Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Google Search Results

To the person who came here today on a search for "intelligent political questions" - I just hope that you found some intelligent political answers!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

SportBlog Reminder

Just a note to say I will be doing the SportBlog roundup again this time next week. All posts that relate to sport in some way shape or form are eligible - email them to me at sportblog at googlemail dot com

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Thoughts on Coursework

There has been much debate, in both the blogosphere and the media, about coursework recently. You will find articles by Mike Baker, Johann Hari, Jonathan Calder and Peter from the Apollo Project all discussing the various merits of assessed coursework for GCSE examinations in particular.

There is no doubt that coursework does make examination assessment "easier" for many pupils. Provided it is remotely planned, it takes away the stress of exams, allows for careful and detailed planning on a single area (rather than revising for many areas on the hope they come up), and gives the chance for you to think more carefully about your answers. To a certain extent, I don't see a huge problem with this. It has always seemed unfair to me that if you are going to have examinations that decide people's future, that you don't allow them the best chance to show off how well they can do.

The question that has been rightly flagged up, of course, is slightly different. Firstly there is the question of plagiarism and cheating, of which the risk must be great. The broader point, raised by Johann Hari first of all, is the question of how much it helps middle-class families. Does it give them a disproportionate advantage when it comes to exam results?

Problems of cheating could be sorted out, if only the examination boards were prepared to tackle the issue more clearly. The exam boards in Britain are a total and utter mess - of that there can be no doubt. They do not even clerically check the adding up of every single exam script, because they do not employ enough people to carry it out. Instead they use a form of "sampling", and if no errors are shown on a tiny fraction of an examiner's work, then they just OK the whole batch as it is. It's a similar attitude to that they take when checking teacher's assessment of coursework.

Rather than checking every single coursework script (this is certainly the case at GCSE, and I believe for some A-Level scripts as well), the exam boards ask for a sample of work to be sent to them, usually meaning a high, middle and low mark from each group assessed. Then if they match up to the general standards, they are put through on the nod. If they aren't, rather than assessing every individual script, marks are increased or lowered for the whole batch, without the paper having been reviewed. When such a haphazard standard is applied to the scrutiny of scripts, it is no wonder there is a loss of faith in the system. Additionally, there could be greater checks made on the correlation between coursework marks and examination marks - and if schools are seen to have consistently surprising discrepancies, they could be given much greater scrutiny or even prevented from submitting coursework altogether.

This doesn't fully answer the problems of assistance with coursework, however. In many ways, it is simply too great an area to be able to assert anything with any particular authority. Some forms of drafting and re-drafting are acceptable - and indeed, I would contend that being able to redraft a piece of work to strengthen its argumentation is a vital skill that should be taught to children in a school system. Yet "advice" can quickly stray over into writing someone's project for them, and it is difficult to imagine any adequate wording of examination regulations that leaves space for "advice" without simultaneously leaving space for wildly different interpretations of that word.

As for the question of certain types of families helping their children more than others, and thus giving them a disproportionate advantage - well, this is in-built into our school system anyway. The fact that the nature of the school system means middle-class children get to the best schools must surely be the more important factor in exam results? I would be interested to see if there was much variation in the difference between the marks of different schools on examinations and the marks on coursework, when taken as separate elements.

Coursework, of course, is an easy target. It's easy for the dumbing-down crowd, as it doesn't have sufficient "rigour". Or it's too easily plagiarised. And for the class warrior crowd, it helps the middle-class families. I wonder what they would say if they had it pointed out what the implications of this are - that working-class families don't care about education? Interesting.

Anyway, the difficulty is that continuous assessment, lessening the burden on finalexams, and encouraging the management and writing of a research project are all desirable ends - they teach a wider range of skills, examine a useful range of skills, and help a child show off his full ability rather than being saddled for life with grades representing under-achievement. Just because coursework is a soft target does not mean its value should be depreciated. What is needed is more efficient marking and more efficient checking of standards.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Where We Hope To Keep Safe From Pain

"But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person." - George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

To see the images of a young George Best across all the newspapers this morning was a moving experience. Moving because the only George Best I ever saw in my lifetime was the alcoholic Best; the congenial, warm man who couldn't escape from his genius on a football field. The man who appeared on TV most weeks looking world-weary and heavy, a far cry from the trendy, superlative athlete that I will, ultimately, remember him as.

Best's was not a life beyond reproach - drunkenness, wife-beating, time spent in jail. But what redeeming features he had! When you placed a football at his feet, he was nothing short of an artist. People may sneer at football, but at its best, sportsmen can do what Michaelangelo, Picasso, van Gogh never could - sheer artistry. Moments that for their grace and beauty will live in the mind for a long time; in a romanticised world, even forever. Yet they are only possible through improvisation and inspiration, for the opportunity to create them is only available in an instant.

For all the hard work that Best put in on the training ground, it was his natural gifts that made him so special. When you gave him a moving ball, an opponent out to cut him in half, and a fraction of a chance at goal, he could seize that chance, move through a space that wasn't there, and leave a collective audience of thousands gasping in awe at what it had created. Its fleeting nature can never obscure its brilliance.

"I even found it difficult to watch myself playing on TV because I couldn't identify with the person on the screen. I couldn't get to grips with it. It was as if it was all happening to someone else."

When you look at a juxtaposition of Georgie then and now, you can't help but feel that it was happening to someone else. Yet for all the tabloid circus that surrounded him the rest of his life, it will be what he did when his boots were laced that will be the abiding memory of Best. For that is the wider power of sport. When we rest from work and focus on something so seemingly inconsequential, we project on to our heroes what we want to see. Normally, when the gap between man and myth seems so large, there is almost a sense of betrayal. Why do we feel let down when Wayne Rooney shows his petulance? Because we feel guilty that a man of such talent shouldn't waste it so stupidly.

Best gets forgiven, for all the sense that we were watching a man who never achieved quite what he could have done. Of course, his flaws were half the fun. Would we really want him to have been soccer's Steve Davis? More to the point, if he had been Steve Davis, he would never have been so great. I am firmly of the belief that if you find a man doing what he enjoys and is good at, you get a true insight into his personality. A boring Best would have taken away his flair.

Of course, it is the fact that the team, the sport gives a wider sense of identity that gives sport so much power. That is why we write our dreams on to our heroes; why the minutiae of a win, loss or draw has such a powerful emotional impact. The team becomes a surrogate for the community; the star players become our friends and family. That is why Best's death has been so heavily covered by the news - although we never met him, we all felt like we knew the man. No matter that we couldn't. How could we not know a man who we could see at all times and in all places? When George Best had a ball at his feet, he made us all happy. Through the wonder of TV, he can continue to make us happy for a long time to come. It is a testament to his skill and his charm that it is the myth, not the man, who will be remembered.

George, I hope that you rest in peace.

Still Embracing Mediocrity

The Times reports today that the brightest children at 11 are being failed by state schools. Whereas children in the top 5% of the country at private schools are almost certain to get 3 As at A-Level, only a third of state school children have the same achievement. While this is worrying, it is not entirely surprising, given the problems of comprehensive education.

Co-blogger Richard was telling me earlier this week that if you look at "value-added" school rankings, where improvement at each level is measured, there isn't a huge difference between different types of schools. There are two things that come out of this: firstly, that variation in educational provision needs to be tackled right from the bottom up (and this may well include trying to encourage more families to foster a culture of learning; not just improving primary schools). The more detailed problem is the vacuousness of the statistics.

As I wrote back in July, children taking official tests at age 11 are graded in bands extending up to Level 5. This is all well and good, except that the government expect children to achieve Level 4 at that age. Thus, those who are 'good enough' to pass are lumped into two pretty broad categories that are not particularly helpful in diagnosing future progress. Although I don't know the exact figures, assuming that 70% of children achieve the level expected, that means that even a rough division of the two categories has 35% of children being assigned the same level.

How is our school system supposed to help the brightest in the country when statistically they get swept aside? The government chases media headlines by setting targets for the basic level of learning expected from schools (it is, of course, expert in the manipulation of statistics) - and thus great pressure is placed on teachers to prioritise helping those on the borderline between pass and fail.

Broad-brush groupings of pupils who are well above average standard doesn't help them at all. They're always going to pass; they're almost always going to get high marks; the chances of them not receiving the top grade possible is pretty slim. Why should teachers spend time on that when their school's reputation and their professional standing depends on other children? The problem only comes to a head at a later stage when the ability needed to step up to greater levels is more pressing.

Grading the brightest students according to broad bands is never going to help the high achievers at state schools. At all the key stage assessments that will be used in a study like the one reported by the Times, students are being assessed by national criteria that are aimed at a middle or lower tier of the population. A state education system has a responsibility to make sure no child is left behind. That's fine, but only to a point. Bright kids have educational needs too. A comprehensive system where they are lumped together in a class, reinforced by an education system that fails to recognise their high achievement, cannot respond to them.

Labour's educational record is one of embracing mediocrity. When "value added" scores are taken into account, children who should have done better in their exams don't really get picked up. Because when they were at Level 5 at age eleven, in reality they would have been at a Level 6 or possibly even a Level 7. Slipping down the rankings later is not quite so easy to pick up, I would imagine: because it is so difficult to talk of an average "Level 5 student" there is no real knowledge in schools of how those raw numbers should correlate into exam results at 16 or 18.

