Category Archives: Britain

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Cap in hand (3)

The story so far: in the last three parliaments there were 80, 92 and 85 MPs who were neither Tory nor Labour; there looks like being a similar number in the next parliament, albeit differently constituted (more SNP, fewer Lib Dems). In the absence of a landslide somebody is going to have to ally with someone. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems are claiming that the party forming the next government should be the largest single party, and that doing otherwise would somehow lack stability or legitimacy. There is no historical or constitutional justification for this, and it looks as if they’re just saying it in the hope of giving the Coalition another five years, even if a Labour-led government could have a bigger majority and (consequently) be more stable.

That’s where we were up to last weekend. Then things got worse, with the outgoing Home Secretary’s extraordinary intervention in the Mail on Sunday. Now, the political stance of the Mail newspapers has never been what you could call impartial; ‘nuanced’ is another word that doesn’t spring to mind. But over the last couple of weeks they really have thrown caution to the winds; you could be forgiven for thinking they were being guest-edited by Chris Morris. ‘Red Ed’ is proposing “Stalinist” policies; a new hospital – in evil socialist Scotland – is “Nicola’s Death Star”. (To be fair, the ‘death star’ nickname is being used locally, on the basis that the building’s sort of star-shaped (it actually looks more like a Space Invader). But “new hospital: bad thing” genuinely is what the story is saying; ‘Fury-new-1bn-super-hospital-Glasgow‘ says the URL.) Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Daily Mail has put its name to the statement that immigration is “being totally ignored by the main parties”: “the subject that dare not speak its name … has been all but air-brushed from the election”. To the extent that this leader column says anything at all, it seems to be complaining that nobody is actually campaigning on a platform of sending the buggers back; Labour’s promise to clamp down on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour is dismissed as a sop to the party’s “union paymasters”, a comment which is headbangingly stupid, scarily authoritarian or both (don’t come in here with your pinko commie supply and demand, we want men in uniforms and we want ’em now).

So you don’t go to the Mail newspapers for a cool draught of disinterested rationality – not at the best of times, and certainly not now. But even by those standards Theresa May’s statement last Sunday was something else.

Mrs May told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales. Rightly, people in England would say, “hang on a minute, why are Scottish Nationalist MPs allowed to do that?”‘

Two separate claims are being confused here. I’m not sure if May would want to stand by both of them, or even if she was aware that they were separate claims. (Since ‘catgate‘ my opinion of our former Home Secretary hasn’t been high.) I’ll disentangle them anyway. First, the devolution question. So Mary Smith, MP for Moray, Forth and Orkney votes in Parliament to cut the police budget and spend more money on primary healthcare – or vice versa – despite not having any responsibility for those issues in her own constituency. Does this matter, and if so why? There is a genuine and longstanding question – the ‘West Lothian’ question – about the capacity of Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to vote, after devolution, on matters solely or mainly affecting England, but opinions differ as to how serious it is; May’s apparent belief that it is very serious indeed is not widely shared. The SNP isn’t an abstentionist party, and May isn’t suggesting that Smith wouldn’t turn up – quite the reverse. It seems reasonable to assume that when the voters of M, F and O elected Smith to the UK Parliament, they were voting for an MP who would represent their views for the UK as a whole and take part in Parliamentary discussions about the governance of the UK – including the governance of England.

In any case, if Smith was democratically elected, and if the MSPs for Moray, Forth and Orkney are also democratically elected, it would all come out in the wash: the same voters would vote for parties putting forward the same policies, whether they got to implement those policies within the constituency or not. If anything, of course, the Scottish Parliament is more democratically representative, being elected under PR. (The three main UK parties are currently projected to get 5 Scottish seats between them (out of 59), on 45% of the vote. Seats the three parties currently hold at Holyrood: 58 out of 129, or 45%.) This doesn’t affect the main point: there is no reason to imagine that the voters of Moray, Forth and Orkney would vote for positive, responsible policy agenda A when electing Mr Brown, MSP for Moray, Ms Wilson (Forth) and Mr Robertson (Orkney), and then vote for bad, dangerous policy agenda B when electing their Westminster MP (Ms Smith).

The only way this could possibly work would be if Smith, Brown, Wilson and Robertson were actually all advancing the same agenda – one that’s positive for Scotland but bad and dangerous for the UK. And, it turns out, this is actually what May is suggesting. The West Lothian question is a red herring; as the last sentence quoted above suggests, it’s only a problem if Scottish Nationalist MPs are voting in Westminster on matters affecting the rest of the UK. By implication, it would still be a problem in the absence of devolution: if serious ‘West Lothian’ issues are being raised by the stance of a political party – rather than the vagaries of individual MPs’ voting behaviour – then that party’s position must be bad for England as well as being good for Scotland. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be a bad influence at Westminster whether Scotland has a devolved assembly or not.

There’s an obvious problem here: once you’ve set up an electoral system, you’ve got to accept the results it gives you. If it’s possible and legal for the SNP to stand candidates, then it has to be possible for SNP MPs to be elected; if the people of Moray, Forth and Orkney have elected an SNP MP, they’re going to be represented by someone who votes in accordance with SNP policy. And this is not a problem: it’s how the system works, just as it worked – exactly as it worked – when the people of Maidenhead voted to elect a Tory. May doesn’t seem to accept this.

‘Miliband would be in government on the coat-tails of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. They would be calling the tune – people who don’t want the UK to exist and want to destroy our country. There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that.’

A Labour/SNP alliance would be “something people did not want to see [and] had not voted for”. That’s something you could say about a lot of post-election alliances; you could certainly say it about the 2010 alliance between the Conservatives and the party that won 23% of the vote opposing economic austerity and tuition fees. But this is much worse, because it’s the SNP: “people who don’t want the UK to exist “. “A lot of English people” would question a Labour/SNP alliance; it would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Again with the L-word! This talk of legitimacy is alarming: it suggests that we could run an election according to the rules, form a government according to the Cabinet Manual (pdf), and still end up with a government that wasn’t valid in some undefined way – or rather, with a powerful and vocal lobby denouncing the government as invalid. It’s astonishingly arrogant – who gave May, or Cameron, or Clegg the right to pronounce on whether an elected government should be allowed to exist? – and frankly dangerous: it’s the kind of thing that gets people talking seriously about coups.

It’s also, frankly, stupid. Let’s say we pass a ruling that a party demanding independence from the UK can’t be a vital part of a government of the UK – can’t supply the MPs necessary for a second party to get a majority (this seems to be what May wants, or at least the result she wants to bring about). Then what? What about three-  or four-party coalitions – should we debar the secessionists from those as well? Better had – otherwise one of the other parties might defect and leave them holding the balance of power after all. Similarly, of course, nationalists should be debarred from any kind of opposition alliance or understanding between parties – you never know when the wheel might turn and put the opposition in power, and we’d be back where we started. What about hung parliaments and votes of confidence – should we bar the nationalists from taking part? Otherwise their vote might be crucial to the survival of the government, which is just what we wanted to avoid. But then there are all the other votes which help a government survive, or undermine it if they are lost – can we afford to put the survival of the government’s prestige and reputation in the hands of the nationalists? And so on. The only way May’s logic will work is if we bar the nationalists from voting at all, or else from standing for Parliament in the first place – or if we excluded their nation from Parliament altogether. Perhaps the word isn’t ‘stupid’ after all; perhaps it’s just dangerous.

In part 4: what on earth are the Labour Party doing?

Cap in hand (2)

Initially, the Tories’ current campaign strategy – which centres on various forms of shroud-waving at the prospect of a Labour/SNP government – left me genuinely puzzled: even granted the premise (which clearly I don’t share), I couldn’t see any logic to it at all. “A Labour government would rely on SNP votes, therefore you should vote Tory”? How could that possibly work? The implicit comparison is between a Labour arrangement (of whatever sort) with the SNP and a Tory majority, but surely that’s a false choice. There isn’t anything magical about a Tory vote that makes it capable of bringing about a single-party government; the Tories, just as much as Labour, are going to be fishing for allies in the 80- to 90-strong ‘small parties’ group. And the attacks on a potential SNP lash-up remind us that, unlike Labour, the Tories have no hope of making allies of the majority of that group – if only because the majority of that group will almost certainly be SNP. The Tories will be able to call on any Kippers and Official Unionists, as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI); Labour will be able to talk to the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Green(s) and perhaps even Respect – as well as the Lib Dems, the DUP and Alliance (NI). Potential Tory allies (rough estimate): 30, giving a bare minimum of 296 Tory MPs for a (fragile) majority. Rough estimate of potential Labour allies: 80, giving a minimum Labour group size of 246. Most current forecasts have both parties on between 270 and 280 MPs. That would be fine for Labour – with the SNP on their side they might even be able to dispense with the Lib Dems – but it’s no good for the Tories: barring a massive revival of Lib Dem fortunes, 280 Tory MPs would not be able to form a government with any imaginable combination of allies.

The brute facts of current polling – including current polling in Scotland – are extremely unkind to the Tories, and this situation is unlikely to change unless they find and broadcast some positive reasons for voting Tory in short order. This being the case, at first I was baffled by the amount of time and energy they were devoting to pointing out, in effect, how well the SNP are doing and how unlikely it is that they’ll support the Tories after May 7th. As time’s gone on, though, the message has become more sophisticated. The initial message, focusing on how undesirable a Labour/SNP government would (supposedly) be, has been supplemented by three more: an argument that a Labour/SNP government would be, not merely undesirable, but inherently unstable and unworkable; an argument that the largest party (and/or the one with the largest popular vote) should get first go at forming a government; and – doubling down again – an argument that a Labour minority government sustained by the votes of the SNP would somehow be unconstitutional or illegitimate.

Nick Clegg – who on current form is surely destined for a Tory seat in the House of Lords – has spelt it out, speaking to the FT and the BBC . As well as “rul[ing] out any arrangements with the SNP” on political grounds, Clegg dismissed the SNP as essentially untrustworthy, arguing that a coalition dependent on the SNP for its majority would be “on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants”. Governmental stability seems to be a preoccupation for Clegg, but on closer inspection stability doesn’t seem to mean the numerically-guaranteed ability to win votes and pass laws. Rather, stability and instability seem to be intangible qualities deriving from the conditions under which the government was formed: a blessing (or curse) bestowed on a government in its cradle: “You cannot provide stability, you can’t take difficult decisions, if people are constantly questioning the birthright of a government”. We are told that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable”, which is nice of them. What this actually means, though, is something quite specific and potentially rather ominous.

“That means that, in a democracy, the party with the greatest mandate from the British people – even though they haven’t got a majority – seems to me, to us, to be the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first. They may not succeed, but they should surely be given a chance to succeed.”

