The high and the low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congestion charge 1

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

Congestion charge 2

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

Congestion charge 3

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

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

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

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

Don’t let freedom fade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No fear, cavalier

Airmiles was quoted in the LRB the other week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must remember to borrow that.

I crossed off next week yesterday

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

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

Friday 4th July, 1986

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

Friday 19th December, 1986

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My name was Brian McGee

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

So I liked Merrick’s proposed alternative:

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

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

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

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

Here are the contenders:

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

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

…in other people’s misery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, that’s why we used to.

Says there’s none

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

OK then. (Hi Rob!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To live in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young bones groan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When how you want

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

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

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

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

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

A moment worth waiting for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A system and a theory


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

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

A gloom of one’s own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not thrones and crowns

A meme from Paulie:

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

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

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

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

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

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

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

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

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

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

(The space programme was fantastic, too.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skates on, mate

Something from the Italian press, following on from Liam. This is taken from a column by Curzio Maltese in today’s Repubblica. ‘Il Caimano’ – ‘the caiman‘ – is a popular and well-deserved nickname for Berlusconi.

It’s a bit naive – no, extremely naive – to profess to be astonished that Berlusconi the statesman has turned back into Berlusconi the Caiman. If there’s anyone who’s true to their own nature, far removed from the human weaknesses of fatigue and self-doubt, it’s Berlusconi. Long before he entered politics, he was what he is now: an authoritarian paternalist, subversive of democracy by nature, fond of the demagogue’s shortcuts and cheerfully contemptuous of any democratic counter-power (from the judiciary to the independent media), and exhibiting the intolerance of constitutional rules that he learned in the school of P2.

The question has never been how much and in what ways Berlusconi could change – he never changes. Rather, it’s how much and in what ways Italy has changed – for it’s changed an awful lot in the last fifteen years, thanks in part to the huge media influence of Berlusconi himself.

Berlusconi has entered government three times now. Each time, he has tried to bend the Italian constitution to his will, starting with violent attacks on the judiciary. He did it in 1994, when the Biondi decree [releasing corruption suspects from bail] was his government’s first act. He did it in 2001, when emergency decrees on the law were put forward even before the government had been inaugurated. And he’s doing it now. The language used is more violent each time – and so is the content of the legislation.

But, while Berlusconi has pushed harder and harder against the democratic system, the reaction by public opinion has been weaker and weaker. In 1994 the revolt against the Biondi “thieves’ charter” weakened the Berlusconi government from day one – and that government only lasted a few months. In 2001 the “girotondi” began a wave of social movement protest, with millions in the streets, which would lead to a series of heavy electoral defeats for the centre-right alliance, even though it had a huge majority in parliament. The third time round, faced with an even more blatant attempt to tear the independent judiciary off its hinges, the reaction is all too weak. The opposition, setting aside the illusion of a dialogue with the government, has announced the beginning of a new wave of struggle – in Autumn, not now. The forces of ‘civil society’ seem to have left the scene.

In the last 25 years, while Berlusconi has not changed, Italy has changed a lot – and for the worse. The fabric of civic and social society has worn away; the common sense of society has been reworked around authoritarian themes. In casual conversation, in offices and bars and on beaches, you can hear opinions voiced which would have been unthinkable in the Italy of 1994 – on immigration or the law, civil rights or religion, Europe or the unions. “Berlusconism” began in the belly of a country where democracy was never fully established, for a thousand different reasons (Left as well as Right reasons); it has now spread to all the organs of the nation, ending up with its brain.

The question is whether public opinion still includes those democratic antibodies which, in 1994 and in 2001, hindered the more or less gentle drift towards the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The signs are contradictory; everything is still to play for. Certainly, in the last two decades the brute strength of Berlusconian populism has only grown, along with its purchase on increasingly large areas of society. This isn’t only a question of the power of TV and publishing: we’re looking at outright cultural hegemony. Among the opposition, it’s surprising that, even after all this time, the former pupils of Gramsci still fail to grasp the mechanics – and the scale – of the strategy that’s being put into action. Sadly, they never change either. They were fooling themselves (still!) that they could turn Berlusconi into a statesman by offering him a seat at their negotiating table. Now, they’re fooling themselves (still!) that they can put up resistance with tired slogans beginning “Hands Off” or by entrenching themselves in their “red regions” – regions which are already pale pink and threatening, sooner or later, to turn grey or black [the colour of Fascism].

