Category Archives: bitterness and spite

Forgive and forget it

From today’s news:

In his speech to the state department on Thursday, Mr Obama stated overtly for the first time that the peace talks should be based on a future Palestinian state within the borders in place before the 1967 Middle East War. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognised borders are established for both states,” he said.

But speaking in the Oval Office after their meeting, Mr Netanyahu flatly rejected this proposal, saying Israel wanted “a peace that will be genuine”.

Israel was “prepared to make generous compromises for peace”, he said, but could not go back to the 1967 borders “because these lines are indefensible”. He said the old borders did not take into account the “demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years”.

Quoth Wikipedia:

Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts,’ presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to.” In this sense, chutzpah expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration. In the same work, Rosten also defined the term as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Or the man who, having kicked his neighbours out of their house and moved his brother in, admits to stealing the house but explains that he can’t possibly give it back, because then his brother would have nowhere to live.

This, also from the BBC story, struck me as a particularly resonant one-liner:

The settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

PS I will get back to Norm and bin Laden, if anyone’s wondering. I’ll admit that I was under a slight misapprehension, inasmuch as I assumed that the reference to the September 11th attacks as “an act of war” wasn’t intended literally; I still don’t believe that the literal interpretation can be sustained without a great deal of effort, or that trying to sustain it is a good idea. However, that clearly is how Norm has been thinking, so I’ll have to give it some consideration.

Someone else will come along and move it

Ten reasons why the AV referendum was lost, courtesy of Tom Clark (via).

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

3. The Yes campaign said things that weren’t entirely true, and people didn’t believe them.

4. The No campaign told outright lies, but people did believe them, which isn’t fair.

5. The Electoral Commission said things about AV that were true, but made it seem unattractive. This was also unfair, because if you can’t say something nice about a voting system, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

6. People don’t like coalitions, and they thought AV would make coalition governments more likely (which it probably would).

7. People don’t like the Lib Dems, and the No campaign said that AV would put them in power permanently. (Which, again, it probably would, but that’s not the point.)

8. People don’t like David Cameron either, and the Yes campaign didn’t say that AV would keep him out of power. (Which it wouldn’t, necessarily, but it would have been a good thing to campaign on.)

9. People don’t prefer AV to the status quo.

10. People don’t want AV.

I’ve renumbered Clark’s points and edited them down a bit, but I think I’ve got the gist.

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

the alternative vote system itself posed particular problems. Infamously dismissed by Nick Clegg as “a miserable little compromise”, it is loved by no one, with most of the yes camp hankering for reform that links a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, something AV fails to deliver. Few Labourites, and no Lib Dems, regard AV as an end itself. It scarcely mattered that from the reformist point of view it is unambiguously better than the system we start out with. What did matter was that the reformists could not muster the energy to market something that they did not truly believe in.

Clark stops berating the stupid British public for rejecting a kind of platonic Plea For Electoral Reform, for just long enough to acknowledge that the form it took on the physical plane was a question about an electoral system that nobody actually wants – not Ed Miliband, not Nick Clegg, not Caroline Lucas, not Nigel Farage. (Although apparently Eddie Izzard does prefer AV to PR, and I suspect Stephen Fry may do as well.) This isn’t metropolitan elitism – just well-intentioned self-delusion.

Always been the same

Some thoughts on AV, mostly culled from the BBC’s Vote 2011 liveblog/twitterfeed/thing.

No to AV means PR is dead, say opponents of PR, who know how to make hay while the sun shines:

2050: No campaign director Matthew Elliott gets a massive cheer as he address supporters at the official count in London. He says the result is “emphatic” and will “settle the debate” on voting change for the “next generation”.

No to AV means PR is dead, say supporters of PR, who apparently don’t:

2130: New Statesman journalist George Eaton tweets: “Those who said “No to AV, Yes to PR” couldn’t look more foolish tonight. Electoral reform dead for a generation.”

1858: Labour’s Tessa Jowell, an AV supporter, says the issue is now closed and there should be no more talk of changing the voting system. The “chance has gone”, she tells Sky News.

You’re all thick, says Prof:

2115: Elections expert Prof John Curtice says the No campaign has apparently won the referendum by securing the support of older people, Conservatives and those who have not enjoyed a university education.

Steady on, say punters:

1920: David Pybus in Whitby writes: “I resent the implication that I’ve been swayed by a dirty No campaign or an inadequate Yes campaign. I haven’t listened to either of them as I had a view before the campaigns started – I voted No because I didn’t want a system introduced that allowed floating voters to have as many votes as there are candidates instead of casting one vote honestly for their preferred candidate”.

2036: Bashir Shah in Blackburn writes: “We were promised PR – we got sold down the river by Clegg and the Lib Dems with AV – a costly, unworkable system that would have caused more confusion and even less participation. The UK has answered in the only way it knew how and the only way it could – NO to AV and NO to the Lib Dems”

2136: Simon Reid in Slough, writes: “Dismayed at the condescending attitude of some Yes supporters. However the essence of democracy is the election of the most supported, not the least unsupported, and so I feel it was doomed to failure. PR would be a different matter, with a genuine alternative”

And it could all have been so different!

2112: It is scant consolation but Yes voters have prevailed in Oxford. There’s a certain irony here as their varsity rivals Cambridge were among only a handful of other areas to support change

Cambridge Yes vote: 54.3%. Oxford Yes vote: 54.1%. Seriously, there is no need to overthink this. Of the minority who bothered to vote, nearly 70% voted No. If seven people vote one way and three vote the other, it’s not generally the seven whose behaviour needs explaining – least of all by invoking their deficient education or creeping senility. The Yes camp scraped a majority in a handful of highly atypical urban districts (they don’t come much more atypical than Oxford and Cambridge), and even there the vote was hardly a thumping majority. (Manchester: 44.5% Yes. Even in Brighton the Yes vote got stuck below 50% – 49.9%, to be precise.)

All that’s just happened is that a big and unpredictable change was proposed, and it was rejected. It wasn’t an outstandingly good change (there were plenty of good arguments against it, and almost all of its main proponents had been in favour of something else a year ago); its effects weren’t explained very well; and the campaign in its favour was spectacularly bad. The entirely unsurprising result was that only 30% of the people bought it. (If we’re talking about campaigns, I have to admit that the No campaign was even worse, but they didn’t have to convince anyone; voting No just meant that you didn’t want the Yes campaign to win.)

A horrible Tory gloats horribly:

The idea that anyone would see Tony Robinson or Eddie Izzard as anything other than a paid-up member of the metropolitan elite was risible. The “Yes” campaign made no attempt to deploy any arguments, or any personnel, with appeal beyond a narrow slice of the soft Left – the one constituency whose support was guaranteed in any case.

The liberal Left was, with pleasing karma, undone by its own narcissism. “Yes” campaigners seemed genuinely not to understand that Caroline Lucas, Ed Miliband and Benjamin Zephaniah do not, among them, cover the entire political spectrum.

(Don’t tell me you didn’t just wince, hypocrite lecteur.)

Another Tory tells it like it is:

Most Liberal Democrats loathe being in coalition with the Conservatives – not least because they know they are now loathed in turn by the ex-Labour supporters who have been lending them their votes since the Iraq War. This is a divided and unhappy party which was never keen on AV in the first place and was neither inclined nor able to win over a sceptical public; any energy it had left was devoted to its traditional pursuits of bellyaching and character assassination. I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point, but there was a reason that the Yes to AV campaign turned so nasty, and that was because it was dominated by Liberal Democrats.

And the fat lady sings:

2015: Actor Stephen Fry tweets: “We AV yessers got our botties spanked. Hey ho. Such is democracy.”

Smoke lingers

Recent email, lightly edited:

Many thanks for entering this year’s Orwell Prize. The longlists will be announced next Wednesday, 30th March, at 7pm.

For the first time this year, we will be holding a special event to celebrate the longlist announcement. Drinks from 6.30pm will be followed by the announcements at 7pm and a special discussion on blogging featuring previous winner, Richard Horton (police blogger, ‘Jack Night’) and one of this year’s judges, David Allen Green (‘Jack of Kent’), chaired by Jean Seaton (director of the Prize).

The event will take place at [...] The event is FREE – if you would like to come, please email [...]

We hope that the event will be a fitting celebration of all of this year’s entrants. Many wonderful books, great journalists and brilliant bloggers unfortunately won’t make it onto the longlists – but we want to celebrate all the excellent writing which has come in, and say thank you for making the Prize what it is.

Do feel free to share the invitation with colleagues and friends.

I guess that’s a No, then. Nice of them to make it a free event, though – asking people to pay to come and hear their name not being read out really would be adding insult to injury.

Update 31/3/11 Yes, it was a No. Congratulations to Laurie, Dave and especially Anton – well-deserved. What some of the other names are doing there is anybody’s guess. Daniel Hannan?

After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?

Conservative pigging Home?

Whilst the Prime Minister David Cameron has secured a resounding success in persuading Arab governments to support intervention in Libya, the anti-war coalition has – unsurprisingly – been busy voicing its support for murderous dictatorship. A large gang of them congregated outside Downing Street in Whitehall last Thursday evening and handed out spurious and demagogic leaflets whilst waffling on about western imperialism. … The coalition is a cross-section of fruitcakes, loonies and closet masochists, mostly.

(I like the ‘mostly’. Judicious, dude)

And then – on the ‘Left’ – there’s Molly Bennett, who works for a Labour MP and writes about his constituents: they seem to be mostly “whingers”, several of them are “nutters” (some of whom she names), and one of them (also named) is an “enormously fat man” who gets around using a “fatmobile”, ho ho. What puzzles me about this blog is not so much how it’s got longlisted as why Ms Bennett’s employer hasn’t demanded that she take it down toot sweet. (Unless there is no Molly Bennett and it’s actually Chris Morris. That would make sense.)

