Saturday, December 31, 2005

Where Does Our Money Go?

The Times yesterday reported that child smokers are to be given nicotine patches free on the NHS. Meanwhile the NHS will continue funding pumping the stomachs of 15 and 16 year olds who go out and get pissed when their parents aren't watching. And then the NHS will be spending millions on rehabilitating drug addicts, sometimes by giving them needles to help wean them off their habit.

Diabetics, meanwhile, are forced to live with second-class treatment - there is no funding for those who wish to use insulin pumps within the NHS. This in itself is not surprising. For years, the NHS has taken a long time to catch up with the best trends in the treatment of diabetes. Insulin "pens", for example, were only available on prescription from 1999. The justification for this was that a pen needle cost something approximating 0.001p more than a syringe, which was the 'accepted' treatment. This, however, ignored the fact that diabetics using pen needles spent far fewer days in hospital every year. (There are other huge lifestyle issues here - for example 75% of teenage diabetics had been taken into police custody for carrying syringes). Yet the NHS would shell out on needles that were 4p more expensive than syringes to help in the treatment of drug users.

The continuing help that is given to those who knowingly and willingly break the law, whilst law-abiding citizens are given poorer treatment, is something that angers me intensely. If we are living in society, we have certain rights, and certain responsibilities. The two go together - and the responsibilities we have living in a society are prescribed by laws. Yet underage smokers, underage drinkers, and drug abusers are given a blank cheque by the taxpayers of this country. Where's the recognition of agency in all of this?

Diabetics don't have a choice as to whether they have their disease or not. It's a genetic condition that afflicts them for the rest of their lives, and gives them pretty serious potential problems. It's just flat-out wrong that those who choose to break the law get funded to treat the problems caused by their conscious choices, whilst those who are ill through no fault of their own have to make do with second-rate care. Flat-out wrong.

Cooking Her Goose

Kathleen Parker writes an ill-tempered rant against most of blogdom:

There's something frankly creepy about the explosion we now call the Blogosphere--the big-bang "electroniverse" where recently wired squatters set up new camps each day. As I write, the number of blogs (Web logs) and bloggers (those who blog) is estimated in the tens of millions worldwide.

Although I've been a blog fan since the beginning, and have written favorably about the value added to journalism and public knowledge thanks to the new "citizen journalist," I'm also wary of power untempered by restraint and accountability.

There we go - the usual complaint of the print media about restraint and accountability. Well, yes, it's pretty self-evident that some blogs are riven by inaccuracies. That's the nature of what will always, overwhelmingly, be a part-time hobby. As I've said before, blogs are most useful in drawing out debates and refining them to a level of sophistication or depth that simply isn't possible in a daily newspaper. Anyone who expects them to be rigorously checked, or relies on them for their information is likely to be badly informed. If the reading of blogs, however, is used as a means of multiplying viewpoints on a particular area, or directing someone towards new and interesting articles, research papers, or whatever, then they are likely to become much better-informed as a result of having delved into the blogosphere.

Few bloggers would deny that their hobby relies on the print and broadcast media - without their information, there would be almost nothing to comment on. But Parker's article ignores the pernicious aspects of the print and broadcast media themselves - that is, that they will not always be 100% accurate. Yet whereas a blog is unlikely to be taken as gospel without corroborating reports, or heavy sources, something that is printed in a newspaper is generally considered much more serious. And if the blogosphere shows anything, it is that newspapers are not 100% reliable. I'm not talking about the Jayson Blairs of the world who flagrantly make things up. I'm talking about the manipulation of statistics to embellish a case; assertions that are made lazily, rather than rigorously fact-checked because of the pressures of a deadline, or they were seemingly inconsequential to a story. Not something the blogosphere is free of, admittedly - but certainly something that newspapers are guilty of. Just because something is in print doesn't make it true.

Bloggers persist no matter their contributions or quality, though most would have little to occupy their time were the mainstream media to disappear tomorrow. Some bloggers do their own reporting, but most rely on mainstream reporters to do the heavy lifting. Some bloggers also offer superb commentary, but most babble, buzz and blurt like caffeinated adolescents competing for the Ritalin generation's inevitable senior superlative: Most Obsessive-Compulsive.

Yes, but bloggers without something interesting to say are unlikely to gain any sort of readership whatsoever, unless masters of self-publicity. Of course the blogosphere isn't short of its ranters and ravers. It's depressing when blogs become popular because of rude language or because they are supposedly "controversial" in what they say, rather than having any intrinsic merit whatsoever. Again, however, does this really distinguish itself from the print and broadcast media? Does Parker really think that Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Michael Moore are popular because of their intellectual weight, or (hopefully) because they shout the loudest? And that's because print and roadcast media want to shout loudest for attention - just like aspiring bloggers. Ultimately, it's the quality that will rise. And if it isn't, it's likely only playing to people's existing prejudices anyway.

The best bit of all, though, comes at the end:

What Golding demonstrated--and what we're witnessing as the Blogosphere's offspring multiply--is that people tend to abuse power when it is unearned and will bring down others to enhance themselves. Likewise, many bloggers seek the destruction of others for their own self-aggrandizement. When a mainstream journalist stumbles, they pile on like so many savages, hoisting his or her head on a bloody stick as Golding's children did the fly-covered head of a butchered sow.

Well, if this article is any evidence, it's hardly surprising. It's not as if Ms Parker is taking a conciliatory tone here, is it? Much of the print media's coverage of the blogosphere is patronising at best, and insulting at worst: where blogs get quoted in the papers, it tends to be tiny snippets of minimal value (less interesting than even the letters pages), or some snide remarks are being made about fact-checking again. Any wonder that when this attitude is shown to be hypocritical, people are willing to celebrate it? Maybe not the most admirable attitude in the world - but certainly understandable.

Yes, bloggers may be dependent on the print media to give them the information on which they comment or expound. Yes, they are able to print anything they like with little chance of repercussions (although if false, they have little chance of readership either). That doesn't mean they don't have something valuable to say. And until the likes of Ms Parker are willing to recognise this, then their swarming around journalists like vultures until they slip up will only continue.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

SportBlog Reminder

Hoping to put the fifth SportBlog roundup here next Tuesday.

As ever, all submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com

Animal Welfare

What is the Korean Animal Welfare's slogan?

"A dog is for life, not just for breakfast"

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Where's the Story?

The BBC is reporting that Bob Geldof has had to 'defend' himself for agreeing to help the Tories in their newly-created Globalisation and Global Poverty Group policy unit. Now, I'm not necessarily the hugest fan of Sir Bob. I think the Live 8 "Make Poverty History" propaganda, whilst an excellent publicity stunt, was far too simplistic in the message it portrayed. Solving global poverty is not as simple as Geldof claims it is. If it was, it would have been sorted out. And he always seems to omit to mention that whilst an African child may die because of poverty every three seconds, African governments are stealing and squandering thousands of pounds in that time too. That money could be put to better use.