They’re waiting for better times – but for the opposition there never will be a better time than this.

We’ve always thought (those of us with any interest in electoral politics under capitalism, which excludes (for instance) this bunch) – we’ve always thought that tactical manoeuvring and upholding socialist principle were opposites, or at least mutually exclusive. What the continuing disaster of the 2008 Italian elections suggests to me is that, when the Right knows what it’s doing, there’s no real contradiction between the two. Hoist the red flag and you’ll be trampled; give away your principles in the name of self-preservation, and you’ll still be trampled – but you’ll cut away the ground you could have built on in the process. The tragedy of Walter Veltroni – shared, let’s not personalise this too much, with the entire centre-Right of the old PCI – is that he seems genuinely to have believed that Berlusconi had excluded the centre-left from political legitimacy because he believed they were Communists. In fact it was, always, the other way round. If Berlusconi called the centre-left Communists, it was because he wanted to exclude them – more precisely, he didn’t want them to get in his way. By splitting the centre-left, destroying its Left component and redefining what remains on, effectively, anti-Communist lines, Veltroni has ensured that they won’t.

In the hot sun

Obsolete has an excellent, if inevitably depressing, analysis of the latest from Louise Casey. I was particularly struck by one line in particular: apparently Casey thinks it’s important

to get the public more engaged in tackling crime and to stop the erosion of community spirit.

Oh-oh – Broken Windows alert. Criminologists have spent years of their lives trying to make sense of this stuff – what ‘community spirit’ is, how you can tell whether it’s eroded or not and what the actual causal connection is between community spirit and the level of crime. By and large, they haven’t had much success. And, if you look at the original article and subsequent papers by the main proponents of this stuff – Bill Bratton as well as Kelling and Wilson in the US, Norman Dennis and Ray Mallon over here – that’s not surprising: the parts about how it’s actually supposed to work are quite insultingly vague. In point of fact, the original article is only incidentally about crime; it’s about policing, but policing in the service of a certain kind of social order. The focus isn’t crime prevention, in other words, so much as the prevention of disorder as an end in itself – an emphasis which I think you can find in a lot of subsequent ‘communitarian’ work on crime prevention, including the much more sophisticated work of people like Martin Innes.

The worst of it is that, at least in its cruder forms, this model is more or less untestable. Which, in turn, makes it more or less impossible to disprove: you can always look around you and see disorder, fear of crime and a lack of community spirit. So it never dies – at least, not for as long as there are journalists and politicians willing to keep it fresh.

I’ll leave detailed comment on Casey’s report to Obsolete, at least until I’ve had a chance to read the thing. For now I’ll just comment on one point from the report, which has been widely publicised: the proposal to make community service more punitive, by calling it ‘Community Payback’ and making the people doing it wear high-visibility jackets. Obsolete points out that, for better or worse, both of these proposals are already in place in some parts of the country, and comments: it doesn’t seem to have altered the impression that it’s a soft option, possibly because that’s what the popular press always refers to it as.

I’d go further: I think being ‘not punitive enough’ is widely seen as part of the definition of community service, essentially by virtue of it not being prison. That being the case, making it more visible is likely to set up a feedback loop which could make matters much worse. If you see a bunch of blokes weeding a verge or picking up litter, and not obviously having a really horrible time of it – they might be chatting among themselves, they might even be stopping for a fag – you’re not going to think I spy Evil Criminals Getting Punished! You might even think I spy Evil Criminals Having A Jolly Nice Time! – obviously ignoring the fact that the chat or the fag break came in the middle of several hours of menial labour, at the end of which they’d have no money and just as many bills to pay. But we can’t have that, think Casey and her ilk, so clearly community service will need to be made ‘tougher’ – keep ’em at it every minute of the day, no breaks, no talking…

But, at least in the last couple of centuries, sentencing has never been about punishment and nothing but. More to the point, custodial and community-based sentences have never been designed on the basis of making the convict’s life a misery every minute of the day. For a set period, your time is forfeit – your life is not your own; that is the punishment. The logic of Casey’s position is to, literally, scapegoat people on community sentences – turn them into a kind of all-purpose scratching-post for people to let out their hatred and fear of ‘criminals’ (which is a big subject in itself, and certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with the level of crime). Petrol’s up again… more dead in Afghanistan… another stabbing down the road… guy in an orange jumpsuit and a tag cutting the verge, looks really miserable about it, well serve you bloody well right pal! As a way of treating actual flesh-and-blood offenders – and offenders who, by definition, won’t be guilty of anything very serious – it leaves just about everything to be desired.

