Category Archives: idiocy

Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

My sisters and I used to play word games on long car journeys. The one I remember best involved taking turns to make up a story: you’d pick up from where the last person left off, and (most importantly) you’d have to incorporate three words that they gave you. I remember our last ever round of the game: my sister, feeling that I was getting a bit too good at it, gave me the words “brouhaha”, “nugatory” and “persimmon”. I proved her right (after asking her to define ‘nugatory’) by telling a story that didn’t use any of those words once, until the closing line of dialogue (spoken by a bystander after the story was over):
“What a brouhaha over a nugatory persimmon!”

If you think this game sounds like fun, why not try it yourself? Here are some words to get you started:

best, bim, blan, chill, chom, gang, geck, grit, hild, hooks, quemp, shin, start, steck, thazz, tord, tox, ulf, vap, week

If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, how about these?

blank, blurst, day, dentist, fape, finger, jound, newt, phone, rusty, scribe, slide, snemp, spron, starling, strap, stroft, terg, trains, voo

Go on, what are you waiting for? Just pile them all in if you’re not sure – I’ve got my best blim blan, I’m going to chill with the chom gang… Sorry, I mean bim blan – not blim blan, that would just be silly. It would also be wrong.

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about – and who could blame you if you were – let Michael explain. Or rather, Michael’s contact in the Department for Education…

“I have been receiving some complaints concerning the excellent Phonics test which, thanks to me, all Year 1 children will be taking June.

“The test works like this: first of all the children read some real words. They’re not in sentences because that would be cheating. They’re just words on a page. Phonics words. What I mean by that is words that are regular. By regular I don’t mean small – like coffee cups. I mean that they are spelled like they are said. Unlike, er…’said’ which looks as if it should be said ‘sayed’. Which actually is the way some people say ‘said’. Look, this is really quite easy and obvious.

One of my younger sister’s alphabet books – Charlotte Hough’s My Aunt’s Alphabet, of which I was rather fond – had a vocabulary list at the back, with some words printed in red to warn you that they weren’t pronounced the way they looked. There was a problem with these red words, which I only spotted some years later, after moving to the North of England. “Grass”, for instance, was a red word, because to look at it you’d think it rhymed with “lass”, say, or “gas”. Which of course it doesn’t – that would be wrong. “Bush” was also a red word, because of that sneaky ‘u’ – you’d think that “bush” rhymed with “hush” or “lush”, whereas in fact… There’s no explanation of what makes the ‘u’ in “bush” (and “bull”) the wrong sort of ‘u’ – except in “bush” and “bull” (and “push” and “pull”, and so on); it just is. You don’t pronounce the B in “comb”, you don’t stress the first syllable of “abyss” and you don’t rhyme “hush” with “bush”. That would be wrong.

Er…where was I? Yes, the test. So, there’ll be words. Not sentences. Sentences complicate things because children start guessing words by where they are in the sentences. And by what the sentence means. And ‘meaning’ as we call it, really has very little to do with reading. Or words. Meaning gets in the way of reading. We need the children to read. Not mean.

Someone once tried to start a conversation with me while I was reading a book over lunch – I know, the nerve of it! – the book in question being Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters (a book-length interview with some people from the New Left Review, and actually rather interesting, in fact a lot more interesting than the job I was doing at the time, wasted I was there, wasted). “What are you reading?” I angled the cover towards her in an only partly deliberately annoying way. She faltered but pressed on. “Oh… I like politics…” I didn’t think quickly enough to reply “Really? I prefer letters”; it’s probably just as well. Actually I don’t much like letters; I do like words, but the idea of words divorced from meaning is an odd one, to say the least.

Now the test also has some other kinds of words. These aren’t words. They’re just words that look like words. Words like ‘blurg’. or ‘Skonk’. If you’re a reader, you’ll read those. If you’re not a reader you won’t. Now some people have said that some little children taking the test will think that if there’s a word they can read but doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to make it make sense. … So, a child who can read, might see ‘blurg’ and because it doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to turn it into a word that does….’blurt’ or ‘blurb’ or something. Then they’ll be wrong and score badly.

But the good news is that we’ve been listening to what teachers have been telling us about this. So do you know what we’re doing? We’ve hired an artist who imagines what a ‘blurg’ might look like and he draws a ‘blurg’. There it is on the page next to the word ‘blurg’. A bit like a Flannimal. Now isn’t that fun? Now the child looks at ‘blurg’ and says to him or herself…’Ho ho ho, that must be a blurg’. Problem solved.

This is the sort of thing we do at the Department for Education. We hire people to do pictures of blurgs.

Readers, he is not making this up. At the end of this school year, primary schools in England really are going to administer a reading test to Year 1 children consisting of 20 words and 20 made-up words, and the children will be marked on whether they say them correctly. And the made-up words – but not the real words – really are going to have little pictures next to them – pictures of smiley monsters. You can read all about it here. (SFW. Some smiley monsters.)

Apart from the bizarre detail of associating non-existent ‘words’ with smiley monsters, this scheme (and I use the word advisedly) has one rather major flaw. How do you pronounce ‘chom’? Is that ‘ch’ as in ‘Christian’ or as in ‘champagne’? What about ‘geck’ – GE without a U or an H in the way is a ‘soft’ G (as in “gem”), so presumably it’s ‘jeck’. Except that sometimes GE is ‘hard’ (as in “get”), so maybe it should be pronounced… er… ‘geck’… like it’s spelled… sort of. Then, what if some poor kid thinks the ‘geck’ smiley monster is in fact a gecko and misreads the ‘word’ accordingly?

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

Oh, go on then. How do you pronounce ‘jound’ – what’s the right pronunciation? Is it two separate vowel sounds run together (“Joe, under his rough exterior, was a kindly soul”) or separated by a glottal stop (“jo’und day stands tiptoe on the misty moun’ains, pet”)? OK, we don’t usually do those things in English – well, we don’t usually do those things in Standard English – well, I say we don’t usually… Well, anyway. Those pronunciations aren’t very likely to come up in English… er, standard English… er, the kind of English we… those pronunciations are wrong.

Some people might get different ideas about that tricky ‘ou’ digraph (a technical term for two letters together, from the Greek ‘di’ meaning two and ‘graph’ meaning letters together). So is ‘jound’ pronounced ‘jonned’ (using the ‘ou’ sound in ‘cough’), or ‘joaned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘though’) or ‘junned’ (like the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’), or for that matter ‘junned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘could’)? There’s a simple answer to this, which is No. No, it isn’t. Those pronunciations are wrong. You can easily see that they’re wrong, just by sounding out the letters, which is what you do when you learn to pronounce words. If you sound out ‘ou’ and then follow it with an ‘n’ you never get any of those sounds. Not in real words, anyway. Imaginary words could be different, but they aren’t. This one isn’t, anyway.

What you get when you sound out the ‘oun’ in ‘jound’ is… but look, I’ve given it away! You get the ‘ou’ sound in ‘sound’. So it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘sound’, and ‘pound’, and ’round’ and ‘around’ and ‘around’. (Those last two are the same word. Yes, I know you know. Just making sure you know I know. Poetic or something. Anyway.) It’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘found’ and ‘bound’ and ‘wound’. That’s the ‘wound’ that rhymes with ‘bound’, of course, not the ‘wound’ that doesn’t. In short, it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘wound’, but not – this is important – to rhyme with ‘wound’. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

I like ‘quemp’, though; it’s a nice word. I’d like to try to get that into a story. Not if I was a kid, obviously, because I’d probably lose marks, because it’s not a proper word.

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

If I wanted to draw up a plan to sabotage what remains of public faith in one generation, mandated prayer and psalms in school assemblies would be right at the top of my list.

And if I wanted to stamp out spontaneous, playful joy in language, a good way to do it would be to make six-year-olds learn words like ‘snemp’ and ‘thazz’ – complete with smiley monsters to encourage them – and then tell them never to use those words, only ever to use real words… words like “week” and “phone” and “dentist”.

Looks are deceptive

Mark Carrigan has an alarming post consisting of nothing more than comments on a Daily Telegraph story. Here are a few:

Most people prefer the company of others of their own race. Forced integration therefore causes tension and resentment. Race is an important element in individual and group identity, which means it is impossible to build a society in which race does not matter. People of different races build different societies. Blacks—wherever they are found in large numbers—establish communities with certain characteristics, and whites and others do the same.

Interesting argument, professor (it’s got a ‘therefore’ and everything).

What you are seeing, and what nobody is prepared to say in public, is that “diversity” and “pc” PCs has created no-go areas in London. Unless and until the Police cease to be the paramilitary wing of the thought crime ministray, and can nick people without worrying about being accused of racism, then this is only the beginning.

Indeed, the police should be able to nick people without fear or favour, whether they’re black or…

What winds me up is all the talk of “community”. What sort of “community” gets enraged when a policeman shoots an armed criminal who had already fired on police? Maybe we should be looking at least as closely at this community as we are at the police?

Hmm.

It could have been Brixton or Toxteth, or Miami, or Detroit, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or Johannesburg, or anywhere where Labour’s favourite community rules the roost.

I think we’re getting the picture. To be fair, Labour aren’t entirely to blame…

The Tories have to accept that they are partly to blame. The fact that these colonists exist in our capital city cannot be solely blamed on the Left. The Tories have stood by while the violent 3rd World colonies have spread and grown.

…just mostly.

Black youths,black community leaders,black MP welcome to black London.Just another reminder of black labours immigration policies.

Shades of Python – Rastus Odinga Odinga has taken Wolverhampton Southwest, that’s Enoch Powell’s old constituency – an important gain there for Darkie Power. That David Lammy, why doesn’t he go back to where he came from? (Tottenham.)

But what is to be done?

You see these chippy small-time blacks every day in inner London – with their swagger, their hoodies, their ridiculous urban patois and their permanent scowl. They should all be put in work camps for re-education.

Work camps? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

We need a new Riot Act – basically, martial law. ”All looters will be shot on sight”. See how long the riots last then.

Oh. Maybe not.

The rioters are fortunate that, at present we do not have the sort of totalitarian government and police regimes other countries do have. The body count during an incident, series of incidents like last night’s would have been spectacular.

Wipe that drool off your chin, man!

To sum up, the problem is the blacks, and the solution is to shoot them as soon as they get out of line. And all of this needs saying, as often as possible, because it’s what nobody is prepared to say in public – nobody is prepared to tell it like it is, except a plucky band of fearless Daily Telegraph readers.

I’m not even going to look at the Daily Mail.

Let memory fade

It’s a small enough thing, but this is profoundly depressing.

Of 360 posts to be cut, 120 are from Future Media & Technology, up to 90 from BBC Vision, up to 39 from Audio & Music, 17 from Children’s, 24 from Sport and 70 in journalism from national news and non-news posts on regional news sites.