Clegg would only talk to the second party if the largest party’s coalition-building efforts had failed. And woe betide any second party which stole a march on the Lib Dems and put together a parliamentary majority without waiting to hear from them. Even with Lib Dem involvement, Clegg suggests, a “coalition of the losers” could lack “legitimacy”; without them, presumably, legitimacy would be a lost cause. A second-placed Labour Party might be able to get the numbers, but it wouldn’t have the birthright.

This all deserves a bit of analysis. The comment about Alex Salmond pulling the plug is odd, to say the least. Any large minor party in a coalition (e.g. the Lib Dems, 2010-15) has precisely this power; the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes it less straightforward to use, but obviously this would apply to the hypothetical Labour/Lib Dem/SNP coalition as well as the actual Tory/Lib Dem one. What Clegg seems to be telling us here is that not all minor parties are like those rascally nationalists: once the Lib Dems have chosen their coalition partner, they will never defect. Which is nice, I suppose, although it doesn’t seem like terribly good politics. (Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. If we take into account Clegg’s reference to Labour’s “frothing bile” towards the Coalition – a line which goes back to 2010 – perhaps what he’s saying is simply that he has chosen his coalition partner, and will never defect.)

Secondly, is it in fact difficult to get things done when – or rather because – a government is seen as lacking legitimacy or having its ‘birthright’ challenged? Setting aside other sources of difficulty, such as a small majority or a divided governing party – which would make it hard to win votes whether the government’s birthright had been impugned or not – I can’t think of any examples. The outstanding example of a government having its creation called into question is surely the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and that controversy doesn’t seem to have had any long-term effects at all. Admittedly, the question was officially resolved in fairly short order, but many opponents of Bush didn’t think the book was closed; I remember seeing “Re-elect Gore” .sig quotes months afterwards. The effectiveness of the government doesn’t seem to have been impaired. If we get away from government as a whole and look at specific government policies, Thatcher and Heseltine mobilised millions of people against pit closures, which went ahead anyway; Blair mobilised millions against British involvement in the second Iraq war, to no effect. (Both Blair and Thatcher did eventually step down, but not for another four and five years respectively.) Conversely, if we think in terms of questioning the ‘birthright’ of an individual political leader, we need look no further than the MP for Doncaster North: the legitimacy of his election to lead the Labour Party has been weighed and re-weighed by the right-wing press, and found wanting every time. Not only is Ed Miliband still the leader of the Labour Party, he has the distinction of being the leader of the Labour Party who broke with the Murdoch press and halted a US-led drive to war with Syria – not the sign of somebody who “can’t take difficult decisions” for all the awkward questions people keep asking.

The idea that the SNP would have blackmail power over a minority government is an odd, sensationalist misrepresentation of the position any junior partner occupies in that situation, including the Lib Dems over the last five years; there’s no reason to believe an agreement with the SNP would be any more volatile than the Tories’ agreement with the Lib Dems, assuming of course that an equally binding agreement was reached. (If the larger party doesn’t offer the SNP an agreement, but challenges it to support a minority government, volatility is guaranteed – but that’s not the SNP’s doing.) The idea that the ‘birthright’ of a government needs to be unimpeachable if the government is to operate is even odder. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality at all: as long as the government can get things done, how it came into being doesn’t matter.

On inspection, Clegg’s idea of securing the birthright of the next government seems to boil down to the slightly more mundane idea that any minority government should be led by the largest single party: “the party with the greatest mandate from the British people” is “the party that has the right to try to assemble a government first”. Perhaps Clegg’s undertaking that “Liberal Democrats will ensure that any government is legitimate and stable” simply means that the Lib Dems will refuse to join any coalition not led by the largest single party – and will denounce any such coalition formed without them. I’m sure we’re all lucky to have such guardians of constitutional rectitude to hand. Or are we? This government has, unusually, published a manual documenting how the government works – the two houses of Parliament, the Cabinet, relations with the devolved governments, the works. What the Cabinet Manual says on this topic is

Prime Ministers hold office unless and until they resign. If the Prime Minister resigns on behalf of the Government, the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government.

it remains a matter for the Prime Minister, as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, to judge the appropriate time at which to resign, either from their individual position as Prime Minister or on behalf of the government. Recent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention.

An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government.

And, er, that’s it. As you can see, the ‘largest party goes first’ principle isn’t there; it’s a reasonable description of the Lib Dems’ behaviour in 2010, but nothing in constitutional principle made them do it. Nor will they be able to claim constitutional backing for such an approach this year. Interestingly enough, what we may call the Clegg Principle did appear in a draft of the Cabinet Manual, but it was removed in 2011 (Tristram Hunt, who is a historian and knows precedent-setting when he sees it, referred to this as a “Liberal Democrat attempt to change our constitutional procedures”). There are many ways to approach coalition formation: we could argue that the ‘formateur’, charged with pulling together a coalition of its allies, should be the party with the best chance of gaining an overall majority; or we could give the role to the party with the main responsibility for the previous government falling; or we could start by eliminating any parties whose vote has dropped since the previous election, then apply one of the other tests. Alternatively, perhaps the formateur should (as Clegg says) be the party with the ‘greatest mandate’, but this in turn could mean a number of things: the largest single party; the party with the highest vote; the party whose vote has risen the most in absolute terms; the party whose vote has risen the most in proportion to its previous vote… I very much doubt that’s an exhaustive list of approaches. The idea that a coalition is illegitimate if it’s not centred on the largest single party, or even that the largest party should always get the first go at forming a coalition, is “absurd” (in the words of Vernon Bogdanor, who knows this area fairly well).

In reality there is no reason why a government should not be formed excluding the largest single party, and in some cases this may be a very good idea: the second party may have the highest vote; its vote may have risen the most; and it will almost certainly have some responsibility for the situation in which the previous government is unable to carry on. Most importantly, it may have the best chance – or even the only chance – of gaining an overall majority. Most of these things look like being true of the Labour Party on May 8th, even if it doesn’t have the largest number of seats (although I hope it will). It may also be the case that Labour needs the Lib Dems’ support to achieve an overall majority (although I fervently hope it won’t). Even in that unfortunate situation, however, we can be fairly sure that the weight of the minor parties would be more or less unchanged. This in turn means that the Tories, even with more seats than Labour, would be a long way short of a parliamentary majority – and that it would be significantly easier to form a majority with the SNP than without them. For Nick Clegg to refuse Labour his party’s support in that context would be, at best, to usher in a ramshackle Tory/UKIP/DUP/Lib Dem alliance, which would struggle to agree any policies – let alone to get then through the Commons. A more likely result would be a Tory/Lib Dem minority government, permanently a couple of votes short of a majority, surviving from one vote to the next on temporary alliances and defections. To take that choice on the grounds that a Labour/SNP/PC/Green/Lib Dem majority government would be unstable is enough to make a cat laugh.

The Tories – and their allies – seem determined to stay in power after May 7th, majority or no majority; arguments to the effect that re-electing the Coalition would exemplify stability, legitimacy and adherence to constitutional principle are ringing increasingly hollow. Which, perhaps, is why the assault on the legitimacy of the next Labour government has taken a new and nastier turn, with the outright delegitimation of the SNP. But I’ll stop here and cover that in the next post.

Cap in hand (1)

As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.

So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.

(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.

Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).

What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.10.23

The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).

What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 20.23.09

The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.

This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)

The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?

(Some answers in part two.)

You know how it is

I want Labour to win this election, but they’re not exactly going all out for my vote at the moment. I learned this morning, courtesy of Obsolete, that Labour stand for sending people to prison for possession of drugs for personal use – at least, they attack the Lib Dems for not supporting this policy. I wouldn’t say it’s having the opposite of the intended effect: never mind a nose peg, you’d have to stuff my nose with garlic, coat my eyes with butter and fill my ears with silver (and the rest) to make me vote Lib Dem. But Labour certainly aren’t calling me home.

This, of course, comes on top of That Mug. Now, being a pedant to my bones – and having worked for a publishing and events company – my immediate reaction to this story was to point out tetchily that it wasn’t a matter of one mug; we were talking about Those Mugs plural, which is to say That Marketing Strategy for Those Pledges plural. But, if anything, this makes matters even worse for Labour: if “why that mug?” was a good question, “why that pledge?” is an even better one. If the Labour Party, going into an election it needs to win, wants to highlight five pledges – five commitments encapsulating what the party will do in government – why on earth should one of them be ‘Controls on immigration’? (Particularly since our membership of the EU makes controlling EU immigration extremely problematic, as everyone involved knows perfectly well.)

Paul Bernal has an excellent list of alternative pledges. Any one of them would be an improvement; in fact, I think Paul’s pledges 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 would make good replacements for all five of Labour’s. An interesting discussion of the ‘immigration’ pledge itself – and its importance to the voters – has also developed in the comments box. Since I’m one of the main participants, I’ll continue it over here. It began with a comment on the salience – and relative visibility (or at least audibility) – of Eastern European migrants, as distinct from those who have come to Britain from the New Commonwealth. (And with whom UKIP, and others playing the migration card, are of course absolutely fine; the new anti-migration politics is not racist in any way, shape or form. Mostly.) Here’s the comment:

One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked.

In response, I pulled out this quote from the papers in 2010, when Thatcher’s 1979 obiter dicta in Cabinet became available under the 30-year rule.

[In July 1979, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] said that “with some exceptions there had been no humanitarian case for accepting 1.5 million immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere”. [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Whitelaw entered the debate, suggesting to the prime minister that refugees were a different matter to immigrants in general. He said that according to letters he had received, opinion favoured the accepting of more of the Vietnamese refugees. Lady Thatcher responded that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes” … “She thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

Lady Thatcher asked what the implications of such a move could be given that an exodus of the white population from Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was expected once majority rule was established. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”.

Emphasis added.

(In passing – “all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes”! Stay classy, Margaret.)

So in 1979 it’s obvious that Asians are harder to assimilate than Poles – they’re not White!
And in 2015 it’s obvious that Poles are harder to assimilate than Asians – they’re not non-White!

My interlocutor replied:

I am not condoning these attitudes, but seeking to understand and explain them. I am afraid the migration is wonderful (stick your fingers in your ears) etc approach will not change hearts and minds, unless those advocating it address the concerns of those not sharing that view.

Perception is reality, even if there is very little evidence to support that perception. And you are not going to change the perception by saying let us have uncontrolled migration.

Which raises the question of how an evidence-free perception can be changed – not with evidence, presumably. I thought about this a bit more and came up with the following, which (as you can see) got too long for a comment box.

