Friday, September 30, 2005

Preventing Terror

We now know beyond any doubt the government cannot be trusted when they say that sweeping powers will only be used for the intended purposes. When an 82-year-old man is prevented from entering the Labour Party Conference Hall for the heinous crime of heckling, and this is justified by the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2000, I'd like to point out - ie totally preceding the increased security risks we now face), something is seriously wrong.

Either the police are morons, or they have grossly abused their power, or both. And yet the media are letting the police away with it; turning their ire instead on the Labour Party. Their behaviour wasn't anything worth justifying, granted, but I'm far more worried by the antics of our law enforcement officials than I am by a few jumped-up yellow-jacketed stewards.

Perhaps the police would like to justify why they saw fit to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain Mr Wolfgang at the conference? And then tell us how we can have any confidence or trust in their claims that they won't use any new powers granted to them in inappropriate ways?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

What Does This Say About Me?

This article tells us bloggers what we never wanted to admit - we're pissing into the wind. Until we win the taxi drivers over, what hope do we have?

Anyway, where the two terms "blogging" and "dogging" are concerned, I certainly found myself in the minority. I am well aware of what the former is, but had no idea about the latter!

A Man of the Past

The tastefully-named Ken Clarke is a man I have often agreed with. There is no doubt that a Tory party that wanted to be relevant at the turn of the century would have elected him leader in 1997, and would have chosen him ahead of IDS in 2001. His time, however, is well and truly past. If yesterday's campaign launch proved anything, it is that he is a man from a different era. His appeal to the media is that he appears an ordinary bloke, and a breath of fresh air to the perfectly presented political class that infests too much of our public life these days. That alone is not enough to take the Tory party back to government, however. If Ken's irrelevance needed to be highlighted any further, you only needed to look at the prominent figures in the audience at his launch speech. Quentin Davies and Anne Widdecombe. Yikes.

Indeed, all of Clarke's supporters are the old guard of the One Nation Tories (and Quentin Davies and Anne Widdecombe, admittedly). The TRG figures are by and large supporting David Davis; the think tank figures of the 2005 intake seem to be rallying behind David Cameron. The list of endorsements linked above is actually yet more revealing; not only does David Davis have a clear lead in the number of endorsements, but he also seems to have support from a number of groups in the party. Davis may well turn out to be the unity candidate.

I'm not a fan of Davis's policies. Yet as a politician, he is tremendously able. Indeed, the reports of his chairmanship of the Public Affairs committee - from all parties - are nothing short of glowing. And he is very astute at handling a debate. Tony Blair made a lot of capital when he was leader by being strong enough to admit when the Major government did something right; just hammering the Tories twice as hard when they did something wrong. That lifted him above the image of partisan hackery. That's what the Tories need to do, and I have a feeling Davis will be the man for the job.

Given what I have previously written about the political class, it is no surprise that I am not a Cameron fan. There is a man who has done precious little other than be involved in politics the entireity of his adult life. This helps explain the vacuousness of many of his pronouncements for the leadership race. Not wearing a tie, wearing pink shirts and having gay friends may win media attention, but it doesn't add up to a political ideology. What do the Notting Hill Set believe? If they think that the Tories just need to change their image, they are wrong. They have been rejected on the back of their manifesto, too. Let's not forget that the Tory manifesto at the last election (written by Cameron) was a PR masterstroke. It got across all the key points of the Tory campaign succinctly. And it was rejected fairly soundly. Let's not forget that a key part of that was due to how pathetic the nature of many of the reforms they talked about actually were.

The image that the Tories have is not entirely unfair. Much of their membership is out of touch and obsessed with fringe issues. I've spoken to activists and candidates at the 2001 election who were embarrassed by having to trot out the national party line of "Save the Pound" when they felt they had all kinds of things to say about schools and hospitals that were given no prominence. It's not just the image that has to change; the substance isn't particularly successful either. I doubt David Cameron has a proper appreciation of this. He strikes me as a man who is unaware of a world outside of the Conservative Party, unless thought of in marketing terms. David Davis certainly isn't. And that's why I'd argue that if the Tories know what's good for them, Davis would be their next leader.

Shame On Labour

The ejection of Walter Wolfgang from the Labour conference yesterday is a really sinister development for that party, and seems to confirm their arrogant evacuation of democractic debate and accountability. Internal democracy in the Labour party has never been much to write home about, but the new tactic of silencing their own grassroots at their own conference reaches new heights of absurdity.

The supreme irony that Mr. Wolfgang was protesting at a passage of Jack Straw's speech concerning democracy in Iraq. After refusing to allow their grassroots to debate a motion on Iraq, it now appears that there is no role for delegates at Labour conference other than to applaud on cue for the waiting television cameras.

The best word of the day was from Alex Salmond: 'Labour can censor their own delegates, but they can't gag the people.'

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Just A Thought

When a motion at the LibDem conference supported by the party leadership is defeated, it is called a crisis of leadership.

When a motion at the Labour conference supported by the party leadership is defeated, it is considered only "potentially embarrassing" and treated pretty much like a drunken uncle.