Outlining its plans today, the BBC said it will meet with commercial rivals twice a year to clarify its online plans, increase links to external sites to generate 22m referrals within three years and will halve the number of top level domains it operates.

The corporation also outlined five editorial priorities for BBC Online and clarified its remit. The BBC aims to meet all these objectives, and make 360 posts redundant, by 2013. The restructured BBC Online department will consist of 10 products including News, iPlayer, CBeebies and Search. Editorial will be refined, with fewer News blogs, and local sites will be stripped of non-news content. Blast, Switch and h2g2 are among the sites to be ditched. Other closures will include the standalone websites for the BBC Radio 5 Live 606 phone-in show and 1Xtra, 5 Live Sports Extra, 6 Music and Radio 7 digital stations.

In all, the BBC is pledging to close half of its 400 top level domains – with 180 to be gone ahead of schedule later this year.

(That’s top level directories, people – the word that goes after “bbc.co.uk/”. The top level domain is “.uk”.)

The BBC’s Web presence is vast, sprawling and a bit anarchic – a quality it has in the past shared with the groups of people responsible for it. (Back in 2002 I made a concerted effort to get some writing work from the technology bit of BBC Online, a task made more difficult by the impossibility of finding any personal contact information on the site. Sustained and ingenious googling eventually rewarded me with a name and a phone number(!). I rang it and spoke to the right person, only to be told that he’d moved to BBC History and was about to move on again. On the other hand, before he left he did commission me to write an 12,000-word timeline of English history from the Romans to Victoria, so it wasn’t as if no good came of it.) There is an awful lot of good stuff there, much of it user-generated, and lots of little online communities that have grown up to support it. And yes, the bits that the corporation pay for are ultimately paid for out of the licence fee, meaning that they don’t have to make money and hence have an advantage over commercial rivals which do. This is a good thing: there are lots of worthwhile things that can be done very easily with a small subsidy, but can only be done with great difficulty, if at all, on a profit-making basis. There is no earthly reason why a corporation which doesn’t have to make money – and can afford to chuck a few grand around here or there – should behave as if it did and couldn’t. No reason, apart from political reasons. So now BBC Online are going to have a “clarified remit”, and they’re going to show their plans to commercial rivals (!) twice a year (!!), and 360 creative people are going to walk.

What really gives this announcement the smell of wanton vandalism – wilful and ignorant destruction – is the part about all the sites that are going to close. Not the fact that they keep getting the terminology wrong – that’s a minor niggle – but the fact that all these sites aren’t going to be kept up as static pages; they’re not even going to be archived. Like all those old Doctor Whos and Not Only… But Alsos, they’re just going to disappear. (All except H2G2, which is going to be sold – news which leaves me feeling relieved but slightly baffled.) Two cheers for the Graun, which put up the whole list but couldn’t resist playing it for laughs – “Ooh look, there’s a site for Bonekickers – that was rubbish, wasn’t it? Let’s see, have they got Howard’s Way?” There isn’t a Howard’s Way site. There is, however, Voices, Nation on Film, the inexhaustible Cult and a curious online mind-mapping thing called Pinball. Check them out while you can. And do take a look at WW2 People’s War, a truly extraordinary work of amateur oral history, which contains… well, here it is in its own words:

The BBC’s WW2 People’s War project ran from June 2003 to January 2006. The aim of the project was to collect the memories of people who had lived and fought during World War Two on a website; these would form the basis of a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations.

The target audience, people who could remember the war, was at least 60 years old. Anyone who had served in the armed forces during the war was, at the start of the project, at least 75. Most of them had no experience of the internet. Yet over the course of the project, over 47,000 stories and 14,000 images were gathered. A national story gathering campaign was launched, where ‘associate centres’ such as libraries, museums and learning centres, ran events to helped gather stories. Many hundereds of volunteers, many attached to local BBC radio stations, assisted in this.

The resulting archive houses all of these memories. These stories don’t give a precise overview of the war, or an accurate list of dates and events; they are a record of how a generation remembered the war, 60 years of more after the events, and remain in the Archive as they were contributed. The Archive is not a historical record of events, a collection of government or BBC information, recordings or documents relating to the war.

47,000 stories! I’ll declare an interest here: the site also contains “historical fact files on 144 key events”, about 40 of which I wrote. (I found the other day that 16 of them have also migrated to the main WWII page, where I guess they will hang on after the cull.) I hate seeing my work go offline, but that’s not the main thing. The main thing is that I know how much work and care went into each of my pieces; the thought of multiplying that by a factor of, well, 47,000, boggles me. And then to snuff all of that out for the sake of saving a few gigabytes of disk space – or, more realistically, for the sake of making the BBC look as if it’s not competing unfairly with its commercial rivals – beggars belief.

Perish the thought that something hugely worthwhile and massively popular, which ITV and Sky can’t do and don’t want to do, should get done for no other reason than that the BBC can do it and do it well. Perish the thought that public money should be spent on capturing irreplaceable memories and assembling them into “a digital archive which would provide a learning resource for future generations”. Perish the thought that a public service media organisation should actually provide a public service. Utter, wanton vandalism.

Avert your eyes from his gaze

Michael Gove is an enduring mystery to me. (For some time I was convinced that he was the same Mike Gove who ran the UK branch of the OS/2 User Group in the 1990s – something which would make him quite interesting in a perverse corporate-rebellious sort of way, as well as conferring considerable geek cred – but apparently that was someone else.) How on earth has such a sanctimonious nullity risen so far? He seems to be trading on a reputation as an intellectual, validated by his experience as a broadsheet journalist. But that just raises the same question in a different form: however did someone with so little to say, and such an irritating way of saying it, achieve so much prominence in the media? (He even used to appear on the Review Show, of all things – although on reflection that’s not such a surprise: even at its best that programme was basically a blend of heavyweight contrarianism (Paulin, Greer) with lightweight ditto (Tony Parsons, Allison Pearson), and these days the heavyweight slot seems to get taken by Natalie Haynes or Bidisha.)

Perhaps part of what Gove has going for him, from the Right’s point of view, is that he’s a good hater. The other week on the News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy recalled how Gove, in opposition and writing for the Times, had outed him and Linda Smith as SWP moles, infiltrating the commanding heights of Radio 4 comedy programmes so as to, er… have to get back to you on that. I was curious, and didn’t entirely take the story at face value (he’s a comic, he tells good stories), so I did some googling. Initially I thought Jeremy Hardy was talking about Revolutionaries with RP accents, a lump of Goveage that appeared in the paper at the end of 2004. (Some bloke on Twitter seems to have come to the same conclusion.) But on inspection that story was attacking the BBC for putting on Hardy & Smith (and Mark Steel! he’s another one you know!):

Radio 4 operates, as so many British institutions do, on two levels. Its structures reflect the natural conservatism of the British people, but the world view of its guiding spirits is more naturally radical, leftish and Guardianista. From the Royal Opera House to the Foreign Office, the same combination of traditional outward forms legitimising bien-pensant attitudes is at work.

The most successful leftwingers in British life have been those, such as Clement Attlee, whose personal style has been most bourgeois. It was no coincidence that, during the 1980s, the greatest threat to moderation within the Labour Party came from one sect, Militant, which insisted on a certain douce respectability from its adherents, demanding that they appear suited and tied, while other Trotskyists wallowed in combat-jacketed irrelevance.

The leftish bias in Radio 4’s content manifests itself subtly, yet insistently. Voices from the far Left such as Linda Smith and Jeremy Hardy are introduced on the News Quiz, or given their own shows, in a way which gives no clue to their political shading. The station treats them as though they were souls with no mission save laughter, like Humphrey Lyttleton or Nicholas Parsons, but the humour of Smith, Hardy and others such as Mark Steel is deployed for a particular polemical and political purpose.

Which is a bit different from accusing them of infiltrating; an unkind way of putting it would be to say that it’s a higher level of paranoia – “actually it turns out they don’t even need to infiltrate, because actually the people running Radio 4 want them there…” (In passing, I was also struck by the reference to “commentators from the Left, such as Jonathan Freedland or Andrew Rawnsley”. Perhaps they’re sleepers.)

Then I found this from the New Statesman:

The red menace, like the poor, is always with us. We must all be grateful to Michael Gove of the Times for taking a fresh look under the bed. In two articles, he reports that Trotskyist and communist organisations, all “dedicated to eventual revolution . . . and hostile to private property and profit”, have sunk old sectarian disputes to become the Socialist Alliance. Inevitably, he finds they are behind the recent rail strikes and are set to tighten their grip on “a major British institution” (he seems to mean South West Trains). Worse, they have “infiltrated” the legal profession. But most damning is their “skilful manipulation of the media”. Socialist Alliance stalwarts such as Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith, disguised as comedians, get themselves on Radio 4, notably The News Quiz, where they “make jokes about the Conservatives and the government”.

Date: 21st January 2002. This looks much more promising. Googling found a copy of the first of the two articles, which is dated 15th January and makes quite interesting reading. (Pardon the long quote – this is actually a fairly heavily edited excerpt from the original column.)

The biggest component in the Socialist Alliance is the old Socialist Workers Party (SWP) … As well as old Bennites and the SWP, the Alliance has fused together a bewildering array of hard-left parties. They include the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Socialist Group (not to be confused with the also allied International Socialist League), the Revolutionary Democratic Group, Socialist Solidarity Network, the Alliance for Workers Liberty, Workers International, Workers Power and Red Action. What unites these groups, apart from membership of the Alliance, is a commitment to Marxist thought and practice. Dedicated to eventual revolution, contemptuous of social democrats such as the Blair Government, and hostile to private property and profit, they remain dedicated followers of communism long after others in the Left have condemned it as the god that failed. None, perhaps, are as deeply dyed revolutionaries as Red Action.

Listed on the Socialist Alliance website as a fully participating organisation, Red Action has a record of violent protest that stretches from low-level street violence to the involvement of two of its members, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor, in an IRA bombing campaign. On Red Action’s website, its part in planting a bomb outside Harrods in 1993 and placing another on a train from Victoria to Ramsgate is recorded. The website also notes Red Action’s leadership role in the organisation Anti-Fascist Action and AFA’s involvement in deliberately triggering street brawls with the British National Party. … Under the Alliance’s umbrella constitution Red Action members have the same rights as the Pilgers and Pinters to help to select candidates and vote on policy. But the existence of an IRA-supporting, street violence-endorsing group among the Alliance coalition does not yet apparently attract the criticism of other activists such as Tariq Ali, Greg Tucker, Jeremy Hardy or Imran Khan, the campaigning lawyer.

