Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Problem With The Consitution

The major problem with the EU constitution is, as with most things European, due to the fact that there is no way it can capture the popular imagination. It is an unwieldy and forbidding document, and doesn't provide any sort of popular symbol. I argued that one of the biggest problems with the Euro was that the notes had such unimaginative designs (a point picked up on in many European newspapers at the time) - if there is going to be popular support for the EU, there needs to be the creation of European figures. Stresemann, Charlemagne, even Schuman - we need to create these as European figures if people are to feel comfortable with the concept of Brussels. Otherwise it will just be an unaccountable labyrinth of characterless corridors.

Neil Kinnock is now pronouncing that the constitutional treaty is "dead". Whether he means by this that the whole concept of a constitution is dead, I don't know. Certainly many of the EU naysayers have been pronouncing this, and it is difficult to see how a treaty along similar lines can be obtained.

But lost in all this has been the question of whether a treaty along similar lines is actually desirable? Far from being a constitution drawn up in the usual manner, with a specially elected convention specifically for the purpose, it was carried out in the backroom deals so characteristic of Brussels, and so inimical to Europeans of whatever political outlook. Furthermore, far from being the "tidying-up" exercise that Messrs Blair and Straw have so disingenuously presented it as, it marks a fundamental change in the relationship between nation-states and the EU. I do not see this as sinister, but the EU is never going to win the hearts and minds of Europe unless it is upfront about this.

So, rather than this unwieldy and vague document, the way ahead should be clear. A brief but unequivocal statement of the principles of the EU, and its citizens' fundamental rights, should form one part of the document. In it should be contained the explicit statement that all rights not freely given to the EU by the member states remain matters of national jurisdiction. Then, the weightier section of how the EU operates procedurally should be sorted out. That is all that it needs to contain. And a constitution based on those principles can make a strong case for both necessity and utility, and maybe even win some popular support.


I'll post more about where I think Europe may go in the future once I have a bit more time (ie, once I've got my exams out of the way, and once the Dutch have voted), but in the meantime James Oates has a thoughtful post about the French rejectionists on his blog:

If we follow the logic of the rejectionists, then the European Union should reject the free market altogether. The Social Model becomes for these people, not a sanity check on free market economics, but a replacement for them. There is a country that went down this road in the 20th century. In 1946 it was the world's fourth largest economy on several measures. However, although nominally democratic, it was even then in the hands of corrupt power elites who disdained to engage in political dialogue with the electorate. Instead of embracing free markets it abandoned them to corrupt cabals who then nationalized industry wholesale. The result was a populist nationalist government that completed the journey into corrupt Socialism. That country was Argentina.

Go and read the rest of it.

They Only Followed Their National Anthem

I'm relieved at the outcome of the French vote on the EU constitution, although perhaps not as triumphalist as some other bloggers. I'm relieved more because it will hopefully save me the pain of having to vote "yes" to a constitution that I fundamentally dislike on many levels, but probably prefer to the status quo. Additionally, we all know that a vote on the EU constitution in Britain would be seen more as a vote on the principle of the EU, rather than on the direct issue of how it should be governed, and I would fear that with a "no" vote, the next referendum would be one on whether we should leave the EU altogether. That is something which would be highly damaging to Britain's interests, and something I may pick up on later. In any case, a French "no" is much more a repudiation of the constitution than a repudiation of the EU, and will hopefully see a renegotiation of the constitutional treaty.

In any case, Chirac did not deserve to win the referendum campaign - it was a nasty, nationalist, un-European campaign. Quite why committed Europeans like Schroeder were prostituting themselves before the French to desperately secure a "oui" is beyond me, but it was unbecoming. The French tried to use the European Parliament to send out signals about the "social model", and when that didn't seem to work, they could always try a bit of Brit-bashing in opposing our rebate - despite the outright hypocrisy of opposing the British rebate whilst supporting the unreformed Common Agricultural Policy. Such an un-European campaign, willing to play on nationalist sentiment, not only highlights some of the difficulties that face the ardent supporters of "ever closer union", but doesn't deserve to win support for a constitution that aims to allow for pragmatic supranational solutions to be found to supranational problems.

Of course, the French response to the referendum is to appoint an even more unappealing nationalist as their new Prime Minister (who, incidentally, according to the BBC has never run for elected office). Still, those who fear the spread of the overregulatory burden of the social model needn't fear it too much. Even if the EU constitution won't kill it off, one other thing is guaranteed to. International competition.

Monday, May 30, 2005

HawkEye, Run Outs, and Umpires

Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata is a man who I may disagree with a lot of the time when it comes to political matters, but whose love of sport is definitely something I share. He has written recently about the phenomenon of technology in sports, with the paradox that our adjudication of umpiring decisions and general sporting analysis is often unavailable to the umpire or referee at the time.

The use of technology is cricket is increasingly highlighting the deficiency of the umpires. The third umpire, used for close run-out decisions, has greatly improved the quality of decision-making in this regard. But technology has not stopped at close-up, slow-motion cameras. The TV cricket viewer is now presented with a whole array of gadgets. These can superimpose the line of the stumps on a pitch, enhance sounds coming from the wicket to ascertain whether a batsman had edged a ball, and HawkEye, a contraption now about 4 or 5 years old, argues that it can predict accurately the direction of the ball after it has hit bat or pad. In a cricket context, this is crucial, because if true, it allows LBW decisions to be made on a purely scientific basis.

I am not yet convinced of the utility of HawkEye - I have not seen a scientific study where it measures how accurately it has projected the trajectory of a ball without intervention of bat or pad. Indeed, far more useful is the superimposing of the line of the stumps, because it enables us to see where the ball has pitched (crucial in the context of the complicated LBW law), and get a much better idea of the movement of the ball. What is more, as it relies on the original TV shot, the use of technology is grounded in fact, not the reasonable guess provided for by HawkEye.

Yet, unlike Brian Micklethwait, I would argue against the greater intervention of technology in umpiring decisions. One of the reasons I think the general standard of umpiring declined after the introduction of the third umpire was because umpires never had to think about giving a run out decision. If it was remotely dubious, they would simply refer it to the third umpire. Thus, in situations where they were usually trained to make a decision to within a couple of feet, they actually did not have to concentrate. Cricket requires precision of viewing with its laws, and the loss of precision undermined attempts to be focused when it was necessary.

To a certain extent, this has become a moot point, given that the third umpire has been in use for over 10 years now, and the international panel of umpires is largely new - ie, they have never have to worry about adjudicating run outs and as such a loss of concentration from what they were used to has not been a problem. Yet the greater use of technology can only make sense if it is to be used totally, almost as a replacement for the human umpires out on the pitch. Otherwise, the problems of concentration outlined above will rear their head again. And I am not yet convinced that the technology is nearly accurate enough yet to be used as a substitute (even if more accurate than human error); nor do I believe that it is desirable for the game to be held up constantly for further TV adjudication.

Cricket is a strange game, because one or two dodgy umpiring decisions really can change the course of a game, even if the overall standard of umpiring is excellent. By and large, it is, but media attention naturally focuses on things where the umpires have got it wrong. It is only fair that we try and put this right. But partial introduction of greater TV gadgetry is not desirable. It will diminish the authority of the umpire (whose word, after all, is final), and will quite possibly diminish his ability to boot.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Live Meat In War?

So England have just finished their ritual humiliation of Bangladesh at Lord's. It just wasn't Test cricket in any meaningful sense of the word. The technique of the Bangladeshi cricketers was sorely lacking - indeed, Dav Whatmore, their coach, has just been on television admitting as much. Their bowling lacked any real penetration - especially given that their best bowlers are spinners, and Lord's in May is never going to be their happiest hunting ground. It was nice to see Trescothick, Vaughan, et al play themselves back into form, but the paying spectators were fleeced. Just like NFL preseason matches are an elaborate way of charging people for watching practice, so the crowd at this "match" (I use inverted commas because match implies a contest) were being charged to watch an extended net session. It is the only cricket match I can imagine not really begrudging having to sit in a sweaty overheated exam hall to miss.

The thing is, it is not that Bangladesh are devoid of cricketers of talent. Mushfiqur Rahim made a name for himself in the warm-up matches with some composed batting. Mohammed Rafique would be more of a challenge on a turning pitch in the subcontinent. Yet overall, the standard of the team is roughly what you would get if you selected eleven county players at random, minus the one or two top-class players you may find. And so sending them like lambs to the slaughter on an endless cycle of international cricket is counter-productive. They aren't yet at the stage where exposure to the top teams will help them develop.

The more infuriating fact is that it wouldn't take too much of a genius to devise a development programme where they could play cricket right around the world, and yet be placed on a fast-track to international status. Let the Bangladesh team compete in domestic competitions around the world - just in the same way England A competed in West Indies' Busta Cup, let the Bangladeshis play in the County Championship for a season, then in South Africa, then in Pakistan, or wherever. This way they'll get the benefit of playing in unfamiliar conditions (it is well known how different the subcontinent is as a touring venue) whilst being at a standard more applicable to their talent. Combine this with regular matches against "A" sides, and "Test"-style matches against teams like Zimbabwe or Kenya, and the development of the side should be much swifter.