Thinking some more about this notion of ‘real concerns’ which underlie expressions of racism, there are two points I’d make. First off, there is a very general tendency to be prejudiced against people who are Not Like Us, particularly if those people are in a minority and visibly (or audibly!) different. Most of us outgrow these feelings, recognise them as unworthy or at worst learn to repress them; more importantly, most of us have life experiences which tell us on a personal level that ‘those people’ are Like Us, that some of ‘them’ are Us. (All the more so in recent decades – my son had more non-White friends at school than I ever did; come to think of it, more than I ever have.) But some people never have those experiences, aren’t very reflective or generous-minded and don’t mix with people who are, and those people will have a genuine, personal, emotional reaction to the arrival of more of ‘those people’. (My grandmother, God rest her, went to her grave convinced that Indian cooking was ‘dirty’. “She probably thinks the brown comes off their fingers,” my mother said.) I don’t know what’s to be done about people like that, except for God’s sake not to encourage them. They do not have very real concerns. Their views are not valid. Yes, there was a time when we all used those words. No, you can’t say those things any more. Good.

Secondly, at the moment I live in an area with very real pressure on services. The local primary school, an Edwardian structure with ‘BOYS’ picked out in stonework over one of the entrances, recently put on a third year-group (i.e. an expansion in capacity of 50%), with extensive new building to accommodate it (they essentially built another school on top of the school); getting a doctor’s appointment has been a pain for a while, but following a recent reorganisation it’s now a pain and a half. What does this tell me? The expansion of the school tells me that pressure on services can be met with an expansion of service provision. The reorganisation of the health centre tells me that if service provision doesn’t expand in response to pressure (perhaps being subjected to a half-arsed reorganisation instead), that’s the problem. What doesn’t occur to me – genuinely doesn’t occur to me, any more than it would occur to me to wear shorts to work – is to blame the people who have moved into the area.

This, clearly, is what’s going on when people voice their very real concerns, so it may be worth establishing why it is that I don’t do it. It may be because I’ve no idea who those incomers are, or even if there is any identifiable group of incomers (people may have stopped moving out; older people may have died and younger people, with families, moved into their old homes; there are a variety of possible scenarios). It may be because I’m a well-meaning Guardian reader, or – relating back to the first point – that I’ve been socialised to beware of prejudice and to try and make sure my beliefs are supported by evidence. But I think the most important factor – my most important value in this respect – is the conviction that you don’t kick down. If someone’s in the same boat as you – or even worse off than you – you may not extend a friendly hand; you may not particularly like them or want them around you. But you don’t blame them for what’s wrong with the world. This seems like basic common sense to me: politically speaking, there are people running things (stop me if I get too technical), and if things are running badly it’s basically going to be their fault, by and large. Down here at ground level – down among the wage slaves and the ‘consumers’ – the way things are is basically not our fault, except in the sense that we’re all perpetuating an unjust system through wage labour and commodity consumption; and in a Marxist perspective even that’s scarcely our fault, morally speaking. If the people in power screw things up, somebody in a position of power needs to put them right. If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

How to address the concerns of people who want to see controls on immigration (and who, presumably, will be more likely to vote Labour if the party offers them)? Tell them they’ve forgotten something very important: you don’t kick down. (I say ‘forgotten'; they may never have known it in the first place, but it’s kinder not to remind them.) It’s not about well-meaning liberals telling hard-pressed working people that “migration is wonderful” (“Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from” as Ian Dury put it). It’s about who’s causing the problems and who isn’t; where solutions are going to come from and where they aren’t; who they – and all of us – should be angry with, and who we shouldn’t. There’s a lot at stake here: there’s a great deal of latent anger out there (some of it not entirely latent), and if we get the wrong result in May it could easily be channelled in some very unpleasant directions. I know Labour’s leadership are aware of this; I had hoped they would act, and campaign, accordingly.

On inspection, incidentally, Labour’s actual proposals for controlling immigration turn out to be the enforcement of the minimum wage and an unpleasant but largely meaningless clampdown on the ‘benefits tourism’ non-problem. So they actually aren’t kicking down to any great extent. But, by the same token, they’ve left an open goal for any political opponent or hostile interviewer: the pledge says ‘Controls on immigration'; where are they? All in all it’s dreadful stuff. The idea seems to be triangulation, straight out of Bill Clinton’s playbook – pitching a left-wing policy in language that ticks the Daily Mail‘s boxes – and, absent a leader with Bill Clinton’s personal charisma and charm, I don’t believe it can possibly work.

Lies, damned lies and the BBC News

I’ve always thought the BBC News was reasonably trustworthy. Very establishment-oriented, very quick to condemn disorder in any form, very slow to condemn the police or politicians (unless a readily identifiable bad apple can be found), basically rather right-wing, unthinkingly dismissive of the radical Left and rather too fond of displaying attacks from the Right as evidence that they have achieved ‘balance’. For all that, I’ve always thought they were basically reliable on matters of fact, not to mention on fundamental issues like the importance of not killing, not lying and taking the law seriously.

My confidence has been dented by some recent stories. I was disturbed by the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, parts of which didn’t so much skirt the ‘anti-extremist’ rabbit-hole as jump straight down it: “where does multi-culturalism end and extremism begin?” we were asked one evening, by the newsreader himself. (So, about these darkies – can we trust them as far as we can throw them?) Parts of the Gaza coverage have also been appalling. But it was last night’s news that really shook me – the story on restricting out-of-work benefits to EU migrants, specifically.

So here’s the story from PM, broadcast at 17.00 on 29/7/2014.

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years. EU claimants will receive only three months of payments unless there’s a very clear prospect of them getting a job.

On the 6.00 News (18.00, 29/7/2014), Norman Smith covered the politics of the announcement, and when I say ‘politics’…

Today’s curbs on so-called benefit tourism follow a string of similar announcements aimed at ending what the Prime Minister calls the “magnetic pull” of the British benefits system – the hope that barring EU migrants from claiming support after three months will deter many from coming here in the first place. But the move is also designed to reassure voters that Mr Cameron is serious about tackling immigration. … UKIP meanwhile, who have made immigration central to their appeal, mocked today’s announcement, insisting that under Mr Cameron immigrants would continue (in their words) to flood into Britain … The European Commission have also stepped into the fray, dismissing ministers’ concerns over benefit tourism and announcing a review into the legality of the government’s benefit changes. All of which is most unlikely to trouble Mr Cameron – provided today’s announcement helps convince voters he’s at least trying to address their concerns over immigration.

First off, there is nothing principled or even rational here. Smith distinguishes between the actual effect of the policy and its presentational impact, but the only effect cited – Cameron’s ‘hope’ – is that fewer people from other parts of the EU end up coming to Britain. Why is that a good idea? We’re not told; we don’t need to be told. But as well as this hoped-for reduction in the numbers of people speaking English with a foreign accent (and wasn’t there something about saving half a billion pounds earlier on?), the policy is designed to ‘reassure voters’ that the government is ‘trying to address their concerns’. By the end of the piece this has become the main purpose of the announcement: it’s not that the government hates foreigners, you understand, it’s just that lots of people out there do hate foreigners and the government wants their votes. As for the European Commission, we know that our Prime Minister doesn’t listen to them! (On a side note, the relentless personalisation of this story is depressing in itself – when was David Cameron elected president?) Those Europeans – they can talk about how there’s no evidence, and how it might be against the law or something, but why should anyone care what they say? Bunch of foreigners!

So there’s xenophobia; cynical attempts to pander to xenophobia, for no other reason than that somebody else is doing it; the design of government policy around vote-chasing, irrespective of whether it’s needed or what effect it will have; contempt for international obligations; contempt for evidence; contempt for the rule of law. This is disgusting stuff; to hear the BBC passing it on as political normality is depressing and, frankly, alarming.

But all is not lost. The programme included a second report on the same policy by Mark Easton, who seems to have more traditional ideas about how journalism works:

When the BBC asked how many migrants would be affected by the proposed changes to eligibility, we were told ministers simply didn’t know. There are no figures for EU migrants claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance for more than three months. The government blames the previous Labour administration for not keeping proper records. Our analysis suggests the number affected by the new measures could be as low as a few thousand across the whole country. … [The Prime Minister] told reporters today’s changes would save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years. However, later Downing Street explained he was referring to estimates for how much might be saved by existing immigration controls. As we now know, they can’t tell how much the policy might save, because they admit they don’t have the evidence that would tell them.

Wait a minute – that’s a story right there. The Prime Minister announced the reduction of entitlement to out-of-work benefits from six to three months, and then he said – it was quoted all over the place – “Our changes today will save the British taxpayer half a billion pounds over the next five years”. None of your ‘existing immigration controls’ – our changes today. That claim was false – or speculative at best – and it’s been retracted, after the BBC did the numbers and asked for clarification. That’s the headline, surely. At the very least it’s a proud day for BBC News: “Government withdraws misleading claims under pressure from BBC”. This could have legs: “Furious Cameron demands source of inaccurate immigration figures”; “Cameron under pressure as ‘misleading’ immigration claims unravel”; “Fears for coalition as Lib Dems challenge immigration policy” (they haven’t yet, but get this out there and they will)…

At the very least, the story has changed: it’s no longer a story about how your government is going to save money and address your fears about all those nasty immigrants (with a nod and a wink to the grown-ups from Norman Smith: OK, so it’s all just scaremongering, but that’s politics for you!) It’s now a story about how the government has put forward a very controversial and possibly illegal policy, with the specific aim of making one group of very poor people even poorer, and first claimed to have evidence to support it, then admitted that there is no evidence.

News headlines, Radio 4, 19.00, 29/7/2014

The government is defending new measures to restrict out-of-work benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance to EU migrants, saying they’ll save half a billion pounds over the next five years.

Unless they use pre-recorded news headline segments, by the time that script was read out, the government wasn’t ‘saying’ that. The announcer himself had probably heard the retraction on the 6.00 News. The only reason for leaving that claim unchallenged is to save the government’s face – and that’s the last thing the BBC News should be doing, least of all when the loss of face is related to a baseless, evidenceless, cynical, hateful and illegal exercise in chasing votes and polluting the public discourse.

BBC News: shame on you.

Triggering the community

I’ve written a paper on anti-social behaviour and, in particular, the ‘Community Trigger’. It’s based entirely on published sources, so the conclusion is basically that somebody ought to do some proper research on this – I’m hoping to get some funding to do just that. In the mean time here’s the abstract and the references, in case anyone’s interested in the kind of stuff I’m doing at the moment (at least, the more policy-ish end of it; more skirmishes in the region of legal theory to come).

Noisy students, pro-life protesters and street football: How the Community Trigger has refined our understanding of anti-social behaviour

Abstract

This paper reviews the experience of the Community Trigger pilot schemes carried out in England in 2012 and 2013. The Community Trigger, now enacted in law, is a mechanism whereby people affected by anti-social behaviour (ASB) can request a review of their case, which has to be undertaken if repeated complaints have been made with an unsatisfactory response. The experience of the Community Trigger pilots offers a testing ground for different conceptions of ASB – considered variously as ‘neighbourhood disorder’, as ‘incivilities’ and as the actions of an ‘anti‑social minority’ – and for approaches to addressing ASB, based on different understandings of where authentic knowledge of ASB resides (with legislators, with local specialists or with the individuals affected). The pilots demonstrate wide variation among the areas involved, suggesting that different approaches to ASB and its management are likely to persist. Given the inherent variability of ASB – considered as ‘context-dependent’ disorder – the persistence of local and regional variation is likely to pose challenges for measurement of ASB and of the success of any centrally-driven initiatives to address it.

