 34 years in limbo. Widowed city. Then salvation; the happy return. Play ball.

Spotted in Jericho

The world's first "Bring Your Own" takeaway service. What the hell is that supposed to be?

Pope In Appoints Alastair Campbell Shock

How's this for a bit of spin?
In the sermon at his inauguration Mass in a packed St Peter's Square, the Pope said: "Let us do all we can to pursue the path toward the unity".
According to the editor of the Catholic Herald:
The accession of Benedict XVI has tremendous implications for the English Catholic Church: for its bossy, politically correct bureaucracy; for the ceremonial at Sunday Mass; for relations with the Church of England (as of Tuesday, dead as a doornail); for how long the 72-year-old Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor lasts as Archbishop of Westminster - and who succeeds him in the post.

Tories' Weekend Rout On Race Issue

I get the feeling that I may not have been the only person who, in the past 7 days, shifted from grudging admiration of the Tories' slick launch to disgust and virulent opposition of the new levels to which they took their race-card campaigning. I've decided to treck through the Sunday papers on this issue.

Michael Portillo has a superb article in today's Sunday Times. here's a snippet:

The Conservatives' relentless emphasis upon immigration and asylum, [Portillo] said, has compromised their campaign to present themselves as a party that has changed and renewed itself. And this - whatever the reasons for that emphasis - is undoubtedly true. Michael Howard's aides grumble that the media has exaggerated his fixation with immigration and asylum, but their complaint is groundless. The Conservative website declares proudly that the Tory leader has "thrust immigration into the forefront of the election campaign".

Last week Detective Constable Glen Williams accused Michael Howard of pandering to public fears ab
insert blockquoteout immigration and told him to stop using emotive language and complaining about political correctness. The issue of migrants loomed large during a week that brought discouraging opinion polls for the Conservatives, even if many Tory candidates believed that the issue was going down well on the doorstep, and Howard showed no signs of growing shy about the topic.

However, I think it was the Saturday Times' cover story that was the greatest blow to the Tories. Their own Shadow Immigration Minister, Humphrey Malins, was caught distributing leaflets in Urdu to his ethnic minority constituents, boasting of how he helped their relatives get visas, while offering white constituents literature claiming he would be working to decrease immigration. We can now chalk him up as another man the Tories should have the decency to deselect as a candidate, alongside Bob "Send Them Home" Spink and Nick "strain put on local schools by bogus asylum seekers" De Bois.

Coming after Tony Blair's brilliant and bold speech in Dover on Friday, I think the Tories are being crucified on a cross of their own making. They have defined immigration as their only theme for the election, but the fundamental liberal-minded fairness of the British people will react far better to the Prime Minister's balance of practical measures with compassion. The Tories have mobilised the nastiest parts of the Nasty Party at the sake of much of the rest of Britain. This election should have been theirs: Blair's own-goal on Iraq left him vulnerable in a way nobody would have expected after his 1997 victory, which looked set to give Labour power for a generation.

Matthew D'Ancona, in the Telegraph, agrees with Portillo (although he does take the ex-hopeful to task for misrepresenting Conservative economic policy):

On another matter, however, Mr Portillo was quite right last week. The Conservatives' relentless emphasis upon immigration and asylum, he said, has compromised their campaign to present themselves as a party that has changed and renewed itself. And this - whatever the reasons for that emphasis - is undoubtedly true.Michael Howard's aides grumble that the media has exaggerated his fixation with immigration and asylum, but their complaint is groundless. The Conservative website declares proudly that the Tory leader has "thrust immigration into the forefront of the election campaign".

The Sunday Mirror reports a senior Tory informer being desperate for William Hague to return and arguing: "The decision for Michael Howard to focus on immigration was an unmitigated disaster. It meant millions of people thought the party had not changed. It may appease core Tory voters, but it has failed to sway new voters to the party."

There are some staunch defenders of Howard, however. Matthew Parris makes some frankly bizarre comments in his own Sunday Times column. Quite how he sees the follwoing anecdote to justify xenophobia, and why he equates race and colour (for colour is only once racial feature), is a mystery to me:

Among Londoners I hear Albanian asylum-seekers, Bosnian beggars and Eastern European economic migrants spoken of in precisely the same resentful or angry terms as might be used of immigrants whose skins were a different colour. Among ordinary white Londoners I hear Asian and black Britons spoken of with affection, respect and humour — indeed, not really spoken of as though they were “other ” at all... As an issue, colour is fading.

While it is no surprise that they have muddled up immigration and asylum, even the Sun reports on Howard's pledge to reject the hypothetical white Zimbabwe farmer, fleeing Robert Mugabe, who is the 20,001st asylum applicant in a year.

His only problem here is that, like many of the clean-minded Tories I talk to, he doesn't seem to appreciate that the Tory immigration policy isn't so much a problem (although the asylum policy is), as the language in which it is being sold. There seems to be a perception that as long as the message is sound, you can get away with having outriders andf mavericks shouting anything they like, and not have it tar your platform with their brush. As the Jewish man who confronted Michael Howard last Saturday said, this is about what irresponsible idiots take from his rheteric. A kindly and liberal Conservative yesterday rubbished the concept that the Tories would ever actually be Nazi-like xenophobes in office, and dismissed my complaints as hyperbole. But I've never thought the Tories would implement such a nasty system of government- indeed, I doubt there'd be any practical change in immigration at all -it's the insidious effects of their irresponsible campaigning that is objectionable. This is a sensitive issue which deserves to be discussed, but needs to be treated with the upmost care and tact. it isn't good enough to say that race isn't an issue for Michael Howard or yourself; all Tories are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats & The Minimum Wage

[Removed due to factual inaccuracies.]

Things You Don't Hear Very Often (Part 94)

"...Benedict XVI, eh? That came from left field."

I don't think Ratty has come into contact with any left fields since the 1950s when he went reactionary.

1952 Committee: First Update, Introducing The 1938 Club

My e-mails to the 1952 Committee's members have started to get replies, so I thought an initial report was in order.

To remind you, this is the assertion of the 1952 committee's website:

The 1952 Committee was created when the Conservative party, under Michael Howard, backed the introduction of ID cards. For some conservative bloggers this was the final straw and many of them started to declare on their blogs that they would not be voting Tory at the next election. I began collecting and listing these declarations under the 1952 Committee heading chosen because it was the year in which Winston Churchill abandoned ID cards in post war Britain.

So far, my replies fall into three camps: 1952 steady, 1952 wobbly and 1952 retreat.

1952 Steadies

There's a core of 1952 pledgers who have stuck to their guns and still intend to boycott Mr. Howard, and use their blogs to encourage others to consider to do the same.

Starting at home, my co-blogger Ken is in this situation. He's offered his own post on the matter, essentially saying this:

In many ways, I suppose I have a confession to make. ID cards are not the only issue that have made me drift away from the Tories. Perhaps it would have been better for me to have joined the committee as an honourable member. Why didn't I? Because by and large, that group comprised Eurosceptics, and I did not want my views on Europe to be conflated with theirs.

That said, my lack of support for Michael Howard and the Tory party remains. I have said it before, and I will say it again - the Tories are not interested in small government or civil liberties. If they were, then they would consider the freedom not to carry an ID Card far more important than the freedom to smoke or the freedom to fox-hunt. My vote for the general election is still undecided. Yet if Richard feels better with such an assurance, it will not be in the box marked "Conservative".