As it is, they go on a merry-go-round of little interest to anyone - demolished by team after team after team, the surprise being more whether they can bowl a side out once rather than making any meaningful contest of the match. No-one sees Bangladesh as a Test side, and yet statistics and records set against them count just as much as any other (although given that Brian Lara can claim a Test record batting on the Antigua pitch with Hoggard and Harmison out of the attack, maybe it's not such a travesty of justice). All the Lord's exercise this week, and the Durham one after that, will be met with is huge cynicism about the standards and cheapening of Test cricket. That is counterproductive and won't help cricket in Bangladesh develop one little bit.

Inside The Council

There's a genuinely fascinating post from Councillor Matt Sellwood, regarding the terrible decision he recently faced regarding council housing in Oxford. Choosing between evils, you have to sympathise with the choise before Matt, and the circumstances he describes binding the City Council are absolutely disgraceful.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Ken Ponders Bid

What a great picture of Ken Clarke is being used in this article. The only way is left!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Thank God I Don't Go To Birmingham

So, the AUT finally saw sense and overturned their odious boycott of Israeli universities. I don't care what you think of their ideas, views, or anything, the principle of academia is that anything is up for discussion, and if something is wrong, you prove it through academic argument. Not through deciding not to deal with those you don't like. If Haifa University discredit themselves by censuring a professor for standing by his student's research, that is not the means for a boycott of the University which can only harm those who work there. An argument for not applying for jobs thre, maybe, or scrutinising their research more heavily, but not for a boycott.

What angers me most is the attitude of those who cannot lose gracefully. Says Sue Blackwell, quoted on the BBC today:

"We are not surprised. We saw people who did not come to earlier meetings there and we knew what the outcome would be.

We won the moral argument. They just won the vote."

What is it about certain union activists that makes them think that the people who do the most work in a union are the ones automatically entitled to set the policies? I found this last year, albeit at a student level, when I campaigned for the winning campaign in a referendum on student funding policy, and was met only by huge levels of obstructionism from the OUSU activists. The argument was put to me more than once that the SU officers had a right to enforce policies that the rest of the student body disagreed with, on the grounds that they were the officers.

Sorry, but that's just complete crap. A union exists to represent the interests of its members. That is more or less its sole raison d'etre. If they, in democratic fashion, vote for or against a specific policy, it doesn't matter what the"regular activists" think. If, as they proclaim whenever elections swing round, they are there to serve the interests of the members, then they are happy to do it even when it goes against their own vested agenda. Sue Blackwell - for your evident contempt for democracy, shame on you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Oxford, Crucible of Politics? Two Views

Two views of Oxford's involvement in politics:

One by William Rees-Mogg.

The other by David Icke.

I have to say, I love any conspiracy theory that makes Harold Wilson puppetmaster of Britain since 1940.

Missing The Point Again

Apologies to the members of the 1938 Committee, but I'm returning to the issue of ID Cards again. I will reiterate my promise not to consider voting Conservative until they fundamentally alter their stance on ID Cards - not just the pragmatic, leadership-challenge-orientated stance adopted by David Davis, that their use must be proven beyond doubt, but an unequivocal statement that the compulsory carrying of an ID Card is an affront to civil liberties and pernicious to individual freedom.

My specific objections today, however, are limited to Tony Blair:
Tony Blair has told MPs that identity theft costs the UK "billions of pounds
each year" as a second attempt to bring in identity cards begins.

Identity theft is evil, a menace and a right royal pain in the arse for anyone unlucky enough to fall foul of the crime. But ID Cards will not solve the problem of identity theft at all. The problem with all technology is that whatever gizmos and gadgets are used by the government to make the ID cards safe, the organised criminals will not be far behind. Quite apart from the fact that I fundamentally believe there is no need for the government to have such details on a central identity register, criminal rings will soon find a way of using techniques to create fraudulent ID Cards. Of course, the government cannot introduce such a scheme admitting these things, and so complacency as to the efficacy of their scheme will most likely set in. Thus the problems of identity theft may in fact worsen, as criminals make fraudulent copies of identity cards whilst the government refuse to accept that such a thing is possible.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

On The Sun: Parental Responsibility

One of the facts of the Sun's recent story, was the girl's mother insisting on the responsibility of the school for her children's pregnancies. This seems absolutely bizarre, and an abhorrent response. While sex education in schools is a valuable weapon in empowering young people to make sexual decisions, it is a marginal role compared to that of parents. It is completely hypocritical for the mother of these children to shift responsibility to the school. While we do not know sufficient details of the case to judge her own culpability, the circumstances of this story do not make the state's schools as culpable.

Ironically, many sex education complaints frequently run in the opposite direction: with parent's preferring their children not to attend such classes. While it is deeply regrettable than anybody would fall into such a viewpoint, I think ultimately we have to respect the right of that parent to be wrong, on this issue of sex education, than impose the diktat of the state. While the state may intervene in the upbringing of children under certain circumstances, the gains we make for sexual education are sucrely less than we would give up to parental liberty. Just as the state cannot be blamed by parents as responsible for the upbringing and fate of their children, so the state cannot remove from parents the right to make decisions about almost all elements of their children's upbringing. That will occasionally allow them to make mistakes, but at the end of the day the average parent is far, far better than the nanny state, and so we must accept that the virtues of sex education will necessarily lost to some children.

Their parents, and parents who do not take up their responsibilities for all aspect's of a child's life, even when the school plays a part, will have let such children down.

On The Sun: Sex Education and Teen Pregnancy

The Sun's article, which appeared yesterday, raises a number of issues regarding teen pregnancy and the role of sex education in modern Britain. While it is impossible to comment on the case of the 12, 14 and 16 year-old girls without knowing what happened at their school, some general comments can be made.

There must be no retreat from sex education as the most effective means of reducing unintended pregnancies through proper family planning. The most common complaint, generally in America rather than britain, that sex education actually encourages sex, seems deeply unlikely. Sex education cannot hardly help but be something that empowers children and young adults in making decisions for themselves about their sexual activities (if any). While an emphasis on abstinence as the only certain means of contraception is clearly important, the best guarantee against a sex education that is mechanistic and preventative, is one that also emphasises on the emotional issues involved in sex. Regardless of the real dangers of under-age pregnancies and STDs, it is absolutely vital to emphasise the issues children should consider, as they become involved in relationships.

Schools clearly do have an important role in this, as they offer a source of authority outside of the immediate family of a pupil. Additionally, by introducing the ideas to all children simulatenously, one may hope for a better community sexual culture in that year than if each had been educated seperately. Yet the role of parents in such issues is unavoidable, and that is a topic I'll address in my second post on this news story.

Monday, May 23, 2005

A Real Story Behind The Sun's

Thanks to BBC News, I found a link to a story in today's Sun, regarding three sisters who became pregnant simultaneously at 12, 14 and 16. This is worthy of a post for two reasons. On the one hand, it is clearly a story of social interest, but also in the way in which the Sun reports it.

In three blog posts over the next two days, I hope to examine three separate issues raised by this story:

1. Teen pregnancy and sex education in modern Britain
2. Agency, parental responsibility and the state
3. The Sun's attitude towards the story and media attitudes to privacy

Good Luck

Ken's in his first Finals exam at the moment. Also, good luck to Mr. Minimal Harm, who starts his exams soon.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

I hold these truths to be self-evident...

... that all men are created equal, that they remain free and equal in rights.

It's just a shame my government doesn't.

Oh, That Was Nice...

I missed it at the time, but I made it in the Independent's letters page a few days ago...

Sir: John Curtice is too quick to dismiss the Alternative Vote as a superior choice to PR ("System Failure", 10 May). His example of it giving a Blair majority of 98 based on ballots in 2005 is unfair, given that we cannot predict how voting patterns would change under a fairer system, such as AV. While I am delighted with The Independent's "Campaign for Democracy", I hope the case for AV will get a second look.


If only my first published letter wasn't on a subject where I was convinced of the need for AV+, over AV, within 48 hours of it making press. I don't suppose anyone will have a copy of the paper on that day lying about? If so, drop me an e-mail for A Small Reward.

You Lost, Okay?

This is ridiculous. More remarkable: the press correctly identified political correctness, rather than using the phrase to represent their resentment that sexist and racist jokes aren't funny anymore.

Chris Martin Should Grow Up

I was dismayed to hear some immature comments this week by Chris Martin. (To clarify, I mean the obscure musician, not the infinitely more worthy Marxist scholar of the same name).

The idea that shareholders are "evil" is completely naive and a prime example of misplaced leftist anger. There are so many great causes Chris Martin could use his celebrity status to attack: the immoral Common Agricultural Policy or other fair trade issues; the need for greater community development in under-resourced estates; child labour in Nike sweatshops; endless others. It seems this comment was based in his dislike for commercial deadlines when making his music. How interesting that his priviliged position to comment actually seems to have been used, on this occasion, to whinge about his own workload.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Murdoch's Mind Games

It is a cliche almost as tired as those employed in their columns that professional sportsmen have little other than platitudes to offer in their highly lucrative newspaper columns. Quite why anyone wants to read them is beyond me, but their ubiquity suggests they make the proprietors a lot of money. Sir Clive Woodward admitted that the reason England's rugby players write such tedious tripe is because they had a team rule that no comment could be made which offended any other person who may be involved in the squad. Yet still they proliferate, even in so-called quality newspapers.

