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.)

Not one of us

Nick Cohen in Standpoint (via):

a significant part of British Islam has been caught up in a theocratic version of the faith that is anti-feminist, anti-homosexual, anti-democratic and has difficulties with Jews, to put the case for the prosecution mildly. Needless to add, the first and foremost victims of the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values are British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, particularly Muslim women.

It’s the word ‘significant’ that leaps out at me – that, and Cohen’s evident enthusiasm to extend the War on Terror into a full-blown Kulturkampf. I think what’s wrong with Cohen’s writing here is a question of perspective, or more specifically of scale. You’ve got 1.6 million British Muslims, as of 2001. Then you’ve got the fraction who take their faith seriously & probably have a fairly socially conservative starting-point with regard to politics (call it fraction A). We don’t really know what this fraction is, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s biggish (60%? 70%?) – certainly bigger than the corresponding fraction of Catholics, let alone Anglicans. Then there’s fraction B, the fraction of the A group who sign up for the full anti-semitic theocratic blah; it’s pretty clear that fraction B is tiny, probably below 1% (i.e. a few thousand people). Finally, you’ve got fraction C, the proportion of the B group who are actually prepared to blow people up or help other people to do so – almost certainly 10% or less, i.e. a few hundred people, and most of them almost certainly known to Special Branch.

I think we can and should be fairly relaxed about fraction A; we should argue with the blighters when they come out with stuff that needs arguing with, but we shouldn’t be afraid to stand with them when they’re raising just demands. (Same as any other group, really.) Fraction B is not a good thing, and if it grows to the point of getting on the mainstream political agenda then it will need to be exposed and challenged. But it hasn’t reached that level yet, and I see no sign that it’s anywhere near doing so. (Nigel Farage gets on Question Time, for goodness’ sake. Compare and contrast.) The real counter-terrorist action, it seems to me, is or should be around fraction C. Let’s say there are 5,000 believers in armed jihad out there – 500 serious would-be jihadis and 4,500 armchair jihadis, who buy the whole caliphate programme but whose own political activism doesn’t go beyond watching the Martyrdom Channel. What’s more important – eroding the 5,000 or altering the balance of the 500/4,500 split? In terms of actually stopping people getting killed, the answer seems pretty obvious to me.

Nick Cohen and his co-thinkers, such as the Policy Exchange crowd, focus on fraction B rather than fraction A. In itself this is fair enough – I think it’s mistaken, but it’s a mistake a reasonable person can make. What isn’t so understandable is the urgency – and frequency – with which they raise the alarm against this tiny, insignificant group of people, despite the lack of evidence that they’re any sort of threat. “A small minority of British Muslims believe in the Caliphate” is on a par with “A small minority of British Conservatives would bring back the birch tomorrow” or “A small minority of British Greens believe in Social Credit”. It’s an advance warning of possible weird nastiness just over the horizon; it’s scary, but it’s not that scary.

What explains the tone of these articles, I think, is an additional and unacknowledged slippage, from fraction B back out to fraction A. What’s really worrying Cohen, in other words, isn’t the lure of conspiracy theory and the dismissal of Enlightenment values so much as the lure of Islam (in any form) and the dismissal of secularism. (What are these Enlightenment values, anyway? Nobody ever seems to specify which values they’re referring to. Somebody should make a list). Hence this sense of a rising tide of theocratic bigotry, and of the need for a proper battle of values to combat it. This seems alarmingly wrongheaded. Let’s say that there’s a correlation between religious devotion and socially conservative views (which isn’t always the case) – then what? A British Muslim who advocates banning homosexuality needs to be dealt with in exactly the same way as a British Catholic who advocates banning abortion – by arguing with their ideas. (Their ideas are rooted in their identities – but then, so are mine and yours.) And hence, too, that odd reference to British Muslims seeking assimilation and a better life, as if stepping out of the dark ages must mean abandoning your faith – or, at least, holding it lightly, in a proper spirit of worldly Anglican irony. Here, in fact, Cohen is a hop and a skip from forgetting about all the fractions and identifying the problem as Muslims tout court. Have a care, Nick – that way madness lies.

From a great height

Those New Year music lists, in brief.

TWENTY ALBUMS OF 2008

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

…AND TEN TO LOOK OUT FOR IN 2009

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

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

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

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.

Later on we’ll conspire

Answer me this: after receiving gifts on Christmas Day, what is it that children proverbially do with them within 24 hours? Do they (a) break them or (b) give them away?

Fairly straightforward, I think you’ll agree. Now let me put to you a second and superficially unrelated question. When a man loves a woman, as we know, he can’t think of nothing else; he will, indeed, trade the world for the good thing he’s found. But if he should happen to entrust his heart, metaphorically, to someone undeserving of his affections, what is the uncaring female proverbially said to do with it? Does she (a) break his heart or (b) give his heart away to someone else (this could perhaps take the form of fixing him up with a friend)?

I think it’s clear that option (a) is appropriate in both cases. So if one were to write a Christmas song likening these two situations, it would be sheer perversity to write anything other than

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart
And the very next day you broke it

See? See? It makes sense now! Honestly, if they’d got that right in the first place it could have been a big hit.

Update It has been brought to my notice that there are strong reasons to object, even in theory, to the notion of a daily round of Christmas-themed celebration. The obvious objection to a daily Christmas is that this would rapidly have adverse effects in terms of exhaustion, obesity, alcohol poisoning and so forth. However, these effects could easily be mitigated, or even eliminated, by simply varying one’s level of indulgence in Christmas cheer and jollity, over the weeks and months of perpetual Yule. A less tractable problem is presented by the irreducible necessity of preparation. When, under the daily-Christmas regime, would any of us have time to buy food, presents, cards, bottles of winter ale, bags of Bombay mix and other such essential accoutrements of the season? I feel that this objection has considerable force, and would therefore propose that any future songwriter working in this thematic area should write something along the lines of

I wish it could be Christmas every other day

Once again, I think you’ll agree that this would represent a considerable improvement.

Ho ho ho.

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.

I crossed off next week yesterday

Not a lot of blogging around here lately. There are a number of reasons for that, not all of which I’m entirely aware of, but one factor has got to be work.