Nevertheless, the one thing you cannot doubt about Geldof is his sincerity. You don't spend as much time campaigning for one thing, like Geldof has done, without knowing something about the subject and without having a real commitment to what you are doing. And anyone with a brain campaigning on this subject would spread his ideas and talk about them to anyone prepared to listen - which is why Geldof is only right to talk to the Tories. No-one gets action taken by pissing into the wind - you actually have to do something.

Of course, the BBC article linked to above doesn't mention anywhere who has actually complained about Geldof taking up such a role with the Tory Party. He's emphasised he's non-partisan, and there isn't a single word of complaint from anyone in the article they talk about. So who is he defending himself from?

The BBC journalist, presumably, or some other BBC interviewer. That hardly makes sufficient criticism to draw the headline "Geldof defends Tory adviser role". Indeed, why should he even have to defend his role at all? Only if there is the implicit assumption the Tories aren't really committed to tackling poverty and are only seeking nice, sunny headlines, basking in Geldof's reflected glow. But no-one is saying that, except for the BBC. Who should stick to reporting the news, not trying to mould it in their own image.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hitlerisation of History

Once again, there is a kerfuffle beginning to break out over the teaching of history post-14, particularly focusing on the teaching of German history. A new "unit" has now been introduced that covers the whole of 20th century Germany, including the struggle to rebuild Germany and the effects of partition.

All well and good, I say, although most of the complaints about the Hitlerisation of history are wide of the mark. The A-Level curriculum is wide and varied, but schools pick "safe" topics, especially the Nazis, especially Russia, especially 19th Century Britain, because the teachers know it, its been taught for years, and there are loads of textbooks available to buy on the subject.

The problem I have with discussing the history syllabus, however, is that when most people say "this period" or "this subject" should be studied, what they mean is that they want a period to be studied that suits their own political viewpoint - today's Guardian was a case in point. Max Hastings was arguing for a study of the Empire to prove that our Anglo-Saxon heritage is great; Georges Monbiot wanted to argue that the Empire should be studied to show how bad capitalism is.

That's all complete rot. History is valuable because of its approach; what it teaches you in thinking skills, analysis, and depth of study. Insofar as any period should be studied, it should be studied to encourage people to find out the truth about the period for themselves - not to push any sort of particular line of thought.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Miserable This Christmas

Stephen Pollard is making a late bid for the Curmudgeon of the Year award:

Can you really say that yesterday was a day you’d like to repeat? That if someone waved a magic wand, you would like to do it all over again today. And tomorrow. And the day after. And then the day after that.
Christmas Day is something to be endured, not enjoyed. It is the single most boring day of the year.

Well, I, for one, can say that yesterday was a day I would like to repeat - and I reckon there are at least five other people that can join me in that. I had a wonderful time and almost invariably look back on my Christmases fondly. Indeed, the only reason I wouldn't want a magic wand to repeat the day over and over again is that sufficient repetitions would make it tedious - not anything intrinsic to the events of the day itself.

As for his complaints about everything being shut - well, tough. I'm pretty certain it would be exactly the same if I went to Israel during Yom Kippur. My guess there would be that Pollard would ask "what do you expect from a Jewish state?" Well, things being shut on Christmas Day is what happens when you live in a country that has a large residual Christianity, and that considers celebrating Christmas as part of their cultural heritage. If enough people want to celebrate it, things will be closed.

It's just a fact of living in Britain. Pollard really should have got over it by now.

Friday, December 23, 2005

EU Turkeys

It seems depressing to be writing about the EU so soon before Christmas. There's not an awful lot I can say about the craven surrender of Blair to the French that hasn't been covered already - no matter how unjustifiable the British rebate might be, it is far from the only matter of the EU budget that is unjustifiable. And to give it up with barely a promise in return, let alone no material benefit, is ridiculous, both from a national interest and an EU reforming point of view. Blair deserves to be roundly booed for that (although his defence of the deal in Brussels on Monday was excellent. Blair is a considerably better performer when it comes to foreign policy matters than on his shall-we-shan't-we approach to domestic matters).

The point I do want to raise is this, however - Blair gave an extra billion of our money to the EU without consulting the Treasury. This on top of £5 billion or so that we would have had at the start of next year had a deal not been agreed. Not having read the Labour Party manifesto in any great detail, I don't know what was said about the rebate. But I somewhat suspect that getting rid of so much money didn't really factor into Blair's figures. Therefore, I assume that the £7 billion that has just been given to the EU is a shortfall in finances from this year to next year. Either services are cut, or taxes are going to rise to cover this (especially as growth estimates seem to have been wildly inaccurate). Isn't this just a further example of Blair's hypocrisy when it comes to spending plans?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Riding Into My Good Books

Devil's Kitchen has a wonderful rant against cyclists. My thoughts exactly, except probably a bit more moderate.

The Dark Side of Christmas

All good stories are, in some way, dark. There is a reason that the saccharine sentimentality of Disney is so despised - because it portrays everything as relentlessly happy, when we know that if it bore any relation to reality, there would be at least a sombre hint to the story. So it is with the story of Christmas.

The basic narrative, of course, is one of gerat joy. Despite having to deal with a large amount of adversity in travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem; despite being unable to find a comfortable bed for the night; they are still able to bring light into the world. Light which the darkness of the rest of the world cannot comprehend.

The sadness of the story isn't just in the upheaval of the family to Bethlehem, either. The 28th December is the Feast of the Holy Innocents - whilst celebrated unchronologically (the massacre took place after the Three Wise Men had left), it again shows the cruelty of the world into which Jesus was born; so cruel that a secular ruler could kill thousands of children because he felt his power was threatened.

The point of the Christmas story, therefore, is that explained in the beginning of John's Gospel - that "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shineth in the darkness, and the world comprehended it not." For the story of Jesus' birth to be as inspirational as it is, it fundamentally requires his birth to have been surrounded by evil. Without such darkness, the light would not have shone that brightly.

So when we think of the season of goodwill, there's a deeper reason for it than simply being nice to people. The goodwill brought into the world was remarkable precisely because of the evil that surrounded it. The symbolism goes far beyond that, of course - not just the incongruity of the scene of the birth, but the fact that the shepherds (possibly the equivalent of chavs today) reached the stable long before the Wise Men, for example. O and A and A and O. The birth of Jesus isn't a relentlessly happy story - its the story of strength coming through some serious adversity, and how even happy times have their downsides. It's worth giving that some thought this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

SportBlog Roundup #4

Greetings, and welcome to the final Sportblog roundup of 2005. At a time when standing on the touchline leaves you feeling like a block of ice, here is a roundup of some of the blogosphere's finest sportswriting to make you feel warm and happy right up until Christmas.

First, though, I'm inviting you to test your brains out. Dave at Talk Politics has a football-related caption competition - just what is Wayne Rooney thinking?