I know when I’m wrong

I seem to be disagreeing with WorldbyStorm quite a lot lately. Here’s WbS on the Lisbon Treaty:

I’d tend to the view that it is difficult to see how 26 countries won’t move forward. Why shouldn’t they? There’s no advantage to the status quo.

I was once, in a fairly received way, quite wedded to the federal model. Result? Supportive of the EU. But now I’ve shifted much more to an intergovernmental viewpoint. Result? Critically supportive of the EU, and consequently a Yes vote yesterday. The thing is that I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side. … So, while an EU wide vote on a Treaty is a great idea on one level, I simply don’t believe it will happen, that there is any political or popular will for it and therefore have put it out of my mind.

In similar vein, my old Socialist Society comrade John Palmer comments at CLR:

The best way forward would be for the other 26 Member States to complete ratification (18 already have). Then the Irish government should agree to the provision which allows the treaty to come into force if there is at least two thirds in favour. Dublin could volunteer to resile temporarily from involvement in those areas of decision directly affected by the Lisbon Treaty provisions at least while a solution is found within Ireland itself. I acknowledge this will not be simple. But this would be better than an Irish veto (made possible by c100,000 Irish voters) which prevents all the rest of the European Union (250 million people) going ahead. It should be remembered that the peoples of Spain and Luxembourg have already voted in referendums to ratify the original Constitutional Treaty but there votes now count for nothing.

What seems to emerge from these arguments – perhaps more clearly from WbS’s post than John’s comment – is an assumption that the project represented by the Lisbon Treaty is good in and of itself, whatever the actual people of Europe may think about it. Without some such assumption, John’s comment doesn’t make much sense – apart from anything else, it’s not at all obvious to me why the Irish No vote should be seen as any more trifling numerically, or any less valid politically, than the Luxembourg Yes vote. If you do make that assumption, on the other hand, the Irish plebiscite is an embarrassment twice over: you don’t want the Irish to say No, but on the other hand you don’t really want them to think you need them to say Yes. In this sense the EU project isn’t so much undemocratic as anti-democratic. I don’t think ‘inter-governmental’ is the word: the EU’s long gone beyond de Gaullean intergovernmentality to build its own European governing institutions and its own European bureaucracy, which have developed very largely in their own sphere, with their own rules and under their own momentum. Endorsement from below is an optional extra; it’s nice to have, but not getting it shouldn’t slow things down too much. (Consider John’s ‘best way forward’. If the rules under which the project is currently working say that 100% consent is required for ratification, and if 100% consent has become impossible, surely any best way forward has to begin by acknowledging that ratification isn’t going to happen?)

As progressive as EU influence on Britain has sometimes been, I find it very hard to see EU integration in terms of Jacques Delors vs UKIP. Socially progressive it may be in some respects, but economically the EU’s centre of gravity is well over on the Right. (Flash back to an old Communist couple I bumped into in Croydon some time in the 70s. We got talking about the EEC, as it then was, and I mumbled something about how I was concerned that it was better for, er, business interests… than it was for, er, the trade unions… The old bloke cut me off – “Well, it’s a capitalist club, isn’t it?” Yup – capitalist, that’s the word I was looking for. It’s a good word.) More to the point, the main polarisation that seems to be emerging isn’t between Left and Right, but between a pro-EU establishment and a large proportion of the people they purport to represent – and the issue on which it’s emerging is, precisely, representation. On one side, WbS (I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side). On the other, Splintered Sunrise:

The Lisbon Treaty may not be quite definitively sunk – these Euro-treaties have a habit of coming back from the dead – but yes, it’s definitely holed beneath the waterline, thanks to the one EU state where the constitution requires the plebs to have their say, much to the frustration of both the Eurocrats and the Dublin political class. This is all to the good.

