Category Archives: politics

About a boycott

A few basic principles about boycotts.

1. Politically-motivated choice is legitimate

1.1. Jane is purchasing a good, which we’ll call G. What G is doesn’t matter – some oranges, a magazine subscription, a cultural event which her organisation will host. G1 and G2 – the offerings from suppliers S1 and S2 – are more or less equivalent in Jane’s estimation. She has to choose one or the other; she chooses G1 over G2 not because of anything to do with the good itself, but because political principle P predisposes her against supplier S2.

1.2. This choice, as described, is plainly legitimate. It’s a familiar kind of calculation: under apartheid, South African apples and wine were (probably) as good as similarly-priced alternatives; like many other people, I chose not to buy apartheid produce. Ultimately it is no different from a politically-motivated positive choice: the choice to shop at the Co-op rather than Tesco, say, or to take out a subscription to Red Pepper rather than the New Statesman.

1.3. Of course, we may not agree with the specific principle P which motivates Jane’s choice, and if so we may not approve of the choice. But we should not expect to approve of all Jane’s choices, unless we already know that we are in complete agreement with Jane. If Jane’s purchases are guided by her enthusiasm for veganism or her support for the Liberal Democrats, she is not going to make the same choices that I would make. Her choices are her concern.

1.4. One person’s choices may have effects on other people. If I disagree with Jane’s principles, then – to the extent that her choices affect me – I may well not be happy about them; if Jane is doing my shopping for me, I may even end up asking somebody else, with more sympathetic principles, to do it. But Jane’s choice – like my choice in this second scenario – remains legitimate: she is a free and rational individual who has the right to hold her own set of principles P and choose how to follow them, as are we all.

2. Boycotts are legitimate

2.1. A boycott is a special type of politically-motivated choice. Jane boycotts supplier S when she chooses to go without good G altogether rather than offend against principle P. It is intrinsic to a boycott that G is valuable. (If G were not of particular value – if it were a matter of choosing between broadly equivalent rival Gs – we would be looking at a choice rather than a boycott; and if G were of no value to Jane she would not have chosen to purchase it in the first place and the question would not arise.) A boycott is a sacrifice: Jane is giving up G, which she values, for the sake of P.

2.2. Somebody carrying out a boycott imposes a disproportionate cost on herself – disproportionate in the sense that P is taken as an absolute constraint, not to be weighed as one factor among others. This, too, is legitimate. When I was younger I had a particular fondness for Granny Smith apples – no other fruit hit the spot – but I would and did deprive myself of them rather than buy South African. Again, we can liken the disproportionate cost of a boycott to the disproportionate cost of a positive choice: the decision to take out a subscription to Red Pepper in the certain knowledge that one wouldn’t read it, for example. (Perhaps because one already had a subscription. It’s really quite good these days; the cultural coverage has improved a lot.)

2.2.1. The value of G is not an argument against boycotting S. A boycott is a sacrifice; the more valuable G is, the greater is the sacrifice undertaken in boycotting its supplier S. A boycott cannot be challenged by emphasising the value of G (but you really like Granny Smiths!). If anything, the value of G counts in favour of the boycott: if G is extraordinarily valuable, the boycott is an extraordinarily powerful demonstration of Jane’s commitment to P.

2.3. We saw, in the broader case of political choices, that one person’s choice can affect other people, and that someone who disagrees with P may not approve of choices motivated by P. Both of these points necessarily apply in the case of a boycott. Suppose that Jane is an extreme right-winger who supported the Pinochet regime and holds a grudge against all subsequent Chilean governments. Most people reading this will not approve of Jane choosing not to buy Chilean produce, all other factors being equal, on those grounds; a fortiori, we would certainly not approve of Jane applying an absolute boycott to Chilean goods on those grounds.

2.4. Nor would we be happy about Jane doing our shopping for us, if we were housebound or incapacitated. But Jane’s choices are still legitimate, despite the repugnance of their grounds – and hence of their consequences, or rather of the implications which can be drawn from their consequences.

2.4.1. The value of G to a third party is not an argument against boycotting S. The argument at 2.2.1. holds: the message of the boycott is now that Jane’s commitment to P is such that she is willing to bear the cost of disappointing other people by depriving them of G. An ethical greengrocer could choose to refuse to stock South African produce, even in the knowledge that its customers had a particular fondness for Granny Smiths and did not share her beliefs. The choice might not be good business, but it would be legitimate and should be respected as such.

3. Politics come first

3.1. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as harmful or costly: a boycott is a sacrifice. It makes no sense to challenge a boycott as disproportionate: it is in the nature of boycotts to be disproportionate.

3.2. A boycott is a costly and disproportionate act carried out in commitment to a political principle. To the extent that we do not share that commitment, we will not approve of the boycott.

3.2.1. However, to the extent that we do not share that principle, we would not approve of any action motivated by it, just as we would not agree with any statement made to advance it.

3.2.2. The political discussion is separate from the question of the legitimacy of the tactics used.

3.3. The key question to be asked of a boycott is: assuming rational actors motivated by a genuine commitment to a political principle which can legitimately be held, can this disproportionate sacrifice be justified? (The question is not whether we believe that it is justified.)

3.3.1. This is a question expecting the answer Yes. A boycott is, in principle, a legitimate political tactic, irrespective of our position on the political cause involved. (It may on occasion not be the best tactic to use, but this is a question for the people using it.)

3.3.2. To say that a boycott is not a legitimate tactic is, generally, to say that the principle for which it is undertaken is not a legitimate political cause.

4. Inconsistency is irrelevant

4.1. If I have never stolen, I can steal for the first time. If I have never handled other people’s money without stealing, I can choose not to steal for the first time. Perhaps the acts I have never carried out are political: I have never taken out a magazine subscription on the basis of a positive political commitment, or crossed ‘apples’ off my shopping list on the basis of a negative commitment. This has no bearing on whether I choose to do either of these things in future.

4.2. The value of an action is not determined by whether the actor has ever done it before; the legitimacy of a choice is not determined by whether the actor has ever made that choice before.

4.3. To criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle one supports, would amount either to holding them to account for something they are no longer doing or criticising them for an improvement in their conduct.

4.3.1. We may believe that the boycott is an aberration and that in future their conduct will return to its original course; however, this in itself does not give any grounds for criticising their present behaviour, which by definition we approve of.

4.4. We may criticise somebody for imposing a boycott for the first time, in pursuit of a principle we do not support; in this case, however, we would not be criticising their inconsistency but (simply) the fact that they were taking action in support of a principle we did not support.

4.5. The fact that a boycott is being imposed for the first time cannot make it illegitimate.

5. Selectivity is inevitable

5.1. In one light, selectivity at a given time and inconsistency over time are the same concern, and are equally irrelevant. Why did I steal from that particular newsagent when I’d never stolen before? Because that was where I happened to be. Why did I hand over this purse untouched when I’d always stolen from them before? Because that was the one I was handling when the pangs of conscience struck. There is no reason to ask these questions.

5.2. Someone boycotting a particular supplier S, on the basis of a particular (legitimate) principle P, can be accused of ‘singling out’ S. There may be many potential suppliers – S1, S2, S3… – whose deserve to be boycotted on the basis of P. Moreover, there are many legitimate political principles – P1, P2, P3… – on the basis of which boycotts could be implemented. Why this principle? Why this supplier?

5.2.1. To guide one’s conduct by every imaginable political principle (P1, P2, P3…) is an obvious absurdity.

5.2.2. To guide one’s conduct, to any significant extent, by every political principle to which one assents would in practice be impossibly burdensome, unless one’s political commitments were extremely limited.

5.3. The narrower goal of applying a single principle with complete consistency – boycotting every supplier who infringes it (or else boycotting none of them) – may seem realisable in theory, but reflection shows that complete consistency would require complete knowledge and the willingness to take any imaginable cost.

5.3.1. Complete consistency in the application of a single principle is an ideal rather than a standard: in Fuller’s terms, part of a morality of aspiration (a set of excellences one aims to realise) rather than a morality of duty (a set of minimum requirements one undertakes to meet).

5.3.2. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one supports is to criticise them for failing to realise an ideal, not failing to meet a standard.

5.4. To criticise somebody for inconsistency in the application of a principle one does not support is, in general, to criticise them for acting on that principle at all (see 3.2.1.).

6. Equality is difficult

6.1. Although the effects of a boycott on third parties do not, in general, affect the legitimacy of the boycott (see 2.4.1.), a boycott whose effects tend systematically to disadvantage a particular population group – by depriving them of goods or services, or even by causing them offence and distress – may be illegitimate for that reason.

6.1.1. This is true of any action which has such effects; there is nothing about boycotts making them particularly liable to delegitimation on these grounds.

6.2. The principle of non-discrimination is unproblematic in the case of innate characteristics such as gender and ethnicity, and relatively unproblematic in the case of religion (which very often amounts to an innate characteristic, at least in the perceptions of the believer herself).

6.3. Extending it to political beliefs – even long-held and hard-to-change beliefs – is problematic, however.

6.3.1. To hold a political belief is to believe that certain changes should be made to the distribution of wealth, power and relatively advantage, and that certain arguments should be made and listened to more widely.

6.3.2. To pursue a political belief is to make arguments which may offend one’s opponents, and to attempt to realise changes which will disadvantage them.

6.4. There is an asymmetry built into prejudices against innate characteristics: the political actor who aims to disadvantage Jews, Muslims, women or children has many opponents who are not political actors.

6.4.1. By contrast, political prejudice is symmetrical: to be prejudiced against Liberal Democrats, for example, is to be prejudiced against political actors like oneself.

6.4.2. Within the political context, animosity towards other political actors is normal; within this context, the idea of political prejudice has very little meaning.

6.5. To delegitimate political discrimination is to cantonise politics as a specialised pursuit, only engaged in at set times and in certain places.

6.5.1. This is undesirable.

6.6. To delegitimate political discrimination in a given area is to delegitimate political action in that area.

6.6.1. In some areas (e.g. the employer/employee relationship) political action should in fact be illegitimate, making the delegitimation of political discrimination unproblematic.

6.6.2. In others, outlawing political discrimination (and hence political action) may be the only way to be sure of outlawing racial or religious discrimination.

6.7. In all cases, delegitimating political discrimination has a cost and should only be undertaken with that cost borne in mind.

When strangers were welcome here

There’s a particular move in populist politics which I think of as the Death Spiral. (I was going to call it the Death Spiral of Hate, but – while indubitably more precise – that wording is probably cranking it up a bit too high for the first paragraph of a post.) It’s a bit like conjuring a folk devil and a bit like a political bidding war; it’s more contained and predictable than the folk devil phenomenon, though, and it’s unlike a bidding war in not needing a partner (although others can certainly join in).

It goes like this. First, somebody in government (or in friendly media) stokes up hatred against a particular group. Then the government responds to public concern – well, you’ve got to respond to public concern, haven’t you? – and takes action against the group. Here’s the twist: the action that the government takes doesn’t lead the hatred to subside; the angry mob doesn’t put down the pitchforks and douse the torches, satisfied that somebody’s finally listened to them and done something. The government’s action leaves the well of popular hatred very much undrained; it may even top it up. Because then, after all, the public can once again express its very real concerns – and that will give the government something to respond to (you’ve got to respond to real public concerns). Once started, the process can go round and round indefinitely: the government and its supporters sing an endless call-and-response of resentment and self-righteous severity, opposition parties are wrong-footed or forced to tag along, and everybody’s happy – except the poor sods who are getting interned, denied benefits, etc.

For example: five years ago Louise Casey – then working for the Labour government as a consultant on ‘community’ issues – argued that community sentences should be made both tougher and more visible. People carrying out unpaid work as part of a non-custodial sentence should do it out in public where people can see; to make sure people do see, they should wear those orange boiler-suits out of Misfits, or hi-viz jackets, or both. So people doing ‘Community Payback’ would become a familiar sight; instead of thinking of community sentences as a soft option, people would see the reality of ‘community punishment’ and think… well, what? Would they think, those kids picking up litter are really suffering – that looks just as bad as prison to me! It seems more likely that they would see people in orange boiler suits who weren’t working particularly hard (they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag) and think, I used to think community service was a soft option – now I’m sure!. Five years on, the perception of non-custodial sentences as a soft option certainly doesn’t seem to have gone away.