And of course, attention is all too often not paid to them anyway. Schools funding and reputation is boosted by catch-all headlines figures, that look at how far basic standards are met - nothing to do with the potential high-flyers whose achievements are, ultimately, less crucial. This sounds a bleak picture - but unless there is pressure applied on pupils, the chances of fulfilling potential are less. Yes, it might be said I am taking away personal agency here - but at the same time, it is possible to create a culture that uses personal agency as a force for good. I don't want to just stand back and let our education system crumble into dust. Until we start considering all pupils, not just those lower down the scale, the inequalities that have been highlighted on the front page of the Times today will continue.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Economics of Healthcare

There's been a minor controversy recently about the decision of the NHS in East Anglia to refuse hip and knee replacement operations to those who are clinically classified as obese. The comments at Harry's Place have been particularly interesting: basically focusing upon who has the right to decide on these matters. The more provocative comments have pointed out that health treatments are routinely refused to those with what are deemed "unacceptable" lifestyles.

In the NHS there are already decisions made about life-style. Are you still drinking? Are you still smoking? Then no you can't have this transplant we'll give it to someone else. That's not a moral decision its just preventing a waste of time and resources (organs) on a treatment with a poor likelihood of success.

The problem with that argument is that we aren't really dealing with finite resources in the case of hip replacements, as we would be in the case of liver transplants. I don't think that anyone would deny in an ideal world it would be desirable for everyone needing one to have a suitable transplant. Yet when the physical reserves are scarce, priorities do have to be made - and ultimately it is justifiable that those with the lowest risk should be given some priority alongside need.

I use the word 'physical' in the last sentence deliberately. The reason that the Primary Care Trust has made the decision it has is that they need to cut costs. There isn't a material want that causes a need to prioritise, as in the case of 'flu jabs or organ transplants. Is it, therefore, fair for people to be denied a replacement knee on the grounds of obesity?

Ultimately, I think the decision is unjustifiable. The NHS rests on the principle that everyone is entitled to healthcare free at the point of access. When it is funded from tax money, that also has to mean everyone - it is a social good to have a healthy nation looked after by a health service. It is wrong for people to be expected to fund the healthcare of others if they have no access to the same treatment. The question should really be - is there a natural right to a hip or knee replacement on the NHS, or is it a superfluous treatment? Without being a medical expert, I couldn't comment, although I do know that treatments in one area can save costs in other related areas massively. If there is a right to the treatment, however, then it should be available to all. Similarly, if there is a cost issue relating to treatment, the decision must not be "who do we treat?" It must be "which treatments are most essential?"

The other question raised by the decision concerns the "postcode lottery" argument. It is already a worrying fact of the NHS that people in neighbouring cities can have significantly higher chances of death than others purely by accident of their location. We now have a clear-cut case of where the accident of location now restricts access to treatment. The problem with this is that it isn't a decision made by people who can be held accountable for their actions.

If decisions are going to be made on local variance in the health service, then there must be an accountable body through which local people can make their decisions known. Of course, it is vital to take into account the opinions of local doctors on where resources can be allocated most usefully and efficiently. But that should form part of an informed public debate, not a decision made behind closed doors that cannot subsequently be challenged through any effective process. For such strong local variance in the quality and quantity of treatment, democratic control is the only acceptable means through which this should be allowed.

Mine's a Pint! (of orange squash...)

One thing that I've noted from just about all the discussion of the new licensing laws among bloggers is that we are all incredibly fond of the idea of the local pub, and our quiet drink in the corner. There seems to be no love whatsoever for the rowdy Yates' Wine Lodge or other places where you can buy drinks at extortionate prices with even louder music.

To me, this shows that most bloggers have good taste. But I'm not sure it does much to dispel the stereotype!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 6

The Great War, and more particularly experience of the trenches, is gradually slipping away from modern memory. Earlier this week, the last veteran to have played football in the famous Christmas truce of 1914 passed away. Where does this leave our commemoration of the Great War? Is it something that will just be an event, that appears like trees - there, but decorative of our history, not a permanent force in shaping it?

Travelling to the Battlefields of the Great War was an affecting experience. Connecting the landscape, the human memory, and the broader knowledge of the history brought the main issues of war home to me closer than any number of textbooks could ever achieve. Until you've walked from the trenches to the nearest village, and suddenly realise how ordinary people were placed within the range of artillery fire, the humanity of the slaughter doesn't shine through. It can't - the numbers only ever tell you part of the story.

As I wrote in my previous posts on the theme, the point of remembrance is to make that connection between the facts and the effects. The danger, of course, is that they become over-sentimentalised. Thinking after the event, the dangers of our approach to remembrance are evident. For whilst the physical effects of the war may be passing from living memory, some of the mental effects are still with us. Our parents will remember grandparents having to cope with the loss of children, or maybe even had their own grandparents suffering from gas attacks and such like. Focusing on the terror of the war only once a year may well bring about an importance sense of communal identity. But it runs the risk of sentimentalising sacrifice.

Realising that 1914, in the military sense at least, is out of living memory, makes me realise also that it is vital we don't limit our remembrance to a two-minute silence, or the unconscious wearing of a poppy. The implications and effects of the war were more profound than we can consider simply through ritual acts or the remembrance of our family. In many ways, it really has brought us to where we are today - warts and all. It is right that in the two-minute silence that we remember those who gave their lives so valiantly. It is right we remember them in a reverent light, shining boots, shoulders back, happy and smiling. Yet even those who came back were never the same again. If we are really to learn from our past, we have to think beyond those two silent minutes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

SportBlog Roundup #2

Welcome to the second edition of the extravaganza that is the SportBlog roundup - your one stop shop for everything that's been going on in the world of sports in the past fortnight. Whether you are hacked off by the haka, cut up about Shahid Afridi or cheering for the Colts, anything related to sports is welcome here. As ever, send me links to what you think I've been missing at sportblog at googlemail dot com.

To begin with this week, Tom G at Balls, Sticks and Stuff asks us the rhetorical question, Aren't we all Charlie Brown?:
And, whenever my round of golf is over and I head home, settle into a chair, and turn on the Phillies, I just know they are going to win, even if they are in the midst of a five game losing streak.
He also finds evidence that Samuel Alito is more unqualified for the Supreme Court than we first thought.

Continuing the Philadelphia theme, Manata has pictorial proof that it is the Philadelphia Flyers goaltender, and not the moon, which is really made of swiss cheese.

Moving back to Britain for a little while - Jonathan at Liberal England firstly deserves credit for finding what is undoubtedly the quote of the fortnight. He also isn't impressed with Tony Blair's appearance on Football Focus. It's funny how politicians try and gain credit from appearing on these programmes and end up looking like the publicity-seeking whores they are, isn't it?

One of the two Daves on Soccer visited Highbury this last week, and comments on his experiences of his first match in London.

This ode to frustrated fandom is courtesy of Chris Young at Just Another Blog on Sports (JABS for short - clever, eh?), which is well worth a look at more generally for consistently interesting comment and informative links.

Eric McErlain at Off Wing Opinion proves that bloggers are taken somewhat more seriously in the US than they are in the UK - not only did he get a special invite to a Washington Capitals NHL game from their owner, he also got introduced to everyone as a "blogger". Not sure that would open too many doors over here! His account of his meeting can be found here, with a follow-up here.

Yet more NHL blogging comes courtesy of Christy, who writes quite a monumental piece on Detroit legend Steve Yzerman. I'm not an avid NHL fan, but anyone who can inspire this much writing and sentiment has to be worth reading about.

Will at the Corridor of Uncertainty has a succinct but cutting piece about Shahid Afridi's desire to hold the dual role of cricketer and groundsman. Zainub throws her view in, too.

Bleed Blue 'n White salutes Penn State's legendary long-serving coach Joe Paterno. No surprise there then.

Sania Mirza is the heroine of Indian tennis, but is somewhat less popular with certain Muslim groups for playing in revealing clothing. Good Times and Bad Times, and Lazy Susan both post further thoughts on her recent statements.

Hero's Code explains the virtues of performing the haka - and, in the process, helps confirm my view that the haka gives an unfair advantage to New Zealand. Think of England shares my cynicism. Sticking with the egg-chasers, Londonist reflects both on the England - New Zealand match at the weekend and the thought processes that should have informed the decision making process on who hosted the 2011 World Cup.

To finish off, I guess I have to include something on the final qualifications for the football World Cup to be held this summer. Nicholas Laughlin writes of his celebrations that Trinidad and Tobago made it through to Germany, whilst Roi Ankhkara hopes that it will be good for the development of the nation. Adrian is almost certainly the first, and probably the last, person to adopt Switzerland as his chosen team in place of Kenya. Finally, Australia are celebrating reaching the World Cup finals, with the experience recounted in a long post here. I suppose they have to find something to celebrate now that they can't beat England at cricket or rugby!

