Aug 172011
 

Via @Athena_PR, this:

Nadine Dorries: We should shut down social media networking sites during a public disturbance

I don’t think I’ve written much about Nadine Dorries, but I’ve read the on-going rhetoric wars over her between Dizzy and Tim Ireland, and I know of the bogus ‘hand of God’ scandal. But I was willing to give her—and her party—the benefit of the doubt in some respects until I read this blog post—this blog post—condemning the very web-based social communication that the post itself embodies.

Let us consider: why would Nadine Dorries want to write a blog post for ConservativeHome? First, because it has a large audience to whom she can suck up. Second, because writing a blog post that reaches a large audience is easier than the hard slog of doorstepping, campaigning on the ground, and connecting in person with individuals. Third, because writing a blog post is a crap-ton easier than going on the media rounds, being interviewed by journalists who jealously (if inconsistently) guard speech privileges and who love nothing better than wrong-footing a politician.

So we’ve already identified a host of practical (if cynical) reasons why social media is good for Nadine Dorries.

But curiously, it is this same social media (ooooh, watch out) whose restriction she advocates via the medium of social media.

She says:

During 7/7, mobile networks were instantly closed down.

The justification for this, as I recall correctly, was to stop the overloading of networks, which would interfere with emergency response systems. Leaving aside whether or not that makes sense, what Nadine actually says is that:

The precedent to prevent those who present a threat to the safety of civilians from communicating with each other is already set, even though possibly not officially acknowledged by the intelligence services.

So, she acknowledges that the justification given at the time was a lie, and that the actual purpose was to stop ‘civilians from communicating with each other.’

What did it stop? More terrorist attacks, that had been planned and coordinated in advance by people meeting in person? Maybe. More likely, it stopped ‘civilians’ from contacting their loved ones to make sure they were safe, to find out where they were, to help each other, to advise each other, to mourn together, to make plans to meet up and feel the comfort of one another’s company. I’m not at all convinced that interrupting communications networks in the aftermath of disaster is a good response; nor do I believe that causing definite worry and pain to the innocent is negligible when compared to the possibility that further terrorists might be inconvenienced.

Presumably, however, Dorries does: deal with it, you civilians, it’s for your own good.

She carries on:

To compare the intention of a democratically elected, heavily scrutinised Government, to restrict social media use during a public disorder in this country, with the autocratic, secretive regimes of others such as Iran and China, is simply not a sustainable argument.

It is a sustainable argument, actually, when one isn’t tilting at straw men. The intention behind the shutting down of a speech channel by government, and the nature of that government, are immaterial. Whatever the intention or the government, the outcome is the same: a speech channel is shut down. Dorries should know, due to her Christian advocacy, that Christ is not concerned with the roots, but with the fruits. And as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I for one do not give a stuff about the government’s intentions, or its democratic legitimacy. What I am concerned with are the outcomes of its policies. It is possible for an autocrat to lead a blissful society. And it is possible for a democrat to preside over a dystopian one.

But hark! To Dorries, this sort of statement is not hypocrisy, for as she says of another suspiciously grassy figurine:

A peaceful demonstration, voicing a desire for freedom of speech, or free and fair elections in other countries cannot be compared to mass criminality or violent social disorder, which is what we saw take place here during the riots.

Allow me to deconstruct this for you in simple symbolic logic, if I can, for it makes little sense, but I’ll give it a go.

Oppressive regimes = bad.
Violent disorder = bad.
Social media = ?

Where are social media in this argument? Nowhere. What Dorries is saying is that condemning oppressive regimes whilst condemning disorder is not hypocrisy. Well, duh. In other news, comfort is good and pain is unpleasant, and the pope shits in the woods. What has this got to do with anything?

I think I would like Dorries better if she was prepared to talk the talk and walk the walk. If one is going to address the criticism that shutting down social media makes the British government no better than China or Iran, one should really go all out and just admit something along the lines of, ‘You know what? China and Iran have their problems, but this is one issue they have bang to rights. Having one or two things in common with them doesn’t make us fascists, too. After all, Hitler liked dogs and watercolours.’

She’d still be wrong, but at least she wouldn’t be a mealy-mouthed, lying, self-deluding, patronising hypocrite.

And there’s still more to come:

The argument put forward this morning by Andrew, on the Today programme, that a Twitter message may have saved a person in a burning house is false and unprovable. It just didn’t happen. What saved a person in a burning house was screaming out of a window.

Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?

Well, maybe. I can’t speak for this Andrew chap. He strikes me as something of a dimwit. Of course nobody tweets ‘Help, help.’ But maybe what they tweet is, ‘Hey you guys, is there any rioting near Brixton station? I usually go home past it.’

And maybe what they get is, ‘Yes, there is: find a different way home or you might get hurt.’ So there you go: social media can prevent harm as easily as it can contribute to it.

Conversely, rather than saving lives, the overwhelming use of social media during the riots was seriously harmful. It disseminated information so quickly that it undoubtedly helped to spread the riots across a wider area. This resulted in the tragic loss of life in Birmingham and chaotic disruption in other major cities.

This is a total exaggeration. How many people were involved in the riots, vs how many uninvolved people were helping each other through social media channels? Given the numbers rioting were, you know, small in the grand scheme of the online population, I have to call bullshit on this one.

Especially when one considers the fact that, in the grand scheme of riots, this was pretty paltry. It sucks that people died, and that others’ livelihoods and homes were destroyed. But come on, they had way bigger riots than this in 1381 when barely anybody could write, let alone use Twitter. Social media didn’t facilitate widespread, destructive social upheaval. It partially facilitated shitty little riots, characterised mostly by looting, undertaken largely by people with criminal backgrounds.

You know what else social media facilitates? Widespread communication of condemnation of itself, by hypocritical assholes like Nadine Dorries. The tool that allows rioters to reach a wide audience of fellow rioters is the same tool that allows fascist scum like Nadine Dorries to reach a wide audience of fellow fascist scum. Funny, that. I guess social media can be used for good and evil. But just because Dorries is polluting the series of tubes with her authoritarian wickedness doesn’t mean I think the series of tubes should be switched off.