References

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Made a move for chart position

Updated 8/11 (Barnett, Hastings)

Andrew O’Hagan’s been thinking – and talking to people – about the Savile scandal and the larger cultural conditions it grew from. His piece is a bit overlong and, I think, under-edited, but it’s genuinely insightful and troubling for all that. I shall be thinking about this for a while:

The public made Jimmy Savile. It loved him. It knighted him. The Prince of Wales accorded him special rights and the authorities at Broadmoor gave him his own set of keys. A whole entertainment structure was built to house him and make him feel secure. That’s no one’s fault: entertainment, like literature, thrives on weirdos, and Savile entered a culture made not only to tolerate his oddness but to find it refreshing.

And, in particular, this:

Let’s blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don’t understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are ‘eccentric’ in order to feed our need for disorder. We’ll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn’t have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt.

I don’t know quite what that last sentence means and I’m not sure O’Hagan does either, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s true.

A week after writing the above, I saw this from Anthony Barnett which I think joins some of the dots. Barnett starts by musing on the sheer repellence of Savile – the obvious, in-your-face excessiveness of his get-up and demeanour –

Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement.

I’ll come on to “we the public” in a minute – that assumed ‘we’ is one of the weak points of O’Hagan’s piece as well – but I do think this is a real question. Why did people not only tolerate but celebrate such an insistent display of preening arrogance? Did nobody ever ring up and say “About that PA, Jim – maybe something low-key this time, not so much of the gold and leave the cigars at home”? It doesn’t seem very likely – the peacocking was part of what people wanted. Why? Barnett suggests an interesting answer and makes a couple of interesting parallels:

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.

Bingo – Jimmy Savile’s appeal wasn’t acting like an infantile megalomaniac, it was acting like an infantile megalomaniac and getting away with it. People around him knew that the treatment he was getting was against the rules; they also knew nobody would ever bend the rules for them in the same way, and deep down they wished somebody would. So if he could get away with it, well, good luck to him.

There’s something quite deep-rooted and weird going on here. Jerry Sadowitz’s 1987 crack about Savile – “That’s why he does all the fucking charity work: it’s to gain public sympathy for when his fucking case comes up.” – hints at it but (perhaps surprisingly) doesn’t go far enough. Consider what we knew about Savile before he died:

  • What he was like: flashy, excessive, arrogant, with a one-note act centring on drawing attention to himself
  • What he did: charged large amounts of money for appearing and doing the act
  • How he did it: his own way, for his own price (I don’t get out of bed for less than £10,000) and whatever side-benefits he felt like
  • What he did it for: charity, in particular children’s charities

He demanded attention, to himself as himself – look at me being me, doing the me thing that I do! He was loved and cared for and had to do nothing in return apart from being him, doing the being-him act. He did it however he wanted to, and everyone else had to fit in around him. And he did it for unarguable good causes – not only good causes, but perhaps the one type of good cause that everybody, however hard-headed or mean-spirited, can sign up to. (Famine in Africa? Charity begins at home, I say. Cancer research? Can’t fight Fate, we’ve all got to go some time. Terminally-ill children? Ahhh…) To be loved unconditionally while being an all-powerful egomaniac, and at the same time to be undeniably good – it’s genuinely infantile thinking; it’s how we all think of ourselves, or would like to think of ourselves, between about 18 months and 3 years. Never quite goes away, either – so when we see somebody dedicated to living that particular dream, there is a definite urge to bend the rules of the adult world so that they can get away with it. In its own terms it’s a virtuous circle – the star lives out the fantasy, so we bend the rules for them, so they get away with it, so we bend the rules some more… It’s only when the music stops that we find out what they’ve been getting away with – hence Elvis’s squirrel sandwiches NB check this or Imelda Marcos’s shoes. Or Savile’s victims. Needless to say, there can be an excessive, spectacular edge to the exposure phase as well, as if to keep the roundabout spinning just a bit longer – look what else he’s been getting away with! Which may tell us something about the Duncroft story.

We project our own thwarted megalomania onto stars, I’m suggesting, and part of the process is wanting them to break the rules and get away with it – and indulging them when they do. (You can tell a lot about how loyal a following somebody has from their reaction to brushes with the law. Compare and contrast: Pete Doherty and heroin, George Michael and cannabis, Richard Madeley and Tesco.) There are two worrying aspects to this. One is directly relevant to Savile, and relates to just what people get away with when they can get away with it. The good news is that most people, given the power to please themselves, don’t gravitate to cruelty and abuse – the dressing rooms of the stars aren’t one long Stanford Prison Experiment. But there’s always that possibility, particularly in a culture which positively validates male power over women. The 70s are a long time ago – they seem like a different planet – but that culture and that possibility haven’t entirely gone away.

The other issue, which is perhaps more immediate, concerns what happens when celebrity culture seeps into politics – which is where Barnett’s parallels come in. He points to an extraordinary piece in the Daily Mail, in which Max Hastings settles some old scores. Either that or he really hates his subject:

Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor — from painful experience — with my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.

His chaotic public persona is not an act — he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.

Some Tory MPs are so panicked by their standing in the opinion polls that they have persuaded themselves that London’s mayor is the future. On the basis of what, some of us would ask. Boris Bikes on London’s streets? The peerless jokes and bonhomie and TV wizardry? Testimonials from ex-lovers who found him amusing in bed?

Ouch. But then, what’s behind his (clearly quite substantial) popular appeal, if all there is to the man is ruthless egomania and a few good jokes?

A friend said to me not long ago: ‘When will you understand that the reason the young are potty about Boris is precisely because he is not serious, because he treats the whole business of politics as a bit of a lark.’ This is true. I sat at a dinner table last week with three teenagers who expressed near-hero worship for the mayor, and said they could not care less when I suggested that he has less integrity than a City banker.

Boris Johnson was at the Tory conference yesterday for one purpose only — the exaltation of himself. This does not much matter when he is only Mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.

Answer: what’s behind it is… ruthless egomania and a few good jokes. Before Johnson was elected, Caitlin Moran semi-seriously advised voting against him because of the jokes – because, as she knows (and I know) making jokes to order is hard, time-consuming, attention-stealing work, and the time and energy he’d spent dreaming up “Ping-pong’s coming home” could have been much better spent on, well, politics. She missed what now seems obvious – that the jokes are actually a demonstration of how little of his attention Johnson devotes to politics, and that this is part of his appeal. He gets away with it – and a key emblem of getting away with it, in a society where men dream of power over women, is an element of unpunished sexual dominance and deceit. A Boris who didn’t cheat on his wife wouldn’t be Boris.

There’s another obvious political parallel, which Barnett mentions briefly in his conclusion:

the kind of racy ‘reality’ [Savile] personified was an early product of a twisted version of male celebrity culture whose misogyny continues to be celebrated and is seeping into politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this isn’t Italy. There is also growing resistance to such behaviour in large parts of the public perhaps even more than within the elite. We are spitting out the presumptions and arrogance behind Savile and company.

Another political leader who acts like a celebrity; another leader with a ruthless devotion to his own advancement and little or no interest in the substance of politics; another political leader who spends his time making jokes, and let’s not even go into the sexual side of the story. It’s an unpleasant parallel, and I’m less sanguine about what it tells us than Barnett appears to be. If “this isn’t Italy” because of OpenDemocracy and the Guardian, Italy isn’t Italy either: there was ‘growing resistance’ to Berlusconi when he first came to power – in 1994 – and it’s been growing ever since. The trouble is, for every voter who’s genuinely appalled at the tax-dodging, the bunga bunga, the demonisation of the Left and the awful jokes, there’s another who thinks it’s all a bit of a laugh and Silvio’s a sly dog for getting away with it. And, in a democracy, you don’t need to get all the voters on your side; realistically, you don’t even need half. Barnett’s overestimation of the British public reminds me of Leonardo Sciascia’s comments on the Italian Communist Party’s attempts, in the 1970s, to evoke a ‘sense of the State’ in the ruling Christian Democratic party.

Neither [Aldo] Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State … had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] … what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party – an attractive and reassuring absence – of an idea of the State

Berlusconi offered an “attractive and reassuring absence” on a much larger scale – an absence of morality and seriousness, as well as ethics and political substance – but the approach is basically the same. Ego and cynicism, worn blatantly enough, can take you a very long way; it’s part of the deal we make with the godlike figures onto whom we project our powerlessness and compliance.

So there’s a ‘we’ watching the screens and harbouring dreams of power without responsibility – and there’s a ‘we’ who are “spitting out the presumptions and arrogance” and generally not taking it any more. I think they both exist, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t back the second against the first in a fight. O’Hagan evokes another ‘we’, silent and complicit:

And no one said, not out loud: ‘What’s wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?’ He was an entertainer and that’s thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.

No one said… anything? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

2006
On Have I Got News For You, Ross Noble and Ian Hislop describe Savile as a disgusting sexual predator.

1999-2000
Widely-circulated fake Have I Got News For You transcript refers to Jimmy Savile having sex with twelve-year-olds.

1997
Val McDermid publishes The Wire In The Blood, featuring the character of “Jacko Vance”, a rapist and murderer.

Vance, a former athlete, hung about hospitals and toured towns in a show called Vance’s Visits – similar to the Savile’s Travels radio show.

Val, 57, said: “People often asked me where I had got the inspiration for the character. They never guessed it was Savile. For a start, Jacko is handsome and charming. I assume Savile didn’t recognise himself in that description.”

Val, from Fife, encountered Savile as a young reporter in 1977. She said: “He was a deeply unpleasant man. He was all smiles and laughter for the audience but as soon as we were alone, he was different. Savile was very much in the front of my mind when I was creating Jacko.”

1996
Irvine Welsh publishes Ecstasy, featuring the character of Freddy Royle, a necrophiliac.

Ecstasy is a collection of three short narratives; in the first, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston”, Freddy Royle was a chat-show host and “distinguished friend” at St Hubbin’s Hospital.

In one passage, Welsh writes: “The thing was, Freddy brought millions of pounds into the place with his fund-raising activities. This brought kudos to the trustees, and made St Hubbin’s Hospital a flagship for the arm’s-length trusts from the NHS. All they had to do was keep schtumm and indulge Sir Freddy with the odd body.”

1994
On Boxing Day, Chris Morris announces Jimmy Savile’s death [WAV] on Radio 1.

Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash – but the patients are far from mourning.

[Male voice]: “The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.”