What's the difference?

The Most Boring Man in Britain?

Daniel Finkelstein has a brilliant article in the Times today:

The traditional method of selling a phone was to talk about battery life, access charges, the reach of the network. It was all about mechanics, never touching on reasons, never touching on people’s (and particularly women’s) daily lives. The traditional pitch for a mobile phone was like . . . well, it was like a Gordon Brown speech.

Council Tax Prison Pensioner

The case of Sylvia Hardy certainly seems to have taken a bizarre turn, with a "Mr Brown" paying her tax on her behalf. However, I wanted to make a few comments about the propriety of the case in the first place.

Firstly, the magistrate was surely right when he said:
"If everyone paid their debts on the basis of what they thought appropriate this country would descend into anarchy."

Of all the laws that it is necessary to obey, I would suggest paying taxes is the most important. Sure, exploit legal loopholes if you want - after all, to a certain extent, the government budgets for that to happen. Yet if we are expecting the government to provide public services on our behalf, then we have to pay for them. It is our civic duty. Would Mrs Hardy complain if the police decided not to protect her home because she hadn't paid them her taxes? I guess she would.

And if we feel the taxes are injurious, then we are free to vote out the party setting the levels of taxation. If there is no party putting that viewpoint across, Mrs Hardy could have stood for election herself. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats offered a local income tax in place of council tax at the election. It's just a shame for Mrs Hardy that not enough people seemed to think they were worthy of government. But that's democracy for you.

That said, she undoubtedly did the right thing in being prepared to go to jail for her protest. If you feel that a law is unjust, and that by highlighting the unjust nature of the law you can actually make a change, then being willing to submit to the penalty is still doing a duty to society. You are showing that you are still bound by the accepted rules of society, whilst making your protest against them as they stand - thus challenging the precepts on which the law was made in the first place.

So the magistrate was right that if everyone could pick and choose which laws to follow, then anarchy would ensue. He was wrong, however, to suggest that copying Mrs Hardy would lead to anarchy - overcrowded and underfunded prisons, maybe, but not anarchy. If all criminals were doing their act purely as a political protest, and willing to face the consequences for their actions, then we would be much safer. Mrs Hardy may have been making a cheap publicity stunt and one which will ultimately lower the standards of debates ("look, it's driving pensioners to go to jail!"). At least, however, she is making a decision that shows some respect for the rule of law.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Clarke on ID Cards

Charles Clarke is a man who profoundly scares me. Not because of his support for ID Cards. Tony McNulty supports them, too, and I'm about as scared of him as I am of the model of Mr Potato Head sitting in front of me. Rather, he is alarmingly competent - especially in Parliament - at handling a debate and seizing on idiotic arguments against his line to help make his case. Regardless of the fact that he misses the point again and again, he is a very competent politician.

Yet when I was listening to his speech to the Labour conference today, some comments really took me aback:

ID cards are controversial of course, but we all need to understand that we already live in a society where there are enormous databanks of information about all of us whether held by financial institutions, employers, passports and driving licences, health and education authorities or criminal justice agencies.

Moreover we all face many occasions where we need to prove our identity, whether it is to open a bank account, take out a mortgage, claim a benefit, pass through a border control, get a Criminal Records Bureau clearance or many other basic transactions.

Of course there are enormous databanks of information about me. Every time I use my switch card, someone stores data on me. Heck, my university probably knows precisely when I am in the library or not. I can't walk around the town centre without having my visage stored several times.

What I know, on the other hand, is that under current data protection laws, every organisation that holds information on me is legally bound to keep it for a limited period and use it only for the purposes that it was taken. The national identity register that Mr Clarke wants to create means that the information held on me will be far more widely available than it ever was before. If anything is extending the "Big Brother" society, then it is that.

What's more, is that I've never seen any proof that biometric data is safe. The former head of the JIC was on the BBC today casting doubt on its reliability. I maintain that if we are to fight identity fraud, we are living in cloudcuckooland to think that any form of ID card will be foolproof. Are the government so arrogant to think that they can remain several steps ahead of the criminals? The technology exists to make fraudulent cards, and I have no doubt it will fall into the wrong hands sharpish. Then the only remaining justification for the cards will have gone completely.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Conservatives To Blame For Death of Jesus and Smallpox

Is Gordon Brown real? Is he not turning more and more into a Private Eye spoof? He may not have noticed from his Treasury citadel, but Labour have been in power for two full terms of government now. That means they should be able to stand on their own record. So it's bad enough that it's obligatory for any Shadow Cabinet speech to include references to Thatcherism, now 20 years ago. Would Blair and Brown really like to be judged on what they advocated back then?

Today, however, Brown took this comparison to new levels - actually referring to conservative opposition to slavery and child labour! I can see some slight justification in comparisons to the late 20th Century, as cowardly as they are. To pretend that a modern party can be blamed for actions of people loosely linked to them back in the early 1800s defies all logic. It's even more perverse when he's harking back to a time when there wasn't even a Labour party.

