Friday, March 31, 2006

The Most Important Word

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

So runs the preamble of the US Constitution. When considering this document in a modern political setting, however, one key word seems to be forgotten from this. The Constitution was not seen as the ending point for American democracy - indeed, Ben Franklin gave his support to the document on the somewhat lukewarm basis that he was "not convinced it is not the best". Perfection was something to be aimed at, but actually achieving it was far from conceivable.

It does not take an excessively detailed study of the Constitutional Convention to realise how far the US constitution is a compromise document. On almost all its key points, there was a need for rapprochement between wildly differing viewpoints. The famous Connecticut compromise, for example, which is responsible for the composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Equality of states in the Senate was the only means by which smaller states like Delaware would consent to a stronger union.

Even on slavery, the issue that was to blow the Union apart less than a hundred years later, there was a need for compromise. Being so vital to the Southern economy, representatives of the slaveholding states could not countenance an outright ban - but to prevent that from happening, they had to allow treaties affecting commerce to be passed by simple majority. This allowed them to be outnumbered by the North, potentially threatening trading access to the Mississippi.

The key determining factor for most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, when deciding to support its end result, was that it provided for a frame of government that was better than the Articles of Confederation which preceded it - a government that had some teeth, could enforce its treaties, and provide some security against popular uprisings in individual states. Its very ratification seemed doubtful for a fair amount of time. In short, despite the fact that the US could count on so many able people serving it in the Convention, there was no thinking that it was a perfect document.

I mention all this because I've recently been reading Alan Dershowitz's "America Declares Independence" - the sort of book that takes the constructionist interpretation of the constitution very seriously. That is to say, that it is important to consider what the Founding Fathers would have meant by each constitutional provision when deciding how the constitution should be interpreted. Never mind the fact that the Fathers themselves couldn't decide on the correct interpretation themselves - a quick look at the party spirit that developed in the 1790s is enough to demonstrate that.

And, of course, it's the sort of book that tries to place modern-day political debates back in the founding years of the early republic. Far from being a historical look at the origins of the constitution, it reads so much like a political polemic - reverential in its attitudes towards the Founding Fathers, without taking the blindest bit of notice of what they are actually saying, or to context. Fair enough, you might think, but this sort of "constructionist approach" to US constitutional law is shared by Supreme Court justices. It's a big influence on the way political decisions are decided.

My conclusion is an appeal for the proper study of history. Revolutionary Americans were well aware of the providential opportunity they were presented with, and the pamphlet literature of the time is crammed full of exhortations to consider posterity. But they didn't think that what they were established could be permanent or perfect.

Shrouding yourself in the mystique of the demigods who framed the constitution is no way of dealing with political struggles in the here and now. For many political debates, there simply isn't a context in which the understanding of the Founding Fathers can be understood. Their attitudes to elections, for example, were highly mixed - the conservatives believed civic participation in politics began and ended on election day. The Republicans today don't believe that at all, nor do the Democrats. So laws on the participation of extra-political organisations can't be referred back. Matters such as abortion or gay marriage weren't remotely on the agenda back then.

The most important word in the preamble to the US Constitution is "more". For all that they believed they were placing America on a firm footing to survive in the separate and equal station they were entitled to by the laws of nature, the Founding Fathers would never have looked 200 years to the past as the beginning and end of their quest for perfection in the political science. Hamilton, Madison and Wilson may have been excellent politicians, but they were not clairvoyant. And to pretend they were only damages democracy.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's That On The Side Of Your Head?

Today was the first time that a "headcam" - a camera that can be worn on the side of your head (much like sticking a pencil behind your ear!) - has been used to gain a criminal conviction by police. Devon and Cornwall police successfully captured images of an abusive woman when they were called to a fight in a block of flats.

This obviously raises important civil liberties issues. We already live in a world where a large amount of our movements are tracked digitally one way or another. Indeed, I've worked out that going around Oxford, there will be very little time when I am outside of my own room when my whereabouts are not traceable. Should police be allowed to use camera surveillance as part of their everyday business - or is it an infringement on our civil liberties?

The question is slightly clouded by the fact that there is very little that can be seen by the camera that would be outside of the policeman's field of vision. If he is doing his job properly, then it should be little more than an aide memoire. The real problem, therefore, is to do with the storage of data. The bobby on the beat will now be able to keep a full record of what goes on. This is something that is of great potential use, for example, in tracking animal rights protestors in Oxford - building up a pattern of when and where they protest.

That is the real problem with the storage of data in this way - it isn't simply a supplement to other means of data gathering, and far more reliable to boot. There needs to be serious guarantees about the way that the data is stored, how long it is kept for, in what circumstances it may be used. Surveillance powers should come under different remits.

I find it hard, however, to criticise its use outright - despite considering myself deeply committed to civil liberties. The use of these cameras, to my mind, is justified when police will find themselves in a situation where they need to exercise restraint, but would otherwise have difficulty proving that it was justifiable. Indeed, that was the situation used with the evidence for the conviction today. There's a danger that it becomes something the police use only to help them out, of course - but if it is used not as a general tool, but as a tool to provide a reliable set of eyes when police are called to potentially violent incidents, it may work. That said, its use would have to be tightly controlled.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

49 or 50?

I don't know how old Tommy Burns is. But I do know the BBC should be doing a better job of fact checking than they manage in this article, which gives two different ages for the same person!

Some Most Liberal Sentiments

Some comments on history here, that fit in with a regular debate I have with friends about the merits of studying the recent past as "history". Taken from the Pennsylvania Packet, January 1, 1790:

"The study of history is at once pleasing and profitable -- It does not require intense application -- It may be taken up at a moment of leisure, and relinquished as oher avocations intervene -- and thus may be made a save all the scraps of time, none of which should be lost -- for, as has been observed, 'of all prodigality, that of time is the most shameful'".

So far, so good. This line may prove more contentious:

"It is difficult to account for the general sentiment, that History written at the period when the transactions recorded take place is partial, without stigmatising human nature; but the observation has been too often verified, to be denied."

But I'm sure we can all agree on this:

"History elevates the mind to a lofty eminence, from whence we take a prospective view of the transactions of the mind."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Should Have Said

I frequently attend an improvised comedy group's performances. Of the many games they play, one is called "should have said". As their scene develops, a person standing off-stage can interrupt, saying "should have said", at any time. At that point, the person who has just delivered a line has to change it to say what they really meant. For example:

"How are you?"
"I'm fine."
*CLAPS* - should have said
"I feel totally and utterly crap. The world hates me, nothing seems to be going right, and I'm finding everything intensely irritating. Especially you."

I couldn't help but think of this in light of the storm in a teacup that has surrounded Norman Kember since his release. There has been much muttering on blogs about the comments of General Sir Michael Jackson, the consensus seeming to be that it smacks of a pre-planned attack to prevent Prof Kember from being able to criticise the UK government over its handling of Iraq.

One comment made to me by a friend was that your viewpoint over the incident depended almost totally on your views on the war. Those who supported the war were annoyed by Prof Kember; those who were against it believed that he shouldn't have been criticised in such a way.

I supported the war in Iraq, and still believe I was right to do so (this is a very crude statement of my opinion here). And it is probably fair to say I don't have an awful lot of sympathy for Norman Kember, for he surely knew the risk he was taking before he went out there. Indeed, he had said he would not want to be rescued if he was kidnapped. Nevertheless, I would have had a lot more respect for him if he had come out and said this more bluntly, with a statement something along these lines:

"I have not thanked the soldiers who rescued me, because I did not want to be rescued. My mission in Iraq was to attempt to bring about reconciliation between the different groups, who in mutual misunderstanding seem to be plunging the country into civil war. A message of peace cannot succeed through armed force.