What I really want to know, though, is why Shane Warne is getting paid by The Times to write for them this summer. Not only are his columns anodyne in the extreme, but he is obviously using them as a means of trying to unsettle the England team ahead of the Ashes series this summer. In this column he starts talking up the bit-part players in the Australian squad; here he lauds the merits of Kevin Pietersen the day after he has been left out of the England squad.

Comments such as "I’d say he is the most dangerous batsman in the country, Freddie Flintoff included" can surely only be intended to destabilise the England team; to get our batsmen nervous about their places in the team - especially when he is publicly casting doubt on Andrew Strauss's ability as a matchwinner.

We don't know, of course, how productive it will be. We do know that Warne has the ability to get under other player's skin - just ask Matt Prior at Sussex. We also know, however, that slurring other players is a good means of motivating them - see Justin Harrison's performance in the last 2001 Lions Test match, when Austin Healey had described him as an "ape" and a "plank" in a column the day before. Of course, Warne's mind games are far more clever and subtle that Healey's, especially as they serve only to place doubt about their ability in someone's mind, rather than being particularly personally offensive. Yet what I fail to see is how giving Warne this opportunity to get his mind games in early is a good idea for an English newspaper whose sales would undoubtedly skyrocket if the Ashes were to come home.

But I forget! The Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch and edited by Robert Thomson. Both "fair dinkum" Aussies. Maybe they have a vested interest in a different outcome.

Am I Mad?

I may be crazy to suggest this, but the kudos if I am right would be immeasurable. While the Economist speculates that Cheney will step down due to a heart condition in the next few years, to give Vice-President Rice a clear run at the Presidency in 2008, I think Jeb Bush has to move in 2008 or else he'll have been out of office as Governor for too long to command much attention in 2012 or beyond. A genuine dialectic emerged in the pub last night, as Ken and I discussed what could happen. We asked, how would you get Jeb to the Presidency without offending Americans by offering a dynastic succession in 2008? The answer: Cheney-Bush 2008; Cheney's the only Republican candidate who would be realistically willing to serve only one term, rather than get their full two. If Jeb is V-P or loses out to anyone else in 2008 for the nomination, and they win in 2008, then the Republican nomination is sewn up for them in 2012, if they want it. And Cheney seems the only one who wouldn't.

The good news for Ken and me, is that you'll all have forgotten this theory by 2008, if it is wrong. Whereas if it is right... well, you'll be seeing us link back to the post quite regularly.

The Death of the Salisbury Convention

Chris Lightfoot fears that an ID Cards Bill will find its way through Parliament quickly under the Salisbury Convention, which states that the Lords cannot hold anything up if the government has included it in its manifesto. If the Lords continue to uphold this convention, then they are spineless cowards and the sooner the Upper House is done away with (in its present form at least) the better.

Firstly, the mandate that the government claims is hardly that overwhelming. We all know the figures by now - 36% of a 61% turnout is not a ringing endorsement of any scheme the Labour government could put forward. Richard would argue that by not voting, they are tacitly supporting the will of any government that comes forward. But there would be a strong case for the Lords to make, that they had a right to hold the government to account to the extent of opposing the ID Cards Bill because of the lack of a proper mandate.

More to the point, however, Blair doesn't care a fig for manifesto pledges that he has made. Not only is he prepared to bring in measures such as foundation hospitals that weren't mentioned in the manifesto at all, he is prepared to explicitly break other promises. Such as his promise not to increase income tax - but it's OK to increase National Insurance contributions, an income tax in all but name. Or how about top-up fees? "We will not introduce top-up fees, and in fact have legislated to prevent them". Tell that to the 2006 university entrants.

If Blair is prepared to ride roughshod over promises made in an election campaign, then he can't use the Salisbury Convention to back up deeply unpopular plans that may have been included in the manifesto. Either it is a promise to the country, or it isn't. You can't have it both ways. And if the Lords are to stand up to the bully-boy tactics of the Labour Party, then ironically it is the unelected, unaccountable chamber that is doing democracy a service.

The Left, The Right, and Mashed Potato

The other night Richard and I were in the best restaurant in Oxford, enjoying our bangers and mash, when I posited the theory that mash was clearly the superior half of the dish. The following conversation ensued...

Richard: "It's typical of the right that you can't allow for each to be good in its own way, but have to rank them on a linear scale."

Ken: "No, it's typical of the moral relativism of the left that you have to value the equal intrinsic worth of everything and fail to accept when something is better."

Friday, May 20, 2005

It's Not Just Britain

Opinion polls are suggesting that the Dutch and the French are set to vote "no" in their referendums on the European Constitution. In some ways, even as a committed pro-European, I am pleased to hear this. Part of this stems from the fact that I have some misgivings over the content of the constitution (for example, plans to have an EU foreign minister - presumably in a role above and beyond that of the current Commissioner for External Affairs - are ridiculous, adding little to what we have and causing almighty confusion about precise delineations of power). But on the other hand, it is because of the political fall-out that would ensue from a French or Dutch "no", that I think it may have the potential to be a good thing.

If the British were the sole country to reject the constitution, we'd just be seen as the archetypal trouble-makers. We'd probably be rejected by the rest of Europe, who would press on ahead without us. This would undoubtedly be dreadful for our national interest - especially as far as trading regulations go, we would be subject to EU decisions without having the slightest say in what they were. Even the most hardened Eurosceptic would not, if responsible, adopt a line beyond William Hague's "In Europe, but not run by Europe".

For two of the founder members to reject the constitution, on the other hand, would force a fundamental rethinking of the whole shebang. And if the debate on the constitution has shown anything, it has shown that there is no common vision for Europe. A debate on A Fistful Of Euros a few weeks ago asked where the Madisons and Hamiltons of modern day Europe were. There aren't any, because the EU excites so few passions across the continent. Why? Because no-one really knows what we are supporting. Even when it is asserted, it is usually more indicative of the national standpoint of the speaker, than through any pan-European theory of the EU.

As things stand, we can have whatever sort of EU we want. Chirac can proclaim the supremacy of the social model; Blair can herald the free market; Poland and Hungary can argue for the benefits it will allow them in their continuing adjustment to the global market. And all of them can be correct, to a greater or lesser extent, because the EU functions effectively on backroom deals. It is based on the give-and-take of negotiations, of nation states dealing with one another to decide how much they are willing to give up in some areas to further their national interest in another.

Of course, the common criticism by the Eurosceptics in Britain is precisely this unaccountable nature of negotiations. They recoil in horror when you suggest giving more power to the European Parliament, but that is the logical extension of their argument, because all they can talk about otherwise is vague notions of "national sovereignty" (which in Britain are even harder to define due to our lack of a written constitution, but that is another matter entirely). Where they have merit, of course, is when they attack the EU because no-one really knows what it is. There isn't a coherent defence that pro-Europeans up and down the continent can come back to.

If the EU is to be a valid enterprise, it needs that. It needs to have a theory and a structure behind it that ordinary people can identify with. It is telling that the countries to have ratified the constitution so far, with the exception of Spain, have been countries ratifying it through their Parliament. My guess would be that in Germany at least, were it not for the Euromania of the political class, the passage of the EU constitution would be much more dicey. In many ways, to see the constitution passed would be a great danger to Europe. It would allow us to continue in our muddle without really knowing what Europe was for. That's a debate we need to have, and one that we should initiate as soon as possible.

A Vision For Liberalism

The Liberal Democrat election campaign this year was admirably effective at communicating our policies, and went a long way to answering the common complaint on the street that people do not know what policies the party stands for.

However, it does not go all the way to making the Liberal Democrats a party of government. We may be pleased with our new seats, and we are comfortable with ourselves, and we are delighted at the public's response to many of our policies. But we should in no way be content with the current state of the Liberal Democrat party. We are the standard bearers of a tradition that genuinely offers an appealing and brilliant way forward for Britain. It is a tradition long-ignored, and one we ourselves need to rediscover, and to develop into a coherent vision that we can present to the electorate. When we do that, a Liberal Democrat government will become not a matter of chance, but a matter of time.

The kernel of truth this party holds is perhaps one clouded to our own eyes. I believe that is because we still have work to do on presenting the country with a coherent vision and a coherent philosophy, even though one beats within our party: in the blood of enthusiastic attendees at conference; in the sweat of activists delivering Focus leaflets; in the tears of those who either won or wept at their local Liberal Democrat results on May 5th. That coherent philosophy is one of Liberalism, which frustrates the media because it doesn't fight onto the left-right economic determinist scale, and is a philosophy in perfect harmony with the fundamental spirit, traditions and instincts of the British people. We need to rediscover and articulate Liberalism as a cogent vision, and to explain why we are Liberal Democrats rather than Tories or Blairites or Socialists.