Dave at Cabarfeidh is standing as firm as a guardman:

I'm not voting Tory because of the ID Cards but also because I think that Blair needs to have a third term to confirm how utterly useless Labour et al are. With luck in 4 years they will be thrown out into the wilderness for 50 years. We need fresh 'untainted' blood in the Tory party. Howard does NOT impress me at all. I met IDS once for a tour round a local factory and he was not the weak chinned Guards twit that some people portrayed him as. Once we get rid of the grandees that infect the party we will be unstoppable!

Andy Wood, assures us 'Don't Hold Your Breath' on him changing his stand on ID cards and the Tories:

My current intention is not to vote at all at this election, as I stated in my most recent blog posting. My views on the ID card issue have not changed, and, since you raised the issue on your blog, I'm in favour of free immigration, so I don't approve of their immigration policy either. I don't plan to write any more posts on the election at present.

To clarify things, I'm a libertarian, not a conservative. I just find the Tories marginally more liberal than the other parties on things like tax and trade.

While I'd have thought he might have encouraged Tories to remember Howard's weakness on ID cards, I think he safely makes the "steady" brigade. Andrew, over at Non-Trivial Solutions, sounds as if he's fairly solid, and I'd encourage him to rouse Labour voters to give Michael Howard his kicking:

Tough call, as it's a toss-up between abstaining and voting Tory as the lesser of two evils. Having said that, I'm not that happy with the timidity of the Tory campaign. I think they could and should go further - opening up clear blue water between the two parties. They're also pretty opportunist, and on the wrong side of the argument, on some issues - notably top-up fees, which any sensible conservative should approve of in principle. On balance, I'll likely abstain. It's partly academic, as I'm in one of the safer Labour seats anyway.

I am mulling over writing a post urging readers to vote Labour back in actually, to give the Tories the kicking they rightly deserve. Trouble is, I'm not sure they'd get the right message.

1952 Wobblers

Ian Grey sounds as if he may relent in voting Tory if his local candidate is opposed to the ID cards. I'd encourage him to check that any promise he gets includes the promise to break a whip on the matter!

I'm definitely of the same opinion, although I haven't ramped it up very fiercely yet.

I've tended to Vote Tory in the past based on the least worst choice, although we have a good Independent standing that will prove interesting.

Surprisingly, our Tory candidate has done the most appealing leaflet so far. I've met him & he is impressive (or would be in Hampstead!). I'm going to question him on ID Cards & also get them all to take the world's smallest political quiz.

1952 Retreaters

Despite inclusion on the 1952 Committee, An Englishman in Philly is a massive supporter of Michael Howard's election campaign; hardly mirroring the 1952 COmmittee's promise to "declare on their blogs that they would not be voting Tory at the next election". He says:

You know my position on this Richard, and you know I'm sticking to my guns against ID cards. My website features amongst the list and Howard did lose my support over the ID cards confusion. The Conservative Party should have been opposed to them outright from the off.

Incidentally, I think this has now been clarified much more and I do not believe a Conservative Government would introduce them. The problem is that it shows/showed a great lack of spine in not standing up to Tony Blair. I would rather see a Tory Government than any other, though (that is not saying much, however!). As such I shall not be campaigning *against* Michael Howard in the way Richard, I suspect, wants me to. Let's not forget, Labour would introduce them and the Liberals are hardly above the fray; Mark Oaten, their Home Affairs spokesman, voted *for* ID cards in a Parliamentary debate on them last year!

I won't back Howard when he does things clearly wrong, but I will unashamedly back Howard when I think he's doing things right. Richard implies he has some criticism for this, but never actually enunciates what it is. My shock at (even tentative) Tory support for this ID card scheme does not preclude me from congratulating other aspects of the party. Likewise, I hope I will salute good policies and approaches of other parties and candidates.

Tim Worstall writes:

As the bill failed, and as they did manage to get their act together (slightly) no, I won't be boycotting them. I'm assured by an old friend (who is a Tory MP) that if and when the issue is reopened the opposition from the Tories will be a lot stronger.

Also, I failed to register in time for my overseas vote.

I shall be recommending a vote of the Tories on the basis that I want Polly Toynbee's head to explode as Howard enters Number 10.

Snafu, who is Not Proud of Britain, provided a reply on his blog, the essence of which was:

I don't believe that ID cards is THE issue that will swing the electorate come the election. I hope I'm not discouraging people from voting Conservative too much. However, yesterday's Sun seemed to encapsulate my views on the present Conservative party. "When the Tories start acting like Conservatives, they might deserve our support. The Tories talk about “small government” then offer a manifesto that would spend just about as much as Labour. They boast about tax cuts, then promise a pathetic £4billion out of a £630billion total tax haul. On health and education, they offer nothing much more than misty promises."

For our first 1952 Retreaters, I shall offer membership of a new committee, the 1938 Club, dedicated to the spirit of equivocation, in contrast to the bullish defiance of the 1952 committee. While they may still oppose ID cards, the pledge of the 1952 committee was quite clearly expressed in refusing not to vote Tory and withdrawing all support from the Conservative Party. The retreaters will be welcome to use this graphic on their blogs (or a smaller version) to proudly display their membership of the 1938 Club:

Image Hosted by

More to come...

I'm still waiting to hear back from the rest of the 1952 committee blogs. If I get any more responses, I'll report back.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

An Encouraging Scheme

Doug Merrill at A Fistful of Euros today writes some reviews of novels he has recently read. What is most interesting about his selection is that they were all recommended to him through the Süddeutsche Zeitung and a scheme they ran last year, listing 50 great novels of the 20th Century (if you don't understand the site, go and learn some German). Advocating one novel a week, they also arranged some kind of cheap publishing deal where they sold copies for €4,90.

Most encouragingly, Merrill wrote last year about how simply carrying a copy of the book with you was a great conversation starter. This seems to be testament to the popularity of the scheme, and furthermore underlines the enjoyment that one can gain from reading great books.

The scheme seems to be even greater than just sparking off a whole new social scene, though. As Merrill himself states, the list did not attempt to be categorical. A welcome move away from cheap publicity-seeking. Furthermore, the attempt to encourage people to read a book a week meant that they sought out shorter novels - firstly, taking away the daunting size of many books, and secondly, encouraging people to read the lesser-known novels of great authors.

When I consider the Harry Potter craze in this country alongside the Süddeutsche Zeitung's effort, I am left in awe at our continental counterparts. To many young people, it must seem like Harry Potter is the only thing worth reading. I don't want to discourage youngsters from reading, but I do get depressed when books seem to be equated with one series only. Even now, my local Borders is advertising the launch date of the next book, which isn't until July.
The list is full of books like these, not the heavyweights you would expect from the 50 greatest novels of the 20th century, but the delights you can find when you’re just looking for 50 great novels.

I could scarcely have put it better myself. A popular scheme which shows off all the delights of reading. I can't wait to get finals out of the way and embark on many of them myself.

Doctor Who Goes To War On Labour

Spoilers follow for anyone who hasn't yet watched tonight's Doctor Who and wants to stay "pure" for when they do so.

Who'd have thought it, but tonight's Doctor Who was a really ballsy display by the BBC to broadcast in the middle of an election campaign, post-Hutton and all. For those who missed it, it featured a conspiracy by some capitalist aliens to create a false war that would ruin the earth and leave them free to move in and mine it for fuel to export.

While they avoided portraying the Prime Minister himself as one of the aliens who have a hidden personality within them, the alien plot did involve conning Britain into a war with a fictional enemy over a claim that they were threatened by a superweapon that could be deployed within 45-minutes. And I don't think from that rhetoric it was a leap to consider the fuel-orientated plot of the alien conspirators, in 10 Downing Street, an allegory for the Iraq war.

Whether the media picks up on it or not, I do not know, but it is certainly, I hope, a sign of a renewed self-confidence by the BBC in the face of Labour's bullying. Does this signal a new post-Hutton era? Probably not, but even I am amazed they aired an allegory about Iraq during the campaign.