My son brought another example to my attention the other day. You know this proposal to deny benefits to immigrants until they’ve been here for three months? Won’t that make them more likely to take any job that’s going, even below the minimum wage, even working cash-in-hand? “Mmm, yeah,” I said. And won’t that… I caught up. “Won’t that create more competition with the very lowest-paid British workers, thereby creating even more resentment of immigrants and even more pressure to get tough on immigration, again? Yes, I think it will.”

Whatever else I could say about Louise Casey and David Cameron, I don’t think either of them is stupid; as PM, Cameron even has a kind of intellectual praetorian guard, responsible for making sure that his ideas are in working order (as well as for preserving him from contact with any ideas from the outside world). I think he knows what he’s doing (as did Casey); I think he’s identified an appetite that will grow with feeding, and he’s making sure it’s fed.

It’s sometimes argued that populism is directionless and reactive, subject to lurches in any number of directions; it’s sometimes even argued that populism can or should be used by the Left (“where’s the Nigel Farage of the Left?” and so forth). On this way of thinking, ‘Death Spiral’ effects emerge when populism just happens to lurch in the direction of giving an unpopular minority a kicking. They may be no more than an unfortunate side-effect of giving the people what they think they want, in other words. Ed Miliband’s intervention gives the lie to this argument and throws the Death Spiral into relief, by demonstrating that it’s not the only way to address people’s worries about immigration. While it doesn’t necessarily go as far as Mike would have liked (and certainly isn’t framed in his terms), Ed’s statement takes on those who attack economic immigration and effectively calls their bluff. After all, the problem of low-paid immigrants – to the extent that there is such a problem – is by definition a problem of employers choosing to (a) employ immigrants to the exclusion of native workers and, not unrelatedly (b) to pay immigrants less than native workers; constrain those choices (whether from above, as Ed prefers, or from below) and a material source of conflict between two groups of workers disappears. (Those two groups may still hate each other on the basis of free-floating prejudice, but those feelings tend to fade over time – at least, they do if they aren’t reinforced.) Marxists know that the important antagonisms start with material interests, and that that’s where the changes need to be made. And so does Ed.

Another group which is supposed to take a grown-up view of immigration are the economic liberals, and particularly the intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic of right-libertarianism. Bryan Caplan certainly sets the right tone at the outset of his 2012 Cato Journal paper (PDF), arguing that there are no relevant differences between a Haitian being denied entry to the US and a US citizen going to Haiti on a relief mission and then being denied re-entry. (Oh, very well, a US citizen and all of his/her family went to Haiti to help out, and they were all denied re-entry. Happy now?) But we needn’t join Caplan in his helicopter to appreciate the force of his arguments against restrictions on immigration. Caplan addresses four arguments against free immigration, focusing on its effects on low-waged workers, welfare spending, cultural cohesion and the political sphere; he argues in each case that the costs may not be as high as they’re made out to be, and that any costs which are incurred can be mitigated at a lower overall cost than the cost currently imposed by restricting immigration. He concludes:

there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

There’s a lot to like about this paper (I’ve always considered myself a libertarian Marxist), but two aspects of Caplan’s argument gave me pause. One, exemplified by the passage quoted above, is the nonchalantly instrumental use made of some fairly sweeping restrictions on citizenship. It seems to me that to declare that any member of a defined category of individuals will be denied the vote – or denied welfare benefits, or taxed at a higher rate on equivalent income – is to institutionalise inequality, making members of that category significantly unequal to the majority in their enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship. In other words, Caplan is entertaining the possibility of addressing the lack of liberty involved in shutting people out from a given country by letting those people in as second-class citizens. (I don’t say Caplan is proposing doing so, as the main argument of his paper is that the disadvantages of free immigration are either non-existent or much less significant than we imagine. The second-class citizen solution is put forward as a subsidiary argument.)

I find this troubling on a number of levels. Firstly, if we’re talking in terms of nation states – as we plainly are if we’re talking about taxation and welfare benefits – I think it’s legitimate to treat the question of who is allowed to enter a country quite separately from the question of how people are treated within the country. Ultimately I’m for a world with no border controls and no borders, but ultimately I’m for a world with no wage labour. In the mean time, I think that making everybody within an arbitrary area on the map a full citizen, but making it difficult to enter that area, is a more equitable solution than making the border permeable but introducing gradations of citizenship within it. If that’s the only way to get to open borders, in other words, then I’m not so keen on open borders as I was. Secondly, I value citizenship as a good in itself, and I believe that universality (within a given political unit) is one of its key attributes; I’m unhappy with any solution (to any problem) which turns on instituting different categories of citizenship. (Needless to say, I’m opposed to this even – or especially – in cases where it is actually being done: I believe that people who don’t look for work should not be denied unemployment benefit, that visitors to the UK should not be made to pay for healthcare, that prisoners should not be deprived of the vote, and so on.) Thirdly, I wonder what the introduction of graduated citizenship for non-natives would do to citizenship as an experienced social category: would it accustom people to the idea of multiple citizenships, making it possible for further gradations to be introduced and for full citizenship to be restricted to a smaller group? Lastly, I’m particularly troubled by the thought of living in a country where second-class citizenship is imposed on a recognisable and unpopular minority – or, to put it another way, being ruled by a government which imposes second-class citizenship on such a minority. I wouldn’t like to live under a government like that for precisely the same reason that I wouldn’t want to live under a government that closed the borders: in both cases, the government would be differentially imposing restrictions on people disliked by most of its voters. It seems to me that there’s a certain political tone-deafness about Caplan’s paper when he floats these proposals. Immigration restrictions might be enacted by an anti-immigrant government courting immigrant-hating voters, but the same would surely be true of restrictions on benefits or voting rights for immigrants. Even if they were enacted in the purest spirit of right-libertarianism, they would be received as blows against an unpopular minority – and those who welcomed them would soon grow hungry for more.

Secondly, there’s an odd passage in the section in which Caplan addresses the effects of free immigration on the political sphere. The worry here – more of a worry for right-libertarians than for me, or indeed most of us – is that immigrants might bring a ‘statist’ political culture with them and shift their host country’s political spectrum to the Left. After noting that there isn’t much evidence of this happening (for good or ill), Caplan moves on to the effect of ethnic diversity on social solidarity, as expressed in support for a redistributive state. He cites research to the effect that the relationship between the two is inverse – more diversity, less solidarity – and comments:

Social democrats may find this tension between diversity and solidarity disturbing. But libertarians should rejoice: increasing foreigners’ freedom of movement may indirectly increase natives’ freedom to decide who deserves their charity.

Ahem. We weren’t actually talking about charity as such in fact that’s rather the point. (Sorry, just had to say that.) Anyway, there’s more where that came from:

Immigrants are the ultimate out-group. Even today, Americans publicly complain about “immigrants” in language they would never use for blacks or gays. If the knowledge that foreigners attend “our” public schools and seek treatment in “our” hospitals does not undermine support for government spending on education and health care, nothing will.

OK… what just happened? Right-libertarians should support free immigration, not only despite widespread hatred of immigrants but, in part, because of it? The thinking seems to be that right-libertarians should welcome a proprietary, in-group-based attitude to public services, because the extension of those services to immigrants will undermine that attitude and hence discredit the public services themselves. Pride in public services is all to the good, as long as it comes into conflict with the reality of public provision and generates disillusion; and hatred of immigrants is all to the good, as long as its main effect is to undermine social solidarity. Unrestricted immigration may lead to the development of a society of endemic self-centredness and mistrust (by multiplying the objects of distrust and fear), but this in itself should be welcomed: a cohesive, high-trust society is a society where people tend to support public provision of services.

What Caplan is expressing, or – what’s the word? – adumbrating here is the logic of the Death Spiral. If you start pointing out how public money is being spent on the wrong services (and especially) for the wrong people, that won’t lead to a trimmed and rationalised set of public services which everyone can be happy with – it’ll lead to an endless whittling away of those services, as more and more occasions for outrage are unearthed. What’s interesting about Caplan’s argument is that the Death Spiral is set out quite openly and frankly: the more immigrants are seen to be using public services, the more pressure there will be to reduce those services – and the less tolerance there will be for immigrants using them.

The underlying logic of the Death Spiral is cynical and simple: there is an out-group, there are people who will be satisfied by seeing it get a kicking, and their satisfaction can be exploited – either for political support or to further a larger objective, as in Caplan’s argument. We’re dealing here with what John Rawls called “other-directed preferences”. Rawls argued that a just political order should give equal weight to all citizens’ preferences, but only their “self-directed” preferences: my desire to have the vote, a decent education and opportunities in life should be recognised, but not my desire to deprive you of those things – even if there were a lot of ‘me’s and only a few ‘you’s. I think it’s definitive of populism that it valorises, and orchestrates, other-directed preferences: populism isn’t always socially reactionary, but even the mildest, most herbivorous populism expresses preferences directed at politicians (generally binding and restricting their actions). With Marxism, other-directed preferences aren’t part of the package, the odd revenge fantasy about bankers excepted; in action, Marxism is all about universal needs and generalised empowerment to achieve them. As for right-Libertarianism, Caplan’s unconcern for universal citizenship and his willingness to turn his hand to a Death Spiral argument both make me wonder. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the whole tribe by the Randians, with their grim relish in the come-uppance of the second-handers. Maybe right-Libertarianism isn’t just about dismantling public services, replacing citizenship entitlements with a cash nexus, and be damned to anyone who happens to be dependent on public provision when it all comes down; maybe at its core it’s a genuinely universalisable creed, which can be grounded in my, your, his and her own preference for liberty in just the same way that Marxism can be grounded in our shared preference to eat. But I wonder.

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

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”.

Someone else will come along and move it

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

1. Some of the Labour Party was against it.

2. All of the Tory Party was against it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. People don’t want AV.

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

I was particularly struck by Clark’s point 9:

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

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

Always been the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re all thick, says Prof:

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

Steady on, say punters:

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

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

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

And it could all have been so different!

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

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

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

A horrible Tory gloats horribly:

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

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

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

Another Tory tells it like it is:

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

And the fat lady sings:

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

A complicated game

Some thoughts on AV, mostly cut and pasted (it’s late) from comments on other people’s blogs.

First, the mechanics. AV is basically the Single Transferable Vote, but in a single-member constituency. STV gives a seat to every candidate who can muster a ‘quota’ of votes, where a quota is defined as (1/n+1)+1 vote, n being the number of seats in the constituency. In other words, in a three-member seat the three people who can each claim more than a 1/4 of the votes cast get elected (there can’t be more than 3, for obvious reasons.

Now, in AV there is by definition only one seat per constituency, so the quota is 1/2 of all votes cast plus one vote. So the maximum number of voters whose preferences can have no influence at all on the outcome is 50% minus one vote. This potentially leaves a lot of voters out in the cold.

Under the Simple Preference system we’ve got now, the ‘quota’ can only be guaranteed to be as high as 50% if there are only two candidates. In multi-party contests, the winning plurality may be arbitrarily small. Except, actually, not that arbitrarily small. In practice, approximately 10,000 MPs have been elected in the 17 General Elections held since 1945; out of those MPs, only 30 have had less than 33.3% of the vote (source: Wikipedia). Most of those were close to 1/3; the winning plurality has been below 30% 7 times – 1 SNP, 1 DUP, 2 Tory and 3 Lib Dem(!).

So the representation deficit that AV offers to put right is, at worst, the difference between an MP representing 33% of the voters and an MP representing 50% of the voters, with the gap generally being much smaller. And what’s the practical effect of assembling a 50% vote from first and lower preferences instead of going off first preferences? There are two possibilities, represented by these two scenarios.