At the heart of Liberalism, we believe in freedom: in a health scepticism of the state and the idea that bureacracy and middle management is ever the solution to Britain's problems. Yet, unlike the Tories, we do not have a total faith in the free market. For Liberals, the free market is a glorious steam engine of progress and wealth creation, yet one that needs to set in the right direction, rather than allowed to spin out of control; we could never be uncaring of the human cost, recognising that economic growth must go hand-in-hand with fairness. How do we reconcile those desires to give people the freedom to succeed, but also freedom from the vagaries and cruelties that the free market creates at its extremes?

"Liberalism stands for Liberty, but liberty is not to be won merely by standing aside: poverty fetters; ignorance hampers; disease incapacitates; privilege oppresses; war terrorises. To attack these is to be the champion of freedom." Those words belonged to a Liberal leader nearly eight years ago, although they make my point more succinctly than I could ever hope. Freedom is our guiding principle, but not a freedom to exploit fellow Britons, but a freedom to succeed as individuals on a fair playing field. It is, philosophically, a quest to find the balance between negative liberties, where we free individuals from oppressive elements of the state, and positive liberties, where we feel a moral mandate to help people free of the artificial barriers to opportunity. There's a tough balance between those two elements, but it is one on which the British people have always been based, and one which the Liberal Democrats need to remind people they are based.

We need to begin communicating a coherent vision for this message of liberty. The fact that this is an intelligent and sophisticated approach to government may allow our critics to please themselves by accusing us of "sitting on the fence" and "not taking a firm line". In fact, the Liberal Democrats sit at the centre of British politics precisely because we embody a hatred of statist authority; a love of community; a belief in the inherent promise of individual genius; tolerance for different faiths, cultures and tastes; and a keen British sense of fair play.

Our Liberalism presents us often with conflicting challenges. For example, on taxation policy we must balance our belief in the importance of leaving people with a decent share of what they've earned for themselves, and our belief that the nation has a moral obligation to provide opportunities to those cheated by circumstances beyond their control. We are therefore passionate champions of those achievements of Liberals of the past: the National Health Service, pensions provision, and state education. As Liberals, we are passionate about these- as passionate as any Socialist -for destroying those artificial chains of poverty and inopportunity that cheat so many British people from a chance to shine and maximise their talents.

Yet, we are honest about this dilemma, and willing to engage in a discussion with the public based on the way of balancing this two instincts. I think we have been strongest recently on civil liberties issues, where we see the balance of security and freedom in the same way as the British people. What we need to articulate is a broader philosophy of risk-acknowledged life. Rather than attempting to create a risk-free culture, in which politicians immediately promise to ensure disasters cannot recur, we should be willing to consider whether some securities come at too high a price. When we surrender immeasurable quality of life to reduce by 0.001% our chance of falling pray to a terrorist attack, we must seriously question our priorities. This attitude is reflected in an illiberal culture of litigation, where the common sense of bad luck is eclipsed by an idea that there must be blame behind evcery misfortune. Now, that doesn't mean negligence, but we should seriously ask whether children should be deprived of school trips just because there are no circumstances in which an outing can be completely risk free.

We also need to make awareness greater of Liberal Democrat values and the centrality of value politics to our approach. We are essentially pragmatic, abandoning doctrinaire socialism and conservatism, but pragmatic in our pursuit of goals defined wholly by political moral values. 'Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right,' declared our intellectual grandfather, Gladstone, and this has resonated through our policies for some time. Yet we can still need to highlight even more that our tough and determined approach to delivering policy is balanced by an unprecedented moral direction and commitment to personal values.

The Social Democrats who joined with the Liberal Party were liberals who had grown up in an age where the Liberal Party was exhausted and in decline. They founded a new home for British liberalism, uniting the party of nineteenth century negative liberalism with the best parts of the party that established positive liberalism. Within the Conservative Party, there are still decent small-L liberals who have seen their party purged of its decent elements by an increasingly extremist, bigotted, nasty party. For them, their principles reverberate in the Liberal Democrats' principles. While our appeal to both Labour and Conservative voters is often derided as being "all things to all men", it actually reflects the inadequacies of socialism and conservatism in representing the lines on which British politics actually divides in the 21st century.

If the Liberal Democrats can articulate the distinctiveness of their philosophy, so different to the authoritarianism of Tony Blair and Michael Howard, pruning the state to make it better deliver for the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and seeking to set loose the power of free markets, yet guarding against abuses of them, then the future of politics truly does belong to us. The idea that the Liberal Democrats are a harmless but well-intentioned group of wooly liberals must be thrown off. The only wool we possess is steel wool.

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

There's some superb work being undertaken by the chaps at No2ID at the moment. I think we may just manage to derail the ID Cards bill. Certainly, plans for mass civil disobedience are affot. I think I've previously said that I won't carry an ID card. (And don't worry, that's a real pledge, not a 1952 committee pledge). This is a real example of moral law-breaking: by deliberately breaking an unjust law and publicising the fact, you can show the invalidity of the law.

Currently, the ID camp are agitating for a mass petition. This is a particularly fond topic for me, as my day job is researching a DPhil on British Anti-Slavery in the nineteenth century. That movement was the great grandfather of the entire British tradition of public campaigning, which has since spread over the entire world. It is a very British concept- and one doubtlessly linked to widespread 19th century British faith in Parliament as a tool through which to win reforms, not an enemy to be torn down. The anti-slavers operated in difficult circumstances, as their first push in the 1780s coincided with state reaction against revolutionary movements and ideas. However, the combination of Parliamentary leaders (giving speeches there), mass public petitions and a campaign of national education using ultra-sophisticated techniques evolved in the following decades, reaching its height during the election of 1832.

While it may be best remembered as the first election under the Great Reform Act, it should be noted that slavery became the defining issue of the campaign, with candidates pressed to pledge how they would vote on the issue. (A controversial idea, in the days when parliament was still considered a deliberative house, and MPs were expected to make up their minds after hearing a full debate).

A key concept behind this activity is faith in the moral agency and disposable power of individual citizens. It takes supernatural belief that the seemingly impersonal and unstoppable forces of government can be diverted by ordinary people. It's tremendously healthy for democracy that we have such a vibrant culture of public campaigning and external pressure on parliament. It is probably a more effective check for democratic government than election campaigns themselves.

The parallels between slavery and ID cards may seem tenuous, but there's a theme and principle that links them, and almost every British reform movement in the past. It was articulated by Brian Harrison in an essay on 'A genealogy of reform in modern Britain' in "Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform" (eds. Bolt & Drescher). In every movement, from temperance to feminism to anti-slavery to the CND, British reform movements have been attempting to remove a perceived unnatural power that was corrupting the natural order of things, be that unnatural power patriarchy, alcohol, slavery or nuclear deterrence. The same can be seen on both sides of the fox-hunting debate (their only difference being whether a fox or a huntsman needs protecting). Today, we fight for citizens' liberty and for the essential protection provided to our liberties by the disorganisation of the state, which would be ended when we are barcoded.

For anyone enthusiastic about beating the ID cards proposals, I strongly urge you that there is a point to petitioning and speaking up when friends ask "why would anyone mind having an ID card?". No matter how globalised our economy, seemingly powerful our politicians or determined the Home Office's mandarians are, everything that has happened in political history was the result of mortal humans who had the arrogance to demand control over their lives.

Spot The Difference

It's taken me the best part of a week to get a chance to write this, but a post regarding the obscene events in Uzbekistan has been brewing all that time. The humanitrian issues involved echoed strongly my worries regarding Iraq, which I've written about in the past.

The reprimand and subsequent dismissal of British ambassador Craig Murray was a curious affair, and one that deeply concerned me at the time. His claims of human rights abuses in Uzbekistan being ignored by Britain, at the behest of their mutual ally the United States, was a scandal, and it was depressing that the story only caught the attention of the Grauniad in any significant manner. While Murray's subsequent parliamentary candidature on an anti-war platform has rather diminished his stature, it seems his interpretation of events is increasingly proved right: that pro-democracy campaigners are being suppressed as "Islamic terrorists", and the UK and USA turning a blind eye because of Uzbekistan's geopolitical significance to their alliance.

The war in Iraq was justified to us on many grounds. The first rumours of his involvement in the September 11th attacks withered away rather quickly, presumably when evidence proved non-existant. In Mr. Campbell's sexy dossier, the emphasis was on Saddam's capability to wage war on the West. It now seems that that dossier made possibilities into certainties, and presented analytical assessments in a dishonest manner. At the time, the rational judgement of an otherwise ill-informed citizen must have been to trust that dossier. I did, and I still opposed the war, believing that Saddam's capability (the same as many other nasty dictators) did not justify a pre-emptive strike at this time. Additionally, as written elsewhere, I have grave concerns about international precedents being set. The morality of an action is not just in its cause and effect, but in the generalised principle you are establishing and endorsing. Hence, procedure matters.

But the default justification for the war since the weapons dossier's debunking has been a humanitarian one. This was left to lie, skulking, in the background, until it became the only justification the Bush and Blair administrations had left. It should always have been centre stage, because it is the best argument to remove Saddam. If discussing the war with someone like Ann Clwyd, who always backed the invasion on a judgement that it would be a net improvement to the humanitarian situation in Iraq, I wouldn't have had a problem. I embrace the principle of intervention by force on a humanitarian basis. I wish we had done so in Rwanda, and it should be a realistic possibility in crisis points such as Darfur. In these cases, we have a judgement call on when military intervention and foreign invasion will make a net humanitarian improvement.