It was evidently not my choice to be kidnapped. Nevertheless, if that was the way I was meant to go, it was the way I was meant to go. I believed, and still believe, that my chances of survival would have been greater through building a relationship with my kidnappers than through a potentially risky armed operations.

We risk losing sight of the message of peace that is the only way Iraq can build a future. Focusing unnecessarily on my fate only contributes to this. While I was being rescued, Iraqis were being blown up in car bombs. The country is in a state of lawlessness, and the presence of our troops, in heavily fortified garrisons, only acts as a running sore.

We cannot spread democracy at the barrel of a gun."

In that sort of statement, there would have been much I agreed with, and much that I disagreed with. I'd still think that he was hopelessly naïve - but I'd have much more respect for him for sticking to his guns.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Point of the Commonwealth Games?

I have never been one to believe the shibboleth of many, that sport and politics don't mix. In so many ways, sport IS politics - it affects national identity, civic pride, and in some cases even becomes a rallying cry for certain political groups. The fact that Baltic cities had teams in the Soviet football league allowed independence movements their only real chance to congregate. The fact that Philadelphia has gone so long without a championship winning team - in any sport - contributes to its feeling of being overshadowed by near neighbours Washington and New York.

Hitler, too, realised the power of sport as politics. The number of international football matches played by Germany in the 1930s skyrocketed, as Hitler was so keen to promote Germany as a power abroad. The message was also subtler, though - if we play your country in friendly matches, how can we be a threat? Der Führer then meddled in selection, demanding a mixture of the Austrian and German national teams following Anschluss as a means of showing the essential unity of the nation.

The most famous involvement of the Nazis in sport, of course, was the Berlin Olympics. The wonderful irony of Jesse Owens being the outstanding athlete of the Games designed to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race has not been unnoticed. But what is less well known is that the Olympic torch was first used in Berlin, designed as a propaganda coup by the Nazis - showing their essential connection to the Greeks, presenting it as a natural lineage.

The Nazis realised the power of the Olympics to showcase their nation to the world. China recognise the same - putting huge amounts of effort into the Beijing Games, both in infrastructure and in preparing teams to be competitive in all sports. And it is in this mould that I wonder whether a new significance will be found for the Commonwealth Games - showcasing developing nations to the world.

New Delhi will host the 2010 Commonwealth Games - and will surely use its experience there as a springboard to try and land an Olympic Games in 2020 or 2024. There's a fair chance that either Abuja or Windhoek will get the nod for the 2014 Commonwealth games. And the list of bidding cities for 2018 is even more exotic - including Nassau (Bahamas), Karachi, Lusaka and Colombo. If any of these cities do win the Games (bearing in mind established nations will probably be able to put forward more fully developed bids), then it will be their chance to showcase to the world that they have the organisational ability to get things done.

For a competition often derided as second-rate, we should consider the power of sport to affect national self-confidence. Sure, the level of competition at the Commonwealth Games is nowhere near as strong as a World Championships or an Olympic Games. But it provides a vital service in getting athletes from developing countries the experience they need of competition at the highest level. To see it disappear would be a great shame. After all, I suspect in a few years time we will see it as a key staging post in the rise of India - and who knows which other countries may rise to the challenge?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

About Bloody Time

I can't believe it's taken them six years to realise this.

"We are pushing for the overall burden of assessment to be reduced."

Under QCA plans, the time spent by A-level candidates in exams would fall from 10.5 hours to a maximum of seven hours, the Observer reported.

Students would face four tests - rather than six - over two years to allow for longer, essay-style questions to distinguish the most talented.

Dr Boston said: "We need to look critically at the assessment regime.

"Assessment for learning is critical but stacks of (tests) can distort the balance of the curriculum and put too much emphasis on what is examined. I think this has been happening."

What this doesn't tell you, of course, is just how vacuous many of the current arrangements are - and how hasty changes made to the Curriculum 2000 system just a year after its introduction actually worsened the academic rigour of the enterprise.

The first year of AS-Levels were a complete shambles, with exam timetabling meaning that there were some days on which students could have up to five exams, on four different subjects. Most ironically of all, one of these days was June 7th, 2001 - the very day Labour went to the electorate promising to put schools and hospitals first. Obviously, with such a large range of exams to be taken, claims that the exams would allow students to perform to the best of their ability were ridiculously hollow.

So, in an attempt to pacify public outcry at the shambles they created, the government went into spinning overdrive. To make sure pupils weren't over-examined, they said, we will change the system so the three modules for each paper will be sat on the same day. To do this, of course, they had to shorten quite substantially the amount of time given for each paper.

Let's look at the consequences of this. In History, you would sit three modules for the AS exam - two one-hour essay based papers, and one source-based paper (from memory, an hour and a half, but I can't be sure). All three papers were reduced in length following the first year, but I wish to concentrate on the essay papers, both of which took the same format.

In the year I took the paper, there was no choice of questions. Instead, you had a part a), worth 20 marks, and part b), worth 40. Given that each paper had four key topics that you were supposed to have covered, to give yourself the best chance of performing well in the paper, you would have to have covered all of them.

The change to the course, however, kept the syllabus, but examined it over 45 minutes instead - with a choice of question a) or b). It doesn't take a genius here to work out that, with resits allowed, the amount of work you would have to cover in detail to have a good chance of doing well on the paper is substantially reduced. The rigour of the exercise is lost, for there is no means of testing a candidate's ability over a range of topics.

That is one of the major problems that has seen the introduction of AS-Levels being viewed as a process of "dumbing-down". The range of skills required to do well is not as large as it should be - and this is in an exam that is marked based on likely ability at 17, yet can be retaken at a later stage.

The sad thing is that, despite promises of reviews of the system, these criticisms do not seem to have been picked up on until now. Indeed, the rigour of the A-Level system, already watered down by Curriculum 2000, has been continually watered down since. Half of the idea of the new system was that you would be limited to one resit per module - but that restriction has since been abolished. What do our educational experts do, if they take so long to realise why a system is crap?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Government Responsibility

I'm not sure about the answer to this myself, but it is something to which I've been giving serious thought. I was watching the news this afternoon when I heard about a woman who said she would be going as part of a Christian Peace Team to Iraq, in full knowledge of the risks she was taking. This, however, is against Foreign Office advice.

What should happen if she gets kidnapped, then? After all, the mission to release Norman Kember and his Canadian friends obviously occupied a large amount of resources. It was an SAS team that entered the house; the Canadians had sent kidnapping experts across to Iraq to help in the exercise.

Does governmental responsibility for citizens abroad involve helping them out when they've knowingly taken large risks? Or, if a UK citizen gets kidnapped, having travelled to Iraq against government advice, are the armed forces within their rights to say "they knew what risks they were taking, they can't expect us to act as their safety valve"?

I guess it comes down to a question of agency. The government doesn't deny us the right to travel to Iraq. But it does advise us against it. And if it takes such a measure, I can't say I would disagree with a decision not to assist my countrymen who decide not to follow that advice.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Common Understanding

I am a big fan of learning foreign languages. I think it is great that the Government wants to teach languages to pupils at a young age; I hate travelling to foreign countries where I can't speak the language, because I feel that it is rude to have to rely on other people accommodating you in their home.

Nevertheless, when I read about the antics of Jacques Chirac this morning, I must say I was astounded. M Chirac should probably take note of the fact that Siemens and many other German businesses, for example, now have their official boardroom language as English, because it is up to 30% easier to express complicated ideas than in German. Or, for example, the fact that the European Bridge Federation has decreed the only language that should be spoken at the table in international competition is English unless by prior agreement of the two teams playing.

If I was speaking to an assembled group of French businessmen, I would do my best to address them in French. If I was speaking to an assembled group of German businessmen, I would do my best to address them in German. If I was addressing a group of international businessmen, I would use English - although I would probably endeavour to throw in a few foreign phrases as a sign of goodwill.