In proposing to close down social media networking sites when threatening public disorder starts to break out, this Government is acting responsibly in using such a measure as an exercise in damage limitation.

It’s also acting to disrupt a much wider-ranging exercise in damage prevention. Everything has a cost.

We must also remember that Twitter and Facebook were used to spread false rumours, to disrupt vital life saving services such as the Fire and Ambulance services…

Ooh, yet again, the justification that the emergency services need these networks to be clear in order to do their life-saving jobs. As Dorries has already admitted the falseness of that justification with respect to the closing of mobile networks on 7/7, it’s not a particularly effective piece of rhetoric here, but let’s return to something, shall we?

Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?

Does anyone really think that emergency services personnel when sat in the middle of a riot zone, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter or Facebook, and check for a message which says ‘help, help’?

Finally:

To the Libertarians who are constantly arguing against the use of CCTV and the very temporary shutting down of social media when necessary, you have to ask yourself this. Is your political principle really more important that the families who lost sons, the shopkeepers who lost their business and the children who have been burnt out of their homes?

My answer: yes.

Because the failure to prevent rioting negatively affected a few thousands, while the failure to protect my principle negatively affects everyone on this planet. Don’t make Stalin’s mistake in thinking that a few thousand horrors is a tragedy, but a few billion is merely a statistic.

I think what bothers me the most here is not that Dorries believes these things, for I’m sure she’s not alone and I know a lot of people sympathise with her views. What really gets my goat is that she is a representative of the Government of this nation; and her well-paid advisors, her party’s well-paid advisors, and the Government’s well-paid advisors appear to have no objection to her advocacy, on a very popular and highly-read social media forum, of the shutting down of social media in technology-based, 21st-century Britain, all in the name of the possible prevention of criminal behaviour that is barely on a par with the kind of social disorder and criminal behaviour that persisted in eras when social media wasn’t even a gleam in your mother’s eye.

I can only assume, from this and from Cameron’s recent waffle, that the Conservative party endorses this kind of bullshit, and that its supporters and voters endorse it as well. And if this is what passes for democratically elected, heavily scrutinised, first-world, free-world governance, then I fear deeply for democracy, elections, scrutiny, and the civilised world.

Dorries notwithstanding, I’m extremely unlikely to support the Conservative party ever, but you entryists out there (and I know there are fuck-tons of you, because you’ve tried your entryism on me), take note: if you don’t stand up and condemn what Dorries and Cameron are saying, you will earn for yourselves many enemies. And if you, by your silence, permit Dorries, Cameron, and their ilk to follow through on this ragged rhetoric with actual policies, you will earn for yourselves so much implacable hatred that you will consider rock bands claiming they will dance when you die to be an expression of positive affection, and moan about how easy Thatcher had it.

Jul 212010
 

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou’s original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

Jun 122010
 

Great words from Mr Civil Libertarian:

Politics and ethics aren’t easy bedfellows. That’s because there’s nothing ethical about politics. Politics as we know it consists entirely of: Using the force of the state (which is unethical) to coerce (which is unethical) otherwise peaceful citizens into a) giving up their preferred way of life (unethical), b) giving up their justly acquired property (unethical), c) obeying the rules of a small section of society under threat of severe punishment (unethical), and also d) committing violent, coercive acts against citizens of other Nation States that they can claim no possible right over (VERY unethical).

There’s very little politics can do that is ethical, since ultimately, the power of politicians comes, not from namby-pamby “social contracts” (which you never knowingly signed, cannot rescind, and cannot see the terms of) or from any sort of “God given right”, but ultimately from the use of, or the threat of use of, violence against you. What Lucas, as a Member of Parliament, does, is work as yet another embodiment of this established violence. That’s her job. That’s her role. To claim she is “ethical” makes a mockery of ethics.

May 072010
 

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.

Apr 132010
 

UPDATE: I’ve had an email from the mods telling me, among other things, that I nearly crashed their site because of everybody voting multiple times. This is considered unfair. Be told.

It appears that the mods over at publicservice.co.uk did not appreciate the free traffic yesterday’s pollbomb gave them. One of the mods has left this remark on the poll feedback site:

It would seem there are people out there who spend so long in their blogging basements that they a) have lost any understanding of democracy and fair play and b) consider their actions to be revolutionary and even relevant when in fact they are risible and, well, bordering on the just plain silly…

The actions by such people don’t do anything other than allow them to snigger to themselves (and each other) which is all very satisfying for them, I’m sure. But the whole point of a poll is for people to express their honest opinions which will hopefully be of interest to people who actually do have something worthwhile to say. Bombing polls is ridiculous and pointless, much like the sites that advocate it and relish in it. And the whole premise that there is a public vs private battle like a City vs United thing is nothing short of lame and shows extremely shallow thinking. For those of us who have operated (and still do) in both sectors, we know this is simply not the case.

So to the rest of you out there who do believe in democracy, intelligent debate and discourse, please keep voting and sending in your opinions. We do value them and we will not abandon any poll simply because someone thinks it’s clever to attempt to sabotage it (but sitting at 43-57 at the time of writing they haven’t even managed to do that) for the sake of a collective online giggle.

This is standard practice for humourless precious types, I’m afraid. Let’s examine whether the mod’s own comment meets the test of ‘intelligent debate and discourse.’

1. Insults:

  • ‘risible’
  • ‘silly’
  • ‘ridiculous’
  • ‘pointless’
  • ‘lame’
  • ‘shallow’
  • unintelligent
  • think it’s clever [implying that it’s stupid]

2. Baseless accusations:

  • no understanding of democracy and fair play
  • dishonest
  • lack of belief in democracy
  • ‘sabotage’
  • ‘for the sake of a collective online giggle’

3. Derision:

  • not ‘revolutionary’ or ‘important’
  • nothing worthwhile to say
  • opinions of pollbombers not valued
  • ‘ridiculous and pointless’ pollbomb failing anyway

Is anyone out there surprised by this method? You shouldn’t be. It’s straight out of the Righteous Manual of Pious Outrage.

In light of this unprovoked nastiness and accusation, I moseyed back over and left my own comment. Knowing that they censored DK straight into the aether, I reproduce my words in full here.