Which reminds me, indirectly, of Jonathan Coe’s second novel, A touch of love. Two extracts:

Friday 4th July, 1986

‘Some years ago – I don’t know if you remember – I defended this man called Fairchild. Hugh Fairchild. He was being prosecuted by the DHSS for fraud. He’d finished his Ph.D., and he was doing a bit of teaching at the university, earning about ten pounds a week or something, only at the same time he was claiming the dole. So the DHSS finally cottoned on to this and they asked for everything back. It wasn’t very much, a few hundred pounds or so, but it was far more than he had, and it actually looked for a while as though he might have been facing some kind of jail sentence. … So he pleaded guilty of course, and then I got this quite convincing case together and we managed to get him off with a fine and negotiate quite a sensible repayment programme. Which, so far as I know, he’s still in the middle of.’ She frowned. ‘Four years ago, now, at least. Strange how time goes, isn’t it?’

Friday 19th December, 1986

It was at last beginning to dawn on Hugh that he would never find an academic job. The realisation had made its inroads slowly, like the winter weather, and he had developed the same way of coping with both, namely lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat. Half the time he would doze, half the time he would be wide awake, staring frog-eyed at the ceiling, his hand resting absently on his genitals. In this position, in order to avoid thinking of the future, he would think of the past. He would rehearse the proudest episodes of his life and compare them with his present state of stifled inertia: his graduation … the flush of intellectual excitement in which he had completed his MA thesis … the second graduation ceremony, at which he had been awarded his doctorate.

But always at the front of his mind there festered the knowledge that these events had taken place a long time ago. They had all occurred within a period of eight years, and since then nearly the same period had elapsed, and in all that time nothing had happened. Not a solitary highlight. … That day of triumph in Coventry cathedral seemed neither recent nor distant; it seemed, if anything, to belong to a quite different level of existence. His life now comprised other realities: the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom; the texture of pubic hair as he twined it around his index finger; the smell (to which he had long since become immune) of the unwashed socks and underpants stashed under the bed; and the daily routine of forcing himself, at about 2.30, out of his bed, out of the flat, onto a bus and onto the university campus, in search of a kind of companionship.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who’s liked anything else by the subsequently much more successful Coe. (I say ‘book’ rather than ‘novel’, which I’m not sure it is, quite.) The way Hugh’s character develops in these extracts from light comedy to extravagant grotesquery and on to a kind of grim pathos is typical of the skill & heartlessness with which Coe writes, or used to write. ‘At the front of his mind’ is good, too. (Digression on Coe’s ‘heartlessness’. It’s an odd style, which seems to be heavily influenced by Beckett’s first couple of novels; it combines a numb, depressive certainty that things are only going to get worse with a driven, determined and often really ingenious playfulness. You feel for his characters, but you don’t always connect with them as people. Coe’s earlier books are more heavily dominated by this style; his first novel, An accidental woman, is at once excruciatingly sad and infuriatingly arch. Something shifts with the fourth, the magnificent, unrepeatable What a carve-up!, where (as Justin reminded me in comments) the same hopeless world-view is felt from within as well as being played for laughs.)

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. My question is: what is this man living on? If he’s earning money from teaching, it must be teaching that can be done after 2.30 p.m. and without any preparation – and there’s not much like that. He hasn’t got any money saved up and his teaching pay, such as it is, isn’t being supplemented by the DHSS – on the contrary, he’s paying them. (Either that or he’s not doing any teaching at all and his benefit’s being docked at source. Either way, he’s not exactly flush.) We can make allowances – maybe he doesn’t always stay in bed till 2.30; maybe he gets a lot done on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then spends the rest of the week vegetating in bed and mooching around campus... The trouble is, scaling back Hugh’s grotesquery for the sake of realism would deprive him of his pathos as well: he’s not doing that badly – at least he’s got a bit of money coming in, and he’s only having to work a couple of days a week…

I read this passage shortly after starting on Coe’s fascinating biography of B.S. Johnson, and it reminded me of Johnson’s doctrine of truth in the novel – ‘telling stories is telling lies’. It’s a dour and forbidding credo for a novelist; the results are only interesting in Johnson’s case because, in Johnson’s case, they’re so weird, in ways which don’t seem to be related to the ‘truth’ policy (although they may be related to what drove Johnson to adopt it). Nevertheless, the more I think about Hugh the more I think Johnson had a point. The character’s obviously meant to be representative of a certain kind of academic dead-end, and of the general apathy anomie acedie ect ect of its inhabitants. The dead-end is located quite specifically, in England, outside London and in the 1980s; the implication is that it’s one that Coe observed (or narrowly avoided) in person. But the real Hughs can’t have spent every morning lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat; not every day, not for a period of years – nobody could. And if that’s not true…

(Hugh isn’t the central character of the book, by the way. I wouldn’t want to put you off.)

I guess that particular shoe wouldn’t pinch most readers; the idea of never find[ing] an academic job is of more than academic (ho ho) interest to me at the moment. I got my doctorate just over three years ago, which in turn was six years after I got my MA. I’ve been working in academia, for various values of ‘working’, for four years now; as I write I’m living on odd bits of teaching, supplemented by smaller bits of research and editing. This is going to go on in various forms for at least the next seven months, and hopefully into next summer. After that, we’ll be into the next academic year, and who knows?

But there’s not much of the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom about it. I made a list last week and realised that – what with current teaching, research, next semester’s teaching and various other bits of stuff – my to-do list includes pressing short-term tasks in three separate subject areas, large and demanding medium-term tasks in another three areas, and longer-term commitments (some of them with definite due dates) in another four. There’s other research I could be doing – I can think of three papers I could be working on without pausing for breath – but realistically I could only do it if I had more hours in the day, and more headspace to park the ideas in. The time and space I’ve got all seems to be booked up.

Looking on the bright side, by the time I get to the next academic year I should be quite staggeringly employable – particularly if I can find a job requiring expertise in behavioural regulation in the criminal justice system, complaints against the police, contemporary Italian politics, desistance from criminal activity, drugs, the Italian Communist Party, political violence, the Semantic Web, social statistics and victims of crime.

(On second thoughts, preferably not all of those.)