The Stop the War Coalition is run by, and in the interests of, the Alliance, allowing it to proselytise and recruit. It is only one of several organisations run by Alliance activists. Others include the anti-globalisation movement Globalise Resistance and the race-campaigning National Civil Rights Movement run by Suresh Grover … More targeted, but no less important for the Alliance, has been the industrial action of the RMT. The timing of the strike on South West Trains has given Tucker and [Bob] Crow the perfect opportunity to secure attention as the workers’ defenders in advance of next month’s internal elections. The death of Jimmy Knapp left the position of general secretary vacant and Crow is determined to secure it, along with the funds, influence, and strike-calling power it yields. If Crow is successful, Tucker is in line to step into his shoes as the union’s number three.

Crow was a former member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party before joining forces with the Alliance. The SLP is almost certainly Britain’s hardest-line left-wing party. It supported Slobodan Milosevic’s presidency, argued that the September 11 bombings were America’s own fault and had a “Stalin Society” in its ranks for that large proportion of its members who venerated the memory of the Russian dictator. Whether Crow left the SLP because its ideological position proved too much, or he thought its political prospects came to so little, has never been made clear. Tucker is a Trotskyist, a member of the International Socialist Group (ISG) that proudly proclaims its adherence to the Leon Trotsky-venerating Fourth International of revolutionary parties. The ISG believes that social democratic governments such as new Labour are continuing an “offensive against the working class” and argue that revolutionaries such as themselves should enter and take over “broad campaigns” to advance as part of a “United Front.” Tucker is secretary of the London Socialist Alliance and was granted leave by South West Trains to stand as an ISG candidate, under the Socialist Alliance umbrella, in Streatham during the last election. Tucker’s platform did not, however, attract many fellow travellers. He secured only 906 votes, barely denting the majority of the incumbent Labour MP, Keith Hill. It is expected, however, that Tucker can rely on many more votes in the forthcoming RMT election than he secured in Streatham.

The effective takeover of the RMT by Alliance supporters such as Crow and Tucker worries the TUC high command. In a private briefing note they have recorded that he has “been associated with around 30 strikes in his ten years in office” and he “believes strike action raises the class-consciousness of the rank and file.” The TUC fears that “if an extreme left team are elected the result will be more chaos on the railways.” Success for the Alliance in the RMT elections would, on the basis of its activists’ pronouncements, lead to more politically motivated disruption. It would also mark the raising of the hard Left’s flag over a major British institution. There is a red warning signal flashing on Britain’s rail network. And no ministerial hand is reaching for the brake.

Socialist Alliance, eh? Those were the days. But anyway… In some ways this is standard right-wing froth: note the entire paragraph about the relatively insignificant Red Action (you do realise they actually support the IRA?) and another about the totally insignificant SLP (Scargill, you know he really is a Communist?). What stands out is the level of detail, in those paragraphs and elsewhere. I mean, that’s some serious leftist trainspotting; I didn’t even know that about the ISL being affiliated to the SA. (The ISL is of course the British section of the Lambertist LIT, and – as Gove says – not to be confused with the ISG, which was the British section of the Fourth International.) Also note the tone: he knew who he hated, did Gove, and he hated every single one of them (or should I say ‘us’): he wanted there to be no doubt that he loathed the entire Left, from the Bennites leftwards. Which, ironically, rather undermines the effect of all that research (or all those briefings), once you start to put it all together: it’s not at all clear to me in what sense the harmless old Stalin Society was more “hard-line” than the anti-Leninist Red Action, for instance. But this infodump wasn’t really put on display for analytical purposes. We point, we jeer, we demand that Something is Done, without troubling too much about the detail (what exactly was a “ministerial hand” supposed to do about the menace of Stalino-Trotskyite railway chaos – arrest Bob Crow and put him on trial for subversion?). Then we turn the page, feeling worldly-wise and pleasantly outraged. Job done.

But, sadly, there’s nothing in there about the “skilful manipulation of the media”, or about the dastardly leftist comedy plot. So if anyone out there is in a position to leaf through the Times for the month of January 2002, hilarity awaits – along with insight into Michael Gove’s mental processes, although perhaps that’s less of an incentive.

In the mean time, consider this (paywalled) from Robert Hanks’s review in the current LRB of a new biography of Dennis Wheatley:

Wheatley suffered from a sickly adoration of the rich and well-born, and a contrasting suspicion of the masses and any political system that allowed them any influence. … In 1955, proposing the motion at the Oxford Union ‘that equality is in theory a pestilential heresy and in practice a pitiful illusion,’ Wheatley argued that extra votes should be given to those of ‘superior mentality’. He was sure that he would come under that heading.

[after marrying] he continued the life of conscious hedonism, dressing and dining beyond his means, chasing (at times his technique seems to have verged on stalking) women, at one point installing a mistress in a flat. He built up an expensive collection of books, mainly erotica and modern first editions

His first published work, The Forbidden Territory (1933), was an immediate hit … A thriller set in Soviet Russia, it introduced Wheatley’s ‘Four Musketeers’: the wealthy, worldly-wise Duke de Richleau, a monarchist exile from France, and his young friends Simon Aron, a brilliant Jewish banker, Rex Van Ryn, a brash, genial American multimillionaire, and the comparatively colourless Englishman Richard Eaton, supposedly a self-portrait. The plot (a hunt for tsarist treasure, a Bolshevik scheme for world domination – plus a bit of romance) is a helter-skelter mess … the action is, as one critic observed, ‘essentially Ruritanian’, and Wheatley’s prose, overwrought and under-punctuated, barely readable.

You get the general idea. Wheatley was a dreadful man – an arrogant, snobbish, libertine mediocrity – who turned out really dreadful books (“Duke de Richleau“? would an editor who could spell have been too much to ask for?) However, he was good at marketing (before he ran the family firm into the ground, apparently, he was “something of a pioneer of wine bullshit”). And, while he was a man of fixed and rather strange ideas, his prejudices were entirely compatible with the maintenance of the status quo, which never hurts. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that Wheatley still seems to have at least one fan:

one journalist wrote that Wheatley ‘of all people, deserves to come back from the dead and win a new following of thrill-starved souls in thrall to his dark magic’. That was Michael Gove; the idea that a man who admires Wheatley is now in charge of the nation’s schools is more genuinely terrifying than anything Wheatley ever wrote.

Based on a novel

Something a bit different (and hopefully a bit briefer): some thoughts on the last two novels I’ve read.

The context is that, while I used to review books fairly regularly, I haven’t done it for years; also, I hardly ever buy hardbacks, don’t go out much and don’t buy many CDs. So if I tell you about the last new film I’ve seen it will either be something I’ve gone to with the family (Toy Story 3) or something I’ve caught up with on DVD (District 9, and what a film that was). My CD purchases are several months behind the reviews, and if I tell you about the last book I’ve read, it’s as likely as not to be something I’ve picked up secondhand or got out of the library. So this is an experiment in reviewing without any novelty value; reviewing for its own sake. The other bit of background is that I’m between novels at the moment, so these books are as fresh in my mind now as they’re ever going to be.

Right, better get on with it. The last book I finished was Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing; the one before that was

Scarlett Thomas, The end of Mr Y Continue reading

I didn’t make him for you

I don’t know if the ‘traffic light’ coalition is going to work, although it has to be said that the arithmetic isn’t as tight as it’s often made look. I think the problem is that the media here keep forgetting about the North of Ireland. (Great argument for the peace process that is – at one time the province was never out of the news.) Take the weird and wonderful story of UCUNF, a party which I think has appeared on the BBC News precisely twice – the manifesto launch and the DUP poster debacle. I’m not sure anyone in the British media noticed what’s just happened to the Ulster Unionist Party – you know the ones: the heirs of ‘official’ unionism, the ones who weren’t in big with the Orange Lodge and the gunmen, the ones that British government always used to talk to. Quick recap: they merged with the Tory Party; they gave themselves the worst acronym in the world, and they got wiped out; party leader and all. Newly-formed NI wing of the Tory Party: nul points, or rather zero MPs. Sole survivor of the wreck: Lady Sylvia Hermon, standing as an independent, against a candidate from her old party, and taking over 60% of the vote. Story there, you’d think, maybe?

Anyway, NI votes are crucial to the coalition arithmetic, in a number of ways. Firstly, the ‘winning post’ of 326 Commons votes (650/2 + 1), cited over and over again by BBC News, is mythical: there are five MPs from Sinn Fein who never attend, not to mention the Speaker (a Tory). So there are 644 MPs who turn up and vote in divisions, meaning 323 votes (not 326) are needed for an absolute majority.

NI MPs’ votes also count positively. The starting point for a ‘Lab/Lib’ coalition is 320 votes, not 315: Labour + LD + SDLP (whose MPs take the Labour whip) + the Alliance Party (sister party of the LDs) + Lady Sylvia (who left her party rather than vote with the Tories). Admittedly, that’s still a minority overall, but from the Tory point of view it’s an alarmingly big minority. To win a vote against that lineup Cameron would need all 306 Tories (not including the Speaker) plus 15 of the remaining 18 – 3 Plaid Cymru, 6 SNP, 1 Green and (let’s not forget about the province again) 8 DUP MPs. The DUP platform is a many-splendoured thing, but a significant part of their appeal to the NI electorate last week was not being allied with the Tories (as witness that unfortunate poster). That doesn’t look promising for the Tories. (If Thirsk goes Lib Dem on 27 May, which is possible, the basic Labour/Lib Dem alliance goes up to 321 votes, and the Tories are scraping around for 17 votes out of 18 to beat them – basically they’d need everyone but the Green.)

Anyway, it’s still all to play for, although probably not for much longer. But what I really wanted to put down, before this post becomes obsolete, is that you can tell something about the quality of a deal by the opposition it provokes. And this deal really seems to be annoying all the right people. A few quotes culled from the BBC’s live feed:

The Tories came out of the election in a far better fashion than Labour and this should be acknowledged, former Home Secretary John Reid says. The major party should be allowed to form a government, he tells the BBC.

Telegraph commentator Toby Young tweets: A Lab-Lib coalition would be like a declaration of civil war.

The Lib Dems are guilty of a form of betrayal by opening talks with Labour after being offered compromises by the Conservatives, Phillip Blond, director of the Tory think-tank ResPublica, says.

The Daily Mail has a bleak view of Monday’s proceedings. It proclaims a Squalid Day for Democracy, calling Nick Clegg two-faced. The Daily Telegraph calls Mr Brown’s decision to quit a sordid attempt to keep Labour in power.

David Blunkett says the Lib Dems are behaving like every harlot in history, and that Labour should not be seeking to form the next government.

This is the Robert Mugabe style of politics, says Conservative MP and former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. It’s exactly what Mugabe did you know, he lost the election and scrabbled to hold onto power.