I’m not the greatest fan of George Orwell – I think he was a dreadful old fraud who mistook unquenchable self-loathing for staunch radicalism – but his worst enemies would admit that he wrote well. He wrote clearly, and with some insight into the overtones of his imagery and the limitations of his arguments; and he wrote humanely, by and large (as long as nobody mentioned vegetarians). About the only connection between Orwell and the blogs I’ve quoted is that it would have been fun to see him take them apart.

Cold water in the face

A remarkable variety of people have poured scorn on Clegg Minor’s contribution to the Sun, and rightly so. The point I want to make, following on from that fourth link, is that we need to watch the Liberal Democrats – now more than ever. (‘Watch’ here includes ‘exacerbate the contradictions within'; there are some good people in Clegg’s party, even now.) The problem is not just that the party’s support is going down the drain, or that the party’s reputation as a byword for unscrupulous vote-whoring has escaped the politically active minority and gone viral: trust can always be regained, to a greater or lesser extent. (And at the end of the day they don’t have to outrun the bear: it doesn’t matter if they don’t look whiter-than-white any more, just as long as they look cleaner than the other two parties.) What’s more to the point is that the reputational capital the party built by coherently positioning itself to the Left of New Labour was thrown to the winds last May; a sizeable chunk of the party’s 2010 vote went with it, and it’s not coming back. On top of that, the experience of coalition – the extraordinarily passive and timorous experience of coalition – is surely chipping away at the party’s bedrock support: from David Steel back to Jo Grimond, the party always stood for something, whatever that might actually be in any given period. The ‘standing for’ part seems to elude the party at the moment – quite possibly because they’ve been stitched up like a kipper by their coalition partner – and their former supporters have noticed.

The problem for the Lib Dem leadership is that they need to stem the flow of disaffected supporters. (The party took 23% of the vote last May; UK Polling Report currently has them averaging 9%, and doesn’t record a single poll when they’ve exceeded 15% since the beginning of November.) Or if they can’t do that – and they haven’t had much luck so far – they need to get support from somewhere else. And cue “Alarm Clock Britain”:

There are millions of people in Alarm Clock Britain. People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life. People who want their kids to get ahead. People who don’t want to rely on state handouts. People who don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives. People who are not poor but struggle to stay out of the red.

They are the backbone of Britain. These are the people who will get this country moving again. It is their hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in.

This Government is formed by a coalition of two parties and we want to join the people of Alarm Clock Britain in another coalition. A coalition of people prepared to roll up their sleeves and get the nation back on its feet. Ed Miliband may be prepared to hide under his duvet from the problems Labour left us with. But we will get up every morning and face up to them. In Alarm Clock Britain, people don’t want a handout but they appreciate a helping hand. And that is exactly what the Coalition Government is offering them.

I know that times are difficult right now. We are having to make cuts to pay off Labour’s debts and some bills are going up. Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.

That is why the Liberal Democrats made a promise to voters on the front of our manifesto. That no basic rate taxpayer will pay any tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We’ve already taken the first steps which will take nearly 900,000 out of paying tax altogether. From April, every single taxpayer earning less than £42,500 a year will see their income tax bill cut by £200. By the time of the next election, 23 million people will be paying £700 less.

The Government is lending a hand in other ways, too.

(That’s enough Lib Dem promises – Ed.)

“Now more than ever, politicians have to be clear who they are standing up for. Be in no doubt, I am clear about who that is.” And who is he standing up for? Why, it’s you, you lucky Sun-reader! “People, like Sun readers, who have to get up every morning and work hard to get on in life.” People in work, in other words. Follow it through: these are also people who “want their kids to get ahead”, “don’t want to rely on state handouts” and (bizarrely) “don’t need politicians to tell them what to think or how to live their lives”. And they’re “the backbone of Britain”: Nick Clegg thinks they’re great, he really does.

Obviously life isn’t always quite that neat, but that’s OK too. Maybe you are receiving benefits of some sort or other – lots of working people do – but that’s all right: you’re just one of those people who “don’t want a handout but … appreciate a helping hand”. Maybe you’ve found that you just can’t “get on in life”, no matter how early you start work, but not to worry – you’re not poor, it’s just that you “struggle to stay out of the red”.

Which is just as well, because if you were poor, or – God forbid – if you didn’t have a job to get up for in the morning, then this offer would no longer apply. You would no longer be putting in the “hard graft, day in, day out, that will get us out of the hole Labour left us in”; on the contrary, you would be digging that hole deeper with every day you lived on benefits, and making life harder for “the backbone of Britain” with every morning that you didn’t stir from your lazy idle bed.

Who Nick Clegg is standing up against turns out to be just as important as who he’s standing up for. The message seems to go something like this: Tired after a long day? Taking on extra shifts? Working unpaid overtime? Blame them – blame the workshy, blame the bone-idle, blame all those people living on benefits. They don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work, not like you do… This would be nasty, vindictive stuff at the best of times. At a time when the unemployment rate stands at 7.9%, or 2.5 million people – and when (as Clegg well knows) the government is poised to throw many more people out of work – it’s outrageous.

Having abandoned any pretence of a position to the Left of Labour, Clegg seems to have decided that fishing for support to the left of the Tories isn’t working either, and he’s trying out the populist far Right. I’ve got a nasty feeling this isn’t going to be a one-off: Clegg may be staring into the abyss, but he’s not going down without a fight. In 2011, watch out for our Deputy Prime Minister celebrating Crimestoppers Britain (“people who don’t want to see lynch law, but can’t let petty criminals make their lives a misery”), Easter Egg Britain (“people who are not racist, but simply know how to value their own traditions”), Beside The Seaside Britain (“people who don’t hate other nations, but know the truth of that old adage – east, west, home’s best!”) and (of course) Poppy Day Britain (“people who don’t glory in war for its own sake, but know that sometimes it is the only honourable choice”).

On the plus side, by the end of the year they’ll probably still be stuck on 9%.

Update Oldham East and Saddleworth: Labour 42.1% (up 10.3%), Liberal Democrat 31.9% (up 0.3%), Conservative 12.8% (down 13.6%); turnout 48.1% (down 14.1%). An interesting result, not least because the shares of the vote aren’t that different from earlier results:

Votes for the main parties in Oldham East and Saddleworth, 1997-2011 (rounded to nearest %)

Year Labour Lib Dem Tory Tory + LD
1997 42 35 20 55
2001 39 33 16 49
2005 41 33 18 51
2010 32 32 26 58
2011 42 32 13 45

At every election from 1997 to 2005, Labour has been at least 6% ahead of the Liberal Democrats, with the Tories taking less than 20% in third place. You could see 2010’s result as a local example of last year’s swing against Labour, and last night’s result as the return of business as usual. But if 42% and 32% are around what you’d expect Labour and the Lib Dems to be getting in OE&S, 13% is very low indeed for the Tories; there will have been some defection to the extreme right, but not a lot (the combined BNP and UKIP vote share went up by a little over 1% against last May). The best explanation is surely that the consistency of the Lib Dem vote is deceptive, and that some – perhaps quite a lot – of last night’s 32% were tactical Tory votes. It’s also worth noting that the combined Tory and Lib Dem vote was lower last night than it’s been at any time since 1997; it’s only the second time it’s been below 50% (and 2001 was an unusual election; this was the year of the BNP’s big push in Oldham, when they took 11% of the vote).

However, unlike Tom Clark, I don’t believe that this result supports Clegg’s apparent new direction:

YouGov this week reported that by 51% to 16% , the small band of remaining Liberal Democrats would prefer a Tory government led by Cameron to an Ed Miliband Labour administration.

The shrinking Lib Dem electorate, then, is now much more inclined to the centre-right than it has been historically, and Oldham suggests that as it retreats from the left it can hope to make good some of the losses by advancing on the right.

Dear oh dear. The Lib Dems have lost 14% of the 23% support it had in May 2010 – more than half; 51% of 9% equates to 20% of 23%. Lib Dem voters are more right wing than they used to be because there are fewer of them, and the left-leaning voters are the ones that have given up on the party. (As UK Polling Report puts it, “the remaining rump support for the Liberal Democrats is made up of those more positively inclined towards the Tories”.) This doesn’t mean that there are votes to be gained by “advancing on the right”; in fact it specifically and precisely means that that’s a good way to lose votes.

Nor does OE&S suggest that there are votes to be won on the Right; actually what it suggests is that the party’s vote is only holding up thanks to the generosity of Tory voters. This kind of grace and favour arrangement may keep the lights on for a while, but it doesn’t bode well for the party’s future; it suggests that a party with Liberal in the name is, once again, locked into a decaying orbit around the Conservative Party. Into which, precedent suggests, they would disappear without a trace.

Update 19/1/11 Polling data bears out my speculation that the unchanged Lib Dem percentage vote masked a partial collapse in the vote, propped up by borrowed Tory votes. UK Polling Report:

of 2010 Lib Dem voters, only 55% of those who voted in the by-election stuck with the party, with 29% instead defecting to Labour … This drop in Lib Dem support was cancelled however out by Conservative tactical voting: of 2010 Conservative voters, 33% who voted in the by-election ended up backing the Liberal Democrats.

Only 49% of the 2010 Conservative voters in the sample voted Tory in 2010; 91% of the 2010 Labour voters stayed loyal, but then there were fewer of them. Shift all the Tory-LD defectors back to the Conservatives and you get a notional Tory vote share of 22%, vying for second place with the Lib Dems on 23%. Of course, this is working back from answers to a phone poll to the actual result, which isn’t really legitimate, but what’s interesting about these figures is how much of the shift in voting patterns they do in fact seem to account for. You can do it yourself if you’ve got a spreadsheet handy:

2011 Labour = 91% 2010 Labour + 29% 2010 LD + 5% 2010 Tory (!)
2011 LD = 5% 2010 Labour (!!) + 55% 2010 LD + 33% 2010 Tory
2011 Tory = 0% 2010 Labour + 3% 2010 LD + 49% 2010 Tory

Let 2010 Labour = 32%, 2010 LD = 32% and 2010 Tory = 26%, and the 2011 figures come out at 40%, 28% and 14%; you only need to massage the figures a bit to cover variable turnout and you’ve got the real results of 42%, 32% and 13%.