And my new favourite political blog, Obsolete:

primarily it was a vote against something which only judges, bureaucrats and lawyers can understand and a vote against the politicians who didn’t even attempt to help those voting understand. … If you don’t understand it, vote no. Who could possibly argue with such basic logic, or blame them for doing so?

Something similar seems to be happening around David Davis. My immediate reaction, before I’d seen the next day’s press, was:

Given that it’s a safe Tory seat, it puts Labour in a very difficult position. If they don’t stand a candidate, Davis will win the argument. If they treat it like a normal by-election, they’ll get flattened and Davis will win the argument. If they fight really hard and dirty – painting Davis as soft on Al Qaeda & essentially going for the core Tory authoritarian vote – they’ve got a chance of getting a respectable vote, but they’ll alienate historic Labour voters still more. And shaking up the Labour vote is always a good tactic for the Tories – it’d be nice to think all those people would either stay loyal or wait for a socialist party to come over the horizon, but they’re more likely to drift over to the Tories on the general principle of giving the other lot a chance. (I wonder if Davis would have had this idea if it hadn’t been for Crewe & Nantwich.)

It’s good tactics in support of a sound political principle, and a timely challenge to a tired and arrogant regime propped up by a whipped majority. Just a shame it’s a Tory who’s doing it, really.

So I was a bit shocked by the press reaction (Obsolete again there) – repeatedly shocked, in fact (“I guess the Graun‘s a bit New Labour, but surely they’ll… oh. The Telegraph‘s made it lead story, and they’re Tories, they’re bound to… oh. What about the Indie, they’re pretty sound on civil liberties, surely they’ll… oh.”) Shocked all over again – and dismayed – by the Labour Party’s intention not to stand a candidate, and more particularly by their apparent determination to brazen it out on the grounds that… actually, what were the grounds again, other than not wanting to have the argument? WorldbyStorm puts it well, again – in a post which I’m afraid takes the anti-democratic side of the argument, again:

Well, that it would be – if anyone turned up. But there in lies the rub. No one appears to want to. After all, why try to contest a safe Conservative constituency? What political percentage is there in that. So the Liberal Democrats have announced they’re not in the running, while giving rhetorical support for his stance, and Labour will presumably follow suit – without the support rhetorical or otherwise.

Fight a by-election? What political percentage is there in that? To say I don’t often agree with Bloggers4Labour would be an understatement – I don’t think it’s ever happened before – but I thought this post was excellent:

If initial reactions are anything to go by, Labour’s big guns are going to take a depressingly contemptuous line … Equally tawdry, I feel, would be the decision not to field a Labour candidate at the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election. That would be a decision bound to salt the earth for the local CLP and the PPC, who might well pay the price at a local level for years to come. Whatever our individual views, Labour, nationally, has made its decision, and so it must stick up for its policy, whether that allows it to hold its vote, or costs it a deposit. The Lib Dems are entitled not to stand if they fully support the Conservatives, but Labour can’t withdraw too, leaving one side of the argument/electorate with no (mainstream) representative.

Labour may not have many supporters in David Davis’s constituency, but there are some. What are they supposed to do, abstain? The Labour Party – a Labour government, as Neil Kinnock might say – advising its supporters not to vote? As with the Lisbon Treaty, what seems to emerge here is an instrumental attitude to democracy – democratic accountability as a means to an end, or rather one of a number of possible means to an end – which is ultimately rather hard to distinguish from simply not believing in democracy. And, as with the Lisbon Treaty, I suspect that the establishment which believes it can substitute assumed consent for democratic endorsement has misjudged the public mood: many of those whose consent is being assumed may feel inclined to withhold it, or at least to be given the option to do so. (A particularly scummy aspect of Labour’s strategy is that it’ll be hard to count a Davis vote as a vote against Labour if Labour don’t stand.) As with Lisbon, finally, we can look to see this by-election producing some strange bedfellows.