Yet behind that principle, which is now the fig leaf of the Iraq War, is a universalised moral principle of humanitarian action. When we hear George Bush speak of spreading freedom around the world, he sounds like, Jimmy Carter, a greater President than Dubya will ever be. Carter was undoubtedly an unsuccessful President, but that was in many ways because he was too good for America. He offered an altruistic vision of America as a moral superpower, and that vision was rejected. At least America produced such a possibility, even if it did not take it: in such a respect, britain is far worse, for never producing such a leader.

If George W. Bush really matched Carter's principles as well as his rhetoric, I would be his gretatest supporter. But if he did, we would currently be publicly exposing the abuses that are happening in Uzbekistan, and seeking out human rights abuses wherever they are, even if that is within states it would be pragmatically useful to keep happy.

Currently, we are operating on a false claim of humanitarianism in Iraq, if we will not universalize that commitment to upholding human rights by force. The secondary issue of when force is appropriate and when its threat is better, is one to deal with on a case-by-case basis. Sign me up a neo-con, if it actually meant vigorous defense of human rights-- as it is, it seems that our "humanitarian policy" is driven by oil and realpolitic.

The war in Iraq is a stain on the conscience of every citizen of a country which perpetrated it. There's no "not in my name" get-out clause from citizenship; it is in your name and you have to live with that. But what is a greater stain on our conscience is Uzbekistan, for it proves the bankruptcy of the "humanitarian policy" that now stands as the only justification for Iraq.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Green Rebuttal

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Councillor Matt Selwood, one of the parties I criticised in a post regarding one of the Greens' letters to students. It was exactly the sort of rebuttal or criticism you like to receive: reasonable and polite.

I don't intend to do a Newsweek and retract the entire story- because it was a rather gutting experience for us -but Matt said he'd be happy for me to post his reply, which I want to do in the interests of a fair right of reply:

Was browsing around the web tonight (avoiding revision, which is an art form in itself) and discovered a posting on your blog about the Oxford East result and, specifically, the letter sent to students by myself and Chris Williams. You basically accused me of deliberately lying to the electorate in that post. I can only assume (I hope!) that we haven't met, because I would hope if we had that you wouldn't come to that conclusion. I *honestly* believed that the argument in that letter was accurate - I was amazed that the LibDems got within 963 votes of unseating Andrew Smith. You may not be aware that I have a pretty sound record in opposing Smith - I was the City Councillor who proposed impeaching him for war crimes last year....:) His re-election caused me no pleasure at all.

Obviously, I would still have supported a Green Party candidate in Oxford East whatever, because I believe that the Greens are the only hope for progressive, principled politics in this country....but I wouldn't want you to think that either Chris or I deliberately misled people. Had I been able to foresee the result, I would not have used that argument - I would have urged people to vote for Jake Sanders simply on his merits, which are considerable. :)

Hope this straightens out some stuff, and proves that I can, at worst, only be accused of being a lousy predictor of election results...



P.S. Like the blog.

After exams, we're taking the debate to the pub.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Not Good Enough

Newsweek has decided that its evidence for the claim that US interrogators flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet was too flimsy to be published, and as such is retracting the statement. It's nice that they can own up to their mistakes - unlike, for example, the odious Piers Morgan who still refuses to admit he was wrong in publishing the hoaxed torture photos in the Daily Mirror.

But the apology isn't good enough, and should worry all of us in the West. I don't deny the right to freedom of speech. The prominent position of Newsweek, however, has been obtained through a trust in the veracity of its reporting. The publishing of such an erroneous story does not only damage that reputation, but it is also fundamentally against our interests in trying to limit the spread of Islamic fundamentalists and to stem the flow of people willing to blow themselves up.

People in the Middle East will believe the original story as printed. They will use it as further evidence that the Iraq war was a Christian crusade against Islam; that the West does not tolerate and respect their religion. It will be used as a recruiting call for Al-Qaeda. In short, it will almost certainly lead to a greater loss of life in Iraq, greater instability in the Middle East, and greater problems for us in the West trying to convince the rest of the world of the benefits of liberal democracy.

It is my fervent belief that not only should editors be 110% sure that stories of this nature are true before they go to print, but that they should even then think very, very carefully before publication. The malignant forces of Islamic fundamentalism don't provide a remotely fair and balanced news service - instead, they will seize upon every negative story about democracy, America and the West they can find and use it in their propaganda. I am not arguing for censorship here. The editors have a right to print the news; we have a right to know the news. There are, however, very serious consequences involved with this kind of story, with a large human cost and strategic dangers. The seeming willingness of editors to publish dodgy stories is of grave cost. Even issuing a retraction of the original claims is not good enough, for the damage caused is already too great.

UPDATE: For more information on the Newsweek story, here is a good article about it on Slate.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Further Problems in Iraq?

From the Yorkshire Ranter:

People often don't realise that Iraq is urban. A mass of urbanisation spreads out from Baghdad down to the shrine cities and up towards Tikrit in the north, and west along the road to Fallujah and the Jordanian border. Although the plurality is Shia, the bulk of this urban core is Sunni, and this is crucial to know. That fraction of the insurgency aims, once having got rid of the Americans, to dominate this area, to seize power, and then, only then, to look elsewhere. Controlling this area gives them command of what there is of the state, the former defence establishment, and their own people, as well as the symbols of Iraqi nationalism. It also gives them key infrastructure and the trade route out to Jordan. All they need then is a share of the oil. South of Baghdad, they will find it harder to make progress, as they will be running up the demographic hillside and into both the Badr Corps and Sadrist heartlands. The Sunni insurgents are probably more militarily capable, but don't have the numbers. Somewhere along the demographic transition line, the front will halt.

To be honest, I wasn't fully aware of this before I read it. Certainly the ethnic complexities of Iraq are left well alone by the media - it suits them far more to set things up in a "them vs us" dichotomy than truly understand the nature of Iraq. That includes their treatment of the country when Saddam was in charge - Yes, Saddam was a "bad man", but only portraying him as such doesn't help a greater understanding of Ba'athist culture. It was far more than just Saddamism, at least in its early years, and developed a fairly sophisticated urban culture in its wake.

The reason I link to this piece is that it is a firm historical view of mine that one of the key objectives for any successful government is to have direct control of the major cities. The peasantry in Russia weren't directly bothered about causing revolution (although growing increasingly fed up with economic hardship); the Bolsheviks seized control because they were the largest forces in St Petersberg and Moscow. The French revolution was more than just a bread riot because of agitation in Paris. The crucibles of the American Revolution - the areas where direct resistance was strongest - were the urban centres of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Going back into early modern times, the success of the Dutch revolt is in many ways attributable to the fact it had a quasi-modern urban structure.

And so, to fall into the trap of simplification myself, if the Shia majority are incapable of holding the strategically vital urbanities of Iraq, the new government will find it difficult to hold anything other than a tenuous power. This would suggest a much longer presence of US and UK forces than was originally intended. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and how far my theories of history can be stretched.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Coming Of A European Super League?

Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United has been done to death in the media over recent days. However, one line of enquiry into motivations and consequences seems to have been missed by most media outlets. The Times yesterday said that Glazer would have hoped to get individual TV rights for the Manchester United home games and sell them himself; thus retaining for the business far more money than would be gained under the collective agreement currently in operation (this probably boosted in part by the fact that the EU may well rule against the agreement as it currently stands).

Premier League rules, however, make this very difficult, because any breaking ranks has to win the support of 14 out of the 20 clubs. As about 4 or 5 of the clubs are the really big draws which persuade Murdoch and BSkyB to shell out such ridiculously huge sums of money for the rights to the Premiership, it is inconceivable that the middle-ranking clubs in the league would support such a move. Thus a breakaway from the top clubs would be pretty infeasible. The Times concluded that this meant the merchandising market was not being sufficiently milked, and that the Glazer family could see new expansion opportunities.

I wonder if another alternative, which ordinary football fans should find far more sinister, is actually open to the Glazers. Every so often there is talk about the formation of a European Super League. The last time it was mooted, UEFA responded quickly and opened up the Champions' League to a ridiculous number of clubs - a number which made the claim of it being a "Champions" competition completely laughable. This was done so that the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of the world would have to have an appallingly bad domestic season so as not to be able to compete in the money-spinner the year after.

This, of course, is one of the reasons for the competitive unbalance that strikes out right across European leagues - the distribution of the prize money allows the rich to get richer and richer, whilst the poorer clubs scrap for existence. Such is the nature of sport that a good manager and good tactics can abate this somewhat (see Everton this year, or for an even more striking example, take the Oakland Athletics of the last five years in Major League Baseball). In the long run, however, to stay competitive requires cash - and this prices most teams out of the success market.

The Champions League cannot expand its ranks further than it has in the past. TV money under the current agreement is probably the most bloated it can be. Indeed, in most other sports, markets have fallen backwards dramatically, and ITV Digital showed the limits even of the voracious appetite for football the British have. How, then, can the really big clubs - the really big businesses - of the football world maximise their income?