These figures bear out the big difference between the Tory base and its Lib Dem counterpart. Tory support is flexible, and will go under other colours if it’s for the good of the party. Lib Dem support is just soft – and, given what they’re currently being asked to support, it’s no wonder.

The barren weeks, the amnesiac years

Apparently it will be two years before we find out what the Labour Party stands for in 2011 (or rather 2013). In the mean time, presumably, the Shadow Cabinet can just make it up as they go along – I mean, now that Blairism doesn’t work any more, what else could they do? It’s not as if they could learn anything from the history of the Labour Party before Blair. Or perhaps they’re just working on the basis of waiting for the government to announce something so that they can say “and we’re against that!”.

That’s certainly the kindest explanation for this appalling story.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote. Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court’s ruling before last May’s election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government’s plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition. Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain’s jails

As it happens, the ECHR isn’t demanding that all prisoners in British jails be given the vote; the court’s ruling allows for national governments to take a view on withdrawing the franchise from particular categories of prisoner. What it has demanded – with the force of law, or at least the force of severe diplomatic embarrassment – is that the blanket ban we’ve had since 1840 be replaced by some kind of detailed policy with some kind of justification. (I doubt that the ECHR would find Labour’s mean-spirited amendment satisfactory – it seems designed to target the category of “won’t be in very long, probably didn’t do anything too bad, and best of all there aren’t very many of them”. But committing the government to yet another position the ECHR won’t accept, thus booting the question into the long grass for another year or so, may well be the object of the exercise.)

Either way – whether this is a wrecking amendment or just a vindictive attempt to weaken the legislation – Labour seem determined to attack the Tories from the Right:

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition’s proposals. He said: “This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote.”

The Tory manifesto promised to bring in mandatory custodial sentences for anyone found carrying a knife (yes, carrying). It’s an insanely draconian policy, which they can never seriously have intended to implement. As for the notion that victims will in some way be adversely affected by ‘their’ offender having the vote – how? why? If this is what victims of crime want, then victims of crime are wrong. Actually I doubt that victims of crime want any such thing; left to his own devices, I doubt that Sadiq Khan would come up with this stuff either. What we’re seeing here is (in Andrew Ashworth’s phrase) “victims in the service of severity” – and, what’s worse, severity adopted cynically, in the service of winning votes (from the kind of people who like the idea of prisoners suffering).

Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: “I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote.”

“Disclosure”, by jingo. That would be the shock news that the European Court of Human Rights found against Britain’s blanket denial of the vote to prisoners in 2005, since which time precisely nothing has been done to bring Britain’s laws in line with its international obligations. If anything, the news is even older than that: the ECHR’s ruling is entirely in line with the common-law position, as expressed by Lord Wilberforce in 1982. Ruling on a case in which a prison governor claimed to have the right to read prisoners’ mail – essentially on the grounds that it was his house and his rules – Wilberforce found against the governor and stated:

under English law, a convicted prisoner, in spite of his imprisonment, retains all civil rights which are not taken away expressly or by necessary implication

“Expressly or by necessary implication”. Contra the repulsive Davies, this means that a prisoner no more forfeits his right to vote than he forfeits, say, his right to wear clothing in public or his right to speak without being spoken to – or, for that matter, his right to sanitation (yes, the fine old British tradition of slopping-out was found to constitute a breach of human rights law in 2004, and about time too). Certainly it is open to a judge when passing sentence to stipulate that conviction for a particular offence – or type of offence – should lead to forfeiture of the vote; it is even open to Parliament to legislate along those lines. But the blanket denial of the vote to prisoners is almost impossible to bring into concordance with Wilberforce’s statement.

And it’s straightforwardly impossible to reconcile with the ECHR’s 2005 judgment – which is where we came in. The last government’s effective refusal to legislate in line with the ECHR’s judgment, dragging its feet for all of five years, was shameful: it contrasts very unfavourably with the actions of the governments of Ireland and Cyprus, both of which introduced votes for prisoners in 2006. The coalition’s grudging acknowledgment of the reality of the situation is to be welcomed (grudgingly). For a Labour opposition (a Labour opposition, to misquote Neil Kinnock) to campaign against it, lining up with troglodytes like Davies, is really disgusting. It seems that Miliband and his circle are still doing politics the same old way: a nervy attention to the Sun and the Mail from day to day, combined with a kind of dogmatic ignorance of every liberal or socialist principle their party has ever stood for. Why, this is New Labour, nor are we out of it.

To be someone

“All of us knew Pooky would be famous one day,” Philip Hensher writes in the Independent. This came as a surprise to me, although Pooky was certainly memorable when I knew him at school in Wales. He was small, Welsh and pugnacious, and hit puberty a full year before any of the other boys. He lent my friend Jem Brian Aldiss’s A Hand-Reared Boy, which as far as we were concerned was the dirtiest thing imaginable; Jem was quoting it for weeks.

I only ever heard Pooky called by his real name once, in a Welsh lesson. Our Welsh teacher ran the school branch of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which we were all encouraged to join) and had no patience for English incomers who had trouble with the language; luckily for me I only qualified on one count. But one English girl in our class had a complete tin ear for the language, and in particular for the consonant ‘rh’, which is a kind of aspirated R (held, not rolled). (And it is tricky; my father came from Rhosllanerchrugog, and I still have to take a run-up at that ‘Rh’.) Unfortunately the kids in our Welsh exercises always seemed to be going up and down the hill (rhiw), so it was hard to avoid. One dreadful lesson, our Welsh teacher could stand this girl’s mangling of her beloved language – and the word rhiw especially – no longer. “It’s not hard! It’s easy! Like this – ‘rhiw‘! It’s just like Hugh with an R in front! You can say ‘Hugh’, can’t you? Come on, stand at the front. Now, look at Hugh and say his name three times, and then say it again with an R in front – Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, ‘rhiw‘.” We had worked out who this ‘Hugh’ person was about halfway through the tirade, and we watched in horror – tempered (as always) by relief that it wasn’t us – as this nice English girl stood at the front of the class and gazed obediently at Pooky the goatboy, saying “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, roo“. The teacher made her do it three times before she would admit defeat.

You know what? This isn’t the same guy. Hensher was writing about the actor Pooky Quesnel, who knocked him out in Cabaret when he was at Oxford. Me, I confidently expected to hear more after Cambridge of Annabel Arden and Simon McBurney, whose drama workshops I briefly went to (a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t bendy enough). Also, of Roger Hyams; of Jonathan Tafler; of Oscar Moore (who wasn’t actually in theatre, as far as I know, but he was obviously going to be a star in some way or other).

Jonathan Tafler was Chair of Mummers – a university-wide drama society originally founded by Alistair Cooke – when I pitched a play to them in my first year; it was a kind of anti-authoritarian panorama of human history, influenced by Paines Plough, Stuart Christie, Art Bears, R.D. Laing and Scritti Politti’s first single, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending in the psychiatric ward where a rebel against the authority of state, capital and family had been confined, and in whose head the whole thing was revealed to be happening. “Given time she can think it through…” Jonathan, anyway, told me he thought there was something there, which was amazing… and invited me to meet the rest of the group and pitch it to them in person, which was agony. I was very shy (and rather young); no way could I pitch an idea to a group – I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire first draft of the play if I could do that – and absolutely no way could I take other people’s suggestions on board. In short, it wasn’t to be, and I gave up any idea of getting involved in the stage soon after that. But I did always vaguely think I’d hear Jonathan Tafler’s name again. It turns out that he’s working; he’s done a ton of radio; and he can tell a Jewish joke. Not so shabby.

As for Roger Hyams, I remember once somebody told a friend of mine that Pip Torrens had told her that Roger already had his own agent, and while we thought this was a bit presumptuous we weren’t in the least surprised – he was so clearly going places. (I think it was Pip Torrens; if it wasn’t him it was probably Pip Broughton. But anyway.) The only time I saw Roger act he was co-starring in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act – a play whose cast consists of a man and a woman who have been caught in the act of inter-racial sex by the South African police, and who are both naked throughout. (Not quite throughout – he puts on a string vest halfway through.) It’s a strange but rather wonderful play. It’s very static and declamatory, as the name implies; it would work well on radio, if the players’ nakedness weren’t such a powerful element in it. Roger was terrific; if anything he slightly outshone the female lead, who I’m reasonably sure was Tilda Swinton. But where is he now? Here (at least, I think this is him): writing and directing, among other things. The acting didn’t work out, but he’s done all right.

Looking these people up, I chafed slightly at Philip Hensher’s conclusion:

Some people who you meet young have talent and glory just shining out of them. They achieve it, or, alternatively, they settle for labouring respectably while people no one at the time ever heard of, like David Cameron, take over the world. I wonder how many other brilliant Sally Bowleses there are in the world, making a living.

After I left university with my English degree – complete with a commendation for my poetry, which had been judged in part by Raymond Williams – I was on the dole for a year. For the next twelve and a half years I worked in computing – for a pre-privatisation MANWEB, for Manchester City Council and for Swinton Insurance. Now that‘s “making a living”.

There is something very Oxbridge going on between the lines here; I’m reminded of the couple in Peter’s Friends who everyone else more or less openly looks down on, because after Cambridge they ended up in advertising (dear oh dear). It’s as if a career in the arts or literature – at any rate, a career in the vicinity of the star you want to follow – is a given, and success and failure is measured by the calibre of desirable career you end up with. The possibility of ending up in computing or banking or accountancy or management – let alone ending up in one of those jobs where people tell you what to do – can be completely discounted: it’s stardom or drudgery, where drudgery is defined as second leads in Leatherhead and two-line parts on the radio. From outside Oxford and Cambridge – or from outside the groups that feel at home there – it looks different. I suspect that plenty of comets blaze across the firmament of student drama at Durham and Exeter and Cardiff; I also suspect that a much smaller percentage of those stars achieve real-world stardom, and a lot of them drop right through the cracks to end up in, well, computing or banking or accountancy or management. There’s a passage in 1982 Janine where Jock remembers one of the stars of a student production he was involved in many years earlier, and says that she’s now one of the first people casting directors ring when they want to cast a middle-aged female character to appear for a week or two in Casualty; he then points out that, as acting careers go, this is doing pretty bloody well. Viewed from the perspective of most actors, Pooky Quesnel and Jonathan Tafler and Roger Hyams aren’t also-rans – they’re success stories.