It is all a matter of courtesy. If you have the ability to speak in a foreign language, then when in the company of those foreigners, you should use it. There is no point in putting up unnecessary barriers to understanding to make a jingoistic point. Yes, Britain should be more proactive in encouraging the learning of foreign languages, but just because our French isn't very good does not mean the French should ignore English. Otherwise we risk putting up the very barriers the EU is supposed to bring down.

There is one consolation, though. If M Chirac continues with his stubborn French crusade, it will only lead to him becoming more and more isolated.

(Hat tip: Trust People)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Grist To Mourinho's Mill

The one thing that has amazed me over the past few weeks is the real, visceral hatred directed by many against Chelsea - to a level that, in my opinion, surpasses even that directed towards Manchester United in the mid-1990s. I've tried to defend Chelsea so far - after all, the attacks on their diving come from many quarters where it isn't entirely merited. Premiership managers are notoriously short-sighted when it comes to their own failings. This is a view I'm changing, though, after last night, when Wright-Philips took a disgraceful dive and conned the ref, and a foul on a Chelsea player generally resulted in said player rolling around on the floor for ages, before getting up and running as normal.

Nevertheless, the news that Chelsea will be charged for their players crowding the ref on Sunday, when Fulham will not have any action taken against them for a similar offence, does seem to beggar belief. Worst of all, it will only help contribute to the "us and them" mentality that Mourinho is developing at Chelsea - which may well prove a galvanising force in seasons to come. If having a group of players shouting furiously at the referee constitutes "failing to control players", the Fulham have a case to answer just as much as Chelsea do. No matter how irritating their attitude may be, if there are rules in place, they should be followed. Anything else won't help Chelsea change their attitude at all. They'll continue to think there's one rule for them and another for everyone else.

Meaningless Publicity Stunts

That's all that I can see that's worthy of comment on yesterday's Budget. For all the TV time spent on it, the common line of analysis is that "it hasn't changed much" - Anatole Kaletsky going so far as to say that it changes nothing.

There are, however, many "eye-catching initiatives". Project Gordon - the utilisation of Alastair Campbell and chums to try and make Brown more appealing to the electorate - must be going into overdrive. The "Schools Olympics", to be held every year until 2012, seems to be a perfect example of this. Is that really what our Chancellor should be concentrating his efforts on?

I'm also interested by the promise of 250 extra after-school clubs to be created. It certainly seemed to hit the right buttons of the Sky News viewers that were interviewed. Yet if money should be made available for these clubs, surely they should be available in every school? How many secondary schools are there in England and Wales?

Meanwhile, Dayorama shows that the promise on the 0% vehicle tax is a load of bunkum designed to get nice environmentalist headlines (of course, environmental credentials are stretched a little when petrol duty is frozen). Many other promises seem to have very little detail attached to them - little more than vague aspirations that sound nice yet provide negligible achievement.

This shouldn't be too surprising. Gordon Brown has two days every year when he gets to make the headlines - Budget Day, and his speech to the Labour Party conference. And given that every year, Blair manages to thoroughly out-do him the day after, Budget Day is his one big chance to shine. Everyone now knows that Blair's days are numbered. I do not think his term will end too shortly, but Brown's time will come within the next two years - and he has to have a vision of Britain to contend with Cameron's portrayal of him as a dinosaur. Hence the continuous statements of Brown on matters that do not directly fall within the remit of the Treasury. Hence the inclusion of lots of statements yesterday that mean little, but sound great and create the right impression.

I think the backbench rebels are going to be disappointed when Blair goes. Gordon Brown, at the moment, is operating straight out of the New Labour textbook.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Random Google Result of the Year

"scenes played in the rotating theater of Cesky Krumlov"

If only I'd known about that when I visited!

Watercooler Conversation?

Via Nosemonkey, this article from the Times which comments on yesterday's legal ruling that found someone guilty of libel in an internet chatroom.

The internet is a valuable means of exchanging information, ideas and, yes, sometimes abuse. But anyone who reads an abusive web posting will treat it with the weight it deserves: very little. It is watercooler conversation that does no real damage.

I don't agree with talking the internet down like this. After all, it is basically a publishing medium. A particular form of publishing that allows for constant interaction, granted, but publishing nonetheless. And that means that communication that takes place via the internet is written. Moreover, it is written and published in a way that means it is open to viewing by everyone. Far from being a watercooler conversation where you know who you are speaking to and have some means of controlling the spread of information. And as it's written communication available to everyone, it follows that it should be subject to proper laws. The real grey and worrying area over laws policing internet communication concern international jurisdiction.

Living The Dream

One of the things that gives sport its emotional appeal is the fact that it doesn't vary much, no matter what standard you play. Four jumpers strewn in a park give exactly the same delineation as the white chalk that lines the pitch in our mega-stadia. Give or take a few regulatory changes, in just about any sport that matters, the rules are the same no matter what the level you play at. It's that shared experience - the belief that you know what its like to play sport (even though you never could at such intensity), that but for a little quirk of fate, you could be out there - that makes it so compelling*.

My friends will know that my attempts at sporting objectivity tend to go out of the window when it comes to discussing Shaun Udal. They know this isn't too surprising, though, given that he is the man who got me the chance to play dressing room cricket with Robin Smith, David Gower, and Malcolm Marshall (thankfully not bowling at full pace!). Today, Udal was one of the instrumental figures in dismantling India, bowling them out for 100 and helping an England side well below full strength pull off a famous, and deserved victory in a country notoriously difficult for visiting teams.

John Stern wrote this article for Cricinfo about how Udal's dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar put the game totally beyond India's reach.

For one man immortality, for another the ultimate sign of mortality. Shaun Udal will dine out on this moment for the rest of his life. Sachin Tendulkar will prefer never to speak of it again.

I have bored friends for years with my detailed arguments as to why Udal was worth selecting ahead of hordes of other names who came and went in the England side with little success. His figures in county cricket have consistently been superior to his competitors, yet he was consistently overlooked. On that basis, the tour of Pakistan was tremendously disappointing - he finished with a bowling average of 92 and looked utterly ineffectual against a Pakistani onslaught. The trend seemed to be continuing in this match, too, with him bowling only for short spells in the first innings because he tended to be hit out of the attack. Of course, I could complain that Udal had only been given his chance as a 36-year-old, but it was disappointing to see my hopes for his success fade.

Yet today he had his moment in the sun, taking away India's last real hope of resistance, and cleaning up the tail for good measure. If, as seems likely, Ashley Giles is fit for the summer, it will probably be Udal's last ever Test. But what a way to finish a career, however short!

In our hopes of being great athletes, there's a tendency to view sport at the highest level as much more simple than it really is; even experienced journalists can forget just how difficult a jump from first-class domestic sport to international competition can be. But when an experienced pro gets his day in the sun, it can be a joy to watch. After all, even the all-time greats are only playing the same games that we do.

*As a footnote, this is why basketball is so crap. You watch the game knowing that you have to be a freakishly tall, well-built guy to have the remotest chance of success. Feelings of empathy are much harder to come by.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Richard sent me a link today that he encouraged me to blog about - the story of the Church of Wales recalling its Welsh-language magazine for its reprinting of the France-Soir cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed (the one with the wonderful caption "don't worry, we're all being caricatured here"). He saw this as evidence of spinelessness on the part of the Church. I have to respectfully disagree.

Of course, I have no time for the rioters in the Middle East who stormed EU buildings and attacked Danish embassies. That was, quite simply, wrong, and I wrote as such on several occasions. Nevertheless, there are good reasons why the Church of Wales should have recalled its paper.

Press freedom is vital. Yet the magazine of the Church of Wales is not a magazine that is dedicated to preserving free speech - its mission is to help spread the Word of the Lord in Wales, to draw attention to its work, and ultimately to support the Church in the work that it does. One of those aims is to bring about greater harmony between different religious communities. Even if you do not share their beliefs, that is no reason to gratuitously insult them.

I would contend that the message that a wing of the Anglican Communion should be spreading is different to that we should be fighting for in Western society, as regards the direct issue of the Danish cartoons. The most important message of Jesus and any Christian Church must be to love your neighbour as yourself ("there is no other commandment greater than these"). And Christians would have a good reason to feel offended if Muslims were going out of their way to insult Christianity.

The task for a democratic society is different - free speech is vital to the upholding of democracy; limits shouldn't be placed on it. While it behoves us to behave with respect, free speech means being able to say anything (short of a direct incitement to crime). The function of a Christian church is far different. Apologising for printing the cartoons was the right thing for them to do.

The NHS Is A Wonderful Thing

I went to see my doctor this morning to discuss various diabetes-related matters. Regular readers of the blog will know that I have some disagreements with NHS priorities to start off with. If we're going to have tax-funded healthcare (a principle I agree with), then the money should be spent first and foremost helping those who stick to the laws of the land, and those who have health conditions that are not of their own making.

One of the things I have discussed with various healthcare professionals is getting an insulin pump (which gives a steady stream of insulin, and thus more accurately replicates the natural functions of the body). Opinion is divided over this - some think it helps diabetics greatly, others think the benefits are more marginal. My doctor this morning said they were good, but not as good as they could be if you could have a device that measured blood sugar automatically and adjusted on that basis. Nevertheless, two friends of mine are fortunate enough to have pumps, and say that it has enhanced their care of diabetes, and their quality of life, greatly.

I say fortunate enough, because the NHS does not provide funding for insulin pumps as a matter of course. In my home area, some consultants move heaven and earth to raise money for their patients to have pumps; others think it is not necessary. Today, I found out about the arrangements for Oxfordshire. Oxfordshire's NHS authorities will not fund any new pumps, but if patients move to the area and have pumps, then they will fund them.

I'm interested in the justification for this. Obviously one of the big fears about a switch to insulin pumps is the cost of such a treatment. That's fair enough, and if it is more costly, then questions do need to be asked about its efficiency. But why should that justify some diabetics in the county having considerably greater expenditure lavished on them than others? Similar arguments apply if the authorities believe that insulin pumps give a greater quality of care. Why should some Oxfordshire residents benefit from the fact they lived in a more enlightened area before moving to their new county?

If, on the other hand, the continuity in insulin pump treatment is decided on the basis of trying to cause less upheaval for the patient, then this is also questionable. Why should a more expensive treatment be given to a patient if it is considered to be less effective?

Of course, I'm not at all convinced that the treatment is that much more expensive than the current method of insulin "pens" used for regular (4 times a day) injections. I'm on disposable pens, and I know that three years ago they cost £6 a pop, or £30 for a box of five. A pen, on average, lasts me about five days, so over the course of a year (assuming it is the same cost), it will be about£440. But I use two types of insulin each day, so to get the true cost, you would need to double that. Add to that the cost of the needles I use, and you're getting near £1000. That, I have been told, is the rough cost of insulin used for an insulin pump. The only additional cost would come from buying the pump in the first place. Admittedly this would be expensive, but the drawbacks would almost certainly be outweighed by the benefits in care.

Nevertheless, I think this raises serious questions about the way that the Health Service operates. Yesterday I derided calls for elected police chiefs, but today I am going to call for a greater degree of accountability within the NHS. The standards of care across the country vary not just through different material circumstance, but through conscious local choice. Yet there is no accountable mechanism through which those decisions can effectively be monitored. I would not want health officials to be directly elected - but I would like to see regional assemblies created with the power to determine where health funding goes. Either that, or a national list of treatments that will be funded on the NHS, so the government of the day can be held to account over its administration. The question of allocating police resources depends upon crime hotspots and local knowledge. There is no local difference that explains why a diabetic in Oxfordshire should be denied treatment available to a diabetic elsewhere.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Elected Police Chiefs

Trust People has written recently about the management of the police service in Britain, and more specifically how he sees the need for locally elected police chiefs. This is a viewpoint which has already met with some rebuttal, but I want to expand further here.

The crucial principle in English liberty is that all are equal before the law. That means that there should be a consistent interpretation of the law as far as is possible. In turn, this view leads to the necessity of the police service being a service provider, rather than a body which takes any active part in setting the law. The Home Office is the body accountable for the administration of the laws of the land; its Ministers are, rightly, the people whose jobs depend on its efficient administration.

What problems would be caused by elected police chiefs? Firstly, there would be a tendency towards populism in policing. I do not dispute that policing, to be effective, needs the confidence of the community. There is a difference between upholding the law and pandering to an electorate, however - and elected police chiefs would run the risk of seeing someone elected on a promise to round up the usual suspects, rather than undergoing a thorough investigative process.

Secondly, it would also open up the question of how far local flexibility should go. Tolerance towards cannabis users in Brixton, for example, didn't really serve much of a useful purpose except to drive marijuana smokers there in droves. More to the point, it caused a lot of confusion regarding the actual legal status of the drug. A far cry from the equality before the law that should be the defining principle of the English legal system.

Where, then, does the role of the local police authority come in? They are vital, but in the selection of how to allocate resources. Far from the model proposed by Charles Clarke of forming super-constabularies, there should be a decentralisation of police forces further - in particular, giving funding directly to police stations and forces in large towns, who know best where resources should be deployed. The bulk of police work necessary for maintaining relations with the community is preventing crime and yobbishness, and it is local officers who should know their beats well enough to know how to allocate their funds. For matters or crimes that need greater coverage or special expertise, then specialist units on a more regional basis should be created.

The idea that elected chiefs will lead to greater community respect for the officer is somewhat flawed. Firstly, history shows examples of how School Boards became tools for political debates and disagreements that had nothing to do with education. It would be worrying if the decision to elect a police chief in a certain area came down to factors that were unconcerned with public order. Secondly, elections are, of their very nature, divisive. If one crime-ridden area has their choice for chief defeated, then they may have even less confidence in the police than before - and it may well exacerbate tensions in a region further, too.

In any case, the flexibility in running the police service should come in where resources are deployed. Trust People claims that it is the idea of the police as a service provider to the Home Office that is causing the paperwork that stifles police operations. I disagree; it is the government's own target-driven culture that causes such problems. Elected police chiefs will be far from guaranteed to achieve a crackdown on paperwork - and they would certainly open up a whole can of worms as to what sort of latitude is needed. There is accountability in the police force - through the form of the Home Secretary. That our electoral system is imperfect in how we can deal with him is another matter entirely.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Comment Is Free

...but only if you're famous, or write for the Guardian already. That seems to be the tone of the new giant blog launched this week, at any rate. Rather like the Huffington Post, it is predicated more on the basis that people will read big names more willingly than unknown ranters and ravers, often posting behind pseudonyms.

That's not a stupid guess, of course. People will have heard of Gary Younge or Mike Marqusee, but not of Ken Owen. And, indeed, the inclusion of those two writers mean that I will turn my attention to Comment is Free on a fairly regular basis. It's undoubtedly a strong assemblage of writers.

I can't help but feel that it loses something from the real essence of blogging though; why it is so much fun, and why we are prepared to spend so much time writing. Justin McKeating, of Chicken Yoghurt fame (and another excellent writer), has also been invited to Comment Is Free. But the whole style of the blog, to me, is wrong.

The Britblog Roundup has shown that there is some excellent writing spinning about in the blogosphere - on all subjects, and in a variety of different forms, too. But the spin-off book, Blogged, to me seemed a little soulless compared with the vitality of blogging online. Why? Because it lost the personal touch that you get when you read a blog for a while. Yes, the quality of writing is important. Blogs, however, are like a good sitcom. You won't watch them if they aren't funny; but the best become funnier as they develop a continuity to their stories. The personal voice and the immediacy of the writing on a blog is what sets it apart from other modes of writing.