My name was Brian McGee

The estimable Merrick declines to do the album-for-every-year-of-your-life thing, with some compelling reasons (and some truly horrible images). I think he’s got a point about the aridity of the list format; when I did mine I seriously considered going back afterwards and writing a paragraph or two about just how wonderful some of those albums are, and why if you don’t know them you’re missing out, and if you do you should probably listen to them again (I mean, Taking Tiger Mountain! the Homosexuals! Soft Machine Third! Blame the Messenger! Horses! Chill Out! Wilder! bloody hell, the Faust Tapes!) But the moment went, and besides, there would be no end to it – that’s eight albums I’ve pulled out without pausing for breath, and I could easily add another three or four.

So I liked Merrick’s proposed alternative:

The ‘one per year for your whole life’ thing is too much to ask to someone to write or read, but still, I think there’s the germ of a good idea there. Perhaps it’s to pick a year and reel off, say, five albums for it.

I note that the year I picked at random is the year I left school. I suppose it’s not surprising that, in a teenage intensity of focus, I’ve got some albums that the sharper, more knowledgable and more dismissive music lovers of the time would’ve passed on.

Yes, after all that meander, I think that’s it. Give us five albums from the year you left school. Not necessarily the five ‘greatest’, but five that really do it for you.

So there’s the buildup. The rest is something of a placeholder, I’m afraid. I’ve identified my ten favourite albums from the year I left school – 1978, which I think was quite genuinely a particularly good year for music – and I’m going to narrow them down to five by the novel technique of listening to them again. In the mean time, if anyone wants to beat me to the punch by taking up Merrick’s challenge themselves – Edinburgh Rob, maybe? – feel free.

Here are the contenders:

the Jam, All Mod Cons
Talking Heads, More songs about buildings and food
Magazine, Real Life
Buzzcocks, Another music in a different kitchen
Ultravox, Systems of Romance
Wire, Chairs Missing
Elvis Costello, This year’s model
Captain Beefheart, Shiny beast (Bat chain puller)
XTC, Go 2
John Cooper Clarke, Disguise in love

Three first albums, four second albums, two 3rds and one, er, 10th. Arbitrarily disqualified on the grounds that I didn’t actually get into them in 1978: Dylan, Street Legal; the Clash, Give ‘em enough rope; Tubeway Army, first album; Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance and Dub Housing… Let’s face it, that was a very good year.

…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.

Says there’s none

All RIGHT! Whoo! Are there any LEGAL THEORISTS in tonight???

OK then. (Hi Rob!)

Here are some thoughts on regulation and the law. This is a slightly abbreviated version of a paper I gave at a seminar earlier this year, which I’m planning to write up at greater length for publication.

I’d like to examine the conditions which make it possible for regulation to be both just and effective, and the conditions which make it problematic. For clarity, I am defining regulation here as the continued monitoring of an actor’s actions, by an agency authorised to do so, on the understanding that deviation from declared expectations will be met with some form of corrective response. Regulatory monitoring is not itself a punishment and does not require the prior establishment of guilt; it may be entirely prospective rather than retrospective, carrying with it no stigma for the actor whose activities are regulated.

Regulation can have very different associations, depending in part on who is being regulated and by whom. We can distinguish between professional regulation, in which organisations which wield power within society submit to regulation by specialist agencies; behavioural regulation, in which state authority is brought to bear on relatively powerless individuals; and regulation from below, in which pressure from individuals regulates the actions of powerful agencies.

Much comment on behavioural regulation, as exemplified by anti-social behaviour (ASB) legislation, has been highly critical – and critical in ways which calls into question whether this type of approach should be dignified with the name of regulation. It has been argued that behavioural regulation, rather than modifying behaviour without penal stigmatisation, does in practice stigmatise and punish – indeed, that it tends to undermine established principles of criminal justice, singling out undesirables for fast-tracked punishment. Anti-social behaviour legislation is not unique in this respect. Parallels have been drawn with control orders (Macdonald 2007); like ASBOs, these single out specified individuals for restrictive treatment. This raises the question of whether the defects of the ASBO system are parallelled in the control order regime – or even whether they are implicit in any attempt to apply the regulatory approach to individual behaviour.

I’ll address these questions by way of some comments on ‘technical regulation’ from the Russian legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis.

A railroad schedule regulates the movement of trains in a very different sense than, say, the law on the liability of railroads regulates the relationship of the latter with freight shippers. Regulation of the first type is primarily technical; the second primarily legal.

The basic assumption of legal regulation is … the opposition of private interests. … The conduct of people may be regulated by the most complex rules but the legal element in this regulation begins where the individualization and opposition of interests begins. … Unity of purpose is, on the contrary, the premise of technical regulation. Therefore the legal norms concerning the liability of railroads presume private claims, private individualized interests; the technical norms of railroad movement suppose a single purpose, e.g. the achievement of maximum freight capacity.
(Pashukanis 2001 (1924))

For Pashukanis, the law concerns itself above all with conflicts between private interests. A railway timetable may impose obligations on many different people, failure to meet which may reasonably be penalised; Pashukanis cites other examples of ‘technical regulation’ such as a troop mobilisation plan or a course of medical treatment. However, what is at issue in such a case is an individual’s failure to contribute to the realisation of a common interest, as in the case of a train driver who turns up to work five minutes late, and consequently causes a scheduled connection to be missed. While the train driver has impeded the achievement of a common interest in punctuality, there is no conflict of interests here: the train driver is not pursuing a personal interest in disrupting the system. The disruption caused by the driver’s failure to meet an agreed obligation can be dealt with, in Pashukanis’s terms, through technical rather than legal regulation – or in our terms, through regulation rather than the law.

Pashukanis argues that the domain of regulation is defined by the unity of purpose conferred by a recognised common interest. This emphasis chimes with much contemporary comment on professional regulation, which stresses the need for the regulatory standards to be embedded in the culture of the organisation being regulated. However, Pashukanis’s insistence that regulation begins where the law ends is an unsatisfactory starting-point for us. This assumption would also suggests that regulation is unavailable in any case where all parties are not united by ‘technical norms’ which suppose a common interest; this would effectively rule out behavioural regulation and severely limit the scope of professional regulation.