Hi there! I’m the ‘plain silly’ blogger who started the pollbomb. I know the assumption by the moderators here is that I’m shallow and think myself ‘quite clever.’ I’ll omit pointing out the essential hypocrisy of such swipes and merely explain my motivation.

On the ‘about us’ part of [the publicservice.co.uk] site, you will find these statements:

‘We are THE provider for all your public sector information needs’

‘We continually strive to build on our reputation as a key source of news and analysis on public sector matters’

Given the self-proclaimed prominence of this website and its parent company in providing the public sector with THE information it needs to know, perhaps you could explain to me why you judge it unfair that some of us should choose to send an informative message to the public sector by voting in your poll.

If, as you claim, the poll ‘won’t die any kind of quiet death,’ then I hope that when you disseminate the results to your public sector clients, you report very clearly the following:

1. Numerous people took time out of their busy days and evenings to bring traffic to your site and participate in a survey to which you presumably wanted answers.

2. Many of those same people felt strongly enough about your question to leave comments explaining why they voted in the way they did.

3. There is a significant amount of resentment felt by private sector workers toward public sector ones. This is not because we assume all public sector employees earn huge amounts – far from it. We know nurses and policemen are generally not highly paid. The resentment stems from the fact that private sector employees are forced by law to fund public sector entitlements which they themselves could not afford and which reduces their capacity to afford other things too.

This is why we ‘ridiculously’ chose to ‘sabotage’ your poll, and why we hope that as THE provider of public sector information needs, you pass along the message.

And a message to the moderators of this site: given that you are censoring responses, I will also be publishing this reasonable and non-abusive (unlike your own) comment elsewhere.

We shall see whether they are truly in the market for ‘honest’ input.

Feb 272010
 

Back in the days when I was a callow undergraduate, many of my close friends were devout Christians, as indeed were many people on campus. There were days when I could go from sunrise to its set without ever encountering a pair of wrists naked of the near-ubiquitous What Would Jesus Do? bracelet.

WWJD? was supposed to remind His followers that they should strive to imitate Christ in all their words and actions. Although I never sported the WWJD? jewellery, I was always impressed by its effectiveness and simplicity. There was no uniform consensus about what, specifically, Jesus might do, but at least you could be sure that none of these WWJD? subscribers believed stealing your stuff, plagiarising your work, or snaffling your boyfriend was Something Jesus Would Do. That made campus culture rather pleasant. And of course the WWJD? bracelet was a perfect tool for social accountability, as none of its wearers ever wanted to do things that would cause non-believers to point sardonically at the bracelet with cocked, disbelieving eyebrow.

This came to mind today while I was reading Gordon Brown’s piece on CiF, entitled ‘Markets need morals.’ Why? Because it seemed to me as if he had publicly donned a What Would Adam Smith Do? bracelet. Observe:

I have long been fascinated by Adam Smith, who came from my home town of Kirkcaldy, precisely because he recognised that the invisible hand of the market had to be accompanied by the helping hand of society. He argued that the flourishing of moral sentiments comes before – and is the foundation of – the wealth of nations. In other words, markets need morals.

Somewhere along the line, Gordon Brown realised that Adam Smith holds the same position in the minds of sensible economists as Jesus holds in the minds of campus Christians. When in doubt, the sensible economist turns to his bible to discover What Would Adam Smith Do? And if the answer may not be found therein, the economist will use his knowledge and understanding of Adam Smith to speculate on what Adam Smith might have done. Like Jesus, Adam Smith operated according to a set of general principles from which we may derive his likely conclusions about modern questions of economics.

So Gordon Brown has looked at the condition of Britain today and consulted his WWASD? jewellery. And he has determined that the foundation of wealth is the moral character of the wealth-creating society.

But is he right? Or has he confused Hume’s is and ought?

I am not an expert on the WWASD? question, but I think Smith was simply stating an is. The operation of the market and economy is simply a reflection of the moral values of the society. If a society views freedom, free will, and mutual self-interest as moral goods, its economic exchanges will tend to be free, voluntary, and mutually beneficial, because the moral code to which the people adhere will inform how and why they make economic exchanges. If a society views security, equality, and the common good as moral imperatives, its economic exchanges will reflect those principles instead. The state, which like it or not has the power to regulate economic exchange, also reflects the moral values of its people, and will regulate economic exchange so that it conforms to the prevailing moral character.

Gordon Brown has misread this idea as an ought: economic exchanges ought to conform to morality. Our moral code demands good outcomes for all, so our market must be designed to produce good outcomes for all. But Gordon Brown has gotten his cart and horse mixed up. The fact of the matter is, the condition of our ‘market’ does currently reflect our moral character.

What does our society consider moral goods these days? Allow me to make a list.

  • freedom
  • security
  • free will
  • regulation
  • self-interest
  • the common good
  • hard work
  • work-life balance
  • purchasing power
  • anti-consumerism
  • a minimum standard of wealth for all
  • a maximum standard of wealth for all

If this seems a rather schizophrenic and internally contradictory list to you, as it does to me, then it should come as no surprise that, as Adam Smith’s is predicts, our economic conditions are equally schizophrenic and internally contradictory. Particularly difficult to reconcile are the ideas that we want to generate enough wealth for all to have a decent standard of living, but we encourage people to purchase less, consume less, work less, invest less, and spend less. On the one hand, material wealth is vital because we consider those with little of it poor, and poverty is a moral evil. On the other hand, material wealth is wicked because we consider those who pursue it greedy and destructive, and greed and destruction are moral evils.

‘Give the poor purchasing power!’ we cry. ‘They are deprived of their material needs!’

‘We are purchasing too much and becoming soullessly materialistic!’ we cry. ‘We do not need stuff!’

And so we end up with a moral culture that sets a minimum level of wealth below which there is poverty (a moral evil) and a maximum level of wealth above which there is greed and consumerism (moral evils). Then we demand of the ‘market’ that it confine itself to the space in between.

Economic exchange proceeds accordingly. Some economic actors direct all of their considerable effort toward generating enough wealth to avoid the lower limit. Unfortunately, this drives certain sectors above the upper limit, so we require other economic actors to direct their resources toward driving wealth-generation down again. Back and forth, back and forth, boom and bust, extreme wealth and extreme poverty, like a giant economic pushme-pullyou.