PS And if you really want a mute inglorious Garrick, I’ll see your Pooky Quesnel and raise you Dave Bates. Fantastic actor – one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was at my school (in Croydon, not the one in Wales). He was in every school play for a few years: an automatic choice for the lead role until he got bored of doing that, and after that he could have his pick of the roles. He could do anything, from tortured-soul young male lead to Pythonesque gurning (not in the same play). Then he got bored of acting altogether and withdrew his application to RADA, to the horror of our English teacher. No idea what became of him; he certainly didn’t go to Cambridge. I expect he ended up getting a job or something.

Scant evanescent things

Can a post be written entirely in the interrogative mood?

Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?

Is there any politician who is unaware of the activities of Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation? Is there any politician who has no views on the management and ownership of the broadcast media? Is there any politician whose views on the media do not imply a preferred state of affairs?

Can we imagine the “quasi-judicial” regulatory role Cable was to fill being taken on by a politician who had no opinions about the state of the media? or one who had no strong preferences about how the media should be organised in future? or one who knew nothing about News Corporation’s past and present operations?

Does Robert Peston’s “biased judge” analogy have any relevance, given that the business of a courtroom is to determine legal guilt or innocence of a specific charge, and that the past conduct of a suspected offender is ruled out of consideration on those grounds? Considering that the government’s role in this case is to consider the findings of a regulatory body concerning a proposed change to a known state of affairs and apply a further public interest test, is this analogy in fact spurious and misleading?

If Vince Cable’s expressed opinions render him incapable of impartially applying a public interest test, what politician is capable of the desired level of impartiality? If Jeremy H*** can be confidently expected to set aside his own views on Murdoch when in “quasi-judicial” mode, why should Cable not be trusted to set aside his?

And which is worse for a political career, threatening to bring down the government or threatening to obstruct Rupert Murdoch?

(We know the answer to the last one, at least.)

Look who bought the myth

we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.Tim Farron MP, President of the Liberal Democrats

Let’s get this straight.

Firstly, the Lib Dems’ collective volte-face on tuition fees has done enormous damage to the party’s credibility on any issue you care to name. To put it bluntly, why should we believe anything they promise ever again? As for believing promises on the specific issue of moving towards the abolition of fees… words fail me. We are not going to be fooled again in the same way, by the same people, on the same issue. I’m sure lots of individual Liberal Democrats, up to and including Tim Farron, are unhappy about the way the vote went; I’m glad that so many Lib Dem MPs (including both Farron and my own MP) voted No on the day. But that day is over. For better or worse – mainly worse – the Lib Dems are not, now, a party that supports the abolition of fees. Voting Lib Dem doesn’t even mean voting for a party that supports fees being frozen, or linked to inflation, or doubled. Voting Lib Dem, as of now, means voting for the party that made it possible for the Tories to treble fees – and, failing some fairly radical developments over the next few months, that’s what it always will mean.

Secondly, there’s an argument going round (notably from Vince Cable) to the effect that we shouldn’t set too much store by what the Lib Dems said before the election – which, just for the record, was:

We will scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.

We shouldn’t hold them to that undertaking, Cable told us, because it related only to the eventuality of a Liberal Democrat majority government; once they actually had to negotiate from a position of weakness, why, naturally all bets were off. There’s one obvious answer to this, which is that the promise which was signed by 500 Liberal Democrat candidates wasn’t about what the party was going to do: each of those 500 candidates (including every sitting Lib Dem MP) pledged “to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”. Not a huge amount of wiggle room there. But I don’t think the party collectively can get off the hook that easily, either. 6.8 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May; I doubt that very many of them thought the party was going to form a majority government. Nobody in the Lib Dem leadership ever said “there will have to be negotiation and in practice not all of this will get done”, because nobody needed to: Lib Dem voters were well aware that the best the party could hope for was to enter government as a junior member of a coalition. Everyone knew that what was implemented in practice would be a complex set of trade-offs, with only a few policies surviving unchanged and most being heavily watered down. But what Lib Dem voters did expect, quite reasonably, was that the party’s leaders would at least attempt to keep their promises and to implement a diluted version of their policies – not to shred their promises, implement the diametric opposite of their policies and then plead political realism.

Thirdly, a promise is not just a promise: every commitment on a single issue takes its meaning from a broader set of arguments and values. The politician who promises to keep a military shipyard open is affirming his belief in the armed forces, imperialism and the glories of war; the politician who privatises hospital cleaning services is stating her love of profit, her contempt for public service and her hatred of trade unions. (Not invariably, obviously, but I think these are good rules of thumb.) And the politician who – like Nick Clegg, before the election – commits himself to abolishing university tuition fees is also committing himself to a belief in higher education and public provision. People understand this. Clegg, Cable and the rest of the whole sick crew have not just ditched a promise; they have made a handbrake turn on two of the most important issues in politics. It’s not too much to say that they’ve gained power by promising to do the right thing, and used it to do the wrong thing.

There are three distinct but related political fallacies here. The first point – like Farron’s incredible comments – relates to the fallacy of good intentions: ask not who we are, where we’ve been or what we’ve done, ask what we can do for you next time! The second fallacy you could call the fallacy of executive omnipotence: the assumption that electoral promises relate only to the situation in which the party is powerful enough to have a free choice about whether to implement every single one of them; if those conditions don’t obtain (as they never really do), all the promises can be shelved, or turned into open-ended statements of aspiration. The third is the fallacy of the single promise: the idea that individual political promises are simply that – single items on a list of promises, like beads on a string – so that a politician should be held to account, at most, for the number of promises he or she fails to implement. In any case, they couldn’t realistically have been expected to implement all of them (fallacy 2) – and isn’t it more important to think about what they can do for you next time (fallacy 1)?

Instead of judging politicians on their record and on their overall political direction, we’re implicitly being asked – by Farron as well as Clegg – to look at policy commitments as free-floating mood statements, and give our vote to the politician who seems to be making the right kind of noises. Taken together, this adds up to a formidable depoliticisation of politics, as well as a Get Out Of Jail Free card for individual politicians.

Or you could just call it base, cynical vote-whoring. And from the Liberal Democrats, too – I’m shocked, shocked.

Update If you want to know what the fees issue is really about – and why the reaction of so many academics has been one of incredulous horror – read this. As Colin rightly points out, a graduate tax could have forced students to pay just as much money for their education, and would have been easier to administer – and easier to make more equitable – than the nightmare system we look like being landed with. However, a tax would also have been channelled through the state, effectively keeping universities publicly funded; it also wouldn’t have set universities competing against one another on price, and hence on cost (if you can deliver the same teaching with fewer staff, you won’t need to charge your students as much). As our Vice-Chancellor recently commented, few of us went into higher education with the aim of working in the free market, but that’s where most of us look like ending up.

Jolly little nothing

A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast “old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens”. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility. “Social mobility is what characterises a fair society, rather than a particular level of income equality” (my emphasis).

There’s not a lot to be said in favour of this speech (Jonathan Calder has a go, but even he baulks at the stuff about “new progressives”); there’s rather a lot to be said against it. It begins with a blatant strawman (“Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity” – oh really?) and a blinding glimpse of the obvious (“The question is not how much money the state is spending, it is how it spends it”); it doesn’t get much better from there on. Clegg never explains why he believes that achieving income equality would be a bad thing, let alone why increased social mobility is supposed to be an alternative to decreased inequality rather than a complement to it (or a result of it, for that matter).

“Inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation,” Clegg writes, adding, in a typical sententious flourish, “That’s when societies become closed, stratified and divided.” There are a number of objections to this assertion. One is that, as Chris says, it makes it effectively impossible to know whether an individual government’s efforts to combat “injustice” have succeeded or failed:

Poverty … is easily measurable, with only a short lag: how many have an income less than 60% of the median? But social mobility can only be measured decades after policies have been implemented: it’ll take 30 years for us to tell whether the pupil premium has increased mobility. What Clegg is doing, therefore, is choosing ignorance: he’s asking for his actions to be judged by a measure that won’t be available until he’s long-forgotten.

We could also say that if (as Clegg strongly implies) inequalities only become injustices when they’re passed on, no inequality in this generation can possibly be unjust: you may think that the differential between your minimum-wage job and Sir Fred Goodwin’s wedge stinks to high heaven, but don’t jump to any conclusions – just wait another thirty years and see where your kids have ended up. This is unsatisfactory, to say the least. And I think we could be excused for finding it relevant that Clegg himself is exactly and precisely the beneficiary of an inequality that’s been passed on, generation to generation; his parents paid £29,000 a year at current values for his secondary education, and look at him now. (“I was very lucky to go to a great school,” Clegg told Kirsty Young. More to the point, he was lucky enough to be born in a household rich enough to send him to a very expensive school.)

But the main reason to object to the opposition between income equality and social mobility is that it makes no sense. Granting for the sake of argument that inequalities become injustices when they are fixed; passed on, generation to generation, why wouldn’t it still be appropriate to intervene at the level of inequality? Even if they were fixed, smaller inequalities would mean smaller injustices. We can imagine a limit case: if taxes and benefits were manipulated to the point where everyone had exactly the same income, would social mobility be likely to increase or decrease? Mobility from a lower to a higher income would cease, by definition, but mobility in the more obvious sense of overcoming accidents of birth – being the daughter of a dinner lady and growing up to run the English National Opera, that kind of thing – would predictably increase. If nobody was running a large surplus of income over necessary expenditure (again, by definition) then no career or qualification could be restricted to those with lots of spare cash, as many careers and qualifications now are. But thinking about social mobility probably doesn’t come easy to Nicholas William Peter Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge), son of the chairman of a bank, grandson of a White Russian Baroness; perhaps he wasn’t really thinking about that kind of social mobility. Or any other kind.