Not Looking for a New England

The Guardian today carried this article about general election blogging - whilst, of course, failing to mention the most useful GE site of them all. It was a pretty lazily researched article that served far more use in filling up space than actually telling the reader anything. So rather like a typical Guardian article, really.

In any case, I particularly wanted to take issue with this comment:
As that bias suggests, the majority of British blogging is leftwing. And almost all the bloggers seem to be male, which suggests at least one institutional problem of the old media has not yet been corrected by the newcomer.

From my experience of blogging and blog-reading, that assertion is not at all the case. Whilst there are some very good left-wing blogs, I tend to find that the average blogger is fairly right-wing, and somewhat reactionary in tendency. This may, of course, be the tendency of bloggers to get stuck into particular circles (ironic, then, that we are in more of a right-wing network given my centrism and Richard's "self-hating white liberal" status).

Why are bloggers generally right-wing, then? Well, my theory is that left wingers want to go out and save the world. Whereas right-wingers prefer moaning about it.

So why do Richard and I pontificate here? Because we're just too lazy to get out of our chairs and change things.

Indirect Elections

I have promised Frans Groenendijk that I would make some comments about his "hobby horse" of indirect elections for some time, but never actually got round to it. Here I hope to outline why I consider it to be a bad idea.

The most classic historical example of failed indirect elections is the electoral college used in US presidential elections. The experiences of the 1780s led the Founding Fathers to be highly sceptical about the power of the "mob" in legislatures. The electoral college was devised as a way of picking men of 'wisdom' to choose a Presidential candidate on behalf of the people. From the very start, however, it was the men who announced in advance which candidates they would support who achieved success. In short, the indirect election quickly became direct election by proxy.

Frans would no doubt argue that this is not the sort of model that he envisages for indirect elections. His fear is much more that of the pervasive populism which he feels leads to bad policy. The solution, for him at least, is to create a hierarchical model of politics at which elections take place for the lowest level, and then each progressive level votes for the representatives on the one above.

As far as I am concerned, the intention of lessening populism is admirable, but these means of achieving that end would have questionable results. Indeed, I think it would inevitably lead to the polarising of politics into distinct party groupings pervading all levels, and this might have the effect in turn of removing admirable councillors from their positions for decisions which have little to do with them.

The reason for this is accountability. If you did not like George Bush's foreign policy in his first term, for example, you could vote him out directly. A proper constitutional division of powers should see a system instituted in which the responsibility at each layer of government is clearly defined. If, however, a president is dependent upon a lower level not only for support, but for his position, then the desire of the people to choose their leader will result in decisions for the lower level of government being made upon who they promise to vote for at a higher level. In short, the electoral college malaise will pervade more important democratic institutions which have other useful functions.

Powers are delegated to a local level because they are carried out best at that level. For each stage of government there is a different nature to responsibility - and for all of this responsibility elected representatives have to be accountable. Delegating, in effect, this responsibility to a body with a different purpose will see people elected for the wrong reasons. If there are problems with populism, it is the constitution and the people in power who need to be sorted out - not the principle of direct election.

How Europe Killed the Tory Party

In the early 1900s, Joseph Chamberlain courted controversy by launching an attack on the shibboleth of Free Trade, and advocating a system of "Imperial Preference" or "Tariff Reform". Despite the protectionist agenda acquiring a lot of support in the press, the 1906 election saw a Liberal landslide (with Conservative leader, Balfour, losing his seat). This was in many ways unsurprising - not only was Asquith's denunciation of protectionism brilliant, but the issue itself split the party. By the 1910 election, the internal party issue had been largely resolved, yet it was not until much later that the Tories were able to get into power.

It is my belief that Europe has caused much the same sort of problem in the modern day Tories. It has been suggested that, in fact, it was victory in the 1992 election which is responsible for the predicament they are in now. Had Labour won, they would have been saddled with Black Wednesday and the stain on their economic competence; the government would most likely have been shortlived and the Tories returned to power. Such a view has some merit to it - but ultimately it is far too complacent.

Tariff reform, too, was a policy formed in response to economic struggles - in the early 20th century Britain had been usurped as the dominant trading power. I do not want to push these parallels too far. Yet it is undeniable the response of the Major government to the events of Black Wednesday was to sit back and allow the party to self-destruct over the issue of Europe. Backbench rebels threatened to derail the ratification of the Maastricht treaty; meanwhile the divisions in the party were opened up for all to see. It is no surprise that one characteristic of the Blair government in its early years was to taunt the Tories over Europe - leading figures such as Heseltine and Clarke were in favour of joining the single currency (anathema to Eurosceptics), yet the majority of the party was not. It was the simple chance for a government to discredit the opposition by portraying it as riven with splits - even if the government papered over its own cracks with the promise of a referendum.

The promise of a referendum of joining the euro was a political masterstroke by Blair - one made even more potent by the ineptness of Hague in continuing to make a general election issue out of "Keep the Pound". That the Tories chose in 2001 to focus on the issue of Europe was a mistake similar (if less racist) than the one they are making now, for it made them seem like a single issue party. Worse still, the party could not agree on the single issue. And, in any case, the voting public didn't see a huge problem with Labour policy anyway, for they would retain the ability to decide on the euro themselves.

The 2001 election was, of course, a "core vote" campaign. The Tories were faltering badly in the polls and the fear was that if the core vote didn't turn out, the results could have been yet more embarrassing for the party than they were. Insofar as appealing to the core goes, it was a sensible strategy, for the overwhelming majority of party membership is virulenty Eurosceptic (and I use that word deliberately, for their usual brand of Euroscepticism is highly dangerous).

The successive Shadow Cabinets of IDS and Michael Howard have confirmed the party purge. When figures like John Bercow and Damian Green were consigned to the back benches in September, it was a clear signal that the Tories were going to become nothing other than a totally Eurosceptic party. The party is now less divided on Europe than it has been at any other time in the last 20 years, and possibly for longer still.

Yet the party is still dead. Why? The reason is simple. The purge of the Europhiles has cleaved away the left-wing of the party - the side of the party with the moderate, electable, popular faces like Ken Clarke and Chris Patten. Why this divide occurs so clearly on a left-right basis within the party, I have no idea. But it is nonetheless true, and the fact that rabid Euroscepticism plays so well to the party faithful has led to the election of a disastrous leader (IDS) and means that right-wing rhetoric is in the mainstream in the party. Hence why Howard has been able to get away with such a racist campaign in this election.

The Tories' obsession with Europe over the last ten years has been nothing short of a national embarrassment. Howard's "countries have constitutions" campaign for the European elections last year typifies the low level to which political debate in this country has sunk. Worse still for the party, it has ruined their electability. Not only has Europe consistently failed to provide a distinctively appealing voice to the party, it has taken the party down a road that has made it more and more extreme - to the point of pandering not only to prejudice, but to outright racism. Europe typifies why the Tories are so out of touch with the mainstream of politics at the moment, for when you mention the words they become shrill and hysterical. Until they can soften on Europe, I find it hard to believe they will soften elsewhere.

St. George's day? How un-English.

Yesterday, Ken drew attention to an excellent Times editorial which mirrors my long-held views on this matter perfectly. Nationalism and those cringe-worthy public shows of patriotism are for young and insecure nations, such as United States. A pleasure in English culture is traditionally and, in my mind, best expressed in quiet and simple contentment, free from any over-excited and flashy celebrations.