It’s true that Davis doesn’t have anything to teach the Left about civil liberties, but that’s not really the point – the lesson isn’t in the importance of civil liberties but in the fact that people value them, and it’s not the Left that needs to learn it. And I suppose it’s true that there’s something backward-looking, even vaguely Norman Yoke-ish, about upholding the common law rights of the freeborn Briton against managerialist incursions, from London or Brussels. But that’s not really the point either: if a bad law is passed, giving the state still more power or still less accountability, thinking we were better off before that law was passed doesn’t make you a reactionary.

Would I vote No to Lisbon? Like a shot – as I wrote somewhere else, “any time those people give us a vote I’d be inclined to vote No – particularly in a case where the vote’s called to ratify decisions that have already been made without any real attempt to explain their implications, let alone to allow input from below”. Would I vote for Davis? That’s a bit harder – I vote Green, I’ve voted Lib Dem in the past (I was young), and I can imagine myself voting Plaid Cymru, but if I’ve kept anything from my Labour upbringing it’s a conviction that you don’t vote Tory. Let’s just say that I believe, with B4L, that we should battle illiberal and conservative ideas and values, with liberal, cooperative, and socialist ones – and that, on that basis, I’d very much welcome the opportunity to vote against Labour.

Update 16/6 The response to the 42 days proposal by the soft-left Compass group caused a bit of a storm: the group campaigned against, but then both Jon Trickett and Jon Cruddas, its parliamentary spokesperson and leading figurehead respectively, voted in favour. Trickett has since resigned his position, albeit with a remarkably bad grace. Emily Thornberry has been cited as a Compass MP who voted against, and as a potential future leader of the parliamentary group. So who’s this

lectur[ing] us that:
• The Irish didn’t really mean resounding ‘no’ (didn’t understand what they were doing, poor loves) delivered to the EU treaty last week and that Europe should find their way round this inconvenient legal fact.

• That it is impossible that an MP might put his career on the line, resign and seek re-election on an issue like civil liberties on principle.

Why, it’s Emily Thornberry.

Back in my Socialist Society days I once suggested to a friend that the Society ought to line up with the soft Left – which back then meant the likes of Robin Cook and Clare Short, ILP, the pre-Twigg LCER and maybe Chartist at a pinch. My friend demurred & said the trouble with the soft Left was that, like other soft things, they were liable to get squashed. OK, it’s not Oscar Wilde, but I think there was a lot of truth in it.

My silly Cuban heels

A bit more oneirography (I don’t intend to make a habit of it). I had a dream last night which reminded me oddly of a dream I made up some years ago. (I wrote it for a short story (unpublished); the story was vaguely, partially autobiographical, but the dream was completely made up.) See if you can tell which is which. (Yes, it’s Am I Unconscious Fantasy Or Not. That old thing…)

I went round to see my grandmother and apologise for something, I forget what. I saw my grandfather through the glass by the front door, but I didn’t see him after my grandmother let me in. She started to make a pot of tea and asked if Earl Grey would be all right. I assumed she’d be using teabags, and was quite surprised to see her spooning loose tea into the pot; it was bright green and looked like grass cuttings. Reacting to something I’d said, she interrupted me indignantly – “Not Russell! Don’t bother with Russell! You want to get rid of Russell!” As she spoke, she furiously shovelled more and more bright green tea into the pot.

My father and I were queuing up together at a cold buffet: potato salad, crisps, poached eggs and a large bowl of pickled onions in a sticky red-brown sauce. My father had just come back from Japan, where he’d been for three weeks. “They have a whole different system out there,” he told me, “a whole system!” Then we reached the head of the queue and he began to help me to potato salad. Seen close up it didn’t look very appetising – there were pieces of yellow celery in it and bluish peas, and the lumps of potato were five or six inches long – and I was annoyed to see my father piling it onto my plate. I said, “I can manage, I can manage!” and tried to push him out of the way, flapping my arms uselessly.

“Families, eh?” (S. Freud)

Update 15/6 – it was the first one. I haven’t thought of my grandmother for years, but she’s clearly still in there somewhere; she still connects in some way with things I know I care about. (I know who Russell is, and it’s not T. Davies.) I guess what’s going on in dreams like these is illuminated by Voyer‘s suggestive formulation (emphasis added):

If, for one reason or another, an individual’s character is dissolved, the phenomenal spectacular form of the totality is dissolved in its pretension to pass for the absence of value. Thus we have established, negatively for the moment, an identity between character and the spectacle effect. Whether the subject sinks into madness, practices theory or participates in an uprising, we have ascertained that the two poles of daily life—contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other—are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for that unity of individual life which Reich unfortunately labels “genitality.” (We prefer ‘individuality’.)