It’s a strong field, but I think the Robert Mitchum Award for Cool-Headed Sagacity has to go to Sir Malcolm.

But what are they all flapping about? Elsewhere there’s been some discussion of whether the major parties would fall apart under PR; I’ve argued against, citing the experience of Scotland (the Scottish Labour Party’s had 12 years of PR now and still seems to be in one piece). In the case of the Conservative Party, I think I might make an exception. There’s a lot going on under the surface of the Tory Party these days – pro-Europe, anti-Europe; liberal, reactionary; Thatcherite, old-school Tory, beyond-Thatcherite… The genius of David Cameron has been to bundle it all into a big opaque parcel, sealed with a label saying Next Stop Downing Street. That’s what’s starting to come undone now, and the fallout could be catastrophic for the party – all the more so under PR, not least because it would bring the far Right into play. (UKIP got nearly a million votes last week, and the BNP half a million. The Greens got 300,000.) Small wonder they’re panicking.

As for the Blairites – or is this a subspecies, the Blairite Home Office Authoritarian? – I guess they see their grip on the party slipping, and think it would be easier to recover in opposition than while sharing power with the Lib Dems. (Think of it, no ID cards! no control orders! The horror! The horror!) Really dreadful stuff from Reid and Mr Brightside – one of whom is, as far as I know, still under Parliamentary Labour Party discipline. Being prepared to consign Britain to Tory government – positively eager in Blunkett’s case – rather than risk diluting the Labour programme is pretty contemptible sectarianism; when you look at the kind of dilutions that would be needed to accommodate the Lib Dems, it’s beneath contempt.

No more coats and no more home

1:30 a.m.: David Blunkett calls the election for the Conservatives and calls on Labour to unite the opposition in resistance to the Conservative government, to blunt their attacks on working people and “above all, to avoid what happened in the 1980s in my city”.

David Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council from 1980 to 1987. Wikipedia:

The Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Sir Irvine Patnick, coined the phrase “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” to describe the left-wing politics of its local government; Sheffield was designated as a nuclear-free zone. Blunkett became known as the leader of one of the furthest left of the Labour councils, which was regularly denounced as “loony left” by the newspapers of the right. Blunkett was one of the faces of the protest over rate-capping in 1985 which saw several Labour councils refuse to set a budget in a protest against Government powers to restrain their spending. He built up support within the Labour Party during his time as the council’s leader during the 1980s and was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee.

We’d certainly better avoid that. What happened in your city in the 1980s was that you resisted, David. You fought back and led a fightback, and for a while you were a bit of a hero. Some of us like resisting and admire people who resist – and besides, resisting meant you could do a lot of people a lot of good. (I still remember getting a bus in Sheffield and having to root around for coppers; fares were about a fifth of the equivalent in Manchester, ranging from 3p all the way up to 13p for a journey from one side of the city to the other. Admittedly, 13p was 13p in those days – you could probably get a Mars bar for that money. And if you tell the young people today… Sorry, where was I?)

Blunkett’s rewrite of the 1980s prompts perhaps the most depressing thought on a very depressing night: that an incoming Conservative government which has cauterised its own historical memory and has no idea what it believes in (but knows who it hates) is going to face a Labour opposition with very similar characteristics. It looks as if we’re going to be stuck in Tony Blair’s cafeteria at the end of history for a bit longer.

Paint the words upon the wall

Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often).

Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election (by which I mean, one of the parties standing candidates across the country – Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, UKIP and the BNP). But can you match the slogan to the party?

1. GET BRITAIN WORKING

2. BYE BYE, BUREAUCRACY

3. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

4. PEOPLE POWER

5. SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY NOT STATE CONTROL

6. BIG GOVERNMENT = BIG PROBLEMS

Answers after the jump. No peeping!

Continue reading

A parting on the right

The police forces of England and Wales implemented a new set of rules for recording crimes in 2002-3, following earlier piecemeal adjustments in 1998-9. The National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) was designed to be more victim-friendly than the counting rules which had preceded it: rather than the police insisting on corroborating evidence before a crime was recorded to have happened, a crime was to be recorded whenever one was reported unless there was evidence to the contrary. There was a certain amount of resistance to these changes, which had the direct effect of apparently increasing the crime rate and the indirect effect of lowering the police’s clear-up rate. Nevertheless, the Home Office felt very strongly that police figures were far too low – the British Crime Survey, based on reports from a representative sample of individual victims of crime, suggested that only about 25% of predatory crimes were getting into the police figures – and the changes duly went through. Comparability was also an issue, although less of an issue with each passing year of data being produced under the new rules. The Home Office has in any case made it very clear that there is no comparability of police crime figures between 2002 and 2003, making available figures like the ones from which the graph below was compiled.

As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between the impact of the NCRS and the amount of evidence typically left by the offence. Recorded burglaries weren’t greatly affected, but recorded crimes of personal violence – where supporting evidence is particularly thin on the ground – went up by almost a quarter from one year to the next, on the basis of nothing other than a change in counting rules.

Now, there is no particular reason why the average member of the public should know about all this. It’s inconceivable that anyone with a professional or academic interest in crime or policing wouldn’t know about it, though; it would be like claiming expertise in English history and getting the date of the Battle of Hastings wrong. So this was an interesting story about the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, has warned [Grayling] that the way he used figures for violent crime were “likely to mislead the public”. … Mr Grayling’s office arranged for a press release to go out in every constituency in England and Wales, purporting to show that violent crime had risen sharply under Labour, as part of a campaign spearheaded by Mr Cameron about “broken Britain”. But Mr Grayling had failed to take into account a more rigorous system for recording crime figures introduced by the Home Office in 2002. … Mr Grayling has used comparison between the figures before and after the rule change to suggest that the Labour government has presided over a runaway rise in violent crime.

“I do not wish to become involved in political controversy but I must take issue with what you said about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics,” Sir Michael wrote in a letter to Mr Grayling yesterday.

Mr Grayling replied by promising to “take account of the request by the Statistics Authority, particularly with regard to the changes to recording practices made in 2002-03″. But he insisted that he would “continue to use recorded crime statistics, because they reflect an important reality; that the number of violent crimes reported to police stations, and particularly serious violent crimes, has increased substantially over the past decade, even taking into account any changes to data collection”.

But we don’t know the number of violent crimes reported to police stations, because we don’t know the number which are reported but not recorded; that number is not recorded, surprisingly enough. (There was a proposal a few years back to keep separate tabs on ‘incidents’ (i.e. everything that comes over the front desk or over the phone) and ‘calls for service’ (the subset of incidents that the police do anything about), but as far as I’m aware it didn’t come to anything.) In other words, Grayling has not only managed to ignore a really basic piece of statistical general knowledge; he’s gone on to ignore a correction by an expert in the field, responding in a way which demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what he’d just been told.

The question this leaves is, is David Cameron’s first choice for Home Secretary very, very dishonest, or just very, very stupid?

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.)

That’s all changed

There is “a fair amount of rewriting of history going on”, says Martin Kettle. (This post began life on CiF. I keep meaning to give up commenting there – it’s a singularly unrewarding occupation, apart from those rare occasions when the columnist you’re responding to actually reads the comments. Commenting on most CiF posts is ‘interactive’ in much the same way that shouting at the TV is.)

Anyway, back to Kettle. Apparently, where the terrorist threat is concerned, the Brown/Straw/Smith regime won’t be a big change from Blair/Reid, because actually Blair and Reid were pretty moderate, actually. No, really:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

Terror alerts have been more or less continuous for the last six years; as it stands the first line is trivially true. As for the Blair government’s response to terrorist incidents, the first major example on Blair’s watch was the Omagh bomb of 1998. Response: the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, with new police powers (a police officer could state that a suspect belonged to a proscribed organisation, rather than the suspect having to own up), a new offence (conspiracy to commit terrorist offences outside the UK) and new penalties (including seizure of terrorist-related assets). The CJ(TC)A took the form of a raft of amendments to the annually-renewed Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, which was itself a revised and updated version of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions[sic]) Act 1974.

The Terrorism Act 2000, it has to be said, didn’t come in response to any particular incident, but did show awareness of new forms of terrorist organisation; the definition of terrorism was expanded to include ‘religious’ or ‘ideological’ as well as political motivation. The Act included just about everything that had been in the PTA 1989 as amended, together with several elements of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and some entirely new provisions, such as a revision of the length of time a suspect could be detained without charge (from two days to seven). Also, the PTA 2000 applied to the UK as a whole, and it was permanent rather than renewable.

Then there was September 11th. Not strictly speaking our show, but the Blair government thought new legislation was called for nonetheless. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 brought in a raft of new offences associated with aeroplanes, nuclear installations and weapons of mass destruction, together with powers to deport suspected international terrorists – or intern them if they couldn’t be deported without risking torture. A terrorist, in this context, is defined (ATCSA s.21, sub-sections 2 and 3) as someone who

is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism
is a member of or belongs to an international terrorist group, or
has links with an international terrorist group

A group can be described as an international terrorist group if

it is subject to the control or influence of persons outside the United Kingdom, and
the Secretary of State suspects that it is concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of international terrorism.

In other words, there’s a pretty broad range of people who could be deported or detained, subject to the Home Secretary’s ‘suspicion’. (The criterion of reasonable suspicion is used elsewhere in the same section, but not here. Presumably this is deliberate.)

Then there was the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which raised the limit on detention without charge from 7 days to 14.

Then came 2005 and… the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. To be fair, this wasn’t a reaction to 7/7; it was a reaction to the Law Lords’ judgment effectively overturning the detention provisions of ATCSA. Hence, the PTA 2005 gave us control orders.

Then – after the Blair government had seen one major review of anti-terrorist legislation, two anti-terrorist bills rushed through Parliament in the wake of particular incidents and a third anti-terrorist bill patching up one of the others – came July 7th 2005. The Blair government’s response was: the Terrorism Act 2006, which raised the limit on detention without charge yet again – from 14 days to 28. (There’s a handy review of this topic – and a startling graphic – here.) It also introduced such new offences as preparation of terrorist acts and dissemination of publications favouring terrorism, as well as the now-notorious offence of ‘glorifying’ terrorism.

Back to Kettle’s two propositions:

It is not actually true that the Blair government invariably responded to terror alerts by reaching for tough new powers. In fact it finally learned from its earlier mistakes, notably after 7/7, just as Brown has done.

1. You could have fooled me.
2. Not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean, but:
2.1. If Kettle’s arguing that the Blair government’s response to 7/7 was refreshingly sober and restrained, see 1.
2.2. If he’s referring to the government response to events since 7/7 (the liquid-explosive airline plot, Dhiren Barot’s “gas limo” plan), the implication is that we should commend the government for not rushing through emergency powers in response to terrorist attacks that didn’t actually happen. This is pushing it rather. I never thought I’d hail Margaret Thatcher’s liberalism and sang-froid, but let’s not forget that the serving Prime Minister was very nearly killed by a terrorist bomb in October 1984. Special legislation passed in response: none.