A way out of this impasse is suggested by Braithwaite’s celebrated formulation of responsive regulation. Most regulatory interventions, Braithwaite argues, should assume a ‘virtuous actor’ open to persuasion. Only if this approach fails should the regulator resort to deterrence, implicitly addressed to a non-compliant but rational actor – and only if this fails should a punitive approach be adopted, implicitly addressing an incompetent or irrational actor. Crucially, compliance at the second or third level should prompt the regulator to de-escalate the next time intervention becomes necessary. The more confrontational the intervention, the less often it should be used; hence the image of a pyramid.

Persuasive regulation – the ground level of the pyramid – is an appeal to the subject of regulation to present him- or herself as a ‘virtuous actor’. The assumption is that the regulator and the subject of regulation have a shared interest in recognising each other – and being recognised – as socially responsible. This interest may not be uppermost in the mind of the subject of regulation – hence the possibility of escalating to deterrence – but it’s worth a try. “The most irresponsible of us has a socially responsible self. Responsive regulation is a strategy for persuading the worst of us to put our best self forward.” (Braithwaite 2002: 21).

If the scope of Pashukanis’s ‘unity of purpose’ is broadened in this way, we can see how the scope of professional regulation can be broadened in turn. Individuals do not need to be united by the mechanical interdependence of their working roles: they may be united by the culture of a particular profession or by more nebulous commitments such as the ‘public service’ ethos. The purpose which unites may even be supplied by statutory obligations (such as those imposed by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 or the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000), at least once these have had time to become acculturated. All that is needed is a sense of what makes up the virtuous professional self: the list of things that people like us do and don’t do.

I seem to have proved that just and effective professional regulation is at least theoretically possible. Have I also rescued behavioural regulation? Not entirely. If a regulatory approach is genuine, I would argue – if it is more than an alternative label for administrative control – it must be founded on common interest; this in turn will mean that the ground level of Braithwaite’s pyramid is present. If the interest motivating compliance is truly shared, in other words, this can be demonstrated through the use of persuasion rather than deterrence – which will also be the most economical route to compliance. If the regulatory approach begins with deterrence and escalates from there, the suspicion must be that the interests of the subjects of regulation are simply being overridden: in other words, that regulation has illegitimately substituted for the legal processes which should adjudicate the conflict of interests – even between the state’s interests and those of an individual citizen. In the case of ASB legislation, there is some evidence of genuine attempts to appeal to ‘virtuous selves’, notably through the use of acceptable behaviour contracts (ABCs) as a precursor and alternative to ASBOs. However, there is plentiful evidence of a very different approach, deriving from the overtly divisive and exclusive ‘broken windows’ agenda. This approach tends to replace agreement between professionals and young people with agreement among professionals on how to deal with young people, who are seen as a problem rather than as individuals with interests of their own.

In the case of control orders, the situation is even worse. We are dealing here, after all, with people suspected of political offences – offences against the state. In the case of non-political offences, a habitual offender may have a socially responsible ‘best self’ to put forward, and may be motivated by gaining official recognition for this self-image: the literature on desistance tells us that this is a common profile among successful desisters in particular. By contrast, a suspected terrorist (assuming for the moment that he or she has been correctly identified) will be a committed opponent of the British state: someone who not only feels a deep-seated hostility to the state detaining him or her, but considers that hostility as virtuous rather than shameful. The possibility of mutual recognition between such a suspect and the authority regulating his or her behaviour is essentially non existent. This suggests that the regulatory approach in this case is illegitimate – or at least, that it is not regulation so much as the extra-legal use of state power.

In short, I follow Pashukanis in arguing that regulation tends to remove the matters regulated from the sphere of litigation and resolve them through administrative means. For this reason, regulation must be based on the recognition of a common interest, shared between the regulator and those regulated; this recognition can best be asserted and negotiated at the level of persuasive interaction, which is also the least costly and least coercive form of regulatory intervention. In the absence of such a common interest, regulation will be either ineffectual in its persuasion or unjust in its coercion. While these considerations apply to professional regulation, they apply with particular force to behavioural regulation. Although just and effective behavioural regulation is not impossible, the two most prominent current examples – the ASBO and the control order – are badly flawed, the control order in particular.

References

Braithwaite, J. (2002), “Rewards and regulation”, Journal of Law and Society 29: 1
Macdonald, S. (2007), “ASBOs and Control Orders: Two Recurring Themes, Two Apparent Contradictions”, Parliamentary Affairs Advance Access, published July 27
Pashukanis, E. (2001; originally published 1924), The general theory of law and Marxism, New Brunswick: Transaction

Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):

If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.

The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.

The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).

This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.

This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.

Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?

To live in

Anothere meme (I’ll get back to proper blogging soon, honest) – via. Books this time, and a tie-in of sorts with the BBC’s Big Read (although I can’t find a BBC page with this list on). Viral boilerplate follows:

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.
1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or were forced to read at school and hated. (I see no reason to restrict ‘books I hated’ to school – there are only a couple of books on the list I really disliked, and neither of them was a school text.)
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Yes, I did an English degree. Which reminds me, number 14. Having read a fair chunk of Shakespeare I’m a bit peeved that the bar for number 14 is set so high – “The Phoenix and the Turtle”? “King John”? “The Comedy of Errors”? One would think that having read all the tragedies (even “Timon of Athens”) and all the late plays and several of the comedies and histories and the Sonnets would count for something, but apparently not – it’s the Works or nothing. Which makes it a bit odd that a single play sneaks in much lower down the list, at number 98 (see also 33 and 36). Does number 14 actually mean “two or more of the Works”?

As for number 6, yes, I have, actually. Blame it on the English degree, and specifically on the reading list our Director of Studies sent out to prospective first-years – a kind of conspectus of English literature from the seventeenth century onwards, under the general heading of ‘books we ought already to have read‘. I started at the top (the King James Bible), blithely confident that I’d be able to work my way through the whole thing over the summer. (It included Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End trilogy, I remember, and John Galt’s the Entail. It was comprehensive.) I forget how much of the list I read in the end, but I’m pretty sure I got through the Bible. When I got to college we spent the whole of the first term reading Middle English. Happy days.

Some of the ‘loved it’ underlinings are a bit arbitrary. I might have said I loved the Woman in White if I hadn’t also read the Moonstone – that I really loved. The Remains of the Day I didn’t love until I re-read it, which was after reading When we were orphans and the wonderful The Unconsoled. And Cloud Atlas depressed me for weeks after I read it, so ‘love’ doesn’t seem quite the right word. But it really got under my skin & I’m glad I read it.