And Gordon Brown says ‘markets need morals.’

Gordon, the market has morals. It has our morals, and it reflects them accordingly. And your ‘enabling state’ reflects them too: it encourages business, it restricts business; it removes wealth, it grants wealth; it helps individuals at the expense of the community, it helps the community at the expense of individuals; it seeks wealth, it condemns wealth generation.

And you complain that the results are imperfect? The results are a perfect reflection of our moral values.

So to return to the question – What Would Adam Smith Do? – I doubt he would argue that we should change effects to fit causes. If he could see the flawed reflections of our moral code, he would advise us to search out the flaws in our moral code.

WWASD? He would say to us, ‘Stop putting garbage in, and you’ll stop getting garbage out.’

Feb 252010
 

I return to my theme of today’s youth with the news that the new generation has obviously imbibed wholesale the baby-boomers’ intractable conviction that everything which is ‘good’ should be compulsory, and everything which is ‘bad’ should be banned. This rigid dichotomy has found its way into the state-school interns at the Times (and really, with all of that black-and-white ideology fed to pupils in state schools, what else did we expect?).

Make politics lessons compulsory, says sixth former,’ and he means it. Why?

By the time a student leaves sixth form/college, they are of voting age. They have the power in their hands to shape the form of their next government. This gives them the power to shape their own future and bring about change. The right to vote is incredibly important, as I am sure will be seen in the coming months as the General Election approaches.

But how well does school prepare the next generation about the UK political system?

Answer: Astonishingly poorly. Nowhere in my school career have I discussed UK politics, the parties and their policies, the voting system or the way the government works. So when most of us leave school, 18 years old, we have not even learnt about what each party represents or why it is important to vote.

I highly doubt this is true. My own anecdotal experience suggests that even students as young as 12 are aware of the parties, their leaders and policies, and generally how the government works. But that’s neither here nor there. A widely-acknowledged democratic deficit exists in this country; you’re not going to repair it by force-feeding teenagers propaganda that denies this reality.

Pupils do have the chance to choose government and politics or economics at A level, but those who are already interested will be the ones choosing these subjects. The question is, how can young people get the opportunity to learn about, generate interest and engagement in and discuss these issues without having to have a qualification in it?

Schools should have compulsory lessons, from the beginning of secondary education about the different parties, their policies, about ideologies like capitalism and communism. Current affairs should be discussed and taught about in schools to help pupils learn about the injustices and problems that face this world. It would teach the younger generation that change and reform are possible, and they can be at the forefront of it.

Much as I enjoy the idea of teaching such a class, I’m sorry, but no. Quite apart from the obvious problem that it would be nearly impossible to avoid bias in this context, there’s no reason whatsoever to make the ridiculous claim that voting ought to be based upon knowledge of ideologies, injustices, and world problems. The thought-police are not quite yet standing at the ballot box to make sure you’re voting for the right reasons (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOOD’) rather than because you quite fancy a particular candidate, or because a particular party has promised to give advantage to your faction. Voters are not required to adjust their motivations to satisfy the trite concerns of people who blog for the Times.

Would it be nice if voters were, in general, better informed? Certainly. Would that stop them voting for assholes? Hmm…

I believe that there are great problems with education system as well – inequalities which bring advantage to some, but disadvantage many more.

Different students learn in different ways, and this need is not currently addressed across the curriculum.

Standard cant. Actually, I’m with the kid here. Inequalities have brought advantage to him by getting his colourless rambling into the Times, which is totally unfair. Every student in the country should get a piece in the Times. Equality of outcome, my friends, equality of outcome.

Sarcasm aside, the education system is really quite shambolic. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that, unlike Pridesh Raichura, most of his peers have twigged their powerlessness and couldn’t care less about politics. Presumably these peers will go on to do something useful with themselves. Pridesh Raichura, on the other hand, has a bright future ahead of him in the Establishment.

A lot of the time, lessons involve sitting in front of the interactive board and the teacher lectures away expecting students to take in all the facts. Occasionally, they may throw in a video to watch, or if you are lucky, you may get to discuss something in pairs!

However, some people simply do not learn that way. A more hands-on approach to teaching is needed and teachers must start thinking outside of the classroom.

Many lessons are spoon-feeding sessions, where facts are shoved to the pupils, who are expected to memorise them and regurgitate the answers come exam time. There is very little teaching where teachers make the students think creatively and try to solve the problem or work out the facts for themselves.

Especially at GCSEs and A levels, where teachers have to teach from the set syllabus – they just spill out all of the information related to the syllabus, and expect students to absorb.

WORD. But here’s the problem: teachers teach this way because compulsory teacher training teaches them to teach this way. Some of the best lessons I’ve ever taught have been literally outside the classroom. When working on a unit about Greek and Roman education, I used to take the students outside and stroll around with them in the open air, inviting controversial discussion topics and critiquing their arguments. They always seemed to enjoy it. But government has provided a list of things students must know, and ‘talking with my elders about interesting stuff’ ain’t on that list. The list is actually quite huge, however, and Pridesh would have us add to it with compulsory politics lessons, so that’ll leave even less time for Socratic debate in the classroom.

The piece finishes in much the same vein – which means, as you’ll notice, that our sixth-form friend hasn’t really made much of a case for forcing the youth to study the political system that systematically disempowers them. ‘Ooh, people might not vote, and if they do they might vote weird’ is not much of an argument for inflicting yet another pointless but compulsory subject on 11-18-year-olds.

However, lobbying the state for another control order is much easier, and much more likely to succeed, than lobbying it to reform the electoral system, present real alternatives to voters, or recover the people’s sovereignty from the EU.

But it’s all right, everything is all right. You see, Pridesh has won the victory over himself. He loves… well. You fill in the blank.

Feb 252010
 

When I heard about the dude in Texas who flew his plane into an IRS office, my second reaction was, ‘Well, crap.’ Mostly because I knew this would hurt the cause of anti-tax, limited-government advocates everywhere. We would all be tarred with the same brush, and the mildly irritating, deliberate misinterpretations of that movement in the US (see, for example, this ethnography of the Tea Party, lush with contempt and condescension) would become either (a) outright denunciations of hypocrisy and extremism, or (b) even more explicit in their belief that anyone expressing suspicion of government is a tinfoil-wearing lunatic. Or both.