1990
Lynn Barber interviews Jimmy Savile: I was nervous when I told him: “What people say is that you like little girls.” Savile replies by denying that under-age girls are interested in him:

“A lot of disc jockeys make the mistake of thinking that they’re sex symbols and then they get a rude awakening. But I always realised that I was a service industry. Like, because I knew Cliff [Richard] before he’d even made a record, all the Cliff fans would bust a gut to meet me, so that I could tell them stories about their idol. But if I’d said, ‘Come round, so that I can tell you stories about me’ or ‘Come round, so that you can fall into my arms’ they’d have said: ‘What! On yer bike!’ But because reporters don’t understand the nuances of all that, they say, ‘A-ha’.”

1990
The “newly enknighted” Savile meets Prince Charles, as seen by Private Eye‘s “Heir of Sorrows”:

‘Fascinating. You really must meet Diana.’
Sir James looked momentarily puzzled. ‘Is that your daughter, Your Maj?’
Charles shook his head. ‘No, no, my wife.’
‘No thank you very much, Your Maj. Bit old for me. That’s not Jim’s scene at all.’

What could he mean? Sometimes these holy men spoke in riddles.

1987
Jerry Sadowitz calls Jimmy Savile a paedophile. (In fairness, giving Jerry Sadowitz credit for accurate muck-raking is a bit like crediting Nostradamus for accurate prophecies – you can find something if you look hard enough, but accuracy isn’t really what the act’s about.)

1986
“He knows the answers to life’s great mysteries,
He knows what makes Jim Savile tick.”

– Yeah Yeah Noh, “It’s easier to suck than sing”

Is that no one saying anything, or just no one saying anything “out loud”? And if it’s the latter, what would have constituted saying something out loud – publishing and being damned? Let’s face it, Savile wouldn’t just have seen you in court, he’d have seen you in the bankruptcy court.

I think what’s going on here is that a sense of collective complicity is being stretched to the point where it becomes perversely comforting. If we are all to blame, then we can do something about it; at the very least we can do better next time, and try to stop there being a next time. It’s a reassuring thought: never again! ¡no pasarán!

But what if part of the problem is that there is no “we”? What if some of us were spitting out the presumptions and the arrogance all along – or at least having very bad feelings about them – but our revulsion could only be articulated in undertones and behind closed doors? We might not immediately think of Savile as a powerful man – he didn’t make anything happen on a national scale, or on any but a very local scale – but when it came to his own affairs he was very powerful indeed, in several different ways. As well as being rich, famous and well-connected, he was charismatic, generally well-liked, personally forceful and – in his prime – physically strong; he wasn’t a good man to say No to. Once someone has acquired that kind of power, it doesn’t really matter what “we” think about him (and it usually is “him”); whether we view what he does with indulgent approval or with physical revulsion, he’s still going to get away with it. The “we” of O’Hagan’s diffuse culture of star-worshipping quasi-paedophilia is doing double duty, standing in for the “we” who are able to hold individually powerful people to account. And that “we” – that collective articulation of a popular sense of what’s right and what’s wrong – didn’t exist in the 1960s and doesn’t exist now; tabloid bouts of morality can perhaps be understood as a morbid symptom of its absence, fuelled by bad conscience (I never wanted him to get away with that!).

O’Hagan writes:

Child abuse is now a national obsession, but in 1963 it scarcely came up as a subject of public concern. That doesn’t mean it was fine back then and we were all better off, but it allows one to see how much the public understanding of what isn’t all right, or more or less all right, has changed. There have always been genuine causes for concern, but overall, nowadays there is an unmistakeable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults. (It’s hard not to imagine that the situation has to do with a general estrangement from the notion of a reliable community.)

I think the first part of this is right, and for a much broader timespan than 1963 (which seems to have got into the argument here by way of the Larkin poem). The last, parenthetical comment is pointing to something important too. There are stars, there are individual purchasers or fans, and in between – what? What’s missing seems to be some kind of sense of society as a mechanism – or many different mechanisms – of feedback and accountability. O’Hagan comes close to arguing that Savile and people like him were acting in all our names. Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that some of us thought it was all a bit of a laugh – not so much “in my name” as “in my dreams”. As for the rest of us, we might have thought “not in my name”, but we had no way of saying it as a collectivity – and still, perhaps, don’t.

They work so hard

After the party’s over, my friend,
There’ll be nothing you can put your finger on
Just a parasol…

One’s a member of government, one’s a member of the opposition. To be more precise, one’s an independent-minded but powerless member of the government coalition; one’s a leading member of the parliamentary opposition, with nothing to lose by attacking as forcefully as possible. Also, one’s 30 years older than the other. See if you can tell which is which from these quotations:

“I am not against a private element in the NHS, which may bring innovatory ideas and good practice, provided it is within the framework of a public service … But why have they tried to get away from the NHS as a public service, among the most efficient, least expensive and fairest anywhere in the world? Why have they been bewitched by a flawed US system that is unable to provide a universal service and is very expensive indeed? The remarkable vision of the 1945 Attlee government, of a public service free at the point of need for all the people of England, should not be allowed to die.”

“As David Cameron’s government railroads the health bill through parliament, MPs are being denied their constitutional role to properly scrutinise his plans for the NHS. The prime minister has already done a political fix with Nick Clegg on the health bill, and now he’s trying to force it through with a procedural fix.”

You’ll note that the second politician says nothing about the substance of what’s being done, why it’s wrong, why it’s not even cost-effective in its own terms, how it betrays one of the greatest reforms of the last century, or for that matter what it is. Instead, this person focuses entirely on procedure and personality, reducing issues of huge importance and interest to playground gossip about rule-breaking and who said what to whom. Apart from anything else, whether or not the revised health bill is being forced through with a “procedural fix” really doesn’t matter, in the scheme of things – if it weren’t being “forced through”, would that make it OK?

Comedy break:

As for who’s who, the first quote came from the semi-detached member of government (Shirley Williams, 81); the second from John Healey (51), who is currently Shadow Health Secretary. Healey was at Cambridge from 1979 to 1982 (as I was myself); he was elected to Parliament 15 years later, having spent the entire intervening period as a political hack (starting with a role as “deputy editor of the internal magazine of the Palace of Westminster, The House Magazine for a year in 1983″). It’s depressing that Baroness Williams sounds so much more left-wing than Healey – what with him being in the Labour Party and so on – but what’s really striking is how much more political she sounds, in the good sense of the word: the sense of talking about how the country is run, in the knowledge that this is a huge and endlessly important subject, and with the awareness that the conversation itself is serious and has been going on for decades. Healey could be talking about backstairs intrigue at Borchester Land.

But perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. It was 1997 when Healey was first elected: his entire parliamentary career has been in New Labour. And New Labour has emphatically not been about principle or history or serious discussion of how the country is run, if only because all of those things were a bit, well, Old Labour. What Blair brought to Labour, as I wrote a while back, wasn’t mere opportunism or lack of principle but something more motivated and more destructive:

it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power. The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone.

And when they’ve all gone, what have you got?

To focus on the issues myself, you can read more about the Tories’ plans to privatise the NHS here. Thanks, Spinwatch.

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
– l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
– Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
– Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Let memory fade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A treasure hunt, but the treasure’s gone

Recent discussion on CT has made me aware of some startling disparities:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 71.1% 84.9%
Mixed 3.2% 4.6%
Asian 12.1% 4.6%
Black 10.9% 1.0%
Chinese 1.1% 1.8%
Other 1.6% 0.3%


A massive over-representation of the White majority, together with a really glaring under-representation of British Asian and especially Black students, who are being rejected literally nine times out of ten, whereas…

Hang on, wrong figures. That first column is the ethnic breakdown of the population of London (which is where David Lammy MP was born and has lived most of his life, not to mention the obvious point that it’s where he works). Here’s the UK:

UK(2001) Oxford admissions (2009)
White 92.1% 84.9%
Mixed 1.2% 4.6%
Asian 4.0% 4.6%
Black 2.0% 1.0%
Chinese 0.4% 1.8%
Other 0.4% 0.3%

White majority: slightly under-represented. Chinese and mixed-race groups: over-represented. British Asians: very slightly over-represented. Black British…

Well, OK, Lammy has got something here, but it’s not quite as big an issue as it might look if you’re coming at it from an ethnically-mixed background (also known as a ‘city’). The UK population in 2001 was still 92% White – there are whole areas of the country where you just won’t see a brown face, or if you do you’ll go home and tell somebody. I won’t be surprised if the figure that comes out of the 2011 Census is a bit lower, but I’ll be amazed if it’s below 90%. So the fact that the Oxford student intake is 85% White is not, in itself, a problem, except insofar as it suggests that recruitment from Scotland, Wales and the North-East might need a bit of work.

All the same, it’s true that Black students are seriously under-represented; a factor of 2 isn’t as bad as a factor of 10, but it’s not good. But this seems to be a point specifically about Black students and not about non-Whites more generally. If racism on the part of Oxford admissions tutors is at the root of what’s going on here, either it’s specifically anti-Black racism or there are other factors outweighing racist attitudes towards other groups.

Or is the problem at the application stage? Here’s how applications look in comparison to UK population figures (bearing in mind that these are 2001 figures and hence almost certainly out of date). In 2009, there were approximately 185 Oxford applications for every 1,000,000 UK citizens. If the same figure is calculated for each ethnic group, you get the following:

Applications per million Over/under
White 155 83.5%
Mixed 703 379.4%
Asian 353 190.7%
Black 192 103.8%
Chinese 918 495.2%
Other 364 196.6%

Relative to the size of their ethnic group within the population as a whole, White students are under-represented. Asians and the ‘Other’ group – which consists mainly of people who declined to state their ethnic group – are over-represented; Chinese and the ‘Mixed’ group are massively over-represented. Black students are right in the middle of the distribution, a fairly small population represented – relative to the total of applications – proportionately to its size.

Here are the admission figures again, this time side by side with the application figures:

Applications Admissions Success Over/under
White 76.9% 84.9% 27.6% 110.0%
Mixed 4.4% 4.6% 26.5% 105.6%
Asian 7.6% 4.6% 15.3% 61.0%
Black 2.0% 1.0% 12.2% 48.6%
Chinese 2.1% 1.8% 21.6% 86.1%
N/K 6.3% 2.8% 11.1% 44.2%

The “over/under” figure gives the relative success of each group as compared with the overall success rate of 25.1%. And it’s an interesting figure. Relative to applications, White students are quite substantially over-represented, while every other group is under-represented, with the exception of the ‘Mixed’ group (the cynical explanation that they’re seen as ‘white enough’ suggests itself).

Here, finally, is what it looks like if you put it all together. (These are the same numbers I’ve been crunching so far. The ‘Over/under’ figure for applications is the ratio between the number of applicants per million in each group and the number of applicants per million UK residents. The ‘Over/under’ figure for admissions is the ratio between the success rate of applicants in each group and the overall success rate of applicants.)