As I said at the top, other people have been all over this. Sunder asks a polite but pertinent question:

If levels of inequality and income distribution by the state have little or nothing to do with social mobility, please name three “high inequality” or “small state” countries with comparatively high social mobility? Could he please explain what he thinks the drivers of high mobility are in Sweden and other societies which rank highest in the OECD?

Stuart quotes John Stuart Mill:

The social problem of the future we considered to be, how to unite the greatest individual liberty of action, with a common ownership of the raw material of the globe, and an equal participation of all in the benefits of combined labour.

While you could argue that Mill’s open egalitarianism puts him towards the Left of the Liberal tradition, Stuart argues persuasively that Clegg’s outright indifference to unequal outcomes puts him right off the map: “The real choice, then, is not between the new and the old progressives. It is between Cleggism and liberalism.”

At the Third Estate, lastly, Reuben draws attention to some sharp practice in Clegg’s attempt to pass off the openly regressive Comprehensive Spending Review as in some sense progressive: the poor may be getting poorer, but hey, there’s the pupil premium, and NHS funding isn’t actually being cut, so they’re coming out ahead overall, right? (Sorry, that was Blair; Clegg’s just as self-righteous, but his tone is more Mr Collins than ‘rocking vicar’.) This harks back to Clegg’s response to the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on the CSR – “People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS.” (You see what I mean about the tone.) Now, as it happens, this argument was demolished a month ago at Next Left. The reality is that the effect of the planned service cuts will be even more regressive than the proposed direct cuts to welfare: “the poorest ten per cent of households will be hit 15 times harder than the richest ten per cent as a result of service cuts announced in the comprehensive spending review”. But once again, let’s give Clegg the benefit of a doubt which doesn’t really exist, and assume that service provision can in some sense taking up the slack for cuts to benefits. But then… in what sense? Reuben:

Clegg essentially presents access to public services as interchangeable with cash income, when considering the impact of his and Cameron’s budget, as though the former were a perfect substitute for the latter. The point, however, is that in this society, cash is special: It does not merely contribute to somebody’s material well being but confers a crucial degree of autonomy upon the individual, enabling them to exercise a bit of control over their day to day existence. Somebody trying to live on £200 a week in London will lack such autonomy, even if they enjoy access to a good library and hospital, and their neighbourhood is well policed.

And that lack of autonomy – that endless grind of making do and doing without, never saying no to an extra shift and never saying Boo to the boss, that climate of daily anxiety and besetting fear for the future – that is precisely what makes talk of social mobility a bad joke. If you’re going to move up in the world, you need the leisure to plan for the future and the confidence to believe in your plans; you need to be able to take on unpaid or low-paid work, and to spend hours at a time making phone calls and sending emails; you need to go to the right events and make yourself known to the right people. In short, and to be brutally frank, you need to have money behind you. No amount of NHS funding (even if it were actually increasing, which it isn’t); no amount of improved schooling (even if there were any new money, which there isn’t); no amount of Sure Start childcare (even if it weren’t being cut, which it will be) will give an underpaid worker the chance to raise her head from the daily grind and think about social mobility. (Even if social mobility were an adequate solution to the injustice of present-day poverty, which it quite clearly isn’t.)

Nothing to me better sums up the vacuity of Clegg’s world-view than the words he uses to disparage any kind of redistributive approach to poverty.

Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with incomes currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty. The weakness of this approach is that significant resources end up being devoted to altering the financial position of these households by fairly small amounts – just enough, in many cases, to get them above the line. But poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness. It represents an approach to fairness dominated by the power of central state to shift money around, rather than to shift life chances.

One sentence in particular leapt out at me: “poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”. Maybe not, but it’s a hell of an improvement on poverty without the extra pound. I’ve done a variety of part-time and low-paid work for most of the last decade, some of it very part-time and very low-paid; I’m wearily familiar with the kind of forward-planning exercise that concludes “and if nothing else comes up I’ll be in trouble at the end of… that month“. The show has stayed on the road so far, and with any luck will do for some time yet, but there have been times – there have been months at a time – when I was acutely aware of the difference between what was going out and what was coming in. Mr Micawber’s figures need a bit of adjustment for inflation, but I can vouch for the principle:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short you are for ever floored.

(And your chances of social mobility are up the Swanee, we might add.)

I’ll hazard a wild guess that this is not an experience Nick Clegg has ever had. “Poverty plus a pound does not represent fairness”, indeed. Poverty plus a pound represents release from poverty, and as such represents security, liberty and happiness; poverty plus a pound is, apart from anything else, a profoundly liberal goal. Warm words about social mobility, on the other hand – well, that and a pound will get you a cup of coffee. If you’ve got a pound to spare.

I think what I find most frustrating about this stuff isn’t what Clegg’s proposing but how badly he proposes it; how little sense he makes from sentence to sentence. In the paragraph I quoted above, for instance, we get no reason why an approach to fairness dominated by redistribution is so ineffective that it actually “does not represent fairness”; no explanation of why such an approach is opposed to one that tries to “shift life chances”; and not a word about what that approach would actually consist of (although leaving poor people in poverty seems to be an important part of it). I’ve read a lot of Tony Blair’s speeches quite closely; they’ve got lacunae you could drive a bus through, but next to this stuff Blair looks like Immanuel Kant.

I almost feel sorry for Clegg: he’s so clearly out of his depth. One explanation for this stuff would be that he’s personally a Tory (not a particularly left-wing one, either) and all he’s trying to do now is cover his retreat; even then you’d have to say that he’s making a very poor job of it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the reality is sadder and more complex: that he went into the Coalition genuinely believing he’d represent Liberalism in some form, but not realising either how hard the Tories intended to play or how shallow his own beliefs were. But one thing led to another, and now he seems to be on a train he can’t get off. I picture him as being haunted by the suspicion that some people in white coats are going to come into his office any moment and tell him it’s all been a gigantic experiment and now it’s time to go home. Sometimes, perhaps, he wishes they’d hurry up.

Postscript

Googling “Nick Clegg lucky privileged” (for the quote about his school days) brought back this interesting story, from the Glasgow East by-election in 2008:

Mr Clegg’s attack on the Tory leader came after a speech which Mr Cameron made in the constituency on Monday. Mr Cameron appealed for a greater sense of public morality, saying politicians were too afraid to say what was right and wrong. In the most controversial section of his speech, the Tory leader said: “We talk about people being at risk of obesity, instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty or social exclusion – it’s as if these things, obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.”

And here’s Clegg’s riposte:

“You are certainly not going to get any hope from the Conservatives, whose leader had the arrogance to come here just recently and tell you that even if you are struggling on benefits, struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find a job, struggling to cope with poverty, that it’s your own fault and he won’t lift a finger to help you. … I think there is no excuse in politics for the lucky and the privileged to show such contempt for the poor and the forgotten.”

I agree with Nick.

I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
and
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

Continue reading

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

From a great height

Those New Year music lists, in brief.

TWENTY ALBUMS OF 2008

  1. The What?
  2. Yeah, Right.
  3. Oh, That… I Remember That Coming Out…
  4. No, They’re Making These Up.
  5. Ah, Now I Was Actually Thinking Of Getting This One.
  6. They Were On Later, Weren’t They? Didn’t Think Much Of Them.
  7. Bloody Hell, Are They Still Going?
  8. Ah, No, These Are The Ones Who Were On Later. Don’t Know Who The Other Lot Are.
  9. Don’t Know What This Is Doing Here.
  10. I Got This, Didn’t I? Oh, Apparently Not.
  11. No, No Idea.
  12. Or This One.
  13. Or This One Either.
  14. Might Look In The Sales For This One.
  15. I Did Actually Get The Single. It Was Rubbish.
  16. Their Fourth Album? How Can It Possibly Be Their Fourth Album?
  17. Ah, These Are The Ones Who… No. No, That’s Someone Else.
  18. They‘re Hip Now, Are They?
  19. That Really Is A Made-Up Name. It Has To Be.
  20. Rediscovered? What Do You Mean, Rediscovered?

…AND TEN TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2009

  1. Already Been In The Guardian
  2. Already Been On Later
  3. Already Been On Newsnight Review
  4. Already Been Interviewed In The Metro
  5. Already Been On The Front Of The NME
  6. Possibly The Next Klaxons!
  7. Possibly The Next Corinne Bailey-Rae!
  8. Possibly The Next Kate Nash!
  9. Possibly The Next Test Icicles!
  10. A Band You Actually Quite Like, Strategically Positioned At The Bottom Of The List So As To Make You Feel Terminally Unhip

Me, at the moment I’m mostly listening to Tony Capstick, James Yorkston, National Health and in particular Radiohead; thanks to Zavvi’s Looming Bankruptcy Sale, I recently acquired a copy of OK Computer, which I somehow missed out on in 1997, and which (although this probably isn’t news to anyone but me) is rather fine. In particular, I’m feeling the need to play “Paranoid Android” several times a day; what this says about my psychological state I’m not sure, but it’s probably nothing good. (In my defence, I do like a good bit of 7/4.) When that’s worn off I’ll probably move on to the rest of my bargain-bin gap-fillers, which are by Captain Beefheart, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Jim Moray and Scott Walker. Or I might see if I can get the Last Shadow Puppets album cheap (the lads can’t actually sing, which is a real drawback for going up against those kinds of arrangement, but that single that sounded a bit like Love worked OK, so maybe they can bring it off).

So no, I’m not in the market for anything by Little Boots, thanks very much.

Take or leave us

Apologies for the long silence – and for the post that’s about to follow, which will be of much greater interest to some than others.

Unlike Liam and Andy, I am not now and have never been a member of RESPECT. Like Liam and Andy, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the fallout within RESPECT from George Galloway’s August letter. I think there are some genuinely hopeful developments taking place, in among the backbiting and abuse: a renewed RESPECT could be the socialist-friendly left-of-Labour electoral party England has been crying out for. (Could be – we’re not there yet by any means.)