47/100 – and only one on the list I actually haven’t heard of (Ruiz Zafon – ¿quién él?). Some odd omissions, though – wot no Tristram Shandy? Billy Liar? Flann O’Brien? Beckett? Pynchon? Alasdair Gray? Jonathan Coe? Why, in other words, aren’t they asking whether people are reading the books that I’m reading? That would make much more sense.

Young bones groan

Just recently, I’ve got heavily into traditional music – specifically, traditional English, Scottish and Irish music. One of the effects has been to make me feel a bit ambivalent about the local folk club – which is ironic, as it’s going to the folk club that exposed me to traditional music in the first place.

I went to the aforesaid club the other night, and a terrific night it was too. There were 16 acts – a total of 18 musicians and two poets – and some of them were stupendously good. Good value, too – singers’ nights are a quid in, and you make that back on the beer, thanks to a cricket club licence (the bitter’s £1.60).

Here’s what I heard. (All numbers arranged for vocal and guitar unless otherwise stated.)

- “Skip to my Lou”, vocal and maraca
- “Changes” (from O Lucky Man!)
- “The ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” (a parody), unaccompanied vocal
- something C+W (possibly traditional)
- two poems by a Danish poet (in translation), recitation
- something bluesy (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- something bluesy and jazzy (just possibly traditional)
- “When I’m cleaning windows”
- “The house of the rising sun”
- a song about the death of Kirsty MacColl set to the tune of “The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll”
- a love song (original), vocal, guitar and harmony vocal
- a song about housing development set to the tune of “Johnny B. Goode”, two guitars and vocals
- “La vie en rose”, unaccompanied vocal
- two original poems, recitation
- something C+W (possibly traditional), vocal, harmonica and guitar
- “I guess it doesn’t matter any more”, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song about a Scottish hermit, vocal, guitar, harmonica and percussion
- an original song and two covers

So that’s four poems and eighteen songs, which divide into

original (6)
covers (7)
American traditional (1) (viz. “Skip to my Lou”)
songs in American traditional styles, which may have been any of the above (4)

Traditional songs were either a small minority or a tiny minority, and there was nothing at all from an English, Scottish or Irish traditional source. (The Sir Patrick Spens parody almost qualified, but it was original material – and it did mock traditional ballads & their singers, albeit quite fondly.) I can’t help thinking that’s a bit weird, for a folk club.

Poking about on the Mudcat site I found this comment by Jim Carroll from a couple of years ago:

I came to ‘folk song’ at the beginning of the sixties through the ‘folk clubs’. In those days, while there was much debate on HOW the songs should be performed, there was virtually no ambiguity about WHAT you would hear if you turned up at a folk club. You chose your club on the basis of performance, not on material.

This changed fairly rapidly and the revival divided into two camps, those who adhered pretty well to the ‘traditional’ definition of ‘folk’ (some of whom saw it as a form to create new songs relevant to today), and those who went along with the broader ‘singing horse’ interpretation. Gradually the latter won the day and began to dominate the field; many of those who had gone along with the former crossed over and became experimenters and you got the mini-choirs, the ‘Electric Muse’, the fifth-rate comedians and the singer-songwriters. Those of us who preferred our folk music the way we had originally come to it, abandoned the term ‘folk’ and adopted ‘traditional’ as a description of the type of songs we preferred. We jogged along in our own particular enclaves in spite of the finger-in-ear and purist sneers, until gradually we became swamped and there was a massive exodus away from the scene, mainly because people no longer knew what they were going to get when they turned up at a ‘folk club’. What was left dwindled, the electric crowd and the mini choirs moved on to fresh fields and pastures new, some of the comedians found their niche in television; what remained was largely the ‘singing horse’ crowd tinged heavily with the ‘near enough for folk song’ philosophy. That seems to me, with a few notable exceptions, is how matters stand at present.

The ‘singing horse’ crowd – ouch. As it happens, somebody used the “never heard no horse sing” line the other night – and I confess I’ve used it myself (introducing a song by Beck Hansen on one of my first outings). These days I tend to think, with Jim, that that’s a very poor definition of ‘folk’ – not so much because it’s open to anything, as because in practice it seems to be open to anything except actual folk music.

I don’t want to sound too grudging; it was a very good night of acoustic music, and the closing act in particular is well worth paying a pound to see, if not two. (His name’s Mark Simpson and I expect him to go a very long way. He reminded me of the young Cat Stevens – and back then the young Cat Stevens was essentially God, as far as I was concerned.) But I do wonder what’s happened to the folk scene, that it’s doing so well – and getting so many people performing – without there seeming to be much folk involved.

Another up-and-coming local act got a big write-up in the local paper the other day:

Manchester duo The Winter Journey conjure up gorgeous tapestries of rustic country folk music. Like a merry meeting of Nick Drake, Belle & Sebastian and BBC’s Springwatch programme, it’s the sort of music which effortlessly evokes images of woodland retreat and summery splendour.

Make no mistake, The Winter Journey are definitely worlds apart from your typical Manchester acoustic folk act. As you’d expect from a band named after a short story by the celebrated French author Georges Perec, The Winter Journey are a group dripping with quaint romanticism, bookish sophistication and lots and lots of cool refinement. Think Stephen Fry were he to form an acoustic folk group, and you might be getting close.

[the album] sits up there with the best debuts by a local act this year – a bewitching journey through Seventies pastoral folk, but with a daring sonic palette which squeezes in influences from Elliot Smith to Gainsbourg to Krautrock. … it’s also an album oozing a warm-blanket intimacy. – Each of the eleven songs strives for a pure, old-world innocence and romance, and firmly intent on keeping those values safe from the big, bad avaricious world we live in.

“There definitely is a dusty vinyl quality to the album,” explains Anthony. “It’s the sort of record which tries to ignore the modern world and popular culture. It’s almost from another age, and that reflects our retro influences.”

I love the idea of harking back to the pure old-world innocence of the 1970s, when folk was pastoral and vinyl was dusty. (Emitex, that’s what you need. Kids these days.)