Next, a cautionary tale for sports stars aiming at immortality. The Indianapolis Colts' bid to become only the second team to go through an NFL season undefeated ended on Saturday, and Eric McErlain counts the cost for the team in cold hard cash. Meanwhile The Sports Pulse thinks that it's the best thing that could have happened to the team.

SportsFlames considers the life of a stand-out college athlete and wonders if any of the top players this year will be able to replicate their college feats in the professional leagues.

Moving back to the English type of football, Jeremy Granade complains about Sepp Blatter unfairly singling out Chelsea for buying in foreign players. Cameron Kippen, meanwhile, talks about some of the wranglings likely to take place regarding sponsorship deals for the World Cup.

As regards the World Cup draw, Italy are claiming the draw was a fix, and Cap puts a brave face on the tough draw handed to the US - more a group of opportunity than a group of death, he claims.

Sourav Ganguly's axing from the Indian national cricket team has caused an awful lot of controversy - as I pointed out the other day, even the Speaker of the Parliament wants to intervene. Prem Panicker, Kanwal, Desi Fans, and Aramki all have their thoughts.

Bleacherguy believes that the long-term future of the NHL is looking rosier than he might have expected, coming off a year-long lockout with their players on strike.

The Manchester Buccaneers stop winding up Manchester United fans for a minute, instead satirising the continuing row between Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

Jeff Peek at Baseball Analysts explains who he will be voting for in the Hall of Fame ballot.

That's all for this fortnight - obviously a dry time as we get ready for Christmas. That said, the period between Christmas and New Year is probably my favourite sports-watching time of the whole year, as it's often possible to fit in 24/7 live sport. So there should also be plenty of blogging!

As usual, send any suggestions to sportblog at googlemail dot com - and if you're only a fortnightly visitor here (which, of course, is a huge mistake) have a great Christmas and see you in the New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2005

"Year" In Review

The BBC News today said that they were going to show a series of interviews over the coming week to give perspectives on the big news "of the year". What's the schedule?

Monday: Bob Geldof talking about Live 8 and the G8 summit (July 2-9)
Tuesday: Lord Coe about the Olympics (July 6)
Wednesday: A survivor of the London bombings (July 7)

Is this the year in review, or a review of early July?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

SportBlog Roundup Reminder

SportBlog Roundup will be up on Tuesday. Any submissions, please send them to me at the usual address:

sportblog at googlemail dot com

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Politics of Selection

The Speaker of the Lower House in India is initiating a Parliamentary debate. Not unusual, you might think, except for the fact that it concerns the selection of the Indian cricket team. He's unhappy about the dropping of Sourav Ganguly from the Indian side, believing it is for political rather than cricketing purposes (questionable, but that is a different issue entirely).

I know it is a recurring theme on this blog, but if anyone doubts that sport and politics are intrinsically related, then I hope to set them right! Indian cricket is beset by regional tensions; Test matches are spread around the country, including some matches at remote and poor locations (meaning that matches at the world-famous Eden Gardens in Calcutta, for example, are infrequent), in order to secure regional block votes for more contentious decisions. The dropping of Ganguly has become so controversial because people believe it is the growing power of certain regions that have pushed him out in favour of players from elsewhere.

Of course, the issue would not nearly be so contentious if sport was not such a crucial factor in personal and regional identity. The anger directed against the selection committee is not simply because their judgement is being questioned, but because they feel that their region is being slighted - which can only happen when the hopes of a region are invested in an individual (their sporting hero).

CLR James wrote "Beyond a Boundary" to explain the links between politics, cricket and culture in the colonial Caribbean. My guess, given the size of the country, its developing economy and its love of cricket, is that the 21st century version of the book will come out of India. And also, that if you want to understand Indian politics, reading the cricket section of the newspaper will be more useful than the news itself.

Who is David Cameron?

My objectivity and judgement on political issues are always called into question (not least by Ken), given my own involevement with the Lib Dems.

However, I do hope I raise a serious point in questioning the basis of David Cameron's political gamesmanship so far. He's focused, in the Commons, on emphasising how he agrees with Tony Blair, and will help Blair beat his own smelly, unwashed socialistic backbenchers. Meanwhile, he has exploited Charles Kennedy's woes to emphasise how he is a Lib Dem, and that we should all jump ship to- what would Boris calls - "the most, jiving, happening party on earth".

I do wonder if this is going to be a sustainable policy for Cameron. He emphasises how he matches Lib Dem policies, but I think that's a rather dangerous tack for him to take, given how much many existing Conservative voters dislike us. Equally, he emphasises how he's the new Blair, and agrees with almost all of Blair's policies. Again, is this actually an effective way of winning over voters?

If I have criticism of the Lib Dems' recent tactics, it is that we've made too much out of not being Labour or the Tories. I think there comes a time when you have to pitch in, take strong stances, and start selling your own unique vision as the core product. I hope we'll start doing that soon, but I'm a bit intrigued if emphasising his sameness with the unpopular Blair and the anti-conservative Lib Dems is actually going to be a net error for Cameron.

While Cameron may think his tactic could convert a few Lib Dem voters, it's hard to imagine much talent jumping ship. Lib Dems, as far as I have met them, tend to define themselves as anti-conservative, probably because so many were defined by Thatcherism as the great enemy.

Making Quizzes Redundant

One of the joys of having a SiteMeter counter for this site is seeing some of the Google searches that see people find their way here. Today, there have been two or three hits both looking for precisely the same quote: "No disrespect to Ashley Giles, but what use is he in the side?"

Although I blog from time to time about cricket, no search looking for Ashley Giles has wound up here, as far as I can remember. However, today's post brought me my monthly copy of "The Wisden Cricketer", complete with Christmas quiz. Sure enough, one of the rounds was "who said the following...", with the aforementioned Giles quote as part two. Amazing how even a well-researched quiz can be reduced to little through judicious use of a search engine (there are only five unique results for the quote).

For those of you wondering, it was Dave Houghton, by the way.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New for Christmas: The CK Boxer

It's not been a great week to be a Liberal Democrat here in the UK.

While we have long enjoyed the Conservative Party's perennial bouts of fratricide and civil war, it's now time to admit there's a bit of egg on our face, as Charles Kennedy is surrounded by a media storm over his future. The press appear to be feeding off negative briefings from senior MPs, who regardless won't speak of their concerns to Kennedy's face.

While we can console ourselves that these days our party is one worth fighting over, it comes as little encouragement. At the end of the day, this is not good news and discredits us seriously. Our members of parliament should grow up and realise that this is not the way to register their concerns about the leader. I am ready to cast off all my pre-existing opinions of our front benchers, and will judge them- especially in any future leadership race -by the sole criterion of whether they were self-serving disloyalists during this last week. One day, I'm sure we'll find out who did these dark deeds, and I sincerely hope their future in the party will be over.