Madness, revolution and the practice of theory (on which more here): all areas where ‘character’ (in what I understood to be Reich’s sense of the word) comes unglued and the spectacle with it. Closely related states, I would argue, include dreaming, psychotherapy and childhood. What’s at issue in childhood isn’t the dissolution of character but its initial formation; infancy, in particular, is truly a character-forming experience. As adults we partition off what matters (who’s in government) from what matters (who’s in bed with us), calling one ‘society’ and the other ‘private life’; but for children – as for psychotics, as for revolutionaries – it’s all in there together. And the place where it’s all there is the family. The place we first learn about authority is the same place we learn about love; we learn to acknowledge reality in the place where we learn to desire.

What this means is that your world was sculpted by love and fear before you ever started to put it together rationally – and, somewhere beneath the rational brickwork, it still is. In dreams, Gordon Brown is your Dad.

And things were clearer

Tagged by Rob:

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.

(Parenthetically, seven’s rather a lot, isn’t it? One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging much recently is that I can’t seem to get a blog post finished in less than an hour – and the thought that I’m going to be working on a blog post for the next hour doesn’t often lift the spirits. But let’s see how it goes.)

(Five minutes already. Damn!)

(Update 6/6/08 The other thing I dislike about blogging – at least, the way I do it – is the amount of time I end up spending on edits and updates after a post is published. I hate that.)

Shirley Collins, Fare thee well my dearest dear
I’m immersed in Amaranth at the moment; it’s a late-70s album by Shirley Collins which I bought for my mother a long time ago, and it’s quite wonderful. Side one consists of traditional material recorded with the Albion Band; mostly fairly conventional stuff from the folkier end of seventies folk-rock, with a few odd-sounding instruments thrown in. Side two was recorded eight years earlier and features Dolly Collins on pipe organ and what I think is an earlier, or prototype, Albion Band; the instrumentation’s heavy on recorders and sackbuts. Shirley Collins’ voice is thin and wavery, and on this track in particular (which opens side one) she’s battling with a fiddly arrangement over a big lumbering rock 4:4, but still: there’s something utterly unencumbered and direct about the songs themselves, and about the joys and sorrows they describe. It’s unforgettably moving, this music; it’ll give you emotional earworms. Incidentally, this song was collected in 1904 by Vaughan Williams; a very similar song was a popular broadside ballad in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It makes me slightly dizzy thinking about it.

Scott Walker, The old man’s back again
An extraordinary song from Scott Four, which I was introduced to recently by the medium of the Earlies’ “Secret Broadcast” mix series. This song stops time: over a relentless, quietly urgent drumbeat there’s a film-score orchestral backing so sparse it hardly seems to be there, and over it all Scott’s immense voice hangs like banners. I’m not sure what’s more remarkable – that he should have been inspired to write about Brezhnev replacing Khrushchev, or that he should have done it in this bizarre, hyperreal way, outdoing “Blues for Ceausescu” 25 years early: And ‘entrez vie!’ he cries, with eyes that ring like chimes/His anti-worlds go spinning through his head. A strange, still track.

John Kelly, Spencer the Rover
More folk, but this time from a contemporary album. John’s been performing for 40 years and has got quite good at it – as well as singing he plays harmonium, guitar, cittern, whistle and (I’ve been told) fiddle. This album (his first, bizarrely enough) is mainly John with harmonium and guitar. His voice is expressive and flexible enough to carry a traditional song unaccompanied – the words don’t just hang on the tune like washing on a line; on the songs he plays on harmonium, in particular, the accompaniment adds a whole extra dimension. But judge for yourself – you can here this song here.

the Dandy Warhols, Love is the new feel awful
I loved Welcome to the monkey house, but fought shy of Odditorium… when I saw what bad reviews it was getting. I finally got it (reduced) a few weeks back, and I can see why people didn’t like it. Give it time, though, and it gets through to you. The thing to remember about the Dandys is that they are the coolest band in the world – at least, that’s the principle they work on, and it makes it easier to get into their music if you give them the benefit of the doubt. The concept for this album is essentially “the coolest band in the world jam aimlessly in the studio, and it still works!” – and it nearly does. What’s interesting about this song is what happens when a band start playing, and become so convinced they’re doing something amazing that they just keep on at it. What you end up with, among other things, is a lot of feedback – it becomes an instrument in its own right by the end of the track. In other words, it’s not so much rock’n’roll as the noise of rock’n’roll – the sound rock’n’roll makes. It’s actually quite radical stuff – with the right editing it could be on the Faust tapes. Speaking of which…

Faust, J’ai mal aux dents
What can I say, my son was practising his French vocab the other day, I taught him how to say “My teeth ache and so do my feet”, and then I thought I should just check the source… Just wonderful. It’s a driving rock track, only with these words that don’t seem to make any sense and don’t quite seem to be in English and they repeat oddly, and they don’t seem to make any sense and they repeat oddly, and the drummer doesn’t quite sound like a rock drummer and there’s this odd little synthesised bzzzt! on every other third beat, and after seven minutes or so the keyboard player holds the bzzzt until it swamps the entire song, and then, and then… It’s wonderful stuff – deeply experimental and viscerally accessible at the same time. I got this album when I was 12, would you believe. (My son’s into Scouting for Girls. Where’s the young Richard Branson when you need him?)

Nic Jones, the Outlandish Knight
More folk. One man, his guitar and a Child ballad. A strange tune (mostly traditional), that seems to go off somewhere unexpected and loop back on itself, and some very strange lyrics (boy meets girl, boy attempts to kill girl, girl kills boy, girl meets parrot…) The singing’s strong and melodic, although the voicing is rather of its time (early 1970s) – ve-ry ex-press-ive in a bloke-y sort of way – and the guitar playing’s terrific. Nic Jones’s accident was a dreadful blow for music as well as for Nic himself.

Flying Saucer Attack, At night
Update Off with you. Last night I forgot about a much more suitable candidate:
Beth Orton, Heartland truckstop
I loved Beth Orton’s first album, liked the second and was very bored by the third, so it took a record shop sale (see under Dandy Warhols) to get me to buy her fourth, Comfort of Strangers. I’m glad I did, and glad I persisted with it – musically and lyrically it’s easily the best thing she’s done since that first album. For that I think we can thank Jim O’Rourke, who worked with her on the album (at the time of the third album she was working with Ryan Adams). On the other hand, O’Rourke has to take some of the blame for the inconsequential, second-runthrough arrangements – these are short songs, often because they get to the end of the lyrics and then stop – and in particular the awful, murky production. It’s the opposite of a Kieran Hebden production, where you feel like everything’s playing at once about two inches from your head – it sounds like real instruments being played in real time, but in another room. Even the titles seem designed to repel boarders – Beth Orton’s written some terrific lines in these songs, but almost none of them make it into a song title (or a chorus). From this song:

We’re all bridgebuilders’ daughters, with incestuous dreams
Confidentially speaking, things are as they seem

It’s good stuff – murky and refrain-free, but good stuff.

Seven songs, then. (66 minutes – I knew it.) I won’t nominate anyone – tig me in comments if you want to do it next.

Somewhere in the corner

Postdoctoral fellowship application, June 2006
12 months, to write and place two papers developing my doctoral thesis (analysing the Italian protest movements in the 1970s through contemporary press coverage) and submit an application for funding for a follow-up project (looking at British protest movements in the 1990s).
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Research grant application, January 2007
24 months, to analyse press coverage of four episodes of contentious activism (in Italy and Britain) and compare with subsequent legislation.
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Fellowship application, February 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. No feedback.

Focused research grant application, April 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of political radicalisation & embrace of violent tactics, and identify the key factors involved.
Rejected. Feedback mostly positive but some scepticism (“It is not clear what the researcher is going to do in the project period other than reading a series of Italian autobiographies.”)