That's all for now; I'll have another update in a fortnight's time. Please send any submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com - editorial control isn't very strict! As a side note, I may make this a weekly roundup if I get sent enough information. Anyway, hope you enjoyed the roundup, see you in a fortnight!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Drinking Cultures

It's quite appropriate that this piece on Harry's Place, regarding the social exclusion that Muslims claim they feel when alcohol is present at social events, is posted just a few days before 24-hour licensing laws come into effect. They both raise a wider point about the role of drinking within British culture. Why is it so central, is it alientating, and does access to alcohol hve an effect on social cohesion? I deliberately phrase these questions in the broadest possible terms, because whilst the Harry's Place item specifically asks about Muslims, the broader attitude of newspapers like the Daily Mail does implicitly suggest that alcohol, at least when consumed to excess, is bad for the community (something I would vehemently dispute). More broadly, they also suggest that the impulse to imbibe is so strong for a sufficient number of people that communities will inevitably degenerate once licensing laws are relaxed. Otherwise their opposition to a law which still requires local assent for licenses makes no sense whatsover.

Full disclosure here: I am a teetotaller myself, largely on health grounds. I do, however, spend a large amount of my time in drinking establishments of various kinds. That is because generally I enjoy the atmosphere of such establishments. However, I am also aware of how drinking changes eople, and how it can make certain atmospheres highly alienating to people. A prime example would be my university freshers' week - most of the social events in the evenings were based around drinking, and the implication was that such drinking was heavy. I was lucky; I had made friends quickly and had remembered many from open days and so on. Yet had I not, I can easily see how the experience of my first week could have been overbearing and overwhelming; that fact would have been entirely down to alcohol.

That said, I am totally in favour of allowing pubs to open around the clock. The problem with binge drinking may be in part down to pubs and their deliberate promotion of cheap beer and such like; but it is just as much down to the binge drinkers themselves. They have the power to stop drinking - moreover, publicans have the right (some would say responsibility) not to serve them. That some people are unable to control their drinking is no reason to punish society - it is highly annoying, as happened to me last Friday, to emerge from a play at about 11, but to be unable to go anywhere to have a drink afterwards.

If problems are caused by binge drinkers, crack down on them - allocate more police resources and/or punish them more heavily. It is possible to have a different drinking culture, and Blair should be applauded for trying to create one. There is no good reason why civilised establishments should close at 11, and force most social occasions either to retreat to houses or to be continued in nightclubs blaring out ghastly music at volumes totally unconducive to conversation.

That said, the previous paragraphs basically accept that a drinking culture is at the heart of Britain. More deeply, however, the question is how one drinks, not when one drinks - and I think this gets to the heart of the complaint made by Muslims. From the small comments made, it is difficult to discern exactly what their complaints are. Is it that alcohol seems to be at the centre of the social world in which most British business operates, or is it the way in which alcohol is used? For example, the complaint made about the boozy dinners on the barristers' course is totally different to a dinner where alcohol is served, but in moderate quantities.

Professionally, Muslims have found themselves excluded from alcohol-lubricated networking. "At work, when they choose to go to the pub, you're being excluded," said Khadija El Shayyal.

That is something which I would fundamentally dispute. It is not going to the pub that excludes someone; it is the quantities of alcohol consumed - unless, of course, their religious views are so strong that simply drinking alcohol in their presence is offensive. In which case, I think the cultural incompatibility is so strong that it almost isn't worth considering.

On the wider point - is drinking so socially accepted that you can become ostracised if you don't drink? - I don't think that's the case either, unless you make it an excuse for not integrating. If everyone is heading off after work for a drink, for example, you don't have to join in the drinking, but you can join in the conversation. Once the inebriation begins to make it harder for you to participate (as it undoubtedly will, at some point), no-one will mind if you slope off - in fact, a lot of people may not even notice. And if your reasons for not drinking are 'good' (health in my case, religion in the case of those commenting), I find people are generally respectful of that, and are more conscious of your feelings on the matter. In short, it's as much an issue as you choose to make of it.

Pubs are, on the whole, places for good. They're not too far off coffee houses in many ways, and are a key part of social interaction. Sure, people misuse them and the facilities they provide. But people have misused just about any positive advance in history. Would we want to do without a lightbulb because of the electric chair?

Why Blog?

Although it's not my primary hobby, I do spend a fair amount of my time blogging. Not just writing my blog, but reading around various news articles to see if there is anything interesting to post on, or spending time reading and commenting on other blogs. One question that could genuinely be asked of me in regard to this is - why? Why on earth do I bother? It's not as if I have significant numbers of readers, or, as far as I am aware, have had any significant impact on the way people think.

Nor is it that I'd be short of opportunities to get more readers. Given the number of people who comment whenever I have a letter published in the student papers, I'd probably reach a far greater audience if I were just to write for one of them. Of course, there are many benefits to blogging that simply wouldn't be present if I were to try and write features for a student paper. Most obviously, the need to impress an editor. As much as I use my blogging to try and improve my writing - to get better at getting my points across succinctly - I am happy writing for myself. I can choose the subjects I consider most interesting; write as little or as much as I like; and I can write as regularly as I please. Far more self-indulgent, yes, far more fun too. It does have its wider benefits, though, because I think that being able to strike while the iron is hot is one of the great advantages of the blogosphere. It isn't a stilted medium because anyone can write as and when they please.

Implicit within the last paragraph, of course, is the fact that I enjoy writing. I have views on many different issues; they can't always come up in conversation, and some of the time my random thoughts occur at awkward times - in the middle of the night, whilst on the bus, or when sitting quietly enjoying a coffee. Blogging allows me to develop these thoughts further. There's many times I thought I had a clear opinion on a subject; once I had to justify it in writing, it was much harder. Sometimes simply the process of working out my thoughts gives me great pleasure and advances my thinking in certain areas. Writing as a discipline is fun to me; to do it in the semi-structured form of a blog is a great way of developing this.

So, am I expecting to get anywhere with this blog? No. Not at all. I write for the fun of it - to get more readers would be nice; ultimately, if I wanted that, I'd have to devote significantly more time to the blog. Do I really want to do that? I don't think so; there are too many other things going on in life for me to spend all my time at a computer screen pontificating (I can sit in a library pontificating instead). What I have enjoyed most about writing here, though, is the possibilities of entering a broader debate - to challenge my own views, to learn more, and to, I hope, contribute in an interesting way to the thoughts of my readers. Whether I change their minds or make them more intransigent. That, surely, is the key point of blogging - to further a conversation. With whom, and on what topics, is our own choice. That's the wonder of it all.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Changing Your Mind

Neil Harding, the blogger formerly known as "the only blogger to be pro-ID cards", has now officially changed his mind. He must be quite relieved to get that weight from off his back! Reading the comments on the post, however, disappointed me a bit more. Despite the various messages of congratulation, and offers of a pint, one comment expressed surprise by saying "no-one changes their mind on the Internet!" This may well be true (although Jarndyce successfully convinced my co-blogger Richard of an alternative mode of electoral reform in May), but if the British blogosphere is going to be anything other than a cacophany of shouting and noise, then it can't be.

The mainstream media have been giving blogs a fair amount of attention recently - no doubt in part because of the recent publication of Tim Worstall's anthology of British blogging this year. Yet the one angle that seems to be missed by much of the rest of the blogging world is that there are only certain blogging voices that the media are interested in publicising. In particular, the pro-war left and the libertarian right - in short, the two semi-significant groupings in British politics that aren't really represented either in the media or the political parties. And whilst they often throw up interesting angles on issues that really aren't considered (and, indeed, have posts sufficiently regularly to justify a regular look), the two leading blogs of this variety - Samizdata and Harry's Place - often just become incredibly dogmatic. Stories that they agree or disagree with are critiqued on the same basis again and again. There's only so long you can hear that the Stop the War coalition or lower taxes are evil without getting bored.

The other type of blog that gets publicity is the pithy blog - that contains posts with a paragraph or two that a newspaper can fit into a side column, usually making some fantastical claim that this represents what the "blogosphere is saying" on a given issue. In fact, it's much more like a Jeremy Vine phone-in on Radio 2, where you get a load of cranks talking extremist nonsense - but equal measures of extremism from each side. Again, however, it's part of the "shout the loudest" syndrome. Using a swear word or two, or otherwise insulting opponents, doesn't get us much further in actually progressing the debate. And isn't it the lack of debate that's normally cited as the problem with political participation?

If the blogosphere really wants to be seen as the "new commentariat", I think the prominent bloggers are probably going to have to be a little less happy just to get face time. I can't blame them - if I had any of the national newspapers interested in what I was writing, I'd be absolutely delighted. Yet bloggers get treated almost like an embarrassing little brother by the big media. They're there, they've got something interesting to say, but to stop them yapping at our ankles we'll just give them a little bit of praise here and there. I know I've argued this before, but the niche for the blogosphere in Britain isn't ideological - it's in raising the quality of debate. I've learnt far more about ID cards, for example, from reading blogs on the issue than on any reading of the national newspapers. That is where Britbloggers come into their own - filling in the gaps, continuing the debate, forcing people to engage with each other. We want more Neil Hardings. Not because he's come round to my point of view, but because he's taken on an argument, extended it heavily, and then been big enough to admit he was wrong. If it had happened the other way round, I'd have been pleased, too. The media and the political parties are causing Britain enough problems as it is through giving us one line and stifling debate where possible. Bloggers shouldn't let dogma allow it to happen to them.