% of population % of applications Over/under % of admissions Over/under
White 92.1% 76.9% 0.835 84.9% 1.103
Mixed 1.2% 4.4% 3.794 4.6% 1.057
Asian 4.0% 7.6% 1.907 4.6% 0.610
Black 2.0% 2.0% 1.038 1.0% 0.488
Chinese 0.4% 2.1% 4.952 1.8% 0.862
Other 0.4% 0.8% 1.966 0.3% 0.428

Every line tells a slightly different story. The Mixed ethnic group comes off best, with a massive over-representation in applications which is entrenched at the admissions stage; Chinese students are also over-represented, with a larger over-representation among applicants only slightly scaled back at the admission stage. A smaller over-representation over Asian students is almost entirely reversed by the rejection of 85% of applicants. The White group is significantly under-represented among applicants, although the admissions process partially compensates for this with a slight over-representation, relative to applications. Alone among all the major ethnic groups, Black students apply to Oxford at roughly the same rate as the population as a whole, neither over-represented among applicants (like most others) nor under-represented (like White students). However, the Black group suffers enormously at the admission stage, with a rejection rate of nearly 88%; this compares with 74.9% for all applicants and 72.4% for White students.

So what is going on? A large part of what’s going on seems to be that White schoolchildren aren’t getting the top grades in the numbers we’d expect – although this is still being compensated during admissions. Where Black Oxford applicants are concerned, it seems undeniable that something is going wrong somewhere in the admission process. The numbers of Asian – and to a lesser extent Chinese – applicants are cut down fairly significantly in the admissions process, but this is compensated by a massive over-representation of those groups among applicants. Black students get hit both ways: they’re not over-represented (although I would find it hard to label this as a fault, particularly given the performance of my own ethnic group), and they’re turned away at an even higher rate than Asian applicants. Oxford’s own investigation concludes that subject choice must bear some (most? all?) of the blame:

BME students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed courses. Oxford’s three most oversubscribed large (over 70 places) courses (Economics & Management, Medicine and Mathematics) account for 43% of all BME applicants and 44% of all Black applicants – compared to just 17% of all white applicants.

Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that this explanation stops where it ought to start. It’s hard to believe that subject choice is the only reason why Black students’ faces so consistently fail to fit; more to the point, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ subject choices themselves are not entirely weightless and without a history.  I passed this snippet on to my wife (we met at Cambridge). Apparently Black students aren’t being advised to choose the right subjects, I said, and that’s why not many of them get into Oxford. What, she said, they’re not applying to do Land Economy?

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

No more coats and no more home

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

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

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

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

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

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Sounds so good in stereo

I probably shouldn’t go to National Trust houses. Visiting one this afternoon I was accosted by an attendant, who wanted me to know that the strip of linen in a glass case on the wall was a garter which had been worn by Charles I. As I walked away, I couldn’t resist giving a quick finger-across-neck gesture, although I felt childish immediately afterwards. At least I didn’t do it to her face.

Fortunately I think I’m reasonably safe with regard to the criminal law. Contrary to some readings, the Terrorism Act 2006 doesn’t actually make it illegal to glorify political activity which involves carrying out or threatening personal violence, violence against property, economic disruption or a denial of service attack (otherwise known as ‘terrorism‘). It makes it illegal to glorify activity of any of these kinds in such a way that members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances. So I think Garry can relax – as indeed can I, as long as I don’t say anything about the current Royals. (Update – on second thoughts I’m not so sure; see the comments.)

Anyway, there was one genuinely interesting exhibit in among the rich people’s playthings and copies of Old Masters: an early-nineteenth-century broadside ballad dedicated to the theme that British people wanted “King, not Consul” – more specifically, George III and not Napoleon. It seemed that what was particularly objectionable about Napoleon wasn’t the fact that he was a foreign ruler – and thus could only come to power by defeating the British armed forces and overthrowing the British government – but his religious faith, or lack of it. Napoleon was as happy to negotiate (from a position of strength) with Muslims in Egypt as the Pope in Rome: at worst he was a Muslim himself, at best he was a slippery and untrustworthy atheist. From the second verse of the broadside:

No Corsican despot in Britain shall rule,
No avowed devotee of the Mussulman school

Reading these lines I was suddenly reminded of the tone of the Euston Manifesto:

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemyWe reject the double standards … [of] finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse.

Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today … like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats … Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms.

The difference between the Left that I identify with and the Euston signatories seems less a matter of policy than of perspective. I look at the British government and I see several things that alarm me deeply: for example, the Terrorism Acts (2006 and 2000), the Iraq invasion, control orders, ASBOs, the creeping privatisation of health and education, an excessively friendly relationship with Berlusconi’s Italy, a far too friendly relationship with Sharon’s Israel and a downright subservient relationship with Bush’s USA. The Euston signatories, apparently, look at our government and see a democracy – what’s more, a democracy that’s under threat from enemies of democracy. Which means that, before we get into the details of what a Left project might look like in current conditions, there are hard questions to be asked. One hard question in particular: which side are you on? Do you want to be ruled by a Corsican despot, or don’t you? You don’t? Well then, you’d better stop complaining, and support the only people who are in a position to protect you. God save the King!

Back in Euston (surely not the Head of Steam…) the point is not to support democracy as a principle but to oppose selected opponents of democracy – and support the nations which also oppose them. It’s a retreat from politics into patriotism, essentially, sketchily covered by gestures towards universalism. (Like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, for example. Unlike the drafters of the Terrorism Act 2000, the authors don’t pause to define terrorism, which is probably just as well: I’m not sure there is a definition which would make that statement valid.) As I wrote earlier, “Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug’s game”; in practice it may be locally appropriate or even necessary, but it doesn’t follow that we should treat it as a political principle. Unfortunately, the drift from tactical accommodation to statement of principle seems hard to resist.

It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’, to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England?
– George Orwell, April 1940

It seems the time has come for Norm, Nick and friends. At least they’re in good company.

Small update (18/4)

Over at Crooked Timber, Marc Mulholland has an interesting angle:

The problem, I reckon, is the very vague formulation of the concept of agency. Classic manifestos identify a historic force (class, nation, the free-born or whatever) and pledge allegiance to it. For ‘Euston’, the agency seems to be ‘actually existing’ pluralist democracies as projectors of state power and example. But there is no examination of why governments should be privileged over, say, national communities, market-orientated civil societies or class alliance configurations as carriers of the democratic ethos.

I think this is backwards: I don’t think the concept of agency is vague, or indeed that it isn’t the starting point of the exercise (in the classic manifesto style). What the Eustonistas have done is precisely to identify an actually-existing (ha) historic force and pledge allegiance to it, then dress the whole in statements of liberal principle. That’s why the end result reads so oddly (“straight-forward neo-cons do this kind of thing a lot more effectively”, as Marc says).

That pretty soldier’s hat

Steve Bell (via) anticipated Blair’s reaction to the hundredth death of a British soldier in Iraq since 2003: the deskbound patriotism of Kipling’s jelly-bellied flag-flapper, in a low-key, robo-managerialist form. But Blair’s actual reaction was quite different:

Mr Blair said the country had to understand why it mattered that “we see this through”. It was important, he told the BBC, “because what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the people of those countries want to leave behind terrorism and extremism, and they want to embrace democracy”.Asked earlier whether the government was worried by the 100th death of a British soldier in Iraq, Mr Blair’s spokesman replied: “I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident”.

100 is just a number, it’s true, but it’s a number that suggests a pause for reflection, on those deaths and what caused them. That would still be true even if you ignored all the other deaths, and even if you were convinced that a hundred British soldiers had died in a good cause. Even then, those deaths and the loss they represent would deserve acknowledgment. As Chris argues, sunk (human) costs have their due. But:

I do not think we should do the terrorists’ job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident

This is monstrous.

I think the key term here is ‘terrorist’. A terrorist is, essentially, a political opponent who attempts to influence you (a democratic government) through fear. Terrorists have, by definition, abandoned rational argument: there is nothing you can learn from a terrorist and nothing you can usefully say to a terrorist, except “No”. Terrorism cannot be engaged with, it can only be resisted. Moreover, since terrorists have no arguments to offer, it follows that any sympathy towards them – and any wavering from your firm opposition to them – can only be explained by confusion or fear. You can afford to disregard anything the terrorists say; if people believe the terrorists, that simply shows that the terrorists have frightened them into submission, or confused them with their lies:

After Amnesty International compared American treatment of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners to the Gulag, I heard the President say: ‘It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of, and the allegations by, people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble – that means not tell the truth.’

It follows that your duty is to downplay any information which might add to the confusion by encouraging people to believe the terrorists or sympathising with their cause. They’re bad (because they’re terrorists); you’re good (because you’re fighting terrorists); and the people you govern are weak and confused and liable to forget what the difference is, so you can’t afford to let in too many shades of grey when you’re talking to them.

Even if it means a British Prime Minister refusing to honour British war dead.

In another country, with another name

In a comment thread on his blog, Brian Barder writes:

You [meaning me – PJE] take a more generous view than I do … of the opinions, implied or explicit, of those many commentators who have been saying (and continue to say) that because Blair must have known that UK participation in the invasion and occupation of Iraq would be used by Muslim extremists to generate additional anger and resentment against Britain, and that this would increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain, therefore Blair has a share of responsibility for the London bombings. Attributing responsibility in this way has two unavoidable implications: (1) that Blair deserves a share of the blame for the bombings and (2) that the increased likelihood of a terrorist attack in Britain ought to have been a factor influencing Blair against his decision to join the Americans in invading Iraq, even if on other grounds he believed it right and necessary to do so.You come perilously close to adopting this view, it seems to me, when you write:

the Iraq invasion created new opportunities for terrorists, created anti-British feeling which was likely to make it easier to recruit new terrorists, and created disaffection among British Muslims which was likely to produce active or passive support for terrorists – and that all these consequences were probable, could have been predicted and should have been weighed in the balance when Blair & co were contemplating joining Bush’s invasion. To have overlooked predictable consequences like this in a good cause would be bad enough (pace Geras); when the cause in question is the Iraq war as we’ve known it, Blair’s responsibility is heavy.

Once you accept that the threat of terrorist attack in response to a specific act of policy is a factor legitimately to be taken into account in making decisions on that policy, you are handing over control of our foreign (and eventually our domestic) policy to terrorists. This is exactly comparable to yielding to the demands of a blackmailer. The only consequence of such surrender is that the demands of the terrorists (and of the blackmailer) will become yet more frequent and more exorbitant. In other words, the increased risk of terrorist attack in the UK should have been totally excluded from Blair’s calculations of the pros and cons of taking part in the Iraq war.