That doesn't mean a blog should be a solo endeavour - far from it. Indeed, a small group blog can have an energy about it that one man blogging alone would find very difficult to emulate. If a blog gets too big, though, it becomes sterile. I can't help but feel that the sporadic nature of postings on The Sharpener is a result of a project that became too broadly conceived, and focused a lot more on attempting to attract "quality writing" rather than having a sense of mission. Keeping a personal blog updated is more fun.

The same principle applies to Comment Is Free. In having so many contributors, there is no doubt that it will contain many excellent pieces of writing well worth reading. But as something to visit frequently, it will prove a lot more unsatisfying than other blogs. The sense of debate will be lost; moreover, postings will most likely be so frequent that many of the best posts get 'buried'. And again, it will seem more like a showcase of celebrity writing rather than developing a sense of mission, or a sense of reading a person's thoughts.

Therein lies the final problem I have with the project. Blogging, surely, should be about spreading ideas and information, rather than trying to attract attention through encouraging big names to adopt a bastardised version of the blogging format. It's nice to see that the Guardian realises the potential of blogs - but they seem, inescapibly, to be treating it as a way of looking trendy without trying something new.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Celtic Referees and Mr Angry

Firstly, a disclaimer. I am writing this post in an exceptionally pissed off mood, and there may be more than the usual amount of ranting here. That's the last apology, though.

Celtic referees and touch judges may be perfectly good rugby union officials. When they are involved in a match that pits England against one of the other home nations, however, I get the feeling that they have an inherent bias against England. This is not universal, by any means - indeed, if you cast your mind back a little, England used to say they would rather have Clive Norling referee a match between England and Wales than a neutral ref. I doubt the same would be said of the officials in today's England-Ireland match.

Firstly, Ireland's first try was never a try. Shane Horgan kicked the ball after it had bounced on the line - therefore in touch, lineout to England. What makes the decision even worse is that the touch judge raised his flag before instantly pulling it down again. Had he done that at my home club, there would have been a near-riot, and justifiably so. He was in the right position to make the call, reacted to make the call, and then bottled the decision.

The referee, Nigel Whitehouse, meanwhile, made a succession of bad decisions. He was right to sin-bin Simon Shaw on one count (he clearly tripped Stringer); but play should never have got that far. At the ruck, the Irish number 6 clearly joined from the England side of the ball to prevent England from winning it; in the moves before that point, there were two forward passes.

Then we get to the second Ireland try. England's lineout was shoddy in the extreme (although I'd question how far the try was legitimate in the first place - to me it looked like Leamy was stretching for the ball first and foremost to prevent Lewis Moody catching it, which isn't allowed under the rules even if you catch up with the ball thereafter). But again, that situation shouldn't have occurred; Ben Cohen's quick lineout was perfectly legitimate.

Throughout the match, the balance of the decisions seemed to work in Ireland's favour. It's a pattern I've noticed across a number of years - that where Celtic refs are involved, the refereeing is more against England than if Southern hemisphere officials are involved (with the notable exception of prize idiot Jonathan Kaplan). And in matches like todays, it stopped England winning the match when, by and large, they deserved to.

Friday, March 17, 2006

State Funding of Political Parties

The Labour Party seems to be beating itself up over its financial arrangements at the moment. Wednesday's quite startling revelations that the party treasurer had no idea about the million-pound loans that were negotiated for the Party's election war chest raise serious questions about the running of the party (not to mention the competence of the treasurer). The consternation that the donations scandal has caused is well-founded. A seat in the Lords should not be granted on the size of your chequebook; nor on your loyalty to Tony Blair. Nevertheless, that is a far preferable system to the state funding of political parties, which seems to be the next big idea to tackle sleaze.

Taxpayers' money should only be used for the functions of government that have been entrusted to our representatives in Parliament, and their various dependent bodies. As far as political parties are concerned, their role in government consists in representing the people in Parliament - but that is done through an elected representative, not through the party per se. The only business that political parties carry out that is essential to the country comes through the political process - therefore the only money that goes to them should be that money which is needed for the carrying out of their duties in Parliament (which, let's not forget, isn't exactly insubstantial, especially when expenses are considered).

If public money should be going to private businesses, why can't we give the money to businesses which provide a useful service to us? I, for example, would far rather see the best restaurant in Oxford, The Big Bang, kept alive than the Labour Party. But of course, I hear you say, a restaurant should survive on its merits, and have to produce quality food in a competitive marketplace if it wants to stay in business (The Big Bang, I hasten to add, has no difficulty on this count). The same principle should apply to political parties.

Political parties compete in a marketplace for our ideas. Giving them state funding presupposes that they have a right to exist above any other political party that may be formed at a later time. Quite simply, they don't. If they can't convince people that the job they do is worth funding, then they don't deserve to have a continued existence.

Money causes most of the problems in politics. The lustre of the incumbent in America, for example, and thus his increased fundraising ability, means that it is normally the candidate who spends the most in buying up airtime that has the greatest chance of success. I know many Americans who think that problems in their political system will not be fully solved until some effective means of limiting campaign expenditure is found.

State funding would compound the problem of media exposure yet further. It shouldn't be forgotten that political parties can be wiped off the map almost entirely if anger against them is great enough. If the Progressive Conservatives had been propped up by state funding, yet the Reform Party had been frozen out, would the result really have been the same? Would that have been good for democracy?

Of course not. Any group of people who can organise to create a political party should be free to do so. But they should have to live and die on their own merits. Parties compete in a kind of marketplace of ideas - and it should remain that way.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Drug Trial Errors

When considering the plight of the poor souls who are currently fighting for their lives as a result of the drug trial gone wrong, I can't help but think back to the animal testing debate. The one thing that has been shown demonstrably by this news is that even testing on animals doesn't sort everything out - and all drugs have to have undergone animal testing before they can get to humans.

I'd be interested to know a couple of facts. I guess from the attention that this story has received, that serious problems from first-stage testing are pretty rare. Is this true? Secondly, I'd like to know how many drugs get canned or altered very substantially as a result of animal testing.

When this is considered against the showdown between Pro-Test and SPEAK in Oxford, I would say recent news shows the utter necessity of animal testing. Far from being "scientific fraud", without animal testing there is just not enough knowledge in the development stage of new drugs to justify risking them on humans. Without animal testing, new treatments could not be developed.

I'd be interested to know Matt Sellwood's opinions on this. I understand his opposition to animal testing to be well-founded, however much I may disagree with it. But what is his reaction to the problems of drug trials? Would he simply prefer to have a situation where no drugs were developed at all?

PS One of the many sadnesses of this story is that it will undoubtedly deter many people from volunteering for such trials in the future. The Guardian carries an article from a former Parexel volunteer who now knows he will not volunteer for such trials in the future. Yet he was testing out drugs for diabetics which, if developed successfully, could be of immense good. My heart hopes, against my head, that an isolated incident like this one will not cause delays for medical advance.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Meaning Of Progress

One of the interesting aspects of many debates regarding medical ethics is the frequency with which the term "playing God" appears. That has been the clear implication of the position of the family of baby MB - that as medical treatment can keep him alive, it is obviously the will of God (or, in this case, Allah) that such treatment should be given.

I have the greatest sympathy with the family of baby MB, and I hope to God that I never have to deal with their situation. Nevertheless, I find the invocation of a deity in these cases to be very curious, because it suggests a totally one-sided view of progress.