As well as downplaying the extent of New Labour’s panic response to terrorism, Kettle downplays the degree to which it represents a break with the past. Hence this comment, in response to the recent non-proscription of Hizb-ut-Tahrir:

Labour ministers have never been slow to proscribe organisations that promote terror

‘Never’ is quite a long time, even if your starting point is 1924 (before which there weren’t any Labour ministers). The IRA was proscribed, by a Labour Home Secretary, under the PT(TP)A in 1974; until that point there weren’t any proscribed organisations in British law (Northern Ireland law is another matter). So perhaps it should read Since 1974, Labour ministers have never been slow… except that Labour ministers didn’t proscribe any other organisations between then and the fall of Callaghan. The INLA was proscribed in 1979, under Thatcher (that was the full extent of the incoming government’s legislative response to the assassination of Airey Neave shortly before the election; Neave was a Conservative shadow minister and a personal friend of Thatcher’s). After that no terrorist organisations were proscribed in British law for another twenty years. Even the post-Omagh CJ(TC)A 1998 didn’t actually proscribe the Real IRA, limiting itself to empowering the government to specify active Northern Irish terrorist groups which would be treated as proscribed organisations.

It all changed in 2000, when a list of 14 organisations proscribed in Northern Ireland law was incorporated into the Terrorism Act. Since 2000, certainly, Labour ministers haven’t been slow to proscribe, etc – the list stood at 58 the last time I looked and has probably grown since. But that’s just to say that the Blair government has its own distinctive approach to terrorism – which is the position Kettle’s arguing against.

To borrow Kettle’s pained, sleeve-tugging language, it’s not actually true that Blair reacted to terrorism in the same way as any other Prime Minister, or any other Labour politician. New Labour – or should we start saying ‘Blairism’? – was something new, in the field of counter-terrorism along with many others; it doesn’t do the Labour Party any favours to pretend otherwise.

Update 26/7

should we start saying ‘Blairism’? Maybe not.

Gordon Brown moved yesterday to dominate the terror and security agenda, grabbing a Tory proposal for an integrated single border force and then challenging David Cameron to accept that the scale of the terrorist threat requires an extension of detention without charge to up to 56 days.

The move, announced in a ground-breaking Commons statement, follows months of discussions with police and security services on a range of measures, including post-charge questioning of suspects, the use of intercept evidence in court and a proposal that convicted terrorists be treated in the same way as sex offenders.

Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

Ten years dead

First, have a look at this table; it represents some highlights from the voting records of two MPs in the 2001-5 parliament. Neither of them’s particularly far to the Left or Right – they both voted for the Iraq war and for a lower age of consent for gays, for example. But there are some definite differences, most of them pointing in one direction.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

Some pretty consistent differences, I think you’ll agree. I’ll come back to that later.

I wanted to tell you about this letter we got today. It was very exciting, it didn’t have a stamp on but both our names were on the envelope, handwritten in blue biro. There was a single sheet of blue notepaper inside, also handwritten in blue biro but opening “Dear Neighbour”. Apparently our Liberal Democrat candidate “just wanted to write to say thank you for the warm welcome”. So not only has he forgotten our names between the envelope and the letter itself, he’s forgotten that he’s never actually met us. All very odd.

Closer inspection revealed a “Printed by…” rubric along the bottom of the sheet, leading me to suspect that the note wasn’t actually written by a human hand. Even closer inspection suggested that it wasn’t composed by a human brain. One paragraph reads as follows:

Across our city the Liberal Democrats have pledged to put more police on the beat to tackle rising crime levels. It was an honour to take more than 5,000 petition signatures for more police on the beat to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing St. The Conservatives and Greens are losing support and cannot possibly win in our area.

RACTER, is that you?

The letter came with a leaflet which reminded us that the candidate’s a local lad and that the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat Labour, in this area. Apparently the council election in this particular ward is a “two-horse race”, which sounds quite unusual. And there was a bar graph showing the relative support of Labour and the Lib Dems at the last election, although I’m not entirely sure it was to scale, and…

enough already. What Kerron Cross said in answer to the question “Why do you take such a dislike of the Lib Dems?” has been widely quoted around the Web, and rightly so. They’re a bunch of unprincipled, opportunistic chancers – or rather, they’re a bunch of opportunistic chancers on principle, cheerfully committed to offering the people whatever the people tell them they want. In practice they’re still rather to the Left of Labour on most things (at least in this area), which might mean that one more Liberal Democrat councillor would do some good – but actually voting for them would stick in the craw.

Labour, then? I don’t think so. As I wrote in comments at Bill’s this morning, Voting Labour means voting for Best Value, for PFI and for the evisceration of local democracy through elected mayors and salaried ‘cabinets’ – these are the things Labour has actually done, and if we endorse them they’ll do more of the same. And that’s just some of the local issues. Then there’s Iraq. And then there’s everything else. The idea that Blair was a great Prime Minister and a popular hero right up until Iraq has been mooted recently – notably on the ITV News last night, which floated the word ‘IRAQ’, Mysteron-style, across tableaux intended to represent New Labour’s successes. In today’s Indie, Mark Steel gave this idea a well-deserved kicking:

perhaps there’s another explanation for the decline of Blair and his project. The joy felt by so many at the fall of the Conservatives was a sense of a new atmosphere; an end to an era in which greed triumphed over all. At least to some extent, there’d now be a challenge to the rule of excessive wealth. And here we are. As one newspaper fumed with rage yesterday that “this has been the greatest decade in British history for the very, very wealthy. Under New Labour the worth of the 1,000 richest people in the country has soared by 263 per cent. It has indeed been their platinum age.” And the newspaper complaining about this was the Daily Mail. The Daily Bastard Mail.

It wasn’t one mistake or one flawed policy that eroded all that initial optimism, it was New Labour’s very meaning. In fact, Blair’s support for Bush was a result of that adoration for the wealthy and powerful. Iraq wasn’t an aberration, it was a consequence of all he stood for.

I disagree with Steel on one thing, though.

Ten years ago today was brilliant. It was a euphoric sunny optimistic morning. It’s hard to remember it like that, just as it’s hard to recall you had a wonderful romantic wedding day, if it turned out you’d married a junkie who then sold your furniture and smoked your hamster.

But that shouldn’t rob of us of that night of joy – Mellor, Hamilton, the ones you’ve forgotten like Waldegrave – then that glorious awesome sight, containing an inner transcendental beauty like a majestic sunset over the Pacific: the demise of Portillo.

I remember that; I was still up for Portillo, as they say. I remember Portillo looking rather dignified in defeat, and Stephen Twigg looking like a smirk in a suit. I’ve learnt since that the candidates already know the result when it’s announced; Twigg did a very bad job of hiding it. It didn’t bode well.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

It’s that table again. MP 1 is Twigg; MP 2 is Portillo, who was re-elected in 2001.

So, if you support university tuition fees, control orders, PFI, more casinos and a clamp-down on protest, vote Labour. If you don’t, then… well, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you vote Tory, even if Michael Portillo is standing in your ward. But think about who you’re voting for and what they’re going to do with that mandate. Voting Green (say) may seem useless or unrealistic, but voting Labour because of what the party used to be or what it ought to be is just as unrealistic – and it’s worse than useless, because your vote will go to support the party as it is now.

The party could change; the very fact that the Lib Dems are using such a left-wing pitch shows that there’s a constituency for policies well to the left of New Labour. And perhaps, after Blair, the party can change. I’ll believe it when I see it – but it’s hard not to feel some hope at the prospect of a post-Blair era. I’ll give the last word to Tessa Jowell, of all people:

There will, of course, be sadness when Tony departs. He has led this party to historic victory after historic victory. But we have to take a lesson from the American songwriter, activist and trade unionist Joe Hill, whose last words to his supporters were: ‘Don’t mourn, organise’. And that is exactly what we must all do together.

I think she might be right.

Mistakes were made

The incomparable Emma Brockes has turned music critic:

The orchestral arrangements for [the ballet] Chroma were commissioned last year by Richard Russell, head of the XL record label, as a gift to the White Stripes’ Jack and Meg White. Three of their songs, The Hardest Button To Button, Aluminium and Blue Orchid, were re-arranged by Joby Talbot of Joy Division

I’ve commented before now on my admiration for Joby Talbot; he’s a bright lad. But he was never a member of Joy Division – not least because the band ceased to exist when he was nine years old. A howler like that could be quite embarrassing for Ms Brockes (and her editors). It’s just as well nobody’s likely to read this stuff. It’s only a ballet review, after all.

On the front page. Of the Saturday edition.

Free of the need to be free

At the risk of sounding like a bad standup -

Mark Thomas: …this – thing – that’s really tepid and bland and moulded to fit this Lego model of comedy… seventies gag, TV presenter gag, difference between cats and dogs, difference between men and women, have you ever noticed at a dinner party…

- have you ever noticed, right, you know that Comment is Free site? It’s not very good, is it?

Here’s a comment I posted today (and it says something that I think I’m giving it a wider distribution by posting it here):

I find myself in the weird position of both agreeing and disagreeing with you. I agree with you that there is a problem. The comment threads on CiF are a complete and utter mess; I’m approaching the point of giving up on CiF and posting anything I want to say about CiF/Graun content on my blog, just like I used to.

What I don’t agree with the way you describe the problem. I found the tone of both this and the previous ‘Less is more’ post really startling – offensive, even. You [addressed to Georgina Henry] seem to genuinely hate a lot of the comments posted on CiF; not all of them, of course, just the ones you describe as ‘pointless chatter’, ‘slanging matches’, ‘quick-fire insults’, ‘mindless irrelevant chatter’ and indeed ‘rubbish’. That doesn’t necessarily mean you hate the commenters, but I imagine your attitude to anyone who positively values the comments you hate would be pretty tetchy.

But how can you sustain this opposition between the pristine blog and the spoilsport commenters? In other words, when did CiF exist in the form you think it ought to have, before the invasion of the pointless chatterers? I wasn’t watching CiF all that closely over the first couple of weeks, but I strongly suspect the answer is ‘never’. This is your blog: this is how you designed it. The comments threads would look very different now if you’d required real names to be printed; or if you’d required commenters to display an email address or a blog URL under their name – or even if you’d allowed email addresses or URLs to be displayed. It would look different if you hadn’t thrown open commenting rights to anyone who applied; it would look different if you hadn’t allowed talkboard users to inherit commenting rights. And it would look different if all CiF content were written by journalists with a personal interest in blogging, rather than consisting very largely of rebadged opinion columns.

All of these are design decisions. The decisions which you (or your blog advisors) made created CiF as it is now.

One other thing leapt out at me from the previous piece.

persistent breaches of our talk policy … pointless chatter that litters threads … degenerate into back-and-forth slanging matches … try our talk boards. Alternatively, as some have done, they can start their own blogs (we’re happily linking to quite a few) and continue the quick-fire insults in their own space.

Leave blogs out of it, eh? I could name several blogs where the quality of the debate is in a different league from CiF – where it’s something like how I imagine the Platonic ideal of CiF debate, even. But none of those blogs was widely advertised and immediately thrown open to all their readers – and none of them was written by high-profile journalists with a record of ignoring their critics.

To sum up, the reason CiF almost immediately became a high-volume, high-polarisation, Harry’s Place/LGF scratching-post isn’t that it’s a blog. The reason is that it’s a blog designed by people who don’t understand blogs, and written by people who don’t like blogs.

You can bring your friends

I hate to admit it, but some of these Tories talk sense. I heard a Conservative IT guy (Richard Bacon) dissecting the proposed NHS computer system on the radio today, and there wasn’t a word I could dissent from. If you’re designing and building a huge IT system, you just don’t do it like that.

I find I can agree with Tory critiques of the government more and more often these days. I’m not sure why – it could be that the Tories are making an overdue pitch for the libertarian Marxist vote, but I somehow doubt that. Or it could be that I’m, classically, moving Right with age; I doubt that too (but look at the evidence – I’m 45, I’ve got a mortgage and two kids, the effect’s got to kick in some time…) It could be that Labour’s moved so far to the Right that even the Tories have got to attack them from the Left – certainly Mr Bacon’s voting record compares well with that of my own Labour MP. Or it could just be that the last days of Blairism are such an extraordinary panorama of authorianism, incompetence, populism, venality and desperation that they’re an open goal for almost anyone.

But I do say ‘almost’. The Daily Mail are never going to get it right. “Italians dub Blair ‘The Scrounger’”, the Mail on Sunday told us two days ago:

The Mail on Sunday has learned that Downing Street has tacked on an ‘official’ meeting with new Italian Premier Romano Prodi, prompting questions about whether taxpayers will be forced to subsidise the Blairs’ spring break.This time last year, the Prime Minister – whose fondness for free holidays at other people’s homes has earned him the nickname in the Italian media of ‘Lo Scroccone’ (‘The Scrounger’) – flew to and from a similar Italian vacation on a Royal Air Force jet from the Queen’s Flight.

This is either wrong or wrongheaded in just about every way. The Italian story does offer grounds for quite a powerful critique of Blairism, but this isn’t it.

Start with Blair and Prodi. The implication of the Mail‘s story is that Blair is getting chummy with Prodi just as he did with Berlusconi: Blair goes on holiday, Blair meets an Italian Prime Minister, the British taxpayer picks up the tab. But what’s interesting about the meeting with Prodi isn’t that it’s tacked onto a holiday trip. What’s interesting, as the FT pointed out, is that it’s likely to be an extremely frosty meeting.

The most awkward part of Mr Prodi’s round of Euro-diplomacy is likely to be on June 2 when he meets Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, in Rome. Mr Blair had little respect for Mr Prodi when he was Commission president – although he initially nominated him for the post – and spent the last five years courting Mr Berlusconi as an Atlanticist ally. “Our policy is devoted to getting back to the role traditionally played by Italy in European politics,” Mr Prodi said. He would support a pragmatic policy programme in areas such as research and energy but would also back EU integration more than his predecessor did.

Romano Prodi is a former Christian Democrat; he leads the centre-left coalition, but for himself he’s an economic liberal, a time-served Eurocrat and a careful, long-game-playing machine politician. He’s about as much of a leftist as the late Roy Jenkins, in short. But Blair doesn’t get on with him; he won’t be coming to dinner at the villa. Someone else did, though:

San Gimignano (Siena), May 29 – “I’ll have dinner with Tony Blair tonight: a man who has been a friend of mine for years. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to be here with him and his family” Silvio Berlusconi told journalists shortly before entering Villa Cusona (San Gimignano) few minutes before 8pm.

Berlusconi, whose massive stake in the Italian media should have disqualified him from government in the first place; who would have had a hefty criminal record by now if he had been tried in the English rather than the Italian legal system; and whose actions in government were conspicuously dedicated to maintaining his business empire and warding off criminal prosecution. Berlusconi, who likened himself to Napoleon, described his political opponents as admirers of Mao and Pol Pot, and spoke favourably of Mussolini. Berlusconi, who refused to admit that he had lost this year’s election until two weeks later, refused to congratulate Prodi even then, and who is still talking about one more heave to get the election result reversed. That Berlusconi. Right now I don’t see how any principled Conservative could tolerate Berlusconi as a dinner guest, let alone a leader of a party that’s ostensibly on the Left. But the Blairs still invited him.

For the Mail, though, the story is all in that word scroccone – which made me wonder where it had come from. It’s all over the English-language Web, for sure: googling without Italian sites (blair scroccone -site:it) brought back “Results 1 – 100 of about 569″. It seems to have appeared first in the Independent, from where it was picked up and amplified by assorted blogs (Blairwatch adds that the nickname is used by “the Italian press (left and right)”). Search for sites under the .it TLD only, though, and it looks a bit different: I get “Results 1 – 42 of about 61″, and most of those are references to films whose titles include those words. Trawling through all the results, I only found three pages which actually called Blair a scroccone, and one of them was from a comment thread. Of the other two, one was a leader column unambiguously headed “Tony lo scroccone”; unfortunately this appeared, not in any of the high-profile national dailies, but in a September 2004 issue of a paper called Il Corsivo, which was published in Cagliari (Sardinia) and went bust in February 2005. The Corriere della Sera furnished the second example, which initially looked more hopeful:

hanno affittato gommoni, si sono dotati dei più potenti tele-obiettivi, lo hanno fustigato dandogli dello “scroccone”

Which is to say:

they’ve hired rubber dinghies and fitted themselves out with the most powerful long lenses, then they’ve laid in to him and called him a scrounger

The context here – as with the Il Corsivo comment – is Berlusconi’s 2004 visit to the Blairs’ holiday retreat. Unfortunately the ‘they’ in question are English journalists. The Italian press don’t call Blair a scroccone; what they do report, occasionally, is that the British press call him a scrounger.

Italy’s a bit too close for us to talk about Orientalism, but something similar seems to be at work here: a kind of romance of the swarthy peasant whose rough common sense lets him see through the pretensions that we urban sophisticates fall for, and whose blunt plain speaking lets him puncture them in ways that we would never dare. It’s nonsense, of course – we’re the ones who put the words into the swarthy peasant’s mouth, so we get to say what we want to say, play at being unpretentious and plain-spoken, and congratulate ourselves on our sophistication, all at the same time. It’s awfully useful nonsense, too – properly invoked, it gives an aura of unarguable rightness to any old myth or prejudice.

Or, in this case, any old red herring. The problem with Tony Blair isn’t that he’s a scrounger; the problem is who he scrounges from. If it’s hard to realise quite how right-wing Blair is – quite how removed from the values and culture of the party he leads – one reason is that neither his friends nor his enemies on the old Right have any interest in acknowledging it. Last Monday’s dinner date is a handy yardstick.

Q: What kind of politician is Tony Blair?

A: He’s the kind of politician who, a few days before his first official meeting with Romano Prodi – little more than a month after Prodi narrowly won the most bitterly-contested Italian election for decades – would invite Silvio Berlusconi round for dinner.

No further questions.

[Italians and New Labour - I'm nothing if not predictable. Philosophy tomorrow, I think. Philosophy or 1970s jazz-rock. Terrors of the earth, I'm telling you.]

Pablo Picasso (II)

Silvio Berlusconi has said some strange things in the current election campaign. It’s a sign of the kind of politician he is, a charismatic authoritarian populist. To some extent it’s the equivalent of having Kilroy as the leader of a major political party, or Enoch Powell, or Cyril Smith: to his opponents he’s crude and offensive, but to his followers he’s saying the unsayable, he’s telling it like it is, he’s the man they can’t gag. (Thatcher tapped right into this before she was elected, and coasted on the memory for years afterwards.)

But there’s another level to it, which I don’t think works so well in the British as in the Italian context. Berlusconi’s battute (‘quips’, but literally ‘blows’) are wild, outrageous and often genuinely funny, if only because they’re so absurd: I laughed out loud when I heard that he’d compared himself to both Jesus Christ and Napoleon (“only I’m taller”). This kind of ludicrous exorbitance prompts immediate scepticism, but it also evokes a kind of amused tolerance – go on then, what are you going to come up with this time? In short, it puts you in the mood to judge Berlusconi – and other politicians – primarily on entertainment value: they all talk bollocks anyway, so let’s just see who tells the best story. And Berlusconi, the old crooner, gives good story. (Thanks to Pietro for this point.)

So it’s not entirely surprising that Berlusconi has said some strange things in the course of the current campaign: it’s what he does. What is surprising – well, you know what I was saying about politicians talking bollocks?

Berlusconi, 3rd April:

“Ho troppa stima dell’intelligenza degli italiani per pensare che ci siano in giro così tanti coglioni che possano votare contro i propri interessi”

“I have too much respect for the intelligence of the Italian people to think that there are enough coglioni around here who could vote against their own interests [and elect the Left].”

Where coglioni means… well, what does it mean? If you’re reading this in America the answer’s simple: a coglione is an asshole (shades of Roy Keane…). Which brings us back to the BritEng slang lexicon: ‘prat’ is close, but it doesn’t have the shock value of coglioni – or the implicit malice. ‘Shithead’ is probably closest in meaning, but its relative rarity makes it seem more extreme.

La Repubblica has devoted some attention to the problems of translation. It’s an interesting piece, although less illuminating than it might be – apart from anything else, the Italian-speaking writer doesn’t feel the need to explain to her Italian-speaking readers what coglione means. (There’s probably a name for this problem among translators. I hit it once when I was trying to describe a city district to an American colleague. Brownstones? I don’t know, we don’t use that word in England. Oh – what do you call them?)

The literal meaning of coglioni isn’t too difficult, of course. La Repubblica quotes Reuters:

“Berlusconi labelled centre-left voters as ‘coglioni’. The Italian word is slang for ‘testicles’ but is also commonly used as an insult to describe someone of little intelligence.”

Fair enough. The paper’s survey of the European media is also interesting:

The French commentators do better than the English-speakers, as they have an equivalent word – but any citizen of the République would shudder to think that, even in the heated climate of these last few days, Sarkozy could call his opponents cons … The word is all right in a song by Georges Brassens, but not the political arena; in fact France Presse opted for couillons, no less vulgar but less idiomatic as slang. The agency may have chosen this term because, like the word used by Berlusconi, it refers to male organs; the French term honoured by Brassens, which effectively means ‘idiot’, refers to the female organ.Juan de Lara, director of the Spanish press agency Efe, is still in shock: “We can laugh about how to translate the word used by Berlusconi, but in reality this is a very serious matter.” For Spanish readers, Berlusconi’s epithet will be translated as gilipollas. [No idea - PJE] “But it’s a very vulgar word,” Lara notes; “I can’t even imagine a Spanish politican using it!”. And in this case, too, translation is awkward but delicate: for Efe, our Prime Minister called a good part of the electorate “tonto del culo” ['crazy-arse'].

Carola Frentzen, correspondent for Deutsche Presse Agentur, is stunned by Berlusconi’s language but remains diplomatic. She says, “We have many ugly words corresponding to the one used by the Prime Minister, but I won’t use them in the article. I’ll use the more banal ‘idiots’. The meaning is as clear as in the Italian, and for the German press it’s not really worth the trouble of getting upset about the language used by the Prime Minister. The German people have already used their own words about him on the occasion when they didn’t appreciate his joke about the word ‘Kapo’.” This was the term with which Berlusconi addressed Martin Schultz, head of the German EU delegation, during his inaugural speech [when Italy held the EU Presidency] at Strasbourg.

Update: according to Reuters, Translations of “coglioni” in British and American dictionaries range from “idiot”, “cretin”, “fool” and “moron” to “prick” and “asshole”. However, the English-language service of the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia demurs: English and American vocabularies are wrong. The best translation is, in fact, “sucker”, “dickhead” or just “dick”. The latter is most popular one, with the commonly used phrase “Don’t be a dick”. So now you know.

One final thought from la Repubblica:

At the end of this linguistic journey, we still have room for doubt in the Italian language. Given that the term used by Berlusconi doesn’t have a feminine form, can female centre-left voters regard themselves as excluded from his judgment?

It’s a silly question, but the language is nearly offensive enough to make it significant. However you render it in English (or French, or Spanish), what Berlusconi said was an insult not just to his centre-Left opponents or their committed supporters, but to anyone who might be thinking of voting centre-Left. This wasn’t just another battuta, in other words; grave offence has been taken, and the Italian public has been treated to the unusual sight of Berlusconi squirming. First, he insisted that he was joking (“I said it with a smile on my face”, an assertion apparently contradicted by TV footage). Then he took refuge in the frankly casuistical argument that he’s being attacked for what he didn’t say: “I didn’t state that some of the Italian people would vote against their own interests and so deserve that epithet – I denied it.” Subsequently he’s insisted that ‘coglioni‘ didn’t refer to all potential Left voters, only the ones whose material interests would be damaged by a Left government. The latest – but probably not the final – fallback position is to argue that it’s all a fuss about nothing, and that using the word in question is in fact comune e bonaria (normal and polite). Nice try. Thankyou and goodnight.

Four. More. Days.

Plans that have far-reaching effects

Katrina update. Back here, I wrote:

Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin’s Tomb) was one of the areas where the ‘free market’ reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a ‘Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan‘. It’s not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced “a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately”; moreover, “resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted.” However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, “Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise”. Perhaps IEM’s ‘functional plans’ weren’t quite finished after all.

That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You’d think that IEM would have got its ‘functional plans’ ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn’t know what to do.

Here is an important post by Greg of Suspect Device, who was present at the July 2004 ‘Hurricane Pam’ exercise. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few particularly striking quotes:

As with most IEM projects, the Hurricane Pam exercise was put together at the last minute, in a blind animal panic with no time for refinement, testing, or subtlety, but it still was a remarkable and bold idea.

Attendees included emergency managers from all across Louisiana, representatives from the EPA, the National Guard, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the DOTD, the Red Cross (who I remember as being marginalized and tolerated at best, with more than a little eye rolling from the “professionals”), the State Police, and many others. Also taking on important roles were representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, who provided facilitators, computers, and a great deal of support.

There was a certain amount of contention, a few turf wars, some loud talk. None if it consequential, in the end, because of the single greatest emollient: FEMA. The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after. All it would take is a phone call from local officials to the state, who would then call FEMA, and it would be done. There were contracts-in-place with major vendors across the country and prestaging areas were already determined (I’ll have more to say about this later, but this is one reason FEMA has rejected large donations and turned back freelance shipments of water, medical supplies, food, etc: they have contracts in place to purchase those items, and accepting the same product from another source could be construed as breach of contract, and could lead to contract cancellation, thus removing a reliable source of product from the pool of available resources. I’m not saying I agree with this — in fact, I don’t, and think it’s boneheaded — but the reasoning is that if they accept five semis of water from the east Weewau, Wisconsin, Chamber of Commerce, the water supplier who is contractually bound to provide 100,000 gallons per day will be freed from that obligation.

The organizers of the exercise … insisted that the plans contain no “fairy dust”: no magical leaps of supply chains or providers … Everyone tried to keep the fairy dust to a minimum, and they did so, for the most part, despite having big plans: LSU, Southern, Southeastern and other campuses dismissed for the semester and turned into giant triage centers/tent cities; acres of temporary housing built on government-owned land; C-130 transport planes ferrying evacuees to relatives in other states, and so on. Bold plans, but doable, with cooperation. A comprehensive plan was beginning to emerge.Except that it didn’t. A followup conference, to iron out difficulties in some of the individual plans and to formalize presentation of the final package, scheduled for either late ’04 or early ’05 — I can’t remember and can find no mention of the followup event on the web — was cancelled at the last minute, due to lack of funding (which agency called the cancellation, I’m not sure, although the lack of funds would take it all back to FEMA, in the end).

So: Louisiana did have a hurricane plan, but was devising a new one, to be based on recommendation from the people who would actually be doing the work. The need to evacuate people from impact areas, including those without transportation or the means to obtain it, was discussed, despite media assertions to the contrary. … There were and are officials in Louisiana, including New Orleans Emergency Management, who know the limitations of current planning and who have been trying to come up with a better solution.

The problem is FEMA, and by extension the Department of Homeland Security, which gobbled FEMA up in 2003. FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises. The plans that were made — which were not given any sort of stamp of authority — were never distributed or otherwise made available to those who most needed stable guidance; they vanished into the maw of FEMA

In comments, Greg sums up:

the state didn’t convene the second Pam workshop, to flesh out the plan, because FEMA cancelled the funding, and that even the skeletal plans that were created are not available, because they’re technically FEMA property and FEMA hasn’t released them.

Greg also notes that the number of people without their own transport in south-eastern Louisiana was estimated at 100,000; he adds

The notion of doing something to evacuate those without transport was raised late in the game, but was left as an action item for the followup meetings.

It sounds as if the December 2004 meeting described here had not in fact taken place, because FEMA cancelled the funding.

It’s not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. I think it’s clear now. What’s worse than handing responsibility for vital social support functions to a private company (along with a suitcase full of money)? Doing all that, then pulling the plug on them before they’ve finished the job. FEMA management aren’t just ideologically-driven bureaucrats – they’re incompetent ideologically-driven bureaucrats.

What the public gets

One possible reason why the aftermath of Katrina has been so dreadful is provided by the piece by Jamie I quoted earlier. There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. Perhaps we should take this image literally: perhaps the reason why it looks as if the US Government is broken is that the US Government, or at least its capacity to act promptly and effectively, is broken.

Or rather, the government’s effectiveness has been broken. This article from 2004 throws some light on the weirdly sclerotic approach which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has displayed during the crisis. Over the last few years, FEMA has been systematically exposed to the logic of the capitalist market. Firstly, the agency has been told that everything it does could be done just as well by external contractors and consultancies; the result has been cost-cutting and corner-cutting, running to stand still and general demoralisation. Secondly, FEMA’s own services have been marketised – thrown open to competitive bidding from potential ‘clients’. The predictable result has been that FEMA’s attention goes disproportionately to richer areas, rather than to those most at risk (such as Louisiana). Thirdly, preventative and ‘mitigating’ action – protecting people from natural disasters in advance rather than clearing up afterwards – has been downgraded, despite having been one of FEMA’s great strengths. There is, after all, no market logic to this type of action: there’s no demand-pull if the disaster has yet to happen. (Come to that, if it hasn’t happened yet it may not happen at all, and then how would you cost-justify your ‘mitigation’?) Read on:

In June [2004], Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency’s government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency’s decay. “Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation’s emergency management capability is being eroded,” he wrote. “Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors.”

From its first months in office, the Bush administration made it clear that emergency programs, like much of the federal government, were in for a major reorientation. … The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: “The general idea–that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided–seems self-evident to me,” he said.

As a result, says a disaster program administrator who insists on anonymity, “We have to compete for our jobs–we have to prove that we can do it cheaper than a contractor.” And when it comes to handling disasters, the FEMA employee stresses, cheaper is not necessarily better, and the new outsourcing requirements sometimes slow the agency’s operations.William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a “consultant culture” has not served emergency programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

In recent congressional testimony, a NEMA representative noted that “in a purely competitive grant program, lower income communities, those most often at risk to natural disaster, will not effectively compete with more prosperous cities…. The prevention of repetitive damages caused by disasters would go largely unprepared in less-affluent and smaller communities.”

And indeed, some in-need areas have been inexplicably left out of the program. “In a sense, Louisiana is the flood plain of the nation,” noted a 2002 FEMA report. “Louisiana waterways drain two-thirds of the continental United States. Precipitation in New York, the Dakotas, even Idaho and the Province of Alberta, finds its way to Louisiana’s coastline.” As a result, flooding is a constant threat, and the state has an estimated 18,000 buildings that have been repeatedly damaged by flood waters–the highest number of any state. And yet, this summer FEMA denied Louisiana communities’ pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. In Jefferson Parish, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue is baffled by the development. “You would think we would get maximum consideration” for the funds, he says. “This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it.”

Within FEMA, the shift away from mitigation programs is so pronounced that many long-time specialists in the field have quit. “The priority is no longer on prevention,” says the FEMA administrator. “Mitigation, honestly, is the orphaned stepchild. People are leaving it in droves.” In fact, disaster professionals are leaving many parts of FEMA in droves, compromising the agency’s ability to do its job. “Since last year, so many people have left who had developed most of our basic programs,” Mann says. “A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. Everyone who was able to retire has left, and then a lot of people have moved to other agencies.”

A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. In the name of not doing anything the free market could do – and not doing anything the free market wouldn’t do, because anything the market wouldn’t do can’t be worth doing – the government has, in effect, broken itself. It’s divested itself of so many responsibilities that, when disaster strikes, the capabilities which it needed to maintain in order to meet those responsibilities just aren’t there any more. Paul Krugman‘s peroration is horribly persuasive:

The reason the military wasn’t rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn’t get adequate armor. At a fundamental level, I’d argue, our current leaders just aren’t serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can’t-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job.

Which brings us back to Jamie’s strange ‘Soviet’ parallel. The last years of the Soviet system saw a command economy undermined from within by a pervasive disillusionment with the system: if you were a factory manager, not only was there no point trying to reach your targets, after a certain point there was no point even bothering to doctor the figures to make it look as if you had. Everyone knew – above you in the chain of command as well as below – that the system wasn’t working, if it ever had. Worse, everyone knew that the system they had in the West – where supply and demand information was exposed through the price mechanism – worked better. In that situation, there was no point keeping the system working, or even feeding the system the lies it needed to pretend it was still working. And so the system ground to a halt and fell apart. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to replace it, initially; the years after the collapse were dark (note the change in the death rate between 1992 and 1993, in particular).

Mutatis mutandis – and yes, that’s a lot of mutandis – something comparable seems to be happening in the USA; there, ironically, the ideology which is corroding the machinery of government is promulgated by the government itself. For the Bushites, it seems, the function of government is firstly to maintain a favourable environment for business, and secondly to step out of the way and let business do its thing. When this worldview is superimposed on the prudential, interventionist, humanitarian public-service ethic of an agency like FEMA, the result is confusion and bureaucratic paralysis at best. At worst… It’s worth remembering that FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

One last point. Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin’s Tomb) was one of the areas where the ‘free market’ reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a ‘Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan‘. It’s not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced “a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately”; moreover, “resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted.” However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, “Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise”. Perhaps IEM’s ‘functional plans’ weren’t quite finished after all.

I said I had a theory – well, two theories, but this is long enough already; I’ll keep the other one for the next post. Here’s a theory. That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You’d think that IEM would have got its ‘functional plans’ ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn’t know what to do. Oh, sure, they’d had policies and procedures in place for this kind of thing, but those were the old procedures. Under the new procedures… well, funny thing, they’d had a presentation about the new procedures and it all looked pretty good, and then an email had gone round saying the new procedures were about to be issued, but that was a while ago and they should really have had them by now…

Ridiculous, of course – that couldn’t happen. Not in America.

Update: Shelley of Burningbird has some relevant reflections and pointers here. In particular, Shelley links to some searching questions about the preparation for and the response to Katrina, and to this extraordinary piece by Dave Rogers. Dave tells some sea stories, does some serious thinking about the meanings of faith, honour and leadership, and comes to conclusions similar to some of the things I’ve said in this post, but with less pussyfooting. Finally, Dave in turn links to this bizarre piece by Daniel Henninger; all I’ve got to say about that is that if I’m right, Henninger is precisely, diametrically, dead wrong. (And, I suppose, vice versa, if you insist.)

It’s only water

They order these things better in Cuba; there, evacuation means that everybody leaves, down to dogs and cats:

they have family doctors in cuba (!), who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know who, for example, needs insulin.

they also have veterinarians and they evacuate animals. they begin evacuating immediately, and also evacuate TV sets and refrigerators, so that people aren’t relucatant to leave because people might steal their stuff.

(The ‘(!)’ isn’t mine; I don’t know what’s funny about the idea of Cubans having family doctors.) Perhaps this isn’t a great source evidentially – the speaker is talking about how things work in general – but it is borne out by the Red Cross in this story from 2002:

Hurricanes Isidore and Lili battered the whole country, especially the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río and the nearby Isla de la Juventud, causing widespread devastation.Cristina Estrada, a regional spokeswoman for the Red Cross, told BBC News Online that only the country’s prompt and well-organised evacuation procedures ensured no-one was killed.

“In any other country in the region it would have been a disaster in terms of loss of life,” she said.

In any other country in the region, indeed.

Going back a bit further, in 1974 they ordered these things better in Australia. As Brian notes, Cyclone Tracy passed through Darwin on Christmas Day(!) 1974. The result was the effective destruction of 70% of the buildings in the town – and a death toll of 65, or slightly more than 0.1% of the pre-cyclone population. (‘Pre-cyclone’, because all but 10,000 of the population were evacuated, and many of them decided not to come back. Understandably, perhaps – apart from anything else, do you know where Darwin is?)

What happened in New Orleans wasn’t much like either the Cuban system or the Darwin experience. On Saturday 27th August the city authorities issued a mandatory [sic] evacuation order, which was followed by many (most?) of those able to do so. For those who remained behind, the city laid on buses – which transported them, by the thousand, to assembly points within the city and left them there. Once inside what were effectively internment camps, the people of New Orleans were treated like internees everywhere – which is to say, like cattle (and not very highly-valued cattle at that). Water, food, sanitation, shelter and medicine were supplied haphazardly or not at all. No one was allowed out of the camps: locals who had survived unscathed offered to take people away in their cars but were told to stay away; survivors who could have walked out of the city were told to stay put. When buses out of the city finally came, survivors were not told where they were going until they’d got on one – nor, almost incredibly, were they allowed to get off a bus before it reached its destination.

The city at large, meanwhile, was effectively written off – far more decisively than seemed to be justified by the outbreaks of gang violence, as alarming as those were. My immediate reaction to those pictures of stranded survivors, waving from balconies and roofs as TV crews passed overhead, was to imagine similar scenes in Britain. And there my imagination failed me: I couldn’t picture that scene without adding a boat of some sort, crewed by concerned neighbours or the RNLI or Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance or the WRVS or the local Rotary Club… If disaster struck a British city, I thought, surely there’d be half a dozen charities and voluntary organisations and ad hoc committees lining up to help, even before the flood waters began to subside. What had happened to civil society over there? I still don’t know if the St John’s Ambulance and the WRVS have any US equivalent, but as it turns out that’s not really the point. What had happened was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been approached by several hundred locals who wanted to rescue survivors using their boats, and they had turned them away. FEMA had also refused to permit external agencies to enter the city – the American Red Cross included – on the grounds that their presence in the city would slow down the evacuation. They had also refused… but I won’t go through the list; you can see it here. The long and the short of it was, the city was locked down, and locked down it would stay – whatever the immediate cost to the inhabitants of the city. In the context of a disaster recovery operation, this order of priorities seems odd, to say the least.

If all this is hard to understand, the personal interventions of George W. Bush beggar belief. He visited New Orleans on the 3rd of September – by which time evacuations were, finally, proceeding; his presence promptly halted food distribution for several hours, by imposing a no-fly zone. More culpably, he had relief and rebuilding work started for his media appearances – and halted afterwards. The story of a Potemkin food stall in New Orleans which has been circulating seems to be unfounded (thanks to Chris (in comments) for the nudge). What has been reported on German TV – the video is here (from about 3:20) – is a sudden outbreak of ground-clearing and construction work when Bush and his media crew visited Biloxi. The workers downed tools after Bush left; it was all done for the cameras. But the Biloxi charade was no more than a missed opportunity to do something more constructive – the workers had been clearing an area where nobody had actually lived before the hurricane. More seriously, vital repair work in New Orleans was started for the President’s benefit – and stopped when he no longer needed it. Also via Kos, here’s Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, writing on 3rd September:

perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.

Paul Krugman, writing on September 1st, sums up:

Katrina hit five days ago – and it was already clear by last Friday [26th August] that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you’d expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help – and help wasn’t provided.

Something’s going on. Or rather, something’s going wrong – really horribly wrong. Jamie nails the mood:

So the hurricane strikes and all of us foreigners watch the footage on the news with concern but without much anxiety. It’s just a matter of time before can-do America rolls up its sleeves and cleans up the mess, right? Time goes by and then the Mayor of New Orleans pops up on the BBC talking about bodies floating down the streets and suddenly the estimate of deaths goes up into the thousands. It’s like watching someone jump out of an aeroplane and slowly realising that that person does not, in fact, have a parachute.

There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. There’s sand in the joints and the parts don’t fit together properly. There’s a general air of sluggishness and fatalism. No-one in authority seems to know what to do about anything, or if they do, they don’t have the resources. The president looks on with vague stupefaction as bits drop off and float away.

As for what‘s going wrong, well, I’ve got a theory. Two theories, actually, and I’m not sure yet whether they fit together. I’ll let you know when I find out. Tune in tomorrow ect ect ect.

[Update: the analytical posts are here and here.]

All those pretty lies

A few weeks ago I spotted a really dazzling example of stupidity – and cynical exploitation of same – in the LRB. David Runciman was writing about the American campaign to repeal death duties (‘estate tax’), which succeeded despite the fact that the change only really benefited the top 1%. Ah, but…

A poll conducted by Time/CNN on the estate tax issue in 2000 revealed that 39 per cent of Americans believe that they are either in the wealthiest 1 per cent or will be there ‘soon’.

There it is. If you think you already are obscenely rich – or that you’re going to be obscenely rich some day soon – you aren’t likely to identify with all those little people down there. People who aren’t obscenely rich and probably never will be. People like you yourself. In the immortal words of Kermit, stupid, stupid, stupid.

But there’s more to this than stupidity – quite a lot more. There’s the politics of aspiration (got to keep selling the Dream, or the people will vote for somebody who will); behind that, there’s the politics of division and atomisation (treat the workers mean, keep the workers keen); and behind that there’s the 1% themselves, pursuing business as usual by swinging a ‘democratic’ government behind their interests. The layers fit together only too well.

Still, only in America, eh?

Charles Kennedy yesterday sought to capitalise on the feelgood factor from the Cheadle byelection victory, calling on his colleagues to be “bold, positive and united”.

Mr Kennedy said the party was not afraid of redistribution, but added: “High taxes are not a moral good in themselves. We were correct to point out at the general election that only 1% of all taxpayers would be affected by our proposals on top-rate taxation. But we must not lose sight of those who aspire to achieve income levels which will bring them into the top rate taxation band in time to come.”

Do they really believe this – do they really think we won’t vote for them if they don’t sustain our ‘aspirational’ illusions by lying to us? After May 7, surely not – the party’s great successes were against Labour, and much of its political capital derived from the appearance of being a little more honest than Labour, willing to tell a little more of the truth. The simplest explanation is the most depressing: that the Lib Dems have finally taken the blue pill and rejoined the neo-liberal consensus.

“Yellow Tories”? Not quite. ‘Tory’ has to mean ‘worse than Labour’, to my mind – ‘worse than New Labour’, even – and I can’t see that the Lib Dems are quite that bad. But by God, it’s getting to be a close thing.

Meaders can have the last word:

“Left-wing”? This shower?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 212 other followers

%d bloggers like this: