Friday, June 30, 2006

Having A Wank

So, Jonathan Ross has caused quite the indignant outrage over his questioning of David Cameron and his sexual fantasies. Of course the comments were crass, unappealing, and not the sort of thing you would expect the Leader of the Opposition to be dealing with. But, then again, what else is to be expected of the Jonathan Ross show? He's going to relish the opportunity to try and make Cameron squirm; he's going to do that by being flippant and rude, throwing questions from outside the political box.

David Cameron must love the righteous indignation of the political class over this one. The Mail on Sunday, which really aimed to kick up a storm, almost tried to blame Cameron for the words of Ross. As if that's a reasonable comment - then again, I suppose it fits the paper.

But tonight's Question Time panel was a joy to behold. All sorts of sour-faced politicos pontificated solemnly about how it was wrong for Cameron to appear on this sort of show. The contrast with the audience was remarkable, however. They were pleased to see Cameron trying to connect with a new audience, thought that the comments were what was to be expected from that sort of show, but ultimately on Cameron's side. If ever the idea of Cameron as a man of the people, fighting for a change from the Westminster village, was to be enhanced, Question Time tonight certainly proved it.

What I find hardest to understand is why people say Cameron shouldn't have appeared on the show. Journalists and the media are the first to blame politicians for not engaging with new, wider audiences. It's hardly any wonder when any politician who takes that step receives a whole load of flak for his effort. But let's face it, a politician being interviewed by Jonathan Ross will be seen by more people than a politician being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. The chances are that he'll be taken more seriously by them, too, as long as he doesn't appear patronising.

And let's face it, if a man who wants to be Prime Minister can't deal with knockabout stuff with Jonathan Ross, he really isn't fit for the job. If he can't cope with a slightly uncomfortable question, then how's he going to cope in top-level negotiations where the fate of the country is on the line?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Charles and the Monarchy

Prince Charles and Clarence House were yesterday triumphantly proclaiming that the Prince costs each person in Britain only three and a half pence a head. Good for him. Three and a half pence too much, as far as I'm concerned.

The question about the monarchy has nothing to do with whether Prince Charles provides value for money for the services he performs for the country (and, by the way, given that he has personal expenditure of £21 million, I somewhat doubt that he does). The question is whether it is right for someone to be so handsomely rewarded - from the public purse - for a position that he holds purely by the accident of his birth.

If Prince Charles truly represented value for money, then we would know that not only was Clarence House being run as efficiently as possible, but we would also know, beyond doubt, that Prince Charles was the best man to perform the public duties that he does. No-one can say this for sure, because he performs his public duties without having to worry about a better man coming along to take his job. He doesn't have to worry about being sacked, because his position as heir to the throne is held until either he or his mother starts pushing up the daisies. There is no way of the public ensuring that Prince Charles is not unnecessarily wasteful of their money.

In short, the actual cost per head is not the issue at hand. If three and a half pence per head was a suitable sum of money for one man because of who he is, why do we not all receive it? It's little more than a cheap point designed to head off concerns that the monarchy is expensive. Well, I see no reason why one man should be given £21 million for personal expenditure - and a man to put toothpaste on his toothbrush, for crying out loud! - purely because he was born as the eldest son to the Royal Family. Quite simply, it is an outrage against meritocracy. And if Clarence House was to represent value for money, we'd have a selection procedure that made sure we had the right man for the job.

On Not Paying Council Tax

So, an old woman has been sent to jail in Derbyshire for not paying her council tax. Apparently she is unhappy at the state of her neighbourhood, in particular moaning about anti-social behaviour. Forgive me for having no sympathy with her.

Much of the sympathy seems to emanate from the fact that she is a pensioner. Her age, however, does not excuse choosing to opt out of the social contract that is vital for the maintenance of the services she feels are being carried out badly. Whether she feels the services are being carried out adequately or not, she still derives the common benefit from the services provided, and should make her contribution towards the provision. Does she really think that by starving the services of her money that she will make them better?

If you do not like the provisions offered by a democratically elected council, then there are other - legal - courses of action available to you. You can vote for a different party; if none of them offer the alternative, you can form your own and run for council yourself. If you can't get enough votes, then evidently the community as a whole doesn't share your views; if you don't want to run, either you admit other people are better equipped for the task at hand, or it is not sufficient of a priority of yours to sort it out.