The fact is that even a couple of decades ago, baby MB would have died. If the treatment was not there, then the prolonging of baby MB's life beyond what would have happened naturally would not have been possible. If we are going to invoke the phrase "playing God", then we have to explain why God wants babies lives to be prolonged now when in the past it would not have been possible.

As far as I can see, "progress" should be a term limited to technological advance in these cases. Everything that happens outside of direct technological advancement is limited to the moral judgement of humans. Take the development of electricity, for example, and what it has made possible. It is easy to focus on the obviously good things - like the fact I am able to sit in front of my computer this evening and type out this missive. Yet it has also made possible the electric chair.

Medical advances are wonderful, and can prolong life - indeed, as a diabetic, I am well aware of what technological advances can achieve. Invoking God in these debates is much more difficult though. To do that, you have to explain why life is so precious it should be clung on to at all costs; why the artificial prolonging of suffering and pain is moral and justified.

These are evidently grey areas, that are emotionally upsetting even to think about, much less experience. I find it hard to accept that a concept as simple as progress can be applied in these situations - much less the idea that we are "playing God" by making decisions over life and death. Insofar as we are given technological advances, it is for us to work out how they should be used. Prolonging life at all costs is something I find difficult to accept, when it would involve huge and forced suffering. And in any case, how are we not "playing God" by prolonging life beyond its natural state?

Boxing Himself In?

Increasingly it seems as if David Cameron has boxed himself into a pretty tight corner as far as the Education Bill has concerned. No doubt if Labour rebels in expected numbers this evening, the Tory spin machine will go into overdrive trumpeting the fact Blair relies on the Tories to get his flagship measures passed. That "triumph" will be short-lived; I doubt it will increase the anti-Blair agitation on the back benches, because that is already pretty great.

Alice Miles argues in the Times today that the Tories should vote against the Bill as it currently stands. There seems little prospect of that now; Cameron's rhetoric of supporting it "being the right thing to do" today is just too strong for such a sudden volte-face. Moreover, if he was to change his opinions before the Third Reading, I would suspect there is a fair chance that might actually stave off the Labour rebellion.

Much of the distaste from Labour backbenchers now seems to be founded on the fact that the Tories support the Bill. David Blunkett was on Sky News in the last hour making the casethat the Tories will now be backing a Bill that opposes selection; even Roy Hattersley is supporting the Bill on that basis! Opposition to trust schools may be slightly more deep-rooted, but I'm not convinced that, concessions considered, it is sufficient to mount a rebellion of fairly large size. The last barrier for Blair, to me, is the fact that education is one of the areas where old Tories and old Labour have a tribal disgust for each other. If the Tories back Blair, there must be something wrong with the Bill.

Thus a carefully timed turnaround from Cameron risks convincing the Labour rebels that Blair has conceded enough. The hope, obviously, is that Blair gets embarrassed by having to rely on Tory support. That strategy requires strong performances from Cameron, especially in PMQs. And on today's performance, it wasn't good enough.

In particular, Blair was superb in attacking what appears total opportunism on the programme motion - highlighting the unease that the Tories have in following the government into the lobbies. Cameron failed to land any real punch. He is much more at ease when responding to Blair's attacks, and is very poor at setting the pace at Question Time. Hague and Howard were far more adept at putting the right argument across from the start. Today, there was a failure on the part of Cameron to explain why the Education Bill was a Tory Bill. (One answer, of course, is that it isn't - it's that favourite Blair tactic of meddling with systems at the expense of substantive reform).

That's not good enough as far as the Tories are concerned. Not if they are to get any lasting effect from the Education Bill - either the perception of a strong party, or a new PM installed at the instigation of a backbench rebellion. Cameron has put himself in a position where the ball is firmly in his court. A stirring performance from him can set the public perception of this debate in a new light. For that to happen, though, he'll have to be a lot more inspiring.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Blast From The Past

As a history graduate student, I am occasionally amazed when I pick up a newspaper how little things have changed. The editorials in the Independent today include an effort from Terence Blacker, who turns his fire on blogs. The criticism today is that too many bloggers use pseudonyms, and that this manifestly reduces their credibility.

This is highly reminiscent of the newspaper debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over the ratification of the US Constitution. Radical ideology on the part of the Anti-Federalists repudiated the appeal of great names, arguing instead that an argument should be considered on its own merits, rather than on the reputation of the author. Federalists, on the other hand, raged against the intemperance of anonymous writers, saying that using a pseudonym was fine, but that names should be left with the printer of the newspaper so any interested party could identify the author.

Understandably, Anti-Federalists were reluctant to do so. Partially because their support did not have the lustre of Washington or Franklin, but also because of fear of intimidation and violence. Especially in Pennsylvania, times were deeply politically turbulent and "debate" often resulted in rioting.

Now, the lives of police officers may not be in danger if they release their names when writing blogs - in contravention of official Met policy. But their livelihoods are certainly at stake, and I can well understand why a copper would want to protect his identity in any case. Although this may make it more difficult for us to decide whether or not his experiences are real, surely that is for us, the discerning reader, to decide?

Admittedly, questions like this are much more difficult when the writer is claiming direct experience, as opposed to pontificating on political issues where it is the merit of the argument that is most important. I, for one, don't want to hide behind a pseudonym when I write - I want people to know that I am happy to put my name to my thoughts. Yet at the same time, I am not writing about anything that may affect my livelihood or my ability to, say, look after a family. And most bloggers, and even commenters, have some form of identity, whether real or assumed, that we are able to judge. It is the demonstration of that personality that makes blogging as powerful a tool as it is.

If you want to reject bloggers, then at least do so having considered their arguments more fairly.

The Red Rose

When I was younger, I dreamed about stepping out on to a rugby field wearing a white shirt with a red rose. Of course, my ambitions weren't limited to rugby - I'd give my right arm to play in the Ashes (although that might hinder my utility to the team). The dream, of course, was thwarted by a simple lack of natural ability. No matter how much I practised, I am not blessed with particular pace, skill or strength.

This, of course, didn't curb my enthusiasm one bit. Many a happy hour was spent at Twickenham, or Edgbaston, or Wembley, or whichever stadium was temporarily located in my back garden. The result may have been contrived, the scene existing only in my own imagination. That didn't stop me putting in my full effort, nor did it make my enjoyment any less real. To have had the ability to live the dream on the big stage itself!

That is why I feel so let down by the England rugby performance against France on Sunday. England weren't outclassed - for much of the game, France were pretty ordinary too. Yet they were a team that seemed shell-shocked by the rapid lead they gifted their opponents - they seemed a team that didn't care. They didn't even concentrate on getting the basics right. Matt Dawson, for example, wasted good possession on innumerable occasions by attempting a no-look flick pass to the inside. Not the action of a team that wanted to shore up their game so as not to let the French run away with the lead any more.

Charlie Hodgson continued his irritating habit of grinning whenever he makes a catastrophic mistake, such as missing a fairly simple kick not too far from the posts. There was no passion, no intensity, no skill to the English game on Sunday. Even against a team that is better than you, good organisation, a limited game-plan and maximum effort can counter a lot of deficiencies.

Something is wrong in the England camp, and that's not just a heavy bout of gastroenteritis. The spirit that Clive Woodward engendered - the culture of winning, the culture of desiring to win, the culture of pride in playing for your country - disappeared on Sunday. I don't know if it is recoverable under Andy Robinson. But it is the loss of heart, not the style of play, which is the most worrying thing about Sunday's performance.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Is A Stupid Moron

Yes, I know, I'm winning this year's award for stating the bleeding obvious with my headline. But really, if she's going to get paid handsomely for writing bollocks for the Independent, I can offer my services too - cheaper, and, I would hope, a fair deal more sensible too.