It's nothing short of pathetic. It's no wonder people lose faith in politics when tribal allegiance seems to dictate matters more than actually making a difference in this century. Does Brown have so little to say that he can only try and gain credit going back to the 19th century?

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Politics 2010: Labour

Something I often give a lot of thought to is what the political landscape will look like five years down the line. The maxim is that a week is a long time in politics, and even this year has taken twists and turns no-one expected. After the media's consensus that the General Election was a vote for a "chastened Blair", who would have thought that by July 8th, everyone would have been thanking the Lord for Blair's premiership? Or that he continued to possess the ability to squander such goodwill?

Anyway, at the suggestion of one of my friends, I have decided to make some highly wild and speculative comments about the way that politics will develop by the time of the next election. The three posts are collectively titled "Politics 2010". This is not so much a prediction that PM Brown will need to take the full term to maximise his time in power, as to the fact that it sounds much nicer than Politics 2009.

In any case, for all Brown's popularity now, I can only imagine he will be a disaster as a Prime Minister. Of course, unlike the articles I will write on the other two parties, I am beginning from the presumption that Brown will be PM. There is surely no way Blair can try and twist his way out of his resignation; similarly, there is no other credible contender for the party leadership. However, the promise of the succession may well be something which hamstrings his ability to lead his party effectively.

The trade unions have pinned their hope on Brown as the man who can take Labour back to its more traditional roots. They have suffered Blair for over ten years now; that was their trade-off for power. Now they have power, and the prospect of "their man" in charge, I cannot imagine they will be reticent in the background. If Brown is being genuine in his promise to continue Blairite reform, they will go mad, and a spectre will be cast over his leadership from the start.

More than that, however, it is seeming increasingly likely that there will be an economic downturn in the near future. Blair being the shrewd man that he is will no doubt quietly step aside just before the shit hits the fan, economically speaking. And Brown, coming in from Chancellor, having built his reputation on prudence and putting an end to boom and bust, will end up with hardly a leg to stand on. He'll have to admit to many of his errors quickly; no doubt the vultures will swoop with intimations he rode the crest of a Tory wave.

Perhaps more dangerous than that, though, is the difficulty of winning over Middle England. The primary reason behind Labour's extraordinary and unprecedented electoral success may have been the unpopularity of the Tories, but it has only been so pronounced because Tony Blair appeals to the middle class floating voters more than any other Labour politician. If John Smith's heart attack had never occurred, it is difficult to see Labour currently in their third term. Politically speaking, Brown is far more John Smith than Tony Blair.

My understanding of the Boundary Commission changes is that the well-trumpted imbalances in the electoral system will unwind somewhat in the next election; whilst FPTP may remain a fundamentally flawed system, it certainly won't have the in-built Tory bias it suffered from last time. And voters will vote for Blair when previously the thought of Labour repulsed them. How else is Major's victory in 1992 explicable, if not for Kinnock?

I'm not going to go so far as to guarantee a Labour defeat in the next election. But it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it did happen, in the slightest. Those who expect PM Brown to have a reign that is plain sailing are living in fantasy land. The Labour Party may, very shortly, be longing for another Blair.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Happy Birthday To Me!

A year ago today, my first ramblings on this site were posted. A year on, and I can say that I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Partially this is because I remain very similar in some aspects of my personality - I enjoy ranting, and there are many things in the world which wind me up. Not for nothing is this blog linked to on ""

If I said that this blog began in Skinner's Tavern, Market Street, Philadelphia, then I'd be lying. I'd made an abortive attempt at starting a blog earlier. However, the encouragement of An Englishman in Philly certainly did go a long way to my actually making a decent fist of this attempt.

There are many more thanks, of course. The early links from Laban Tall were not only very generous and a huge surprise, but a (militantly!) moderate ego boost. I also really enjoyed the experience of helping out with Nick Barlow's General Election project, even if I have suspicions it could have been even better than it was. Since then, the help of occasional links on the Tim Worstall Britblog roundup have helped keep readership up.

Biggest thanks, of course, have to go to Richard, for his contributions since April. The good news is that his self-imposed exile may be coming to an end, and the occasional post will find its way here. Certainly his contributions, valuable in themselves, contributed much to the level and vitality of debate here.

The final thanks, of course, go to those of you who still come to this corner of the Web and find it sufficiently interesting to return. It's nice to think my random scribblings are able to find somewhat of a wider audience. I hope I'll still be thanking you in a year's time!

Republicans for Lap-dancing

Gerard Baker writes an article in the Times today that is quite amusing:

MANY PEOPLE think conservatives, especially the American kind, are a mean-spirited, selfish bunch of misanthropists, irredeemably opposed to public spending on anything other than tanks and prisons.

There were virtually no restrictions on the use of the cards and so the definition of “necessities” acquired some latitude. Louis Vuitton did a roaring trade in handbags in the Houston area and a good deal was dropped, as it were, at some of the city’s finest adult entertainment establishments.

