Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Catch-all solution

Voter fraud? Sort it with ID cards. Terrorism? ID cards. Benefit fraud? ID cards.

And now immigration.

Is it just me, or do I fail to see how ID cards will actually stop immigrants getting here? Also, how will a system where identity doesn't have to be proven immediately actually track down illegal immigrants? They'll just continue to disappear into thin air - as proven by the fact the government has no idea how many people are actually in the country.

Why can't the government just admit it - the Home Office has had ID cards as a pet project for years. It's not a justifiable solution. We should not have to prove we exist to anyone on demand.

Urban Pornography

I've just spent a very enjoyable hour or so in the Potsdamer Platz. It's hard to believe that twenty years ago, it was an urban wasteland adjoining the Berlin Wall, because today it is a highly vibrant and active area, with some fantastic modern buildings. Then again, when I consider how much it has changed in the three years since I first set foot in Berlin, it really does hit home the pace of change in the city. OK, so I'm a big fan of glass-and-steel-type architecture, but I challenge people to think that the new developments around the square are anything other than brilliant. There's also a lot going on; it's the location for a large number of Berlin cinemas, and with a shopping center, bars and cafes all around it's usually pretty busy. Excellent for someone who likes the hustle and bustle of a city! Even better, I had the good fortune to be passing through the square at the same time a blues band was playing - from my limited musical expertise, it seemed to be of good quality, and they must have played there for about an hour.

The Potsdamer Platz is also an excellent base for a whistlestop walking tour of central Berlin. It gives a clear glimpse of the Brandenburg Gate; walk just a few meters up from the square and the glass cupola of the Bundestag (designed by an Englishman, I'm proud to say) becomes visible. I was walking up that street for a different purpose, however - one of the new landmarks in the area is the Holocaust Memorial. Considering how close it is to the most memorable symbols of Berlin really hits home the difficulty with which Germany has had to come to terms with its past - perhaps even more poignant is the fact that the memorial is barely metres from the site of Hitler's bunker. The memorial itself is very strange - large plinths/blocks in the ground, with a deliberately uneven walkway. The idea is that you can walk through the grid-like structure as you please, but it is a very disorienting experience.

It has been a very controversial monument - and watching groups of teenagers using it to play hide-and-seek, you can understanding why. But the disorienting feeling is quite strong, especially if you find yourself in some of the quieter area, and the effects is added to by the fact that the plinths/blocks are arranged at an angle to the perpendicular. In any case, I quite like the fact that people are free to walk through it as they see fit, and even the games of hide-and-seek, or running, boisterous children add something to the memorial. And that is the point of it, I think - that there is space set aside for our remembrance. Space which can take us outside of our comfort zone, but is still very much a product of the present.

German historical exhibitions are always interesting, as much for the light they shed on post-war attitudes as for the information that can be gained about the past. The exhibition at the Zitadelle was no exception. Run by the Topographie des Terrors foundation (the same group who have the open-air museum in the former Gestapo headquarters), it was an exhibition outlining the experiences of Berlin in 1945. Here the "German dilemma" really reared its head - when talking about support for Hitler, for example, the display emphasised that in 1933 fewer than average voted for the Nazis; yet had to admit that processions and so on in Berlin were supported actively by the citizens. On the whole, however, it avoided the temptation to divide the people of the past into "good" or "bad", and although there were confessional aspects such as large parts of the exhibition given to chronicling Nazi war crimes (for example, the shooting of Jews and Gypsies in Yugoslavia as retribution for resistance), it was fascinating to read about the muddled way in which Berliners dealt with the war, and how quickly the rebuilding effort progressed (even if the knowledge of the shadow of its later partition emphasised how the chance to start over again was never taken).

After my visit to Spandau, I went to the Olympiastadion. I had a good look round, but will give a full write-up tomorrow, because I managed to arrive at the sales desk 15 minutes after the guided tour had departed, with a two-hour wait for the next one. In my defence, I had no idea when the tours departed, but as one of my friends put it - ignorance and inefficiency is a lethal combination. The stadium is quite simply monumental and has one of the nicest designs I've ever seen - it's hard to believe that it has lasted from 1936. That's about all I've been up to today - tomorrow I hope to blitz about a little more, and get a chance to catch the largest department store in the world (so it claims), and then shoot out east to see the Soviet memorial. That's if the weather doesn't catch up with me, and the danger of thunderstorms actually becomes a reality.

Cultural Observation

Whilst in the Zitadelle in Spandau today (of which more later), I was browsing the historical museum of Spandau exhibition there. It wasn't a brilliant collection, but did have some points of broader interest - especially the exhibits regarding the development of cultural life in Spandau - for example the growth of the Vereine, or clubs, in the 19th century so that by 1874, even in a small area like Spandau, there were 90 different clubs one could join. This is of particular interest to me because the growth of associational life in Germany at this time has been used by historians as evidence that there was an active middle class, in response to accusations from Marxist historians that much of the reason for the First World War (and thus, by implication, the rise of the Nazis) was due to the "feudalisation of the bourgeoisie" and their lack of participation in everyday activities.

The point that I really wanted to make here, though, was to do with another cultural point. When talking about the arts in Spandau, the display made the comment, apologetically, that Spandau had very few famous artists or musicians. In fact, they have no famous artists or musicians, because in the small time that has passed since I looked at the exhibit, the names have completely passed me by. (This recalls an embarrassing moment I had as a sixth-former when, translating a speech by the local mayor to the rest of the exchange group, I said "and Werther is also well-known for being the hometown of famous artist... err... what's his name again?")

Both these anecdotes raise the same cultural point, though. I'd never even think twice about the fact my home town has no famous artist or musician of note. I somehow doubt the local tourist board would, either. Yet countries on the continent are universally proud of connections with artists, no matter how small their impact on the wider world has been.

This, I feel, can also help to explain a lot of the anti-Americanism that I've been discussing in other posts. Europe seems to identify itself a lot more with high-culture - with good reason; it's where their impact has been strongest, and indeed highly valuable. The fact that the most recognisable American names are associated with pop music, or the cinema, or even "pop-art", allows there to be a degree of cultural snobbery from those who value high culture more.

Reality Check

Colin Hendry, from the Manchester United Independent Supporters Association, said he thought police were too heavy-handed...

"The barricade went up, the Glazers started to move and people sat down in front of the barricade.
"But police in riot gear, with batons, without warning, without instruction to disperse, just attacked those people."

I don't know about you, but it's not that much of an overreaction when the same article states:

Echoes of "die, Glazer die" rumbled around the stadium as about 300 fans vented their frustration.

At least one party here is exaggerating.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Alexanderplatz - Square of Contrast

I'm now safely in Berlin, and have just finished an evening wander around the Alexanderplatz area - perhaps my favourite square in Europe. Certainly from a modern historian's viewpoint, it is fascinating. Centre of the 1989 protests against the East German regime, it has a lot of aspects which very clearly date from the Communist era - especially the TV-Tower (Fernsehturm) which dominates the entireity of the Berlin skyline east and west, and is perhaps the most recognisable landmark. Very useful for getting your bearings! However, it is also taking on a new vitality. Berlin is in many ways the world's largest building site, and the Alexanderplatz is now ringed by several high-rise buildings including one with that ultra-socialist conception, a casino. So, I can say in all honesty that it is one of the areas where the different phases of Berlin's history sit side by side.

Nearby is the Deutscher Dom, which was the Prussian attempt to build a Protestant St. Peter's, placing Germany at the heart of the Protestant world. The links between religious and military imperatives can be seen from the Biblical quotes emblazoned on the front of the cathedral, talking about "belief being our victory" that the rest of the world fails to understand. If you go inside, too, you can see a clear parallel between the entombment of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the Popes.

One of the most enjoyable things about visiting Berlin is that there are so many sites of interest in such a small area. Within another five minutes I'd reached the Bebelplatz - scene of the book-burning, and now home to a moving, yet simple memorial, consisting of a view into an underground library with empty shelves. In another five minutes I was walking past the Foreign Office - interesting to note that it only had one uniformed officer outside of it. If I remember correctly, last summer the British embassy was in a street to which access was denied through breize-blocks. It´s somewhat embarrassing to think that my country's visible presence in one of our supposedly closest partner's land has to be so heavily protected.

Anyway, that's about all for now. I might get some photos up when I get back, but I'm off to watch the football in the hostel bar. Then tomorrow I'll try and see as much of the West as possible - an area heavily overlooked in my many previous visits here. That definitely means going to see the Olympiastadion, and hopefully I'll get out to Spandau, too. Perhaps most famous as a post-war jail, the district of Spandau is actually apparently well-preserved, so should make an interesting stop.

Travel Blogging

I'm currently in the departure lounge at Newcastle airport waiting for a flight to Berlin. So, the next few days may be a touch light on the blogging side, although I'm hoping I will get sufficient net access to be able to give some thoughts on my travels. With any luck, Richard will pick up the political slack if that's your thing. And who knows - I may even have some sufficiently interesting conversations to put them up here too!

Travel notes - it never ceases to amaze me just how friendly most people are when you're travelling. The airport staff at Newcastle are never anything other than helpful; but there's a general travelling spirit that does, I think, foster friendship between total strangers simply because you're about to embark on some sort of journey. Maybe it's just my own personal love of travel, and the freedom and chance of discovery that it brings with it. But I do get a real sense of companionship just through very small conversations.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

An Immigration Paradox

I don't claim to have the answer to the question I'm about to pose. But with all the brouhaha over deportations to Zimbabwe, there's an obvious question that needs to be tackled. I make no apologies for placing this on the theoretical level, by the way.

Some asylum seekers will come here to Britain with no real credentials for asylum. Yet, their mere act of coming here in the attempt to seek asylum will genuinely place them in fear of their lives should they be returned to their home countries - which is, legally, what should happen to failed applicants for asylum.

It seems to me that if we are compelled to take them because of this fact, then it makes a mockery of having an asylum system. It isn't actually being in fear of your life that qualifies you to take refuge in this country - it's being able to get to this country in the first place. Now, given that I think that measures such as allowing asylum seekers to work are the only fair ways of treating these people once we welcome them to our country, it's fairly clear that allowing people to stay here means that we just have open-border immigration from the most dangerous regimes in the world. Can this be right - that people are able to bend the rules like this?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Things Which Make Me Smile

This blog is top of hits for "Awful Gavin Henson".


While the invasion of Iraq was disgraceful, the insurgents resisting US occupation deserve zero sympathy. The Us were mistaken in taking the action they did, but sympathy with the Hussein regime or Iran-style fundamentalism must surely be even worse. It is for that reason I am appalled that Donald Rumsfeld has been negotiating with the terrorists there.

If ever we needed confirmation that principle was as distant from US foreign policy as you could imagine, then this it. I am sickened.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The End of the Gay Marriage Battle?

A post at a message board I look at regularly reported a piece of news the other day which I haven't seen anywhere else. I mention it here, because the poster believed that the significance of the news was vast - that in years to come, it could be seen as a watershed in the Southern US evangelical crusade against homosexuals.

At its convention this week, the Southern Baptist Convention ended its boycott of the Disney corporation. Interestingly, the page linked to above marks out a number of dissenting voices from the boycott in the first place - especially this passage (if, admittedly, not from the SBC itself):

An editorial in the Post-Tribune, Gary, IN commented that unless the SBC were willing to boycott all companies that give equal rights to gay and lesbians, by boycotting "IBM and Apple computers, quit using Microsoft, Borland and Lotus software, cut up their ATM cards for Bank of America, quit cheering for the San Francisco 49ers and say no to their kids who want to see "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," the blockbuster by Universal Studios, then their action against Disney is nothing more than mean-spirited bluster."

Yet whether "mean-spirited bluster" or not, the boycott was undoubtedly symbolic of discrimination against homosexuals. Thus, the removal of the boycott is also symbolic - despite protestations to the contrary, it suggests that the opposition of extending equal rights to homosexuals is something of lessening importance.

Now, I don't know the full details of the reasons behind the adoption of the new resolution, or that much about the organisation of the SBC (although the individual churches within the Convention hold considerable autonomy, and resolutions cannot be forced upon them). Obviously, they're not going to start promoting homosexuality. Yet if they are taking the first steps towards dropping their campaign for legal and political persecution of gays and lesbians, then there could be a real change in the way that "values" politics are presented in the US. I'll finish by quoting some of the original post that I read:

The membership of this large fundamentalist denomination (of which I am a member) had grown increasingly distant from its' leaders anti-gay policies, because, frankly, so many people in the church have family members, friends, or coworkers who are gay, and the dichotomy between words and actions was immense.

The reason this is worth remarking on is that the SBC is the core, the real core, of Republican support in the Christian Right Wing. Now that they have embraced reality, I don't think it will be just a matter of years before the whole Republican party drops its homophobe bias. You can bet that the whole "sanctity of marriage" crowd in Washington has gotten some puckered rears tonight.

I would think that, quietly, slowly, you have just heard the end of opposition to gay marriage in the U. S., and to a host of other measures --- not overnight, but within a few years. The leopard just changed its spots.

Germany, the US and English

In response to my post on anti-Americanism, Monjo left the following comment:

The Beatles? I think they made it in Hamburg, then in Liverpool, and then finally in the US. Maybe British bands who make it in the US before Germany do so because the US is a much bigger market and it is English-speaking. If they arent good enough to crack the US it hardly is a surprise they flop in Germany... So I think your music example is pointless :P

I want to comment on this because it raises a very interesting point. Firstly, I'd argue that it's a lot harder to crack the US market than the German one, but that's a side issue. Many German bands choose to sing in English; whilst the actual comprehension of the lyrics sometimes leaves a lot to be desired (I find it especially funny when expletives are played loudly on German radio), singing in a different language is far from being a barrier to success in the German charts. Even the winners of their "Popstars" were called No Angels and sang in English.

One of the things that is certainly discernible from spending time in the German school system is that there is great credit that is achieved from speaking English. Whereas linguists over here are viewed as slightly strange, I remember talking to many Germans who would compliment their classmates by saying "he speaks really good English". When compared with attitudes towards language in France, there is a huge, huge gulf.

More interestingly still, there is a clear effort when teaching English to try and get Germans to speak American English. Not just in terms of phraseology and spelling, but in pronunciation as well. This explains why Germans will often get sounds that exist in their own language wrong when talking in English (especially the "a" sound in "magnificent").

Yet when he was in trouble in the 2002 election, Gerhard Schroeder wheeled out the base anti-Americanism that made me lose an awful lot of respect for the man. It's a huge paradox, and it's least explainable in terms of Germany in many ways. They've subsumed American culture almost wholesale in large swathes of their cultural life. Walk down the high streets of a number of German cities, and you really would be hard-pressed to identify it as anything other than American, in terms of the way people dress, for example. Maybe the trends of Ostalgie and the war in Iraq have lessened this. But I'm not so sure. It's a huge paradox.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Oh Stop Your Bellyaching

Richard says that he gets "really fed up" with people complaining about Live 8 and Make Poverty History. His argument, of course, falls into exactly the same logical fallacy that the organisers of these publicity stunts make - that is, that because the aim is noble, the whole campaign should be supported. I read somewhere of a very useful test for political slogans - that is, that if they are of any worth, and not just a truism, then someone should be able to reverse the meaning, and it make a statement that a politician would actually make. "Make Poverty History" quite obviously fails on this front.

In any case, Richard would surely agree that procedure in tackling problems is important. And my argument is that the procedure of MPH and Live 8 is entirely wrong. 100,000 people holding hands because Bob Geldof tells them too doesn't make any difference. Simply flooding aid into Africa won't make any difference whilst there isn't genuine free trade. Nor is free trade a viable option whilst the poorest countries in the world remain in the grip of evil leaders who siphon off aid and profits to fund palaces and wars. Tackling poverty whilst ignoring agency on the part of Africa will not make any difference to the suffering that goes on there.

Richard argues that if I believe this, I should get involved with MPH and change its direction. That is a statement of fantastical naivety. It's a celebrity juggernaut, and my getting involved would make little difference. The Geldofs of the world are too set in their ways on their mission to take on board real and substantive alternative arguments. In any case, I would not want to be involved with such a dumbed-down, populist movement. Because the populism of MPH puts arguments in ridiculously simplistic terms; makes people believe that there are easy and quick solutions; that it is all the fault of big business and government. I can't accept such a movement. The issues at hand are complicated and require serious thought, and to pretend that they can be solved easily is frightfully dangerous. The anti-governmental message of MPH is the sort of thing which unnecessarily leads to detachment from the political process. The political solution isn't simple, it isn't going to be sorted by a quick fix, and to suggest that it is is wrong.

Of course, a message more complicated than Geldof's wouldn't suit the publicity seeking pop stars. It possibly wouldn't even garner the media attention - which, if true, is a sad reflection on the state that political debate in the media has reached. Let's look at Geldof's Glastonbury speech:

"We will face down those eight men who can do this thing. It is not a question of money"

Well, that's what you keep saying it is, actually. We just need to give more aid, remember?

"To die of want is an intellectual absurdity and it is morally repulsive. I would ask the people watching this on television to imagine half of this field dying now. And the other half dying tomorrow. And in a field in Cincinnati the same things happen. And Toulouse, and Milan. And between the breakfast room of that hotel in Gleneagles, and the meeting room of that hotel in Gleneagles, those eight men would have resolved it in 2 seconds."

Stirring stuff, you might say. All of which is completely inimical to finding support for a real solution to the problems of poverty in Africa. Yes, poverty kills millions. But it doesn't just instantly wipe out half an entire field. Nor are the solutions so simple that eight men can implement an entire solution in 2 seconds. Even the BBC balked at this claim, editing it to 10 seconds on their website. But even 10 seconds isn't enough to sort out those problems. It's not a question of sending lots of aid to Africa. It's a case of governments worldwide instituting difficult, long-term structural reforms - and that's something that takes a lot of time and effort.

I'm sick of all these hippy do-gooders saying that it's really simple; that it's just evil governments, evil businesses not being prepared to do anything about it. No - it's bloody complex. It takes time and effort. And whilst there are so many sanctimonious whingers with such a loose grip of the real issues at hand, it really takes the impetus away from reform.

A Good Critique of Gelodf

A very interesting article here, about Live Aid's legacy. The debate over how to help is a vital one and long my it continue-- detached from any snobbishness about the merit of helping at all.

Cynical Whinging Alert

I really get fed up with people complaining about Live 8 and Make Poverty History.

I don't think either is perfect, but there seems to be a massive counter-cultural correctness in attacking developing world aid and charitable fundraising for it. Complaining about people wearing wristbands is now as much a fashion status as it is to wear one. Typically, the complaint is that the money is of little use, will be spent unwisely and, most importantly, that the entire exercise is nothing more than a sham ego trip for Sir Bob Geldof and those who donate to his appeal.

In actual fact, there are certainly imperfections in the current charity models on offer. To begin with, I suspect that if the developed world really wants to have a substantial effect on the misery of Africa, and the developing world more generally, it will have to make significant macro-economic structural reforms. There is certainly a sense in which to attributing to aid and a voluntary wealth redistribution any sort of status as an instant cure is plain wrong. The real hope of the developing world is an end to two-faced protection and the coming of genuine free trade in a globalised economy.

Additionally, I suspect that one-off donations to a telethon are not the optimal way to generate aid anyway, if that actually was the best form of self-sacrifice (or at least the exclusive form of self-sacrifice) by the developing world that would make a difference. It's vital to communicate to donors that direct debits (or any form of regular giving) are disproportionately more useful to charities than one-off gifts. So much of their work is ongoing that budgetary planning is vital.

Finally, on the criticism of Sir Bob; it may be that he has an over-inflated idea of his own importance, but to discredit the entire project as a reaction against Geldof's over-reaching ambition and self-importance is rather petty. For both Geldof and people supporting the Live 8 or Make Poverty History campaigns, there will be a multitude of motives and emotions. However, I think differentiating between conscinece-- that is to say, approval of one's own actions --and self-importance is very much one of perspective. Altruism based on conscience will necessarily overlap with arrogance, as the essence of conscience is defying your self-interest in the belief that ther eis some essential goodness in a less personally-advantageous course. While we may argue about the degrees of selfishness in altruism (for which see one of Richard Dawkins' awful books).

It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the methods of the latest charitable campaigns, and to question if their aprroaches or tactics are the best way to tackle the problem. But I fear that in reacting to percieved popularity, and bashing these initiatives so strongly, many people are throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The willingness to sacrifice and the interest in helping others, which exists in these campaigns is absolutekly fantastic, and to be celebrated. I'll be sticking up for them constantly, and while I may hope they'll actually become more radical- and suggest the real sacrifices we need to make -the spirit behind these initiatives is a good one. Self-absorbed heckling misses the point: if you agree that something needs to be done, don't get bitter in preference to embracing the enthusiasm that exists and working from within to look at better solutions.

Read the Rule Book!

OK, so the Lions were very poor today, and didn't deserve to win. They were never able to cope with the loss of Brian O'Driscoll to injury (like hell he wasn't targeted by the All Blacks - but we all know that the NZ citing panels cheat like buggery) and never really got a strong attacking platform established.

But how the hell does Joel Jutge get to referee an international match of such magnitude? Quite simply, his officiating today was woeful. In particular, he seems to be completely unaware of Law 12 of rugby - the knock-on or throw-forward. It's on page 74 of the pdf if you follow the link. And for the benefit of Monsieur Jutge, there's a French version too.


A throw-forward occurs when a team throws or passes the ball forward. "Forward" means towards the opposing team's dead-ball line.

It's a pretty simple rule to understand. Yet watch Tana Umaga's pass to Sivivatu, just before he scores the try. It's one of the most abundantly blatant forward passes I've seen since Jonah Lomu's try against England in the 1999 World Cup. Or, for that matter, watch the pass to Dan Carter just before he chips forward in the move which sets up the line-out from which Ali Williams scored his try. Both clearly go forwards. And so, rather than huge All Black momentum being gathered, there should have been a scrum to the Lions. It's that simple. There are fourteen of the points dealt with already.

Pundits may laud the running rugby of New Zealand. It's bloody easy to play at pace when you don't have to worry about the laws of the game, though. Why do they continually get away with this? Let's hope Andrew Cole takes more notice for the second Test. Because while incompetents like Jutge and Jonathan Kaplan are left in charge of the other Tests, it's hard to see how the Lions can win. We're up against it enough without the All Blacks having 16 players.

UPDATE: I've just seen a replay of the O'Driscoll incident. New Zealand citing officials are liars and cheats. That was a disgraceful off-the-ball dumping of O'Driscoll that was only intended to hurt the guy. There's no excuse for cheating, foul dangerous play like that. It's explicitly banned in the rules and that's because it can ruin players' careers, even lives. I am utterly shocked that the citing official decided there was no case to answer - not even forwarding the decision to a disciplinary panel. Southern hemisphere countries have no desire to punish their own players for cheating, and it stinks. I hope Umaga and Mealamu have trouble sleeping for a long, long time.

Sanctimonious Live 8 Alert

Again, a failure to comprehend anything other than a total adherence to their views strikes the Live 8 promoters.

Promoter MAREK LIEBERBERG is highly concerned that after approaching 50 huge German companies, not one offered to sponsor the high-profile gig.

Has it not struck Mr Lieberberg that they may not have considered that sponsoring the concert was that big a deal? He may see their profits as expendable; they don't - and rightly so, given that there is much at stake when running big businesses. Just because various high-profile campaigners have deemed Live 8 to be a "good thing" doesn't mean everyone will see it the same way. It's a form of "emotional correctness". And as I have argued before, it does nothing to actually encourage proper debate and fruitful courses of action.

The organisers of Germany's LIVE 8 have hit out at the local Berlin government and big business for failing to support the anti-poverty music extravaganza.....
Criticising the small concert venue the government have given permission for, Lieberberg predicts a "huge disgrace".

Well, Mr Lieberberg may or may not be aware of this, either, but Berlin is running at a pretty hefty debt, and with a pretty heavy deficit. And I think this hits on the biggest problem facing the MakePovertyHistory campaigners - how will you persuade people in the First World to be worse off as a result of actions? It's not just a case of aid; aid without reform will fail, as all attempts before have done. It means shutting down the arms industry when its making millions from sending arms to the Congo; it means cutting farming subsidies whilst opening up markets to the developing world (try selling that to Jacques Chirac). And I would wager that encouraging Berlin's municipal government to increase its financial obligations, and presumably thus cutting the provision of other services, is not a vote-winner. Even for something like Live 8 that will attract global attention, the sums to the politicians in the Rotes Rathaus just won't add up. City officials aren't elected to look after a huge political pop concert.

So whilst Geldof and Lieberberg may think solving Africa's poverty is the great issue and crisis of our times, their views are by no means widely held. They know this - that's why they are looking to raise awareness of the issues with these self-serving pop concerts (much easier to wear a wristband or sing a popular song than think in depth about what might solve poverty, after all). What they might want to ponder for a moment is that sanctimonious whining about people acting perfectly reasonably isn't a good way of convincing anyone other than the converted.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Dark Forces of Reaction

I notice that that old bastion of reaction, Richard, is off with his pompous unthinking claptrap about saving the Queen and all that. It's touching to think that this country still has a place for such quaint fools who pay unthinking deference to an unelected head of state who is given enormous privilege and wealth purely by the good fortune of a birth. But if he thinks my quibble is about 61p a year, then he's sadly mistaken. It's more a question of what I want Britain to be, and what I want our political system to represent.

A political system where a person rises to Head of State purely by the death of the closest living relative is wrong. There is no intrinsic merit in any single member of the Royal Family. Yes, some of them may do a good job - but there is no guarantee. Certainly there is no application process, or electoral system that the Head of State has to go through. Would we say that a persistent purse from the taxpayer should go to any random family in perpetuity for services to the public? Of course not. Civil servants have to apply for their job and earn their position. The Head of State should have to do likewise. Should I be paying a gardener whatever he sees fit to charge me, just because his family have been cutting my patch of grass for years?

The Britain I want to live in is a democratic and meritocratic society. The symbolism of a monarchy is all wrong. It's the difference between a culture of deference and a culture of respect - the latter is earned; the former is demanded. The trappings and styles of a monarchy demand deference, rather than earning respect. That's wrong, and it isn't something that should be enshrined in the workings of our constitution. As I say, let the Queen and family stand for election on a Windsor family ticket, if they are so confident they provide the best possible service for the least possible price. But let there be some debate and choice in the matter. The role of Head of State is one of public service - and it is a role that should go to the person most equipped to fill it, even if any choosing mechanism is imperfect. There is one thing for sure, however. No matter what the forces of reaction might think, there is no divine right to be Head of State. There is no innate hereditary skill that qualifies one for the role. When we think who we will pay for the job of being Head of State, giving it to one family in perpetuity is the most ridiculous system imaginable.

God Save The Queen

Ken has recently indulged in some republican nonsense.

The fact is, that for all the trendiness of attacking our glorious sovereign, fashionable lefties like Ken don't properly appreciate that while constitutional monarchy is imperfect, it is, like capitalism and democracy, far better than any of the alternatives available. An elected head of state, as Ken seems to advocate, would be a divisive figure of political influence, who would interfere with the executive power and authority of the cabinet (note: the cabinet, as distinct from the Prime Minister).

An apolitical monarch, who is impotent and a non-divisive figure, is the best of bad options when it comes to a head-of-state. I'd like to see the theoretical powers of the monarch curbed-- purely in the interests of good constitutional housekeeping. But the current Queen is a template of how Britain has successfully separated the state from the government; something the United States has markedly failed to do.

While this is exactly the sort of hard-left glory-seeking I expect from Ken, his argument needs to extend better than complaining about his 61p.

The Notting Hill Set

I think my previous posts here have probably made it quite clear that the cadre of professional politicians leaves me cold. Today I want to investigate the the Tory "Notting Hill Set" - supposedly the next generation coming to sweep the Conservative Party back to power. In many ways, they are the embodiment of the political class which I spoke of in the linked post. And this is why I really don't think that they will make a significant impact on British politics for a while.

Can anyone tell me what David Cameron's vision for the country is? If anything, he's right alongside Michael Howard, the key ally of the Notting Hill Set in the party - indeed, he was the strategist behind the manifesto. It's through looking at the manifesto that we can see exactly why the modernisers are doomed to fail.

There isn't a coherent vision for Britain in that document. Yes, it promises better management - but that doesn't get people excited in elections. Moreover, it suggests that there is little wrong with Britain, and that we can plug along as we are, just with a few more policemen and hospital cleaners to make sure our services are running along just fine. I beg to differ. Our education system is a mess, and guarantees neither universally high standards nor genuine development of the individual. Our health service is excellent - but only in some areas. Simply living in the wrong area of a county can be, very literally, the difference between life or death. Our police service may have cut certain forms of crime, but appear to be woefully inadequate in stemming the rising tide of violent crime. These are problems that can't just be tackled by "more police", or making hospitals cleaner, or enforcing discipline in schools. And to pretend otherwise is to sell the people of this country short.

The problem the Tories have is that they genuinely don't know which way they want the country to go. This isn't necessarily that surprising - they're a coalition of small-c conservatives and small-l liberals who don't necessarily fit together all that well. A lot of the time the coalition can seem very fractious - for examples, visit Blimpish and read his attacks on "Blue Labour". Yet the Tory "brand" is still discredited, and brings up visceral hatred from the more irrational ends of the political spectrum (I suspect this will subside the more Labour screw up).

Theresa May is right to identify that the Tories are seen as the "nasty party". That image isn't everything, though. If they had a clear, consistent vision for the country they'd be taken a lot more seriously. Instead, they have a habit of becoming highly populist (yes, there's a fine line between leading opinion and bandwagon-jumping, but the Tories always seem to be on the wrong side of it). It's difficult to know exactly what the Tory party stands for at the moment, and that's something that needs to be reversed.

And it isn't reversed by having gay friends (or gay members of the Shadow Cabinet), or not wearing a tie. The Tory problem is only partly a problem of presentation. It doesn't matter what garnish you put on the plate, if there's no substance to the sandwich, people aren't going to be trying it for very long. The last manifesto was a classic example of that. The pared-down, slogan-based approach was superb in terms of communication. In terms of content it was rubbish, no matter how hard any Tory tries to defend it. Presentation can't take you to number 10.


There have been a couple of very interesting posts at Europhobia and The Sharpener recently, concerning anti-Americanism. The major problem with Third Avenue's argument is that I would very strongly object to his definition of anti-Americanism, where mere geography is the key determinant of hostility. This masks his broader point, which is to argue that "anti-Americanism" is really "anti-Bushism". Now, there's a lot of merit in this argument. Indeed, it is striking how often symbols considered symbolic of America are rejected in Europe whereas the concepts behind them are greatly liked.

The classic example here is Starbucks. Whilst the coffee shop has a fine European tradition, the chain store of Starbucks haven't taken off on the continent in the same way they have in the US (with the exception of the UK). Yet when I go to Berlin next week, I will, at some point, sit on the Potsdamer Platz drinking a Balzac coffee. That's just as much a chain store as Starbucks, but isn't iconic, nor is it American.

There's a wider cultural point here. In Copenhagen last year, I was struck by just how American the habits of the youth were. The music they listen to is American; the movies they watch are American; their dress sense is recognisably American. Far more so than in Britain. I could repeat this in numerous other cities, or even the small town that I spent many weeks in on school exchanges in Germany. And yet in many ways, their hostility towards America is greater than that in Britain. That's not just a rejection of George Bush. The American stereotype of the fat idiot who travels abroad to proclaim US superiority and to be loud and obnoxious existed before Bush got the Presidency, and it will remain long afterwards.

What Bush provides is a hate figure, who makes a much more overt anti-Americanism possible. Now, I question strongly how fair this is (although I am a self-confessed ardent Americanophile). I'd certainly like to see what the reaction of the Daily Mirror's editor would have been if an American newspaper had asked how Britain could be so dumb as to re-elect Tony Blair. No doubt we'd have gotten the usual tripe about how ignorant the Yankees are.

Why is there this hostility? Well, I think we can find it in the quasi-religious nature that runs right throughout American national identity. Paul Simon's American Tune, which questions the limitations of American identity, and the direction Nixon's America was taking, identifies this incredibly well. Adapting its melody from Handel's St Matthew's Passion, he sings at the end of his song:

We come on a ship they call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon,
We come in the ages most uncertain hour,
And sing that American Tune.

There's a clear religious component to this. America is right; its values are right, and their expression in the flag, the constitution, the Founding Fathers, the presidency is more than mere symbols. Belief in them is an article of faith. Singing the national anthem is the public act of profession.

And there's something about that certainty that sticks in our craw. Especially when it takes on the missionary zeal that European society associates with dangerous radicals. Americans were able to tame the frontier of the West; by the 1950s the West was the most vibrant and growing area of the nation. The search has since taken on a new frontier - space, or the rest of the world. Because an integral part of the American identity is the quest for more. When the Founding Fathers declared independence, they were part of the "Continental Congress". They weren't going to stop at 13 colonies - indeed, almost everyone desired western expansion.

I'm going to go into the realms of wild hypothesis here. But in Western Europe, especially since the war, we've never had that certainty. Indeed, our relativism often prevents us from taking stands when we should, and in many cases poses grave dangers to our civil liberties. But that is a side issue - we find the American political religion as difficult to take as we do any other vibrantly expressed religious standpoint. Whilst the American sense of mission makes them desire to sail - and ultimately conquer - the moon, we are left somewhat wondering the devotion to the flag. But it's the political version of wearing a cross.

Because anti-Americanism is a rejection of the American Dream. And when America is represented by another potent symbol - the Bush Presidency - the old prejudices come out. We're jealous, and, to be frank, we're a little scared. We can't comprehend the certainty of the Americans, and because it's so foreign, we try and denigrate it. That's the nub of the "idiot" argument. The Americans may be more successful than us, but we're smarter than them, so we can take our own satisfaction. These feelings are underlying at the best of times. But it's hard to pin them to anything. Now, on the other hand, there's a President who seems to reflect much of the negative stereotype. So anti-Bushism has become the pretext for anti-Americanism. We can't let our opinions of the President hide the fact that behind much criticism of him is something far more sinister.

Vasco Where Are You?

Bob Geldof has today confirmed some of my major suspicions about Live 8. Firstly, that he needs the big stars to turn out more than he needs people to engage with the issues of poverty. He's hoping to bask in the reflected glow of REM, Coldplay, the reunited Pink Floyd et al, rather than encouraging interest in the problems of world poverty on an intellectual basis.

Perhaps more worryingly, though, he's almost suggesting here that people should be involved in Live 8 regardless of the issues involved. Geldof is right; the project is worthy - therefore everyone he wants there should be part of the act.

"Vasco is a great star, a really great, great artist, and I think he should be on that stage," Geldof, the organiser of the event, told a news conference in Rome.

Wait a minute. This isn't just putting on a show, is it? It's a political protest to argue for a specific action to be taken to combat an identified problem. Whether someone is a great artist or not should only be a deciding factor in setting the bill once the willing have been identified. Of course, there's a more serious problem for Geldof at hand here:

Unlike in Britain, where Live 8 has received massive publicity, it has been barely mentioned by Italian media.

The one thing Geldof needs on his ego-trip (however sincere) is publicity. And he obviously feels that without Vasco, whoever he may be, he's not going to be able to get it. Well, at least without a public appeal for Vasco to attend, he isn't going to get the publicity.

There's something slightly sour about this. I'm sceptical about the Make Poverty History campaign - their slogan is so basic as to brook no argument, but the specifics of the deal are far more dodgy. Why, for example, should trade barriers be acceptable in African countries, but beastly in Europe? Why is aid always considered the be-all and end-all, and a programme of proper and structural reform, both governmental and economic, in the poverty-stricken countries be put on the backburner? Corruption in government prevents aid reaching those who really need it, and is vitally important that political reform is established if a proper long-term solution is found. And only a long-term solution will make poverty history.

So the attitude of Geldof is more dangerous than it may at first appear. Getting stars on board for Live 8 may get some people interested in getting to grips with the issue - but for all too many it will just become another trite slogan to be repeated ad nauseam. That is inimical to proper debate, and inimical to taking real action on the issue. The matters at hand can't be solved just by sending a shedload of taxpayers money to Africa. Shifting some subsidies away from uncompetitive farming industries would help - but there needs to be a real and proper debate on that. Just calling for more aid doesn't help.

Because a lack of intelligent public debate (not helped, of course, by the media) stifles real discussion, and real progress. We saw it with the Iraq war. The hard-left shouts of "war for oil!" or "why aren't we spending this money on hospitals?" only served to turn the whole debate into a polarised slanging match. There were many decent and respectable positions on both sides - and the principle of the pre-emptive doctrine deserved a full and frank discussion of its merits. But trite, unthinking slogans don't help that. They just encourage politicians to play to the media cycle, chasing headlines rather than trying to make a difference.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Gavin Henson is an overhyped, arrogant fart

Gavin Henson and Kevin Pietersen share some things in common. They are young, they are loved by the media, and they have strange, flashy haircuts. That is where the comparison ends. Whereas Pietersen is able to back up his hype with talent, Henson remains the centre of media attention yet fails to deliver the goods on the pitch. Furthermore, whereas it appears Pietersen is able to treat the two impostors of triumph and disaster just the same, Henson's performance after the Southland match yesterday showed just how little of a team player he is. Yes, in many ways it's good to be disappointed about not being picked for the Lions Test side. Indeed, I'd be worried if anyone came out and said "yeah, I didn't want to be picked." But to be moping about, saying you can't understand why you aren't picked for the side is bad for the team.

Not that this should surprise any true fan of rugby. Henson is a player with an eye on the highlight reel, not the final score. Yesterday's match was a case in point. He had two admittedly well-taken tries (though most inside centres claiming a right to a Lions place should have finished them off), yet his all-round game was poor. His tackling was uncommitted at best, and downright awful at worst; his tactical kicking was poor; he continued his usual habit of seeking the break first and looking for the sensible option second.

These aren't qualities that can beat the All Blacks. Yes, he has some game-changing skill, but you can't beat New Zealand 44-42. And for those who thinks he can win a game - take the England-Wales match in this year's Six Nations. As much as it pains me to admit it, Wales should have taken England apart in the first half. Yet they left far too many points on the pitch, due to their complete inability to send home four-to-one overlaps. Why? Because Henson was always looking for the outside break, and personal glory, rather than the simple passes which would have set his team-mates free to score. That's the kind of player Henson is, and that's why Sir Clive Woodward is dead right in refusing to pick him for the Lions side.

Can't we have a choice?

Once again, the Royal Family have produced their annual expenditure report, full of self-congratulatory nonsense, such as saying they cost "only" 61p per heard, or that that they represent "value for money".

My point isn't so much that they cost £37 million a year. My point is that that money is being given to a family who are in their position purely by accident of birth. Whether the functions being performed by the Royal Family are being performed cheaply is totally and utterly irrelevant. In a democratic, meritocratic society, we should be able to choose whomever we like to fulfil those functions.

Thus if the Royal Family are so confident they provide the best value for money, then they should stand on a "Windsor Family" ticket. On the other hand, people might say that it is worth expanding the role of the head of state, and actually providing more services, but that cost a bit more.

Whichever - I don't mind. I don't mind paying more for the services provided by the Head of State, as long as I have some say in who it is. And that if I think they are doing a rotten job of it, I can turf them out. If I'm just paying money for the upkeep of one British family, then I want my 61p back.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Death of the EU

The unholy triumvirate of France, Germany and Luxembourg are at it again. Far from recognising the message that was sent out to the European elite in the French and Dutch referendums, these three nations are determined to push ahead as much as ever with their own plans for Europe. As far as they are concerned, they are right, and if the rest of the continent doesn't agree with them - well, they can go to hell.

The French and German political elite obviously have a different reason to see the EU succeed than most of the rest of the continent. The formative experiences of Chirac and Schroeder were shaped indelibly by the war, and a project of "ever closer union" to prevent the shame of another continent-wide catastrophe made sense, right from the Treaty of Rome onwards.

But we live in a different world now. It is undoubtedly to the credit of the European institutions that it is now possible to speak of "Europe" as an entity that isn't riven with intercenine warfare. The threat of war between the major powers is now unthinkable. This, however, is the single most important reason why another Europe needs to be found - one which consolidates the work of the second half of the 20th century, but is adaptable to the increasingly globalised world. In particular, it will have to be one ready to meet the challenges of the rise of India and China.

Enlargement was a great success, as it should hopefully integrate the countries of the East into the free market of the West, and the power of the EU as a bloc would be greatly enhanced if there can be considerable Eastern Europe development.

However, whilst Britain and France are at each other's throats over the rebate and the CAP, the EU is going to become detached from the people, and ultimately irrelevant. I lay the blame for this largely at the feet of Chirac. His arrogance cost him the referendum; to make up for his dented ego, he's trying to portray Britain as the bad guy in Europe - being intransigent on the rebate to avoid helping the new countries who need it most.

It's a shrewd tactic to play to the French voters at home. But if it's supposed to help the EU as an entity, it's a disaster. The political class squabbling over a vision of Europe cannot possibly help popular feeling towards the EU. Reconnecting with the wider population of Europe is essential. Whilst Brussels backrooms are de rigeur in decision-making, there's no chance of an EU that can truly represent the people of the continent. Chirac, Schroeder and Juncker are making the death of the EU inevitable.

The Price I Pay For Being Smart

There's a book "meme" going around the blogosphere as we speak - from what I understand, it's a series of questions on any particular topic that bloggers are asked to fill out and then pass on. A bit like those annoying chain letter e-mails but supposedly more insightful. Anyway, Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling has passed this one on to me. It's the price I pay for being smart, apparently. Here goes...

Number of books I own: No idea. Into the hundreds, certainly. My family home is literally full of books, and it's dangerous to let any of my family loose in a bookstore. But at the moment I'm at university, with access to a copyright library, and somewhat more limited storage space. Still, I estimate I have about 20-30 books actually with me at the moment, and will have at least ten times more back home.

Last Book I Bought: Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Last Book I Read: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Thoroughly fascinating book - I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the immigrant characters and how they became increasingly "Americanised", whilst exploring their fundamental identity.

Five Books which mean a lot to me:

1. Beyond A Boundary by CLR James: quite simply, the best book ever written. A brilliant piece of work, linking history, sport, politics, and personal reminiscence. It was great to read a book that told me there were other people in the world to whom cricket means as much as it does to me.

2. Ajax: The Dutch, The War, by Simon Kuper: As strange as it sounds, this probably did as much as any other book to change the way I think about history. It made me realise just how much matters such as sporting culture can actually shed light on the political opinions of any group of people, and how their interactions actually transcend the sporting context in which they take place. Another book falling into this category is Beyond the Shadow of the Senators.

3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: This one means as much to me for a memory outside of the book as the book itself. I'd been reading the book at a poolside on holiday in Canada, when walking back through the reception a member of the hotel staff recognised the book and engaged me in conversation about it. That's one of the great things about reading - it's a conversation starter, not just with the author, but with anyone else who has ever read the book. In any case, it is a superb piece of work, and is far, far more meaningful than Orwell's 1984.

4. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson: It's not his best book (that's The Lost Continent, if you're wondering). But his stories of travel as a student inspired me, and infused me with the desire to travel around Europe myself when old enough. Three Interrail trips later, I can definitely say it was a dream worth having.

5. True Tales of American Life, edited by Paul Auster: A interesting and irreverent collection of small stories from the "average American". The quality of writing, given that these stories are by no means from professional writers, amazes me. More than that, however, the building of small tale after small tale provides a convincing picture of a kind of national identity, whilst
showing the diversity of human experience.

Cruise Gives Lecture On Manners

What a wonderful response from Tom Cruise, when he was fired at by a water pistol earlier. While you have expected a Hollywood temper tantrum, he took in in his stride and delivered an earnest lecture on rudeness to the film crew responsible. Wonderful-- everyone should do this.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

More Media Guff

Why do they bother publishing this stuff? Who wants to go to an unfriendly campus?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Independent Non-Sequiturs

The front page of the Independent today contains the sort of article which really irritates me. I support their campaign for voting reform. I think it's self-evidently wrong that a voting system where some votes are almost totally irrelevant continues to remain in existence. But today, their headline - The proof: Vote Reform will boost turnout - is based on pretty flimsy evidence.

Yes, there appears to be a correlation between various systems of PR and higher turnout. But that is the only evidence presented for the case. There are a host of other factors at play here - the fact that a political class appears to be developing; the unnecessarily hostile and adversarial style of all political parties (yes, that includes you, Liberal Democrats); and the fact that the country at the moment is doing rather well, and so there isn't any anger or perception of a need for change.

It could be argued that PR would change some of these things - in particular the adversarial style of politics, as compromise would become more necessary, in contrast to the entirely disproportionate majorities that are currently racked up by parties with just 35% of the vote. But again, the article does not make that argument. It throws two sets of facts together and presents them as an unassailable conclusion.

I'm all for making arguments as simple as possible. But not so simple that they are threadbare and undeveloped. Arguments should be expressed in the simplest means possible that does not undermine the original message. Weak supporting evidence does undermine that message. If that is the best they can manage, the Independent today has left me feeling the case for PR is actually much weaker than I thought.

Homophobic Abuse of a Horse

Laban Tall links to this story, reported in the student press of the august institution I call home. From what I can gather (this letter was printed [at the bottom] since the Englishman's post), the homophobic jibe at the police horse makes a good headline - and probably acted as an aggravating factor - but there were more serious incidents at stake. Apparently the student concerned is known for being abusive when drunk; I am inclined to agree with the letter this week which argues that abusive behaviour which holds the police up in their work deserves to be punished. Alcohol consumption isn't an excuse; people should know their own limits and if they are incapable of operating within them, they should be held responsible for their lack of control.

It all comes down to the "culture of respect". Although I believe Blair uses this as an amorphous and politically expedient term (there's never any detail), there's a lot of truth in what he says. An abusive, binge-drinking culture that tolerates drunken abuse to policemen makes their job difficult in many ways. I have difficulty trusting the police on many issues - but that stems from personal experience of their operation. I certainly respect the very difficult and trying job that they have to do, and dealing with drunken louts is a hassle they shouldn't have to be putting up with. Whether it seems as trivial as calling a horse "gay" or not, the student concerned should know better. And if he doesn't, he only has himself to blame.

How Naïve

More bloated whinging from Manchester United fans. Yes, they might be disappointed with Malcolm Glazer's takeover. But they've been playing with the devil for many, many years now, and they can't complain now it's come back and bit them.

Fans have been powerless to stop the Glazers moving in.

Of course they have. In case you didn't notice, Mr Chapman, Manchester United was a plc. That means anyone with the money could take them over. The fans have no say in it. And a boycott, in the case of Manchester United, really won't work. Chapman himself says later in the article "I have kept my ticket for next year because if I gave it up, it would go to somebody from Copenhagen who would treat Old Trafford like Disneyland." That's what Glazer knows. He knows full well that there are millions of Manchester United fans across the globe who would kill for a seat at Old Trafford. It's not some situation in Luton where if 6,000 fans boycott the game, no-one is there supporting. Manchester United has been cultivated into a global brand. And, ironically, it is the passion of the fan from Copenhagen which will keep the club alive.

Glazer is a businessman. He needs to make money just to cover interest payments on his debt.

So Martin Edwards, Peter Kenyon, John Magnier et al weren't businessmen? Manchester United has been run as a business for many, many years now. Indeed, it was the fact that it was run as a business which allowed them to enjoy such extravagant success in the 1990s. But I didn't see any Manchester United fans complaining about it then.

...making money and success do not go hand in hand.

Mr Chapman may well find that the punters who possess the money Glazer craves will demand success. As big as the Manchester United global brand is, the fans won't continue to turn out to support a club that's sliding down the Premiership table like molten butter. In football, at least, success is the fundamentally necessary starting point to making money. Manchester United pay Champions League wages and Champions League transfer fees. For that to be sustainable, they need to be in the Champions League. Simple as that.

I am not helping this man make money out of my football club. And that is what it comes down to. He sees it as a business and not a sport.

In so many ways, it already is. Why has it taken the arrival of Glazer for United fans to realise this? Simple - in the plc era, they seemed to be the beneficiaries of a benign capitalism. Now they are realising capitalism operates under forces that don't take stock of local sentiment, history, tradition, etc. So many of Chapman's criticisms can, and should be applied to the plc era. Yet they were successful at that time, and it didn't seem right to rock the boat. They're only complaining because they think they have a God-given right to pre-eminence. Let me let you in on a secret, Mr Chapman - you don't.

And finally, the coup de grace:

I am naïve but why could our national sport not go back to being just that - a sport?

Well, it's not been "just a sport" for a long time. And it's Manchester United that have been the trailblazers in that regard. The TV deals with BSkyB; the lavish amount of money spent on buying players from across the globe; the money-spinning tours to the Far East which have nothing to do with sporting merit and everything to do with how many replica shirts can be sold; the deliberate styling of Old Trafford as the "Theatre of Dreams"; the long-standing ploy of giving tickets to fans from further afield because they spend more at the club shop - all of these things were pioneered by Manchester United. And they were done with a knowledge of the risk involved - that the club was for sale. They succeeded in the 1990s because they were run like a business and no other club was. If things don't look so rosy now, it should serve as a warning. Don't dance with the red devil.

Cheers, Mr. Chips!

I never even knew before this week of the existence of sixth form bars, which are now under threat.

What a fantastic idea they are, though-- and should be opening in state schools over Britain, rather than being shut down where they currently exist. The idea of a safe, secure environment in which seventeen and eighteen-year-olds can get used to social drinking without going mad, is brilliant. With teachers present, booze rationed and a friendly social environment, familiarity with the effects of alcohol can be explored in a safe, controlled and pragmatic environment. It certainly beats a bottle of vodka in the bus station.

The government was recently beating its chest over binge-drinking, arguing that keeping open pubs for longer hours would provide longer time to consume the same amount of alcohol. A ludicrous suggestion, for sure-- but all the more ironic when they are (apparently from ignorance rather than intent) going to shut down a real possible solution to alcohol abuse.

Let's see Ruth Kelly opening a sixth-form bar in every British school. It'll be an excellent initiative and the first good thing she'd have done as Education Secretary.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Teaching History

What a great article from the always-thoughtful Tristram Hunt. It even includes a jibe at Nial Ferguson, which is worth a few plaudits on its own.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Europe Posts

Last summer, I did some travelling around Europe, and wrote a series of e-mails to friends and family that seemed to be well-received. I quite liked them, and in the interests of having them recorded in something other than my sent-message folder, I'm going to re-post them here - one a day, to bide the time whilst my blogging may be a little light.

Shoot-out at the Cesky Corral

Hi everyone,

And sorry that the puns are getting worse and worse. Chris and I are currently in Vienna, which is a place I like more and more every time I visit it. Thankfully we made a very good choice in choosing to get a hostel-to-hostel bus service to get here - travelling from Prague to Cesky Krumlov, although quite scenic, was slow, and highly irritating. Although we were supposed to only have one change, the first train stopped at a station where we had to take a substitute bus service for a while - thankfully our connection was held, but it led to a bit of panic rushing around the station. The train to Cesky Krumlov was then slow, hot, and stopped every five minutes - we had more of the same to look forward to the next day; by taking the minibus we set off later and arrived earlier.

We also had the entertainment of travelling with a mad American (thankfully we were sat well away from him!), who had this classic conversation with the minibus driver:
American: What are all these girls doing by the side of the road?
Driver: What do you think?
American: Oh! I thought they were there to point the truck drivers to the correct exits

As for Cesky Krumlov, the town itself was beautiful, well worth visiting, if a pain in the arse to get to. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site - although in my opinion this designation is given out a little too easily (the entire city of Bath is included in this list), I can see why it is applied here - the old town is virtually untouched from centuries ago; although the view is spoilt by some tremendously ugly new buildings on the outskirts. Just about all the buildings were very intricately designed, and although the place was busy with tourists it somehow felt right, certainly less irritating than Prague. The castle provided great views across the old town, and walking around the river was also good fun. My only regret is that I wasn´t there long enough to be able to get a canoe or an inner-tube and go down the Vltava River. Certainly worth a visit if you can find an easy way of reaching there... the hostel we stayed at was very good too - the bar seemed popular with locals as well as travellers, and we managed to spend most of the evening either playing cards, or arguing with Antipodeians about rugby and cricket (although the Aussie did concede that we may have a good chance in the Ashes series next year).

Now we are in Vienna; last night wasn´t brilliant (no bars like those in Prague or Cesky Krumlov within easy reach), especially as the hostel was taken over by some travelling group, largely composed of Australians, who didn´t seem that bothered about annoying everyone else trying to use the hostel. However, today has been much better. In particular, we visited the Haus Der Musik - an excellent exhibition/interactive museum about all kinds of music - the way we hear, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, famous Austrian composers, and then a bizarre feature called the "Brain Opera" - again interactive, designed to get people making music just through ordinary actions. Some of the exhibits were very clever - eg forming your own waltz through the rolling of dice - whereas others could quite easily have been used as advanced forms of torture (the best being a sound delay which asked you to count normally whilst playing your voice back to you, but making you hear random numbers as you counted). Thanks to those of you who recommended I visit there.

Vienna itself is very clearly a baroque city (although few of the buildings have the essential charm of Queen´s) - in a quick history lesson, this is because it never really became the Habsburg centre until the Ottoman Empire´s siege was edefeated in 1683. This of course did not prevent it being a cultural melting-pot in the years afterwards, which means it is full of interesting museums, far too much to cram into a couple of days visiting. Tomorrow we will definitely head out to the Schonbrunn Palace - the gardens are fantastic and I enjoying wandering through them every time I go there - and then probably the MAK Museum, but there is really so much to see I can´t tell exactly what we will end up doing (except it will definitely involve coffee houses at some point). Tonight we are going to the film festival, where they are showing a recording of a concert of John Lee Hooker and Dizzy Gillespie -both of us are quite excited about this.

We will hopefully visit Munich over the weekend, and then after that we may well wind our way to Leipzig, but as yet it isn´t really that well determined. It seems so strange that all our time is disappearing so fast... Anyway, I think again I´ve written far too much, so I´ll go now, with the usual exhortation to keep in touch.

Best wishes,

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Knowing Me, Knowing You, Pra-ha!

Hi everyone,

Today is the last night of our stop in Prague, having come here from Berlin via Dresden. Dresden itself was a very strange city, everything seemed to be compartmentalised - the historical, reconstructed area, shopping area, residential areas and a nightlife area (where our hostel was situated, which meant there was noise outside right through the night! As for the city itself, there wasn't a huge amount to see - a quick wander around the reconstructed buildings was about all there was to it, although if you were taking a longer trip there it is not too far from some wonderful countryside. That said, except for the fact we got into the centre too late to get a guided tour of theFrauenkirche (recently rebuilt, which in itself makes it very odd - old-fashioned architecture but largely very clean new stone), we didn't really feel there was anything we had missed in our brief wander around the city centre.

Then we came to Prague, which I must confess I find one of the more overrated cities in Europe. The architecture and the Old Town are very pleasant to walk around, but the place is absolutely packed with tourists and there isn't an awful lot of great interest to see. On the positive side, it is cheaper than most other places we have visited (although prices are gradually rising to reflect the number of tourists), and this particularly manifests itself in beer prices, where you will never have to pay more than a pound a pint (and if you look around you will get it much cheaper than that). The downside of this, particularly if you visit at a weekend, is that the city fills up with lots of Englishmen who arrive only to get drunk - not a wonderful advertisement for our country.

One of the other problems in Prague is that it gets rather hot, especially for people used to cold climates like the North-East of England. When we first arrived (having been stopped three times by the same woman asking if we were looking for accommodation!) it wasn't too bad, but the last couple of days have been more humid, and it can be difficult given that many of the interesting sites (ie the castle and the buildings contained within the giant complex) require a large amount of walking uphill. That said, a trip to the castle complex certainly is worth it. The cathedral itself is stunning in size, although fairly typically Catholic in design (for those of you who know, quite like Cologne Cathedral) but some of the tombs are very elaborate - one of a Czech king I had never heard of before, but a wonderful tomb made of out silver, and then the tomb of St Wenceslas, national hero, whose 1000th year anniversary provided the (belated) completion of the cathedral itself.

You also get to see part of the Old Royal Palace - not brilliant, but some of the balconies there give you fantastic views of the rest of the city, and it was nice to find out that the main hall was designed so that a) jousting competitions could be held indoors and b) a market stall could be held there so that nobles didn't have to take the trip down to the town to buy their food (or maybe they preferred to avoid the walk back uphill!). After that, there was a video presentation about some of the history of the castle, which was characterised to me more by the jaunty camera work than much of the information that was given to you (my favourite line was: "no-one predicted this would start off the 30 Year's War" - it would have been quite a precise prediction!).

Other than that there isn't really an awful lot more to see in Prague other than to walk around - and even then a lot of the famous areas are quite disappointing, in particular Wenceslas Square. Added to that, negotiating zebra crossings involves a fair amount of bravery, as Czech drivers are not inclined to czech whether you are crossing the road or not. However, some amusement is provided by inaccurate translations of English, such as the restaurant menu which offers a special deal for "dishes and soap" - I was also tempted to work out what "American potatoes" were. That said, Czech food is hearty and usually pretty cheap, so I shouldn't be too unfair.
Besides, the opportunity to enjoy drinks outside of places like St Nicholas's church or the Old Town Square is something well worth doing, and in a trip like this it is nice not to feel under pressure to be bombing round seeing everything. So much so, in fact, that my brother has spent much of today watching the European Bridge Junior Championships and even I was tempted to go along to see how these things are organised (the commentary they provide is easy to follow even for a novice like me, and full of amusingly sarcastic comments - at least it appeals to my sense of humour!). Tomorrow we go to visit Cesky Krumlov - supposedly the most beautiful town in the Czech Republic - and then after a long journey on Wednesday we spend a bit of time in Vienna (although getting a hostel to accept a reservation made for arrival at 7pm is proving a novel challenge!).

Best wishes,

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Take My Breath Away

Hi again everyone,

Tonight I´m writing from Berlin, which, as those of you who were connossieurs of my e-mails last year will know, is one of my favourite cities (indeed, it will be one of probably only two places I will visit on all three of my Europe trips so far). Nothing has happened to change my already favourable opinion of the city. Actually, visiting here with my brother has proved quite interesting, as I have had to vary what I have done so as to include all the obvious stops that I have already visited so as to give a good starting point for Chris, whilst at the same time finding new stuff to do myself. I hope I´ve managed to do this quite successfully.

Arrival was fun - we came on a night train, which in addition to being a bad way of getting sleep was also a cooker, because it had to board a ferry to get to Germany, and therefore kindly left us on the lorry deck. Thus we had a lot of time to kill on Tuesday morning, which we did by doing a quick-hit tour of most of the major (historical) - winding its way from the Alexanderplatz and the Fernsehturm past the Deutscher Dom (cathedral) and down the Unter Den Linden to teh Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, before coming back past the Potsdamer Platz and one of the last remaining stretches of wall to finish near Checkpoint Charlie (although admittedly one of the main reasons behind this was to go to the one cafe in Berlin where there is free refills on soft drinks!). The fact that this sort of trip is more than manageable in one morning is testament to the vast array of history that this city has to offer.

After that, much more of my time has been spent going around museums. In particular, this evening I went to the German History Museum, where there was a fantastic exhibition on the First World War - in my opinion very self-critical of the German role in it (although this is perhaps understandable given later history), but it also did a very good job in delineating the pan-European currents of patriotism and nationalism, as well as looking at the effects of the war and the different currents of thought which influenced popular and intellectual reaction. Other museums we visited weren´t as interesting as I´d hoped - referring specifically in this case to the Pergamon museum. Basically a collection of artefacts plundered from the ancient world during the era of Prussian expansionism, the centrepiece exhibits (the Babylonian Gate, the Pergamon Altar and a Roman Market Gate) are quite literally monumental; however, the rest of the collection suffers from a lack of imagination. The curators basically say "these items are historically interesting - look at them" without really placing them in historical context. Where there has been a limited effort to do so, it was somewhat disappointing and overly politically correct I felt. Or worse still, it explained more about the maintenance and transportation of the object than it did about the object itself.

Another place which suffered somewhat from a lack of explanation of displays was the Schloss Charlottenburg - one of the Prussian dynasty´s many palaces. The rooms weren´t really decked out as they would have been when it was actually used as a palace - perhaps understandable as the building is a reconstruction from what was badly damaged during the war. However, the beauty of the rooms themselves, and the wonderful gardens, did make it a very interesting diversion.

Other than that, Chris and I have spent a fair amount of time relaxing. Berlin is full of wonderful squares, in particular the Alexanderplatz, which, although overshadowed by the clearly Communist TV-Tower (built to be visible from all areas in West Berlin) is very pleasant to sit in; and also the Potsdamer Platz, which has some of the most arresting modern architecture I have seen. Talking of modern architecture, another site to visit is the Gedachtnis Kirche - not so much the old building, which is the remains of what stood before WW2, but more the new church next to it, which firstly does not look like a church, but more importantly for me at least is one of the few attempts I have seen to utilise modern architecture in a church building. I imagine opinion would be divided as to how successfully this was carried out, but I enjoyed it very much - at first I hadn´t even picked it out as a church!

The hostel, as it was the last two times I stayed there, has been fantastic, not least because myself and my brother managed to fight off all-comers in the pub quiz (and for those of you hoping to steal me from my current Turf pub quiz team, I would like to point out this will increase my transfer fee...). Again, the tendency for it to turn into a semi-Busman´s holiday struck again; one of our roommates was a Finnish history student who I spent quite a long time with discussing different theories of history and what motivates people to ´take action´ if you will forgive me using such broad and general terms.

We are heading off to Prague - the place my brother is perhaps keenest to visit - tomorrow, with a stopover in Dresden on the way. As ever, please keep in touch, and I hope you await the next instalment with great anticipation!


Monday, June 06, 2005

The Political Class

The Virtual Stoa, as part of his "Tim Collins Watch" series, linked to this piece in the Guardian, about MPs who lost their seats, and in particular, the former Shadow Education Secretary who had the dubious honour of becoming the one and only "decapitated" Tory.
I had hoped to talk to Tim Collins, former shadow education spokesman and the most prominent of the Tories who lost on May 5, but he too has gone to ground. "His defeat was totally unexpected," says a press spokesman at Conservative campaign HQ. "He has had many requests for interviews, but has declined them all." Little wonder: Collins is 41, a politician from the cradle, living and breathing the Westminster air. He has not just lost his job; he has lost his oxygen supply.
When I read this - and it is a theme which somewhat extends throughout the piece - I realised one of the biggest problems that faces the politically interested as they try and fight a wave of apathy. We are actually in danger of creating a political class, devoid and out of touch with "ordinary life", nurtured as politicians from a young age. Take a look at the BBC profile of George Osborne, for example. Although heir to the Osborne and Little wallpaper fortune, all his experience up to now has been political - speech-writer for William Hague; part of IDS's PMQs team; an advisor to Douglas Hurd. David Cameron is much the same - as indeed is Collins, who was awarded his CBE for political services.

A look around the Labour benches tells a similar story. Ed Balls was parachuted into a very safe seat largely on the back of having been a key advisor of Gordon Brown. Ruth Kelly, David Lammy, David Miliband - a large number of the "rising stars" have taken up parliamentary seats at young ages, having had pretty political backgrounds to begin with. The career path for budding politicians is no longer to go to Oxbridge, become a successful professional, and then go to Parliament. It is to be immersed in a political culture from the moment you leave university to the moment you find yourself in the safest of safe seats, from which position an assault towards the political top can be maintained.

This, of course, has a very real separation from the people the politicians are supposed to serve. I don't necessarily take this to support the Lib Dem (or, indeed, George Galloway) line that "MPs need to be more representative of the population." It's an old trick - it was a key contention of the Anti-Federalists when opposing the US Constitution. And it was claptrap then, and it is claptrap now. We should want the best people as our representatives in Parliament, and focus purely on their qualities, not their demographics.

What I am saying, therefore, is that these aren't the best people for Parliament. One of the reasons I am not enthusiastic about the Notting Hill Set (despite my admiration for Osborne, funnily enough) is that I am convinced they are more bothered about presentation than policy. In the same way that Labour's "orange jump suits for young offenders" plan will be quietly shelved, having painted a potrait of a party that is tough on crime, so the political class are more concerned about electability and how to sell a policy, rather than a deep and detailed consideration of how it should work, and whether it will actually make a difference.

Their tribal loyalties are found at a young age - indeed, that is the only way Cameron, Osborne, Kelly et al can find their way into such lofty positions at such young ages. Age, of course, shouldn't be a barrier. It wasn't a problem for Pitt, and the maxim "good enough, old enough", must surely apply. Yet I wonder how positive for democracy it is, when being an MP is in many ways just another position on the political career ladder.

The one thing that was certain about the French and Dutch "no" votes last week was that they were indicative of a deep hatred of the political elites in their countries. Germans have always been hostile to their political elites too; it is just that their system offers them little way of venting their anger. The EU project, in short, has hit the rails because the politicians became separate from the people. Why a constitutional treaty was deemed necessary in the form it took is beyond me - especially given all the signals that the European elite were given by the "petit oui" over the Maastricht Treaty. The response of the elite, though, has done little to allay fears of an unrepresentative project. Chirac appointed an unelected protege to be the new Prime Minister; Juncker, President of Luxembourg (and current holder of the rotating presidency), vowed to continue the ratification process regardless of the voices of a third of the EU's founder members.

That is the voice of the political class speaking. They don't believe that anything is impossible provided they can sell it in the right way. That's not necessarily a bad thing. At times, we all need opinion leaders in Parliament, not just subservient slaves to the people. After all, the people holding positions of power are privy to far more information than we could ever hope to garner ourselves. But democracy cannot function in the same way that a business is managed. In a free market, consumers can always vote with their feet. In a political process dominated by established parties and the political class, making a real choice with your vote can seem harder and harder. That - and not the fact that a stroll down the road is an onerous task - is the real reason why turnout and voter interest is falling.

For all that politicians have to find solutions, they should be solutions to the problems that people themselves are asking. When they don't, they aren't fulfilling their purpose. But when they live within their own little bubble, dominated by focus groups and the latest fads in thinking, they don't give themselves a fair chance. Someone needs to stand up and challenge the orthodoxy. For whilst we have the Tim Collins's of the world as our representatives - as wise and intelligent as they may be -we are being ruled by a class with a separate and distinct interest to our own.

Infomania, Complexity, and Patience

Cricket is a complex game. For this reason, many viewers think the game "boring", or too slow-paced to grab one's attention. They are, of course, utterly wrong. The joy of cricket is that the momentum of a game is constantly shifting, subtly, often imperceptibly, and that it is the ability of one team to be able to command the undulations that gives them the greatest chance to win. There are moments of individual brilliance and excitement - the crashing satisfaction of the ball whizzing towards the boundary; the sight of the stumps cartwheeling out of the ground; the sheer athleticism of a diving stop in the field. Yet the totality of a game of cricket offers so much more than these memorable moments - although in itself a series of events, the game itself is a constantly moving event, and only reaches its fullest meaning as a whole.

Test matches are, undoubtedly, the pinnacle of cricket - a five-day, five star menu for the cricket connosieur. Obviously, the demands of modern life are such that few people - journalists, retirees, and students post-finals - get the chance to see the match in its entireity. The medium of television gives us a chance to right this deficiency, through the means of a highlights package delivered nightly. A "light bites" menu, if you like, which allows the diner to sample the delights of the day even if lacking the stamina for the full meal.

If it is to express the true nature of the game, however, a highlights package needs to be detailed. Such is the pace of cricket that an awful lot of action can be shown in quite a short time through judicious editing - once you cut out half of Steve Harmison's run-up, and you ignore the throwing of the ball between fielders, then you have actually removed a large part of the action. These are integral parts of the match. The pace of the game, and the open-ended timeframe, is what lends cricket so much glorious subtlety. Yet as a substitute, action can fill in most of the gaps.

This should not mean, however, that we are subjected to a barrage of the most exciting moments of the game. A half-hour package that shows nothing but boundaries and wickets tells us little about the development of the game, but only pleases our short term appetite. We will see the wicket ball, where in the past we will have seen how the bowler set the wicket up. It is the difference between a well-prepared beef sandwich and a beefburger. In the past, highlights shows really were well thought-out. They might show a bowler bowling a maiden over. In theory, not very exciting. Yet in practice, it can be a microcosm of what the bowler was trying to achieve - how he was swinging the ball, what sort of length he was trying to bowl. Crucial to understanding the key passages of play, these details are often sacrificed nowadays for the desire for ever greater audiences.

I can't help but feel this is counterproductive. One of the reasons I love the concept of Twenty20 cricket is that it attracts a new type of audience, yet is used to supplement, rather than replace, cricket in its longer forms. Reducing Test cricket to a smash-and-grab raid in the highlights packages prevents us true fans from really selling the game; from letting our friends appreciate the wonders and tension that only cricket can provide. This I really mean - all the truly prolonged periods of tension I have seen in sport have come through Test matches. The Australia-West Indies match in 1999 was the most gripping piece of sport I have ever seen, and the tension lasted for well over an hour, with all possible results in the balance. There is, quite simply, no other sport that can be so exciting.

Cricket authorities and broadcasters should not be so reticent to trumpet this as a key marketing point for the game. We may live in a world where instant gratification and excitement appears to be the be-all and end-all. At the reckoning, however, it is all a bit shallow and unsatisfying. With a bit of effort, highlights shows could be a real showcase for the greatest game in the world. As they stand, they are a short-term palliative designed to get mums and dads to shell out for one-day shirts with "Flintoff" or "Pietersen" emblazoned on the back. If the game of cricket is to thrive, on the other hand, we need to get more people off the beefburgers and prepared to try the five star menu.

Swede Dreams Are Made Of This

Hi everyone,

Chris and I are coming towards the end of our stay in Stockholm, which has been an absolutely wonderful stop - in fact, I think it is probably the best place that I have visited on all of my European excursions - very pretty town that is great to walk around, but also much to see while you are there.

The Swedes, too, are very friendly people - at first they can seem a little reserved, but they are always very helpful and speak excellent English (which makes me feel very embarrassed, as I hate going to countries where I can´t speak the language), and are more often than not willing to engage in detailed football discussion - for the record, many of them agree with me that Sven is far too defensive in his tactics.

As for what we saw in Stockholm, the highlight for me was probably the sculpture of St George and the Dragon in the Cathedral (not technically a cathedral, but it is where all the important royal ceremonies take place) - wonderful use of light to send out a strong message alongside the technical brilliance of the sculpture. For those of you who know, I rate it second behind a sculpture called "The Raven and the First Men" in Vancouver - if you haven´t seen it, and end up in Vancouver for any reason, you must go to see this at the museum of Anthropology. As with all the best pieces of art, it adds so much beyond the mere representation of the objects.

Anyway, apart from that digression, a wander round the streets of Gamla Stan, the Old Town, was very rewarding, as was making the effort to walk across to the former royal hunting grounds. The architecture, too, is very nice + most buildings are painted in bright colours, and some of the buildings are absolutely fantastic - in particular for me the Nordic Museum, although apparently (according to the guide on our boat trip) it isn´t particularly interesting to visit. Nearby, however, is the Vasa museum - the Vasa was, like the Mary Rose, a ship that sunk pretty soon after it set off, but it became preserved in the brackish water around Stockholm and was later resurfaced almost entirely intact. The museum itself is convincing as far as it can be within its limits - ie the artefacts found with the sunken ship itself, but there are limited exhibitions about King Gustav II Adolph (who, to be fair, did take his royal responsibilities to the lmit in actually dying in battle) and life in Sweden in 1628. I would have preferred to see a bit more about Sweden´s role in the 30 year´s War, but there was a good bit of eplanation about the symbolism of many of the artistic decorations on the boat. Also good was a computer simulator to see if you could design a boat that wouldn´t have sunk under comparative wind conditions´- if you failed, you were given the message "The King is displeased and you lose your job. But perhaps the Danish King values your skills differently".

Today we have just returned from a boat trip around the archipelago - very nice setting and well wórth the money - also very informative about the history of Stockholm, why Gamla Stan emerged as the major trading centre in the area and the way that the islands of the archipelago were used for naval defence. The guide also apologised to us about the weather, which has been quite rainy today, promising if we visit in another year the weather will be better - so if he´s wrong, you know who to sue! (His name was Henrik, if it helps...)

It´s difficult to summarise all that we´ve done in such a short space, and I know I´ve been going on forever in this email. Needless to say there have been more similar discussions regarding politics, soccer, TV and just about anything else you care to mention - always one of the more interesting aspects of travelling. Tomorrow we set off on an epic journey to make our way to Berlin, but it will be a shame to leave here, and I know I will make the effort to return.

Will keep you informed of what else we get up to,

Best wishes,