This is best summed up for me in the introduction of George Mikes' How To Be An Alien (a truly hilarious guide by Mikes, a Central European immigrant, on Englishness). Bear in mind that his 1940s use of "race" simply means "people":

On the Continent almost every nation whether little or great has openly declared at one time or another that it is superior to all other nations; the English fight heroic wars to combat these dangerous ideas without ever mentioning which is really the most superior race in the world.

It would be thoroughly un-English to be so rude as to assert there was anything superior about England, or to be so crass and flashy as to salute flags or loudly sing songs. Let's leave that to people who need to create muscial extravaganzas in place of heritage and genuine contentment. Any discourse on liberty will be sufficient to remind us, without being so crass as to state it, that England is, in the broad view, top nation. ;-)

The Tory Strikes Back

I've already had one response to my attack on Tory immigration policy, which helps to confirm my views on this matter, and censure of those who are disgusted by Howard's tactics, but cheerily support his party and these values. An Englishman In Philly wrote:

Finally, turning to Richard's point about immigration, I have to state that immigration and asylum are not issues which get my blood pumping. Nevertheless, I will still take issue with this statement, which I reject in its entirety:

"On immigration, there is now a moral divide separating the Tories and the BNP from the political mainstream, which economic conservatives and other natural Tories should be careful to note. No matter whether you think the rhetoric on immigration is slightly misplaced-- you have pinned your stripes to the standard of these people."

To lump the Conservative Party, worse, to lump people like me, in moral equivalence with the BNP is categorically wrong, and mildly offensive. This is one unfortunate example, amongst many, of people who disagree with the Tory stance on immigration trying to scandalise it rather than to substantively criticise it.

I think its factually right to lump you together, even if your party's spinning skills are superior, and please make no mistake that I am aware it is fairly offensive to brand you in such manner. However, as I have suggested: you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these views. Nobody expects all members of a party to endorse everything its other members ever say, but when we are talking about the single issue on which Michael Howard has been pushing, and the fact that he refuses to castigate Bob Spink and his friends- indeed, he approved the ad, it seems -you can hardly claim this is just a wing you can dismiss without ignoring the entire party.

I am aware that some people do not like immigration/accepting refugees due to the fact they are racist. Nevertheless, this does not permit the logical leap that anybody who has concerns about the immigration system, or who attacks its shortcomings, or who attacks those who abuse its rules, is necessarily a racist.

The fact is the Conservative Party should be doing more to make sure these accusations are as easily rebuttable as possible. This is because you should never allow your position to be misrepresented and because, from an electoral point of view, it suits Labour and the Liberals if they can avoid real arguments over the issue by smearing the Conservatives.

And here you ignore my point, Ed. Because I am not objecting to immigration being an issue, but the way in which Howard has deliberately played it from the start.

Richard has unwittingly done the same here and misrepresented what Michael Howard and the Tory candidate in question said in order to help his argument. All this does is push me closer to a campaign which I, if I were running it, would pitch very differently.

I can accept that the statements they actually made could be misinterpreted, but when Howard is simultaneously paying tribute to what economic immigrants and many legitimate refugees have brought to the country I really do not feel you can call it, justifiably, a racist campaign.

Calling an opinion you don't like "outside the political mainstream" rather than tackling it head on does nothing to debunk that opinion and, if anything, strengthens it. I, and I believe many in the country, do not care what is "mainstream". We care about what's right.

By ostracising the language and tone Howard is using, I am not refusing to debate it, so much as saying that he is moving beyond the pale of sensible debate. When people tell you 'all property is theft' you know your poilitical discussions with them are going to be a bit bizarre, because they're so detached from any rational form of discourse. The same is true in the way the Tories are pursuing this issue, and anyone tainted by association with the Tory campaign should be ashamed.

A Letter To Enfield District Council

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to Enfield Council to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act for statistics relating to the percentages of pupils at primary or secondary schools in Enfield who are the children of asylum seekers, with cases which are still pending, or whether such figures can be provided regarding the situation in the recent past.

I would also be interested to know if you can provide me with information regarding problems of over-crowding in Enfield's schools; for example, the average pupil : teacher ratio across all schools compared to a decade ago, and the number of children who are unable to attend their first choice of school in the district.

I would be interested in all records, whether in electronic, paper or other forms.

I am interested as to whether Conservative candidate for Enfield North, Nick De Bois, can possibly be correct in asserting "bogus asylum seekers" are to blame for "the strain on local schools". (We have no way of knowing if the asylum seekers with children at Enfield schools are "bogus", of course, but it will be revealing to see what percentage is made up by the children of applicants whose cases have not been decided).

Naturally, I will be interested to hear of any photocopying charges you advise me will be necessary to provide the information, as required by the Act.

Yours sincerely,


Friday, April 22, 2005

The Golden Age of Crime?

The nicest of all raving right-wingers, Laban Tall, has recently tried to dismiss suggestions that crime is genuinely at an all-time high, despite the scepticism of (doubtlessly self-hating and white) "liberals".

The problem for him is, of course, that crime is historically under-reported, so that comparisons with modern times are very difficult, and that the government has recently (and commendably) recategorized offenses so that all individual offenses, not merely the number of offenders sentenced, count.

So, it is actually likely that this is, at best, a silver age for criminals, at best.

Nazis, Board Games & Kicking Benedict

There's been a lot of press coverage of Benedict XVI, of course, in recent days, but one thing that disgusts me is the fixation on his membership of the Hitler Youth. The fact that it is spoken about in the Indie, Times and the Guardian as a secret shame is slightly immature.

Germany's biggest obstacle to overcoming its Nazi past is the continuation of Nazification in a legal industry of guilt and repression, where Fascism is treated as a powerful secret that must be suppressed in order to prevent Germans being reinfected with it again. The presumptions behind those laws banning swastikas and copies of Mein Kampf are truly ridiculous.

A recent example in my own hobby reinforces this point: one board games company, the Australian Design Group, took its latest product, 7 Ages, to the Essen fair in Germany last October. It featured a small swastika logo alongside the epoch-defining images of human history in small images around the box's cover. (Since removed from later printings). On seeing it, German customs officers siezed the entire consignment and the individuals involved now suffer stiff penalties for their accidental infringement of the law.

Germany has quite evidently outgrown its past, and could well do with the final and most important stage of de-Nazification: trusting Germans with their own history, by removing these fundamentally illiberal and patronising laws. The British media's obssession with a young boy's involevemnt in the Hitler Youth, and the implicit presentation of it as a scandal, is quite pathetic. Let's grow up, and hope Germany's anti-Nazi laws grow up too.


I am gutted.

I know it is silly, but... I actually feel heart-broken.

My landlady has forgotten to comply with my request to be listed on the electoral roll, and I am hence ineligible to vote. Now, Oxford West is a safe LibDem seat, but even so, I feel like I'm spiritually diminished by being denied the chance to go and put a cross in the box. I'm... gutted.

But then I remembered an episode of the West Wing, where Donna Moss accidentally voted Republican, and then found a Republican to vote Democrat in order to redress the balance.

I'm therefore going to ask anybody reading this, who lives in Oxford West, and who was intending not to vote at all, if they'd e-mail me, and agree to a similar honourable vote-swap? You vote Lib Dem, and I don't vote; each on the other's behalf.

I'd love to see this happen, so I do implore you to make me feel a little bit better about myself by contacting me if you, or anyone you know, was intending to abstain.

Some of my best friends are Conservatives, but...

Today is the 37th anniversary of Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech, nobody else seems to have noticed.

This week, I have become angry. Very angry.

The newspaper each day seems to have carried new escalations of the Tories' campaign to use race as an issue in this election. There is, obviously, a place for a discussion of immigration and the practical ways to enforce it. If we lived in a situation where there was any political difference between the parties on controlled vs. uncontrolled immigration, then there may be some justification. But the Tory campaign is clearly manufactured to whip up fear, hatred and play on people's prejudices or concerns.