Simple. Break away from the individual leagues, maybe even break away from the auspices of UEFA, and form a European Super League. Laban Tall talked about the loyalty of the football market the other day. The loyalty of the football market means that most Manchester United fans will ignore the FC United breakway, even when pushed into a European Super League, and follow their team to Munich, Milan and Madrid week in week out. Indeed, from a neutral perspective, the prospect of the best teams in Europe playing each other so regularly should be mouth-watering.

But the reality is somewhat harsher. To see why, we need to return to the TV rights which are the main motivation for this. At the moment, you pay for a Sky subscription and get all the Premiership matches they show. Individual negotiating agreements mean that such a monopoly is unlikely to arise - instead, you'd have to pay money directly to the football clubs, possibly on a pay-per-view basis, with all the money that would entail. Even if a Super League was to be created, it's possible this would be a long term solution rather than a short term one (expediency may dictate having as many games on offer to the viewer as possible). That said, the likelihood is that at some point individual clubs will be broadcasting their own games exclusively. As one comment said the last time a European Super League was mooted, Murdoch was so keen to buy up screening rights for the Football League because he was well aware that in a few years time Torquay vs Northampton was the best he had to offer.

Worse still, a European Super League would be the death of competition. I hypothesised earlier that clubs may need to break away from UEFA to form one. If they did, then the league would be totally and utterly ring-fenced. In so doing, the top clubs would create a virtual monopoly on the world's top talent - making the rich richer still. There wouldn't be any promotion or relegation - any club deemed insufficiently commercially attractive when the breakaway occurred would be doomed to a life of obscurity.

This may all seem overly pessimistic - and indeed, being by and large a football neutral, I find the idea of the top European clubs all in one league potentially tremendously exciting. But deep down, I know the reasons why it would be done, and the reasons why it would be a bad idea. The sad thing is, I doubt there is much that could be done about it, given the casual nature of much football fandom at the top end of things. We have been spoilt by the growth of money and the abundantly talented teams that it has been able to provide. We don't really want to lessen the quality of top football - we are willing consumers. And as such, we will most likely swallow whatever the businessmen on high dictate to us. Glazer's takeover of Manchester United symbolises the increasing commercialisation of sports - perhaps even the growth of an Americanised sporting culture in Europe. The Chelseas and Milans of the world are far cries from the community-based teams they were when they started - they are now on a level applicable to the franchises of the NFL or the NBA. As soon as they think the commercial benefits outweigh the risks and the promises that they are given, a European Super League will become a reality. And that will be the real problem facing football.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Pull The Other One

So Charlie Falconer thinks that the general election procedure was perfectly safe? Why, then, are the government announcing all sorts of new measures to combat postal voting fraud? Oh, that's right, because we had a system that was more akin to that of a banana republic.

I can understand why the government wanted the election rushed through - the Boundary Commission is soon to report and the huge discrepancies in constituency profile built upon census data 14 years out of date stood to benefit Labour immeasurably. But if there were no serious problems in the general election, then it is down to the good nature of the British public and most certainly nothing at all to do with the dreadful system that we have in place. There are a large number of loopholes that I can think of off the top of my head that could allow electoral fraud to take place with chances of detection low; but I don't want to publicise them. In short, until we move to a system of individual voter registration we are going to leave ourselves open to a large amoun of fraud.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Double Glazer

So, Manchester United fans are moaning about Malcolm Glazer's buy-out of the club. What a load of whingeing hypocrites. How do they think their beloved team managed to dominate British football so successfully in the 1990s? Sure, they had a great manager at the top of his game, and were blessed with one of the most talented groups of youth known in the history of English football. But their commercial supremacy was one of the big reasons behind their strength. Indeed, at their peak it was estimated that they could afford to get two out of three big transfer deals wrong, and still be in a better financial position than most of their rivals.

Arsenal are moving to a new purpose-built stadium to enable them to maintain their competitiveness in the transfer market (although one of their strengths has been identifying prodigiously talented young talent abroad and bringing it to England). Leeds nearly went bust banking on continued success in the Champions League, for the money it brought it was the only means of consistently competing at the highest level. Chelsea, of course, have been given the blank cheque of Roman Abramovich. Yet the fact is that most clubs would kill for the international reputation and financial strength of Manchester United. They have turned the club into a global brand, raking in millions and millions, attracting huge crowds across the world, with adoring fan bases from South America to Hong Kong.

In short, the recent success of Manchester United has come because they were the first club to realise football was no longer just a game. It was a highly lucrative business, and they organised themselves on that basis. Their superior organisation was directly linked to their pre-eminence throughout the 1990s. They won because they were the best business. And as soon as you play the business game, then the possibility of takeovers from Russian oil merchants, or Lithuanian-American ginger wingnuts becomes very real indeed.

So, you fear that your new owner will run you solely for a profit? Well, tough. In any case, I don't see what the worry is about. Is it really in the interests of a man trying to run a commercial empire to have a floundering team, uncompetitive at the highest level? Surely we all know the answers to that one. The fact is that, for better or worse, sport at the top has changed. We get the lavishly gifted club sides we have now because of the money in the game. If you want to support a team week-in, week-out, know where you are with them - maybe even know the players personally - then find a club lower down the leagues. Better still, play for them. When sports clubs up and down the country are being forced to fold every week, to see such hypocritical whingeing from the part-time fans of the incredibly wealthy really does question how far they truly appreciate the benefits and meanings of sport.

Mistaken For A Tory

Last night- in an Oxford pub -I found myself sitting with some friends near mutual friends who were there as part of the Labour Councillors' meeting. I was aghast when, in response to somebody wearing bracelets saying "Vote Labour" and "Make Poverty History" I was accused of being a 'typical Tory' for suggesting we get "Make Labour History" braclets made up. I think it was the blue shirt that did it on that occasion, but this prompted everybody to share the fact that they'd all assumed I was a Tory when they first met me, too.

I feel dirty.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

An Eye On the Referendum?

The Telegraph today leads with the story that the European Parliament has voted to end the opt-out of the Social Chapter, thereby forcing all employees to have a maximum working week of 48 hours, whether they like it or not. No doubt the limit on the amount of time that can be worked will lead to new calls for the minimum wage to be raised so as not to jepoardise those on the lowest incomes.

I just can't see the need to limit the working week in this way. Unless there is evidence that employees curry extreme favour by working longer hours (ie other employees are effectively discriminated against for upholding their rights), then such an illiberal measure really isn't necessary. All it will do is provide a further constraint upon business and act so as to be inimical to growth.

My real worry, of course, is why this has been pushed through right now. Avid newsreaders will know that the referendum on the EU constitution in France is rapidly approaching; it looks like the first major hurdle to climb, and the chances at present are that it will fail. Unlike in Britain, the opposition to the constitution in France has come from the left. The socialists there fear that it will put the social model under threat, and impose "Anglo-Saxon" economic norms upon an unwilling France. Cancelling the opt-out to the Social Chapter seems to me to be a very effective way of sending out a message that the social model is safe.

Unfortunately, the Pasqua/Galloway oil scandal is now dominating the news, and so my trawl of French websites to see how prominently the news was displayed hasn't really been that successful. But the British veto on such legislation was avoided in this case by presenting the measure as a necessary step to safeguard "health and safety" in the workplace. Why would such a step have been taken in this manner if there wasn't an eye on the French referendum?

Of couse, such a move is inherently risky - it is more grist to the mill of the British eurosceptics. Then again, much of "old Europe" wouldn't mind if Atlanticist Britain had to be the country seen to be pulling the plug on the "European project" - our objections to the EU would become all the more dismissable. Yet I cannot see any good reason for the legislation to be passed. It is surely overextending the competence of government to interfere so directly in such matters. However, the one solace I got from my French newspaper search was this article - "Why France is incapable of creating a Microsoft". The number of new companies (ie created since 1960) in Europe's top 25 is 1; in the US it is 6. The article accepts that France's efforts to inspire innovation have failed. If articles like this keep appearing, it may not be too long before the MEPs put two and two together and realise they may just be over-regulating our business.

Harry Gets It Right On Respect

Harry's analysis of the significance of Respect's victory is spot on. The BNP are right to see an unholy alliance of interest between the Islamo-Facists and White Supremacists, and we should loathe both equally.

The Very Best Of British Blogging

I am delighted to report that a new 'blog has been set up by a group of the UK's most intelligent and eloquent commentators. While there are only a select band of them, the Last Dalek's livejournal has somne of the best views, analysis and observations of any other British blog I've seen. I'll be heading back to see what The Exterminator has to say in the future.

Best Thinkers In The Blogosphere

Type "people thinking" into Google, and we're the third hit!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

I Can Admit When I'm Wrong

Never let it be said that rational debate is dead, at least in the Blogosphere.

Jarndyce has convinced me that at least some of my affection for Alternative Voting is somewhat misplaced. I still then AV with top-up could be worth consideration, but perhaps three-member proportional constituencies may be the way to go.

Holocaust Memorial and Modern Germany

Roger Boyes in the Times believes that the opening of the new Holocaust Memorial in Berlin "was a sign that Germany “faces up to its history”". It's a positive step, for sure, but I beg to differ, and I know Richard disagrees too. Yes, it is great to see that such a terrible event in the history of mankind is being remembered in striking fashion, and so close to the heart of the nation. But remorse is not the only means of coming to terms with history.