Anyway, I’ve listened to some of their stuff on their Myspace page; it’s pleasant enough in a close-miked, mostly-acoustic, slightly creepy way, like Nico recording demos with James Yorkston. (Or Espers. Actually quite a lot like Espers.) What it’s not, of course – and never claims to be – is traditional music in any way, shape or form. It’s in the genre of Seventies pastoral folk, supposedly: it gets the ‘folk’ label because it sounds a bit like Vashti Bunyan, in other words. (I’m not touching the Nick Drake comparison. The first album was half orchestrated, the second was a genre all its own (acoustic TV-theme jazz-funk) and the third was the sound of a man singing like an angel while waiting to be swallowed by his own loneliness. Nobody sounds like Nick Drake.)

Anyway, calling the Winter Journey ‘folk’ on this basis makes very little sense – they sound a bit like a lot of people, not least the Velvet Underground. But somehow ‘folk’ is the label to claim, even if you then go on to claim a score of other influences. In fact the ‘folk’ label seems to have an odd combination of attraction and repulsion: folk is cool, but what’s really cool is to be folk-and or folk-but-also (folk-and-Serge-Gainsbourg-but-also-Krautrock in this case).

The problem with this is that it destroys any prospect of actually defining ‘folk’. You go from

1) artists called ‘folk’ because they do folk material
to
2) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a similar style to group 1)
to
3) artists called ‘folk’ because they do their own material in a style that’s similar to group 2) only different (‘worlds apart’, even)

And repeat. Give it a couple of years and, for all we know, The Winter Journey may be a touchstone of what contemporary folk sounds like – with new ‘folk’ acts coming through that sound a bit like them, only different.

Me, I’m a folk singer who also sings his own songs; they go down well in folk clubs, some of them, but they aren’t folk songs. (Not even the Patrick Spens parody.)

When how you want

Another music meme: “Pick an album for every year of your life”.

I guess anyone born much before the mid-50s is going to have trouble with the early years, says Jim. You don’t know the half of it. I was born in 1960, and I’ve really struggled with anything before 1966. I like Rubber Soul well enough, and I think Another side of Bob Dylan is a really important album, but there’s no comparison with how strongly I feel about most of the later choices.

So my list starts in 1966 – around the time the clock stopped on popular music. Most of these are, in my opinion, seriously great albums; several of them are so great they’ve pushed out other great albums (Screamadelica, The Queen is Dead and the Beta Band’s 3 EPs are just some of the albums that surprised me by not making the list, not to mention anything by Robyn Hitchcock).

Share and enjoy. I think any three of these would give you a pretty good view of my mental soundworld, should you be interested in it.

1966 Bob Dylan Blonde on blonde
1967 the Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1968 Family Music in a doll’s house
1969 Captain Beefheart Trout mask replica
1970 Soft Machine Third
1971 Anne Briggs Anne Briggs
1972 Nick Drake Pink Moon
1973 Faust the Faust tapes
1974 Eno Taking Tiger Mountain (by strategy)
1975 Patti Smith Horses
1976 Shirley Collins Amaranth
1977 David Bowie Heroes
1978 Wire Chairs missing
1979 the Homosexuals the Homosexuals’ record
1980 Elvis Costello Get happy!
1981 the Teardrop Explodes Wilder
1982 the Fall Hex enduction hour
1983 Laughing Clowns Laughter around the table
1984 Scott Walker Climate of hunter
1985 Yeah Yeah Noh Cutting the heavenly lawn of greatness… Last rites for the god of love
1986 Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power Here come the blues
1987 David Thomas and the Wooden Birds Blame the messenger
1988 Peter Blegvad Downtime
1989 Swans The burning world
1990 KLF Chill out
1991 The Orb The Orb’s adventures beyond the ultraworld
1992 Julian Cope Jehovahkill
1993 Underworld Dubnobasswithmyheadman
1994 Sabres of Paradise Haunted dancehall
1995 Tindersticks Tindersticks (second album)
1996 Future Sound of London Dead cities
1997 the Verve Urban hymns
1998 Embrace The good will out
1999 Clinton Disco and the halfway to discontent
2000 Godspeed you black emperor! Raise your skinny fists like antennas to heaven
2001 cLOUDDEAD cLOUDDEAD
2002 Simian We are your friends
2003 the Shins Chutes too narrow
2004 the Earlies These were the Earlies
2005 James Yorkston Hoopoe
2006 Beth Orton Comfort of strangers
2007 Radiohead In rainbows
2008 John Kelly Come all you wild young men

A moment worth waiting for

Eliot Weinberger’s Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective was clearly written in the heat of (interim) triumph:

Just when you thought [Clinton] had hit bottom, she went even lower. She tried to cast Obama as a scary black man who, as subliminally suggested in her infamous (and mercilessly parodied) ‘3 a.m.’ ad, would break into your house and murder your cute little sleeping blonde daughter. She cast doubt on whether Obama was really a Christian and not a scary Muslim. And when that didn’t work she reinvented herself as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama – the son of a single mother on welfare – as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she’d presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor’s mansion, the White House and the Senate. Those regular people, she explained in one of many embarrassing moments, were ‘hard-working Americans, white Americans’.

I like ‘one of many’ – shorthand for You think that’s bad? There’s more where that came from – plenty more… Weinberger states and restates his contempt for Clinton in open-handed, effusive prose; he’s generous with his derision. It’s all good fun, if you’re on the same side as Weinberger – at least, if you’re not on one of the sides he’s not on.

On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September … Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’ … And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics

You get the picture: Clinton arrogant and ridiculous, McCain ridiculous and old. And Obama? When it comes to Obama, there’s something rather more complicated going on.

Obama didn’t win because Clinton lost. He was, in American terms, the better candidate. I knew he’d win when I first watched him on television in Iowa, for he has the quality Americans most prize in their presidential candidates: sincerity.

Obama, by all accounts, has remained true to his vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation; he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions. In a country that believes, above all, and largely to its great detriment, in individual self-reliance, he is a self-made man whose message emphasises that progress must also begin at home.

What’s good about Obama wavers in and out of focus here. He’s got a vision of grassroots organisation and politics through reconciliation: a contradictory vision, by the sound of it, as well as one which doesn’t have much to do with the office of President. He’s a self-made man, and as such appeals to a country which believes – to its own great detriment, i.e. incorrectly – in self-reliance. He’s personally sincere, or at least manages to appear sincere, which makes him (in American terms) a good candidate for Head of State.

Perhaps the key to what Weinberger’s saying about Obama is that odd line “he has yet to be caught holding any contradictory positions” (emphasis added). Consistency as a virtue, with the implication that a candidate who doesn’t contradict him- or herself is, perhaps, a candidate with fixed principles: and that in itself is something to be prized, irrespective of what those principles are. This ties in to an oddly lenient passage in one of Weinberger’s many critiques of Clinton:

Believing that it was the only way a woman could be elected, she had built her image as a Thatcher-like Iron Lady, not only supporting the Iraq war, but also identifying with various military and defence issues. Assuming she would be running against the right, never imagining a challenge from the left, Clinton was not prominently identified with any progressive legislation in her six colourless years in the Senate, for fear that it would ultimately be used against her. On the contrary, she largely tried to burnish her credentials as a hardline patriot, even introducing a bill against flag-burning, though there had been only one known incident since the Vietnam War – some drunken frat boys at a party.

Clinton, here, is pure political tactician; if she used her influence as a Senator to the benefit of the militaristic Right, this was because she wanted to avoid anything that could be used against her and to burnish her credentials as a supporter of her enemies’ favourite causes. Weinberger presents all this as a series of self-seeking tactical manoeuvres; if we accept this, Clinton’s great error was not moving Right, but failing to anticipate that moving Right would become a liability.

Anyone who remembers my comments on Davis won’t be surprised to learn that I find this a deeply unsatisfactory way of thinking about politics. Actions have consequences, and in politics symbolic actions can have material consequences: the US political sphere and US society were affected, however infinitesimally, by every right-wing speech Clinton made as a senator and by her every refusal to support progressive legislation. I’m arguing, in a sense, for something like Benjamin’s messianic perspective on history: I’m suggesting that the music stops every so often, and that in those moments we can see who’s done what and judge them on that basis. Or rather, I’m suggesting that we should imagine that the music stops every so often, and that we can hold politicians to account in terms of what they’ve actually done.

Looking at Clinton’s Senate career, we need to think of its effects on the outside world as well as on Clinton’s subsequent electability. Conversely, we shouldn’t let Obama off the hook because he appears to have principles of some sort. Obama should be seen as a politician – someone with the power to make changes, benefiting one group rather than another – as well as a dreamer of dreams (that music eventually stops, too). And Clinton should be seen as someone who has made a difference – mostly for the worse – as well as a mere ladder-climbing politician.

The worst thing you can do with politicians is believe in them: the best of them is much more (and less) than a principled idealist. The second worst is to disbelieve, reducing politics to court intrigue (that’ll embarrass him… how’s she going to get out of this?…). It takes a sincere reactionary to start fires deliberately, but cynical hacks do a lot of playing with matches – and the fire’s just as real.

A system and a theory

WorldbyStorm:

Once Blair et al dreamed of a hegemonic project that would dominate the centre left for decades. At this rate they’ll be lucky to salvage anything from the wreckage.

Which reminded me of something I wrote for Casablanca (anyone else remember Casablanca?) in October 1994. To set the scene, John Major’s Conservative government had been re-elected two years earlier; John Smith had died in May; Tony Blair (the then Shadow Home Secretary) had been elected to lead the Labour Party in July; Melanie Phillips was still writing for the Observer; and Barry Norman presented Film 94. I don’t understand the bit about Bill Clinton.

A gloom of one’s own

Just what is it that makes today’s Left so different, so depressing?

When I was an infantile leftist there were two main groups on the Left, the Campaigners and the Believers. (Three, if you count the Labour Party Members). The best kind of Campaigning, it was generally agreed, was going on strike. The rest of the Left would immediately rally round and offer comradely advice – to stay out for as long as it took (the Trots), to stay out forever and picket everyone in the world until they came out too (the anarchists), to make the rich pay for the crisis (the RCPB(M-L)). Campaigning by leafletting, blocking the traffic and so on was not so good: this made you a Single-Issue Campaigner, and you would usually only be allowed into the Left after most people had gone. (Being on the Left means knowing all the Issues). And if you Campaigned by harbouring foxes and releasing chickens nobody would even talk to you except the anarchists, but that didn’t matter because it’s about something much bigger than just like politics, right.

Like many people, I rapidly graduated from Campaigning to Believing. This is considerably less strenuous, as it consists mainly of (a) finding the right Line and (b) recruiting more Believers. The idea is to ensure that, come the inevitable collision with History, you will be equipped with (a) clean ideological underwear and (b) plenty of witnesses. Being a Believer isn’t a bad way of meeting people and it does get you out of the house (usually on Tuesday evenings, for some reason – so three proletarian cheers to the BBC for moving Barry Norman to Mondays). On the other hand, it is fairly pointless. Realising this, many Believers gravitate towards Campaigning organisations, sometimes in quite large and organised groups. Others attempt to unite the Left, presumably on the basis that if you assemble a large enough group of Believers it will automatically turn into a Campaign. The only problem with this strategy is that the idea of uniting the Left is in fact a Line in its own right and thus only attracts its own Believers – just another strand in the Left’s great dayschool.

About the Labour Party Members there isn’t much I can say, never having shared their belief in the capacity of a Labour government to enact socialism – I suppose every movement needs its dreamers. Actually the rest of us always tacitly relied on the Labour Party. The way it worked was that the press and the BBC would attack Labour for being left-wing – or praise them for being left-wing, it didn’t really matter – and we would attack them for not being left-wing enough. Even the anarchists used to join in, attacking Labour as a way of getting at the Left as a whole. It was quite a good recruiting tactic, while it lasted.

That was how I used to see things – I’m less optimistic nowadays. Most of the Believers have never quite recovered from the end of actually existing Stalinism – arguing about whether Cuba is a deformed workers’ state just isn’t the same somehow. You don’t get the same class of Believers these days, anyway – whatever happened to Red Flame? or Big Stripe? These days there’s hardly anyone doing any Campaigning, either, apart from those young people who sit down in front of trees, play didgeridoos and tell us they won’t get fooled like we did. (They call themselves ‘zippies’, apparently – I grow old, I grow old). Good luck to them, anyway – they’ll need it, now that the Labour Party thinks the Criminal Justice Bill isn’t such a bad idea.