Last weekend, one caller ina talkshow Howard was doing argued that racially-motivated abuse increased, for him, whenever politicains starting discussing immigration in the way the Tories have being doing. Today's Independent features five quotes from Tory candidates, all of which Michael Howard has refused to censure. Earliest in the week, Bob Spink, candidate for Castle Point asked 'Which part of "send them back" don't you understand, Mr. Blair?' Since then, Nick De Bois (in Enfield North) has promised to campaign against the problems in local schools, all caused by 'bogus asylum seekers' in the constituency, apparently. Anne Main in St. Albans referred to 'five illegal immigrants' arrested but not charged by police in her constituency. The comments, 'Nodbody knows if these people were criminals, carrying diseases, or even where they went.'

Taken in isolation, some of these could be unfortunate statements of immigration issues. But together, they present an irrefutable pattern of deliberate racist fear-mongering, desperate to scare voters and create resentment of immigrants in Britain. This seems to be the second wave of the attack begun with the "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration. Are you thinking what we're thinking?" posters. The first half is bland- although misleading, as economic migration is already limited, when the Tories presumably refer to quotas on asylum, which is a completely different issue -but the second part solicits the reader to pick up a nod and a wink that the Tories are thinking something, secretly, that they can't publicly express on the issue. A dog whistle, indeed, to latent racism or prejudices.

The great irony is of course Michael Howard's own background. He seems to take pride in his "kick-the-ladder-down-behind-me" situation. He should be even more ashamed of himself, and stop hiding behind his grandmother's fate in the Nazi death camps to as a means by which to avoid standing up to his own responsibility for his gutless course of action.

I think there is an amazing rose-tint to the glasses of many Tory supporters who enthuse about this election campaign, as if it were any other. I can understand and admire Conservatives who argue for low taxation, public service retrenchment and other key Conservative values, even if I do not agree with them. Such discussions do not have any bearing on my perception of them as friends, and I respect their honestly-held opinions.

But there are lines that cannot be crossed. In a recent post on the AUT's misguided attempts to ban Israeli acadmeics from intellectual communion, I commented that I could count many pro-Sharon Jews amongst my friends, because I could see that the complex web of rivalries and bitterness that has produced a bi-polar Middle East conflict. In contrast, I could never feel the same way about, picking an idle example, a racist.

The point is fast approaching when natural Conservatives, who do not themselves back the use of racial hatred as an electoral weapon, need to decide exactly where they stand: whether they will array themselves with the forces of cheap bigotry or stand for something bigger than mere tribalist loyalty, and shun Michael Howard.

Robert Kilroy-Silk wanted to "kill" the Tories. I wanty this election to, in psephological terms, "kill" the Tories, UKIP and the BNP. Forget Tony Blair-- he's a busted flush and whilst my personal preference is to turf out Labour candidates in favour of LibDems where you can safely do so (for example, Oxford East!), I'd encourage anyone in a Lab-Tory or Lib-Tory marginal to vote for the party with a realistic chance of defeating the candidate standing on the Conservative platform. tactical voting worked in 1997 to unseat some tired and uninspiring Tories; in 2005, it is far more important to punish the Conservative party for this course of action. Anybody who stands as a candidate for the party, holds membership of it or votes for it, stands, with Michael Howard, shoulder-to-shoulder with Bob "Send Them Home" Spink. The guilt of such appalling racism, deliberately recalling the 1960s dialogue on forced repatriation, stains anybody who supports the Tory party, even if they would like to pretend they're supporting it for other reasons and would just like to ignore that part of the Conservative platform.

I am shamed to live in a country where an election campaign has ended up descending to this level of gutter terrorisation. If there is one immigrant to send back where he came from, it's Lynton Crosby. I have no doubt he will find that his cheap Australian fear-mongering will not work in Britain, but I sinscerely hope the failure will be compounded, to destroy Crosby's reputation along with Howard's.

Already, I have been told that this stance is "mildly offensive" by one Tory. Tough. Your candidates are more than "mildly offensive" and there are some issues where I'm not going to nod and say "well, you're entitled to your opinion," without going on to object. These tactics are outside the spectrum of reasonable political debate, and have utterly shattered the bounds of decency I can accept.

I intended to sit out this campaign as a partial and interested commentator. Thanks to Michael Howard, I intend to spend the rest of it as an anti-Tory crusader. I know he, nor anyone else, will care that I'm so cross, but if I can convince one Tory voter to withold their ballot, it'll be worth it.

The 1952 Committee

I believe Richard has some interesting results from his survey of the 1952 Committee. But I won't steal his thunder on that. What I do want to do is respond to the email that he sent out to all members of the committee, including myself.

Asks Richard:
I was wondering if you are still intending to boycott the Tories over this issue at the next election, and if you'll be posting on your blog to encourage others not to vote for Michael Howard, based on this issue?

I think my position on ID cards is fairly unequivocal. There are no circumstances that I can think of - and certainly none which I can see being applicable in the near future in Britain - which can remotely justify this full frontal assault on our fundamental civil liberties. That was my position when I joined the 1952 Committee, and it is my position now. I was pleased to see that the Tories prevented the Bill passing Parliament before its dissolution; however, in the absence of any statement from the Tories attaching their opposition to such a measure, they have no chance of winning back my support.

I would like to say here, however, that I think the vehemence of Richard's attack on conservative bloggers comes from his recent anger at the Howard campaign of the last week. I share this anger, and think that allusions to the Bradford race riots are exactly the sort of comments which stoke up racial tension, and racial hatred, and to which Trevor Philips referred to in a recent interview with the Times. This should not direct itself towards anger at the 1952 Committee over ID cards.

In many ways, I suppose I have a confession to make. ID cards are not the only issue that have made me drift away from the Tories. Perhaps it would have been better for me to have joined the committee as an honourable member. Why didn't I? Because by and large, that group comprised Eurosceptics, and I did not want my views on Europe to be conflated with theirs.

That said, my lack of support for Michael Howard and the Tory party remains. I have said it before, and I will say it again - the Tories are not interested in small government or civil liberties. If they were, then they would consider the freedom not to carry an ID Card far more important than the freedom to smoke or the freedom to fox-hunt. My vote for the general election is still undecided. Yet if Richard feels better with such an assurance, it will not be in the box marked "Conservative".

St George's Day

Patrick West in today's Times doesn't like the idea of celebrating it:
There have been cries once again this year for the English to celebrate our patron saint, and for the English to take pride in our ethnicity. William Hague and Simon Heffer have done so recently, and the likes of Garry Bushell and Billy Bragg have been campaigning tiresomely on this subject for some years now. If these are the kind of people you want to hold street parties with, then you are most welcome to them.

I don't know about you, but I'd quite like to see a street party with Billy Bragg and Simon Heffer. Could be good for a few laughs...

The 1952 Committee: A Follow-Up

When the Conservative Party lost its nerve and backed the ID cards bill introduced by the Government, a group of Tories admirably signed themselves up to the 1952 committee-- pledging that they had quit their party over ID cards and would not support the Tories at the next election.

The 1952 Committee was created when the Conservative party, under Michael Howard, backed the introduction of ID cards. For some conservative bloggers this was the final straw and many of them started to declare on their blogs that they would not be voting Tory at the next election. I began collecting and listing these declarations under the 1952 Committee heading chosen because it was the year in which Winston Churchill abandoned ID cards in post war Britain.