I'll come back to the points about Republican spending at a later date (they did harm New Orleans, but not necessarily in an immediately obvious manner). What I do find interesting here, however, is that people in desperate need of food and water were spending their handouts on beer and strippers.
It comes back to a point George Orwell made in "The Road to Wigan Pier". He said that opponents of welfare extension were quite right - that it was possible to live a healthy existence on the money people were earning/being given. The problem was not that they did not have sufficient money, but that they only had sufficient money. To live a normal life, every single penny of expenditure would have to be carefully allocated each week. What sort of a life did that regimentation afford?

It may have made them healthier, but it would have made them feel like prisoners. When you are in want, the temptation to splash out on occasional treats and go without some other time is huge - especially because life, generally is so terrible. So it is with the FEMA handouts, too. When you lose your house, your possessions, possibly even your family - everything that you hold dear - taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. So rather than stocking up on necessities, you'll choose a bit of escapism.

No doubt some on the right would argue that this demonstrates the problem of welfare handouts - often they don't go to the causes for which they were intended. So what? Surely the responsibility of the state is to give people the chance to help themselves? If they choose not to use it, well, fair enough. But it's morally wrong not to help in cases where help is needed. Just because some people, even most, may not use the help in the way others may see it, there's a value in it anyway. I don't think many people seriously begrudge Katrina victims their babes and beer. I may be unexposed to the supposed delights of either, but cannot deny their healing value to many. If people want to piss help up the wall, fine. That's their choice. Let's just make sure we give them the freedom to do it.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Thoughts From Blackpool

Well, that was fun. The Lib Dem conference was really enjoyable, for me at least. I get the feeling that the media rained on Charles Kennedy's parade all week, almost certainly because there wasn't much else for them to write about. Motions about pornography and goldfish were absent, and so persecuting Kennedy must have seemed like their best bet.

Thursday morning was one of near misses for me. I was apparently first reserve for the Civil Liberties debate, but alas didn't get called. I'll try and post the speech I would have given at some point. Less substantially dissapointing was when Kennedy worked the crowd after his speech, he went along my row, stopping after the guy next to me. Oh well.

A list of brief thoughts, hopefully before some more substantial posts:

(1) There's nothing to dissuade you of admiration for the media better than participating in something they're reporting. Every morning I opened my complimentary Independent to read of the gloomy mood of delegates. Good thing they told us, because I wouldn't have known otherwise.

(2) Lib Dems are nice people. It's a flippant point, and one both Lembit and the sketch writers love to labour. But I was really impressed at the general kindliness and friendliness of other delegates. One friend, who defected from Labour, was astounded at the sociability of the MPs and cheeriness of the attendees.

(3) Blackpool needs some major reinvigoration. While I'd probably associate more with the "sad town that's lost its soul" description more than the "chav Beirut" assessment, Blackpool is a really degenerated city. But it will come back for one simple reason: the people who live there. They're great.

(4) Adam Boulton from Sky News is a lightweight fool. Sky's fringe meeting descended into rebellion when he tried to offer simplistic and misleading questions to the audience. "We're not answering that" my neighbour heckled, when Boulton quizzed "is this the party of the public sector?", clearly hoping to portray Liberalism as some unreformed Stalinist statism. The media have such power to stimulate political debate, yet waste it on dumbed-down arguments.

(5) The Post Office motion was not about privitising Royal Mail, and it wasn't defeated, regardless of what you read in the papers. It was proposing a part-privitisation that gave employees a substantial share in the organisation. And it wasn't defeated, it was referred back for re-drafting, because it was considered confused on some key parts of its credit association elements.

(6) Two particularly great speeches this week: one from Mark Oaten on civil liberties, and Charles Kennedy's barnstormer yesterday. Kennedy's commitment to economic liberalism and social liberalism combined was much needed. I think much criticism of him is misguided, but I would be delighted to see him leading from the front more in issues such as that one, where the media wrongly scare activisits that liberal economics means Thatcherism.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tim Collins Watch

With apologies to the Virtual Stoa, did anyone else note the deliberate error in the Independent today? In the section where they asked various prominent figures about what they should do in Iraq, they naturally turned to Colonel Tim Collins. Rather than finding a picture of the esteemed military personage, however, we were greeted with the smiling visage of our good friend, the former MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale! Maybe there is still hope!

Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Baseball's Home Run Record

In the early 1940s, when asked about the best pitcher he ever faced, Joe DiMaggio responded, without thinking: "Satchel Paige". The judgement was sound - many years later, at the age of 59, Paige became the oldest pitcher ever in a Major League game. At this point, however, DiMaggio had only faced Paige in exhibition games. Paige was black, and until Jackie Robinson some years later broke the colour barrier, he couldn't play in the major leagues.

I bring this up because Barry Bonds' return to major league action has seen him make a renewed assault on Hank Aaron's home run record of 755 for a career; he's now only ten runs away from equalling the feat of Babe Ruth, with 704. Pundits are rightly making aspersions as to the legitimacy of Bonds' tally. He has been heavily implicated in the BALCO drugs scandal; unless we take him as his word that he did not know what was in treatments given to him, he knowingly took steroids.

Babe Ruth, on the other hand, is a rightly revered icon. His performances were legendary; not for nothing is Yankee Stadium known as "The House That Ruth Built". Not only was he a great slugger, he was a fantastic pitcher, too, before his teams decided they needed him to play every day. Moreover, he helped change the very nature of the game - hitting for power became essential.

Yet I can no longer accept the reasoning that Bonds's achievements are illegitimate, when Ruth's are taken at face value. Yes, Bonds has almost certainly cheated, and that in itself is shameful. Babe Ruth, however, had one huge advantage over rivals from the modern era - he never had to face the best players. Some of the best pitchers in the USA, and America more generally, were excluded from competing on the basis of the colour of their skin. That sort of prejudice is equally, if not more shameful, and whilst Ruth may not have been behind the policy itself, he was certainly a major beneficiary.

Why, then, do we laud one set of achievements whilst decrying the other? Quite simply, Babe Ruth has become part of baseball's folklore. He had the advantage of being an integral part of the MLB's history. His records became part of the furniture, so to speak - they spoke for themselves, utterly devoid of context.

History cannot be so unthinking if it is to mean anything. Why do Negro League records not appear in the same way? Babe Ruth may have meant a lot to the game of baseball, but that shouldn't blind us to the wrongs of the game. Segregation of the sport was wrong, and it was shameful. And if we think that numbers have some mythic quality set totally apart from the period in which they played the game, then we are wrong. Just because something happened in the Major Leagues does not make it legitimate. Barry Bonds shows us that. Just as he should have an asterisk next to his record, so should Babe Ruth. His fault or not, if we ignore the context of his record, we get dangerously close to condoning it.

Monday, September 19, 2005

God, George Bush, the Universe, and everything

I watched the last half of George Bush's national address regarding Hurricane Katrina the other day, and unlike most of the US news channels, felt distinctly underwhelmed. The flowery stuff in the speech was excellent - talking about the resilience of America in the past, making appeals to hang together and all that jazz. Indeed, if Bush had gotten his ass down to New Orleans within a day or two and delivered a speech like that, its impact would have been huge. It would have provided the rallying call, and set the tone for the recovery effort - rather than the impetus being provided by voluntary groups. (It looks as if the Red Cross and the Sally Army might let Bush off the hook on this one).

Yet the substance of the speech wasn't particularly great. There wasn't much less that he could have said in those circumstances. What's more, the sticking to doctrine remained as strong as ever. Throwing money at the problem is only going to make the budgetary problems of the US worse and worse. If they had the money to cover the disaster fund, it would be fine. But proposing tax breaks left right and centre, whilst refusing to countenance any countervailing tax rises, isn't going to help. I can only hope the fiscal conservatives succeed in forcing spending cuts elsewhere - although look what happened when they slashed the Engineering Corps budget.

The most striking aspect of the speech, however, was how regularly Bush referred to churches, God, and religious organisations - at one point seeming to single out religious organisations for special funding to support the work they had made in the recovery effort. This worried me for two reasons - firstly, it's again supporting the idea that voluntary organisations, not government, should be organising relief work like this. The unprecedented (for America) scale of the damage means governments should be playing a role. Secondly, it is worrying when an evangelical zeal is finding its way into government. I'll no doubt expand on this at a later point, but while the executive needs vigour and despatch, constantly referring to God doesn't get you out of problems. To my mind, God only gives assistance, and man still has to make use of them anyway. But beyond that - isn't there supposed to be, in the US, a separation of church and state? Were the actions of the government so poor they can only be justified by trying to tap into the work of religious organisations?

I was at Gettysburg yesterday (more to follow) - the place was understandably full of plaques containing the text of the Gettysburg Address. It's one of the most powerful pieces of prose ever written. And it didn't have to rely on references to God to testify ot the indomitable spirit of man. Why does George Bush need to do differently?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cricket (Again)

I know he just captained the first England team to win the Ashes in 18 years, but can we have a shred of realism regarding how we consider Michael Vaughan, please? I'm not sure he's a brilliant captain in the first place, but that is a matter for another post.

To suggest that he should be included in the Rest of the World team to play Australia in the "Super Test", as this article does, is pure fantasy. He has been woefully out of form for the Ashes series; his average only remotely redeemed by his 166 in the Third Test, when he was lucky to be given as many chances by the Australians as he was. He cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered one of the best players in world cricket at the moment.

If we are looking at the English batsmen who deserve a shot at inclusion, Andrew Strauss has to be top of the list. His first Test was played at number 4; he certainly isn't limited to being an opening batsman. In any case, there is a strong case for making him the opener in a world side anyway. But really, Vaughan, on batting form alone, isn't a guaranteed selection for any side in the world (short of Zimbabwe or Bangladesh). Let's not get totally deluded about the strength of our side just yet...

The Compton-Miller Award

It's been great, even at a distance, to see the sheer joy and elation of England's cricket fans in relation to their triumph in the Ashes. It was a thoroughly deserved win - England were the better team throughout the series. Maybe it was the best Test series of all time, gripping from start to finish. While the NHS may have to cope with a surge in blood pressure problems, my goodness it was worth it. What entertainment!