For now? I think Charles Kennedy is well on the way to being made an excellent Prime Minister-in-waiting. He does need to stamp his authority on the party more, and I would positively encourage him to start picking fights on matters of principle, with either the Shadow Cabinet, or the party membership. We need direction, and I think Kennedy's resilience in the last few days shows that he can be the one to begin knocking us into shape.

For a long time Kennedy claimed he was a chairman, by nature, not a leader. That's fine- but now I hope we're going to see the chairman bring the discussion to a conclusion and impose a consensus on the different opinions in the room. And certain individuals need to learn to respect the public dignity of the chair- our leader -regardless of their personal and internal concerns. If Kennedy's critics won't honestly confront him in the ring, then they should stop taking potshots from the over of their cowardice.

How many roads must a youth walk down?

One of the favourite topics of discussion by my party, and particularly its youth wing, is reducing the legal age for various activities. Most prominently, there has been a campaign to lower the voting age to 16, about which one of my favourite blogs has recently written.

I think voting at 16 is an excellent idea.I certainly think my own political opinions have changed since I was 16, but I don't see that as any real reason to prohibit voting. Many people change their views at other points in life, or never do, and I don't think there's much credibility in arguing that simply because you're inexperienced means you shouldn't be able to vote. This isn't a question of experience, but competence. If we ask ourselves who deserves a stake in deciding the future of our society, then it seems difficult to reject the case for enfranchising 16-year-olds on the grounds of inexperience. Any argument based on the wisdom of the electorate must surely take us towards a view that many mature electors are unwise and undeserving of the vote.

No, if we concede that anyone with a responsible stake in society is entitled to the franchise, then sixteen year olds must surely be brought within the pale of the constitution. Crucially, they are released at 16 from full-time education, and hence become potential taxpayers. The liberal shibboleth about no taxation without representation must hold true.

And yet, I find myself very much at odds with the philosophical underpinning through which many other Liberal Democrats champion the lowering of the voting age. Many seem to justify it as part of an imagined 'universal age of adulthood'. The view is expressed by Lembit Opik:

He added: 'I actually think the age of 'adulthood' should be 16.'

While I am sold on the idea of votes at 16, I don't see the logic or liberality of supporting a universal age of adulthood for the sake of it. Distinct rights and responsibilities will always interact. Just as I felt that taxation without representation was wrong, so it is a long-running complaint that 17-year-olds were old enough to join the army but not watch sex scenes in movies. However, there are distinctions between different activities, and I see no real reason why there must be a common age for all of them. The current law on drinking, with a limit at 18, but provision for under-age drinking under responsible supervision, seems perfectly sensible. Doubtless, I would be told that I should not enfranchise people who can vote based on issues such as licensing laws, but I think there is sufficient difference between the two acts that one would over-simplify the problem to claim a single age.

Like many things in life, a single age of adulthood is a neat and attractive idea, but like many such ideas, things are actually far more complicated than that. While we should do everything we can to protect the rights of young people, and to extend them, we must also guard against a worrying erosion of a concept of childhood. While some aspects of traditional attitudes to childhood could leave children dis-empowered and helpess to the arbitrary authority of the adult, the suspension of rights was based on a suspension of responsibilities. While we must ensure that young people are taken serious, respected and protected by the law, a growing trend in society to erode the basic permissiveness of childhood as a time of exploration and education is being lost.

Young people are necessarily in a strange state of transition between that age of childhood when- I think we would all accept -there is some permitted level of arbitrary authority, from parents, over human agents without the competence to take full responsibility for their actions. Deciding on ages of adulthood is, of course, a slightly bizarre concept, when young people mature physically, emotionally and mentally at very different ages. Ages of responsibility can only ever be broad and unsatisfyingly generalised. But they are necessarily within a society operating the rules of law, so we may as well have a reasonable consideration of when we think someone is typically capable of assuming particular rights and responsibilities, and in what order those rights and responsibilities should be bestowed, by society, on an individual.

Sixteen-year-olds are not children, and they should be allowed to vote, as they should be permitted to slowly commit suicide with nicotine. It is not inconsistent, however, to wait until 17 for them to take up the responsibility of driving, or 18 to deal with a mind-altering drug (i.e. alcohol). Just as tobacco and alcohol are very different drugs, deserving of different ages of responsibility, so are other ages of adulthood different, depending on their own merits and their inter-relationship with other rights.

A universal age of adulthood is an essentially illiberal concept, even if its assumed langauge of rights, responsibilities and individualism is. Just as small is beautiful in government, so small is beautiful on ages of adulthood. There is no need to stamp a one-size-fits-all age on different behaviours, even if the very nature of a legal age limit must stamp a one-size-fits-all age on an individual activity. Votes at 16 make sense on their own terms, and I'll continue to campaign for them, while preserving some responsibilities for those who are 18+.

Brideshead Reformed

The Telegraph's headline this morning - "Oxford caves in on state selection" - must be one of the biggest exaggerations in headline history, and that is saying something. The article goes on to detail something that, whilst a huge change (and undoubtedly significant for an institution historically resistant to change), remains merely a proposal, and is a reform, or a tidying-up of the admissions process, rather than a means of making Oxford a glorified vehicle of social engineering.

Trust People is unconvinced by the changes, believing that the right of colleges to select their own pupils should not be abridged. I don't want to see college autonomy lost, because that is one of the factors that helps make Oxbridge as strong as it is. The college community allows you to widen your social network, provides opportunities for activities that might not be available in the wider university, and makes the university a more diverse place. However, the bedrock of the university must be academics. To that end, the best candidates applying to the university should be accepted.

Under the current system, I'm not certain that does happen. Application rates differ wildly from subject to subject, and from college to college. A good candidate applying to an oversubscribed college will almost certainly have a worse chance of getting in than a slightly poorer candidate applying to a less popular college. That isn't right, and there should be a method of addressing this. Handling admissions on a faculty, rather than a college basis, seems to me to be a good way of getting round this.

However, this should not be done at the expense of losing college input over these decisions at all. There is no doubt that candidates should still be interviewed; therefore they should be asked to choose a first-choice college, where their first interview at Oxford should take place. After that, however, they should be sent to other colleges, or possibly to a faculty panel with staff from two or more colleges, to have a second or maybe a third interview. This way, a wide range of feedback could be provided on each candidate, that takes away some of the randomness of the college system.

When, as in many subjects, this information would be provided on top of a written test, and pieces of work that have been submitted, then a collation of all this information would allow for some ranking of all the candidates in a given subject. Candidates can then be matched up with their first choice colleges.

Changing the system that way sounds to me a pretty fair way of ensuring the best candidates do get in. That may mean more state school candidates get in, it may mean that more private school candidates do. Whichever way, I don't mind, as long as the system is fair and judged on merit. There is a danger that the proposed changes to the system will help promote supposedly objective criteria above the assessment of academics. That would be a real shame, and demaning to the admissions process. Yet simply removing some of the control of admissions away from colleges, to ensure the best candidates are admitted, is not a huge problem to me. And it certainly isn't caving in to the state sector.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

SportBlog Roundup

Just a quick reminder that in just under a week I will have the fourth version of the SportBlog Roundup here at Militant Moderate. Any posts that loosely tackle the topic of sport, in all its forms, are eligible. Let me know what you've been writing!