Scenario 1:

33% vote Left, all with Centre as second preference (L1, C2)
18% vote C1, L2
13% vote Centre, with Right as second preference (C1, R2)
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote Neo-Nazi, with Right as second preference (N1, R2)

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 49% R, 51% L. Left candidate duly elected.

In this scenario 51% of voters are happy – the 33% of the voters who put the L candidate first plus the 18% who put them second; therefore only 49% of the voters are unhappy. Result. But the outcome would have been exactly the same under SP, the only difference being that those 18% of voters have had to explicitly state that they preferred L to R instead of just thinking it to themselves.

Scenario 2:

33% vote L1, C2
16% vote C1, L2
15% vote C1, R2
24% vote R1, C2
12% vote N1, R2

First round: N eliminated; 36% R, 33% L, 31% C
Second round: C eliminated: 51% R, 49% L. Right candidate duly elected.

All that’s changed is the split within the Centre voters, and even that hasn’t changed by much (18/13 to 16/15 – the majority is still C/L rather than C/R). But because the split is slightly different, the happy (represented) 51% now consists of the 24% of the voters whose first preferences went to the Right party, together with the neo-Nazi voters and the minority of Centre voters who preferred Right to Left. It’s not at all clear to me that the fact that 27% of voters for smaller parties lean more to right than to left should be given enough weight to overturn the verdict expressed by first preferences. (According to this paper, in any case, the first scenario would apply most of the time: a full simulation based on survey data found that only 43 of 650 seats would have changed hands if the 2010 election had been held under AV.)

The problem with AV is the way that preferences are counted, and aren’t counted. Under STV, the surplus votes for any candidate who has met the quota are redistributed to second preference parties, in proportion to the overall split of second preferences. Under AV there are no surplus votes – elected is elected, and only one elected candidate is required – so second preferences are weighted differently according to what’s happened to the first preference vote. Some voters’ second preferences are decisive; others’ are never counted. And which party is in which category cannot be predicted. Another scenario:

35% vote Labour 1, Green 2
30% vote Tory 1, Lib Dem 2
14% vote Lib Dem 1, Tory 2
6% vote Lib Dem 1, Green 2
10% vote Green 1, Labour 2
5% vote BNP 1, Tory 2

BNP 1st prefs transfer to the Tories, Green 1st prefs transfer to Labour, some Lib Dem 1st prefs transfer to the Tories and others are wasted because the Green has already been eliminated.

Final score:
Labour 45% (35% 1st pref + 10% transfer from Green)
Tory 49% (30% 1st pref + 19% transfers from Lib Dem and BNP)
The Tory is therefore elected.

But look what happens if we add up the first and second preferences:

Labour: 35% (1) + 10% (2) = 45%
Tory: 30% (1) + 19% (2) = 49%
Lib Dem: 20% (1) + 30% (2) = 50%
Green: 10% (1) + 41% (2) = 51%
BNP: 5% (1) = 5%

On a simple addition of first and second preferences, the Green would actually come top. Even a weighted addition of preferences – what’s known as a Borda count – puts Labour ahead of the Tories, although the Lib Dems and Greens stay in third and fourth place. If those Labour second preferences shouldn’t be counted against their first preferences, why should the Lib Dems’? Big differences in the way votes are counted could rest on very small – and unforeseeable – differences in vote totals.

On the CT thread on AV, I have also argued that (a) AV favours, nay produces, bi-polar contests; (b) AV in Britain would chiefly benefit the third party, the Lib Dems; and (c) that I support PR, which would also benefit the Lib Dems. It looks as if at least one of these statements ought to be incorrect, but I think they’re all valid. The key is to focus on individual constituencies. Up and down the country, the Liberal Democrats consistently campaign on the position that “$X can’t win here”, X being the Tories in Labour seats and Labour in Tory seats. Their interest in three-party politics is strictly tactical; their ideal is to turn every constituency into a “two-horse race” (a phrase that appears in Lib Dem literature almost as often as those bar charts), one of them being the Lib Dems. AV is well suited to producing this result. More generally, AV’s preference-aggregating procedure, and the single-member constituencies which make it necessary, will tend to favour parties whose programmes are bland, opportunistic or both. A minority party with a consistent and distinctive programme will have less chance of getting an MP elected under AV than even under SP; AV structurally favours a smaller number of contenders aggregating a wider range of preferences. I am perhaps biased by my long-established tendency to vote for small left-wing parties: I tend to look at it from the standpoint of a minor party trying to get into the system, and it seems clear to me that the barriers to entry are higher under AV. Indeed, some advocates of AV number among its advantages the fact that it puts smaller parties in a position to exert pressure on larger parties without getting representation in their own right (the two contenders in Australia’s lower house each appear to have a slew of preference-trading satellites); others argue that AV would be a good thing because it would makes the major parties seek votes in the centre ground, making it less likely that they will be dominated by their extreme wings. (These things can’t both be true, but it’s interesting that neither of them has any role for smaller parties with independent representation.)

I also believe that getting AV would damage the movement for electoral reform worse than failing to get it: if AV passes, AV’s supporters and beneficiaries will be happy anyway, the supporters of FPTP will regroup to fight for single-member constituencies, and there’ll be no public appetite for messing around with the electoral system again. Anyone pushing for PR after AV had passed would be told, at best, that the system needed time to bed in before we thought about changing it again; at worst, we’d simply be told that we’d asked for electoral reform and we’d got electoral reform. In addition, I believe that the Coalition would be destabilised far more effectively by failing to get AV (and lighting a fuse under Nick Clegg) than by getting AV (and annoying Tory backwoodsmen, whose main role in life is to be sat on by their leadership); I also think that getting AV would be highly conducive to the perpetuation of a Lib Dem/Tory coalition after the next election. However, I accept that all these points are arguable.

So on balance, no, my position really isn’t one of “pretend that you have reasons other than ‘I hate Nick Clegg’ for your otherwise unjustifiable political position”. My position is one of supporting PR and opposing AV, because I think even our current system is preferable. That’s why I’ll be voting No, and I encourage anyone who thinks likewise to do the same.

What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“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 … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast ‘old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens’. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ‘em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

Your weakness is none of my business

One interesting aspect of the election result is that it’s been bad for all three of the main party leaders. (You could even extend that and say that it’s been bad for all the party leaders – Ieuan Wyn Jones, Alex Salmond, Salma Yaqoob and Nick Griffin have all had a disappointing time of it, not to mention Reg Empey and Peter Robinson – but it doesn’t quite work; Caroline Lucas had rather a good night, and I don’t think the non-Unionist parties in the North of Ireland are complaining. Bad joke about wearing of the green goes here.)

But Brown, Cameron and Clegg have all had a bad result, and will all be facing criticism from within their party: it’ll be argued that a different style of leadership could have saved Labour from the wipeout, could have given the Tories an outright majority, could have made the Lib Dem breakthrough a reality. (This is clearly magical thinking to some extent – after all, if all the parties had performed better their results would presumably be stuck pretty much at their current level. Also, the idea that the leader has a defining influence on the party’s performance smacks of power-worship and is almost certainly inaccurate anyway. But we’ll go with it for the time being, because the current stalemate does put the leaders front and centre, and I want to think about what they’re going to do next.)

Now, the one thing a party leader can never do – or not while remaining party leader – is to lose face by conceding to criticism from others. (This is what made the Gillian Duffy story so grimly fascinating; Brown did nothing that we haven’t all done, but his political position meant that a loss of face was a tremendous risk – and it was extraordinarily difficult to extricate himself without one.) There are two main strategies for dealing with criticism without losing face: one is to double down and make a virtue of the position being criticised, demonstrating its strengths and merits; the other is to adopt the criticism as one’s own and address it without seeming to concede anything to the critics, getting out of trouble in a kind of knight’s move. All three of the main party leaders are going to have to adopt one of these tactics over the next few days, and it’ll be interesting to see which escape route they each choose.

What Brown did wrong – or what Brown will be seen to have done wrong; or the area where Brown will be seen to have gone wrong by acting like Brown – was to hang on like grim death: refusing an early election, refusing a leadership election, refusing to resign as leader, refusing to call the election until the very last minute. Right from when he took over from Blair, Brown was determined to k. b. o., in Churchill’s immortal phrase. It’s going to be hard over the next few days for him to make a virtue of this approach; flexibility and surprise are going to be at a premium. The obvious escape route – in more ways than one – would be to resign, but I don’t see Brown resigning as PM or party leader and simply walking away, like Heath in 1974 (as PM) or Wilson in 1976; I think his parting gift to the party would be to resign in such a way as to hand power to a chosen successor, as the prospective head of a coalition government. I haven’t the faintest idea how that could be fixed – it would need to involve an awful lot of talking to the Lib Dems and other parties – but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown’s working on it.

What Clegg did wrong – or where Clegg went wrong by acting unlike Ashdown or Kennedy, say – was clearly to move the party to the Right. You can look at this as an attempt to return to equidistance between the main parties after getting uncomfortably close to Labour, or simply as a move rightwards: tailoring the party’s approach to its main target seats by appealing to Tory voters, while banking the support the party had already gained from former Labour voters. Either way, it backfired spectacularly on the night: faced with a party that seemed destined for coalition and refused to rule out coalition with their least favoured party, many people not only declined to vote Lib Dem but actually cast an anti-Lib Dem vote. 23% isn’t a bad vote, but it’s well down in the realms of the third-party squeeze – in a way that the 26-28% the polls seemed to promise wouldn’t have been. Clegg could double down on the move rightwards by sealing the deal with Cameron; he could even double down on ‘equidistance’ by proposing a Grand Coalition, although I suspect that if he was going to do this he would have done it by now. These options would not be without problems, to put it mildly. I’ve been defending the Lib Dems for years, pointing out their radical policies to Labour loyalists and socialists who dismiss them as ‘yellow Tories’. I’ll never say another word in their defence if they make a deal with Cameron now – and I imagine there are many more like me, some of whom have actually voted for them. The alternative would be to cut the knot by dumping equidistance, shifting back leftwards and forming a ‘progressive’ alliance; that would work – it could solve our problems as well as Clegg’s own – but I’m not sure Clegg’s the man to do it.

Cameron is probably in the worst position of all, and in the most need of some quick and innovative thinking (hmm…). His critics are sure he’s done something wrong – something bad enough to turn a Tory landslide into a mere 307 seats, without even any Ulster Unionists to prop up the numbers – but they don’t agree on what it is. For every Tory who thinks Cameron should never have linked up with the assorted nutters of the European Conservative and Reformist group, there’s one who thinks he’s too much of a Europhile; for every Tory who thinks he should face down the climate change deniers, homophobes and cadet Teabaggers who now find a home in the party, there’s someone who thinks those groups are the future. And then there’s Philip Blond and the ‘Big Society’ theme, which hardly anyone has any enthusiasm for – but it’s hard to even hang that on Cameron, since it’s not clear that he has much enthusiasm for it either. The problem is, he’s not a conviction politician and never has been; he’s Dave from PR (or rather, Eton, BalliolBrasenose and PR). Both of the tactics I’ve been describing – doubling down on the offending behaviour or convincingly repudiating it – are going to be hard for Cameron, since they would require him first to identify something people think he’s doing wrong and then to make a convincing case for it. (Or, indeed, against it.) I think rather than open any of these ideological cans of worms, he’ll take a couple of steps back and conceptualise his approach to leading the party as one in which they trust him and he gives them power – and on that basis where he’s gone wrong is in failing to deliver. This would make the escape route easy to identify, too: he gives them power, they get off his back.

With all this in mind, I think we can expect the Tories to go quite a long way to meet the Lib Dems halfway. Whether it will be enough is another matter, as the one thing they will need the most in that situation – some way of maintaining their credibility on the Left – won’t be in the Tories’ gift. Cameron could go some way to providing it by offering the Lib Dems a loose alliance, with a free vote on non-confidence measures; however, this wouldn’t be enough to solve his own problem, by guaranteeing the Tories power as well as office. At some not too distant point it’ll be up to Brown to produce a better offer, i.e. one which solves his problem as well as Clegg’s; in principle this seems, if anything, more achievable than a durable Lib Dem/Tory deal, but the practicalities may be against it.