In response to Brian’s first point, I don’t think that Blair’s government can sensibly be blamed for the bombings, unless there’s an unusually long and obscure trail yet to be uncovered, leading from the Foreign Office back to the madrassas. What does fall to the government’s responsibility is protecting its citizens from arbitrary killings. The question is whether the government may bear a share of the blame for failure to protect us from the bombings – a failure which may include failure to avert the bombings altogether, by contributing to the development of conditions which made the bombings more likely. The second argument – that Blair would have been correct to leave the threat of terrorism out of his pre-Iraq calculations – is more substantial, but I have to say that I find it highly counter-intuitive. As Tony Hatfield said in comments here,

The State has an obligation to consider every effect flowing from its policy-especially its foreign policy and certainly a policy involving a declaration of war. That must include the effect of any “blowback” from terrorism. … If that is so, then there must be circumstances- the threat is so immediate, and disproportionate to the benefit you seek- that it tips the balance firmly against the policy.

Brian’s analogy with blackmail is suggestive, but I don’t see that it can entirely sustain his argument – after all, any concession to anyone may be interpreted as a sign of weakness and exploited accordingly. When one government makes demands of another, there is always the possibility that one of the two will end up paying Danegeld or conceding the Sudetenland; however, in practice these extreme cases can be disregarded, and demands can be considered on their merits (bearing in mind the foreseeable consequences of granting or refusing them). Certainly it would be absurd to say, as a matter of principle, that no government should change its policies based on demands made by another government. Should we exclude demands made by non-governmental actors? But that’s not right either – we would expect (and in some cases hope) that governments would be responsive to demands made by multi-national businesses, by the world’s major faiths, by trade union confederations, by charities and campaigning organisations.

There’s obviously something about terrorist organisations which makes it reasonable (from Brian’s perspective) for governments to refuse any demands outright and on principle: something which turns pressure into blackmail and recognition into capitulation. Intuition tells me that the difference is staring me in the face, in the word ‘terrorist’, but in this case I think intuition is wrong. The problem with terrorist groups, in other words, isn’t the fact that they back up their demands with arbitrary and random violence. Imagine an organisation which attempted to gain publicity for its demands by planting dummy bombs. At first the bombs would be taken for the real thing and there would be a certain amount of panic and alarm, even if nobody was actually injured by them. After a while, though, the ‘bombs’ are treated with contemptuous lack of interest, by police and public alike. At this point, has the group ceased to be terrorist – and should the government become willing to negotiate with it? Conversely, imagine a campaign for constitutional reform whose rallies, ignored by the government, grow larger and more unruly, to the point where violent clashes with the police are a predictable occurrence. The campaign’s activities have led directly to the wounding of police officers, in other words; does this mean that it has turned into a terrorist campaign, whose demands should be ignored on principle? In both cases, the reverse appears more likely.

It seems that the judgment of whether a terrorist organisation is terrorist – meaning that its demands should be rejected unconsidered – is independent of what it does. The key is, perhaps, provided by Brian’s analogy with hostage-taking. A terrorist group, we could say, is criminal by nature: in order to achieve its aims, it needs to undermine the state and attack the rule of law. Criminal actions carried out by a constitutional political group are an anomaly which only have a limited effect on our willingness to recognise or deal with them. By contrast, criminal actions carried out by a terrorist group reaffirm the criminal nature of the group and vindicate our refusal to recognise them.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it brings the aims of the group into play as well as its tactics: if terrorist groups are defined by their fundamental opposition to the state and the rule of law, we need to be sure that the groups we describe as terrorist are fundamentally opposed to the state and the rule of law, rather than using criminal tactics to promote demands which could in principle be granted by the state (and legitimated by the law). Hence, perhaps, Blair’s bizarre argument that what sets Al Qaida apart from the British Army is that “They don’t regret the loss of innocent, civilian life. They rejoice in it, that is their purpose.” (Let’s hope for Blair’s sake that Al Qaida never takes lessons in PR from the IRA, who were past masters in regret for the consequences of their actions (we deeply regret the loss of innocent life, caused by a conflict which will inevitably continue…).) I’m not going to go into the question of whether the aims of Al Qaida are non-negotiable in this sense, beyond recommending some cogent arguments for and against the proposition. I think it bears stressing that the ‘blackmail’ analogy rests on an assumption that terrorist groups are different in kind from other political actors, and – most importantly – that this difference derives primarily from their goals rather than their actions (however criminal – however vile, come to that – those actions may be).

But let’s say that, in the case of Al Qaida, we are dealing with a criminal conspiracy with no political aims which could possibly conceded. Even in that case, I don’t think it follows that principled policy-making should take no account of them. Consider a less controversial criminal conspiracy, the Mafia. The Mafia certainly has no demands which any responsible government would grant; formulating policy in order to benefit the Mafia would be reprehensible. However, according to the ‘blackmail’ logic, allowing the government’s opposition to the Mafia to influence policy – perhaps by favouring policies which limited the Mafia’s opportunities to penetrate British society – would itself represent a tacit recognition of the Mafia as a force to be reckoned with, and should therefore be rejected. The responsible course of action would be to take whatever actions the government believed would benefit Britain, leaving the Mafia – and the possibility that government action or inaction might favour the Mafia – out of consideration.

This argument is clearly fallacious. Whether or not the government’s decision is influenced by the existence of the Mafia, the Mafia continues to exist and to have significant effects on the government, both at the time the decision is taken and at the time it is implemented. There is no possible decision which does not have a relationship to the Mafia, in other words; the choice is whether that relationship is favourable or unfavourable. A decision which limits the opportunities available to organised crime (perhaps by putting a lower limit on the number of casinos to be licensed) is unfavourable; a decision which does not limit those opportunities is favourable, whether it does so actively or by default. As with the Mafia, so with Al Qaida: if the government did, in fact, deliberately ignore the possibility that the Iraq invasion would expand the opportunities open to terrorists, it can fairly be charged – on those grounds alone – with making this outcome more likely.

Brian also argues that there is a fundamental and important discrepancy between the (wholly unacceptable) tactics of the bombers and the (potentially legitimate) political causes with which they have been associated.

The other implication of much bien-pensant comment has been that we need to ‘understand‘ what drove the suicide bombers (successful or failed) to commit such dreadful acts and to accept that we (or the Blair government, or western society, or whatever) are all partially to blame for the policies and actions that drove the bombers to do what they did. This seems to me an utterly unacceptable proposition, too, for the reasons eloquently expressed by Brownie in the passage that I quoted. The idea that the pursuit of policies with which others violently disagree is partly responsible for acts of criminal madness committed, apparently, as an expression of that political disapproval, is nonsense, and we shouldn’t hesitate to say so. You write that

people aren’t born terrorists. People have to become terrorists – even that subset of people who are also fundamentalist Muslims and believers in a restored Caliphate. Obviously the terrorists are to blame for their actions, but for those people to have become terrorists something must have gone wrong – something more than being exposed to an ‘evil ideology’.

but it’s a far cry from that to the assertion that the whatever ‘must have gone wrong’ is something for which our own society, or government, or culture, or original sin, must be to blame.

My point here was that successful terrorist actions require a continuing supply of recruits – all the more so in the case of suicide bombings, obviously – and that each of these individuals must go through a whole series of events and influences before they become a terrorist. Pace Brian, I’d say that it would be absurd to assume – on the grounds that terrorists have carried out ‘acts of criminal madness’ – that nothing about “our own society, or government, or culture” played a part in the formation of those terrorists. That is not to say that we can necessarily identify what those contributions are or how significant they were – in absolute terms or in comparison to other influences. But to say that no one other than the terrorists themselves bears any responsibility for their actions, and that we cannot – and should not – address the grievances which motivate terrorist sympathisers, seems to me to set up an absolute separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ which is highly unhelpful. Something did go wrong for the eight bombers we know about; as far as we know it went wrong right here in Britain, some time in the last few years. In the circumstances, it seems to me, the burden of proof lies with anyone maintaining that the Iraq invasion was not a factor.

Postscript: at Veritatis Splendor, enigmatic NederlanderVlaming D says it all more succinctly than I’ve been able to:

The pro-war people will argue that the jihadists will always find some excuse to launch another terrorist attack on us, regardless of what “root causes” we take away. They’re confusing two things. It’s true that you can’t make deals with or give in to the jihadists. You can’t take the “root causes” of their hatred or extremism away. They will always hate us, for it is our very existence, our “way of life,” that is the root cause of their hatred. Their ideology is so diagonally opposed to our own, that peaceful co-existence with these people is not possible. And indeed, we shouldn’t try to appease them or adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards them. The only strategy against these people is confrontation: not only do we need to prevent them from attacking us, we need to attack them. Again, this is a matter of police and intelligence forces.We can however tackle the “root causes” of Muslim support for these people. As I’ve argued above, a radical minority is nothing without the support of the mainstream. This jihadist “radical minority” will cease to exist (or cease to be consequential in any case) without fresh recruits to carry out its suicide missions and without the silent, or vocal, approval of ordinary Muslim communities. The war in Iraq is a good example, because this is where the opinions of ordinary Muslims and jihadists “overlap”: they both think it stinks to high heaven. By stressing how much they have in common, the jihadist can persuade the average Muslim.

Conversely, jihadists are not that successful in gathering real, practical support for their ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, or for their utopian “Caliphate.” We naturally oppose these ideas too, but why be so bothered with them when we know they have no real basis of support within the Islamic community itself? Does anyone seriously believe Europe will one day be overrun by massive hordes of Muslim warriors bent on establishing the Caliphate?

The average Muslim in Europe doesn’t want to kill homosexuals, or prevent women from driving a car, or stop us from eating pork, or burn every copy of Harry Potter. If we are to prevent his radical counterpart from convincing him he should do all these things, our job is to convince him of the contrary (“battle for the hearts and minds,” anyone?), stress what is clearly unacceptable and what is open to civilized debate (this as opposed to shutting down the debate in its entirety with the fallacious mantra “opposing the war = supporting terrorism”), and finally, do more to promote alternatives. In doing so, you take away the ordinary Muslim’s every reason to believe the jihadist.

God is an arms dealer

My hopefully provocative question: since those who tend to oppose this legislation tend to draw a disanalogy with laws banning incitement to racial hatred by pointing to a distinction between what is chosen and what is unchosen, with race not being chosen and religion being chosen, does it matter whether sexual identity is chosen when considering laws against discrimination or incitement of hatred towards particular sexual identities?

Robert suggests an interesting way in to the ‘religious hatred’ question. But first, let’s talk about hurting people. Before I’m a libertarian, even before I’m a Marxist, I’m a humanist, at least in the sense that I believe that human beings – all human beings – are more worthy of preserving from harm than anything else. Of course, this isn’t an absolute rule; the test-case scenarios are legion (the death of one person vs. the loss of an entire species? what about an entire genus? what about the loss of an entire genus vs. the death of the last surviving member of a tribe?). Let’s just say that the prevention of harm to people is value #1 and work from there. It does at least differentiate my position from that of the Texas sheriff I once saw on TV; his words were, “I’ve seen plenty of people that deserved shooting, but I’ve never seen a wallet that deserved to be stolen.” I’m not planning to go to Texas. Personally, I’ve seen plenty of wealth that deserved to be redistributed (did I mention that I went to Cambridge?), but I’ve never seen anyone who, in my eyes, deserved to be shot.