Here are some of my comments from Andy’s blog. My thoughts on all this have developed over time, but I’ve only edited for clarity, brevity and anonymity.

1st September:

I’ve never liked George Galloway, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the clarity & cogency of this analysis. Yes, it is all about organisational structure, but structure can be very important in deciding what gets done and what doesn’t – and how the membership is involved in those decisions, both before and after they’re made.

You could object that Galloway’s line (and/or my take on it) is naive, inasmuch as there are solid political factors underlying the organisational sclerosis of RESPECT (reasons having to do with the death-grip of the SWP), and he clearly doesn’t address those. I think that would be to underestimate Galloway’s critique (which does after all propose leading roles for Yaqoob and even Thornett). I also think that a lot of the problems with the SWP itself are ultimately organisational – the weird stop/start blend of caution, opportunism and control freakery that the SWP has brought to RESPECT is a culture with quite deep roots in the party itself, and it’s not good for the internal life of the SWP any more than it’s been good for RESPECT. Viewed in this light, I think Galloway’s aim is to stir things up within the SWP, perhaps with the longer-term aim of splitting the party and expelling part of it from the New Model RESPECT. How it pans out will depend on how much discontent there is within the SWP, and how deep the divisions within the leadership run – is anyone sufficiently fed up to want to either break with RESPECT or split the party?

13th September:

There’s something Kremlinological about the lines being drawn – nobody really thinks Galloway is standing up for party democracy, or that the SWP Central Committee wants to eradicate any hint of communalism. As far as I can see the competing lines essentially boil down to “build a weak and diffuse coalition as an element in the SWP’s longer-term socialist programme” and “build a weak and diffuse coalition without preconditions, but in the hope that it will eventually become less weak and diffuse”. The CC line sounds more socialist, but I think in practice it’s less constructive.

22nd September:

I don’t think anyone’s saying “SWP out of RESPECT” – just that the relationship between the two needs to change. If that line prevails and the SWP responds by flouncing out… well, it’ll be a gamble, but I think it’s one worth taking. (Hopefully some of the better SWP/RESPECT comrades would jump the right way.) In any case [if] RESPECT is currently only kept going by the SWP machine, would it really be worth having on that basis?

3rd October:

There’s strong evidence, in some towns at least, that RESPECT has quite consciously targeted Muslim areas. Building on the massive mobilisation against the war isn’t a bad idea, but it depends how it’s done. I’ve seen RESPECT campaign material which focused exclusively on causes of interest to British Muslims. That’s not to say they were causes I wouldn’t support (Iraq, Palestine, anti-racism…) but that the list didn’t include anything calculated to appeal to non-Muslim working-class voters, or for that matter to Muslim voters who saw themselves primarily as working-class.

What does need to be dealt with quite openly is the difference between the type of approach I’m describing and the allegations of ‘personalist and clientelist’ organising. If that’s happened, it’s a disgrace and should be rooted out. But at the moment it’s unclear a lot of the time whether ‘communalism’ refers to this kind of corrupt practice or simply focusing on the Muslim vote – a legitimate approach, albeit one I disagree with on political grounds.

Ultimately I think the approach RESPECT took is a tragically missed opportunity. They could have gone a lot harder at the outset on class perspectives and on potentially divisive issues such as feminism and LGBT; the result would have been a smaller organisation in the early days, perhaps, but a much more coherent one. Instead we get socialist principle wheeled out as a factional weapon within the party, at a time when most of the early successes have been dissipated.

15th October:

Kevin Ovenden and Rob Hoverman expelled for working with Galloway; Nick Wrack expelled for standing for the Organiser post, whose creation Rees & German had agreed to… I can’t see that any of it makes any sense unless the SWP leadership is determined to a) leave RESPECT b) split RESPECT c) wreck RESPECT or d) some combination of the above. These certainly don’t look like the actions of an organisation preparing to operate as a minority current within a broader party – or even preparing to operate within a broader party on terms which might at some point in the future reduce them to a minority current.

There’s a much bigger question than the relative merits of RESPECT and the Labour Left, which is what happens if RESPECT goes under. To put it another way, which is the worse outcome for the Left in England – successful RESPECT or failed RESPECT? I think for the project to fail now would be bad news for all of us. But I think there’s a chance that what comes out of the current crisis will be a more coherent organisation with a clearer identity, not to mention a healthier relationship with the SWP and other groups. I think that possibility and that danger are far more important than anything that can be said about Galloway. (Whom I dislike, distrust and have very little faith in. Makes a good speech, mind.)

23rd October:

even if we take the SWP leadership at their word and assume they have adopted the vision of a more explicitly socialist RESPECT, vision and strategy aren’t the same thing. I believe RESPECT has the potential to become a coherent left-wing electoral party with an active socialist minority, which is rather more than it is now – but I don’t believe it can realise that potential by allowing the SWP leadership to control it. Anyone who wants to see RESPECT thrive and survive should welcome the critique being voiced by Galloway, Yaqoob, Wrack, Francis et al.

24th October:

a lot of the initial policy compromises have evidently been unmade in the course of the last four years, possibly thanks to the influence of principled leftists within RESPECT. The opposition to the SWP leadership within RESPECT isn’t a monolithic bloc, and they certainly don’t all dance to Galloway’s tune. There’s a left and a right within the Galloway/Yaqoob/Francis/Socialist Resistance wing of RESPECT, in other words, and I’m confident that the left will counter any attempt to push the project to the right. At the risk of offering hostages to fortune, RESPECT isn’t over yet; it may just be getting going.

30th October:

It all started, it seems to me, with a power-play by Galloway. If it was implemented unchanged, Galloway’s original proposal would have created a rival to John Rees’s position within RESPECT, with a power base among Galloway’s allies and a focus on electoral success (bearing in mind that we all thought there was an election coming up at the time). As such, the proposal obviously wasn’t welcome to Rees & his allies, and it called for some hard bargaining and careful management. What couldn’t be done was to kick it into touch, because it expressed more than just Galloway’s political self-interest and his belief that a party that stands candidates in elections ought to try and win them. RESPECT hadn’t flourished under the stewardship of Rees & co, and significant groups & individuals within the coalition had some genuine concerns about the way things were going. Galloway’s letter gave a voice to those concerns and put names to some of the people expressing them. It meant that the SWP’s leadership role in RESPECT would never be unchallenged again.

Rees and friends could have bargained and managed the situation; they could have accepted a collegiate leadership; they might well have re-emerged as ‘first among equals’ further down the line. Instead of which they declared war on Galloway – and, by extension, on anyone aligned with him, whether for reasons of principle or convenience.

I said at the time of Hoveman and Ovenden’s expulsions that the SWP leadership’s actions were incomprehensible unless they wanted to leave, split or destroy RESPECT, or some combination of the three. I don’t take any satisfaction in having, apparently, been proved right.

1st November:

for the SWP to pull out of RESPECT tomorrow, taking every dual member with it, would be disastrous for RESPECT. For Linda Smith & her allies to witch-hunt the SWP out of the organisation would be to saw off the branch they’re sitting on; tactically it would be crazy, stupid or sectarian to the point of obsessiveness. I don’t believe they’re any of those things.

So what is going on? I think it’s important to draw two distinctions: between reducing someone’s power and reducing it to nothing; and between long-term and short-term. The first is the difference between Edward Heath’s approach to the Left and the unions and Thatcher’s; the second is the difference between Thatcher and Pinochet. The Smith/Yaqoob/Galloway side of the argument are agreed that the SWP’s formal power within RESPECT needs to be reduced. There are people on that side of the argument (possibly Galloway himself) who believe that in the longer term it should be reduced to nothing. There isn’t anybody, as far as I can tell, who believe that it should be reduced to nothing immediately – that the SWP should be chased out of RESPECT.

The SWP leadership are doubly to blame for the escalation of this dispute, it seems to me: they’ve interpreted a demand for reduction of their power as an all-out threat to their position, then interpreted that as an immediate threat. In the process they’ve created that confrontation. It’s true to say that some, at least, of the SWP leadership’s critics have taken a position of “if you want a fight, you can have it” – and this is regrettable. But when concessions are exploited, well-intentioned criticisms are dismissed unread and challenges are met with strident denunciation and refusal to debate, it does tend to try one’s patience.

(Part of the problem, of course, is that you don’t start a position war with the SWP with much hope of winning – SWP cadre do tend to be very good at this stuff. It’s just not the stuff that’s needed right now.)

Having said all that, it’d be nice to think that the RESPECT which comes out of all this would include some SWP members. (Even now, the RESPECT-loyalists don’t seem to have any political quarrel with the SWP-loyalists – and that goes double for someone like Lavalette, whose work is a model of what RESPECT should be doing.)

2nd November:

I don’t think there’s any mystery around why Linda Smith & her allies don’t want to see the conference go ahead. They’ve stated their reasons – they’ve been comprehensively outmanoeuvred, out-organised and out-mobilised, by both fair means and foul. As a result, the legitimacy of the organisational structures of the coalition itself have been brought into dispute – but, as part of the same process, internal democracy has been boxed off to the point where that dispute can’t take place. In this situation, a pause for thought is the only option – ‘full speed ahead’ equals ’self-destruct’.

With two conferences now scheduled for 17th November, this last comment needs some expansion. By pressing ahead with organising for the planned conference, without addressing any of the issues raised by Smith & Yaqoob, the SWP put the ‘renewal’ camp in an impossible position. Turn up at the conference and they’d almost certainly be outvoted and outmanoeuvred; stay away and they’d lose by default. Worse, organising their own event at a later date would risk organised intervention by SWP partisans. (Before anyone cries paranoia, I’ve been in conferences where the SWP wanted to make sure that a mildly critical point of view got across; it’s not pretty. The ‘single transferable speech’ is one word for the tactic (In response to the last speaker, I’d just like to say that one of the earlier speakers raised a crucial question…)) Holding their own event on the same day was really the only option.