Ah yes, the Labour Party. It’s not Labour’s abstaining on the Criminal Justice Bill that bothers me, or their refusal to support the signal workers; it’s not all the weird stuff which Tony Blair apparently believes (cannabis should stay illegal, the electoral system couldn’t be better and the middle class bore the brunt of the recession – Dan Quayle eat your heart out). It’s true that Tony Blair went to a minor public school, but then so did Prince Charles, and look how well he’s turned out. It’s not fair to attack Blair for coming across as smug, ugly and dull, either – put next to John Major, who wouldn’t?

What bothers me (and I’m amazed it doesn’t bother more people – that’s depressing in itself) is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left – which is an uncomfortable prospect for Believers and Campaigners alike.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

It’s almost enough to make you envy the Greens. But not quite.

What I didn’t consider was what would happen if Blair and his acolytes succeeded and then failed, by failing to sort out the succession. Or succeeded and then washed their hands of the whole thing, for that matter. Essentially, Blair’s done to Labour what Thatcher did to the Tories. Leaving… what? Will:

There was always the risk that New Labour was an ironic echo of a former political era. The commitment to the original values of Labour, but without the policies of Labour, always teetered on the edge of farce. The language of ‘tackling poverty’, ‘democratic empowerment’, being ‘progressive’ was not invented, but borrowed from the initial tragedy of failed socialist ambitions. … But to take that socialist vocabulary, then to marry it to Thatcherism, was to invite failure for a second time as farce. Should we be all that surprised that inequality is rising as fast as it is?

But then again, maybe New Labour was the tragedy, because if one thing is certain it’s that it’s about to be followed by a farce. … Within two years, the country will have elected a new government on the basis of no policies whatsoever, and which we have so little confidence in that the honesty or otherwise of their claims is no longer even discussed. The Conservative Party have succeeded in losing all of their unpleasant political baggage by dumping any form of baggage whatsoever.

Not thrones and crowns

A meme from Paulie:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

The dogmatic certainty that God does not exist, and that His non-existence really matters. Like Paulie, I prefer ‘agnostic’ as a label.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Church of England; I described it here. We were quite big on the story about feeding the hungry and freeing the prisoners, and the one about the woman taken in adultery, and the bit with the money-changers in the Temple. We weren’t particularly bothered about what happens when you die – or even, really, about what happened when Jesus died.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

Dishonest. (What’s the point of this question? It’d be far more interesting to write a paragraph, or even a sentence.)

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Anything to do with history, up to and including palaeontology. But science has a lot to offer our understanding of even quite recent periods. Get a load of this, from a recent LRB:

In 1998, Michael Bennett revealed that a badly burned charter in the Cottonian Collection, just readable under ultraviolet light, was a copy of a previously unknown declaration by Edward III of October 1376, strictly limiting the royal succession to his male heirs and their male descent. This declaration was never made public, and it was quite unclear that a king had any right to regulate the succession in this way. If valid, it made John of Gaunt, and Henry after him, heirs to the throne should Richard, the son of Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, die childless, and excluded the March line, whose royal blood came through Edward’s granddaughter. The declaration was probably made at Gaunt’s prompting and must have been known to Henry at an early point, and to Richard too.

New discoveries from fourteenth-century manuscripts – that’s exciting.

(The space programme was fantastic, too.)

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

What: its arrogant condescension towards the rest of the world. Why: because it’s not a good way to relate to people. Marxists feel quite certain that they (or rather we) have got the key to human history, but we also believe that everyone else needs to get it for themselves. Freudians feel similarly confident that they (or we) have got the psyche down pat – but, again, we don’t go around pouring scorn on the unanalysed masses. Neither group would dream of claiming that our particular brand of enlightenment had dibs on the word ‘bright’. I’d like to see some humility from atheists – some acknowledgment that it’s possible to learn from people whose mental universes strike you as daft.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be both disappointed and pleased, which would probably necessitate quite a long conversation. My children are both personally tolerant, politically liberal and intellectually curious; I’ve known clergy who were all three, so let’s assume that, in this scenario, these character traits haven’t changed. But I’d still be disappointed, since I don’t think belief in a personal saviour who forgives sins and guarantees admission to Heaven is particularly healthy. Admittedly, when I was growing up (as I said above) we got along fine in the Church of England without bothering much about that end of things, but I think it’d be hard to pull this off while actually wearing a dogcollar. I’d be pleased, at the same time, because I think that – even taking into account their role in fostering supernaturalist illusions – most clergy do more good than harm. (I’d certainly rather that than they went into advertising.)

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

If I went in for this sort of thing, it’d be the First Cause. I tried to refute it in a rather simple-minded church youth group once, many years ago, using an insanely complex theory which I’d got from Isaac Asimov – there was a singularity before the Big Bang, and then there was also a singularity of anti-matter, and there was a Big Bang in the anti-matter universe too – only it was more complicated than that because there was another singularity… no, right, there was another pair of singularities, that’s right, only when these two singularities had their Big Bangs they were actually going backwards in time… and the thing is, right, before the Big Bang all these singularities cancelled each other out, right, which meant that actually nothingness could turn into four separate singularities at any moment, so like it could be happening all the time…

A much better answer, I think, is we don’t know. We don’t know, but we – collectively, as a species – are trying to find out. Isn’t that exciting? (History again, you see.)

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

As far as capital-A atheists go, see above, QQ1 and 5, and below, Q9. (We Guardian-reading live-and-let-live agnostics don’t really have the kind of orthodoxy this question implies.)

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

None of the above. Both Dawkins and Dennett would be good on their own territory, if only they’d stick to it. I went off Dawkins when I first read about memes, which is some time ago now. Dennett these days is quite openly an evangelist, and I don’t trust evangelists. Hitchens has very little to offer in this area; I haven’t seen much by Sam Harris, but what I have seen suggests that he’s a twit. The only self-proclaimed atheist writer I’ve got any time for is Philip Pullman; he takes religion seriously as part of real, intellligent people’s lives.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Ian Paisley, just to see what would happen. But I don’t believe in persuading people to abandon their beliefs – for atheism as for Marx or Freud, people need to see that it works when you use it and then realise that it would work for them. Or not – it’s up to them.

And I tag… you, dear (presumptively atheist) reader. Or not – it’s up to you.

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