This website features on the 1952 committee website, as Ken signed up to the same pledge. My question to those bloggers is: are you going to stick to that promise? I'll send an e-mail to every standard member of the 1952 committee and see if they are still willing to publicly repudiate the Conservative Party and stick to their guns. I will report back on my results.

The 1952 committee made a stand on an issue where they felt fundamental civil liberties were at sake, and I hope that people who proudly boasted of their principles on that issue then will stick to them now. Even if they don't, I hope the immigration issue will make many of the more moderate Conservatives I know rethink their vote before polling day.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Michael Howard, Tories & The 1952 Committee

EDIT: Criticism of the original version of this post, for its conflation of two separate issues, was warranted, and the initial draft could have benefitted from longer gestation. I am therefore republishing it as two separate posts.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Habemus Papam

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."

So, I wanted a liberal Pope. From what I know of the Cardinals, Benedict XVI wouldn't have been my first choice. Nor my second, nor my third, nor even a favoured compromise (yes, I like liberal cardinals). Yet I have read the liberal press's denunciation of Joseph Ratzinger with dismay. In particular, the focus of some of the English guttter press on his history as having been a member of the Hitler Youth and the German Army during WW2 I have found ridiculous. Firstly, it wasn't as if he exactly had a choice in the matter, and secondly, there are far more things that they could attack him for if they really wanted to. To focus on what he was made to do by an evil regime when he was very young is lazy journalism of the worst kind.

Additionally, the press keep propounding the story that "the biggest problem facing the Church is how to tackle poverty in the Third World." Well, the election of Cardinal Ratzinger suggests otherwise. In fact, it is tackling the lack of spirituality the world over, with particular focus on the First World, that his election would suggest is the major issue the Catholic Church wants to address. Far from it being a papacy that will bend over backwards to reach out to other faiths, my guess would be that Ratzinger will instead try and embark on a period of theological orthodoxy and focus on what he considers to be the essential teachings of the church. He won't have the common touch and the public persona John Paul II had, but then again I doubt he would want it that way either.

The immediate detractors of Pope Benedict XVI should remember that God moves in mysterious ways, however. Who would really have thought that the Son of God would be born to the family of a carpenter in a stable in Nazareth? Who would have suggested that a frail old man with a very public suffering would do so much to restore an image of dignity to the Church? I have my own opinions of how the Catholic Church could try and restore the declining spirituality of the West - in short, to focus on good works, good thoughts, and concentrating less on regulating the actions of an individual's life. Not that my opinion counts for much. What cannot be denied, however, is that Cardinal Ratzinger has his own thoughts on this. And for all that liberals may be disappointed by the election of "God's Rottweiler", they might be inclined to remember that the best is often the enemy of the good.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What is Michael Howard Thinking?

The latest polls are all showing that the Tories campaign is faltering quite badly. Indeed, it is beginning to resemble the ill-fated Hague campaign of 2001. It never really got going, and then derailed when Bill tried to turn it into a referendum on the euro. Only this time there are increasingly sinister undertones to the Howard rhetoric.

I think Anthony Howard was spot on in today’s Times when he said that “dog whistle” tactics ran the risk of shoring up the Labour vote far more effectively than Blair ever could.

Lynton Crosby may have won several elections in Australia by a major focus on immigration. But the hyperbole of the Tory campaign was never going to be sustainable for a month. What was a very effective means of making the Tories seem to be major players in the campaign is now making them sound shrill, reactionary, and dangerous. Getting Alan Milburn to apologise for Home Office handling of an individual case has failed to be turned into an advantage.

Surely this must put into doubt Crosby’s status as a know-all guru? A focus on immigration could have shifted subtlely on to an issue like crime, and then from there to a debate on public services. Now any change in tactics will look like reacting to the polls rather than the Tories setting the agenda themselves. If it wasn’t for the severe unpopularity of Blair, another landslide would surely be almost inevitable.

Blogging Lessons

It occurs to me that blogging could be something teachers should consider as a powerful tool to enthuse children, while covering important basic skills across a wide range of subjects. As well as some (negligible) IT skills, PSE subjects and current affairs are a straight match with the typical content of blogs, and hopefully an interest in sophisticated and correct English can be encouraged.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Election Agenda

There is an excellent article here by Mike Baker about the usual patterns political press conferences follow, and how unrelated the media questions are to the issue at hand:

In each of their manifesto launches, the three main parties in England have given prominence to education.
Last weekend Tony Blair repeated his mantra of “education, education, education”. During the week, all three parties held national news conferences dedicated to education issues.
So, for once, the politicians have a point when they accuse the media of setting the election agenda.

I’m very interested to read this, because I wrote something very similar myself at about the time of the Howard Flight affair. Journalists are far more interested in what they think the big story is rather than actually concentrating on the “issues” that really affect people. And yet when they talk about voter apathy, they say politicians never want to talk about their policies!

Friday, April 15, 2005

What will come of this?

Maybe I'm just a hopeless cynic. I've just signed the Labour NHS petition - yes, I want a free NHS, but to be quite honest the petition is meaningless guff and I suspect they just want the email address to spam me for the rest of the campaign. I signed largely because there was a comments section, where I added the comment: "After eight years in government can you only hope for re-election by peddling such lies?"

That is because the Tory policy is not to introduce charges for NHS operations in the slightest. In fact, if the policy works (and I don't suggest it will, nor am I necessarily a fan of it), then it should have the effect of costing the NHS less per operation and reducing NHS waiting lists. That seems a good idea to me. Of course, it may lead to private health firms increasing their charges massively to incorporate the state subsidy they would get. But the policy has some merit, and it certainly isn't introducing charges like Labour mendaciously contend.

So, what do you think? Will Labour actually bother responding to my comment, or will I have to go and track down my local Labour candidate? And how many emails will I get before the campaign ends?

Spotted in Borders today...

... a man reading the book "Mormonism for Dummies". How appropriate.

More from Stockton South

I have already mentioned earlier the Tory campaign to win Stockton South - the reason I consider this interesting is more down to the celebrity candidate than down to serious belief a Tory victory there will place them in line to get an overall majority.

The Tories are cultivating the constituency quite strongly. On the first day of campaigning, Theresa May visited, and yesterday Michael Howard made his comments condemning Labour immigration policy in the wake of the ricin plot trial whilst on a visit there.

As far as I can tell, there has been no similar attention paid by leading Labour figures. Now, in the last election, too, many leading Tories went to the constituency. We know how successful that was. But the genuine problems facing the Labour Party - most notably apathy - may actually see a minor shock sprung here.

Why Kennedy's cock up is really priceless

While I hope I am not sounding like a hopeless optimist, I wonder if the papers' widespread mockery of Charles Kennedy's blear-eyed cock-up yesterday, as he launched his party's manifesto and jumbled his party's council tax plans, aren't as disastrous as they make out. There are probably few people out there who care about politicians being grave and authoritative figures who still consider Charles Kennedy to be one. Amongst committed enemies of his party, this is of course a gift-- living proof of their belief that LibDem tax promises are pie-in-the-sky idealist shallowness.

The thing is, for the genuinely floating voter, the fact that a man is looking rough in the morning, a few days after the birth of his first child, may not be such a grave crime. Kennedy's reputation as an intellectual juggernaught hasn't been destroyed, because it never existed-- on the contrary, his image as a sincere and fallible everyman is enhanced.

So, while the columnists may jeer and partisan enemies will mock, I think such a genuine cock up may be the sort of political capital that is, because you can't stage it, truly priceless.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Old Labour, New Labour, and Federalist #10

The last few weeks have seen "liberal hawks" such as Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen all writing election articles imploring the anti-war left not to abandon the Labour Party. It's all a return to the lovey-dovey Labour values, and asking the question - will the Tories really be a better alternative? In so doing, they are signifying the threat New Labour really feels scared of - the apathy of the core vote.