And indeed, this is precisely what has happened. To the point where some other wanker at the New York Times has written an opinion piece about it – which neatly combines views (a) and (b) as expected.

I don’t doubt that Tea Partiers are on balance on the right, and if their movement ever crystallizes into a political party that will be its location. But until the requisite winnowing happens, a person with Stack’s fuzzy ideology wouldn’t feel terribly alone at a big Tea Party.

I emphasize that I’m talking about his ideology, not his penchant for flying planes into buildings. Still, some of the ingredients of that penchant — a conspiratorial bent, a deep and personal sense of oppression, an attendant resentful rage — can be found in the movement, if mainly on its fringes. There are some excitable Tea Partiers out there.

Yup, all there. Tea Partiers are simultaneously lame and dangerously crazy. Just on the fringes, though! Wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalisations or anything!

Oh wait:

…I’m not sure how purely conservative the Tea Party movement is anyway.

Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts. Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives.

And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.

In the end, the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers is populist rage…

Apparently this guy thinks that opposing government intervention (health care bill, stimulus package, corporate bailouts), government intervention (in foreign countries in illegal wars), and government intervention (allowing the global government of the UN to determine the policies of individual countries) is a ‘squishy,’ ‘inchoate,’ and ‘undefined’ ideological position.

And apparently the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers, who couldn’t be more direct about their core unifying theme – opposing government intervention – is actually populist rage. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not see; and there are those who will never see, even when they have all the info at their disposal, because they would rather view the Tea Party as lunatics with conspiracy nuts on the fringes, with terrorists on their fringes, than as a legitimate electoral bloc with a valid point to make.

My, how times are changed. It used to be the privilege of the left to distrust the government and suspect it of base motives. I guess now that the left are the government, that once-noble perspective is no longer tenable.

Mind you, our ex-hippy overlords seem particularly distraught that the voice of the new generation is a weak one. A couple of days ago, I wrote in the comments to this post that it was a key feature of the baby-boom generation to strangle the life out of today’s youth and then demand to know why it wasn’t trying to breathe.

And lo, what should be in the newspaper on Monday but the results of a poll showing that today’s youth are ‘more boring’ than their parents.

Having been told from birth to shun smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, and pretty much anything else that could be interpreted as either exciting or ‘interesting,’ the yoof turn out to be rather hard-line Puritans. Quelle surprise. And for this, the baby-boomers have the nerve to complain that their kids are no fucking fun.

***

Oh, and the plane-up-the-IRS man? He’s called Joseph Stack, and you can Google his suicide note. You’ll discover there that, far from being a general anti-tax weirdo, he was the victim of a long a vigorous shafting by the revenue. I’m sure it appealed to him to couch his rage in ideological bombast, but it couldn’t be more clear that this ‘terrorism’ was nothing more than revenge served up to the nearest target. And hey, nobody is forced to work at the IRS giving it up the backside to faceless Americans who can’t understand the impenetrable tax code.

I guess complicity really is all around us.

Feb 072010
 

The Prime Minister’s speech at the RSA on Tuesday deserves a good kick up the metaphorical backside, for it is an excellent example of how the language of liberty and change has been appropriated to describe actions which are entirely contrary to the principles of liberty, self-government, and human rights – and, of course, change.

Many people have assured me that, without government, there are no rights (‘Look at Somalia!’), and to a certain practical extent, I believe this to be true. If one’s right to life can be trampled upon by someone else with impunity, that right is de facto non-existent. Some government or authority is necessary to guarantee that others cannot infringe my rights – what is known as the rule of law. But that right is equally non-existent if the government itself can trample upon it with impunity, which is why I advocate a limited government without the power to infringe rights. There is naturally room for argument about what system of government best enables that ideal, and about the nature of its limitations and how they are guaranteed. But the ideal itself is sound.

It goes without saying, then, that rights supplied by the government, either through provision or financing, are not what I consider to be ‘rights’ at all, but entitlements; and that a government in the business of providing entitlements is ipso facto approaching the opposite end of the scale from my limited-government ideal, whatever else its virtues may be.

Notwithstanding the question of rights versus entitlements, another advantage of limited government is its inability to change itself. Not only does this confer stability, which is certainly an important consideration, it means that the government has not the power to grant itself more power. However small a remit the government might start out with, if it has the wherewithal to arrogate more and more aspects of public (and private) life to itself, it will not stay a limited government for long. So in addition to safeguarding the rights of the people, a truly ‘limited’ government must not contain within itself an easy mechanism for expansive self-alteration.

Only under the auspices of a government weak in all aspects except the rule of law can a people be both in word and in practice free. That, my friends, is liberty.

Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.

His speech, called ‘Transforming Politics,’ displays a curious mixture of impotence, brazenness, and lies.

Impotence, because he is the Prime Minister, and most out of all other Britons has the power to transform politics – yet he insists that the people in their diffuse millions must do this, people whose jobs, families, and responsibilities lie outside the realm of politics, people whose sole real political power is a single vote, warped and distended and subject to pressures far more numerous and dislocated than an individual’s choice of candidate. Gordon Brown has his hand on the tiller; he gets on with the job at hand; he single-handedly saved the world’s banking system. Why, then, is the hand he wraps round the lever of the nation’s political culture so weak?

If he truly wanted to transform politics, he with his executive orders and compliant cabinet and virtual stranglehold on his parliamentary party could do so. There is nothing to stop him. He claims to know what the people want, and he unquestionably has the power to make it happen – why insist that nebulous public action be a necessary condition?

Politicians, and Gordon Brown is no exception, must find it tremendously hard to imagine what they would want from politicians, were they regular people on the street. They have entered the rabbit hole; they are incapable of stepping outside of their own frame of reference. Ask any man or woman in the grocery store or the bus queue, and they will tell you: politics should be practised by decent people who are not obviously fraudsters, liars, confidence tricksters, or panderers, who realise that their job in a democracy is to represent the will of their constituents and advocate for policies that are beneficial, practical, and above all reasonable.