The de-Nazification laws of Germany are somewhat sinister. Why should they be considered necessary? The slogan of Harry's Place must surely be the guiding principle of any democracy - "liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear". The best way of dealing with the nutcases and lunatics who deny the Holocaust is to let them spout their nonsense; for that way their ignorance can be exposed. The implication of keeping laws of Holocaust denial is that they are a potentially potent force in Germany and cannot be dealt with by following the usual channels of debate. That can only reflect badly on Germany. The country must have serious problems if it cannot meet the ridiculous and offensive claims of the far-right head-on, and win. We cannot see things purely as black and white when dealing with the crimes of the Second World War. Some things may only be black; but what we see as white is almost certainly a shade of grey (see this post by Frans Groenendijk and the powerful conclusion). Simply throwing plaudits at Germany, no matter how positive the steps, masks potentially more serious problems.

I will repeat here an excerpt from the comment on this post on a Fistful of Euros, for I think it sums up what I want to say quite aptly.

To change topic slightly, I'm not sure that Germany has fully come to terms with its Nazi past. It has done some wonderful things in that regard, but de-Nazification laws are still in place to the extent that the inadvertant (or completely un-Nazi) publication of a swastika on goods leads them to be destroyed and heavy fines to be levied on the carriers. I'm not sure that's a good sign of a healthy coming to terms with one's past.

Posted by Ken at May 10, 2005 12:20 AM

Ken - I get the uncomfortable feeling that you are right. Why else is it necessary to have laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offence when we don't find it necessary to have such laws in Britain? That's not because Britain is rabidly antisemitic but because Holocaust deniers are simply regarded as nut cases here. For that reason, we tend to think it is much better to know who they are rather than try to brush it under the carpet, so to say.

British troops were the first Allied forces to reach the Belsen concentration camp during the advance through Germany in 1945. We had newsreel clips of what the troops discovered showing in cinemas in Britain shortly after - I can still recall the horrific images from seeing the newsreels as a small boy then. And we have extensive archived testimonial evidence from among the troops who were there as well as from survivors who came to settle in Britain. Denials simply aren't credible.

Posted by Bob B at May 10, 2005 01:12 AM

Replies To The Critics of AV

In response to criticisms of AV in the comments system of my last article.

The party power criticism is not a straw man; at the moment, the selection of local candidates who appear on the ballot paper is done by a local party which frequently rebels against outside impositions. Additionally, PR is bad news for independent candidates, as larger constituencies and an endorsement of the idea you vote for a national governing party, will undermine their viability.

Regarding AV being disproportionate, it is disproportionate in terms of first-choice ballots cast, but doesn't operate on the presumption that that is the only criterion for selecting an MP. By permitting an in-built system of tactical voting and consensus-building, it produces a very fair result given the opinions of our electorate.

Now, I admit that AV essentially asks of voters a different question to either FPTP or PR. But I think it's a better question.

As to the cheap shot that AV would eliminate Tories, I am not so sure it would. Regardless of whom it helps or hinders, it produces democracy where British citizens can safely support which candidates they really like, rather than the least bad candidate out of the two viable ones.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Fair Votes, Yes; PR, No

Both John Curtice in the Independent (and most of the rest of that newspaper) and Jarndyce at The Sharpener have been thinking about the need for Proportional Representation today.

I'm a Liberal Democrat, but I don't like Proportional Representation. Jarndyce rebuts some obvious criticisms, but not the one that bothers me the most. To be specific, I dislike the fact that Proportional Representation necessarily shifts power into the hands of parties. It does this partly by breaking the constituency link- that we each have a single MP -which has been part of British politics for over a century, but the need for a party list also places massive power into the hands of party bosses. I very much like the idea of a link between a single MP, rather than a multitude for a certain locality, and I really like the principle of electing an individual as well as a party. The idea of allowing parties to be institutionally- rather than practically -important within the pale of the constitution is repulsive: let them decide who they'll sign up as their official candidate, but the idea that voters would vote for a party and the party bosses then decide who to install in those seats is... un-British.

Far better to look at Eliminative Alternative Voting within the existing constituency boundaries. It would certainly be different from the current system, but I feel that charges it produces the lowest-common-denominator are unfounded. It fulfils one of the hardest criteria for a good electoral system, which is that it allows preferences to be ranked without prejudicing your higher choices by the ranking of your lower ones. Additionally, it preserves our traditional constituency link. But what it does do is allow people to vote for whom they really wish to support, without tactical considerations of keeping completely hated candidates out. In other, words people actually vote for their genuine choice, rather than a strangely-filtered compromise. Indeed, AV seems to me to be less likeley to produce lowest-common-denominator choices than the bizarre tactical choices people have to make under first-past-the-post.

To finish, I think John Curtice is being rather unfair in suggesting that AV would have resulted in a less proportional Parliament than the current system. To take votes cast under this system and hypothesise how they would be cast under a new one is a bit naive: voters are canny things (as their use of tactical voting shows) and they will surely behave rather differently under AV. More details can be found at the Electoral Reform Society's website.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Who Cares What Keith Piper Is Smoking?

To get back to the most important thing in life - cricket - there are two major stories coming out of the game this week (county-wise, at least). The first is that Keith Piper is to face an ECB disciplinary hearing after testing positive for a recreational drug during the recent Warwickshire-Glamorgan game; the second is that Surrey have been docked runs and face a hearing of their own for ball-tampering in their game against Nottinghamshire (not that it did them any good).

The outlook for Piper is not good - the two previous cases I can think of involving recreational drug use are Graeme Wagg and Ed Giddins; both of them were suspended for a hefty period (15 months and 19 months respectively). That said, Piper has failed a test for cannabis before and only received a one-match suspension.

Even so, I want to know what business it is for the ECB to be testing for the use of recreational drugs. Why does it matter? If the drug isn't performance enhancing, then it is of no consequence whatsoever to the board. The "role model" argument doesn't hold up here either - if they weren't testing for recreational drugs then no-one would have known what he was up to. It doesn't affect the game and the publicity it is bound to attract can only have a derogatory effect.

Surrey's actions, on the other hand, were against both the spirit and the letter of the game in every way possible. They really were trying to gain an unfair advantage in their match. They fully deserved the stuffing that they got. If the specific culprit cannot be found and suspended, then they should suspend the on-field captain for a number of games. An example needs to be made of this issue to send out the message that cheating in such a flagrant fashion is unacceptable. And the player or players responsible need to own up to their actions and admit to what they have done.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Where Next For the Lib Dems?

Nick Barlow has an interesting post on his blog detailing all the seats in which the Lib Dems are in second place. Nick is naturally going to be more positive about the results than I will, because he is staunchly yellow in hue. I think a more detailed analysis of the seats may actually suggest that the result will cause future problems for the party until they have decided what sort of party they are. That is, whilst they are mostly a "protest party" they will not go much higher in terms of their seat tally. In many ways, the increase in national vote share is a bit of a Pyrrhic victory, because it doesn't reflect where the gains were won.

Although I don't know for certain, my suspicion would certainly be that many of the close seats in the Labour-held constituencies have had some reasonably big swings this time (those of the 'Withington effect', only without success) on the basis of Iraq, and that those gains aren't sustainable without actually having a sitting MP to win support. Oxford East, for example, would fall into this category. Vote-wise, it looks ultra-marginal; realistically, 2005 was the best shot the Liberals will ever have. If, as seems likely, the Labour party begin to move away from "New" Labour somewhat, and the Brownite vision of Labour is more to the left, then I would imagine most of these seats will swing back towards the reds.

Looking at the Conservative "targets", too, suggests big difficulties for the Lib Dems. If the national swing this time was replicated, then only 15 of these seats would be in play. Perhaps more worrying, outside of the South-West, Con-LD seats tended to swing towards the Conservatives, at least in the South - no doubt a result of Kennedy's decision to take the Lib Dems to the left. Additionally, many of these 15 were the Conservative gains, or target seats in which the Conservatives actually increased their majority.

I maintain the numbers aren't very good for the Liberal Democrats, and pose the central question of what the party is actually for. Is it just some kind of protest/pressure group? Is it a universalist party of the left (in which case expect to see its Parliamentary influence decrease)? Or is it a party of the centre that can make serious hits at the Tories? Only in the latter case can I see the Lib Dems actually becoming a potential party of government.

Greens Succeed In Saving Blair's Man In Oxford East

My feelings on the Oxford East result have rather changed since, having ignored it for days of campaigning, I discovered a letter in my college pigeon hole, from earlier in the week. Green Party Councillor Matt Sellwood and Election Agent Chris Williams sent their letter encouraging students to abandon the LibDems in favour of them, in Oxford East mostly because, "Steve Goddard has no chance of overturning Andrew Smith's majority." They emphasised Chris Williams' credentials as a former President of Oxford University Liberal Democrats.

As we all know, Steve lost by 963. The Greens got 1,813.