With the possibility of PR aroud the corner and the possibility of the Lib Dems taking a definitive step to the Right in the mean time, the stakes are high. The British political scene may be about to become a great deal more fluid, or the music may be about to stop, freezing it in a definitively right-of-centre configuration. All we know at the moment is that it’s not over yet; we can still hope for the best as well as fearing the worst.

UpdateThoughtful postscript The question is what arrangements there are which would allow two of the party leaders to pull off one of the self-justifying/self-exculpatory moves described above. As we’ve seen, Clegg could answer the critics of equidistance by collapsing the Lib Dem waveform either rightwards or leftwards. Justifying himself by sticking it out seems less likely, if only because the only practical way of doing this – offering a Grand Coalition – is in nobody else’s interest. Going Left would probably be easier than going Right, if only because the Tories are unlikely to be able to offer enough to make the deal palatable to the Lib Dem base. But if the Lib Dems can’t meet Cameron halfway, he’s going to be stuck: unlike the other two leaders, there isn’t a reverse gear (or a knight’s move) available to him. All he can do is double down on being him: Dave from PR, the sincere opportunist, the liberal Tory, the reactionary moderniser; all the contradictions of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party swept under one shiny new market-ready carpet. But that’s only going to work for as long as it delivers results, which it may be about to stop doing.

As for Brown, a good move would be to make a virtue of repudiating his limpet-like tendencies, by offering his resignation as a sweetener to a deal with Clegg. As well as being a costly signal, this would up the ante on the Lib Dems (what else do you want?). A really good move would be to make a virtue of going while also making a virtue of staying, as the one politician capable of steering Britain through these troubled times, and so forth.

Clegg has, of course, said that he’ll give the Tories first go at winning him over, but it occurs to me that he might be playing quite a clever game. If Clegg had announced after the election that the Lib Dems would talk to both major parties, he’d have been lynched by the press. So perhaps the plan is to talk publicly to the Tories, but also talk to Labour without telling them. Then, by the time the Tories reach their high bid, Labour will know the target they need to beat; they’ll also know by then that they need to make an offer pronto. These could be very interesting times.

That was a thoughtful and prescient postscript written on the 8th of May. Not an update written with hindsight on the very interesting evening of the 10th – certainly not.

The world’s behind you

As I write it’s 9.30 a.m. and 614 of 650 seats have declared. The Conservatives have 290 of them. Taking into account the Speaker’s Buckingham constituency, this means that the possibility of David Cameron leading a majority government has just disappeared. Shouldn’t he make a speech at this point?

Last night’s extraordinary exit poll – giving the Tories 305 seats, Labour 255 and the Lib Dems only 62 – is starting to look more or less accurate, albeit a bit too generous to the Lib Dems; I’m guessing the final result will look more like 305:260:55 (with a couple more ‘Other’s than the poll reckoned for). Interesting times.

Till some progress begins

A cry from the heart at Crooked Timber:

Here is the voting record of Lynda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, from TheyWorkForYou:

Voted very strongly for allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly for replacing Trident.
Voted moderately against laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for introducing ID cards.

Never rebels against their party in this parliament.

I can’t vote for this.

I’m in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, with an untried Labour contender facing a Lib Dem MP who’s had the seat since 2005, so I haven’t got quite the same problem. Continue reading

Know your constituency: Manchester Withington

Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)

2005 results:
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)

2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)

The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.

For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. Continue reading

Maybe things are different

Following another thread in another place, here are a couple of reviews of books about Silvio Berlusconi, currently Prime Minister of Italy for the third time. As you can see, these reviews predate the 2006 elections, won by a united Left under Prodi (perhaps not quite the gran tessitore Aldo Moro was, but certainly a tessitore to be reckoned with). Consequently they also predate the 2008 elections, lost by a divided Left under Veltroni (who was either stupid enough to believe his own publicity or naive enough to believe that Berlusconi would reward him for his moderation after the inevitable defeat).

If my book (see next post down) has any relevance to contemporary Italy, it’s that all this could have been avoided if the Communist Party hadn’t got stuck in a groove of principled centre-right ‘moderation’ – of defining themselves as The Left That Wants To Be Loved By The Right. Veltroni’s act of electoral suicide suggests that they still haven’t learnt the lesson of the 1970s.

Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, power and patrimony

Printed in Red Pepper, February 2005

In March 2001, a 128-page book was mailed to millions of Italian households. Titled Una storia italiana (“An Italian Story”), the book told the story of Silvio Berlusconi: a man from a poor background who had grown rich through hard work and loyalty to his friends, and who now wanted to serve his country. In May 2001, Cinderella went to the ball: Berlusconi became Prime Minister for the second time, leading a coalition which received nearly 50% of the vote. Berlusconi’s own party took nearly 30% – almost twice the vote of its nearest rival, the post-Communist Left Democrats.

Berlusconi faced several charges of corruption and fraud arising from his business career. His government acted promptly, passing laws which annulled some of Berlusconi’s court cases and obstructed others. Berlusconi still faces one charge of bribing a judge, but the court is likely to run out of time under the statute of limitation. Meanwhile, 90% of the television watched in Italy is broadcast either on the state RAI network – subject to heavy government pressure – or on Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels. In 1994 Italy’s supreme court ruled that Berlusconi’s share of terrestrial broadcasting was excessive and ordered one of his channels to transfer to satellite. In 2003, as the final deadline loomed, a decree overriding the ruling was signed by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s attitude to the Italian legal system is not so much cavalier as openly hostile. In the early 1990s Italy’s post-war ruling class disappeared under an avalanche of corruption trials. For Berlusconi, this judicial onslaught has a simple explanation: it was a Communist plot. Communists are behind his own trials; they have also occupied positions of power in RAI, the education system and the culture industry, from which they must now be extirpated. Some intellectuals now argue that the ‘First Republic’ of 1948-92 was characterised by a ‘cultural hegemony of the left’; more bluntly, Berlusconi proposes to rescue Italy from ‘fifty years of Communism’.

As well as being a leading writer of contemporary Italian history, Paul Ginsborg is active in the opposition to Berlusconi; he has criticised the ‘self referential’ politics of the Left Democrats, urging a new relationship with the forces of radical and ethical protest. This brief but valuable book shows a deep understanding of the Berlusconi phenomenon, pinpointing both his populism and his patrimonialism – an oddly feudal belief in loyalty, largesse and reciprocal favours, given greater scope by access to the assets of the Italian state. Ginsborg’s partisanship is unmistakable but does not cloud his judgment; if anything it has a positive effect, bringing the gravity of his charges against Berlusconi into sharp focus.

Unfortunately, Ginsborg says little about the background to Berlusconi’s apparent paranoia. Italy’s stagnant and corrupt political class, whose heir Berlusconi is, was rooted in a diffuse culture of illegality; for many Italians under the First Republic, giving and receiving bribes was a way of life. Opposition to this situation came largely from the Left, which built a thriving and influential sub-culture out of its exclusion from political power; left-wing judges, in particular, were staunch defenders of the Italian Constitution and of ethics in public life. The two coalitions which faced off in 2001 were an imperfect but genuine reflection of two conflicting cultures; one of them has won its most decisive victory in over forty years, and now intends to make it permanent. The Italian Left urgently needs to combine unity with radicalism and a renewed commitment to ethical politics; it’s a challenging combination, but this is a challenging conjuncture. In the British press, Berlusconi is too often presented as comical, ludicrous or merely contemptible. Ginsborg gives him his due, taking the threat that he presents entirely seriously.

David Lane, Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power

Printed in the Independent, 14/9/2004

Italy’s vocation for political turmoil is matched by the sluggishness of its courts: cases continue for months or years; charges are annulled to cut the backlog; sentences only take effect after appeal, by which time the original charge may have expired under the statute of limitations.

Under another system, the Italian prime minister might now be a convicted criminal. Silvio Berlusconi has been found guilty of corruption and false accounting (verdicts reversed on appeal) and illegally financing Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party (charge expired during appeal). A conviction for perjury was annulled. An associate was jailed for bribing a judge; another was convicted for extortion and faces charges of Mafia involvement.

For Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, this judicial onslaught is a Communist conspiracy to deprive the Italian people of their chosen leader. This allegation intimidates Berlusconi’s critics. Since Forza Italia and its allies came to power in May 2001, a more direct – and dangerous – approach has become available. A series of measures have been passed that hamper magistrates investigating false accounting, cases using Mafia informers, and those involving high-ranking politicians.

David Lane writes for The Economist, which Berlusconi sued for libel after it suggested he was unfit to lead Italy. Berlusconi’s Shadow is a withering indictment of crony capitalism, executive thuggery and government incompetence. For Lane, Berlusconi is a shrewd but amoral businessman who entered politics to safeguard his interests and is now out of his depth. This contrasts with the picture presented by writers such as Paul Ginsborg, for whom Berlusconi’s combination of anti-political populism and media power makes him a real threat to democracy.

The test will come in the 2006 elections. Italy’s governing coalition looks fragile; the ex-Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale are bizarrely emerging as standard-bearers of principled conservatism. But neither the strength of Forza Italia nor Berlusconi’s will to power should be underestimated. With the left in long-term disarray, and court cases still hanging over the prime minister, Italy faces several more years of political instability.

Some are workers, some are not

There was a curious piece in the ‘Work’ section of Saturday’s Guardian (I only read it for the problem page). It was headed

10 things we’ve learned so far

We send our reporters around the UK to see what happens in a downturn

but on inspection there were only three things that they’d learnt from their roving reporters; the other seven were single-paragraph makeweights. The three big investigative findings were

1. We innovate more
Kate Burt meets the start-ups who won’t be put off by a credit crunch.

2. We’re willing to lower our sights
Lydia Stockdale and Huma Quereshi interview workers who swallowed their pride to do a job they previously thought beneath them.

and

3. We don’t like ‘foreigners’ taking ‘our’ jobs
Hsiao-Hung Pai visits migrant Italian workers living on a barge in Grimsby.

OK. Now, I’ll admit to having taken a fairly optimistic view of the Lindsey strike from day one. I’m in favour of people being able to travel to look for work, but I’m even more in favour of people not having to travel any further than they want to. I don’t see anything inherently problematic in a workforce in location X objecting to being replaced by a workforce which the employer has bussed in (or shipped in) for the purpose; I certainly don’t think any such protest is inherently racist or xenophobic, as Pai’s scare-quotes rather strongly suggest. (“We don’t like the boss taking the jobs we were doing off us” wouldn’t have quite the same ring to it.)

But it can’t be denied that the strike did acquire some definite nationalist overtones, thanks not least to some of its supporters on the mainstream Left. So it was heartening to see the demands which (thanks to Socialist Party members) the strike committee adopted – demands which rather pointedly don’t frame the strike in nationalist terms.

• No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
• All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement
• Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members
• Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers
• All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
• Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – via interpreters – to give right of access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members

There have been different views on what the strike achieved. The Socialist Party remained upbeat:

the original contractor, Shaw, had been told that they had lost part of the work to an Italian company, IREM, who would bring in their own workforce from Italy and elsewhere to do the job. As a result, Shaw had told the shop stewards on the site that some of their members would be made redundant from 17 February to make way for the Italian workers.

What was crucial in this was not the fact that they were Italian or Portuguese but that they would not be part of the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI). Why? Because under the EU directives, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, employing those workers under NAECI conditions would be seen as a “restraint on trade” and therefore against the freedom of movement of labour and capital enshrined in the EU capitalist club’s rules and regulations.

It was clear that the IREM workers were not in a union, Italian or otherwise. Italian union confederation CGIL leader Sabrina Petrucci was quoted in the Morning Star on 6 February saying that IREM is a notorious non-union firm.