Ask a politician what sort of person should be practising politics, and who the hell knows what answer you’ll get. It might be the one I mentioned above. It might be ‘whoever knows what’s best.’ The honest answer (which you’ll never get from a politician, obviously) is either ‘me’ or ‘whoever can get the votes.’ This is not unfounded supposition; it is revealed preference.

Brazenness, because he appears to believe that if he repeats well-worn memes often enough, someone, somewhere, might derive meaning from them. How many times have we heard the following:

‘power back to the people’

‘democratically accountable’

‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

Brown endlessly repeats the buzzwords and key phrases, empty assurances that nobody disagrees with and which therefore mean nothing. Brown’s key speech about transforming politics is a repetition of all that his Government has been saying for the past decade. And he does not imagine his listeners will pick up on the obvious contradiction: change and transformation are in reality more of the same.

Lies, because he represents himself as a champion of the people against an outdated, unfair, and ossified constitution – which was equally outdated and ossified thirteen years ago when Labour won a landslide of seats under its unfair auspices. If the need for constitutional reform is so obvious now, it was equally obvious then, yet Labour did nothing. If, as Brown says, the choice is between ‘a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives,’ or ‘a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites,’ why were the British people not presented with this choice thirteen years ago, when it was no less real and pressing?

Constitutional reform is the last refuge of the desperate. With little prospect of a democratic mandate under the current system, acutely aware of his general unpopularity but clinging on to power with determined and bloody fingertips, the constitutional reformer sets out to circumvent imminent oblivion in the only way left to him: changing the rules in the middle of the game. It isn’t that the rules don’t need changing; it’s that he hadn’t the will to change them when he was winning. Now that he is losing, he suddenly apprehends that the same rules which used to give him unfair advantage will now deliver unto him unfair defeat.

What were once unfair rules must now become fair, before the game is over, while he still has the power to change them. He is a creature of the immediate; he will not bide his time until the next game.

Does Gordon Brown believe we will not notice this? And if we do notice it, does he expect we will trust in his party to deliver the constitutional change that best suits the people rather than what best suits the Labour party? He, with his parliamentary majority, his executive authority, his supine monarch, his cowardly cabinet, his draconian whips, his placemen in the upper house?

And so he promises us change for our own good, change that will empower the people and enhance their liberty, change dressed up in the beautiful language of freedom and democracy, concealing the meretricious reality beneath: that this government has great power, too much power, and cannot be stopped from infringing the people’s rights or changing itself to accrue yet more power. If this were not so, Brown’s constitutional reforms would be a pipe dream. And yet we are supposed to believe that the endpoint of this vast exercise of authority is to reduce that authority.

Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.

And yet it’s all so plausible, which is how he gets away with it. What reforms, specifically, is he proposing?

1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.

…a modern democracy cannot tolerate power to initiate and revise legislation being held for ever by those without a mandate from the people.

Quite right. While there are certain advantages to having an upper house that is not susceptible to the whims of the populace, such a chamber is manifestly not representative of the will of the people.

The cynical interpretation: an undemocratic upper house is also not susceptible to the whims of the Commons and acts as a bulwark against hasty, radical change and as a brake on the tremendous power of the Commons. More than in practically every other Western democracy, the majority party in the elected legislature of Britain wields almost unchecked authority. The unelected, (theoretically) non-partisan Lords is one of the few impediments.

But, I hear you say, the upper house in the United States, the Senate, is elected and partisan, and still gets the job done! To which I reply, the lower house in the US, the House of Representatives, has nothing like the power the House of Commons wields. The majority party in the House of Representatives is not the Government, and its leaders constitutionally lack executive authority.

Only when executive authority in Britain is separated from the majority party in the Commons does having an elected House of Lords make sense. While the majority party in the Commons continues to control both the legislature and the executive, making the Lords both partisan and elected will only strengthen that control, not weaken it.

So does Brown propose to reform the Commons in accordance with this prognostication?

No.

2. Increase parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.

…parties should elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; select committee chairs should be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and non-government business should be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Quite right. Parliament is in theory sovereign; it should also be so in practice.

But:

…the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.

Parliament should, at this moment, deny Gordon Brown the ability to give them these tools. For tools which can be given can also be taken away. And once it is statutory that Parliament scrutinises the executive at the will of the executive, the legitimacy of that will is forever enshrined in the constitution. When power is granted, it is just as important to examine the implications of the granting as the actual power. This reform serves only to cement further the control of the executive over the operation of the sovereign legislative body.

3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.

The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link…

I am sure this is true.

However:

The first past the post system maintains a clear link to a member of parliament’s constituency and it has usually given governments a clear mandate to govern.

If this is true, why change it? We don’t fix what isn’t broken. FPTP maintains the same strong link to the constituency as AV would; in addition, it has the advantage of usually conferring a clear mandate to govern. What does AV offer that overcomes this obvious advantage of FPTP?

…it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish.

Ah. AV allows a major party candidate to slide into office as the second preference of those who voted first for a smaller third party. The alternative-vote system will clear up that nasty problem of marginal seats while having little negative effect on elections in safe constituencies. To complete our journey through cynicism, all we need ask is: what is our biggest third party, and which major party are its voters more likely to prefer as their second preference?

Hands up all those who voted Lib Dem in 2005 because they hated Blair the war-monger but couldn’t stomach voting Conservative.

4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.

Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.

Excellent.

I have no problem with this, actually; it’s one of the few pieces of wheat in all of this chaff. But it is only a small step in the right direction; the government of this nation needs to realise that all public business – everything done in the name of the people with the democratic authority of the people as its claim to legitimacy – must be open to the people. All documents should be official, and all documents should be public. All meetings, committees, hearings, inquiries, and the record of their business should be accessible to the electorate. Everything done in the name of the people and by right of their democratic authority belongs to the people.

5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.

Public services will not only be more personal in future but they will be more interactive – with the ability of the citizen enhanced to make their views known directly and influence the way our communities work.

Great.