Today she turns her attack to the new immigration points system proposed by the Home Office. I can't say that I've looked at it in particular detail - it doesn't bother me too much, and I have other things to be doing with my time. Although it does seem to be pretty close to the sort of system that Michael Howard was advocating in 2004. Yet he was criticised by the Labour Party for playing the race card. Still, hypocrisy isn't much of a barrier for promotion within this government of ours.

What I do know is that Alibhai-Brown's reasons for opposing the new system, as outlined in her article today, are bullshit of the highest order. She asks us who we would have lost to Britain under the new system - and gives us the names Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Portillo, and Chai Patel.

Benjamin Zephaniah is a native of that great British city, Birmingham. He would not have been rejected as a "Rastaman" because he would have been entitled to live in this country by his birth.

Michael Portillo's parents were political exiles from Spain. No-one sensible (and no-one from the government, either), as far as I can see, is arguing that we should refuse to grant asylum to genuine cases. Moreover, with Portillo's parents being Spanish, they would be entitled to come and move to Britain to work anyway under current EU law.

Chai Patel's parents were exiles from Uganda. Again, their reasons for coming to Britain had nothing to do with economic migration, and everything to do with the need to flee from political persecution. You would expect that someone like Alibhai-Brown, herself a Ugandan exile, would understand the difference.

But, alas, no. The fact is that none of the people she claims would have been kept out of Britain under the current system would have been - because their reasons for coming here are totally different. If she wants to criticise the system, she should deal with the system on its own terms. And not insult the intelligence of the reader by resorting to specious, vacuous, demonstrably false arguments.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The A-List

I've had a few discussions over the last few days relating to the Tory Party "A-List" of their best candidates. I have my disagreements with the way it is being used. Positive discrimination, in whatever form, is wrong. For all that there is much about Blair that I dislike, when he talked of creating a meritocracy, I was with him. No matter what the area, people should be selected on their ability to do the task required of them. Fixing quotas, or ruling out people on subjective criteria, means you will not get the best people for the job.

Nevertheless, I think the idea of an "A-List" of candidates is a very good idea for a political party. Local activists, of course, are up in arms, for the whole purpose of the A-List is to get the best candidates in either the safest or the most winnable seats. It is arguable whether it is a smart idea to piss these activists off - after all, if they aren't pounding the streets on the party's behalf, it's much harder to win an election.

The thing is, an anomaly of the British electoral system is that a government has to be formed from a hodge-podge of local candidates. Tony Blair technically represents the people of Sedgefield in Parliament - but the nature of government, and of politics, is that issues of a national nature are to be decided. For that to happen effectively, a viewpoint that in many ways overrides local concerns needs to be taken. And national government certainly demands a different calibre of person to the task of local activist (however admirable local activism may be).

Identifying the best candidates and securing PPC nominations is a fundamentally sound idea for a party that has its eye on government, provided that the criteria for selection are varied and not dependent on agreement with whoever the current leadership may be. Using a target list of candidates as a means of positive discrimination, however, is, and will forever remain, wrong.

Saturday, March 11, 2006


The newly-commissioned statue of Churchill in a straightjacket has, understandably, caused a lot of debate. Seeing a national hero in such an unusual setting is unsettling; it will cause controversy from those that believe the past is simple, that there is good and bad, that any individual figure can be a perfect template for people to follow.

That, of course, is nonsense. There is very little of any consequence in life that can be distilled into good and bad. More important, when considering the statue, is whether it goes unnecessarily out of its way to be provocative. I am not convinced that it portrays the message it wants in the most effective way. Yes, there is a negative stigma with mental disease, and it is right to raise awareness that mental illness isn't just the domain of those in direct care for their treatment.

But this statue of Churchill portrays it as the defining characteristic of him. Is that a fair depiction? I'm not sure. I can also understand how his family might find it unsettling to see him depicted in such a manner.

Nevertheless, I think the ultimate message from the statue is one of great hope for all of us. Churchill did write about his depression feeling like a straightjacket at times. If someone who felt mentally constrained was able to achieve what he did, it is a stunning testament to the ability of the human brain.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Giving You Wings?

Red Bull have just bought out the New York MetroStars football team, changing their name to "Red Bull New York". This, quite obviously, is a crap name for a football team. What would have been wrong with calling them the Red Bulls?

Neo-Con Blues

Firstly, apologies for the light posting recently, for any of you who come here regularly (I wish!). Now down to business...

The Independent today points out the large number of neo-conservative thinkers who have since backtracked from their original hawishness and admitted the handling of the aftermath of toppling Saddam has been handled badly. The implication, of course, is that the war was wrong in the first place - a point exceptionally unsubtly made in the opinion section by Adrian Hamilton, who says you cannot separate criticism of the handling of the aftermath from criticism of the war in general.

Hogwash. I accept that the aftermath has been handled badly; that it has prevented many of the real aims of the war from becoming reality - especially spreading democracy in the Middle East (which Timothy Garton Ash identifies as a key priority in handling Iran). Indeed, I can't remember many pieces that opposed the invasion of Iraq from criticising this idea of spreading on its own terms (although I'm happy to be proved wrong here) - instead, it was to do with questions of international law. However important those are, I have not seen from the anti-war side a coherent argument of how to develop democracy in the Middle East. I'm sold on the fact you can't force democracy at the barrel of a gun, but I'd like to see this as a question taken more seriously, rather than a gloating "told-you-so" approach.

In any case, the biggest mistake in war preparation that was made by Bush and Blair was messing around for months on end trying to find a specious justification for the war that would be accepted by the UN Security Council. Only an idiot believed war with Iraq could be averted. Once Bush had stated his aim of regime change, Iraq was going to be invaded. One group of people who most certainly aren't idiots are the insurgents now causing all kinds of chaos. Morally repugnant, maybe, but organisationally they know what they are doing. We gave them every chance to plan this insurgency by waiting so long before Iraq was invaded. That was the huge mistake - not going to war.

It is possible to separate the war from the aftermath; it is perfectly possible to say one was right and the other was wrong. And if Blair hadn't spent so much time in his grubby pandering to backbenchers, then the aftermath might have looked quite different.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Surely Some Mistake?

This is some sort of joke, surely?

Michael Moore has been made Foreign Affairs Spokesman.

Why Sack McCarthy?

Sunderland today announced they have sacked their manager, Mick McCarthy. I have to question the wisdom of this. Their team is going to be relegated. This has been known for some time - quite simply, their team hasn't been good enough to stay up, and is totally lacking in Premiership quality. This, I think, would have been the case no matter who their manager was.

If they felt they could have stayed up, McCarthy should have been sacked far earlier. This wasn't particularly realistic in any case. Sunderland will not find a better manager for a team in the Championship than McCarthy; his record there is superb. They've just harmed their chances of being promoted again next year, with no chance of staying up for now.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


I have been thinking about my last post, and it's possible I may have been too harsh on the Bloggers4Chris site. I don't have too much time to expand on the thoughts right now, but the basic principle is that although I found the layout bad and the content somewhat sterile, it might have been a good way for bringing new activists into the blogosphere.

Although my free-thinking ways probably saw my content blacklisted, I'd be interested if any people new to blogs have got here, however indirectly, through the Bloggers4Chris site. I'd also like to know (Richard) what the viewer stats for Bloggers4Chris were like. Comments from existing bloggers about whether they perceived a lot of new readership through the Bloggers4Chris site (and how new those people were to blogging) are also welcome.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Significance of Ming: Part II

Great claims were made for this leadership election in certain quarters. Not in how it affected the Liberal Democrat party, but how it could show the strength of the blogosphere. This article at New Politics, for example, suggests that Chris Huhne's campaign gathered steam because it was the first to try and tap into the blogosphere.

Yet ultimately, the blogosphere's impact on the leadership race was small indeed. Guido Fawkes may have claimed that his brand of gossip merchantry was the first hint of the Oaten scandal; Bloggers4Chris claimed to be the first site to utilise blogging support in a semi-official capacity; Trust People yesterday claimed to be the first to break the news of Campbell's victory.