Two of the biggest entertainers, of course, were Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne. Flintoff proved himself to be one of that very rare breed - the all-rounder worthy of being picked for both batting and bowling alone. Jacques Kallis is near him on that front, but even players like Wasim Akram would struggle to be included in a side for batting merit alone. That Flintoff is such a team player (unlike Kallis), and his enjoyment of the game is abundantly obvious for all to see makes his a joy to watch - he is rightly England's favourite cricketer.

Despite all that, however, in my humble opinion he should not have been given the award for overall best player in the series. That accolade belongs, in my mind, to Shane Warne. I've long said matches between England and Australia would be more even if Glenn McGrath or Warne switched sides. Whilst the pace attack may have been leaderless without McGrath, Warne was the heartbeat of the Australian side. Indeed, take away his 40 wickets (a colossal total in a 5-match series) and the series wouldn't have been remotely close. For all Flintoff's crucial contributions, he at least had a supporting cast. Warne carried Australia virtually single-handedly, and it was nearly good enough to save the Ashes.

That's class for you. His performance was the show of a true competitor. And whilst the emotions tell me to laud Flintoff above all others, the sportsman in me has to hand it to Warnie.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Thoughts on Remembrance

I was in New York for the fourth anniversary of 9/11, although I hadn't planned it that way at all. Maybe that's what kept me well away from the WTC site on the Sunday itself, so perhaps I was away from all the action.

What did strike me, however, was how normal the day seemed from my wanderings up and down the city. Despite all the major headlines in the press about the ceremonies to remember, life seemed to be going on pretty much as normal.

Which to me seemed the perfect act of remembrance. We may be right never to forget, as the display in Penn Station urged us. Yet we have to move on and continue to live our lives as normal, too.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

So Good They Named It Twice

That's right, I'm in New York for the weekend. It's nowhere near enough to expect to see the whole city, so I'm doing my best to soak up the atmosphere as I go along. A tough ask, and one which apparently can leave people feeling overwhelmed and underwhelmed simultaneously - too busy trying to do everything, and so not really achieving anything. I hope I haven't fallen into that trap, and am certainly having a great time so far.

The truly grand places in the world may be elaborate, or huge, but never seem over the top. Tom Quad at Christchurch College in Oxford is the best quad because of its proportions, not because of its size. St Peter's in Rome may be tremendously intricately designed, but because it all fits together well, it doesn't seem unnecessarily extravagant. My reaction to New York is similar. At times, my day felt a bit unreal. I visited Liberty Island, and looking back at the famous skyline it didn't seem as if I was only a boat trip away from it - I thought I was still watching it on TV. Yet when I was wandering around, despite the gigantic height of all the skyscrapers, it never felt unnecessarily ostentatious.

As a side note, I stumbled upon Ground Zero (ie, I had no idea whatsoever I was going to end up there when I did). It's only now I truly appreciate the tragedy that took place there four years ago, almost to the day. Despite the Twin Towers being hugely familiar, the space that they took up was immense - whole blocks wide. That was something I just hadn't fully taken in.

The big aim of my day, however, was getting to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. The weather was perfect, even if the top of my head is now glowing - a lovely way to experience the city for the first time. Ellis Island's Museum, too, was nothing short of fantastic. It didn't try to hide away from the cattle-like conditions, and the dehumanisation of the immigrants; the ranger whose tour I took had a super sense of humour whilst getting across the true nature of the centre. The smell, noise, and emotional trauma of the experience for me was really brought home when we were talked through the legal inspection. There was a genuine list of immigrants from the 1900s there, and as the ranger talked us through the answers he said "of course, I didn't call him Thomas Mulligan - I called him Grandpa". If some of the US politicians remembered how recently many of their families could be traced back to Europe, maybe their attitudes towards it wouldn't be quite so sneering.

After that, I walked for a long time. Took the view from the Brooklyn Bridge, then worked my way up to Times Square. Scale came in again. When you emerge from the subway the light almost blinds you, but once you're out on the street it somehow just seems right, not gaudy. I guess I'm going to end up leaving with regret tomorrow, but having had a fantastic weekend.

Why Exam Grades Are An Issue

In response to Richard, the reason why 47% being sufficient for an A* at GCSE is an issue is because it highlights the true disgrace of our education system - the Uniform Marking Scheme. Rather than actually going through a rigorous procedure of testing exams year on year, the British exam boards see fit to mess about with the standards of our exams by applying a statistical formula each year to determine grade boundaries. This, however, is still somwhat subjective, as the pass marks can still be determined by the Chief Examiner in each subject.

What that means is that there is not an objective A* standard each year. A crude comparison is made instead between year on year ability, and it is assumed that the same number of people as last year are capable of achieving a certain standard. Unless, of course, that cohort actually exceeds the previous year, when it creates a new benchmark.