Just one problem. At the moment, public services are accountable to the government. The government, as properly elected representatives of the people, oversees their operation, officially assesses their quality, and controls their funding. The government is the middleman, the mediator, between the public and the public services. The best way to make the public services directly accountable to the public is to remove the middleman. Will the government now allow the people to directly oversee the operation of public services, to directly assess their quality, and to directly provide and control their funding?

No, because:

…we do not rest our case on the delivery of better services to people merely on aspirations or targets: we are offering personal guarantees to citizens about the rights they can expect and enjoy.

The government will still be the mediator. As mentioned above, whatever it is in the power of government to grant, it is also in the power of government to take away. And so more and more authority gathers at the centre. Rights which are granted by government are not rights at all, but entitlements; and entitlements granted to the people are as far from being ‘subject to people’s direct control’ as it is possible to be.

6. Strengthening local government.

Local government should be free to innovate and to be creative in delivering better public services.

Quite right.

But:

…we inherited a situation where local government had been starved of funding and had very little power over decisions taken that affected their communities.

This is an implicit admission that he who controls the funds controls the power; and by starving local government of funds, central government had also starved it of power. Nothing in Gordon Brown’s proposals mentions giving local governments responsibility for raising their own funding. As long as local authorities must rely on the central government to pay for whatever it is they deliver, they will always be at the mercy of central government’s demands, no matter how ‘free to innovate’ they may theoretically be.

In fact, Brown skirts around this issue with admirable vagueness (if vagueness is the sort of thing one admires):

It is true that in the past local government has had too many streams of funding from a multitude of central government sources. Our total place reforms are potentially transformative in the better use of resources: they will allow local government and its partners to reach across all the funding coming into an area and enable better choices to be made at a local level about how this money is spent.

I’m not even sure what he means. What are ‘total place reforms’? How reassuring is that word ‘potentially’? What he appears to be getting at is that although the funding will still come from central governments, it may no longer be hypothecated, so local authorities will have more say in how to spend their hand-outs. I’m at a loss as to why he needs such an elaborate circumlocution to make that point, unless it is his desire to gloss over the fact that central government will still control the extent of local spending.

7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.

…I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document.

The various arguments for and against written constitutions are numerous and complex, and it may well serve the British people to have a definitive document; others will know better than I whether this is the case.

In the summer I announced that we would consult on the question of codifying our constitution as part of the consultation exercise on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

For those of you who have not read the consultation document on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, allow me to draw your attention to some of the key points contained in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper.

First, the government considers that the key constitutional question in need of answering is

of the relationship between the citizen and the state and how this relationship can best be defined to protect fundamental freedoms and foster mutual responsibility as this country is going through profound changes.

The impetus for this kind of constitutional codification is explicitly the presence of change and crisis. Gordon Brown believes that ‘if we are to decide to have a written constitution the time for its completion should be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in Runneymede in 1215.’ That gives us five years, during a time of change and crisis, for formulation, deliberation, debate, revision, judicial scrutiny, and finalisation. Enforcing an arbitrary time limit on a process that requires deep scholarship, consultation, bipartisan agreement, and lengthy deliberation during a time of change and crisis when that process cannot even command the government’s full attention is a recipe for disaster. (And the time limit is essentially arbitrary. There is no pressing need for a codified constitution by 2015. The year just happens to be the anniversary of something vaguely historically relevant on the popular connotations of which Brown would like to capitalise.)

Second, the codified constitution being mooted is not the lofty, concise document the United States enjoys, which merely sets out the fundamental rights of the people and the operation of their government. No, the British version will contain much more:

How individuals should live together, what rights and freedoms we should enjoy in relation to one another and against the state and how they should be balanced by the responsibilities we owe each other are among the most fundamental questions in politics. They are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing and healthcare and education, because they concern the constitutional arrangements which determine how power is distributed in our country. They determine how every other question in our public life will be answered. They are not just about the historic protections of the individual against the state and balancing liberty and security. They are also about the frustrations that can arise in daily life, especially when using public services, and reflect the key role for town halls in tackling these frustrations by making information easy to access and involving local people in the decisions which affect them. They are about getting support to combat anti-social behaviour and to tackle the discrimination and prejudice many of our people still have to endure. They are about the smoking ban, the hunting ban, and taking action to prevent climate change.

This constitution is to be about everything a Briton encounters in his public life – except, apparently, the structure of his government, which is nowhere mentioned.

Third, this constitution will deliberately not include some of the things we have come to consider fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, this passage:

Additional protections in relation to liberty of the person or fair trials may not be necessary as the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them. At this stage, the Government does not propose the inclusion of the principle of habeas corpus or a right to trial by jury in any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but it remains open to all arguments for and against as part of an informed public debate.

The Government does not propose to include habeas corpus, fair trials, and trial by jury in the written constitution as, apparently, there is no threat to these rights and no current need to protect them. You may draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of that plan.

Fourth, the proposed constitution is not intended to have legal effect – that is, the rights or responsibilities codified therein are not intended to be enforceable by an individual in court. It is not intended to have the statutory force of an Act of Parliament. In fact, its purpose would be only this:

A non-statutory declaration could be readily amended and updated over time. Its effect would be intended as primarily political and symbolic rather than legal. The fact that a charter or declaration might not have statutory force or was otherwise not justiciable would not mean that the exercise or the text itself lacked force. It could still carry great legitimacy in the wider sense of that word, by the strength of the consent behind it, and by the way in which it helped to set standards, as yardsticks of the behaviour we expected of others and of ourselves as members of UK society.

In short, Brown’s ‘written constitution’ would be a poorly-drafted, cumbersomely huge, non-traditional, non-justiciable framework setting out the minutiae of Britons’ lives without holding the government to any definitive principles of action or, even, guaranteeing its legal responsibility to protect the rights listed therein, let alone enforce the many entitlements also included.

(There are numerous other problems with this proposed ‘constitution,’ which you may identify by reading it yourself provided you accept the risk to your blood pressure.)

The rest of Brown’s speech is a clever call for his political opponents to agree with him. This, truly, is the language of politics: for if they disagree with him, they would entrench privilege and unfairness at the expense of the people; and if they agree with him, there is no need for them at all.