But the Derbyshire pensioner evidently believes in a council, and believes it should be provided certain services. If that's the case, then she must abide by the rules. And if she wants to change things, she should operate within the system, not without.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Britain, Europe, and 4-4-2

Further syndication from the Touchline Bawler - go and read, there's much more than what I'm posting here!:

In The New Republic's World Cup blog today, Zachary Roth observes a big difference between English football culture in 1990 and 2006:

And in reading All Played Out, Pete Davies's fascinating insider account of England's Italia '90 campaign, I've been struck by the way that the tactical debates of the day were dominated by arguments over formations. Specifically, 4-4-2 was just assumed in England, and I think elsewhere, to be brittle, defensive, and unsophisticated. After our slow start, Bobby Robson was pressured by fans, the media, and even his own players and coaches to switch to a sweeper system, which was seen as being more flexible, and more attacking-minded: in short, more continental. Today, things could hardly be more different. Brazil uses 4-4-2, as do many of the most creative sides in club football. When England plays poorly or unambitiously (not that that's happened lately of course) there's no belief that a sweeper system would change anything. How and why did this change, I wonder.

1990, of course, was a very different time for English football. There can be little doubt England were the poor relations of Europe at that stage. We had not emerged from the stain of hooliganism; the game was seen as vulgar in many quarters of English society, and its supporters worse still. In material terms, too, England was shut out, with its teams being banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster. Especially amongst those segments of the press who disliked the vulgar, violent nationalism of England supporters, 3-5-2 and its European sophistication seemed to offer a viable, presentable alternative.

(As a side note, those who did embrace 4-4-2 did so largely from the perspective of a little Englander - we're different, and we don't care. It's an attitude that still pervades. Mike Bassett: England Manager contains a wonderful scene where the normally hapless Bassett reverses his team's bad fortunes by taking on the media at a press conference: "England will be playing four-four-fucking-two!")

Fever Pitch, the increasing gentrification of the game and its increasing respectability as a middle-class interest changed much. The English league maintained its usual pace, but much of the violence of the play, and the archetypal midfield enforcer, began to slip from view. An influx of money meant that England didn't lose its best players to foreign clubs, but was competing in the marketplace to bring them to Britain instead. And the ending of the Heysel ban meant that English clubs were competing - and, towards the end of the decade, regularly beating - some of the cream of Europe. A sweeper system no longer had the mystical allure of the unknown.
I wonder if some of this sporting attitude towards Europe are indicative of the national mood of Britain, and its attitude towards Europe more generally. Football is the one major sport where Britain really does compete directly with Europe; can the unconscious attitudes of people in football reflect more conscious political activity?

The early 1990s saw a great ambivalence with Europe - the Major government flirted with the ERM, agreed to the Maastricht treaty, but was ultimately uneasy about the concept of the EU. Not opposed to it in principle, but there was a feeling that Britain was different. Can analogies be drawn between that and feelings towards 3-5-2? It was those who write in the broadsheet newspapers, or who write books about World Cup who supported a sweeper system; the more popular feeling invoked the "bulldog spirit". We play 4-4-2 - that's our way, and if the others don't like it, well, we don't care!

The increasing feeling that the English way could succeed - indeed, could attract leading footballers to its own league - reflects a broader change towards the outright hostility to "Europe" expressed by the majority of the population. The ideology espoused by UKIP is one of isolationism and a retreat from just about any political dealings. Breathtaking in its political naivete, perhaps, but indicative of a wider belief that England is great, and that it doesn't need Europe to be great, either. That there have been renaissances in rugby and cricket, too - two quintessentially British Empire games - perhaps is further evidence that England is more confident in itself.

Talking football, however, is now no longer just the preserve of the masses. It possesses a substantial middle-class following - a far cry from the dog days of hooliganism. Part of its renaissance, however, has taken on a peculiarly English character. The story of English football in the 1990s is the rejuvenation of English teams, English players, and an English spirit. Is it any wonder that a sense of Englishness has developed not just in the UK, but with regard to Europe as well?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Will Ghana Ruin The World Cup?