As usual, the email address is sportblog at googlemail dot com

Society, The State, And Torture

There has been a lot of debate recently about the acceptability of the use of torture. This article at Slate critiques Charles Krauthammer's defence of torture in limited circumstances, and also links to Andrew Sullivan's piece in the New Republic on the same subject.

The one thing that all articles highlight is the problem of making good laws. For a good law should be applicable as an absolute standard, so that it is clear what is meant by the statute, what it expressly allows and what it expressly forbids. If we take the "ticking bomb" example - is torture justified if it can obtain information that will prevent the imminent execution of a terrorist attack that will kill millions - we can see the limitations of allowing torture, by law, in limited circumstances.

I would wager that few disagree that torturing one man to procure information that would save the lives of millions, and where the gathering of such information is necessary at highly short notice. But how can this situation be written into law? Such a situation of necessity implies absolute certainty that this man possesses the information - a certainty that you cannot have. It is an essential legal principle no-one should be forced to prove a negative, and the importance of that becomes even clearer when the use of torture - as Sullivan describes it, "the banishment of freedom from a human body and soul" - is the matter at hand.

Thus, the "salami-slicing" - the testing of principles by application to consistently reduced models - mentioned in the Slate article works on two levels. Firstly, the number of lives at risk in a terrorist atrocity has to be considered. Secondly, the chances of a suspect possessing the necessary information need to be weighed up. Throwing these variables into a law, and thus asking judges and juries to make these kinds of judgement calls in interpreting the law, will undoubtedly lead to confusion. Confusion in these cases almost certainly means the use of torture where it was inappropriate.

There are, of course, many other compelling reasons against the use of torture. Evidence obtained through such means is invariably compromised, as most people would make things up to relieve themselves of pain. In the US, the constitution forbids the use of cruel and unusual punishments - a pretty fundamental personal right anywhere, I would have thought. Additionally, the use of torture undermines the legal principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Unless there is a presumption of guilt, there can be no justification for the use of torture under any circumstances.

So, where does this fit in with the duty of a government to protect public safety? Well, the one thing that is vital in keeping public safety is the rule of law. Once the rule of law is debased, then the glue which holds society together - the societally agreed laws by which everyone is bound - then matters of public safety become far harder to regulate. (This, of course, is why good law-making is so important in the first place). Yet, if the law-makers fail to protect human life where it may well have been in their power, questions will, rightly, be asked. Where there is a fair degree of certainty that measures can bring about that information, are they justified? It would be a morally difficult argument to make that they should not. A belief in freedom must never extend to the freedom of blowing others to pieces.

Legally, however, for the reasons outlined above, it is right to have an outright ban on torture. It is debasing to the person, it attacks some of the most essential and fundamental legal principles, and given the number of uncertainties that have to be weighed up before its use can be justified, it would be almost impossible to write a definition of torture into an acceptable, applicable law.

Thankfully, however, there is a solution to this, that lies within the beauty of our, or America's, legal system. Whilst legal codes should be clear and unambiguous, defined by what is written on paper only, a legal system should not. It is only right that whilst it should be simple to define what an offence is, the punishment for such an offence is definable through personal agency. That is, it is right that a judge and jury should have the freedom to determine the sentence given to a person convicted of a crime. And in America, the President, too, can exercise his judgement and issue a pardon, and commute any sentence given.

This helps to give a fleshed-out example of David Cameron's favourite soundbite - "there is such a thing as society - it's just not the same thing as the State." Where the State operates, it should operate in absolutes, trying, as far as is possible, to make sure that the operation of the government on the individual is as fair and as equitable as is possible. Where law is concerned, that means that the law should be as clear and as unambiguous as possible. If it operates in any other way, then no-one benefits, as no-one is sure what is allowed and what isn't. Discretion comes through the inclusion of society in the legal system - through the right of trial by jury and the right of the judge to punish in accordance with the nature of the crime.

Where torture is concerned, that means that it should remain illegal, de facto and de jure. However, if someone believes that the use of torture is justified and in the public interest, then they can make that argument in court. If that argument is accepted, even if the offender must be found guilty, discretion can be applied in the punishment and in the judge's remarks. That way, we do not run the risk of debasing our society by permitting the use of torture. Yet at the same time, if the dangers of not using torture are considered to have been worse than using it, we can find appropriate ways of dealing with the transgressions. That's how society and the state should work together.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Some Things Never Change

Paolo di Canio is at it again (hat tip: Eric McErlain).

It's pretty obvious that di Canio is an idiot and deserves to be punished. What I find more interesting is the significance of where he did it - Livorno, seen as an Italian Communist stronghold. Lazio, of course, is known for its fascist sympathies, and has been home to a few unsavoury incidents in the recent past, most notably Sinisa Mijhalovic and his spitting at Patrick Vieira, for the heinous crime of the colour of his skin.

Why is it that football clubs have started taking on these identities, in a way that I doubt is replicated in Italian domestic politics?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Aussie Race Riots

Is this what happens when you elect a government that makes a big deal out of asylum seekers and immigration? I somehow suspect that it is. Not having followed the Australian election closely, I can't comment for sure. But if John Howard's election campaign, masterminded by Lynton Crosby, was anything like Michael Howard's, then it wouldn't surprise me to find links between that and the events on the streets of Sydney today.

The thing that struck me most about the news pictures was that it didn't seem the typical rioting crowd, or the deprived areas that are normally associated with these events. Much more 'respectable' surroundings, a seemingly high number of women involved. Now, my impressions may well be wrong, and if they are please do correct me in the comments.

However, whatever the cause, I think it shows the danger of pandering towards prejudice - whether overtly or slyly. Giving the impression that racism, or xenophobia, is acceptable in some way shape or form leads to this sort of behaviour. Demonising people makes you think the unacceptable is acceptable, as long as it's you doing the damage. That is why Michael Howard was so irresponsible this summer - because he was deliberately pandering to prejudice. And that's why I'm very glad that he was roundly defeated.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Politics, Language and Civil Partnerships

Ken writes:

Both Question Time and This Week devoted airtime to discussing the advent of civil partnerships on Thursday night. The most common angle taken was to emphasise how great and tolerant Britain was, that such a measure could be brought in with hardly a breath of opposition. Some people, of course, were quick to bring up the contrast with the US - and others quite rightly pointed out that it was calling them "civil partnerships" rather than "marriages" that was crucial in setting the tone of debate.

The interesting point here is the way in which the terminology used to sell a policy has a major impact in framing the debate. It is what Labour have been adept at in Britain, and what the Republicans have done so well in the US. Calling inheritance tax the "death tax", despite the small number of people it affects, completely obliterated serious opposition and serious discussion of inheritance tax in the US. Likewise, the way in which Blair has attacked elite universities has been a masterstroke - placing a social engineering objective in very positive terms.