It's amazing, but this is explainable by looking back at James Madison's superb essay in the Federalist. The real contribution of the Founding Fathers to political philosophy didn't come so much through the document of the constitution itself. It was far too much of a "compromise document" to contribute to constitutional thought, but in the ratification debate afterwards, Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote a series of essays that in many ways redefined republicanism.

Opponents of the constitution argued that the new government was doomed to fail because republican government could only work if there was a broad unity of interest among the political community. In Federalist number 10, Madison turned this on its head. A broad community with a vast number of interests was actually preferable, because no single interest could then act as a controlling influence, pernicious to wider liberty. Instead, a whole host of interests would have to compromise, and this process would make sure government served the wider community as far as was possible under any frame of government.

The Old Labour - New Labour marriage always seemed to be pretty tenuous. But after 18 years of Tory (Thatcherite Tory!) rule, the left were sufficiently hungry for power that Blair and pals were able to convince them that without appealing to the centre ground, the dream of power was to remain just that. The unremittingly Blairite tone of government is now seeing this collapse. Previously, it was considered worth supporting Blair to keep the Tories out. Now, with PFI in hospitals, war in Iraq, the introduction of ID cards, massive increases to tuition fees, the old left are getting restless and increasingly vocal in their rebellion.

None of this is new, of course. But the coalition of interests needed to give Labour its huge majorities is looking increasingly fragile - indeed, it will survive largely because the opposition parties have been unable to form similar coalitions of their own (if I get prodded to do so, I will blog about why the Tories seem so unelectable in the near future). The arguments of Hari, Aaronovitch and co, therefore, are a last ditch attempt to try and prove that if they compromise to work on their common ground, they can keep power and achieve something.

So never mind the trust, or the private money ploughing into public services, or the development of the internal market - let's look at the achievements made for the poor. The minimum wage, the minimum income guarantee, SureStart programmes etc, etc. Surely the Tories would reverse these?

My guess is that a marriage based on keeping another party out will not last long. If Blair is voted in with a reduced majority, the spectre of backbench rebellion becomes genuinely potent. If rebellion is consistent enough to paralyse the government, Brown may well have many more problems when he comes in to take power than he may envisage now. And this could allow modernising Tories to reclaim the centre ground and finally return to power. All hypothesising, of course. But it is amazing to see just how prescient Madison's arguments remain when one turns to analyse the bedrock of political support.

Darlington Double-Talk

I wouldn’t have thought this was the most sensible thing for Anthony Frieze, Conservative candidate in Darlington, to have been saying:

In Anthony’s view the vote reinforced the region’s, and Darlington’s, reputation for plainspeaking and straight talking; qualities that were conspicuously lacking in the Darlington area’s two MPs: “Tony Blair and Alan Milburn may be the MPs for this region but they are not of this region!”, Anthony declared.

Let’s look back at that biography again:

Anthony is currently a director at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in the City of London where he works with pension funds and institutional fund managers to improve investment returns by lending out their portfolios. He has been working in finance since leaving university…

Before standing for Parliament Anthony was determined to build a career outside politics, to experience the wider world and to start a family. Having done so, he is now enjoying getting to know the people of Darlington, not as a political “animal” but as someone who has had life experiences to which they can relate.

I love it when young candidates in no-hope seats try to make it sound as if they are genuinely committed to their constituency rather than waiting to be parachuted into a safe seat a couple of elections down the line. Let’s try another one:

The family knows the North-East of England well from frequent holidays.

Well, that’s me convinced.

Are you spoofing what we're spoofing?

It had to happen...

Someone has had the genius to create a website on which you can generate your own Tory election posters.

My efforts so far:

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'That's all, Folkestone' for Howard?

In the discussion of the Tories' maybe-future-leader David Davies, on this blog, Nosemonkey mentioned the interesting Private Eye suggestion that Michael Howard himself was in for a genuinely difficult ride. While I had assumed LibDem threats on Folkestone were mere sabre-rattling, the Eye reckons that the situation is ripe for a shock. Howard's Labour rival in the seat, where the LibDems are placed second, is a convert to Blairism since 2001 and was a fairly prominent Tory before that. While the dear comrades in Folkestone have carried on voting Labour all these years despite their appalling chances, there is talk that a significant number may vote LibDem tactically... and if that happens, Howard's in trouble.

Then again, the fact it's tipped in Private Eye probably means it won't happen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Eavesdropping On The 8.56 to Paddington

Who should I find sitting opposite me this morning on the train but a Labour MP from a fairly marginal constituency?

While I couldn't make up anything of the NEC papers he was reading, it was amusing to hear his discussion with an aide regarding the fight squaring up in Bethnal Green. When George Galloway's verbal fisticuffs with Oona King were raised, and the fact that Galloway was threatening to unseat one of the few black women MPs (to which he has argued that she had voted for a war that killed people with darker skin than hers) , he remarked "yes, but it is Oona King, which does go a long way to justifying it". With friends like those, Oona may be in trouble...

As for the dismal attendence of MPs on the Friday of the Labour Party conference each year? Look to some new three-line-whip methods from Labour to increase the audience.

Libertarians, Radicals, and the British Perception of the State

Despite their relative lack of strength in the British MSM, the BritBlog scene is full of libertarian voices - most notably at Samizdata and Tim Worstall. Their basic position is that any state intervention is bad, and that people achieve far more when left to their own endeavours than when controlled in whatever form by an intervening authority. This leads to an intriguing mix of positions, being very socially liberal on matters such as ID cards, prostitution and drugs, and yet in many ways far more right-wing on crime. I, for one, have been engaged in many running debates with them as regards the right to shoot criminals who illegally enter their home.

Their running refrain (especially on Samizdata) is that "the state is not your friend". It is this mantra, I feel, which precludes them from becoming a strong force in British politics. Despite some of the best efforts of Margaret Thatcher, the state has always been viewed as a power for good in the British system. This will hopefully be the first in a series of posts where I try and analyse various aspects of the British political system with respect to the view of the competence of the state.

This is because Britain is almost unique in never having a form of government totally and utterly discredited. Even though Cromwell prevailed in the Civil War, he himself could not repudiate the hereditary principle, passing power to his son Richard, who was eventually forced into acceding to the Restoration. Despite another monarchical crisis occurring just 30 years afterwards, the ultimate settlement was to rewrite the constitution to assert the rights of Parliament in the Bill of Rights so as to limit the independent exercising of monarchical power.

In short, the royal prerogative has never been successfully overthrown in Britain. Paradoxically, it now resides (almost) entirely with the people, through the principle of the "Crown-in-Parliament". What this means in practical terms is that there are no real constitutional limits on the operation of power. Yes, the Lords may act as a restraining factor, but it can only slow things down, rather than definitively stop them. The limits of political power rest solely with what is pragmatically expedient.

Other countries, on the other hand, have experienced violent revolutions which have tempered their attitude towards political power. In America, it was the "arbitrary rule" of George III and the British Parliament which made them place written limits on the actions of government. The theory of the Bill of Rights (in a US context) is one which recognises all power as resting with the people, except where expressly delegated. Although more statist, the German hierarchical model of power finds restraints on uncontrolled power by playing local forces (expressed in local government and the Bundesrat) against national and supranational ones. Even the French centralising view of the state is by no means universal - experiences before the Revolution, of the Terror and of Napoleonic rule are engrained on the national mindset. A totally statist government would not allow liberty and equality to be viewed as non-contradictary principles.