In a major breakthrough, part of the deal allows for the shop stewards to check that the jobs filled by the Italian and Portuguese workers are on the same conditions as the local workers covered by the NAECI agreement. The Lindsey oil refinery is what is known as a ‘blue book’ site and all workers on it should be covered by the NAECI agreement. This means in practice that the union-organised workers will be working alongside the IREM-employed Italian workers and will be able to “audit” whether or not this is the case.

Unite’s statement is rather less gung-ho; but then, it wasn’t a union strike, and as such there must have been an element of relief when it was over. But even Derek Simpson stops short of trotting out the “British jobs for British workers” line again:

Unite joint general secretary, Derek Simpson said, “This is a good deal which establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers on British construction projects. We now expect other companies in the construction industry to level the playing field for UK workers. The workers involved in the unofficial strike can now get back to work.

“Lindsey is part of a much wider problem that will not go away just because the workers at Lindsey have voted to go back to work. There are still employers who are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on construction projects. No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job.”

Some on the left have pointed to what IREM told ACAS, suggesting that the strike was based on a misapprehension: supposedly IREM already were abiding by the provisions of the ‘blue book’ (even though they didn’t have to), and the only substantive difference in pay and conditions had to do with the timing of meal breaks. On the other hand, ACAS do concede that IREM couldn’t provide documentary evidence of what they were claiming; on those grounds alone, the role which the settlement grants to shop stewards is a step forward. I also think that, if it’s a choice between “hiring decisions made by corporate management” and “hiring decisions made by corporate management and local unionised workers”, anyone on the Left should prefer the latter in almost all circumstances.

In short, what the strike achieved was: to make the demands of local workers a factor in corporate decision-making; to ensure that all workers, whether locally-based or brought in temporarily, are employed on terms better than the minimum required by EU law; and to give the unions a role in policing this agreement. (The unions hadn’t done a lot to earn this – but then, the unions do tend to turn up in time to take the benefits of wildcat actions, even when they’ve been sitting on the sidelines all the way through. Oops, little bit of workerism, my name’s Toni Negri goodnight.) On a broader level, the strike also legitimised the idea of wildcat industrial action and demonstrated that anti-union legislation can be ignored if you’ve got the numbers. Basically, the job’s a good ‘un. But you wouldn’t know it from Hsiao-Hung Pai:

Francesco and Gianluca are two of the 100 Italians who arrived in late January on a four-month contract to work at the French oil giant, Total, at Lindsey oil refinery in Immingham. Francesco, in his late forties, has worked as a welder in Tunisia and Libya. Gianluca, in his thirties, has worked in Croatia and Germany. “This is my first time in the UK,” Francesco says, “and it is the first time in my 20 years of working abroad that I’ve experienced anti-foreign feelings.”

Their employment by Italian company Irem, for the building of a sulphurisation facility at Total, prompted a wave of nationwide wildcat strikes involving more than 6,000 workers on 20 construction sites – all angry that “foreign workers” are taking “British jobs”. The Unite union says the strikes are about challenging the Posted Workers Directive and ensuring service providers follow national agreements across the EU. And yet the unions have rallied behind the divisive slogan of “British jobs for British workers”, and alienated migrant workers in the process.

I think ‘divisive’ is a bit strong. ‘Potentially divisive’, fair enough, but it’s not an inherently divisive slogan: it’s perfectly possible to read that slogan as saying “people based here want to carry on working here (and we’re throwing Gordon Brown’s words back at him)”. Apart from anything else, I’m not aware of any evidence (and Pai doesn’t quote any) that migrant workers have been alienated; indeed, I know of some unionists who have gone to some lengths to try and stop this happening. More to the point, what’s with that ‘and yet’? There’s no dishonesty here, and not much in the way of contradiction. Yes, Unite – in the person of Mr Simpson – has ‘rallied behind’ that slogan, although (as we’ve seen) even he has backed away from it now. But the strike was about challenging the Posted Workers Directive; the worst you can charge Simpson with is inconsistency. Besides, Simpson and Unite weren’t even involved. The fact that the strike took place outside union structures, and that the strike committee itself disowned that slogan, would surely be worth mentioning in any reasonably complete account of the dispute.

Francesco says the real issue is about the system of subcontracting which isn’t specific to overseas firms and affects workers of all nationalities. “Irem pays differentiated wages to its workers,” he explains. “The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK. Ten of us welders are on €12 per hour but the 80 labourers are on €7 per hour. And the new 100 British workers [starting work following an agreement with the unions] will be on the same rate.” Gianluca looks at my interpreter friend. “I remember migrants in Italy, like Bulgarian workers … They earn less than half our rate, for doing the same skilled jobs. I asked myself, the Bulgarians are also specialists like us, why are they only earning €5? All [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights.”

Interesting information – although I don’t quite follow the bit about how a system in which The hourly rate ranges from €14 [£12.50] in Bologna to €12 in the UK isn’t specific to overseas firms. More to the point, the demand that all [posted] workers should be paid equally and have the same rights was exactly what the strike was about – and exactly what the victory of the strike achieved, albeit only in one location (so far – la lotta continua).

But instead of advocating equal conditions for all workers, British trade unions have bowed to nationalist pressure and fought for quotas for British workers. Picket line racist abuse was treated as acceptable. “I saw a Lindsey steward give out union jack flags to strikers here,” said local activist John Shemeld of the Staythorp power plant strike. “The leadership [of the strikes] is not racist, but they don’t challenge racism.”

This is extraordinarily misleading. First, as noted above, the strike took place outside any union structures; in this instance ‘British trade unions’ haven’t ‘fought’ for anything. Second, the strike committee fought for “equal conditions for all workers” and a one-off quota (not “quotas”) for locally-based (not “British”) workers; the two aren’t contradictory. (I suspect that the enforcement of equal conditions will make shipped-in labour less attractive anyway, but even if this weren’t the case I would see the quota as making British and Italian workers more rather than less equal.) Third, Pai doesn’t tell us anything about this “picket-line racist abuse” (what, when, how much); or who it “was treated as acceptable” by; or, for that matter, what the connection was between this abuse (whatever it was), its toleration (whoever did tolerate it) and that “nationalist pressure” (whatever that means). There certainly was “nationalist pressure” on the picket line, in the sense that the BNP turned up; the BNP turned up and they were told to clear off. Again, you wouldn’t learn this from Pai. There’s a general, woozy slippage between ‘racism’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘willingness to adopt patriotic imagery’ here, exemplified by that closing line from “local activist John Shemeld”. Shemeld seems to read tolerance of racism into the sight of a steward handing out Union Jacks – not ideal, certainly, but it’s worth noting that shop stewards couldn’t hand out anything with a union logo on, given that it was a wildcat strike.

In short, I think Hsiao-Hung Pai’s either got a very superficial understanding of the dispute or been misinformed. It’s great that she managed to talk to the Italian workers, but it’s a shame she didn’t speak to any of the local activists who were actually involved in the strike; I’m sure they could have helped her come up with something better. (I wouldn’t mind so much, only the other two articles were bobbins – especially 2. We’re willing to lower our sights. Apparently packing stuff in a warehouse doesn’t pay as well as being an investment banker, but you don’t have to get up so early. Or it might have been the other way round. Being a part-time lecturer in 2009 doesn’t pay as well as editing a magazine in 1998, I can tell you that, and you still have to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t go back, though – apart from anything else, that magazine doesn’t come out any more. But I digress.)

Give or take a few

My book: an announcement and a question.

I’m quite excited about my book. Or should I say, my book – for lo, that’s an actual link to a page where you can, apparently, pre-order it, with free UK delivery and everything. And here’s the publisher’s page about the book, and here’s what it says there:

‘More work! Less pay!’

Rebellion and repression in Italy, 1972–77
Phil Edwards

In the mid-1970s, a wave of contentious radicalism swept through Italy. Groups and movements such as ‘Proletarian youth’, ‘metropolitan Indians’ and ‘the area of Autonomy’ practised new forms of activism, confrontational and often violent. Creative and brutal, intransigent and playful, the movements flourished briefly before being suppressed through heavy policing and political exclusion.

This is the first full-length study in English of these movements. Building on Sidney Tarrow’s ‘cycle of contention’ model and drawing on a wide range of Italian materials, Phil Edwards tells the story of a unique and fascinating group of political movements, and of their disastrous engagement with the mainstream Left. As well as shedding light on a neglected period of twentieth century history, this book offers lessons for understanding today’s contentious movements (‘No Global’, ‘Black Bloc’) and today’s ‘armed struggle’ groups.

This book will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of Italian politics and society; the sociology of social movements; and terrorism and political violence.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. The Hot Autumn and after: a cycle of contention reconsidered
3. From Resistance to Historic Compromise: the politics of the PCI
4. From Feltrinelli to Moro: a second cycle of contention
5. ‘Repudiate all forms of intolerance’: how the movements were framed
6. A cycle and its aftermath
7. Do you remember revolution?
8. Social movements and cycles of contention: theoretical appendix

The book itself is currently sitting on the floor of our front room in the form of proofs (proofs! actual proofs of my book!) – proofs which I’m going to have to check before too long, to say nothing of producing an index.

Setting aside my new-authorial giddiness (which mostly evaporated when I started thinking about indexing anyway), I honestly think this is a book that’s well worth publishing. It is the first full-length study in English of the Italian movements of the 1970s – the great archipelago of Autonomia, the ‘proletarian youth’, the indiani metropolitani, the movimento del ’77 and all – not to mention the vast and complex panorama of ‘armed struggle’ groups which flourished and declined alongside them. There’s some of this in Storming Heaven, Steve Wright’s excellent book on operaismo and Autonomia; there’s some about the movimento in one chapter of Robert Lumley’s States of Emergency; and there are a couple of very good books about the armed groups by David Moss and Donatella della Porta. But to get a proper overview of the scene, you’ve basically had to read Italian. Up to now!

All right, so it’s an academic specialism like any other, and I only think it’s fascinating and important because it’s my academic specialism – someone else could make an equally good case for a new atlas of French regional dialects or a groundbreaking study of variations in snail shell thickness. But I do think it’s fascinating and important – and since this is my blog, I’ll take the space to tell you why.

Italian politics often looks a bit weird, seen from the outside, and the mid- to late 1970s were a particularly weird period. It had two particularly striking features. Firstly, you had a political system that was becoming more and more ossified, heading for the final stasis of the ‘five party’ period (when every political party to the Left of the Fascists and to the Right of the Communists was locked into a permanent coalition around the ruling Christian Democrats). The Communists – who had been systematically excluded from power since 1948 – tried to challenge the Christian Democrats’ dominance of Italian politics, but they did so (this is the weird part) by asking to be allowed to share power; the word ‘begging’ also comes to mind. The Communists’ approach was politically abject; it was tactically inept (the Christian Democrats under Aldo Moro ran rings around them), and it was strategically disastrous (the party never recovered, and arguably still hasn’t). Whether ideologically or in terms of party self-interest, it made no sense at all. Why did they do it?

Well, you’ll have to read chapter 3, but a large part of what was going on had to do with the second oddity of the period. In the late 1960s there had been a huge amount of industrial militancy, beginning outside the unions and very largely escaping their control. The wave of activism culminated at the very end of the decade, with an official settlement agreed in December 1969; this got the workers most of what they’d wanted, while also giving the unions what they’d wanted by acknowledging their representative role in the workplace. So in 1970 everyone went back to work, to be greeted with a pay rise plus official union representation, and things went back to normal. What’s extraordinary is what happened next: over the next few years, things started kicking off again, in the name of direct action against inflation. Rent strikes, bus fare strikes, utility strikes, ‘proletarian shopping’ (à la Can’t pay? Won’t pay!)… it was all happening, facilitated in many cases by people who’d cut their teeth in the wildcat strikes of the 60s. It’s a period of extraordinarily active and widespread protest and agitation; it didn’t go anywhere near the official Left (represented by the poor old Communist Party); and, for the most part, it didn’t go near the workplace either.