You need only look at the gap between the consensus on civil partnerships in Britain and the acrimony over gay marriage in America to see what a difference a name makes. Sure, you can point towards the stronger religious feeling in America, and the power of an organised religious movement in politics, but that can't explain the huge difference in attitudes - for here in Britain there is still a deep conservatism in many areas, and one that most likely would flinch at the idea of married single-sex couples. Of course, in Britain it is the 'gay lobby' which has a stronger political mobilisation; in America the power of the religious groups allowed them to discredit a policy simply by giving it an unpopular name.

Instead, the term of "civil partnerships" implies a simple recognition of a loving relationship. When this is combined with two other presentational factors - the question of inheritance taxes and property rights, and the wheeling out of long-term, 'acceptable' gay couples - the issue at hand is whether a fact of life, whether long-term, stable homosexual relationships should have some sort of official recognition. That is an entirely different question to the idea of "gay marriage", which implicitly suggests getting involved in matters of religion (for, despite the fact that civil marriages are increasingly prevalent, the connotations of marriage are strongest to religious families). The differences between the two may indeed be slight - civil partnerships are marriages to all intents and purposes - yet the phrasing of the policies have been crucial in their acceptance.

[These views reflect Ken's only, and do not necessarily represent mine]

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The End of Europhilia?

Ken writes (but cannot post):

One of the remarkable things about David Cameron's Shadow Cabinet announced today is that it is almost rabidly Eurosceptic to a man. I can't think of a single member with particularly favourable leanings towards Europe - and those who are broadly pro-EU are now safely on the sidelines. Even Ken Clarke has distanced himself from many of his stronger opinions.

This would mark an incredibly positive departure for the Tory party if it is true. Because if the whole party is broadly agreed on Europe, there won't be any public party-infighting. Indeed, one of the best aspects of the Cameron-Davis leadership race was that it was kept on an intellectual level, and debate remained civil throughout. It's a far cry from the 2001 race when IDS was elected after a campaign where the party spent the summer airing its dirty laundry in full view of the public.

Back in April, I argued that Europe was the Tariff Reform of the early 21st century. The parallels were striking - the issue split the Tories; was seen as a vote-loser despite heavy press support; and for at least a term of opposition kept the party at loggerheads with each other. It now appears that Europe is off the Tory party agenda, for at least the party knows where it stands. If it takes the EU off the mainstream political agenda, all for the good. That is going to be crucial if they are to build on the positive momentum the election of David Cameron has given them.

[The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily Richard]

The Most Repugnant Thing About Polly Toynbee...

Ken writes (but is unable to post):

The Most Repugnant Thing About Polly Toynbee...
Is the way she has a loopy world-view, and then uses offensively moralising tones to degrade everyone who doesn't live up to her leftie standards. Both Devil's Kitchen and Trust People point out this gem from her latest column:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?

No, we didn't. Although of course I'd point out that no-one currently alive on earth right now could have asked him to, as we weren't yet born. That pedantry aside, presumably Polly is just angry that there wasn't a state agency that existed at the time to find a martyr to absolve us of our sins?

Why on earth does she find it a repugnant notion that Christ sacrificed his body in agony, simply because no-one asked him to? It is the unsolicited kindness of strangers that makes life as pleasant as it is. I didn't ask the man at Oxford station yesterday to help me lift my numerous and heavy bags on to the train. He offered to, and I wasn't about to stop him.

There's something nauseating about Toynbee's attitude there. If she doesn't believe in Christ, fine - although she should remember atheism is just as much based on belief as theism. But that's no excuse to be rude, unacceptably rude, without any attempt at intelligent criticism. After all, one of the hallmarks of a civilised society is that we behave with courtesy. The most repugnant thing about Polly Toynbee is that all too often, she doesn't.

[These views are Ken's and do not necessairly reflect Richard's]

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tory Women

David Cameron used part of his first speech as Tory leader to moan about the fact his party was still represented in the Commons by a cohort that was 90% male. My first hope from this is that his desire to see it changed will not lead to all-women shortlists. They are anti-democratic and discriminatory, and it was one of the most pleasing moments of the 2005 election night to see Peter Law elected by a massive margin in Blaenau Gwent against the Labour Party's parachuted-in female hack.

The problem in the short term, though, is that it will probably mean Theresa May and Caroline Spelman keep their frontbench jobs. I can't see any justification for this, other than the fact they are women - the same principle that keeps Patricia Hewitt and Tessa Jowell in the Cabinet. Surely this isn't what the feminists mean by equality? The problem that faces the Tories is that far too many of the MPs that they do have do not pull their weight, or simply aren't up to much. May's uselessness was highlighted when she failed to land a single punch on Stephen Byers at the height of his unpopularity.

This generation of Tory women simply don't have the calibre of the previous generation, which threw Thatcher, Virginia Bottomley and Gillian Shepherd. Maybe the latter two weren't the most effective people in the Commons, but they certainly inspired more confidence than May and Spelman. The Tories need to find more candidates of quality, whether male or female. It may well be that the selection procedure doesn't allow quality to shine through. Where it is found, of course, success usually follows. Justine Greening, who overturned a majority in Putney significantly larger than the national swing to the Tories, because she put the effort in to spend time canvassing in the constituency every weekend for two years before the election.

If there are more female candidates like her, the Tories need to find them, and fast. But if getting more women in the Parliamentary party means more people like May and Spelman, I'd say they need fewer women representing them.

Minding Your PMQs

Although I would still describe myself as a Cameron sceptic, I thought that his performance at PMQs today - at least in the first exchange - was masterful. Starting off by making the Chief Whip a laughing stock was excellent (and not before time someone made that point!), but the key moment, for me, was that Cameron showed he had learned the key lesson of Blairism.

It was no surprise Labour won the election in 1997. It would have taken a sheer disaster, an appalling leader, and a huge slice of bad luck for the result to have gone any other way. The sheer size of the victory, however, was in no small part down to Blair. The reason for this was that when in opposition, at least, Blair didn't stick to crude oppositionism. He was more than prepared to get up at the dispatch box and give the Tories credit where it was due. That made him all the more credible when he went on the offensive.

Cameron copied that style with aplomb today. I haven't been convinced by his policies, but his questions on education were impressive. Impressive because he agreed in principle with Blair's reforms, and yet drew clear water between his position and Labour's, especially over the issue of schools being given control of their own admissions policies. As I say, I don't like the detail - in short, I think that it is a clumsy way at best of achieving desired outcomes (but more on that some other time) - but the trick for Cameron will be to prove unadversarial on public service reform, yet putting that line in the sand. Today was a good start.