Britain, by contrast, has maintained a benign view of Parliament. Whilst the rest of the continent convulsed in revolutions of different kinds in 1848, British radicalism focused on extending the franchise. Power was not to be seized in a violent overthrow, but through reasoned arguments, demonstrations, and the extension of the franchise so that all could have their say in Parliament. Similarly, whilst continental movements in the decades before the First World War concentrated on the espousal of radical socialist doctrine, the trades union movement in Britain moderated the Labour Party, and kept it focusing on incremental change through measures such as working reform. Certainly radical overthrow of the political structures was out of the question.

These views have been further entrenched by the extension of the welfare state following the end of the Second World War. In short, the state has always adapted to the political pressures it has found itself under; in this way, it has been able to buy off its opponents in times of danger, and maintained a constitutional right to unlimited legislative power. For all that we may complain about the extension of state power, without a proper movement for constitutional change, we are actually powerless to stop it, short of a viable alternative being presented at the ballot box.

The thing is, no party has ever truly presented itself to the country offering a genuine small government programme. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher came close in their attempts at privatisation, but her instincts were always to bring things under personal control than to allow significant local latitude. This is not surprising, for it continues in a long line of British tradition. At the start of the 20th century, for example, when the social policy of Britain became more “interventionist”, there were still significant powers concentrated in local government. The policy of funding new programmes through the “block grant”, which allowed government control over local expenditure, was an effective means of making sure the will of the government was upheld.

The libertarian argument has some basic merit to it – force the individual to take responsibility for his or her actions, and with that, society will improve. In a British context, however, many of the specific arguments are redundant because people see the state as a benign behemoth. Michael Howard’s rhetoric about “rewarding those who play by the rules” is a case in point – the state decides what the rules are, yet we are happy to reward those who adhere to them. We could not support such language if, as the Samizdatans would have us believe, the state was not our friend.

Belief in the state is a remarkably secure way of living. In a fantastic essay written for The Cricketer, and later reproduced in his classic book Beyond a Boundary, CLR James (an unapologetic Marxist) bemoaned the defensive style of cricket becoming more and more prevalent, blaming it on the “welfare state of mind” (admittedly, I like this essay so much because it attempts to link styles of sporting play to cultural phenomena). And yet, has a statist world view really cost Britain so much in the past? After all, even our original support of free trade was in the knowledge that Britain’s productive and naval capacities were so much stronger than any other country – and thus Britain was the almost guaranteed winner in the absence of trade barriers.

As yet, the answer to the question posited in the previous paragraph is no. There haven’t been serious problems. The difficulty facing a constitutional reformer like myself is that all my arguments are based upon theory and hypothetical situations – and little has happened in Britain to suggest that the potential pitfalls of the system are likely occurrences. Tories and Labour differ in which areas they would like the state to rule, and who they want the state to benefit. They most certainly do not differ fundamentally over issues of big and small government. In short, just about all mainstream political instincts in Britain reside in the state.

When Tony Blair was accosted by a member of the audience on a chat show earlier this year, her revulsion was not at benefits. It was where they were directed that caused the problem. "The people who have to pay the taxes that keep the country going; we want our share for our families and our children." When the liberal left insist on directing funds at education programmes to keep children off the street, the right do not respond by holding the right to defend property personally inviolable – instead, they argue for more police and tougher prison sentencing. It’s a reallocation of the state they want, not a fundamental reassessment of its competence. And until that is changed, the fundamentalist libertarian windbags will be fighting in vain.

Nasty Tories

I can't help but feel that if this candidate had been standing anywhere other than Dorset South (the most marginal Labour constituency in the country), then this wouldn't have received anywhere near the attention it did.

What surprises me is that the Tories seem to be missing a trick with the original photo. Their focus on immigration being "out of control" gives them the image of the "nasty party", which, as Richard pointed out yesterday, is deeply ingrained in Britain's culture. Having a candidate in such a marginal seat campaigning for an asylum seeker to stay in the country shows that there is a human, pragmatic side to the policy.

Surely Ed Matts really doesn't believe that Michael Howard's pronouncements on immigration are ambiguous or vague? Yet by doctoring a photo he has allowed Labour to create a sideshow in his constituency that distracts from the broader Tory message - far worse than if the case in question was highlighted to demonstrate that Tories were offering a reasoned solution rather than a knee-jerk xenophobic policy. I have my doubts as to how far the former is the case. If the Tories do not take opportunities to show they are not demonising Johnny Foreigner, however, then it makes it more likely that the continued "Dibley Disease" will not be reversed.

Warning: Appalling Lib Dem Joke to Follow

What's the difference between Paul Marsden and Sarah Kennedy?

Nothing - they've both gone into Labour during the election campaign!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Pope Saves Beeb From Gaffe

Poor old BBC 7 should be grateful the Pope went to meet his maker when he did. The delay to Charles and Camilla's wedding helped avoid a clash that would otherwise have occurred with the final part of their drama serialisation 'Marrying The Mistress'.

VoterVault, Debating Societies, and the Decline of Intelligent Debate

I was at a family party last weekend, and in conversation with a relative I hadn't seen in a long time, he said to me, "you people in debating societies are ruining the country." I wanted to put up a spirited defence of the Union - I've enjoyed the debating I did both there and at school greatly. Yet the fact is he is right.

The style of debating in both the Chamber debates at the Union, and in the inter-varsity debates, is heavily adversarial. That in itself is not a bad thing. Politics should be discussing serious issues and if something is important enough, it is likely to be divisive. Yet the way these things tend to be judged, both by official judges and by the media, supports people who make shallow debating points, who distort the truth, who present arguments in ways that make it harder for someone to counter, rather than actually providing the best solution to a problem.

This creeps in insidiously into our political system. A parliamentary system - especially one which has three big players (if some are bigger than others) - should provide for reasoned discussion of issues, with really good ideas and watertight legislation the end result. Instead, we are creeping further and further towards presidential politics in a parliamentary system. Both Blair and Howard are trying to turn the election campaign into a referendum on the other. Rather than trying to present policies intelligently, it is more a case of identifying the weakness of the others and exploiting it. When the Tories were last in government, Robin Cook was famously caught out by a BBC report which spoke to a former policy advisor of his. Cook reputedly said "I've got an opinion poll in here which says that most of the country think our health policy is better than the Tories. You and I know that we don't have a health policy. But why do we need one?"

VoterVault, the system used to great effect by Karl Rove in the 2004 US election, is now finding its way to Britain. In particular, the Tories are using it to identify the key voters in the swing seats that they need to win the election. Not only does this greatly limit the active participation in the election for most voters (Howard is apparently concentrating on appealing to just 800,000 voters), but it also makes policy-making an appeal to stereotypes rather than constructive policies.

I am white, middle-class, in the 18-30 age range - indeed, I can be classified in any number of ways statistical agencies want. What trying to group people together in such a way does, however, is completely depersonalises politics. It ignores the fact that I have a brain and am able to assess the merit of policies independently. Policy wonks may try and find a bone to throw to the Catholic voter, or the suburbian voter, or the rugby-supporting, wine-drinking voter. But it doesn't make politics any more intelligent. It compartmentalises debates into often unhelpful channels.

The issues facing the country don't have easy solutions. If they did, any political party worth its salt would be able to solve them quite easily. By pretending that niche issues can be dealt with easily, the political establishment is selling the country short. This blog has been used recently to debate the merits of increased funding in public services. It is sad that although we are expanding on issues raised by political parties, the leaders do no seek to make such detailed arguments. Instead, its a slanging match about who will cut more, or who is more wasteful, or what-have-you. It's no wonder people aren't interested in that. If politicians started treating the electorate with a little more respect, we might go a long way towards tackling apathy.