What Robert’s post suggested to me was that the question of religious hatred is part of a broader set of trade-offs, between harm done to other people and our own sense of identity: not the (few) unchangeable facts of identity that we’re born with, but our personal frameworks of habit, compulsion, self-fulfilment – the things you do to feel OK, to feel like you’re you. If you get off on wearing an SS uniform in bed, it’s no business but yours and your partner’s. If you write long articles about the joys of wearing Nazi regalia in bed, I may feel that you’ve got the right to express your sexual identity, or I may feel that publicising this particular sexual identity is a bad idea. And if you tell me that what gets you through the night is driving around Jewish neighbourhoods in an open-topped car wearing a leather overcoat and a death’s head cap, I’m likely to tell you to stop it – the distress you’re causing to other people will matter more to me than your ability to get your kicks. This isn’t a public/private question (assuming for the moment that that distinction is meaningful); the question of harm can have the same gradations in an entirely ‘private’ context. Someone who gets off on inflicting pain, for example, may be fearlessly exploring the outer limits of sensuality; they may be a boring and creepy bully (who, nevertheless, has every right to be boring, creepy and domineering in bed, as long as they can find a willing partner); or they may be actively dangerous and in need of therapy and/or locking up. The distinguishing factor is whether they’re doing any harm to other people. We may not choose the framework through which we see the world, or how we’d like to act, but we can choose what we do with that framework and how we do act. The choice whether or not to cause harm to another person, above all, is always ours.

Having said that, it’s not always obvious whether or not what we are into is harmful. In both the S/M-based scenarios I’ve given, there’s one extreme where harm done clearly takes precedence and another extreme where it’s equally clear that nobody is being harmed. Then there’s an area in the middle where (to paraphrase Altered States) the right answer is that there is no right answer. Your critique of leather queen A may be equally applicable to his friends B to Z; it may be a valid but extreme response to diffuse trends in the leather-queen community; or you may just have happened to pick a leather queen who is also a twisted bastard. You aren’t going to know until you talk it through, without either assuming that a particular course of conduct is harmful nor ruling out the possibility. The point is to have the conversation – and, more broadly, to maintain the conditions in which that conversation can happen.

But there’s a complication. So far I’ve assumed that ‘critique’ and ‘harm’ are not only distinguishable but entirely different things: ‘harm’ is all about actions and bodies, ‘critique’ is about thoughts and brains. But brains do more than think, and bodies do more than act: between these two (more or less imaginary) extremes is the muddy terrain where people actually feel stuff. In particular, where they feel hatred – where they desire to harm (or at least severely demoralise) certain other people, or groups of people. Which is a problem. There may be some individuals who it’s entirely appropriate to loathe and despise, but it’s rarely appropriate to view an entire social group with unalloyed, non-negotiable hatred. But, of course, prejudice of this kind does exist; feeling prejudice seems to come fairly naturally to most of us, followed closely by finding justifications for prejudice. And, where justifying prejudice is concerned, there’s no absolute distinction between a mindset based on a set of reasoned arguments and one built on unquestioned beliefs and habits: either one can be used to express and justify hatred. What’s worse, both can be used to portray the hated enemy in ways which will evoke hatred among other people – even people who don’t subscribe to those beliefs or arguments.

This, it seems to me, is very much the area in which the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred is working. Whatever criticisms we might have of particular religious beliefs (advocates of the new law argue) we should recognise that there is such a thing as prejudice against a group defined by its religion, and that this is no more defensible than racial prejudice. Fears that the new law will have a chilling effect on criticism of religion are misplaced, we’re told; the law will only kick in at the point where critique stops and hate begins. We don’t condone racial hatred, and few people now object to the criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred (which dates from 1976); why should religious hatred be treated differently?

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, as we have seen, the idea that hatred can be cleanly divided from critique is illusory. If I believe that a defined group of people regularly do something to which I strongly object, I’m not going to feel kindly towards that group. The question is whether this is hatred arising from a reasonable belief, or a prejudiced belief arising from hatred. In the case of racial prejudice, it’s generally not a tough call, for the simple reason that ‘race’ doesn’t govern behaviour. Where religion is concerned, the question is more difficult. Anyone who hates Muslim men on the grounds that they all require their wives to cover their faces is clearly prejudiced (‘Islamophobic‘, even). But if I said I hated those Muslim men who do require their wives to cover their faces (basing this policy on their reading of Surah 24:31), would I be expressing illegitimate prejudice against Muslims or a valid critique of sexism? It’s arguable both ways; I think it’s a conversation that should be held, and held out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead of opening up the question of what can and can’t be said about religious and cultural practices, the proposed law would shut it down, giving legal definition to the cut-off point where criticism (legal) becomes hatred (illegal). Since that borderline is essentially imaginary, in practice the law would be liable to bite off either too much (chilling legitimate debate) or too little (leaving genuine incitement to hatred unpunished). The former outcome seems much more likely than the latter. It can be argued that the 1976 legislation has itself had a chilling effect on discussion of race: the legislation only criminalises ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ statements which are also likely to stir up racial hatred, but it has tended to make it difficult to make any general statement about ‘race’. On balance, this is probably no great loss. By contrast, the new law attacks an area where debate is widely seen to be both legitimate and useful; what’s worse, it doesn’t include that saving stipulation that the language used should be ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. If somebody says that what you’ve said or written is liable to stir up religious hatred, the law says they’ve got a valid complaint, more or less by definition. (But (we’re told) we needn’t worry, as the Director of Public Prosecutions won’t bring prosecutions most of the time. We’re being asked to give the state new powers which could be abused, in other words, and trust that they won’t abuse them. Why don’t they just drop the big one and pass an Enabling Act?)

There’s another problem. Saying that rational arguments can support prejudice doesn’t mean that unquestioned convictions can’t: religious beliefs may themselves articulate and buttress hatred. The way I feel about the ‘conservative’ Muslim husband who insists on his wife covering her face is very much the way that I feel about the sadist who insists on spanking his partner with a table-tennis bat. Both are constraining someone else’s behaviour; both are doing something which seems unarguably right to them; both are reproducing broader patterns of gender-based subordination, in the form of a culturally-specific practice. And, crucially, in both cases this practice may articulate and support a personal hatred of women, or it may sit alongside feelings of genuine respect. It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead, the proposed law would tend to protect prejudice, as long as it was expressed in the language of religion. There are Christian ministers – to look no further afield – who express themselves in the most vitriolic terms on the subject of gays, or Jews, or members of other Christian denominations. Anyone denouncing this kind of purportedly religious hate-mongering would need to tread carefully: using the wrong kind of language about the minister and his flock could itself be classed as incitement to religious hatred. (We’re assured that this wouldn’t happen, of course, but that’s almost beside the point. We could expect to see prosecutions – or rather, we would expect to see prosecutions, and most of us would moderate our language accordingly. Is it getting chilly in here?)

Prejudice exists; hatred against any number of groups exists, religious groups included. (To bring sex in one last time, prejudice is a bit like pornography: if you can identify a group, you can be sure that somebody somewhere is prejudiced against it.) Prejudice against religious groups is a genuine problem; the rationalist argument that all beliefs should be equally open to criticism is valid but irrelevant, given that rational arguments can buttress and articulate prejudice just as well as unexamined systems of belief. Unfortunately, the proposed law attacks only one half of this pairing, giving its blessing to the other – and, for anyone who believes in rational debate, the law has picked the wrong side to protect.

But it’ll help Labour get back some of the votes they lost over Iraq, and I guess that’s the main thing. Make Secularism History!

These things take time

I don’t think the word ‘blog’ is really a contraction of ‘web log’. I think the ‘b’ stands for ‘back’.

The other day I worked out I had four blog posts planned: one on religion and hatred (half-written); one on attitudes to technology (complementing some of Chris‘s recent posts); one on ideas of ‘old’ and ‘new’ in politics, & how pervasive and misleading they are; and one, probably for the Sharpener, on immigration and social control. The trouble is, each one of these will probably take about an hour to write, & that’s on top of blog reading time (not to mention work, sleep, life etc). So it could take a while – especially since, when I sat down the other day to finish the ‘religious hatred’ post, I ended up writing a brief response to one of Alex‘s posts, which turned out not to be that brief after all and raised several issues I hadn’t thought through properly (thanks, Robert). And I’d really like to write something a bit more developed about Orwell in response to Justin

Aaargh. Too much to think, too little time to think it in.

Part of the problem is that I was blogging like a mad thing at one stage, & don’t actually have the stamina to keep it going at that rate. I hope shortly to arrive at a revised definition of normal service, whereupon it will be resumed as soon as possible. In the mean time, I’ve reshuffled my blogroll, adding some good writers I’d missed and removing a bunch of blogs, including everyone else who posts at the Sharpener. I don’t really like blogrolls; as I wrote at my other blog,

the globally ‘popular’ blogs are quite popular enough already without their readers directing yet more traffic their way – and, for most of us, global ‘popularity’ is an irrelevant distraction. From which it follows that blogs don’t need blogrolls. If we blogroll everyone whose posts we respond to, the blogroll’s unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we blogroll everyone whose blogs we read – or, from the look of some blogrolls, every blogWeb site we’ve ever readheard of – the power law will kick in: links will inevitably tend to cluster around the ‘top’ five or ten or fifty blogs, the blogs Everybody Knows, the A List (ugh).

I’m keeping the blogroll here, but trimming it to focus on particularly good and overlooked writers. (If I’ve dropped yours, it was obviously because it was too well-known.)

One final thought: three cheers for the Foreign Office!

Lady Thatcher told Reagan in a telephone call at the end of May 1982 that Britain could not contemplate a ceasefire before Argentina withdrew from the Falklands.According to Sir Lawrence, she asked Reagan: “How would the Americans react if Alaska were invaded and, as the invaders were being thrown out, there were calls for the Americans to withdraw?” She is said to have been “dismayed” by Reagan’s attitude and wanted him to know just how “upset” she was.

Washington pointed out that the US had secretly supplied Britain’s special forces with communications satellites and ammunition. But Lady Thatcher was adamant. “We have lost a lot of blood, and it’s the best blood,” she told Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s ambassador to the US, on an open line.

It’s the best blood. I know I should be thinking of Enoch Powell here, but I keep coming up with Hilary Briss.

Senior civil servants, we salute you! For at least eight years – perhaps for as long as eleven – our government was clearly headed by a crazy person. The principled men and women of the Foreign Office stood between the world and Thatcher’s delusions of racial grandeur. Only now can we see just how well they played their part.

I mean, check it out.

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