The not-so-clever part of his peroration is the constant call for change. Change, by definition, would be something different from what we have now. And what we have now, what we have had for thirteen years, is Labour. I have to wonder at Brown’s motivation for reminding us all of that. And for enumerating a deliberate and concentrated program of attacks on the existing checks and balances on the Government’s power that are, at the moment, the only institutions and processes in the country that limit the majority party’s near-incalculable power over public life and protect the few fundamental liberties remaining to the people of Britain.

Jan 042010
 

Apart from his stupid name, the first thing I really learned about Ed Bollocks is that his modi operandi are, primarily, lying and intimidation. Which tactic is he employing in his most recent Guardian piece, I wonder?

True Statements:

The Tories and their media friends want the election to be a referendum on the government.

That’s what an election is, no? That’s certainly what Labour wanted the elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005 to be: first, a referendum on the Conservative government (which many people hated), and then a referendum on the succeeding Labour governments (which Balls and the rest of his party claimed had been so successful that there was no need for change). Is it really necessary to cry foul now?

[The Tories] don’t want any scrutiny of their policies and they don’t want the election to be a choice.

Of course. None of the main parties wants any scrutiny or choice. That’s why they’re all working so hard to pump out the blanket statements, bland platitudes, and vague reassurances (as we shall see in the rest of Balls’s piece).

False Statements:

That’s why [the Tories] dismiss talk of policy differences or dividing lines as “false”, “partisan” or, ludicrously, as “class war”.

But it’s only in the last few weeks that the Tories have called this “class war” in a bid to stop any scrutiny of their policies.

Oh – so it was the Tories who came up with this ‘class war’ movement? Not to mention I have trouble imagining the Tories really want to publicise their policies as not being different from Labour’s and not as dividing lines. This statement is rubbish.

And, while the leaders’ TV debates will inevitably draw the attention, I hope we will see the cabinet and shadow cabinet debating too.

I bet this is the last thing Balls hopes for, if for no other reason than that he is supremely un-telegenic.

Now, as in 1997, our education policy is driven by the core New Labour idea of opportunity and aspiration for all, not just some; improving standards and expanding opportunity in every school, not just a handful in each area.

Balls to that one, too.

[The Tories’] proposal is that, regardless of local need, those parents with time on their hands should be given taxpayers’ money to set up and run a new school for their children, including those now in private schools.

Misrepresentation. From what I understand, their proposal is that, actually, anybody with ‘time on their hands’ could set up and run a new school – meaningfully, this includes teachers, who not only know how to do such a thing better than random parents, but many of whom would also love the chance to free themselves from the shackles of state-school regulations, paperwork, and bureaucratic oversight. Many private-school teachers would jump at the opportunity, too.

Hyperbole:

And this year, Britain faces the starkest choice for decades – on the economy, public services and our relations with Europe.

Sure, sure. Every election is the starkest choice for decades, every election is the most important since the last big crisis. And yet some party or other wins every election, and shit always happens, and we always need another election. Give this overblown idea a rest.

Tory education policy is an elaborate con trick on millions of parents and pupils. Just like the Tory assisted places scheme, or the “pupil passport” proposed by Cameron in 2005, they want to take resources from the many to fund the education of a few.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Tories want to do! Screw 90% of the electorate; they’re only out to help the richest decile! Because, obviously, that’s a great strategy for winning elections. Seriously, what is this man on? And why does he imagine it’s perfectly fine for the minority (whatever kind of minority) to suffer for the good of the majority?

Oh yeah – because that’s the political philosophy his ‘core’ supporters cherish:

This, after all, is the tragedy of political decision-making: sometimes some people just have to lose and it’s up to the political decision-maker to choose which.

All politics is struggle and conflict; the sacrificing of some values and people in favour of those you prefer.

Nonsense:

Do we guarantee one-to-one tuition for children falling behind, and education and training up to 18 for all young people? Do we stop treating vocational qualifications as second class? Do we give parents more information on how local schools are performing by introducing new school report cards?

With a national shortage of teachers, the barriers to entry into the teaching profession being raised ever higher, and powerful teachers’ unions, where is the country going to find one-to-one tutors and teachers to guarantee a further two years of education to everybody? How is the country going to pay such people? How will the government force employers to consider vocational qualifications as ‘first class’? In what way is a ‘school report card’ different from a league table? How is such a thing going to make one bit of difference when most parents can’t choose their child’s school anyway? Labour have not considered these questions; these policies are plainly unfeasible.

But we would never forgive ourselves if we allowed the Tories to emerge from [the election] claiming by default a mandate for their policies to wreck our economic recovery and frontline public services.

Actually, I think the Labour party would adore to lose the next election, and see the Conservatives reap the unpopularity from the disaster Labour have sown. They will crow as the country falls to ruin and blame it entirely on Tory policy. They will campaign in four years’ time as the party who presided over boom and prosperity, hoping that everyone forgets they caused the national budget collapse, and they will absolve themselves of all responsibility for whatever pain and austerity the British people face over the course of the next five years.

Our country faces hugely important choices. And on education, the Tories have made theirs: to pursue a reckless free market experiment with the state system, and to cut the frontline schools budgets relied on by millions to give an inheritance tax cut to the wealthiest few.

Ah, all the evil keywords: reckless, free market, cut the frontline, tax cut, wealthiest few. Yes, the Tories’ Swedish plan is a reckless experiment that has worked so poorly in Sweden that, if we were to try it here, we’d have to cut inheritance tax and favour the wealthy few over the ‘millions’ of poor.

The sad thing is, Balls doesn’t seem to realise that, after twelve years of Labour education and redistribution policy, many people are still poorly educated, and most people are still ‘poor’ (i.e. not rich). Nobody was talking about one-to-one tuition twelve years ago, because there weren’t that many pupils falling behind. Nobody was talking about extending education for a further two years, because 16-year-old school leavers could still get jobs. Nobody was talking about school report cards, because parents weren’t so dreadfully dissatisfied with their local state schools. And now these things are on Ed Balls’s to-do list, not because schools have got so much better under Labour, but because they’ve got so much worse.

He says Tory policy won’t work; fair enough, maybe it won’t. But Labour policy is trying to mend the giant rents they themselves have made since 1997. And that’s not exactly a great advertisement for the Labour party.