SportBlog Roundup

Just another reminder - on Tuesday the second SportBlog roundup will be here on Militant Moderate. All the best sport-related blogging of the last two weeks will (hopefully) be here. To do that, though, I need your help! That is, I need you to point out the stuff that has slipped through my radar.

Email any submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

Saturday, November 19, 2005

David Cameron and the Political Class

Back in the summer, I wrote about the development of the political class. That is, a group of people for whom politics is nothing other than a career; who see a clearly defined ladder for them to climb, the only aim being to get up it as soon as possible. Their entire life, certainly from leaving university, and most probably before it, is spent towards gaining influence in vital circles and assisting their climb up the greasy pole.

I mention this because David Cameron is one of them, and he's being pretty damn disingenuous when he claims that he didn't know at university that he wanted to become a politician. It's a clever dodge of the fact that he almost certainly knew what he was going to do for his career, even if he didn't get involved in hacking at Oxford. But because it's a nice soundbite, and might actually win him some sympathy, despite the probability of him having taken Class A drugs at university. And we wouldn't want the truth to get in the way of a nice soundbite, would we?

Take a look at his career since leaving Oxford. He's 38 or 39 now, and was elected at the age of 34 to the seat of Witney. Four years before then, he was the unsuccessful Tory candidate in Stafford; for seven years before he was elected he worked for an international PR firm. So that takes us back to about the age of 27; we know that before then he was a special advisor both to Michael Howard at the Home Office and Norman Lamont at the Treasury, so that's getting back to about the age of 24. And according to the BBC profile, he was on the PMQs briefing team for both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Working for Thatcher? That takes us back to 1990 at least - so that's 23.

From the age of 23, then, David Cameron has been, in some shape or form, working for the Conservative Party in positions that he must have known would be ideal for networking, getting his name known in party circles and ultimately creating a long-term career path for him. Are we to suppose that this epiphany came to him in the two years immediately following graduating at Oxford? Call me a cynic, but I somehow doubt it.

Cameron is, of course, right when he says young people shouldn't be dissuaded from doing things when young simply because they want to be politicians when they are older. That isn't good for them, and it isn't good for democracy. We don't want nothing other than media-friendly clones in Parliament - we need to be represented, and having some experience of real life must surely make that task easier? The development of a political class is worrying for democracy - because that means more focus groups, more special advisers, and more specious bullshit about values. As David Davis said, people don't want to know what politicians 'stand for'. They want to know what they mean.

What sticks in my craw, though, is that Cameron is saying something valuable to save his own skin, when it isn't really true. Guido Fawkes talks about Paxman asking Cameron about Class A drugs; I can't see a way Cameron wouldn't have denied it if it was true. But saying he wasn't planning on becoming a politician at that point doesn't quite ring true to me. I know people at Oxford who want to be politicians and I know the sorts of actions that they take - Cameron has followed it almost to the letter. There was no Damascine conversion where he decided he wanted to take power; this has been an ambition of his for a long time. Being a member of the political class is bad enough, though - what irks me even more is the lengths Cameron will go to denying that it is true.

Friday, November 18, 2005

An Accident Waiting to Happen

The BBC is reporting huge surprise at Roy Keane's departure from Manchester United. They've interviews various pundits saying that they were "flabbergasted" at the announcement. The only thing that has surprised me about it is that they waited so long.

Keane's "punditry" on MUTV may never have made it to the TV screens. But the contents aren't locked forever in an Old Trafford broom cupboard. They are some of the lest-kept secrets in football - Alan Smith described as a headless chicken, Rio Ferdinand denounced for thinking he's a superstar "after playing well for 20 minutes against Spurs", and, in general, the whole desire of the team called into question. The team is even more spineless than Keane alleged if they could ever feel confident about playing with the man again.

One of the best things I saw written about sports was by Bill James, more famed for his number-crunching that introduced whole swathes of new statistical thinking into baseball. He wrote that every strength was simultaneously a weakness; that without vigilance, the power of the strength would be overcome by the power of the weakness. If you're playing table tennis and position yourself so that you have more chance of the ball being played to your forehand, you give your opponent a greater chance to manoeuvre the ball into unhittable positions. In the stock market, success can make traders overconfident and ultimately lose money by trading too much. Keane's utter self-belief was an undoubted strength of his. His leadership inspired the 199 vintage of the Red Devils to great things; a team that achieved far more than the sum of its parts. Self-belief taken too far in a team context, however, is ultimately destructive.

Few people gave Ireland a chance of doing remotely well in the 2002 World Cup when Keane stormed out in protest at Mick McCarthy's management. It took a strong man to do that; I can't imagine that were I ever talented enough at football, that I could just walk away from what would be one of the greatest experiences of my life. Keane was Ireland's best player, yet taking him away from the team was ultimately good for them - they didn't lose a match and only got knocked out on penalties. The same will probably be true for Manchester United.

As an aside, there are huge parallels between what is going on with Keane and what is going on in the NFL between the Philadelphia Eagles and their star wide receiver, Terrell Owens. Owens is a fantastically gifted player, yet has a major ego problem. At both his teams, he has ultimately been sacked by them for consistently calling out players in the media because they weren't allowing him to showcase his talents enough. He caused enough chaos in the offseason in Philadelphia, when he complained that other players on the team, most notably their quarterback, hadn't tried hard enough in the Super Bowl, when he had played not yet fully recovered from a broken ankle. Then, he was suspended by the team for a week in preseason, before continuing to mouth off in the media, complaining the team had "disrespected" him by not celebrating his 100th touchdown catch. The week after, he had a fight in the locker room with a team leader; the Eagles suspended him for four games and deactivated him for the rest of the season. You know something is seriously wrong when a team is prepared to pay its star player millions of pounds not to play for the team.

The situation is highly analogous to Keane's in Manchester. His continued presence on the team was untenable. Because Keane's real value to the team was his leadership - a quality that, in theory, should not diminish despite the obvious waning of his physical powers. You can't continue to be a leader, however, when you're criticising your players publicly, out in the press, not making your complaints in private. An attitude like that becomes cancerous on a team; prevents a true team spirit from developing. Everyone is watching their backs, rather than feeling happy playing for each other. And ultimately, a little bit of teamwork can help overcome large deficiencies in talent.

We shouldn't feel sorry for Keane. He, after all, has admitted that in the past he deliberately targeted Alf-Inge Haaland, ending his career, because Haaland had the temerity to get in the way of another Keane lunge a few seasons earlier that damaged (deservedly) his cruciate ligaments. He was a thug, a bully, and a fairly unpleasant character. His determination was undoubted, and when he could back it up on the pitch with his skill, his spirit rubbed off on their team. The Manchester United of the late 1990s would never be doubted for effort. Once that skill evaporated, however, his bully-boy nature, his thuggery resisted. And he could no longer earn the respect that he craved. His strength - his self-belief and determination - turned into his weakness. No longer the kingpin, he couldn't cope. Manchester United will be a much better team for the loss of him.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cricket Blogging

APOLOGY:For those of you who read this during the day, gremlins in my laptop made me lose about half the piece during posting. So for once, the fact my argument seemed pretty incoherent wasn't actually my fault. I am now attempting to rehabilitate the post...


I don't think I've ever literally been woken up by a punch in the stomach, but yesterday came pretty close. How on earth could England have thrown away that Test match? I'd gone to bed fairly sure of victory, thinking that with a whole day to bat, scoring about 170 more runs with nine wickets left should be a simple task for a team of the calibre of England. How wrong I was. Were it not for the sensible batting of Jones and Udal around the lunch interval, the defeat would have been even more embarrassing. Our batting line-up from number four down has failed woefully in both innings, and it is unacceptable.

Worse, though, it looks as it is becoming a habit of England. It is the one thing that makes Australia's continued claim to be the best side in the world stand up: England cannot finish off sides. Not only can they not finish out close games, they make a bloody hard job of finishing off games that are easily won - like this Test match had been before our second innings started. If we go back to the South Africa tour, the second Test should have been an England win, but the inability to polish off the tail made it a draw. At Edgbaston - by consensus one of the greatest matches ever played - the result was far closer than it should have been. For a world-class side to allow Shane Warne and Brett Lee look so controlling was poor; and the failure of Vaughan's captaincy on that morning shouldn't be forgotten either.

The trend continued at Old Trafford, when we couldn't finish off the tail once more; then at Trent Bridge what should have been a cakewalk nearly turned into a disaster when Shane Warne proved that he had more strength of character in his spinning finger than the whole of the England team put together. These weren't games that should have been close finishes - these were games when England were the better side throughout and failed to finish the match off.

To let one, or maybe even two games slip to a nail-biter might be acceptable, or at least understandable; to let so many in such a short space of time fall through their fingers is nothing short of downright careless. And for a team with the talent of England, it shouldn't do. Victory in the Ashes doesn't win you matches thereafter if your practice is sloppy. And Flintoff and Pietersen definitely were sloppy in the last Test, not applying themselves correctly to the situation. They may have the ability to play one Test-changing innings in ten, but if they are going to play Test-losing innings as well then it's a different matter. A batting line-up containing Paul Collingwood needs to proceed with more caution.