Today's syndicated content from the Touchline Bawler:

Ghana had much reason to feel aggrieved today. Italy were clearly the better side, but the Africans showed real inventiveness, and passed the ball around with great efficiency. On several occasions the Italian full-backs were shown up horrendously by Ghanaian runs down the wing. Only the absence of incisive passing into the penalty box, the class of Alessandro Nesta, and the bizarre propensity for Michael Essien to shoot high, wide, and not-so-handsome from long distance prevented Ghana from making a decent fist of a contest.

Most egregiously of all, they were denied a clear penalty at 1-0, when their forward burst clear, only to clearly be fouled by the Italian defender. The referee can look forward to a nice boon in his bank balance courtesy of Gianluigi Buffon. And his surely certain departure from World Cup 2006 will no doubt be sweetened by a nice relaxing holiday in the Caribbean.

Nevertheless, the Ghanaian response to going 2-0 down was nothing short of shameful. Far from trying to fight back, they instead decided to lash out at anything in a blue shirt. Having already seen off Francesco Totti with a horrific stamp, and Samuel Kuffour scythe down Vinceto Iaquinta when through on goal (only the offside flag prevented a red card), Ghana then proceeded to go in hard and late on just about every single challenge. That no Italian was seriously injured owes much more to blind luck than good judgement.

That Ghana have a skilful team is not in doubt. Essien and Appiah play at a high level in Europe; most of their other players grace second-tier sides, and have some considerable skills. Had the team not seemed overawed by the occasion - a fact that manifested itself in poor defensive organisation and hasty decision-making in attack - then they could very easily have sprung a major upset on an Italian side that played with imagination but little width. To resort to dirty, cynical play demeaned Ghana.

Their style of play could quite easily adversely affect the remainder of the tournament, however. One thing often overlooked in World Cup predictions is the strength of the group. In Grand Slam tennis, the rigours of a five-set match mean that high-ranked seeds who get dragged into marathon matches lose their energy later in the tournament. If Holland, Italy and the like are not exhausted by having such tough groups, then they are resilient indeed.

The problem of playing high-intensity, high-level football is magnified further if squad resources are depleted by injuries. Time will tell if the injury to Jan Koller will affect the Czech Republic. He is by no means their key player - Nedved and Rosicky are the heartbeat of the side. Being denied the skills of a starting player, however, means the reliance on reserves is stronger, and, moreover, they will be play longer. No substitutions resting them for twenty minutes.

Should Ghana be outclassed by a quality Czech side - as may well happen - then the fear must be they resorted to kicking the man and not the ball. If that results in an injury to the aforementioned Rosicky or Nedved, the consequences for the tournament could be significant. It is like running into a Tongan rugby side intent on high-tackles and taking men out while in the air - recovering from just the bumps and bruises takes its time; and there's a fair chance something more serious happens.

Injuries are part and parcel of any major football tournament - and the truly great teams will have sufficient strength in depth, or tactical ingenuity, to overcome the loss of any one player. But if we were denied the opportunity to see the likes of Rosicky and Nedved in the later stages - as well we might miss the presence of Totti - then there could be no denying the tournament will be much the poorer for it. It is Ghana's first appearance at the World Cup, and it would be a real tragedy if rather than celebrating the skills of Essien, Appiah, and Asamoah (not to mention the wonderfully named Pimpong!), we are left bemoaning their willingness to lash out when beaten.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

World Cup Blogging

I'll be putting as much as I can up over on the Touchline Bawler over the next few weeks as the World Cup reaches fever pitch!

Saturday, June 10, 2006


From today's letters page in the Times:

Sir, Your frontpage picture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (June 9) has handed terrorists throughout the world a publicity coup of immeasurable value. Never since the picture of Che Guevara became indelibly stamped on the minds of millions has there been an iconic image of such strength.
The War on Terror is not furthered by the US military releasing this picture.


London WC2

I'm pretty sure I remember exactly the same thing being said when Uday and Qusay Hussein died, and the US military released the pictures of their bullet-ridden bodies. And yet now the incident is barely mentioned in mainstream media. Current events in Iraq are far more worrisome and important.