That said, it would be good if a split could be avoided; I was particularly glad to see that Michael Lavalette had been willing to share a platform with Galloway and Yaqoob (Andy has photographic evidence). The game is clearly not over yet. (Although after this post I’ll probably go back to the usual mixture of political philosophy, popular singing groups and miscellaneous geekage.)

Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie

I agree with Andrew Anthony, up to a point:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

I’m not aware of any causal mechanism through which withdrawal from Iraq and turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism will result in the disappearance of Jihadist terrorism. Yep, he’s got me there.

Earlier on today – before reading Anthony’s column – I was thinking about writing a post consisting entirely of pet hates. One of them was to be the passive-aggressive style in journalism (and blogging, for that matter, although at least bloggers usually do it in their own time). This sort of smug, preening, point-scoring, deceptive and self-deceiving idiocy is a prime example. “You can’t say that I’m saying I’m right! I’m not saying I’m right – I admit I may be wrong. I’m just saying what I think. And it just so happens that I’m right.” Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And the more you look at it, the worse it gets. The argument is based on an either/or formulation with an excluded middle approximately the size of Wales. Firstly, if ‘we’ (by which I think, or at least hope, Anthony actually means the government) turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism and bring the troops home, may this have benefits outweighing the fact that Jihadist terrorism won’t disappear as a consequence? For example, might it have some quantifiable effect on the level of disaffection among British Muslims in general, and by extension reduce the supply of would-be Jihadist terrorists? Even if it didn’t magically abolish the contemporary terrorist threat, in other words, might it help a bit? (I’m taking the art of stating the bleeding obvious to new heights here, I know.) Secondly, is agreeing with Anthony about what needs to be done with regard to Islamic extremism the only alternative to turning a blind eye? Perhaps we should take it very seriously indeed, but as a symptom of something that’s going wrong in British society – which, of course, doesn’t imply any sympathy with the ideology itself. (I’d say exactly the same about the BNP.) Thirdly, might bringing the troops home just be the right thing to do – or the least wrong thing the British government can currently do – irrespective of its effect on Jihadist terrorism? Viewed in this light, all Anthony is doing is finding reasons for the government not to do something it ought to be doing already. (Or rather, is doing already – I’m reminded of Daniel Davies’s crack about waiting for the Decents to organise a Troops Back In march…)

I’m quoting Anthony out of context, of course. Just as well, really, because the context is even worse:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

It may be that an emphasis on cultural difference and group identities is the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society, but my own experience, observation and study suggests that it can and does have the contrary effect. It could be that by turning away from violent street crime and waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal, a shared sense of social responsibility will grow. But I don’t think so.

These aren’t fanatical or right-wing positions. They are concerns shared by millions – black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist – in this country. Attempting to drown them out with shrill denunciations won’t make them go away. But it will help leave the left estranged from reality. And that’s when people really do turn to the right.

Even the multi-culturalism point – and I am willing to dignify it with the name of ‘point’ – gets lost between a gargantuan straw-man (the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society) and the customary rhetorical double-shuffle (can and does – that’s a bit like ‘may and will’, or ‘I’m not actually asserting this, oh yes I am’.) I’m not even going to touch the law-and-order line, except to say that I’ve never known anyone (left or right) who believed in waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal.

As for the last graf – what was I saying about Nick Cohen the other day?

To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?

PS Yes, I am in a bit of a foul mood at the moment – why do you ask?

PPS I guess I should explain the post title, for once, if only because the post drifted as it went on. It was meant to focus mainly on the passive-aggressive thing; the operative quote is You’re supposed to be so angry – why not fight? (Go on, google it. You’ll be glad you did.)

Just take a look around you

Sing it:

I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
The clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate…

Bitterness can be a problem, even when you’re out of school uniform. It’s a particular problem for political writers, bloggers very much included. You hate the Other Side, they must be evil and contemptible to do what they do – but, if they genuinely are evil and contemptible, you can’t do anything except hate them, and keep on saying how you hate them. As I wrote back here,

There’s something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts – See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they’ve as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself – and anybody who shares it – feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

To be more precise, it’s a hateful, joyless look – and if you’re not careful the wind will change, and it’ll stick.

So I almost agree with whoever it was that wrote this. (The opening quote is from Paul Foot’s Why you should be a socialist.)

We socialists are not fanatics or timeservers. We are socialists because we see the prospect which life holds out for all working people. We want the commitment of workers who laugh and love, and want to end the wretchedness and despair which shuts love and laughter out of so many lives.

Well, 1977 is a long, long time ago, but Foot’s words survive beyond his sad decline and premature death to resonate in the present. When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them

I almost agree with this line of argument (never mind for a moment who the ‘assorted dickheads’ are): too much radical writing is both bitter and twisted, substituting vituperation for reasoning and personal attack for critique. I almost agree, but not quite. Here’s the whole of the sentence:

When you’ve read anything written by any of the assorted dickheads mentioned above, have you ever, even once, got the impression that “love and laughter” matter a damn to any of them, or even mean anything much at all to people so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes?

Elsewhere in the same post we read that the Left represented by these people is “a pandemonium of sectarian infighting, self-righteous posturing, academic wankfests and just plain barking at the Moon”; that they’re liars and fantasists, characterised by “dishonesty, paranoia and mauvaise foi“; and that they’re fascists or Stalinists, or at best the fellow-travellers of fascists or Stalinists.

Enough! or too much. (William Blake said that.) Fortunately there aren’t very many of these people, when you get down to it. There’s Louis Proyect; there are Mike Marqusee, D.D. Guttenplan and Andrew Murray; there’s Chris Bertram, and then there’s

Phil Edwards of Actually Existing, who never uses one plain word where 15 pretentious words will do, thinks it’s mighty clever and original to pretend that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship because – in a deeper reality accessible only to the mighty clever and original – they’re both “undemocratic” (what do you mean, he should define his terms? he’s a poet, don’t you know)

I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of both pretentiousness and mauvaise foi before. But it’s true, I write poetry, which clearly implies… Actually it doesn’t imply anything in particular, but it gives people who don’t like what I write something to sneer at. Which is nice for them.

The post they’re talking about, anyway, is here; I think the paragraph in question is reasonably clear, but if it does look as if I’m saying that there’s nothing to choose between liberal democracy and dictatorship – or that it’s unclear what I mean by the word ‘democratic’ – let me know in the comments. But not anonymously: henceforth I’ll only read anonymous and pseudonymous comments on this blog if I already know your real name or can find it out easily. Anything else gets deleted.

It’s a bit funny to see a critique of life-denying sectarianism being advanced by writers who themselves seem so repulsively stuffed to the gills with hatred, resentment and self-regard that any allegation, any misrepresentation, however trivial or ludicrous, will do, as long as it suits their wholly negative purposes. It’s a bit funny to have all this pointing of fingers and naming of names coming from people who appear to have operated under pseudonyms since 1998. (I say ‘people’, but the operative word may be ‘person'; we’ve got no way of knowing that there is more than one person behind P.S. Burton, James Masterson, Ben Illin and the rest of their clever sobriquets.) It’s a bit funny, but I’m not laughing.

He once inspired awe

Tonight, we burn the king of straw

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time; his writing on the Balkans, in particular, strikes me as not only obstinately self-deluded but actively poisonous. Francis Wheen, Oliver Kamm and David Aaronovitch (a fairly unlovely troika, I admit) have now published a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre. They demonstrate conclusively that Diana Johnstone, a writer commended by Chomsky, systematically minimises and downplays the massacre, using an armoury of devices familiar to any student of Holocaust denial. They also show that Chomsky’s commendation of Johnstone’s work specifically and emphatically endorses its factual content, rather than being based on a ‘free speech defence’.

If you’ve been inclined to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt – or to dismiss him and Kamm as equal and opposite obsessives who deserve each other – you should read this now.

I’ve been critical of Chomsky’s political work for some time, but I’ve always assumed that his eminence in linguistics was unchallenged; I’ve certainly never felt I had the academic chops to challenge it. Fortunately not everyone is so timid. Thanks to Stuart and Dave, I’ve recently become aware of Chris Knight’s critique of Chomsky the linguist. Knight, who has nothing but respect for Chomsky as a political activist, traces the tangled evolution of Chomsky’s linguistics and finds it wanting. More, he argues that it is shaped by the twin imperatives offered by Chomsky’s institutional background (military-funded computing) and by an anarchist mistrust of social science. The result is that, as a linguist, Chomsky is driven to positions of Cartesian rationalism, biological determinism and psychological individualism: we have language because we are the kind of animal that we are; we are that kind of animal because at some unknowable point we just, mysteriously, became that kind of animal; and nothing about how we interact with one another in society has, or has ever had, any bearing on the question. Needless to say, Knight finds this an extremely unsatisfactory account of human nature. This essay (also published in this expanded version (PDF)) is well worth reading, if only for some extraordinary passages of peevish circular logic from Chomsky on the subject of the social sciences (“I don’t think they’ve ever made any great breakthroughs, so they can’t have done, or I would have heard of them…”).

Smash your idols, kids! (Only not my idols, all right? I’ll deal with them myself. Later.)

Flowers and their hair

Political radicals and activists are often stereotyped as people who’ve got something wrong with their lives – it’s just displacement, his Mummy wouldn’t buy him a pony… This is mostly wrong, of course, but I think it’s also partly right – and for the same reason that it’s mostly wrong. After all, everybody – with the possible exception of the young Buddha – has something wrong with their life; everybody knows the experience of loss, rejection, loneliness, helpless anger, despair. (If Melanie Klein was right we’ve already known a lot of this by the time we start saying mama.) The question is, as always, what you do with it. Your knowledge of what it’s like to be down there may fire you with empathy for all the people who are down there in real, physical terms, every day of their lives – or it may fire you with the determination to ensure that you’re never, ever going there again. And it’s not always obvious which set of eyes you’re looking through. Cue the Bill Hicks quote. (No, not the one about people who work in advertising, the other one.)

So that gives us two ways of looking at the relationship between personal sources of unhappiness and radical rage: it may be empathetic engagement (your wound, my wound, the bastards!); rather more sneakily, it may be fearful narcissism (they’ve got you, they may get me next, the bastards!) Another angle is offered by Jean-Pierre Voyer’s attempted fusion of Wilhelm Reich and the situationists. Voyer is one of those radical-left French intellectuals who went a bit weird in the 1980s and is now best approached with bargepole in hand (see also: Pierre Guillaume, Serge Thion). But he wrote some useful stuff in his time, notably Reich: How to use. From which this, slightly modified, quote stands out:

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life — contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other — are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for the unity of individual life

To engage in a coherent critique of power relations in contemporary society, according to Voyer, was necessarily to think differently and live differently. Your own life would be the prism through which you would see the crushing, distorting, disempowering might of the totality – and one result of a sustained, active critique of the totality (a.k.a. practising theory) would be that things would get a bit strange for a while. (Have I actually read this stuff? I hear you cry. Well, I know I’ve read Reich: how to use at least once and found it worthwhile, but glancing at it now the vines of Voyer’s grandiloquent self-regard seem to be trailing rather heavily across the path of his argument. Knabb’s eccentric-seeming case study, on the other hand, is as lucid, thought-provoking and unsparing as most of what he writes, which is to say, very.)

Where does this leave the angry political blogger? Not, I think, engaging in the practice of theory, and not really looking through the eyes of love. More and more, I feel that when I post angry I’m posting, in part, to sustain and relish my own anger. It’s a bridge between personal and political (anger is always personal), but it’s a bridge in the form of a knot – all I’m doing is feeding myself reasons why I can go on feeling angry.

And – returning to the Rorschach analogy in the previous post – those reasons aren’t necessarily there. Does Charlie Falconer hate poor people? It would certainly suit my personal distempered vision of New Labour to suppose that he does, but I know that in reality he almost certainly doesn’t; he probably thinks the working class is perfectly sweet, when he happens to bump into it. My guess is that when he commends policies which seem to incarnate contempt for Labour’s historic constituency, he’s doing it not because he feels that contempt himself but because he hasn’t thought about it. Which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, but makes him harder to fulminate against. I think that’s a gain, in an odd way.

Another example is the case of Blair’s ‘idealism’. The other day I attended a seminar addressed by Giancarlo Aragona (the Italian Ambassador) and Steven Haines – an interesting speaker who was on particularly good form. Haines’ answer to one question from the floor struck me. An International Relations lecturer asked him where he’d place Bush and Blair on the classic idealist/realist spectrum: I mean, they may like to present themselves as idealists, but can they be really? (We could hear the footfall of Chomskyan dietrologia on the stairs – idealism? Halliburton, Iraqi oil, Paul Bremer’s missing millions, and you talk about idealism?) Haines was having none of it: the Foreign Office and the MoD were mostly staffed by realists, he said, and they certainly didn’t think Blair was a realist. I think this is exactly right: sometimes what you see is what you get. We may not share Blair’s ideals or his view of the appropriate ways to act on them, but the idea that he doesn’t have ideals or that he’s not acting on them is unsustainable. Which makes him rather less evil and rather more strange. I think that’s a gain, too.

So do me a favour, gentle readers (apparently there are seven of you now, which is nice). From now on, if you see me doing the blog equivalent of shouting at the TV or trying to set the world to rights over one pint too many (you know what’s wrong with the world? I‘ll tell you what’s wrong with the world!)… don’t encourage me.

(And if you recognise the howlingly obscure quote in the post title, give yourself a Shinylet me know in the Comments. I’ll give you a clue – there’s a connection with my last post but two.)

By secondhand daylight

So the psychologist stops the Rorschach test halfway through – there’s no point continuing this, he says, you’re clearly obsessed with sex. The patient’s outraged. I’m obsessed? You’re the one who keeps showing me the dirty pictures!

While this is primarily a political blog – it has been up to now, anyway – there’s a lot I don’t like about political blogging. I particularly dislike political rants – those posts that start by swearing at somebody who’s been in the paper, then quote bits of what they’ve said with occasional sarcastic interjections, and finish by wheeling on some more swearing with the air of an argument proved. There’s something obsessive, almost paranoid about those posts – See? See? I told you they were a bunch of bastards, and now they’ve as good as admitted it! Look, it says so here! All you really achieve with a post like that is to feed your obsession, making yourself – and anybody who shares it – feel righteously justified. Which is never a good look.

I hate those posts, and I did think that my policy of avoiding swearwords and qualifying value judgments was enough to keep me from writing them. I was wrong about that one, of course – you can use the language of sweet reason and still be as angry and self-righteous as a Daily Mail leader column (case in point). I’ve done this in the past and intend to do less of it in future.

Still. Just one more, eh?

I gave up on Labour a long time ago – 1997, to be precise. It seemed to me then that Blair’s leadership had changed the party, not only to a greater degree than, but in a different way from any of his post-war predecessors. Foot, Kinnock and Smith fought a battle on two fronts, trying to keep the Labour project going in some form while persuading the powers in the land that their version of Labourism had finally been shorn of all the elements that made it unacceptable. The mood of Blair’s leadership was entirely different: the last apologetic vestiges of liberalism, social reform and internal democracy were jettisoned without regret – with enthusiasm, in fact. In their place we had a new ‘Labour’ party, committed to corporate capitalism, punitively exclusive communitarianism and – not least – the complete control of the party’s decision-making structures by the parliamentary leadership. (And yes, I did say all this in 1997.)

So I can’t say I’m entirely surprised by the way things have been going since the last election, as Blair steps up the pace in an attempt to turn the country into his own political mausoleum. But today’s news has been more than usually depressing.

Falconer:

“You do not need the same process for resolving whether you have paid your TV licence as one does for a major violent crime. Justice is reduced if three magistrates sit in court all afternoon effectively listening to names and addresses being read out, and a formal piece of evidence being read, and then fining someone. You are slowing down other cases that most certainly do need to be dealt with in court. A caution outside court, a conditional caution, a disorder notice or a fixed-penalty notice can be used with cases like TV licences, shoplifting, petty criminal damage, minor brawls after a night out.”

(I really am offended by that line “Justice is reduced”, implying actual benefits from a scheme that’s never been tried – and which of its nature is likely to produce injustice. But only for the kind of people who get into ‘minor brawls after a night out’, and who cares about them?)

Then there’s Hewitt, who was actually quite left-wing at one time:

The health secretary will issue the “Business Arrangements” manual explaining how NHS finances should be controlled during 2006/7, when her reforms are due to create unprecedented instability in the service. She will say: “Excellence in financial management is the prerequisite for high quality sustainable services.” Trusts will have to say goodbye to “a culture of balance sheet adjustments and handouts” that allowed hospitals to tolerate inefficiency on the assumption that the NHS would bail them out. … Until this year, hospitals could fairly accurately predict the number of patients they would be expected to treat. They agreed contracts with local primary care trusts guaranteeing most of the income they needed to do the work. Patients can now choose, however, from a menu of at least four local NHS trusts where they are entitled to free treatment. Consequently, hospitals can lose income if they do not attract enough patients. The fee they get for each attendance is also being priced differently. A national tariff was set last April for all non-emergency operations. If a hospital spent more than the norm for a particular procedure, it lost money on every patient treated.

Excellence in financial management is what it’s all about; pay the staff less, charge the patients more, and if you still can’t balance the books you’ll just have to make way for somebody who can. Sorry, but that’s business.

(Update:

The Department of Health will today publish a rulebook for NHS managers in 2006/7, to help them navigate “a year of transition” – with more patient choice and less certainty for trusts about how much they will earn. Ministers changed the document after reading a report in the Guardian on Monday about their intention to make strong financial discipline the “top priority” for the NHS. Ms Hewitt said they never meant this to imply that the government thought balancing the books was more important than curing patients. To avoid confusion, financial rigour was removed from the top of a list of priorities including tackling health inequality, reducing waiting times and combating the MRSA hospital superbug. Excellence in financial management is now “a prerequisite”, not a priority.

I’ve read this story three times now, and two out of three times I misread the penultimate sentence as ‘To add to the confusion…’. Which is certainly what this ‘clarification’ does. In practical terms it’s hard to see any difference between ‘top priority’ and ‘prerequisite’ – they’re both names for the thing you have to achieve first. What’s really odd is that ‘prerequisite’ is the word Hewitt used in the first place: rearranging the semantic deck-chairs would be pointless enough, but she’s not even doing that.)

And then there was this from The Register, suggesting that we’re getting a national identity database whether the ID cards bill goes through or not – courtesy of the Passport Service (hence the Reg’s rather wonderful title “Plan B from Petty France”). That’s the Passport Service, which operates under the royal prerogative and is thus effectively immune to parliamentary oversight: the government makes the rules, and by ‘government’ we of course mean the Prime Minister and his appointed advisors. (Not that the guy’s involved in this story, but what kind of person accepts the title of ‘Lord Adonis’? It’s the kind of name Philip Pullman would discard as too fanciful.) The Register goes so far as to wonder if the Queen might like to start asking some questions about what’s being done in her name – and you thought things were bad when we were falling back on the Lords…

I hate political rants, and I’m going to write fewer of them in future. But it would help a lot if this government would stop showing me the dirty pictures.

Enough is enough

“Liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear” – Harry’s Place, strapline

“Why don’t you all just fuck off to your own websites. I’m sick of reading your crap on my site now.” – Harry

“In an era when extremists shout loudly, it is time for men and women of good will to shout even louder.” – David T

We’re people of good will and we don’t have to take any more of this. Silence the enemies of democracy! Down with the enemies of peace! We want our freedom!

Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals
Prostitutes, pansies and punks
Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents
Lesbians and left wing scum
Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions
Freedom from the Gipsies and the Jews
Freedom from leftwing layabouts and liberals
Freedom from the likes of you.

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