Of course, having set the tone for principled opposition today, Cameron now has to turn his focus on the "opposition" part. It's vital he lands some blows on Labour's reputation for economic competence - Brown has already been forced into a humiliating climbdown, and the detail of the pre-Budget Report (such as removing the 0% rate of corporation tax) is even more damning. One of the reasons for the Tories' continued failure thus far in the Blair era is their failure to land a convincing blow on Brown's economic record despite the fact there are many areas he could have been criticised for. Economists are now suggesting that taxes will have to rise or spending will have to fall. If I were David Cameron, that would be the dilemma I put to Blair in their next meeting.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bags with Money

My train home today is on a line that always gets packed, especially around the rush hour - going through Birmingham, and being a cross-country service means that it is pretty much a utility connection service. As such, if you haven't got a seat reservation, the only guaranteed accommodation is in the corridors.

However, I was interested to hear of Virgin's method of making sure all seats were free. "Any items of luggage on seats will be charged the full single fare to their destination". How will they enforce payment, I wonder?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

SportBlog Roundup #3

Good evening everyone, and welcome to the third edition of the SportBlog roundup. As ever, it hopes to bring you the best in sports blogging from around the world; no matter what shape the balls, what colour the shirt or what tune the chant. Please keep emailing me suggestions; the aim is to show people what they've been missing - the address is sportblog at googlemail dot com

First up this week is Chris Young who blogs at JABS, with this piece about sports owners and what they could do in the era of mass communications to make their teams stronger. Chris also deserves special thanks for pointing me towards this set of photographs, which followed the Stanley Cup on its summer tour. For the non-(ice)hockey fans among you, the Stanley Cup is awarded to the winner of the NHL playoffs every year, and tradition has it that every player who gets their name inscribed on the cup gets to look after it for a day.

Sticking with the NHL, Eric McErlain voices his opinions on recent rule changes, and the displeasure of some established stars. His site is also worth checking out for the weekly "Bleacherguy radio", which is well worth a listen. His partner in crime on that show, the Bleacherguy himself, has this piece on the Detroit Lions firing Steve Mariucci. Mooch may have lost his job, but it's not all a bad deal.

Peter at A Voice From the Shed writes about how he grew up admiring Pakistani cricketers, seeing em in the flesh at Gloucestershire.

An Englishman in New York demonstrates how blogging (and a competitive spirit, by the sounds of it), can be good for your health.

Colby Cosh writes his view of the Grey Cup in Canada.

The Obscurer was resigned to the fact that his Manchester City team were destined to let Peter Crouch break his scoring drought - a case of false pessimism, as it turned out. On the subject of Peter Crouch, though, apparently some wags are launching a campaign for him to be Sports Personality of the Year, and as of the weekend he sits in second! It may well point out the ridiculousness of many of these polls.

Chucker Canuck shows the adverse effect that splitting the Canadian ice hockey team into Canada and Quebec would have for both entities. Go Finland!

The Burnt Bail analyses why seemingly solid batsmen turn to jelly when faced with a quick bowler like Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar. He also has a wonderfully bitter rant about the questionable actions of many Pakistani bowlers.

Kyle Askine answers the question all NFL fans must be asking at the moment - what should the Colts do if they continue their unbeaten run. Play their starters and risk injury, or rest them and risk the bid of the immortality of a 16-0 season? He thinks they should put perfection ahead of a championship.

Death, of course, has been in the sporting headlines recently - notably George Best. Gendergeek is unconvinced by the eulogising, however. Blog FC points out that he was by no means the best ever. Punk Football, meanwhile, mourns the passing of another figure loosely associated with Manchester United - Russell Delaney, one of the leading lights in the breakaway FC United, formed in protest at the Glazer takeover. Interesting to note that FC United decided to hold a minute's applause, rather than the traditional British silence - something which Johnnie Moore also picks up on.

Chris in South Africa comments on the growing maturity of Jake White, coach of the Springboks (rugby). SA Rugby, meanwhile, gives a run-down of the history of today's Varsity Match (damn those Tabs!). As a side note, I've been a bit disappointed as yet to have found no reports of the match. It's one thing that doesn't get due recognition from the media - today's attendance would have been greater than most Premiership matches and yet it is little more than an afterthought. Surely the bloggers can fill in the gaps!

An England fan questions the shady dealings that seem to have been behind the FIFA seedings for the World Cup.

Redsman at Elite Football Talk has some detailed thoughts on both the position of Steve Bruce as Birmingham manager, and the sacking of Paul Gascoigne at Kettering.

And last but not least, Ubersportingpundit has this excellent post on the squandered genius of Brian Lara. I wouldn't rate him as highly as Tendulkar, or possibly some of the other batsmen he mentions, but there is no doubt that he was a special, and occasionally electrifying talent.

That's all for now, but please keep the links coming! See you again in a fortnight.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Musings On David Cameron and the Shadow Cabinet

I'm expecting, like just about everyone else, that David Cameron will be officially installed as the Leader of the Opposition tomorrow. As far as I'm concerned, that's when the fun begins. For starters, we will see just how much of a bastard Cameron really is by how he treats Davis. Wat Tyler is arguing that the Defence job rumour is a product of Liam Fox's camp; personally I think it is more likely, if Cameron wants to rub Davis's nose in the victory, that he will be offered education. Turning down a reforming portfolio will be hard for Davis, but it's a pretty clear snub, and there will be little wiggle room for Davis, because Cameron seems determined to be "Blair lite" when it comes to education.

This would, ultimately, be a mistake, as Davis is by no means a marginal figure. The dinosaurs of the Tory Party may well have been the biggest factor in their electoral problems, but in 2001 at least, the image of heavy divisions over Europe prevented the party from being taken seriously. If Labour can successfully portray the Tories as riven with internal divisions (despite the obvious irony), Cameron's job will be very difficult indeed. The first six months will be crucial for him; if he is able to successfully portray the image of a genuine reformer, then he will be able to attack the reactionaries for refusing to move with the times. If he doesn't, though, the knives will be at his back quickly.

The other point of interest is who makes the Shadow Cabinet. It seems pretty likely that Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey would be placed on the fast track to high positions, possibly making the lower positions of the Shadow Cabinet this time round despite barely having been in Parliament. If this happens, it would worry me somewhat - it would truly be the political class taking root. For their apprenticeship to government would not have been served learning the machinery of Parliament, or by being directly accountable to a constituency, but instead by working for a think-tank or a newspaper. That's not something I would approve of. Thinking of rareified ideas on their own doesn't work in the slightest - they need to be debated in the cauldron of public opinion first.

My fear is that a network that has developed around right-wing think tanks that might be helpful in creating a right-wing consensus but not necessarily helpful in explaining how these ideas can actually be sold to, or benefit the public. This, of course, links back in with the other problem Cameron faces. He's too connected with one wing of the party - the "Notting Hill Set" - that pursuing a line based on rewarding his young supporters may be costly indeed.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

More Government Manipulation

Yet again, the government is playing its favourite trick. My suspicions are usually aroused by a story surfacing on a Sunday - it means that they get all the media attention for the day when there is little danger of much else happening, yet the story will soon be subsumed when normal working hours start. Yes, that's right, it's the government floating proposed legislation in the papers. Legislation that has little chance of actually becoming law, but creates a nice impression in the minds of the population that the government cares about an issue and is prepared to take some action on it.

This has been seen today with the mentioning of proposals to raise the legal age at which one can buy tobacco to 18. Now, on the face of it, there may well be merits to this. However, I am sceptical as to whether this will actually take place, even with the pro-smoker group Forest supporting it. It just seems too convenient to try and keep the public reminded that smoking is bad when the government comes to ban it in public places; seems to be one of those announcements, like the orange jumpsuits for community offenders, which can be dropped quietly but will generate sufficient newsprint to have been worthwhile.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Team Canada vs Team Quebec?

There's a federal election brewing in Canada, and the Bloc Quebecois (the Quebec separatists) kicked off their campaign by proposing that Quebec compete with their own team in international ice hockey tournaments (amongst other sports). The comparison was drawn between Great Britain and England, Scotland and Wales competing with their own teams at football and rugby. That's fine, but is broken down pretty quickly when you consider the different legal status of those countries in the United Kingdom, compared to Quebec being a province in a confederation.

What surprises me most, though, is that this suggestion wasn't made earlier. Sport is one of the key ways in which nationalism is perpetuated, and national feeling is expressed. Think of the Guardian readers who sneer at other expressions of patriotism, yet were no doubt delighted when England reclaimed the Ashes this summer. Would the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales really be as partisan if there were not separate rugby and football teams to cheer for?

I doubt it, somehow. Let's face it, Scotland and Wales, under the Barnett formula, get a pretty good deal - considerably better funded per head than England. Scotland can't even have that many political complaints given the infestation of the Cabinet with Scotsmen. Yet the stereotypes of the arrogant, haughty English are perpetuated through the medium of sport - take the opprobrium heaped on Clive Woodward. Would he have been so chastised had he done the same things with Wales?

I don't, of course, know how the question of a Quebec 'national' team has been taken in Quebec. In Canada at large, the idea has been mocked pretty quickly, Team Canada arguing that the team is strong precisely because it represents the whole nation; other provinces arguing that Quebec shouldn't be given special treatment. Yet if Quebec independence is likely to succeed, getting a national team would be a huge boon in that movement. It would give something else behind which the Quebecois could rally; create emotional ties to Quebec in a way that currently isn't present. Sport is crucial in our self-identity - the Bloc Quebecois are finally tapping into that.

SportBlog Reminder

Just a reminder that on Tuesday I will publish the third SportBlog roundup. Any submissions to sportblog at googlemail dot com please.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Cricinfo's new blog, Different Strokes, contains a piece about the current travails of the England team in Pakistan - pointing out, quite rightly, the benefits that England received in the series, in particular the injury to Glenn McGrath and the poor form of the Australian side. (I would, however, argue that not all the umpiring decisions went England's way - take the dismissals of Pietersen and Bell in the Edgbaston Test. Neither were out, and any more runs and England's victory would probably have been far more comfortable).

The point on which I wanted to comment was made in the comments box, where it was argued that "you do not become world champion simply by beating the world champions once". Cricket is the only sport I can think of where this truly is the case. Football and rugby, for example, decide their world champions with a knockout competition. The best team in the world in cricket, for all the ICC rankings and the four-yearly "World Cup" is, in all reality, decided by a consensus of fans and media, based on results.

This, I think, is the genius of world cricket - for it keeps each series a notable event in many ways, whereas international competition in many other sports is devalued because teams are preparing for a major tournament. Sure, England and other teams may base their preparation around a series against Australia being on the horizon, but if you take your eye off the ball, then your preparations are going to be shattered by a better team and an exploitation of your self-confidence. The only way to be considered the consensus best team in the world is to win, continuously. That makes consistent performance vital, not just a flash-in-the-pan period of brilliance or a well-timed peak.

So, where did it all go wrong for England? Well, the first question must be made of Fletcher's preparations. Pakistan may not be the best place for teams to be touring at the moment (as sad as it is, they are obvious terrorist targets), and the problems are undoubtedly compounded if a team is English. Yet Clive Woodward was lambasted for not having enough preparatory games on his Lions tour; the same must be said of Duncan Fletcher in Pakistan. A 14-a-side game and one serious three-day match just isn't enough to prepare a team in subcontinental conditions. For the spinners, it takes time to adjust to the lack of bounce provided by pitches; for bowlers, it is crucial to realise that air speed and swing is as important as pace much of the time. And the dead pitches are totally different to bat on, too. The England team were asked to compete with insufficient preparation. So any attempts to write it off as being "difficult to play in the subcontinent" aren't good enough.

Of course, England haven't had the best luck with injuries. One of their 90-mph bowlers, and a devastating reverse-swing exponent to boot, got crocked and missed the tour. Their captain (if my verdict on his captaincy isn't great) got injured, and there isn't real quality cover available at the moment. But that doesn't explain the abject performance of the team, especially their collapse in the First Test. My fear is that the team had the mental toughness to beat Australia, but has lost that fortitude for a "weaker" challenge. If that's the case, it's worrying. I just hope that the difficulty of playing in India makes England rise to the challenge once again.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Violence in Rugby

Rugby is a sport that will die if the current attitude of the IRB towards violence continues. Half-witted morons like Stuart Barnes may argue the whole appeal of rugby lies in violence, but he continually fails in his commentary to draw a sharp enough line between the regulated violence of a contact sport and its descent into thuggery. No matter wht your opinion of the rough and tumble of a trugby game is, the fact is that pictures such as those of Lewis Moody and the Samoan captain slugging it out on Saturday, or Brian O'Driscoll being dumped on the ground head first by New Zealand, or Paul O'Connell knocking lumps out of Robert Sidoli, gives the sport a bad name. And in particular, parents watching these things will wonder why, if they are allowed at the top of the game, why a match involving their son or daughter should be any different.

The last two of the three events I mentioned above saw the perpetrators of thuggery get away entirely unpunished; the first saw the Samoan captain let off scot-free (although other players involved in the incident were banned). All three events had clear video evidence showing the malicious intent of the players and the considerable violence involved. In rugby, there is a disciplinary process which allows viedo evidence to be reviewed, and for punitive action to be taken against the perpretrators. Yet despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, the rugby authorities have decided there was no case to answer. This simply beggars belief.

Television coverage has undoubtedly helped clean up the game of rugby. With the availability every possible camera angle imaginable, instances of thuggery will be caught. That means that players have to think twice before taking the law into their own hands. TV is a mixed blessing, however. For every act of thuggery caught on camera becomes a major media incident. Replays will be shown, and most likely there will be pictures in the press, and many column inches devoted to the incident. For this reason, it is absolutely vital that when violence is caught, it s punished, and punished appropriately. When thuggery goes unpunished, the job of keeping rugby alive becomes that little bit harder.