That's one of the primary factors behind the grade inflation leading to a rapid loss of public confidence in our public examination. And it needs to be stopped. It causes no end of problems - it was the Uniform Marking System that led to the A-Level marking fiasco (which thankfully finished off the awful Estelle Morris). Instead, we should accept that if a rigorous procedure is followed when setting exams, then year on year there isn't going to be much difference between the exams. Therefore fixed percentages can be expected to set the grades. Then we'd actually know how many people really were achieving an expected and accepted standard, rather than meeting the political goals of our masters.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

A Remark On Percentages

I'm sorry, but my self-imposed exile is over, if only briefly. Why, oh why, is this an issue?

There are genuine problems with the UK system of examinations, but why should it be controversial that forty-something percent is enough to get an A*? That assumes that there is a fixed difficulty for every paper. It is quite imaginable that on certain hard papers, that would deserve an A*. It suggests the paper is oddly schewed so it doesn't properly differentiate the candidates, sure. But the media hype is complaining about it for a very different reason... the idea it shows the exam was easy!


Friday, September 09, 2005

So Far Away

Having a great time in the States, but the England cricket team seemed determined to give me a heart attack. Don't waver on me when I can't even shout at a TV screen, guys!

The selection of Collingwood does show one thing very well, though. It's very difficult for a batsman of quality to step up to playing against the Aussies, let alone a bit-part county player. An average of 58, bashing tons against the likes of Derbyshire in the Second Division is not the same as competing against Australia. If you want to strengthen the batting, you need to look beyond the one-day squad. Not that there were many bowling options, to be fair, but nevertheless Flintoff allows there to be balance to the batting order come what may.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

While my posts are intermittent...

... go and read this piece, and the ensuing discussion, at Third Avenue.

The world according to an economist

Or the Wall Street Journal, at the very least. Very little of human interest reporting on Hurricane Katrina. But there is some reassurance - the sales of water purification tablets are sky-rocketing!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More Hurricane Katrina Thoughts

The news has just been depressing recently; the level of devastation in New Orleans is beyond all comprehension. It's understandable, then, that anger turns towards governments that let the situation develop so catastrophically. It's even more understandable when the most visibile efforts being made to deal with the problem are coming from voluntary organisations, like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. And when President Bush is spending lots of time dealing with Supreme Court business - as important as it may be - rather than seeming to take strong action in the clean-up process, then there's no wonder calls for major investigations are taking place.

I'm not decrying the efforts of the voluntary groups - in many cases, they have literally been a godsend in this situation. Yet really, the government should be coordinating efforts in this sort of situation. They have stronger resources. So when Tom DeLay is trying to abrogate responsibility by arguing that emergency procedures were supposed to operate from the bottom up, I'm totally disgusted. The infrastructure of New Orleans was completely washed out by the flooding. That the mayoral office seems to be able to operate at all is a minor miracle. Small government, and local government can only work to a point. The inaction and inability to act of the US government is emphasised by the fact they have been appealing for international aid. Something really needs to be considered more carefully. These procedures have not been sufficient, and a similar scenario may strike at any time in the future (see the hurricanes currently threatening Florida again). Swift revision of procedures must take place.

Oval Dreaming

Well, I'm on the other side of the pond, so my access to following the Ashes decider tomorrow will be decidedly limited - frustrating beyond belief! I understand from the BBC that McGrath is fit, which isn't good news. Nevertheless, I'm still optimistic about the chances for an England victory tomorrow. Firstly, the momentum must be with England now. Even though they've almost thrown two games right down the drain, and failed to win a third they were completely on top of, they now know that they are capable of beating Australia. That mental barrier had always been a problem in the past.Now, it isn't, and the team is playing with a confidence unheard of for an England cricket team. Clive Woodward would be proud.

Secondly, the Australian batsmen have suffered from repeated failure. Even Hayden's century over the weekend can't mask the lack of form he has endured - surely with a better range of options in the squad, he would have been dropped? Gilchrist's form, too, so often a crucial tenet of Australian success, has been woeful.

We're on the verge of a great victory. My travels may take me elsewhere, but I will be thinking in depth about the Ashes. And hoping beyond hope that England can finally prevail. Those of you reading this, please keep me informed in the comments!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fragmenting Spheres

Here in Philadelphia, the weekly "City Paper" contains an article about a weekly get-together of bloggers. "Drinking Liberally" has apparently taken off in liberal circles in the city, frequently attracting 40-50 bloggers, and is now even getting the occasional visit from local politicians willing to meet their detractors face-to-face. Apparently, since the end of the Presidential election, bloggers took a while to find something to turn their attention to, but quickly found their niche in local politics. In the state of Rick Santorum, that's probably not all that surprising.

Now, certainly if it's encouraging the mingling of politicians with the "regular folk", then that's all well and good. Especially the regular folk who take the trouble to be well informed of political issues and are unafraid to attach their names to their opinions when putting them out in the public sphere. Carefully media-managed photo-ops do far too much to degrade the reputation of politicians. Did it really help John Kerry to be holding rallies in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Philadelphia to make it seem as if he had millions of charged supporters? Wouldn't the time have been better spent pressing the flesh and trying to win over some of those who would have previously seen themselves as conservative?