I told someone at breakfast today that I wouldn't play the game of blaming the Greens or the Independent candidates for taking votes from Steve, because they have every right to run and every right to stick up for what they feel are significantly important issues where they differ from Labour and the LibDems. That's still true, but I do think it's pretty disgusting that they are willing to pretend Oxford East wasn't competitive and hence protect the New Labour candidate. I can only assume they want to keep Blair loyalists in office so they can increase diassatisfaction and hence maximise their own votes in the future. But it's morally rather shoddy, in my eyes.

People often tell me that LibDem local tactics can be a bit surprising- particularly in some seats where in the past we have deceptive bar charts to suggest we're more competitive than we are. When that's happened in the past, I have absolutely nothing but disdain, and would want to distance myself from it. I always thought the Greens were the good guys, and while a bit misguided- in my opinion -I had a lot of time for them.

I hope Matt and Chris will be feeling just a bit guilty this weekend. They got their 1,813 votes. Hope it was worth it, guys.

Did LibDems hand the Tories victory?

The Pub Philosopher insists that "the relatively small swings from Labour to the Tories were translated into victories only because of Labour defections to the Liberal Democrats". I am almost certain this is utterly false and true in only two constituencies, based on those I was examining as the results came in. (We had the Times' Guide to the House of Commons 2001, to allow nerdy analysis of the 1997 and 2001 results alongside the 2005 count).

Later, when I have the time, I shall dgo through every Tory seat's result and look at how many were caused by swings to the LibDems.

Friday, May 06, 2005

That Other Election, In Northern Ireland

While the spin and discussion of Great Britain's results continues, the outcome in Northern Ireland is being revealed this afternoon. It can only be bad news that the extremists are making gains there, and that David Trimble- a decent chap by any standards -has lost his seat.

In many ways my reaction to these is more revealing of the relationship between Northern Ireland and Britain than anything else. This is akin to observing the results of a foreign country, where you have some vague hope for peaceful outcomes, but have no direct stake or interest. That very much reveals how bizarre our current relationship with the province is. I have no memory of an IRA terrorist threat and developments in the peace process seem similar to foreign affairs news. The fact that there is now a completely independent political process in Northern Ireland is remarkable, and further reinforces the cultural divide. I've often thought that the English nationalism we see amongst Unionists is actually alien; that they have become more English than the English. In many ways, the province is now so disconnected to the UK that some sort of devolved existence, perhaps with its eventual divorce from Westminster altogether, would be increasingly natural.

Let The Tories' Post-Mortem Begin

If there is one thing, besides in-fighting, that Tories do well, it is post-mortems. I suppose they've had practice at them, and I suppose they need to do them well to provide sufficient material for their in-fighting.

Anyway, the Blithering Bunny is already explaining that Michael "Softy" Howard lost by driving the Tories too far to the left. I've already heard rumours that some senior Tories are saying similar things, but then there is the far more serious suggestion (in my opinion) that it was the offer of tax cuts and the focus on immigration that harmed them. Polls consistently showed that voters bizarrely thought taxes would go up under the Tories, and spending on public services fall-- a strange expectation, but indicative of the problems you have selling tax cuts to the public. They may not believe you, and even if they don't, you'll be slammed for spending cuts.

Darlingtonian Reflections

One of my Tory friends was telling me that Anthony Frieze was one of the leading first-time candidates for the Tories in this election. Well, judging by these results, he wasn't. I maintain that Milburn is a great MP, but people do not vote for MPs by and large - they vote for parties. When Labour were in for a kicking, a good candidate should be able to capitalise on anti-Labour sentiment, especially in a seat like Darlington which until boundary changes was always somewhat of a bellwether marginal.

Of course, I have my own suspicions why he failed. Basically, he's obviously a southern no-hoper being parachuted into a safe Labour seat, biding his time for something elsewhere. And that just isn't going to play well in the North. I know, because many Tory voters I know made that comment to me. We're a funny bunch in the North-East, and we can be very parochial. Southerners coming in to go through the motions really aren't worth the effort.

Top Ten General Election Moments

Based on the criteria of entertainment and incredibility:

1. Paxman vs. Galloway
The most arrogant man in the world faces the most objectionable man in the world. (I'll leave it to readers to decide which is which-- could go either way). If only Paxman had said, "fair enough, bye," when Galloway boasted he was too busy to answer his interviewer's first question, which he disliked so much.

2. Tony Blair Has To Listen To Reg Keys
While Tony Blair has infamously engaged in a "masochism strategy", where he allows himself to be abused by angry citizens, so he can prove he's sorry, there was something unique about his experience at the Sedgefield count last night. Reg Keys, father of a military policeman killed during the Iraq occupation, had been standing as an Independent against the Prime Minister. While the Tory candidate, Al Lockhart, refused to stand aside, and hence undermined Keys' chance, the bereaved father was entitled to make a concession speech. Watching Tony Blair listen to Reg Keys was a rather moving moment for me.

3. Bob Marshall-Andrews Returns From The Dead
After declaring his defeat and showing what a great bloke he is by joking that it would be the only good news for the Prime Minister during the evening (as the two men dislike each other), it turned out that Bob was re-elected, in fact. As an eloquent and decent human being, and the best of the rebel Labour MPs, parliament would have been the worse without him. David Dimbleby reported Marshall-Andrews had
declared, "I am Lazarus!" on confirming the reversal of expectations.

4. Lord Toby Jug Backs Up Howard
The only amusing Monster Raving Loony Party candidate of the night was Lord Toby Jug, standing in Folkestone. While Howard tried to make a case for his own success, he and his fellow contenders had to suffer the idignity of Lord Toby's support. When Howard bosted of the first black Tory MP (who managed to escape the fate of Lord Taylor), Lord Toby cheered "good on you". When Howard mentioned a British Muslim Tory MP, Lord Toby backed him, "that's great". Even the Pensioner's Action candidate suffered, when Lord Toby placed his large comedy hat on the geriatric opponent's brow.

5. All-Labour Sport Fists
The all-women short list issue is one that bubbles around in party politics, but I don't think anyone would ahve imagined it would lead to such a result as the one in Blaenau Gwent. This was especially surprising given problems with the health of Mr. Law, who Labour failed to select because of the use of an all-women short list. They suffered an incredible loss of a 19,000 vote majority. I can't help but think this is an example of Livingstone's mayoral win all over again. If Labour are smart, Peter Law will be forgiven and welcomed back into their party as soon as it is polite to do so.

6. Galloway vs. The Returning Officer For Bethnal Green & Bow
Talk about bitter... Galloway proved his elloquence in a very clever speech which successfully savaged the Returning Officer (unprecedented in British politics), praised Oona (oh what a hero he is...) and plugging Respect's council campaign in the next few months. Galloway is many things- none of them good -but he is also a massively clever operator.

7. Were You Up For Stephen Twigg?
It was irony, or hubris, or something: the man who surprised himself when he unseated the heir apparent to the Tory crown in 1997 was himself a casualty of the unnatural support for Labour is some rock-hard Tory marginals. We knew he'd lost from his embraces for his staff at the count, and his face bore dissapointment and bravery equally well.

8. Hornsey Swings LibDem
The swings we were seeing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats was the shock of the night- for me, even. The first results, from Sunderland onwards, seemed to show an early pattern of LibDem growth, but when the party claimed it was going to win Hornsey we really saw this effect. 12% swings were occurring in many seats and 10,000 Labour majorities were shrinking. Solihull was atypical of this swing, in being a LibDem gain from the Tories, but I think Hornsey was more typical of the big swings they were enjoying over the country.

9. Tories Gain Putney
Besides Enfield Southgate, Jimmy Goldsmith's spiteful heckling of defeated Tory David Mellor in 1997 was one of our most iconic moments of that night. The Tories really should have taken this back in 2001, but as the first Tory gain we saw, this was a barometer of their slow progress in 2005.

10. Charlie Faulkner On Postal Voting
A rare alliance of Shirley Williams, Anne Widdercombe, Ian Hislop and Jeremy Paxman all blasted the Lord Chancellor's attempts to claim that postal voting was supported by everyone, and Labour bore no responsibility for the cock-ups.

It goes without saying that my phone call to the Oxford East count, when I learnt of our success there, is my personal favourite moment of the night, but I don't think I can include that when I'm trying to describe national events.

Fantasy Shadow Cabinet

The idea of a Cabinet reshuffle is quite boring, considering the most interesting question appears to be over exactly which job David Blunkett will get.

Far more interesting is thinking what you could do with some of the new talent the Tories have in parliament. This isn't a prediction, but what I'd do with the Shadow Cabinet. (Well, the ideal solution is to clone Oliver Letwin and fill the party with him).

Deputy Leader = Kenneth Clark
Shadow Chancellor = Oliver Letwin
Shadow Foreign Secretary = Tim Yeo
Shadow Home Secretary = George Osbourne
Shadow Minister for Education = David Cameron
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury = Michael Gove (to be fast-tracked to one of the top 3 jobs ASAP)
Shadow Minister for Health = Liam Fox
Shadow Minister for Trade & Industry = Alan Duncan
Shadow Minister for Agriculture and the Environment = Andrew Lansley
Shadow Minister for Transport = Theresa May
Shadow Minister for Sport = Julie Kirkbride
Shadow Minister for the Arts = Boris Johnson
Shadow Minister for the Family = Theresa May
Party Chairman = Damian Green