Forgive me if I remain distinctly underwhelmed. If the pinnacle of British blogging is a couple of puerile jokes about Mark Oaten's lack of hair, or speculatively announcing the result of an election a whole half hour (gasp!) ahead of the announcement, then really, there isn't much hope for the future. Why do bloggers go in for stunts like this? It doesn't reflect well on them, and it doesn't achieve much at all. The ability to cover hustings, conferences and such like in considerably greater detail than is allowed by the broadcast media is a great strength of blogs. It's a pity it seems to be a strategy used less than seeing who can shout the loudest.

As for the claim that Bloggers4Chris was a good utilisation of the blogosphere in campaigning, I must say I disagree quite strongly here. The website had tremendously poor layout for a blog (it is not fun having to click on a link to read every article) and was little more than cheerleading. Rarely were his claims expanded on in any detail - it was just a roll-call of bloggers who had declared their support for Huhne with some (largely uninspiring) posts explaining their reasoning.

I've said it before; the British blogosphere is at its best when it is debating policy. It allows the exploration of ideas in much greater depth than that afforded by the broadcast media, and it introduces a vitality into the blogosphere that is greatly needed - especially in a medium that all too often can appear as if it suffers from major groupthink. This happened at certain stages in the LibDem leadership race - most notably over environmental policy - but all too often it didn't. Press releases do not make for good reading; real opinion does.

Of course, that's as much a criticism of activists as it is for the candidates themselves. And Chris Huhne deserves some credit for producing policy that really did appeal to bloggers. It's no coincidence that the most consistent blogging support was for Huhne - he made much more of an appeal to policy than any of the other candidates, and that was respected in an ideas-driven medium.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to how candidates might utilise the blogosphere more effectively. My conclusions here are tentative, but I will offer them anyway (did you expect anything else?). Firstly, I think there must be a move away from using campaign websites purely as spinning devices. Voters want a more honest approach to politics - that might mean opening yourself up to some more criticism than otherwise, but blogs are supposed to be interactive in stimulating debate and in having vibrant comment sections. Sterile cheerleading like Bloggers4Chris is, quite frankly, boring.

It may well be worth using blogs to have the campaign team write their reaction to events - good and bad. A more frank approach sounds risky but may well be worth the risk. At the very least, perhaps compiling a list of articles about a candidate, good or bad, with a robust rebuttal. Candidates may be busy, but engaging with bloggers more directly might be a good way of tapping into the vitality of blogs.

The use of blogs in the leadership campaigns was dramatically underwhelming. The most interesting comment was, as usual, generated where real discussion was invited. That is where candidates should look in the future if they really want to use the strength of blogging to help their campaigns.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Significance of Ming: Part I

So, the big political news today is that Sir Menzies Campbell is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. I'm going to make one post today, on the significance of the choice for the Liberal Democrats and the broader political sphere; I will make one tomorrow on the lessons that political candidates and the blogosphere can learn from the way the campaign unfolded.

I must say, my position on Campbell is that he will not be an effective leader. He appeared statesmanlike over Iraq; but he was placed in a tremendously favourable position, given the heat on one side of that debate, and the media being determined to give a respectable political face to the anti-war side.

His performances in PMQs as stand-in leader may have helped his name recognition among members (thus working against Chris Huhne), but they have hardly been impressive. The format may not be favourable to the Liberal Democrats, but Campbell has failed to land a convincing punch on Blair. As the media attention is naturally grabbed by the Cameron-Blair battle at the dispatch box, he will have to improve massively to make an impact in the Commons.

That is a shame for him, because he must be one of the most uncharismatic figures in British politics at the moment (Gordon Brown rivalling him heavily). It has been said that leaders need some sort of "personality" to be electable - Campbell is somewhere between grandpa and old duffer. Somehow, I doubt that will appeal too much to the electorate.

Where there is hope depends on the Shadow Cabinet. Nick Clegg will no doubt be handsomely rewarded for his loyal support; this may in turn see a real policy rethink. That would be good for the party; the Lib Dems remain a party of protest, and aspirations above their current level of MPs are totally unrealistic unless they shed their image of local opportunists. I can't help but feel that the reason the South-East corridor flocked away from the Lib Dems at the last election was because people finally started looking at their policies on tax.

If Ming is going to act merely as a "safe pair of hands", then I think the Liberal Democrats will have big problems on their hands. Of course, to a certain extent I will reserve judgement until I've seen the coverage of the Spring Conference this weekend. But more of the same will only see the Lib Dems falter. They want to be taken seriously as a political party - now is the time to put up. There is significant room to gain off both Labour and the Conservatives, but that will require them being far more than a party of protest, or a House of Commons think tank. Somehow, I can't quite see Campbell being the leader with the energy needed to organise that thorough re-think.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Avoiding Responsibility

I don't know about you, but I always thought that one of the benefits of having a government was that of accountability. That the people grant the government power to regulate certain areas of their life, but that the power is expressly delegated from the people. Thus, it is the right of the people to reduce their elected representatives to a private station through the medium of regular elections.

We saw with the Ken Livingstone case, though, that this is now very much not the preserve of the people. Instead, it is an unaccountable body of men who are able to subjectively remove elected officials from office for a period of time. This was quite a shock to me - I believed it was my right to elect someone who was crass and insensitive if I wanted to.

Now, Ruth Kelly today announced changes to the way that banning sex offenders from teaching in schools would operate. Some of this seems sensible - rather than having a number of lists with the names of those banned from teaching, it's going to be consolidated into one list, so that it's harder for people to slip through the net. All well and good, except for the fact that this list is going to be operated by an "independent body".

Well, independent in what sense? Even the most objective historian has his own personal biases that affect his work - this will be exactly the same for an independent body deciding which sex offenders should and shouldn't be allowed to work in schools. If decisions on this level should be taken by government, and not by individual schools, then the decisions should be taken by someone directly accountable to the electorate.

Our electoral system isn't perfect in this regard, of course. I can't vote Ruth Kelly out of office unless I have the (mis?)fortune to live in Bolton West. I can vote against her party, but not in any direct way (here in Oxford West, for example, a vote for or against Labour is of little consequence). Nevertheless, the system works to the extent that if enough people vote for the Tories, then Kelly will be unable to be Education Secretary.

Who can I complain to about the decisions of an unelected commission? The tendency of this Labour government is to abrogate responsibility on contentious issues. Rather than take a firm line, they dither or give responsibility to someone else. That's why they offer a referendum on the euro. That's why a "Standards Authority" can remove elected officials from office, when we should be trusting the collective wisdom of the people. And that's why the Education Secretary now has no discretion over who teaches in schools. It's a sad state of affairs, and shows a contempt for the operation of a democracy.

The Adventures of Ponty Manesar

Today was another watershed for the England cricket team - Monty Panesar, who won his first cap today, is the first Sikh to play for England. Panesar is a spin bowler, and, by all accounts, one of some promise. I can only hope that his bowling is up to scratch at Test level, because his batting is crap and his fielding is worse. If he doesn't make an impact with the ball, it will be a long couple of days running from fine leg to fine leg in the Indian heat.

Amit Varma is currently covering the India-England series, and spoonerically refers to Panesar as "Ponty Manesar". He has also concocted a series of stories about dear Ponty based on the premise of him being generally hopeless at everything.

As a team-bonding exercise, Duncan Fletcher decides that the team should play basketball. Ponty has never played basketball before. Nevertheless, he rushes out manfully onto the basketball court. Then the ball is thrown to him, and he just stands there, unsure of what to do with it.

"Bounce, Ponty, bounce," shouts Shaun Udal.

Ponty keeps holding the ball and starts jumping up and down.

To see more of the stories, try here and here.