There, of course, lies a deeper issue. Why should a main drinking meeting of bloggers be limited solely to those who are going to feel comfortable with the epithet of liberal? (If, incidentally, any Philadelphia bloggers read this and can inform me to the contrary, I'd be delighted to hear from them) One of the worst things that can happen in politics is that discussion takes place in rarefied spheres that bear little relation to the real world, and in particular the juxtaposition of right and left side by side. The political class in Britain spends all its time in party think-tanks, and is, I am sure, one of the huge contributory factors to the way that politicians become convinced that it is presentation and not policy that makes the difference in the voters minds.

The real strength of blogging lies in the fact that the "new media" have the chance to engage with each other in an entirely different way. As I have said before, blogging isn't necessarily a medium for political campaigning - instead, it should be used as a means of having genuinely interesting, deep and wide-ranging debate. Engaging with the ideas of other bloggers, rather than just linking to posts we like, or trying to flog the Guardian for employing a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, is the best way that we can make a contribution to political life. We may even throw up new ideas or surprising areas of agreement.

To do that, of course, requires consorting with the enemy. We all like to go out for a drink, I'm sure, and those of us who blog probably like to have a discussion about politics while we're at it. Do we really want to be discussing on minute levels of disagreement with people who share the same opinions as us, or do we want to be challenged in greater detail on the basic assumptions that we hold? To have to actually fight our corner. I know which I prefer. I want my opinions to be challenged - if I can't defend them to those who disagree with me, they're probably not worth a damn anyway. Which is why it's great to see politicians engaging with their opponents in such settings. It's just regrettable that the bloggers don't want to be put on the back foot themselves.

Geopolitics, Economist-style

In England, the news listings of the Economist are the same every week. Britain first, then Europe, then the US, the Americas, Asia and Africa. Possibly quite apt given the nature of news coverage in the UK. The striking thing about the listings in the US, however, is that they are almost totally reversed. US first, then the Americas, then Asia and Africa, followed by Europe, with Britain last of all.

This is a pattern that is perhaps most striking given the regularity of The Economist's format, but looking at other American weeklies, too, gives a similar impression. The broadest range of articles outside of US news is dedicated to the growth of China and India; Europe tends only to feature either when battling terrorism (eg the London bombings), or when it is dealing with new political trends, such as the rejection of the EU constitution.

The broader point? That we overestimate our importance in Europe all too often. In particular, advocates of the EU like to think of it as an organisation that can provide a counterweight to America as the world's only superpower. Yet on the American conscience, it is the rise of China that looms largest. Ideologically and economically speaking, China is gearing up to be the challenger as the next superpower; there's a fear in the US that India may well be going that way too (I'm a bit more sceptical). Europe, if media coverage is anything to go by, is a bit of a non-player.

France may be able to flex its muscles on a world stage whenever something important gets put to a vote on the Security Council, but beyond that, the US really doesn't give much of a damn what it thinks. Nor too much about the rest of Europe, either. Just because Britain's news may be Eurocentric doesn't mean we're as significant in the world as we may like to think.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

I'm currently in the States at the moment, and for obvious reasons the destruction of New Orleans has been pretty much the major thing exercising everyone's minds (well, there's the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, too, but I'll post more on that later when I've read more). The thing that strikes me refers to items I have written here before - most notably the piece "Blame and the State", which I will link to later. People are always quick to blame the government when things go wrong. Certainly, here there are reasons for complaint, although the fact that the impact of the storm seemed to be more a result of the aftermath, rather than the storm itself, probably was partially responsible for slow action being taken. Katrina may not have directly hit New Orleans, but the aftermath was terrible enough.

However, if you actually want government to act properly, you have to grant it the resources that it needs. Now, if you are a writer on Samizdata, you probably think that the private sector can deal with this all anyway and there's no need for government. Then again, you probably also like the fact that private citizens with guns are the most proactive in law enforcement following the looting that inevitably followed the evacuation. If, however, the White House and the State House are going to be hammered for failing to respond properly, the question has to be asked - could they have done so?

Of course, electing such a fiscally irresponsible President as Bush causes problems in itself, especially when he only granted about 20% of the request to help a flood defence fund - which may well have stopped the levees from breaking. (Not that this is a dig solely at Bush - Blair is presiding over a similar wasting of money in Britain - who knows where the money will go when we have to rein in spending in the UK?). But when things aren't going wrong in the US, the stock reaction is to hope that government butts its nose out of the way. Taxes are an unnecessary and unhelpful intrusion; regulation is seen as stifling things (although only in certain circumstances - it's perfectly OK to ban the NFL from playing on Friday and Saturday so as to avoid competition with high school and college football). Government action is always viewed with suspicion until it is too late.

In short, if you don't trust the government with necessary powers, then you can't always take the action that you want to. And in New Orleans this seems to be the case. States rights and small government cloud taking effective action immediately. There needs to be a recognition that government is a social institution, and like all social institutions, it needs help to perform the tasks that you want it to.