So you had political stasis, a supine official Left and some fairly wild scenes in the streets, in the campuses and on the estates. And then you had the interaction between the movements and the Communist Party, which is the analytical heart of my book. Following news stories in the Communist Party’s paper l’Unità over a period of five years, I analyse the party’s dominant ‘framings’ of the movements – how the party leadership saw them, and how it wanted party members to see them. Hostility to the movements is not surprising – these were, after all, potential political rivals. What is surprising, and marks a sharp departure from the Party’s approach to the activism of the late 60s, is the hostility expressed towards the movements’ members, their demands and their culture. Instead of offering to take the movements under its wing, the Party essentially dismissed them in their entirety, after labelling them as breeding-grounds for nihilist hooligans and fascist provocateurs. This ‘scorched-earth’ policy made life extremely difficult for the movements, deprived of any kind of sponsor from within the political mainstream; from this point of view it could be said to have been a success. However, it also led inexorably to the Communist Party denying itself a major potential source of new members and new ideas, and alienating much of its existing support. And they never did get to share power with the Christian Democrats.

It’s a fascinating and in many ways a tragic period. More to the point, the scale and diffusion of activism makes it a very unusual period in European history. To think of another like it I think you’d need to go back to May ’68, if not to Barcelona ’36 – and both of those have had plenty written about them, even in English. Yes, Steve Wright’s book is good – and the chapter in Robert Lumley’s book – but I really think this is the first book in English to do the period justice. I don’t expect you’ll buy it, though, unless you’ve got an institutional budget. Here’s the problem: the initial edition is hardback only. The planned cover price is £60, or approximately 30p per page. There’s a possibility of a paperback edition, which I might be able to recommend people to buy with a straight face; there’s a possibility, if the hardback edition sells. It’s an edition of 400.

All giddiness spent, I know the topic of the radical left in Italy in the 1970s isn’t that fascinating to that many people; I know the book’s never going to sell a million. I think it’s got a definite readership, though, not all of whom frequent university libraries. With a fair wind I think it could sell a few thousand – if it was affordable.

So here’s the question, aimed particularly at anyone who’s been in a similar position or knows people who have (hi Daniel!): how can I sell (say) 300 academic hardbacks, knowing that they’re realistically only going to be bought by libraries and eccentric millionaires? Advertising? Journal papers (Phil Edwards is the author of…)? Word of mouth at conferences? Emails to everyone I’ve ever met who might be interested (Forgive the impersonal approach, NO STOP PLEASE DON’T DELETE THaaah, too late)? Blog posts like this one?

Any suggestions will be gratefully received. (And I really don’t expect you to buy the book yourself. Unless you’re a librarian and/or an eccentric millionaire, of course, in which case feel free.)

It’s over there

A quick post to register a rather striking piece of news (via), which didn’t seem to get much notice in the British media. First, here’s the complete text of a piece on torture from the January 2008 Washington Monthly:

According to the latest polls, two-thirds of the American public believes that torturing suspected terrorists to gain important information is justified in some circumstances. How did we transform from champions of human dignity and individual rights into a nation of armchair torturers? One word: fear.

Fear is blinding, hateful, and vengeful. It makes the end justify the means. And why not? If torture can stop the next terrorist attack, the next suicide bomber, then what’s wrong with a little waterboarding or electric shock?

The simple answer is the rule of law. Our Constitution defines the rules that guide our nation. It was drafted by those who looked around the world of the eighteenth century and saw persecution, torture, and other crimes against humanity and believed that America could be better than that. This new nation would recognize that every individual has an inherent right to personal dignity, to justice, to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

We have preached these values to the world. We have made clear that there are certain lines Americans will not cross because we respect the dignity of every human being. That pledge was written into the oath of office given to every president, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” It’s what is supposed to make our leaders different from every tyrant, dictator, or despot. We are sworn to govern by the rule of law, not by brute force.

We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security. Those who support torture may believe that we can abuse captives in certain select circumstances and still be true to our values. But that is a false compromise. We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.
- Leon E. Panetta

This kind of self-congratulatory American visionary liberalism sets my teeth on edge, I have to admit – “We are better than that”? Really? – but at least here it’s being invoked against the barbarities of power, not as a cover for them. And these particular barbarities have flourished exuberantly over the last seven years, so it’s refreshing to hear any sign of unyielding opposition to them from within the US establishment, however syrupy the rhetoric.

Anyway, about that news story. From the 5th January New York Times:

President-elect Barack Obama has selected Leon E. Panetta, the former congressman and White House chief of staff, to take over the Central Intelligence Agency

Obama’s going to let us down – oh, how he’s going to let us down. (I’m particularly not looking forward to his first statement on Gaza.) But this is seriously good news – better than I’d ever have expected.

“We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Leon Panetta, the next head of the CIA.

Update 17/1

Obama, 11/1:

Vice President Cheney I think continues to defend what he calls extraordinary measures or procedures when it comes to interrogations and from my view waterboarding is torture. I have said that under my administration we will not torture

our United States military is under fire and has huge stakes in getting good intelligence. And if our top army commanders feel comfortable with interrogation techniques that are squarely within the boundaries of rule of law, our constitution and international standards, then those are things that we should be able to (INAUDIBLE)

Perhaps more significantly, Bush administration appointee Susan Crawford, 14/1:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution]“.

Something’s changing out there. The fundamental point is that there is a difference between interrogation and torture: interrogation is about extracting information, but torture is about breaking people. And when a person’s broken they can’t give reliable testimony. This, I think, made Guantánamo Bay too much of an anomaly for even Bush’s attack lawyers to assimilate into legal normality. Give waterboarding – or stress positions, or hooding and white noise in a white room – what names you like, there is still such a thing as torture; it’s defined by its effects, and its key effect is to nullify a suspect’s legal personhood. Under Bush and Cheney that was a small price to pay: it also made terrorist suspects safe, after all, and it might produce some usable intelligence along the way; the rest was just a question of human warehousing. For Obama – as for ‘lifelong Republican’ Crawford, and doubtless many more like her – it’s just not how it’s done.

I like that ‘(INAUDIBLE)’, though.

The high and the low

(Updated Christmas Eve, after spotting a flaw in my statistical analysis. I am deeply sad.)

Now that it’s well and truly over, two things really stick in my mind about the Manchester Congestion Charge vote. (Strictly speaking, the Manchester Transport Innovation Fund vote – but I don’t think it’s a fund that we voted to reject.)

One is the sheer strangeness of the Yes campaign. As you’ll already know if you live anywhere in Greater Manchester, this was a huge campaign. The public transport companies were in favour anyway, so you couldn’t get on a bus or a tram without being invited to vote Yes. But you couldn’t wait for a bus – or look out of the window once it started moving – without your eyes being met by the dull-eyed, faintly reproachful gaze of the Vote Yes People. (Click around the site for more. Perhaps not late at night.) They were everywhere. According to that Web site, the campaign was sponsored by TCS (a property company) and Practicus (an ‘interim management’ company, which seems to be something like middle-management recruitment only not quite; perhaps you don’t get an actual job at the end of it). Those two companies must be doing remarkably well, to have all that money to spend on someone else’s publicity; clearly names to watch. From the Vote Yes campaign’s point of view, though, I do wonder that nobody seems to have considered the potential downside of this level of saturation publicity. People don’t generally like being told what to do, least of all by spud-faced pod-people who purport to represent them.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if the content of the campaign had been different. There were three waves of pod-people posterage, each a variation on the basic theme of What An Ordinary Manchester Person Is Thinking. (And ‘thinking’ is the word: nobody was actually speaking in those pictures. Look into my eyes! Hear my thoughts!) The first wave was the deeply annoying “I won’t be paying” theme. This wasn’t encouraging civil disobedience (which would probably be fairly futile with the level of surveillance required by the scheme). Rather, it was based on the idea that most people wouldn’t be making car journeys which would be hit by the charge – supposedly ‘eight out of ten people wouldn’t pay’ – and therefore most people ought to vote Yes.

This was a bad approach on so many levels. On the face of it, it was a straightforward appeal to self-interest: you want better public transport? you don’t want to pay more? lucky you, you won’t have to! But anyone who was already concerned about the charge, or suspected that they might be affected, had already had ample opportunities to do the sums for their own situations. (Full disclosure: I worked out that I’d be charged once a week. I really resented that.) Even if only 20% of the population was likely to be charged – and I’m sure people like me, incurring weekly charges, weren’t included in those calculations – the appeal to self-interest, for those people, would immediately backfire: saying that four out of five people wouldn’t pay isn’t much of a selling-point if you’re number 5.

For anyone who hadn’t given the charge much thought, on the other hand, the campaign could almost have been calculated to raise suspicions – precisely because of that weird and phony “we are ordinary people like you” framing. I won’t pay, says an actor representing a typical Manchester resident, because I only go into town at the weekend / I get to college by bus / I never go out of the house (I may have made up the last one). I suppose our reaction to these was supposed to be “good for us – tough luck on those people who insist on commuting by car”. Actually my instinctive reaction was “good for fictional you, but what about me?” If you’re going to appeal to self-interest, you need to get the story straight – once you start thinking in terms of “can I get something for nothing?”, you’re also thinking “am I going to get ripped off?”

The second wave was all about fairness. This time the pod people had talking points that they were mulling over (although where they got them was a mystery to me – the publicity about the actual details of the scheme was woefully limited). The emphasis was on the commitment to get the improvements to public transport into place before the charge came in; a typical poster read “Bus fares are frozen, and then the charge comes in? Sounds fair to me.” This wasn’t as actively repellent as the first phase, but it was extraordinarily weak – what do you mean, it sounds fair to you? What is this imitation of reasoning – are you saying it is fair or not – and if not, why not? Come to think of it, what’s fairness got to do with the timing of the introduction of the charge? There’s no sense in which the benefits gained in the first couple of years offset the costs imposed from that point on. Once again, this “we are ordinary people” approach provokes the very suspicions it’s apparently meant to allay – maybe it sounds ‘fair’ to you, mate, but to me it just sounds like a sweetener… And, once again, the underlying appeal is not to collective benefits or to fairness (despite the language), but to self-interest. Two years benefits upfront, free of charge? I’ll have some of that. What would genuinely sound fair would be “We’ll pay more when we drive at peak times, but we’ll get the benefit when we use public transport” – but that message never appeared.

The idea of actually paying the charge did surface in the third and final stage of the campaign, but yet again the appeal was to individual self-interest. The message here was “I want to [get from A to B quickly]. That’s why I’m voting Yes.”, with examples ranging from getting to the building site on time to putting the kids to bed. I don’t mind paying, the logic runs, because I know that other people won’t want to pay, and so the roads I drive down will be much clearer. Essentially this was the “get the plebs off the road” phase of the campaign. It seems to tap into the same vein of narcissistic fantasy that brought us the remake of SurvivorsWhat if everyone stopped using their cars to get to work except me? Wouldn’t that be brilliant?

This isn’t a full picture of the Yes campaign; there was some publicity which focused on improvements to public transport. More to the point, a lot of the actual campaigning went on by word of mouth, and here the idea that the charge might be paid for in collective benefits did get an airing. Overall, though, the Yes campaign was woeful as well as creepy. What it was trying to get us to do was assent to an additional tax, for the sake of benefits which (by government decree) couldn’t be funded any other way. The question, in other words, was “do you agree to start making a payment you’ve never had to make before and carry on paying it indefinitely, with no guarantee that the scheme won’t be extended or the toll increased, for no reason except that that’s the only offer on the table?” (The TIF was to consist of a £1500 million grant plus a £1200 million loan, a quarter of which would need to be spent on setting up the machinery to administer the scheme. And no, we couldn’t just have the £1500 million.) It appeals to a certain combination of public-spiritedness and submissive ‘realism’: you can say “yes, because I believe the investment in public transport will be worth it, and besides it’s the only offer on the table” or “yes, because I believe we should be encouraged to use our cars less (and besides…)”, but those are arguments for agreeing to a collective tax, arbitrarily imposed, in return for collective benefits. There’s just no way to sell a Yes vote in terms of individual self-interest, and it was pretty shabby of the Yes campaign to make the attempt.