England need to sort that aspect of their game out. They have a good enough side to be genuinely feared the world over - one of the strongest opening partnerships in world cricket; a line-up theoretically well-balanced because of Flintoff; the most balanced seam attack in world cricket; a coach meticulous in his game-planning. There are obvious weaknesses, such as the wicketkeeping of Jones and weaknesses in the middle order (Vaughan has not performed well at 3 for a year and a bit now). There are non-strong points, if not weaknesses, most notably Gile at spinner - crucial to team tactics but unlikely to roll sides over on a regular basis. But all the strengths count for nothing if the team panics and collapses at the first hint of danger. And for England, it is quickly becoming a habit. They need to sort it out. Fast.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Why Is This News?

"UK Still A Target, Warns Met Chief"

Well, I'm glad that one's cleared up then. I mean, really? You mean those Islamic fundamentalists haven't just sat down around a table, decided that they're being a bit nasty, aren't they, and that they should just give up their struggle to subjugate the rest of the world under Islamic rule and enjoy a nice cup of tea instead? I'm so glad that one's cleared up.

It's such a bloody obvious statement of fact - and yet it is there on the front page, the lead item, on the BBC website. The only reason for that can be unnecessary scare-mongering to try and bully the public into supporting measures that will erode their freedom. They might make the police's life a bit easier, heck, they might even stop a couple of terrorist attacks if we're very lucky, but ultimately, the trade-off that makes with the quality of life simply isn't acceptable.

What annoys me even more is that Ian Blair is inconsistent even within sentences. Take this, from the linked report:

Britain remains a target of the highest possible priority to al-Qaeda and its affiliates; we are in a new reality.

Remain suggests a level of constancy - that we are still under threat from al-Qaeda and suicide bombers and God knows what else. Then, apparently, we are in a "new reality". If we remain the same priority for al-Qaeda? How does a man like this get such an important and sensitive job?

I don't envy the police the job of keeping us safe. Then again, I don't envy the poor sods who've been wrongly banged up as a result of at best, police incompetence, and at worst, deliberate manufacturing of evidence to get the "result" desired. And I'm certainly not convinced that giving police sweeping powers of detention is the best way of safeguarding the liberties of the British people in any way, shape or form - whether through misuse of the law so it isn't applied against terrorists, or building up the resentment of the disaffected who would be detained.

But, if there is a case to be made, then make the case. Don't appeal to scare-mongering, don't try and draw on the emotive images of the July 7th bombings - make a clear, rational case for why an extension of power is necessary. Why the media are so complicit in helping an erosion of civil liberties is beyond me.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SportBlog Roundup Call

Just a reminder, this time next week I hope to have version 2 of the SportBlog roundup up and running. So, if there's anything you'd like me to take a look at, just let me know.

Email submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

Monday, November 14, 2005

TV and the Test

Watching England tour Pakistan this morning, I was struck by the fact that TV coverage of the cricket is frequently interspersed with "colour" montages of life in Pakistan - crowded streets with three-wheel taxis, local markets, that sort of thing. And to a certain extent, it seemed pretty patronising, distilling Pakistani culture into fairly stereotypical images. It's not just in Pakistan that this happens, either. Just about every foreign tour has to have little snippets of their supposed life and culture filmed, to be broadcast between overs.

So what I want to know is this - when other countries tour England, do they get little montages of English life in between their overs? Beefeaters at Buckingham Palace, people taking tea, truck drivers in a transport caff? Or is that considered stereotypical, patronising, and not a true reflection of English life?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 5

I haven't written as much as I'd hoped I would when I started this series off. That, in its own way, is disappointing. Whilst I have devoted a lot of time and thought towards what remembrance really means, how society as a whole is shaped by these rituals, and think about my own personal attitudes to war, I haven't been able to give them the rigorous checking that I'd intended. Partly, that's because remembrance of war is a very troubling subject.

A tour of the battlefields of the Great War is one of the most affecting experiences imaginable, because there seems something so senseless about it. Why were so many young men, in the prime of their life, sent to their deaths in mass slaughter? The tactics and attitudes of Field Marshal Haig make me angry just thinking about them. The physical experience of the war looms large; in some areas trenches remain preserved; right along the Western Front farmers still turn up shells when ploughing their fields. The sheer scale and lunacy of the slaughter makes lines like those of Wilfred Owen (You would not tell, with such high zest, To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori), or even more trite lines, like "Never Again", seem all the more powerful.

Of course, part of the senselessness of the slaughter of WW1 comes from the fact that the world has changed so much since then. Thankfully, we live in an age when we are highly unlikely to be called upon to die for our country. Yet if we were asked to respond on the scale of 1914, would we? Would our generation accept that challenge? I think the chances are that we wouldn't. National sentiment may play an important role when England win the Ashes, or when the World Cup shows its head. Yet for all the importance that we may place on national identity, would we consider dying to be our earnest and solemn duty for the motherland?

There are dangers to taking up the idea that war is always wrong. Always bad, maybe, but most definitely not always wrong. To hear some pacifists speak, you would believe that if we made our behaviour beond reproach, then nothing could ever, nothing would ever go wrong. Diplomacy and foreign affairs, however, are not a one-way conversation. We can't just go away, meditate, and be thoroughly self-improved. We have to respond to changing stimuli right around us - and while that happens, there is always going to be the need for the threat of force. Taking the moral high ground doesn't help you when someone is stood in front of you with a gun, or, as is more likely in this world, when some dictator has control of some nerve agent and wants to kill you with it.

War, then, has to be justified in certain circumstances. So, whilst we shouldn't ever forget how terrible war is, what privations and sufferings it causes, we have to remember there are things that are worth dying for. There are causes which are so important that we shouldn't back down in the name of compromise or pacifism.

Of course, for all this, the second of my aims when I started this a couple of weeks ago was also unfulfilled. I still haven't clarified many of my thoughts on the subject; for all that I can express sheer certainty at one moment, the next I will backtrack from my bullishness. That is, on all except one subject. Observance of Remembrance Day, the two-minute silence, the wearing of a poppy, are all vital rituals. They remind us of our heritage, and serve as a focus when we think about where we might be going.

Above all, we should stop and give a thought for all those who have been affected by war. Not just those who gave the ultimate sacrifice; who died in a corner of a foreign field that previously meant nothing to them to protect their loved ones, their freedoms, their way of life. For those who survived; scarred by the memories of what they had seen, many scarred physically. For those who had to bear the pangs of loss; a husband who never came back, a son, or many sons, pre-deceasing their parents. Those who lost their homes and everything they owned in a bombing raid. Indeed, the whole societies that have had to carry close, personal association with war in a way they would never have asked, and yet they have just grinned and borne it.

Where war is concerned, there aren't easy answers. But we should take the time to consider the questions anyway. Lest we forget.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and there was no sea. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.”

He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He said, “Write, for these words of God are faithful and true.” He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes, I will give him these things. I will be his God, and he will be my son.

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 4

Ian at Canadian Polemic has written one of the most touching things I've seen with regard to Remembrance Day. It's in the form of a letter to his great-uncle.

Now That's Dedication...

A legislator in South Carolina is currently investigating how to send television executives to Guantanamo Bay. Not for anything as simple or mundane as encouraging terrorist activities, or anything like that. No, the crime is far more heinous - failing to show the University of South Carolina's college football match against Clemson.

Now, if I can only find a similar means of treating the college music society for switching the TV off at half-time during the England-Australia match, then I'll be happy...

BritBlog Roundup

Tim Worstall's BritBlog Roundup is a bumper edition this week, and it surpasses even its own normally high quality. I'll link back with a few of the best pieces later, but go and check it out.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Scoreline I Never Thought I'd See

Butt c Jones b Udal 74

Two of my most prized possessions are items of sports memorabilia. A white England shirt worn at Old Trafford in 1994, and a very large blue jumper worn in Australia in the following winter. When I was much younger, I remember watching a Middlesex vs Hampshire NatWest Trophy quarter-final on the BBC (1992, I think). Hampshire won; their star player that day was a young off-spinner called Shaun Udal. I wrote to him, and received a letter back quite soon after, including two signed photos. He was going to be playing in my home town not long after, would I like to meet him there?

As it turned out, he wasn't able to make it, as his wife gave birth just a few days before the match was due to start. This wasn't a problem, though, because later that winter he invited me down to Hampshire, where I met him and his family; saw the match ball he kept from his best first-class figures (8-50 against Sussex), and the scorecard of his brother, who earlier that season had taken ten wickets in an innings for his club. Later, when Hampshire were playing in my area again, I got to meet the team in their dressing room. It must have been one of the greatest games of dressing room cricket ever - me batting, Malcolm Marshall bowling, David Gower and Robin Smith fielding. Not too long after that, I managed to meet the team again in the dressing room at Headingley. In short, I've had many, many happy cricketing memories because of Shaun Udal.

His career had never been quite as fortunate - for a while between 1994 and 1996 he was on the fringes of the England team, but despite superior statistics, cannon fodder of the likes of Ian Salisbury, Robert Croft and Peter Such were picked ahead of him. Later in his career, despite finishing above Gareth Batty in the averages every single season, it was Batty who was favoured, as England were determined to favour youth. So, with him entering the twilight of his career, despite being possibly the best English spinner of his generation, it seemed his time might have passed.

When I was in Philadelphia in September, however, BBC News gave me one of the most unexpected headlines I'd seen - "Udal surprise choice for England tour". Finally, he was getting his chance with England - and not before time. It quickly became apparent, with Pakistan loading their squad with spinners, that Shaun was in line for the second spinner's slot, and about to make his Test debut today. That he did, where he started with an excellent spell, claiming his first Test wicket. It may have come in unorthodox fashion - caught by the wicketkeeper after bouncing off first slip's head - but given the way that he found his way into the Test side, maybe it was fitting. And most certainly richly deserved.

Shaun, as a friend and a cricketer, congratulations. Your patience has been rewarded, and you fully deserve to enjoy your time as an England player.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Freedom Eroded Piece by Piece

The Oxford Student reports this week that Oxford University officials are seriously worried that tutorials may be affected under new "glorifying terrorism" laws. Apparently, just giving out materials that may be seen to be supporting terrorism, or asking students about their views on controversial pieces, may actually fall foul under the letter of the law. Obviously, this is a great burden upon academic freedom; if students at the best universities in the world cannot discuss such matters, and thus are not given the opportunity of making a greater understanding of where terrorism draws it support, then our freedoms are under ever greater threat than before. More broadly, it raises worrying questions about the government's desire to govern by headline.

Government spokesmen would no doubt say that the law would not be misused; it would only be used to attack people who were genuinely trying to rally support for terrorists, that law-abiding, honest citizens would have nothing to fear. And once again, they'd be lying. The law doesn't operate according to what people think is reasonable - it operates according to what the letter of the law says. If legislation is badly written, judges might be able to use their discretion to give more lenient sentencing. What they cannot do, however, is argue with the writing of the law as it currently stands. Now, if there are prosecutions on this basis, perhaps some good will have been achieved - it will highlight the problems of such badly-written legislation, and such ill-defined concepts as "glorifying terrorism", which sounds to me as if it borders on hate crime.

Firstly, the police will always want to use their legal powers to their full extent. This is no surprise; in many ways the police have a thoroughly unenviable job, and when it comes to terrorism their job is thankless. One slip-up, and they are lambasted, yet to keep their operations effective, they have to operate with no glory for their successes. They will, therefore, use any means they can to achieve their ends - and that is why it is vital that they are bound by the law of the land. We've already seen the Prevention of Terrorism Act used as a justification for preventing Walter Wolfgang getting back in to the Labour Party conference, and a woman being threatened under the very same act for walking in a cycle lane.

When it comes to considering tutorials, how are the police really going to react if they think that there is a terrorist or someone recruiting for terrorists at Oxford? Are they going to target the student based on incitement to violence, or are they going to use sweeping powers about "glorifying terrorism"? They're going to use whichever they think has greatest chance to succeed. And my suspicion is that something as vague and amorphous as "glorifying terrorism" wins just about every time.

What does that achieve? Well, it means that any tutor who isn't prepared to face down the government and the authorities on such an issue (or, indeed, is fearful of the bad press that such material might bring to his institution) will undoubtedly cut the use of potentially controversial materials out of his courses. Slowly but surely, documents vital in teaching the politics of certain areas will disappear from rational consideration.

That's what happens when bad concepts are introduced into law. Blair has shown a complete disdain for decent legislation during his time in office; what's more important is creating the impression something worthwhile is being done by government. Tinker with the system, create a nice impression, get a few favourable headlines. The civil liberties of the British people be damned. Of course, it's not the direct doings of the Labour Party. After all, they're just trying to protect honest citizens, who have nothing to fear from these new laws, as they won't be used against them. Except they might. And that is enough to get us to change our behaviour.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The World is in the Ranting Humour

I'm the guest ranter on the Sharpener this week. Venting my spleen on education. If the comments pick up at all, and possibly even if they don't, I'll post a more measured view of the same things here at the weekend.

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 3

The last few days, I have been receiving the odd search engine hit for "Captain Annand VC". Back in December, I blogged about this remarkable man, the first man to win the Victoria Cross in the Second World War. I won't repeat the details of his actions, for you can follow the link, except to say that many believed that his actions on one single day could have won him the VC three times over.

My meeting with him left a lasting impression on me. I suppose one of the strange things about meeting a man like him is that you barely talk about the actions for which he was so famous; indeed, the actions for which he ultimately had been invited to the event I was at. What I do remember about Capt Annand, though, very clearly, was how humble, how normal a man he was. He was far more interested in finding out about us than about reflecting in his own achievements.

Thinking now about the purpose of remembrance, it is striking how so many ordinary people could carry out extraordinary actions. Not just the actions of Capt Annand, one of 1355 recipients of the VC (where it is said you need to stand a 90% chance of death, nowadays, in your action, to be awarded one), but the actions of many thousands of men volunteering or pressed into action, which defended the freedoms that we do still value today. I don't think now, that if you were to give me a gun, I could shoot any man dead with it. But war places unimaginable mental and physical pressures on all combatants; who knows how anyone can react?

This, then, must be one of the key aspects of remembrance. Not just the dehuman aspects of war, but the human sacrifices that have to be made. Just last night I dreamt about former schoolmates who I hadn't thought about for several years; nor did I have any good reason to. To imagine what it must be like for a Burmese POW to have those memories come back to him thirty, forty, fifty years later, unprompted, scarcely bears thinking about. To imagine your best friend lying in a pool of blood in front of you; but you can't stop to grieve or think about it for fear of joining him.

Such slaughter on an individual seems almost totally senseless - which is why, ultimately, to make any sense of war whatsoever it has to be seen in impersonal, sweeping terms. And it is very important we think of how war impacts on a community. When we think of remembrance, however, we also honour those who gave their lives for their country - who did what they thought was their duty, whether for right or wrong. And we need to think of the figures that are recognisable - the grieving parents, the young widowed mother, the amputee. There is a personal level of suffering involved in war that can never go away, can never be wished away, cannot just drift silently into the past.

The one hope that Capt Annand did express to me when I met him was that people continued to take an interest in military history. I think that what we need to remember is much broader than that. We've got to remember the social and cultural impact war has on the individual, and the individual components of social networks, too.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Rejoinder to Charles Clarke

The infamous emails from Charles Clarke have already been well dissected in the blogosphere - both his pathetic attempts to try and organise a poll that could claim public "support" for his draconian anti-terror laws, and his climbdown yesterday. I want to pick up on one other point.

Clarke criticised the Tories and the Lib Dems for refusing to work with the Labour government towards creating a consensus on this issue. Looking at the vote today, it seemed to me there was a cross-party consensus. The Tories, the Lib Dems, and significant numbers of the Labour party all agreed that 90 days in detention without trial was far too much. Mr Clarke, consensus doesn't mean getting people to agree with you. It means finding a mutually agreeable solution. Hopefully you can now recognise this.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

SportBlog Roundup, #1

Greetings one and all, and welcome to the very first SportBlog roundup. The idea here is to showcase the very best of sportsblogging from right across the world, so whether your football is oval or round, your rugby is played with 13 men or 15, or if your hockey is played on astroturf or ice, there should be something for everyone. The idea is to get more people aware of the sports bloggers out there, so feel free to nominate anything that caught your eye, by emailing me at sportblog at googlemail dot com

First up is Eric McErlain at Off Wing Opinion, who has some thoughts about teenage prodigy Freddie Adu and his dispute with Major League Soccer club DC United. Eric also runs a "Carnival of the NHL", for those of you who are fans of ice hockey. For more ice hockey goodness, Steve runs Puck Update, a good dissection of what the critics are saying.

Quinn at the Obscurer wins the award for the best post title of the week - "Red Devil's Advocate", which is all to do with Manchester United's upset of Chelsea (how strange it is to be saying that). He doesn't think that United fans will be as upbeat after the result as the press might suggest.

Imagine my consternation when I opened up my inbox to find a missive from "arseblogger". Surely the spambots hadn't got my address quite so quickly? And no, they hadn't; it was a message asking me to promote Arseblog, which gives you all you could need to know, and much, much more, about Arsenal FC. It's been particularly good this week for a Gunners fan's perspective on the Mourinho-Wenger catfight, sorry, public spat.

England are currently embarking on a cricket tour of Pakistan, where at the moment they seem determined to prove the Ashes was a temporary blip, and what we really should be expecting is more of the top-order collapses characteristic of the mid-90s. Dave over at Infoholic will be blogging his views on the tour, and asks for me to include this piece from the archive. As it's the first roundup, and it's giving the sage advice of wearing a helmet when batting, I'll let him slip it in. For a different view of the tour, Zainub will be covering it from Pakistan.

The Yorkshire Ranter has this on the identikit nature of Antipodeian rugby league players - not only are they all the same size, when they're together on a team, they all end up with the same result. Great Britain lose, that is. For those of you who prefer proper rugby, on the other hand, had a good preview of the South Africa-Argentina match this weekend, followed up by this report.

If you'll forgive the digression, a friend on my university course the other day wondered why I blogged so much on baseball, and hadn't mentioned (American) football at all (despite me being a big NFL fan). My somewhat delayed response is that professional baseball seems to inspire more loyalty to the franchises than in the NFL. The seat of passion in that style of football centres around the colleges; not being an American student, I don't have the connection to any one university. This is a long way of saying here is a great testament to the fan culture of college football.

Whilst we're on the subject of the NFL, here is a recap of last night's clash of the titans between the Patriots and the Colts. It's amazing how one loss can inspire so much introspection!

Finally, returning to cricket, Michael Jennings writes a touching lament of the decline of West Indies cricket.

That's all for this time; I hope to run another roundup in a fortnight's time - thats 22nd November. Please email submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com - and spread the word!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Country asks Blair "not to trifle with civil liberties"

So Tony Blair is asking MPs not to "compromise" national security, eh? The opposition to the 90-day detention limit is "really not good enough"?

What about those of us who don't want to compromise our civil liberties? What about the fact that there hasn't been a single shred of evidence given to support detaining people for 90 days without any concrete links to terrorist groups?

Britain has always been a country that operates on the rule of law. Thus, whilst the police need time to gather evidence to make their case, if they aren't able to put it up in a court of law, then they shouldn't be allowed further rights of detention. Keeping someone behind bars for 90 days is unacceptable if they have not been convicted of any crime.

I'm not necessarily arguing that laws shouldn't be strengthened. If applications for further detention need to be made, by all means let them be heard in a court meeting in camera, if there is the danger of disclosure harming police operations. But the police must be bound by an independent judiciary. Police are there to uphold the law, not to detain people whose offences cannot be proved.

The 90-day limit on detention is a number plucked out of thin air because Blair feels like he has to do something to capture a headline to prove that he is "tough on terror". Indeed, he needs to cement his reputation as a strong leader given how lame and powerless he looked in the aftermath of the second resignation of Blunkett. Yet the country is rightly sick of Blair's attempts to pass all sorts of draconian legislation on the spurious grounds of preventing terrorism.

It's already been demonstrated that ID Cards wouldn't have helped stop the suicide bombings in London; indeed, Charles Clarke has admitted it. Nor would the proposed powers have been used to prevent the bombings in July; the security threat was downgraded the day before the bombings, and none of the people responsible had been taken into custody (even if some may have been watched).

What is needed to combat terrorism is for the police to have adequate resources and to carry out their tasks properly. It is not good enough to justify impinging on the civil liberties of the British people so that New Labour can dominate the headlines.

SportBlog Roundup, Last Call

I'm hoping to have my first SportBlog roundup here on Tuesday evening; this is a reminder for all those of you who want to have your work included. Anything sports-related counts; please e-mail submissions to me: sportblog at googlemail dot com

Defeating The Haka

There are many things that annoy me about New Zealand rugby. Graham Henry. Tana Umaga. Carlos Spencer. The spear tackle. The forward pass. Ignoring all semblance of nationality and making a virtue out of siphoning off the best players from the South Sea Islands. The thing that annoys me above anything else, however, is the haka.

Sure, it might be traditional. And in a funny sort of way, I guess it's quaint, too - look at those funny colonials doing their strange little dance. But it has no place in a competitive sport whatsoever. The playing of a national anthem before an international gives a sense of occasion and importance to the game that helps set it apart from a mere club match. Yet the haka is used by New Zealand purely as a motivational tool. Sure, they've been forced to make some changes - they're no longer allowed to stand in their opponents' faces as they do it. And no-one can jump at the end. The point still remains; it is a means of psyching their team up, and their opponents out, which isn't afforded to any other team in international rugby.

Wales showed the right attitude towards the haka yesterday. It was performed after the New Zealand national anthem, but before the Welsh one. And after that, the Welsh orchestrated a rousing rendition of "Bread of Heaven" (I may not be a huge fan of Welsh rugby, but the atmosphere when the crowd is in song is utterly fantastic). All designed to place the haka in distant memory. Which is where it belongs.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Google Hits

I've been getting a lot of hits from search engines recently - one even sparked off my first fan-mail flame, which I will post at some point in the future. To all you getting here randomly for the first time - welcome! I hope you enjoy your stay and stick around a while.

One of my big "winners", as it were, was my post on the Brian O'Driscoll spear tackle. A common hit that's been coming up the last couple of days, however, relates to Arjan de Zeeuw. Can anyone explain this one to me?

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Clash Of Liberalisms

The received wisdom in the press amongst opponents of a ban on smoking is that it is a controlling measure, an embodiment of the "nanny state", a restriction upon our civil rights. In short, it's an authoritarian move, demonstrating the controlling impetus of government. Unless you are a Samizdatan ideologue, this isn't actually the case. Instead, the debate around the banning of smoking largely focuses on two competing visions of liberalism; where one is degraded, it is because it has the support of some health fascists.

Firstly, to deal with the health fascists - they are the people who want to stop smoking on any grounds whatsoever, as a means of preventing smoking full stop. That is an illiberal policy; I don't think that there is any sensible liberal who would argue that it is anything other than a person's own right to rot their lungs away if they so choose. However, that's not the main focus of the debate - more important is the consideration of what smokers are doing to other people.

The tobacco lobby have been very smart in presenting smoking as a civil right. Where, though, is the consideration of the civil rights of those who don't want to have to breathe in secondhand smoke, who hate having the smell of tobacco infest their clothes to the extent that whenever it rains your clothes begin to take on a pub-like smell again? Most importantly of all, where is the consideration of people's rights not to be the victims of passive smoking, which is undoubtedly some health risk?

It comes down to differing views of liberty - positive and negative liberty. Neither should be seen as a panacea; but in this case, positive liberty (the use of the state to create opportunity for everyone) should take precedence over negative liberty (getting the state off people's backs). Yes, legislation should account for special smoking areas if they are possible or practicable. But the right of people not to have their health damaged by the actions of others must come first. Otherwise, why do we have a speed limit?

Comparisons with alcohol are spurious, too. There is nothing in the act of drinking a pint that is intrinsically dangerous to other people. It is the personal agency of someone who gets drunk that causes damage; for that, the person should be held accountable. Smoking is in and of itself dangerous to other people. That's why it's right to ban it in public places, and why it is fundamentally liberal, too.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Scoring the Debate

Whilst it was encouraging to see two politicians going head-to-head with each other last night, I think the format of the Cameron vs Davis debate was such that it was always going to be difficult for one to land a knockout blow against the other. This was particularly the case given that Cameron had a habit of ignoring the question he was asked, and instead answering the question that he wanted.

In my opinion, Davis was the winner, but only up to a point. When he directly engaged Cameron, he came out on top pretty much every time. Indeed, there were a large number of times that Cameron looked positively nervous when Davis went on the offensive. Sometimes even when he didn't, most notably on the drugs issue. I finished the debate having no doubt who the better performer at the despatch box would be.

William Hague, however, is living proof of the fact that making mincemeat of Blair at PMQs doesn't necessarily translate into electoral success. Hague's failure was based on two other major shortcomings: policy substance ("keep the pound" doesn't work when Blair is promising a referendum...) and his media profile, probably fatally wounded from his appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival.

When it comes to handling the media cycle, Cameron will undoubtedly be the better performer. He opened the debate brilliantly - slick, smart and hitting all the right notes. Whilst he may have floundered later on, he is superb at the prepared peroration. More impressively still, he is able to use soundbites - phrases he has used right throughout his campaign - without making them sound rehearsed or stale. If I wasn't such a political nerd, I'd never have noticed his repetition of stock phrases. Davis, on the other hand, doesn't have such an inspiring delivery - he does mangle some of his better points. He comes across as genuinely sincere, but not necessarily inspiring. Give the two chance to speak without opposition, and Cameron comes out on top every time.

As far as substance goes, I think that my opinions, to any regular reader of this blog, are probably already known. Cameron seems to have shied away from any mention of policy whatsoever, or at least anything of any particular substance. Unlike some, I'm also unwilling to just trust the word of people like Clarke and Rikfind that he is sound. He's progressed so far and so fast by being the protege of Michael Howard; he wrote the last manifesto, and I suspect that his instincts are right-wing.

Davis, on the other hand, approaches things from a much more interesting angle. He has come out with substance on schools and tax cuts. On the face of it, they seem typical Tory arguments - but Davis has phrased them very much in a small-l liberal way. Facilitating opportunity, giving individuals a chance. What impressed me most about him last night was the memorable exchange at the end, where he called Cameron out on his lack of substance.
David, the point the gentleman was making was people want to know what we stand for. You talked eloquently a few moments ago about ideas and principles. We've got to explain what that means. I had a man in my constituency not very long ago, a 59-year-old man who had lost his job and lost his pension - it had gone down from £20,000 to £6,000 - and he wants to know what we mean. Not what we stand for. What we mean. The lady in the inner city with her children at a school where she cannot bear the education. She wants to know what we mean. We cannot get by just by high-flown words.
Explaining what policy means to the individual, of course, is the huge and unappreciated strength of Tony Blair. But to hear Davis say this in such unequivocal terms was music to my ears. It's fun discussing principles, strategies, philosophies - and often they can lead a debate in useful and unforseen directions. But that's not a way of actually winning an election - it's not even a way of making a difference. People need something they can hang their hat on, something that makes them comfortable with assuming the clothes of a party allegiance, however fleeting that association might be. Cameron has resolutely failed to achieve that.