Research grant application, September 2007
12 months, to analyse a selection of autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans together with accounts produced by non-political career criminals, tracing processes of desistance and identifying the key factors involved, with the goal of producing an analystical model which could be applied to subsequent interview-based research.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, October 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, February 2008
24 months, to analyse the impact of the Crime and Disorder Act’s statutory duty on local authorities to minimise ‘disorder’ by examining the regulation of disorderly events in the Manchester City Council area over a three-year period.
Rejected. No feedback.

Typically these rejections take about three months to come back. I’ve only just heard about the last one.

In the same period I’ve applied for lecturing posts at four other universities (one of them twice) as well as my own (three times), not to mention research posts at my own university (four of them). I may have forgotten one or two. I’ve had two interviews (I’m pretty sure that figure’s right).

A week or so ago, before I got the most recent rejection, I had a dream about all this. I was at a social event at work, with a smartly-dressed, slightly nerdy-looking band set up in one corner. They started playing “Don’t worry baby” – complete with harmonies – whereupon a guy from my department seized my hand and started spinning me round, encouraging me to dance. Then he started clapping out a complicated rhythm and encouraged me to join in, but I couldn’t pick it up. He looked a bit crestfallen – “Oh, you can’t get it? Never mind.”

What’s lurking here, I think, is a strangely moving account I once read of Keith Moon’s solo career, and in particular one recording session where he took lead vocals on “Don’t worry, baby” (he was a huge Beach Boys fan) with somebody else on drums. He was a weedy vocalist & the track was decidedly average, but someone who saw the session said that he was obviously loving every moment – this was what it was all about! Except that, of course, it wasn’t, not if your talents were Keith Moon’s.

On top of that, it evokes the funny bit at the end of Sudden Sway’s “Relationships” where a [fictional] percussionist called Kevin persistently fails to get anything like the beat. Groans all round, and the singer wades in and makes matters worse (“OK, so we’re only a support band, so what?”).

I think there’s a bit of Syd in there too – “Have you got it yet?”

So here’s me, trying and failing to get a research grant – and a proper contract with it. And here’s a drummer who really wants to be a lead singer; no one has the heart to tell him that he really can’t sing, so he keeps trying. He thinks he’s getting somewhere, but he never will – he really can’t sing.

And here’s a drummer who can’t even drum properly, who will only ever be a support act – and hey, what’s wrong with that?

And here’s a tune that I try to get, but I can’t get it – I can’t get it, it’s not possible to get it.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to get to where I am; ironically enough, it would also take a lot of work to get back to earning a living the way I did before. So what I do next is clear enough: I go on. I’m working on another research funding application and an application for a teaching post. Vedremo.

After a night’s sleep, curiously, I remembered that I have actually been in the position of being a percussionist who’s berated by the rest of the band for not getting the beat – and a drummer who wants to be a singer. When I was about 16 and half my social life revolved around the local church, some friends of mine were in a drippy acoustic group. They played at church events and sometimes during services; there was a bit of a fuss the week they did “Goodbye Again” during Communion. I longed to join, partly so I’d get to hang out with girls but mainly so I could amaze everyone with my singing; at this point I’d never actually sung in public, but I thought I’d be great when I did. But if you haven’t got the nerve to sing in public, the chances are you haven’t got the nerve to ask to sing in public either. So I talked myself into a rehearsal, but I didn’t dare to suggest singing; I volunteered to improvise on flute or else to play bongos. The flute improvisation didn’t work at all; the bongos worked for about a song and a half, but after that got on everyone’s nerves. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t thought much about patterns, & saw my role essentially as providing a kind of running percussion solo, a la Rebop Kwaku Baah. (Meets John Denver. During a church service. Yup, that’ll work.)

It’s a pretty embarrassing memory. But it’s also a memory of feeling unable to do something – sing in public – which I now do regularly. And something else I longed to do when I was in my teens was to grow up to be a university lecturer – I didn’t know how I was going to get there, either. Around the time this thought crossed my mind, I drifted into a half-sleep and dreamed of performing a song called “Fake detector” – probably the angriest thing I’ve ever written – while stalking up and down in front of a long table, with a row of people sat behind it.

Why do I think I’m suited for this job? You want to know why I think I’m suited for this job?

Maybe not. Still, vedremo. To quote my favourite bit of Gawain,

Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?

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