There is something sickening about the politics of death - but such is the nature of the media that debate on Iraq has become a question of who can market death more successfully. Pressure on Bush and Blair mounts with the death of each serviceman; to trade blows the US and the UK do not need to show that they are improving the quality of life in Iraq. Evidence of that sort ultimately becomes anecdotal in nature, and it's difficult to convince viewers in Britain that quality of life is improving when people are being blown up every day. Instead, victory over the insurgency can only be demonstrated by bodies on the ground.

Yes, it's a pretty sad state of affairs. No-one should take any joy in seeing someone else dead (that includes you, Tim Ireland), but Iraq is now a trading of iconic images. Will the death of al-Zarqawi have an effect? I guess so. As in Palestine, and as in Afghanistan, if you knock enough leaders out, there will be problems caused. Particularly in what seems to be a fairly loose operational command. Is that a long-term strategy for success? Probably not - you only need to look at the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to see that a new leadership corps can quickly develop.

But time is running out on Bush and Blair. If they can secure a positive legacy at all over Iraq, which seems doubtful, then they need to have visible successes now. Knocking al-Zarqawi off the scene is one of the best ways they could have managed this. Because that's one of the few ways they will get a positive headline. Will the image of Zarqawi be iconic? I doubt it - the iconic image of this year is Prescott playing croquet. What is certain, though, is that for all the distaste of the brandishing of photos of a dead terrorist, the political trading in death will continue.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Boil Lanced?

Today's report into the allegations made by L'Equipe seemingly exonerates Lance Armstrong from having used drugs during his first victory in the Tour de France. That's what the Armstrong spin machine has proclaimed, at any rate. On a further examination of the words used by the expert, it seems to me highly likely that the samples did indeed contain traces of EPO, a banned drug. The head of the report team certainly pulls his punches in many of his statements - "It may suffice for research purposes but as a valid doping result - no way."

For all the proclamations to the contrary, it is a technicality that exonerates Armstrong. A pretty hefty technicality - that is, that the way the sample was tested in no way correlates with the official doping policy of either the world cycling authorities or the World Anti-Doping Agency. Yet there isn't actually a denial that the samples contained EPO. That must surely be the acid test of whether the claims are valid or not? It may not qualify him for a ban, or other punishments. But the suspicion must surely still linger here - avoiding a negative dope test is a game of skill, not a game of keeping clean.

Perhaps more pertinently, should it surprise us that Armstrong was taking drugs? Should it surprise us that people in any sport would be taking drugs? The endurance and the sheer physical capacity needed to compete at such a level in the Tour de France is often described as superhuman. Not without good reason either - man is not made to compete at such speeds, such physical hardship, day in and day out. Cycling is constantly surrounded by doping incidents, with riders competing at a much lesser level to Armstrong convicted of doping. Is he really so much better than his opponents that he can beat them so thoroughly when they are doping and he isn't?

And, ultimately, does this matter? Can it be construed as 'unnatural'? The body still has to respond to the stimulus of the drugs to enhance performance - in exactly the same way that more traditional training techniques work. The way the current rules operate, it is only the honest and the stupid who lose out. If you've got a brand-new designer drug, or a pretty powerful masking agent, then you can escape the long arm of the sporting law. If some newspaper stories are to be believed, sometimes all you need is friends in high places. There's a culture of cheating in certain sports, and it's cheating necessitated a) because everyone's at it and b) the endurance/ability required to compete at the top level is nothing short of wildly unhealthy.

Can a baseball pitcher really throw a ball at 100mph 100 times every 5 days and not feel the pain over a career, without taking steroids to artificially strengthen his shoulder? Can American football linemen be bashed into repeatedly over a three-hour period once a week for four months without having unnatural strength? Can a cyclist haul his body over mountain after mountain for three weeks without needed an artificial stimulant? I doubt it.

Pretending that drugs only exist with positive tests is an attitude of breathtaking naivete. Why can't we accept that if there are artificial aids to performance, then people can take risks with them? Seek a doctor's advice and it should be safe. I would bet a fair amount of money that people are cheating in sport the entire time. Some get away with it, others don't. But the pious morality of the indignant journalists sticks in my throats at times. There's a real debate to be had about the role of drugs in sport, and it's about time we had it.