So, I guess when I try and reason it out, I like Davis more. I also have a lot of time for his manner - he gets described as a streetfighter, but I think that he's honest and sincere. He stands for things that I don't like; so does Cameron. Indeed, so do all parties - that's why I consider myself an archetypal floating voter. Is he the best leader for the Tories? I can't unequivocally say yes to that. Cameron has a positive media profile; worse, the media already have their anti-Tory line if Davis is elected leader - they will be portrayed as running to the right for a third time. Is that a saddle the Tories want to carry into the next election? The loss of momentum now, as strange as it sounds, may reduce the chances in 2009 massively, if we assume no mjor Labour cock-ups. So, as if it matters anyway, I'm not going to be making a Militant Moderate endorsement. Davis won the debate, but not sufficiently conclusively to significantly shift the dynamics of the race.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Debates, the Three Davids, and George Galloway

I'm currently watching the debate between David Davis and David Cameron (how I love online BBC streaming). It is great to see two politicians willing to square off against each other in such a direct manner. Head-to-head debating doesn't happen enough, and Blair's attitude at PMQs makes it even worse. For once, I agreed with Cameron when he began his remarks by hoping that there would be a televised Prime Ministerial debate before the next general election. The problem that political discourse has in this country at the moment is that party posturing is more vital to media profile than policy is. It needs to change.

The Oxford student political scene has been involved in some petty bickering lately. The Conservative Association (OUCA) had invited George Galloway to address the society; he accepted the invitation, only to meet with strong criticism from the Labour Club (OULC). Despite being no big fan of OUCA at all, I wrote the following letter to the Oxford Student:
Dear Sir,
It is rare that I write anything in favour of either OUCA or George Galloway. However, I must defend both institutions against the comments made against them by the Labour Club in your last edition.
One of the problems that British politics faces in general is that there is a lack of debate. Rather than confronting opponents, political animals of all colours seem to feel most comfortable among their own kind, scratching each others' back, never engaging deeply with the issues at hand.
For OUCA to invite George Galloway to speak to them, and for Mr Galloway to accept the invitation, is a refreshing change. If politics is to achieve anything, it has to be through a full and frank discussion of the issues at hand. The past form of the two parties involved suggests the events may only be theatre, but it is a healthy step forward.
In a democracy, ignoring our opponents is wrong. It is our duty instead to change their minds and the minds of others by dealing with them head-on. For this, OUCA and Mr Galloway deserve to be applauded.
Ken Owen
Since writing the letter, George Galloway has cancelled his appointment to speak to OUCA (links will follow once the student paper uploads its current edition). This disappointed me greatly, and I think it reflects very badly upon Galloway. No wonder he praised Saddam's courage, strength, and indefatigability. He has none himself.

I stand by the words I wrote in the letter. We need to meet our opponents head-on; to use the crucible of free speech, of debate, to challenge their conceptions, and be willing to have ours challenged too. That's the point of a free society. We shouldn't just run away from those we dislike or find nauseous. If they're wrong, we should point it out. That way, the crucible of public opinion, not the crucible of the media moguls, can run our society.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Lewis Moody, Gouging, and Referees

The Stade Francais vs Leicester rugby match at the weekend was full of controversy, most notably centring around an alleged eye gouging incident. Lewis Moody emerged from one ruck with a nasty welt in his eye, and needed treatment for a blood wound in the area. He was angrily jabbing his finger to indicate he had been gouged, and lost both his contact lenses in the incident. As the perpetrator could not have been spotted by the referee, no action was taken; it seems likely the citing official will also have been unable to identify the culprit.

I don't think this is an excuse for not taking action, however. I'm not an expert on the ins and outs of rucks and mauls, thankfully, but my suspicion is that the nature of the injury could only have been caused by deliberate foul play, whether through fingers or an errant boot. In situations like this, it is very easy to take action against the offending team.

The referee should simply call the captain of the team over, and tell him to talk to his team and find the perpetrator. If he fails to return with a name, then the referee should send the captain off, for being incapable of controlling his team on the field. After all, the captain is supposed to be the representative of his team and responsible for their actions. I'm pretty certain if referees were to do that, we'd soon find that gouging stopped pretty quickly, and that perpetrators were identified sharpish, too.

Claiming that there is insufficient evidence to identify a culprit is a cop-out; a failure to take action against behaviour strictly against the laws of the game and intended to deliberately injure an opponent. And if the players won't take responsibility for their actions, then their captain should. Foul play should not be tolerated - and if the rugby authorities had more balls, it wouldn't be.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

SportBlog Roundup

Just a quick reminder - I'm hoping to start a round-up of the best sports blogging from across the world this time next week. The idea is that all the best sport (except cricket) happens at weekends; so you get Sunday and Monday to write about it, and then everyone else takes Tuesday to read about it.

Any post related to sport is eligible; please send all submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

An Ecstasy of Fumbling, Pt 2

With the advent of Remembrance Day, my mind always swings back to a visit I made to the Battlefields of WW1 when I was about 14. It was a fantastic trip, and something I would highly recommend to anyone with a passing interest in the subject. Part of the trip focused, naturally, on visiting graveyards. It was a macabre experience, and yet the visits to so many different cemeteries brought home a strong point about remembrance.

Going to British, French and German cemeteries across the Western Front, one is instantly presented with the different ways in which the countries view the war, and how they wish to commemorate their dead. The German cemetery at Langemarck, in Belgium, for example, is tiny in comparison to the vast plots of land taken over at Tyne Cot, say, or the ossuary at Douaumont Ridge near Verdun. The reason for this, of course, is fairly simple - the Belgians were reluctant to give any of their land to the Germans following the hardships of invasion and occupation.

Langemarck is, I believe, one of only four sites in the whole of the country where German dead are buried; about 45,000 soldiers are buried there (half of those in a pit in the middle). Those who are identified tend to be buried in plots shared by up to eight bodies. This contrasts heavily with Douaumont, where about 15,000 soldiers are given individual plots in a colossal graveyard (described by Richard Holmes as the "saddest place I know" - I agree). Admittedly, over 100,000 bodies are housed in the ossuary there. What is instantly striking in a comparison of the two cemeteries, however, is their design and their feel.

Langemarck is tremendously sombre. Heavily surrounded by trees, so that it is perpetually in the dark, the centre is taken up with an ossuary of unknown bodies; at the back, appearing as shadows, is the sculpture of the "Grieving Parents" - four mourning figures with their heads bowed. It is a manifestation both of the human suffering of the war, and the national shame of defeat.

It seems difficult to use such a word to describe such a sad place, but the spirit of Douaumont is far more celebratory. This is achieved in part by the flying of a gigantic tricolore, but the ossuary itself is a defiant building. The ridge and cemetery may be a place of reflection, but it symbolises also the defiant sacrifice that was made to save Verdun, and ultimately France itself. This also comes through in the French gravestones - a stone cross, with the name of the interred, and the inscription "mort pour la France" written on it. In the spirit of egalite, no grave is to be embellished more than any others. This is a fact which led a friend and I to believe that, would it have been politically possible, the government would have liked every gravestone only to contain the inscription "mort pour la France". The sacrifice made to defend France was a communal one.

British cemeteries, by contrast, have a far more individual nature - containing details of date of birth, date of death, the emblem of the regiment, and allowing space for the family of the deceased to write a personal message. This embodies, to me at least, the more personal nature of the appeals made to Britons when asking for service. The story of the "pals battalions" may be well known, and to a certain extent they show that a sense of community was important. The abiding image of the war for many, though, is Lord Kitchener's "Your Country Needs YOU" poster - making a direct and personal appeal. The culture in Britain is one of remembering the individual sacrifice, as well as the larger actions of an army. Maybe that is needed when it is difficult to praise the actions of commanders like Haig. In any case, it marks again a totally different side to the remembrance of the war and the war dead than in both France and Germany.

Culturally, then, even when remembering a shared experience, there are sharp differences. This is something that should be remembered when considering war, as well as remembrance. The US was no doubt far more shaken by the attack on the Twin Towers because it had no living memory of war scarring its landscape. In turn, I think the fact that Britain was fighting a war abroad (no matter what is said about the "Home Front") leads it to evaluate the Great War in a totally different manner to France, despite the two nations being allies.

Remembrance, therefore, may be a shared experience in one respect - we all remember the same things at the same time. The significance of that act of remembrance, however, is certainly different in different countries, and it is no less true to say it means different things from person to person, even as we stand shoulder to shoulder in observing a silence. The debate over white poppies, as I wrote about yesterday, is testament to that fact. These may seem gross generalisations in themselves. What I think they do throw light on, however, is that making trite generalisations about what remembrance does mean; what lessons we should draw from remembrance; or the hijacking of the solemnity for making political points do not help us understand either the past or the future. Remembrance, at its most basic level, is a personal thing, as much as it takes on communally and societally significant forms. That there is a shared language and symbolism on this issue, however, should not preclude a proper debate, and a nuanced understanding of what lessons we can draw from a consideration of the past.