The other thing that struck me about the campaign was the consistency of the voting figures, with one interesting exception. There are ten boroughs within the old Greater Manchester region; the plan was to implement two charging zones, one following the M60 and an inner ring further in towards the centre (not far enough in for my liking, but that’s by the way). Out of the ten boroughs, Bolton and Wigan are entirely outside the M60, and Rochdale almost entirely; these three boroughs presumably have the largest proportion of people who would be completely unaffected by the charge. Bury, Oldham, Tameside, Stockport and Trafford are all crossed by the M60. Manchester and Salford, finally, are divided both by the M60 and by the inner ring.

Here are the voting figures. I’ve given the percentage turnout and the No vote (as a percentage of those who voted). The dotted lines represent percentages across all ten boroughs. (Region-wide turnout: 53.2%; region-wide No vote: 78.8%.) I’ve graphed the No vote because it turns out that there was very little variation in the Yes vote, calculated as a percentage of eligible voters: 4% in total (from a low of 8.9% to a high of 12.8%), with six boroughs within 0.5% of the overall figure of 11.3%.

Congestion charge 1

Here are the same figures, normalised around those region-wide percentages: 90% means ’90% of the regional percentage turnout/No vote’.

Congestion charge 2

And here are the percentages again, sorted by No vote rather than by turnout.

Congestion charge 3

What do we see? The first thing is that turnout was respectable everywhere (the Wigan low of 45% would be very good for a local election) and better than that in a few places (over 60% in Tameside and Trafford). The second is that the No vote was overwhelming (and the Yes vote miserable) pretty much everywhere: the No vote ranged from 84.5% in Salford all the way down to 72.2% in Manchester. This wasn’t a multiple-choice question or a choice between several candidates: 27.8% of people who voted in Manchester voted Yes, and 72.2% voted No. For the proposal to pass, the vote had to be over 50% in seven out of ten boroughs; it didn’t even reach 30% in one.

Then there’s the correlation of turnout and No vote, which is particularly striking in the third graph: three boroughs had a below-average No vote and a below-average turnout; six had an above-average turnout and an above-average No vote. (Bolton was in between.) Look at the first graph and compare Trafford, Tameside and Stockport (crossed by the M60) with Rochdale, Bolton and Wigan (outside the M60). Outer boroughs: low turnout, relatively low No vote. Inner: high turnout, relatively high No vote. As I noted above, the Yes turnout varied between 8.9% and 12.8%, for an overall average of 11.3%. There was much more variation in the No turnout, which was 41.9% across the area, but ranged from over 50% in Trafford and Tameside to just over 33% in Wigan and Manchester. (Trafford also had an above-average Yes turnout, at 12.5%. I guess they just take voting seriously in Trafford.) There seems to be a definite correlation with geography; it looks as if, where geography made a difference, the difference was both that the congestion charge interested fewer people (lower turnout in outer boroughs) and that those who bothered to vote were more motivated by self-interest (lower No vote in outer boroughs). In short, the geographical patterning of the Yes vote is highly suggestive of an appeal to self-interest, while the overall level of the Yes vote suggests that this appeal has very little power to mobilise.

Lastly, there’s a glaring exception to this correlation: Manchester, the borough covering most of the city centre and hence the only borough, apart from Salford, which is crossed by both inner and outer charging rings. Salford has the record No vote, at 84.5%; turnout was a respectable 57%. Manchester, by contrast, is out there with Wigan: a turnout of only 46%, of whom 27.8% voted Yes. Clearly, the model which explains the differences between inner and outer boroughs in terms of individual self-interest can’t deal with these figures.

I haven’t got an explanation, either for the high Yes vote or for the equally puzzling low turnout. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Manchester (or at least South Manchester) may have an unusually high concentration of people sympathetic to the aims of the Congestion Charge, or of non-drivers, or both. As for the low turnout, Manchester City Council hasn’t changed hands since 1974; the council’s motto is Concilio Et Labore, and it is. Perhaps conditions like that – compounded by the fug of neo-Blairite ex-municipal-socialist hortatory corporate righteousness which has enveloped the Town Hall for the last decade – tend to promote cynicism and disengagement: they’ll do it anyway, so why encourage them? The day the vote came through the Manchester Evening News results page included a poll: “Is the Congestion Charge dead and buried?” When I looked at the page, votes were running 4:1 in favour of “It’ll be back in some form”. White Van Man won’t resist the Future forever. (And a Merry Christmas to you too, Mr Leese sir!)

Don’t let freedom fade

Belatedly, a bit more Bingham. (Updated 30/11.) And a question: what, exactly, was Martin Kettle saying in this column?

What’s most remarkable about the column is that Kettle doesn’t actually contest the argument Bingham put forward. Instead, there’s a steady drip-feed of insinuations that Bingham’s speech shouldn’t be taken seriously, whatever it was he actually said (he’s retired! the speech was provocative! Peter Goldsmith disagrees with it!). Then there’s a suggestion that it doesn’t have any bearing on the real world:

There are, moreover, two important practical objections to Bingham’s view. The first, as he acknowledged in his lecture, is that international law is hard to enforce. Its rules are regularly honoured in the breach, not least but not only by the US, which has been involved in some 40 military actions against sovereign states in the past quarter century. The second is that, in practice, the security council may be incapable of authorising otherwise legally justifiable military action because China or Russia will use their veto to prevent it. In practice, therefore, Bingham seems to be in danger of arguing that lawful military action is military action that Vladimir Putin permits – a position that would make international law an ass.

The first of these points can be quickly disposed of; the argument seems to be that the statement “the US has violated international law” is invalidated by the observation that the US has repeatedly violated international law in the past. This objection only really makes sense if we believe that the way lawyers think about international law should be conditioned by the way the Reagan and Bush governments have thought about it. More generally, it’s quite possible to argue that international law is meaningless, powerless or irrelevant, but those arguments aren’t usable against any particular statement within the field of international law. If international law is irrelevant, Bingham’s entire speech is irrelevant and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. There are traces of this Know-Nothing position in Kettle’s column, notably in the series of assorted jeers which serve as an introduction, but clearly it’s not a position he’s willing to commit himself to.

The second point seems a bit more substantial, but in fact betrays a similar misunderstanding of international law. No, international law doesn’t get anything done except by agreement among sovereign states, but that’s the nature of international law. Yes, lawful military action is military action approved by the government of Russia – and by the government of the USA, and by the governments of the rest of the states represented on the Security Council. The notion of otherwise legally justifiable military action is meaningless: whatever the grounds on which it might in theory be justifiable, military action is legally justified at the point when it’s approved by the Security Council, and not before. What Kettle seems to be hankering after is a kind of unilateralist version of international law: law as a set of principles (liberty, democracy, justice and so on), which could be invoked to justify lawful military action by any state, or group of states, without waiting to gain international agreement. This makes perfect sense, as long as we consider the purpose of international law to be that of maximising international conflict.

But it’s with Kettle’s conclusion that things get really strange. What – and it’s a genuine question – is he actually saying here?

The importance of Bingham’s lecture is not that Britain’s most distinguished lawyer has finally had the opportunity to say that Blair’s war in Iraq was illegal – though that isn’t insignificant. Its real importance is in pointing to the paradoxical fact that a major legacy of Iraq has been the boost it has given to the rule of law and to the wider process of codification in international affairs. As Bingham himself said towards the end of his compelling lecture, it is unlikely that states chastened by their experience in Iraq will be eager to repeat it. While they have not been hauled before the ICJ or any other tribunal, these states have been judged unfavourably by public opinion and thus their standing has been damaged.

The Iraq war was unnecessary and unwise. It may also have been unlawful. It is also, to all intents, over. Yet whether it was unlawful or not, the reality is that the states and the individuals who undertook it have been haunted by it ever since and may continue to be. An epochal public judgment has been made, even if it has not been made by a judge in a courtroom.

That judgment will forever haunt one man in particular. George Bush gives every impression of never wishing to leave the confines of Texas ever again in his life. But as he prepares to depart the White House he too will be diminished as all retiring leaders must be. In particular he will lose his mantle of presidential immunity.

It would be remarkable, right at this moment, if White House lawyers were not actively rehearsing the national and international legal position of the president and his lieutenants. This is the scorched earth, document-shredding period of the Bush presidency and it is possible, though improbable, that Bush may even seek a pardon for himself as Richard Nixon did a generation ago. In a roundabout way it is a gratifying reminder that, in the end and as Lord Bingham has spent a lifetime proving, the law is always bigger than all of us.

First, “a major legacy of Iraq has been the boost it has given to the rule of law”. Then, “these states have been judged unfavourably by public opinion … An epochal public judgment has been made, even if it has not been made by a judge in a courtroom.” But as a result of this judgment, apparently, Bush may end up facing a judge in a courtroom, and that’s “a gratifying reminder that, in the end … the law is always bigger than all of us”.

I think the key to this odd passage is that weaselly half-concession, It may also have been unlawful. The legal status of the Iraq war seems to exist for Kettle in a kind of quantum superposition – at some future point we may have found out whether the war was legal or not, but until then it remains both legal and illegal, or possibly neither legal nor illegal. There are three ways to read this contradiction, all of which find some support in the column. One is straightforward, bare-faced inconsistency: the war is legal in one sentence, illegal in the next. Kettle 1 argues that, although people said the Iraq war was illegal, it was actually legal because it was a good thing. However, the results of the war have turned out to be a bad thing, which shows that in fact the war was probably illegal. But that means we can still say it was a good thing, because it’s made it more likely that states won’t wage illegal wars in future.

Clearly, the problem with this reading is that it’s blatantly self-contradictory and makes your head hurt.

Kettle 2 resolves the contradiction slightly more coherently: the war on this reading was illegal, but it indirectly, and ironically, promoted legality. Kettle 2 concedes that the people who said the Iraq war was illegal were probably right all along. But it’s still a good thing the British and US governments didn’t listen to them, because they didn’t believe that the war was illegal. The invasion and its disastrous consequences are thus indirectly a good thing, because the massive unpopularity of the war will make governments pay more attention to arguments about international law from now on.

This reading makes a bit more sense; the only problem is that nobody in government (or in opposition, come to that) is actually saying anything that suggests they might have learnt a chastening lesson from Iraq, or that they take international law any more seriously than Tony Blair did.

Kettle 3, finally, reframes the contradiction by dividing international law, and hence legality, into a set of goals and principles (good) and a set of institutions and mechanisms (bad, or rather irrelevant). The war was illegal in one sense – in the sense that international lawyers said so – but in another sense it was legal, in that it furthered the goals of law. This, it’s worth noting, is not another would you rather have Saddam back in charge? argument about the benefits of the war; for Kettle 3, the war has made the world a more lawful place through its adverse effects. The reason why it’s a good thing that the invasion went ahead is that the reaction of global public opinion has influenced the British and US governments, in ways that the doomsaying of powerless international lawyers never could. (I seem to remember that global public opinion had a bit to say about the invasion before it had even happened, but set that aside. As Daniel Davies says, very often “if only we’d known then what we know now” really means “if only I’d known then what you knew then”.)

The problem with this reading is precisely this divorce of ends and means: the claim is that the war has given a ‘boost’ to international law because some of the aims of international law have been achieved by other, non-legal means. It’s a bit like saying that a lynching which is followed by a drop in crime has given a boost to law and order. Law doesn’t have aims which can be achieved by other means; to respect the law is to commit oneself to using legal means. In international law – which is perhaps the most underdeveloped area of the law, and particularly interesting for that reason – these means are grounded in voluntary international co-operation; there is no supranational enforcement agency. For a state to commit unilateral aggression is thus not only to break the law but to undermine the rule of law.

But this is only one possible reading of a very strange column, and alternative readings are entirely possible. I give you Kettle 1, a handy phrasemaker whose arguments collapse under their own weight; Kettle 2, a cynical realist about the past and a dewy-eyed optimist about the future; and Kettle 3, who believes in the rule of law as an aspiration, and believes that the best way to establish it is to break the law we’ve got now. Take your pick.

No fear, cavalier

Airmiles was quoted in the LRB the other week:

it was clear soon after 9/11 that the Bush administration … believed that the awesome demonstration of American military muscle would intimidate present and potential enemies everywhere. The administration had its own intellectual cheerleaders and experts on the Middle East: Bernard Lewis, for instance, whose pet conviction that ‘in that part of the world, nothing matters more than resolute will and force’ was validated by the swift capitulation of the Taliban. Iraq was logically the next target. As the columnist Thomas Friedman told Charlie Rose, what the Iraqis ‘needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”’

Which part of this sentence? Well, the grammar, for a start – it seems to make the most sense if you take out that first ‘you know’ and substitute a question mark for the comma after ‘society’, but there are a few possible readings.

If the word order is mangled, the sense is pretty clear: what Iraq needed wasn’t liberation so much as harrowing, to be carried out by a kind of frat-boy Khmer Rouge. (“Suck on this”, by crikey. What is it with fellatio and humiliation in American rhetoric?) It’s just a dream – the US Army doesn’t have the manpower to go house to house, from Basra to Baghdad; it’s hard to imagine an army that would. But that basic unreality lends it power – once you start thinking if only we had ten times as many men on the ground, then our boys could sort it out! you’re not going to look kindly on any attempt to set limits to what the troop numbers actually are, or to what the troops can actually do. Fantasy lawlessness has a way of eroding real-world law.

Coincidentally, the same day I read that, I saw Lord Bingham’s response to Lord Goldsmith in the Telegraph:

In his full written advice to the Prime Minister of March 7, 2003 — not made public at the time — Lord Goldsmith QC considered that resolution 1441 could, in principle, revive the authority to use force contained in resolution 678 and suspended, but not revoked, by resolution 687. At that time, though, it was not clear to him whether the use of force required merely a discussion by the Security Council or a further resolution.

Summarising Lord Goldsmith’s reasoning, Lord Bingham said: “A reasonable case could be made that resolution 1441 was capable in principle of reviving the authorisation in resolution 678, but the argument could only be sustainable if there were ‘strong factual grounds’ for concluding that Iraq had failed to take the final opportunity. There would need to be ‘hard evidence’.”

Ten days later, in a Parliamentary written answer issued on March 17, 2003, Lord Goldsmith said it was “plain” that Iraq had failed to comply with its disarmament obligations and was therefore in material breach of resolution 687. Accordingly, the authority to use force under resolution 678 had revived. The former judge then quoted the conclusion to Lord Goldsmith’s Parliamentary statement: “Resolution 1441 would, in terms, have provided that a further decision of the Security Council to sanction force was required if that had been intended. Thus, all that resolution 1441 requires is reporting to and discussion by the Security Council of Iraq’s failures, but not an express further decision to authorise force.”

Lord Bingham was not impressed. “This statement was, I think flawed in two fundamental respects,” he said. “First, it was not plain that Iraq had failed to comply in a manner justifying resort to force and there were no strong factual grounds or hard evidence to show that it had: Hans Blix and his team of weapons inspectors had found no weapons of mass destruction, were making progress and expected to complete their task in a matter of months. Secondly, it passes belief that a determination whether Iraq had failed to avail itself of its final opportunity was intended to be taken otherwise than collectively by the Security Council.”

After reading a draft of Lord Bingham’s speech, Lord Goldsmith said he remained of the view that his conclusion was correct. “I would not have given that advice if it were not genuinely my view,” he told the telegraph.co.uk law page. Why, though, did his views appear to harden between March 7 and March 17? “Having rightly expressed caution in my earlier advice, I had formed the view during the week before the 17th that it was my job to express a clear judgment one way or the other.” Civil servants and military commanders had wanted a clear answer. “Either it was lawful or it was not,” Lord Goldsmith explained. “It could not be a little bit lawful.”

As an aside, Bingham seems unimpressed by the ‘I really believed it’ defence:

“Lord Goldsmith emphasises that he believed the advice which he gave at the time to be correct — which I have not challenged — and remains of that view.”

(Emphasis added.) I guess it’s a backhanded tribute to the anti-war movement – all those ‘Bliar’ posters must really have hit a nerve. But Bingham’s right to dismiss it as a side-issue. In law, “I didn’t mean to do it” is a defence of sorts, but an “I genuinely thought it was a good idea” defence would get you nowhere.

The big question here, and the one which really goes to Goldsmith’s competence as a legal advisor, is that last one: Why, though, did his views appear to harden between March 7 and March 17? Goldsmith’s explanation is superficially plausible but, on a closer reading, alarmingly unsatisfactory. Yes, it was his job to express a clear view about the proposed attack, and no, it couldn’t be a little bit lawful – but that’s not to say, as Goldsmith implies, that legality is an on/off property which is either present or not. A judgment on the action’s legality – not whether it would be lawful in some absolute sense, but whether it passed a threshold above which it would be lawful enough – was always going to be made. Between the 7th and 17th of March Goldsmith seems to have decided, firstly, that he was going to make that judgment himself rather than leaving it to the politicians; and secondly, that he would make it on the basis that the action would be legal unless it was clearly illegal: a little bit lawful was lawful enough. It’s debatable whether it’s appropriate for the government’s senior lawyer to spare the politicians the complexities of legal advice by offering them a simple yes/no recommendation, particularly on a decision of this importance. But it’s staggering, even now, to realise that in making this recommendation he didn’t err on the side of caution, treating the action as illegal unless it was clearly legal. Accepting for the sake of argument that removing grey areas was part of Goldsmith’s job, the question here was surely “is it more or less white?”, not “is it not entirely black?”

It gets worse. Why did Goldsmith adopt an aggression-friendly reading of resolution 1441?

Having spoken to those who negotiated the terms of the resolution, Lord Goldsmith was sure that the need for a further determination had been deliberately omitted. US diplomats would not have agreed to resolution 1441 if they thought it allowed other members of the Security Council to block military action by requiring a second resolution that might be vetoed.

Brian sums up what Goldsmith’s suggesting and is appropriately sceptical:

[The government] argues that during the secret negotiations of the text of resolution 1441, Russia and France and other Council members originally wanted the resolution to specify that the Council should take a further “decision” on what to do if Iraq continued to fail to comply with its obligations: and that by agreeing to abandon that language in favour of a requirement that the Council should merely “consider the situation” (as in the text eventually adopted), they accepted that force could be used by any state without the need for a further “decision” by the Council. There is no public record of the “negotiating history” of 1441: all we have is Lord Goldsmith’s account of it, based on his private discussions with the British and American participants. [A] public inquiry should seek to establish whether the Russian, French, German and other governments agree with this interpretation, which seems at first sight far-fetched: as Lord Bingham said, it “passes belief”.

But I think scepticism’s only half of the story. Let’s assume for the moment that Goldsmith’s account is true, or at least that he believes it to be true. (As I said earlier, I don’t think proclaiming yourself not to be a liar is a defence against anything very substantial, but it’s a defence that’s readily available to almost anyone; as a result, challenging someone’s sincerity is a good way to give them an easy win.) What does it tell us about how Goldsmith approached his job? Here’s a lawyer ruling on the legality of an action, basing his decision explicitly on three UN resolutions (678, 687 and 1441). Lawyers interpret legal decisions; it’s a large part of what they do. But Goldsmith’s interpretation of the crucial resolution 1441 isn’t based on a natural-language reading; it’s not based on precedent, either, or even on the lawyer’s standby, the appeal to the interpretation of a ‘reasonable person’. Goldsmith arrives at a borderline perverse reading of 1441 – one which the text of the resolution barely supports at all – on the basis that, if the Americans had subscribed to any other reading, they wouldn’t have let the resolution pass. In short, Goldsmith’s reading was driven by his knowledge of what the US government wanted. A drive to war in Iraq was well under way, fuelled and even to some extent steered by proto-fascist fantasies like Friedman’s. Goldsmith’s approach, on his own admission, was not to bring the law to bear on the drive to war, but to take the drive to war as read and interpret the law so as to fit it. This strikes me as a disgraceful abdication of duty (to the law, not to the government – he served them faithfully). It’s only surprising that he admits to it so readily.

Meanwhile in another part of the forest, a legal authority I’ve got rather more time for at the moment is Nigel Simmonds, whose Law as a Moral Idea is currently giving my brain some useful exercise. This rather lovely formulation is from the book’s Preface:

I am also indebted to [names omitted]. A more intelligent author could perhaps have accommodated their various criticisms and insights, to the considerable improvement of the book’s argument. This author, however, has had to rest content with the imperfect pages that now lie before the reader.

I must remember to borrow that.

…in other people’s misery

My worldview was formed in the 1970s, when (it seemed to me) there was no such thing as lifestyle: to say that personal choices mattered, were worthy of attention, was to say that the personal was political, which in turn connected those choices to a whole range of broader commitments. Because it all was connected, if you looked into it; there was no such thing as a ‘single issue’. Nuclear disarmament was linked to nuclear power, which was linked (via uranium mining) to apartheid South Africa, which was linked to Israel, which was linked to nuclear disarmament… and so on. Taking your lifestyle seriously meant that you took life seriously; if you got your veg from a wholefood shop, the chances were that you got your reading matter from a radical bookshop and your clothes (well, some of them) from a fair-trade outlet.

These days, of course, the radical bookshops are few and far between, but the wholefood shops and the fair-trade clothing outlets are doing good business. The general loss of faith in the political – specifically, in a Left that could actually change things – seems to have been compensated by a belief that the personal is political enough: spend your money the right way and you’ve done your bit. It may not actually, visibly, verifiably change anything, but it’s bound to do some good – and besides, it means you know you’ve done the right thing, and that alone is enough to make you feel better. It’s ethical consumerism as a source of emotional treats; you pay more for the Fair Trade label for the same reason you pay more for 70% cocoa solids, because it’s a luxury and it makes you feel good to be able to afford it. The consciousness of living an ethical lifestyle can even be a treat in itself, to go with other treats. We’ve got a food and drink festival starting here soon; its slogan is “Walk local, eat and drink global”. Think local, act global, in other words – food miles, working conditions, global division of labour, it’s all very complicated but at least if you leave the car at home you’ve done something.

It’s ethical tourism, in effect – and the tourism involved can be real as well as virtual.

Guardian Money section, 27/9/08, reader’s letter:

When I finished full-time work, my husband and I took three months off, starting in December, and travelled to Rajasthan (one month), Sri Lanka (another month), and Kerala in India for a third month. … We arrived in Sri Lanka a few days after the tsunami, when all the other tourists were leaving. It was the best part of our trip and we wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that a secondary disaster was taking place because there were no tourists to provide income for the locals. … [We] were charmed by how incredibly helpful everyone was, particularly the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, where people had lost everything.

I’m sure it was worth it just to see the look on their traumatised little faces.

Well, OK, I’m sure people did benefit from those tourists’ money. But on the larger scale these are surely problems that can’t be addressed in the smallest degree – that are more likely to be exacerbated – by means of a nice long holiday on the other side of the world. Third World poverty isn’t going to be alleviated by First World tourism, any more than climate change is going to be reversed by long-haul flights. Of course these are huge, intractable, complex problems, which one or two people aren’t going to be able to solve whatever they do with their holiday fund. But that’s exactly why lifestyle can’t be enough; that’s why, when we start to trace our spending choices back into the wider world, we need to keep pulling on those threads until we’re hauling in the ropes of structural exploitation and injustice. In other words, that’s why we have politics, and political parties, and mass movements.

At least, that’s why we used to.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 241 other followers

%d bloggers like this: