Thursday, 30 April 2009

Scalia's scatology

US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the bench's most uncompromising conservative, looks uncomfortably like Tony Soprano. But as a case decided on Tuesday (pdf full judgement) made plain, he doesn't share the mobster's taste for four-letter words. At least on TV. Upholding the right of regulators to introduce a strict liability policy ("one 'shit' and you're out?) for TV companies, he asserted that "the pervasiveness of foul language, and the coarsening of public entertainment in other media such as cable, justify more stringent regulation of broadcast programs so as to give conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children".

The case involved a change of policy by the US equivalent of Ofcom, the FCC. Previously, they had allowed unintentional and fleeting use of swearwords (before a 10pm watershed) - as when some celebrity let slip an involuntary ejaculation of frustration or delight, and the show's going out live so it can't be bleeped. But repeated and deliberate use of such language might be expected to result in a fine. The policy went back to the Pacifica Radio case of 1973, where the Supreme Court - split, as in this latest instance, 5-4 - voted to uphold the FCC's fine for a broadcast of the late George Carlin's comic monologue, Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television. On that occasion, the court made a clear distinction between repeated and isolated use of language. They also made a distinction between "expletive" use of a word (sometimes OK) and "descriptive" use, which they considered a more serious matter. Thus "fuck" might be acceptable as a swearword, but not as a reference to sexual activity.

That was more than thirty years ago. Since then, as Scalia noted in his judgement, the FCC has taken a "gradually expanding" approach to enforcement, moving towards stricter and more prescriptive standards. The watershed, though, came when Bono collected an award at the Golden Globes in 2003, describing the accolade as "fucking amazing" (or "f***ing amazing" as Scalia renders it). The FCC were minded to let it pass, but such was the outcry from certain clean-speech campaigners and politicians that they revised their guidelines. It was this revised formula - as applied to the two shows in particular - that Fox were challenging here. Scalito was in his element.

Scalia summarised the offensive comments, and their context:

The first occurred during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards, when the singer Cher exclaimed, “I’ve also had critics for thelast 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So f*** ‘em.” The second involved a segment of the 2003 Billboard Music Awards, during the presentation of an award by Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, principals in a Fox television series called“The Simple Life.” Ms. Hilton began their interchange by reminding Ms. Richie to “watch the bad language,” but Ms. Richie proceeded to ask the audience, “Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life?’ Have you ever tried to get cow s*** out of a Prada purse? It’s not so f***ing simple.”

Following each of these broadcasts, the Commission received numerous complaints from parents whose children were exposed to the language.

Scalia accepted that it was "conceivable that the Commission’s orders may cause some broadcasters to avoid certain language that is beyond the Commission’s reach under the Constitution". But that didn't seem to bother him unduly. Along with four other judges, he thought that it was perfectly reasonable for the FCC to change its policy without giving a convincing explanation. At the same time, he clearly found the commission's reasons for the change convincing. Here are some of the points that he endorsed:

  • “[G]iven the core meaning of the ‘F-Word,’” it said, “any use of that word . . . inherently has a sexual connotation.” It "invariably invokes a coarse sexual image".
  • that categorically exempting such language from enforcement actions would “likely lead to more widespread use.” Commission action was necessary to “safeguard the well-being of the nation’s children from the most objectionable, most offensive language.
  • Programming replete with one-word indecent expletives will tend to produce children who use (at least) one-word indecent expletives.
  • the mere fact that specific words or phrases are not sustained or repeated does not mandate a finding that material that is otherwise patently offensive to the broadcast medium is not indecent.
  • the previous policy is "no longer good law".
  • a safe harbor for single words would “likely lead to more widespread use of the offensive language,” [although, as Justice John Paul Stevens noted in his dissenting opinion, the rules have been in force for decades without any such effect.]
  • Ms. Richie’s use of the “F-Word” and her “explicit description of the handling of excrement”was “vulgar and shocking,” and constituted “pandering,” after Ms. Hilton had playfully warned her to “‘watch the bad language.’”
  • “strict dichotomy between ‘expletives’ and ‘descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory functions’ is artificial and does not make sense in light of the fact that an ‘expletive’s’ power to offend derives from its sexual or excretory meaning.”
  • It was certainly reasonable to determine that it made no sense to distinguish between literal and nonliteral uses of offensive words, requiring repetitive use to render only the latter indecent.
  • Cher’s statement was patently offensive in part because she metaphorically suggested a sexual act as a means of expressing hostility to her critics.

That last quote raises an interesting question. It relates, of course, to the FCC's central claim that swearwords based on sexual or scatological terms necessarily allude to those activites. But as the veteran John Paul Stevens (who was there in 1978, when Pacifica was heard, and so was able - unsuccessfully - to correct Scalia's misunderstanding of the case) put it in his dissenting opinion:

The customs of speech refute this claim: There is a critical distinction between the use of an expletive to describe a sexual or excretory function and the use of such a word for an entirely different purpose, such as toexpress an emotion. One rests at the core of indecency; the other stands miles apart. As any golfer who haswatched his partner shank a short approach knows, it would be absurd to accept the suggestion that the resultant four-letter word uttered on the golf course describes sex or excrement and is therefore indecent. But that is the absurdity the FCC has embraced in its new approach to indecency.

Stevens J laments the illogicality of the focus on particular words. He finds it ironic that "while the FCC patrols the airwaves for words that have a tenuous relationship with sex or excrement, commercials broadcast during prime time frequently ask viewers whether they are battling erectile dysfunction or having trouble going to the bathroom." But in this, strange to say, it may be Scalia who has the greater insight. Stevens should pay attention to the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, whose recent bestseller The Stuff of Thought devotes a comprehensive chapter to the subject. Which partly explains why the book became a bestseller.

Pinker points to the strange but undeniable fact that "for most of the past century the most famous legal battles over free speech have been joined not where history would lead us to expect them - in efforts to speak truth to power - but in the use of certain words for copulation, pudenda, orifices and effluvia." He further notes that:

To these guardians of decency, profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This argument is made in spite of the fact that everyone is familiar with these words, including most children, and that no-one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one's morals.

Nothing if not thorough, Pinker enumerates no fewer than five modes of swearing: descriptive, abusive, emphatic, idiomatic and cathartic. Of these, only the "descriptive" sense is literal; indeed, in other circumstances the meaning of the taboo word is of less significance than the fact that it is taboo. "They substitute for one another in idioms even when they have no affinity in syntax or meaning". (For example, the apparently nonsensical "for fuck's sake" is a variation of "for God's sake"). Yet it is the literal meaning that gives them their peculiar force. They are uniquely charged, so that a speaker or writer "can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes". As such, swearwords belong to the category of "word magic".

He also draws on neurological studies which indicate that "taboo words", whether their reference are sexual, sacrilegious or scatological, can by-pass the normal speech centres of the brain, impacting directly on the emotions. Swearing "taps the deeper and older parts of the brain." It is this visceral quality, it occurs to me, that distinguishes "true" swear words, the sex-, excretion- (and, to some extent, religion-) based vocabulary, from that modern class of taboo words which are equally if not more socially unacceptable. Hit your thumb with a hammer and you may expostulate "fuck", "shit" or "Christ" more-or-less interchangeably. But no-one, in such circumstances, cries out "nigger" or "spastic". Or, indeed, "homo".

While poking fun at the absurdities of some anti-profanity campaigners, Pinker is not without some sympathy for their concerns. He notes, for example, that the aura of taboo, mystique and even fear that traditionally surrounds sex (and, by extension, words for sex) may benefit wider society. "Sex has high stakes", he writes. "Plain speaking about sex conveys an attitude that sex is a casual matter". The wider acceptability of sex-based swearwords in the past few decades has accompanied greater laxity in sexual mores - which, he argues, might not be an unmixed blessing. More generally,

Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form...the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs.

The US attitude to swearing on network TV, like the US attitude to nudity on television, often seems maiden-auntish even by British standards. But, as the split decision suggests, the debate is really a subset of the broader "culture wars", which encompass such matters as the teaching of creationism in schools, abortion, capital punishment, gun control and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Scalia, who was once described by George W Bush as his ideal judge, invariably finds himself on one side in these decisions, Stevens on the other. There is, notoriously, a demographic and geographical factors at work in these debates: the difference between "red" and "blue" states, between the "heartland" and the coasts, large towns and small. Another dissenting judge, Justice Stephen Breyer, suggested that the stricter policy would impact most strongly on small broadcasters who might be unable to afford the latest bleeping equipment, and that this in turn could harm local communities, even democracy itself. This drew a hilarious rebuke from Scalia:

We doubt, to begin with, that small-town broadcasters run a heightened risk of liability for indecent utterances. In programming that they originate, their down-home local guests probably employ vulgarity less than big-city folks; and small-town stations generally cannot afford or cannot attract foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood.

I love that glitteratae. Scalia has taken the (fake) Latin noun glitteratus and declined it in the feminine plural, just so as to stick the knife into Nicole and Cher (implicitly exempting Bono along the way). Whatever you think of the man's politics, that shows class.

If you've read through this far, you deserve a reward. So here is the late George Carlin with the routine that started it all: The Seven Words. Needless to say, it contains "strong language".

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Jay and Ally

Another Comment is Free stalwart, Jay Reilly, has been banned this morning, apparently after calling Tony Blair "a c*nt". It's not elegant, it's not clever, and it's not what I would have said and of course it was going to be deleted. The thread in which Jay disgraced himself, in which Tony Blair sang the praises of Sierra Leone (and, by implication, his own interventionist foreign policy) went down particularly badly with the Cif posse. Well over half the 84 comments were deleted before it was shut down after little more than an hour. By the time I spotted it, it was already too late...

Matt Seaton, Cif's increasingly embattled editor, came on about half way through to wag his finger:

Good morning, campers.

I'm afraid it's not a very good morning here, though. Please do not use this thread simply to vent spleen and post abuse of Tony Blair. It's not funny or clever; it's just boring, as well as pointlessly vacuuming up our moderators' time and attention.

The topics of this thread are Sierra Leone, development and Africa. If people persist in using it to post abuse of Tony Blair, we will judge that as off-topic and, if that's all that's going on here, then we will close the thread peremptorily.

What did he expect? That Tony Blair would reap bouquets of compliments? This is Tony Blair we're talking about.

Jay now joins Woolly Minded Liberal, Khartoumi, Hank Scorpio and several other familiar pseudonyms on the increasingly long banned list. There seems to have been a change of policy recently: an increased willingness to ban, rather than simply delete, people who annoy the powers that be, a determination to wrest control of "the Cif community" from the fractious, sometimes witty, sometimes intemperate, but often incisive band of regular commenters who actually constitute the community and reassert central control. Matt Seaton seems to be taking advice from the Gordon Brown school of public relations. Cif as we've come to know it for the past few years seems, as a result, to be close to collapse. It will soon become indistinguishable from any other newspaper website.

Well, refugees are welcome to come and contribute here.

There follows a brilliant post on the "what do you want to talk about thread" from above-the-line writer Ally Fogg - one of the best - which says it all, really.


For a couple of years Cif has been clearly the best political comment site in the UK, if not the world.

Why? You think it is because of the authors? The Guardian columnists and Cif occasionals? Wrong.

Go to the Independent or the Times or further afield to Salon or Alternet or Huffington, and there are hundreds of writers who are easily a match for any of us here. In many cases they're actually the same people!

What has Cif had that the others haven't? I'll tell you what.


...and all the other passionate, intelligent, angry, interesting, bloody-minded, foul-mouthed, awkward buggers from across the political spectrum.

Every time the moderators ban an interesting poster from these pages, Cif is seriously diminished. Every time someone is banned, a bunch of others either leave in disgust or become considerably less frequent visitors - as the magic of Cif is further diminished (Kizbot is, by popular consent, the funniest, most insightful, most likeable poster Cif has ever had, but I wouldn't be surprised if she is serious about quitting. Nor would I blame her.)

So, Jay said something exceptionally offensive about Tony Blair, did he? Good. Just as well I didn't see the post while it was open, because I'm sure I'd have said something similar to the murdering, mendacious war criminal, and presumably I'd be out on my ear too. Whatever Jay said, I very much doubt it was as offensive as killing a million people on a tissue of lies.

But whatever. Delete the post. How long does it take the moderators to delete a post? A tenth of a second? With the likes of Jay and Woolly, even if the mods have to delete ten posts for every one left standing, that one post would still be adding considerable value to the thread and to this forum and would be worth the deletions.

What I find really disturbing is that it doesn't seem to be persistent breach of guidelines that gets people banned, it doesn't seem to be expressing vicious fascistic, racist, homophobic or misogynist attitudes that gets people banned. What DOES get people banned is persistently challenging the moderators' decisions. Nothing personal, coz I'm sure they're all lovely people in the pub, but at work they come over as a bunch of mini-Cartmans yelling "YOU WILL RESPECT MY AUTHORITAAAAAY"

I find it hard to believe that Jay has been banned for persistent foul language. I don't want to believe that he has been banned for expressing political views that don't fit the Guardian ideology. I strongly suspect he has actually been banned for being a pain in the arse to the moderators. Well sorry, that's worse than political censorship in my book, because it means we are all missing out on the very best of Cif because some moderator has got a hump on. Tough, mate. That's your job.

If the mods are too busy answering complaints about moderation from posters who've had their posts deleted, then maybe they should be instructed not to engage with posters beyond a stock reply. That would be annoying and unhelpful, but not half as annoying and unhelpful as banning people.

Sort it out, Matt, or Georgina, or Emily, or whoever supervises the mods. please. This is killing Cif.

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Saved by the swine

It has not, all things considered, been a good couple of weeks for Gordon Brown, what with the McBride emails scandal shading imperceptibly into the YouTube disaster (Gigglegate?), the daily allowance U-turn, the Budget whose forecasts proved to be absurdly optimistic the next day, a mini world-tour in which various leaders treated him as though he were suffering from swine flu, a procession of Blairite irreconcilables popping up to denounce his policies - and now the Gurkhas.

Still, it could be worse. The almost daily humiliation of the prime minister may have excited the Westminster village but, beyond confirming a general sense of drift and accident-proneness, it can hardly be said to have dominated the headlines. Instead, the airwaves have been full of the swine flu. A couple in Scotland who, if reports are accurate, have symptoms scarcely distinguishable from a bad cold, are accorded the kind of wall-to-wall medical coverage last seen when the Queen Mother was on her deathbed. A school closed down for a suspected outbreak attracts almost as many reporters as the Italian earthquake. Experts clog up the TV studios, solemnly instructing viewers how to blow their noses. Face-masks are becoming as prevalent as posies during the Black Death, and about as effective. The media love a good health scare; and despite the evident fact that this virus, though contagious, is (for the moment at least) relatively mild, the epidemic offers splendid opportunities for speculation, non-specific gloom and pictures of "heroic" doctors and nurses out there on the front line.

My guess is that Gordon Brown is loving it too. Remember the last time his leadership was about to implode? It was only a few months ago. Then, as now, a succession of gaffes and back-bench mutterings, even (in David Miliband) a real possibility of a leadership putsch. But then the banks started collapsing, and suddenly Gordon was whizzing around like Superman, saving the world, knocking international heads together, laying the foundations of the global new world order before ultimately emerging, at the G20 summit, as (in Nick Robinson's felicitous phrase) "Chancellor of the World".

It's been all downhill since then, of course. But now here's a new crisis for the Weltskanzler to save us all from. True, swine flu may not call for the mastery of economic minutiae that only Gordon can offer. But it does at least put his troubles in perspective. And this too, surely, is "no time for a novice". Brown has a reputation for being an unlucky politician. But just think what a mess he would be in today if there were no pandemic in the offing, if there were nothing else for the journos to talk about but his own political disintegration. Yet again an international crisis beyond his control comes to his rescue. If Gordon Brown is still prime minister by the end of next week, he will have the Mexican pigs to thank for it. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Fighting the Gurkhas

The BBC describes as a "surprise" the government's Commons defeat over the rules it intended to impose on Gurkha veterans wanting to settle in Britain. It didn't surprise me. The proposals - brought in after the High Court ruled the previous policy illegal - were cynically designed to be as exclusionary as possible. The right to settle was offered to soldiers who had served for twenty years, although the standard enlistment period is fifteen, for example.

Whether or not the government expected to lose, it's hard to see what they thought they were doing. The Gurkhas, with their near legendary status in the British army, proud history and romantic origins in the Nepalese highlands, have always been able to count on a vast reservoir of public goodwill. Once the campaign began to grant them equal rights with Commonwealth soldiers - fronted by the ever-popular Joanna Lumley - it was bound to attract widespread sympathy. Whatever points of cost or historic practice might be raised by the Home Office to keep them out were always bound to strike the average person - even allowing for the average person's general attitude towards immigration - as mean-spirited, ungrateful and cheap. I can think of few other foreign nationals wishing to settle in this country who would attract such wholehearted support from the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

The Gurkhas, in short, are a Special Case, not just morally - they fight our wars, after all - but also politically. A wise politician knows how to choose an enemy. Margaret Thatcher had Galtieri and Scargill. Tony Blair had Slobodan Milosovic, Saddam Hussein (and Gordon Brown). Brown, meanwhile, goes into battle against a relatively small number of old soldiers who will always be far more popular than he is. He even justified the policy this lunchtime in the House of Commons, when it was clear that both Opposition parties and a fair number of his own MPs were supporting the Gurkhas. Is this not utterly insane? After his giggling YouTube performance, followed a few days later by an even more embarrassing U-turn, it certainly appeared that he had completely lost the plot. This latest fiasco proves it. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Privacy concerns

So there isn't going to be a massive national database containing details of all our browsing history, emails and chatroom visits after all. Or is there? The Home Office yesterday launched a "consultation document" (pdf), and the abandonment of the £12bn scheme was the made headline. The document does indeed make this sound like a major - and unwelcome - concession, which implies that this and other aspects of the surveillance society have, at long last, made some sort of public impression, that privacy still matters to enough people to make a difference:

The Government has no plans for a centralised database for storing all communications data. An approach of this kind would require communications service providers to collect all the data required by the public authorities, and not only the data required for their business needs. All of this communications data would then be passed to, retained in, and retrieved from, a single data store. This could be the most effective technical solution to the challenges we face and would go furthest towards maintaining the current capability; but the Government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach.

Are we to take this at face value? Shami Chakrabarti seems quite happy, calling it "a clear signal that the public interest in personal privacy can no longer be ignored". The Conservatives' Chris Grayling claimed that "the home secretary appears to have listened to Conservative warnings about big brother databases" and added, "Now that she [Jacqui Smith] has finally admitted that the public don't want their details held by the State in one place, perhaps she will look at other areas in which the Government is trying to do precisely that."

Somehow I doubt it.

That said, I suspect the spooks will be disappointed that they won't - for the time being at least - have an expensive new toy to play with. Instead, they will make ISPs do the work - and bear some of the cost - of collecting, storing and collating all the information. This will be cheaper - a "mere" £2bn - at least to the taxpayer. The Independent suspects that it "could add millions of pounds to phone and internet bills" but people have a strange habit of not noticing such levies, or if they do, they blame the service provider. Provided the new scheme gives them what they want - unfettered access to the contacts and browsing habits of the entire population - this could be a win-win situation for the surveillance state. They will save money and be able to pretend that they care a fig for people's privacy. Even some privacy campaigners may be seduced by the appearance of victory.

We should be careful. A big, scary centralised database does at least present opponents with a target to aim at. By forcing companies to collect the data the government will achieve most of what it wants, but stealthily. Despite talk of safeguards, the proposal will enable almost any public body to build up a complete picture of anyone they choose, with little or not outside scrutiny. Even the minimal safeguard of needing authorisation from a magistrate or judge appears nowhere.

It will be slightly more cumbersome to access the material - but since the onus is put on the ISPs to collate the data all ready, that's hardly reassuring. Indeed, the ISPs are likely to, in time, demand a quid pro quo - for example using this fund of information for commercial purposes. It has recently emerged that the Home Office advised BT on ways to sidestep EU privacy safeguards when trialling Phorm. This sort of collusion is likely to increase if the new scheme goes through.

Elsewhere, the document gives the lie to the government's frequent claims that they are merely implementing EU directives - directives which, in any case, the Home Office campaigned for vigorously in Brussels. It states that "We also need to ensure that UK companies collect and store additional types of communications data about their own services, which are not included under the EU Data Retention Directive. This includes data that communication service providers do not generate or process about their services." It doesn't provide any coherent rationale as to why they need this capability.

Those who follow these matters closely realise that the apparent concession will do little to knock the snoopers off course. Says Henry Porter,

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government.

Opponents of the surveillance state get used to accusations of paranoia. We are forever assured that only serious criminals or suspected terrorists have anything to fear. But the abuse of RIPA by local authorities demonstrates that intrusive surveillance is now the first resort of officialdom. Once this new system is up and running it will be too tempting not to use it wherever possible. Indeed, if its use were to be confined only to serious cases it would not justify either its cost or its scope and complexity. This document almost admits as much:

All the data retained by the communications service providers would continue to be accessible on a case-by-case basis to public authorities, subject to the same rigorous safeguards that are now in place.

"Rigorous safeguards". Is that, I wonder, intended to be a joke? Or is it merely cyncism?

(The consultation is addressed merely to service providers, though I hope millions take the opportunity to email

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Sunday, 26 April 2009

Carrying on up the Khyber

Christopher Booker, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, claims that "one of the best kept secrets of our recent politics" was the way in which the military campaign in Iraq "turned into one of the greatest humiliations in the history of the British Army". I don't know quite what is so secret about the well-publicised failure, which ended up in British forces standing on the sidelines while the Americans came in and rescued Basra from the religious militias our commanders and politicians had cheerfully handed it to a few months earlier. At most, the British press patriotically declined to make much of our pitiful national performance, preferring to take mostly at face value the government's claims of a job well done. It's undoubtedly true, though, that the six-year long operation, which began with lies and finished up with the new government of "liberated" Iraq barely able to conceal its disdain for Britain's much vaunted military valour, was not among our finest hours.

Iraq itself, though, hasn't turned out too badly. True, it remains one of the world's most unstable and troubled countries. Over the past few days there has been a spate of lethal suicide attacks, killing around 150. Full-scale civil war, however, seems to have been avoided and it is at least possible to see Iraq slowly returning to a state of dull normality. In which case, history's verdict on the invasion may turn out to be less harsh than reaction at the time. Though it is hard to see the British role in it attracting much praise.

But what of Afghanistan? Booker thinks that this, too, is becoming an under-publicised disaster, from which once again we are having to be extricated by the Yanks. He writes:

In March 2006, our forces were deployed to take responsibility for the southern province of Helmand. Again and again they have taken some town from the Taliban and then been forced to abandon it, and American troops have had to be called in to retake it, with or without British assistance.

In December 2007, the US provided the bulk of the troops and assets needed to retake Musa Qala. In April 2008, the US Marines retook Garmsir. This month the Marines retook Nowzad and, although no formal announcement has been made, it seems that the US forces under General David Petraeus, architect of the famous Iraq "surge", have taken over responsibility for much of Helmand.

Britain's ability to operate independently in this part of the world, or any other, is a relatively parochial consideration, however. What it really shows is that it has become impossible to hold the line using the relatively few and (by comparison with US forces) woefully under-equipped men available to the British army. This is a high-intensity but spatially diffuse conflict, with increasingly unclear and even contradictory goals. It is questionable whether even the Americans will be able to "win" it, in any manner in which victory can readily be distinguished from defeat. Hitherto, the news management arm of the Ministry of Defence has shown itself far more adept at propaganda on the home front (as seen, for example, in last year's heartwarming deployment of Prince Harry), than in defeating the Taliban. But sooner or later it is bound to meet reality. The result will, for everyone concerned, be traumatic indeed.

The most serious problem, ironically, is that Afghanistan is a "popular" war. By contrast with the misbegotten adventure in Iraq, military intervention in Afghanistan was uncontroversial to begin with and has retained a large measure of public and cross-party support. On Friday's Newsnight Review, Tory spokesman Michael Gove - discussing a sequence of Afghan-themed plays showing at the Tricycle Theatre - remarked that "no-one could leave" the performance without concluding that going into the country was "the right thing to do". And this despite the Lefty bias of the theatre's general output. One of the most cogent criticisms of the Iraq war, indeed, is that it diverted attention from the far more worthwhile job of rebuilding Afghanistan.

There are several reasons for this general support. There have been notable acts of heroism to celebrate. Above all, the narrative - if not the actual situation - is straightforward. There's an easily-identifiable "evil", in the form of the oppressive, women-hating, alien-looking Taliban. If any group of people may be said to represent the opposite of everything we believe in, from feminism to shaving, it's the Talibs. There's nothing obviously in it for us, either. It can hardly be said to be about oil.

The suppression of heroin production is sometimes invoked in defence of the action, and Gordon Brown, like other politicians and security sources, has repeatedly if improbably claimed that setting up camp in Helmand is the best way of keeping terrorism off the streets of Dewsbury or Luton. But such justification sounds feeble, and perhaps it is intended to. We believe, rightly or wrongly, that we are in Afghanistan to help Afghan girls go to school. Since our cause is just, it seems almost self-evident that we will prevail. At first, too, everything seemed to be going well. The Taliban were quickly defeated, or simply melted away, amid scenes of jubilation. That first impression of success has proved tenacious, even as the settlement has slowly unravelled.

If ever a foreign adventure deserved to succeed, this one does. But morality and military success are very different things, and after almost eight years of continuous fighting the gains made in Afghanistan look more fragile than ever. To walk away would be humiliating, shameful - and would be to take away from the Afghans at least some of the progress that has been achieved. But that progress, looked at objectively, has been modest, hardly worth the cost in lives or money. The realities on the ground must ultimately trump the idealism in which they have become lost. So too, in the present straitened financial climate, must the cost. The mission in Afghanistan cost the Treasury £2.6 billion last year. The Americans, it need hardly be said, are spending far more. Such expenditure is neither justified nor sustainable.

There was always moral ambiguity to Western policy in Afghanistan. The initial defeat of the Taliban came only with the help of warlords and gangsters, many of whom found themselves in power. Corruption, from the start, was rife. And troubling facts keep emerging. The West's hand-picked president Karzai shows himself willing to do deals with the Taliban and other extreme religious conservatives - most recently signing into law measures which have widely been summarised as "legalising rape in marriage". A young student journalist was sentenced to twenty years for "blasphemy" after distributing a pamphlet about women's rights. Prisons still house rape victims and women fleeing abusive marriages. The legal system is an international scandal. It is several years since George W. Bush, with characteristic overstatement, claimed that Afghan women were "free". Today Christina Lamb can write:

In the past three years, going back and forth to Afghanistan, I have watched the situation for women deteriorate. Many of the new girls’ schools have been burnt down. According to the education ministry, 122 school buildings were blown up or burnt down in the past year and another 651 schools forced to close owing to lack of security. Last November acid was thrown in the faces of 15 girls and teachers going to school in Kandahar. Two months earlier, the city’s top policewoman, Malalai Kakar, was gunned down with her son. One of the country’s best-known actresses fled to Pakistan after her husband was shot dead, and two weeks ago a female-rights activist was murdered in broad daylight outside her house.

Malalai Joya, a young woman MP who criticised warlords, was suspended from parliament and now lives in hiding, protected by five gunmen. Last November she shocked a London audience by declaring that the situation for women in Afghanistan is now worse than it was under the Taliban.

Heartbreaking. But also proof that however noble our Afghan policy may seem, it is futile.

Our soldiers continue to die: announcements of their deaths have become routine features of news bulletins and Prime Minister's Questions. The Royal Marines' 45 Commando, who returned from a six month tour in Helmand last week, suffered a fatality or serious injury every three days. A minister described the fighting they had endured as the most intense since World War II. And to what end? The Taliban have evidently not been defeated, nor are they on the brink of defeat: instead, they are advancing further into Pakistan almost by the day.

More generally, the evils against which we were supposed to be campaigning are little diminished. Nor should this come as a surprise. The Taliban didn't invent poppy cultivation, burqas or child marriage. The modern world has never penetrated beyond major cities such as Kabul. Afghanistan is too vast a country, too decentralised, for foreign intervention to transform. And history gives stern warnings to any foreign state that would dare make the attempt. The Russians failed, though they came in greater numbers and had more local support. So will we - despite the Obama administration's determination to pour yet more resources into the unwinnable war. But when the time comes to slink away few will notice. We will be too busy trying to rescue Pakistan.

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Friday, 24 April 2009

In which the Heresiarch supports Tony Blair

The first and most surprising thing I have to say about Tony Blair's speech in Chicago yesterday is that I agreed with much of it. It is easy to mock Blair the Faith obsessive, pumped full of hubris, still justifying foreign interventions, such as that in Iraq, despite the terrible consequences with which we are all familiar. Easy, too, to take apart the vacuousness of his whole faith "project", his belief that religious dialogue will somehow prove central to 21st century politics, his presumptuous chiding of the Pope for neglecting the "core vote", or his hypocrisy is talking about inter-religious harmony while he implemented, under the slogan "war on terror", policies that did far more to divide than to unite the world community. I have said it before, and will no doubt say it again. Not today, though. To day I come to praise Tony, not to bury him. For the most part, anyway.

I know, that doesn't sound like the Heresiarch you're used to. But what else can one say faced with insights of blinding clarity like this?

Of course, each arena of conflict has its own particular characteristics, its own origins in political or territorial disputes, its own claims and counter-claims of injustice. Of course the solution in each case will be in many respects different. But it is time to wrench ourselves out of a state of denial. There is one major factor in common. In each conflict there are those deeply engaged in it, who argue that they are fighting in the true name of Islam.

"War on terror" has never been a very helpful phrase, both because it is nonsensical (terrorism is not even an ideology, it's a technique) and because it conflates very different things, from violent insurgency in Afghanistan or Pakistan - civil war, almost - to the vain delusions of a handful of nutty daydreamers and frustrated adolescents in Bradford. Yet it is equally absurd to try and pretend, as some do, that the religious presumptions of the Islamists are incidental or contingent to their basically political aims.

Religion, belief that what they are seeking to do is the will of God - and the self-righteousness and fervant motivation that it brings with it - this is what drives the Islamist movement. They offer certainty in an uncertain world, hope to the hopeless, power to the powerless.

Yes, they are delusional. Yes, their desire to return the world to an imagined medieval paradise is stupid and reactionary. Yes (as Blair also admits) the principal victims of their rabid ideology are Muslims living in Muslim countries. But that's not the point. Their beliefs are honest and deeply-felt. Their movement is longstanding and successful. They represent the most dynamic, coherent and (via Saudi Arabia) most well-funded stream of Islam today. That is why they have not just proved immune to the "war on terror", they have thrived on it.

Blair again:

This didn't start on 11th September 2001, or shortly before it. The roots aren't near the surface. It was in the 1970s that Pakistan's leadership decided to re-define itself through religious conviction. The storming of the Holy Mosque in Mecca took place years ago. Al Qaida began in earnest in the 1980s. In many Arab and Muslim nations, there was more tolerance and less religiosity in the 1960s, than today. The doctrinal roots of this growing movement can be traced even further back to the period in the late 19th and early 20th century where modernising and moderate clerics and thinkers were slowly but surely pushed aside by the hard-line dogma of those, whose cultural and theological credentials were often dubious, but whose appeal lay in the simplicity of the message.

Blair correctly notes that the chief targets of Islamists are the rulers of Muslim countries. This is no "clash of civilisations". It is, rather, a clash within a civilisation. We in the West suffer, at most, from the leakage of this intra-Islamic clash - because of the support the US and other western countries provide for the corrupt and undemocratic rulers of Muslim majority countries, and because of the presence of increasing Muslim minorities within western countries, above all in Europe. The cry that "they hate our way of life", heard so often from George W Bush, is rather beside the point. They despise our way of life. Their religious leadership sermonise against our decadence, the tawdry, pornified culture which they can contrast with the purity of patriarchal respect that is their societal ideal, the booze and the trash television which is, in their considered opinion, all that western civilisation has to offer. But their ostentatious dislike of the West does not mean that they wish to destroy us, merely that they do not want our decadence to pollute their countries. Really, it's not about us, it's about them.

Blair's main purpose in this speech was to restate the case for intervention against these forces, both by opposing them militarily and by working with those who "who believe deeply in Islam but also who believe in peaceful co-existence". The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the speech he made ten years ago in the same city on the same theme. That earlier oration ought to be compulsory reading for anyone who still believes that he took Britain into war with Iraq merely as George W Bush's poodle. He was among the principal cheerleaders. That he pushed so hard for UN authorisation was the result not of his doubts but in his deep belief in international intervention, argued for most clearly in the original Chicago speech and in the speech he made to the Labour party conference in the aftermath of 9/11. "I still believe that those who oppress and brutalise their citizens are better put out of power than kept in it," he says now, utterly unrepentent.

On diagnosing the source of the terror threat in a significant, indeed spreading, interpretation of Islam, Tony Blair is right. He is also right to note that the Islamist movement has "successfully inculcated a sense of victimhood in the Islamic world, that stretches far beyond the extremes":

So powerful has this become that it has severely warped the debate even in many parts of the non-Islamic world, where frequently commentators, while naturally condemning the terrorism, nevertheless imply that, to an extent, the West's foreign policy has helped 'cause' it.

This masochistic desire to abase ourselves before the extremists, to refuse to stand up for our basic principles of morality and human rights, to self-flagellate every time someone else attacks us, this self-hatred, is especially pervasive on the political Left, and (for some reason) in the security services. From the pro-Hamas ramblings of Seumas Milne at the Guardian to ex-spook Alastair Crooke's Conflicts Forum, which aims to "recognise resistance", this type of thinking is dangerously prevalent. And the principal victims of this moral defeatism, of course, are the progressive forces within Islam. As Blair stresses, "the responsibility for terrorism lies with the terrorist and no-one else. This has to be proclaimed vigorously by us; but also upheld and shouted from the rooftops from within Islam itself."

Blair goes on to criticise "the delusion of believing that there is any alternative to waging this struggle to its conclusion".

The ideology we are fighting is not based on justice. That is a cause we can understand. And world-wide these groups are adept, certainly, at using causes that indeed are about justice, like Palestine. Their cause, at its core, however, is not about the pursuit of values that we can relate to; but in pursuit of values that directly contradict our way of life. They don't believe in democracy, equality or freedom. They will espouse, tactically, any of these values if necessary. But at heart what they want is a society and state run on their view of Islam. They are not pluralists. They are the antithesis of pluralism.

When someone of Blair's prominence points this out, we should welcome it.

That does not, however, mean that the interventionist foreign policy associated with the Blair/Bush years is the correct way to deal with the threat. The situation in Afghanistan and, increasingly, in Pakistan suggests the opposite.

Blair being Blair, of course, he is unable to stop there. He goes on to redefine Islam in his own image, and expect Muslims to follow his lead. He says:

The tragedy of this is that the authentic basis of Islam, as laid down in the Qur'an, is progressive, humanitarian, sees knowledge and scientific advance as a duty, which is why for centuries Islam was the fount of so much invention and innovation. Fundamental Islam is actually the opposite of what the extremists preach.

This is where Tonly Blair and I, after that brief unaccustomed agreement, part company. Blair's enthusiasm for Islam - coupled with the belief that he is better able to define its true nature than the majority of the world's Muslims, including most leading Islamic clerics - is one of the most puzzling aspects of his admittedly very strange psychology. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he appears to believe that Islam is little more than a theological interpretation of New Labour. Has he not noticed the intense pressure coming from the governments of the Islamist Conference to make criticism of Islam an international crime comparable to genocide or torture? Few of them are dominated by Islamists.

Blair always makes a great deal of his reading of the Koran, and the inspiration he finds in it. In his recent interview with Johann Hari for a gay magazine, which became notorious for its criticism of the Pope, he described the Koran as "an extraordinary, progressive – revolutionarily progressive – document for its time". I, too, have attempted to read the Koran, but I cannot find the enlightened modernity praised by Blair. Far from it.

I won't trot out the violent verses that, taken out of context, provide ammunition for jihadists and Islamophobes alike. The Koran isn't all, or even mainly, a call to religious violence. But to view it as some sort of leftist-liberal manifesto is utterly absurd. It is both ignorant and unfair to the Koran itself, which is very clear about its own priorities. It presents itself as a return to the pure faith of Abraham. It addresses itself to the Arabs, who are exhorted to turn away from paganism and submit to Allah. But it also contains strong critiques of both Judaism and Christianity: theological, rather than social, critiques.

Needless to say, there are good principles to be found there. But I've never read in the Koran anything that wasn't said, much better, a thousand years before. What has Blair discovered? His enthusiasm for Islam goes far beyond the niceties of interfaith dialogue. Nor does he seem to have equally awestruck reverence for any other religion, even his own. Blair sees in the Koran things that no-one else, Muslim or otherwise, has ever been able to detect there, or wanted to. It's weird.

But now I seem to be embarked on my usual Blair-bashing. And I promised I wouldn't. So I'll leave you with this thought, which I can wholeheartedly endorse:

We have to re-discover some confidence and conviction in who we are, how far we've come and what we believe in. By the way, I think this even about the economic crisis. It is severe. It's going to be really, really hard. But we will get through it and not by abandoning the market or open economic system but by learning our lessons and adjusting the system in a way that makes it better. But on any basis, this system has delivered amazing leaps forward in prosperity for our citizens and we shouldn't, amongst the gloom, forget it.

I never thought I'd say it, but I could almost learn to love Tony.
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Thursday, 23 April 2009

Where did it all go?

On the Today programme this morning, Alastair Darling was practically boasting that public expenditure today was three times what it was in 1997. Three times! No wonder that even after years of stealth taxes the budget deficit stands as £175 billion and the national debt is spiralling towards Italian levels. Most worryingly of all, perhaps, most of the deficit is said to be structural. It will not disappear with the return of growth. It may never disappear.

Is the NHS three times better than it was a decade ago? Are school leavers three times better educated? (They may well have three times as many A-grades, but that's not quite the same thing.) Does the Royal Navy have three times as many ships? (Closer to a third, I fear; it does, though, have a lot more admirals.) Are there three times as many dentists? There might have been; and they might have offered their services free, too, if the government had had the vision to make it happen. But in this, as in much else, there has been no vision, just a vast and unaccountable profligacy. Spending on the NHS has been astonishingly lavish, but it has been expenditure without care or thought: spending in itself, rather than actual improvement, seems to have been the aim. Never in history can so much money have been spent to achieve so little real benefit.

Where has all the money gone? Everywhere and nowhere. Vast sums have simply vanished into the ether, from the loss sustained when Gordon Brown sold off the national gold reserves at the bottom of the market to the billions poured into rescuing insolvent banks. More billions were meekly surrendered to Brussels when Tony Blair handed over the long-standing British rebate. But more, much more, has been deliberately and systematically wasted. It has gone on lavish capital expenditure projects - shinily rebuilt schools and hospital wards that may look impressive but are often unnecessary. It has gone on enormously increased salaries for doctors and other public sector workers. It has gone on newly-invented jobs without which society managed perfectly happily for centuries and which only exist because the government decreed them into existence. It has gone on advertising such posts in the Guardian. It has gone on "awareness campaigns". Government spending on advertising has more than quadrupled since Labour came to power. Without the public sector, large parts of the advertising industry would disappear.

It has gone on fake charities. It has gone on ruinously expensive, philosophically objectionable and inefficient IT projects, including the ID register and its siblings, the NHS spine (£12.7bn and rising) and ContactPoint. It has gone on employing armies of people to enforce EU regulations that other EU countries are happy to print and ignore. It has gone on over-generous pensions for government employees. It has gone on complicated cash-recycling schemes such as "tax credits", which expensively return their own money to people cunningly disguised as government largesse. £3.5 billion has gone on fighting a war against domestic terrorists so few in number they could safely be ignored. A billion pounds were spent on a useless Dome. At least ten billion will be spent on an equally useless Olympics. Then there were Blair's wars, which continue, at huge expense and for little obvious return, in Afghanistan.

It has gone on paperwork, targets, and the consultants whose recommendations often seem to include the need for more consultants. In 1995, the then Tory government spent rather more than £100 million on management consultants, a figure that was widely considered ridiculously large. By 2005-6, the figure was £2.8 billion. Almost thirty times as much. Why? What has all this money achieved? Terminating the contracts of all government-employed management consultants would instantly remove almost £3 billion from the national debt. It would be a start.

It has, not to put too fine a point on it, been wasted. Not all of it, of course: with so much money being splashed around it would be remarkable indeed if some improvements had not been achieved. But there is still huge public dissatisfaction at the state of the NHS, schools or the police. Money has been spent out of all proportion to the returns made. The squandering of resources is difficult to comprehend. The recession has revealed in stark terms the cost to the national finances of all this public expenditure. But the recession did not cause this crisis. A binge-spending, obese state is wholly and entirely to blame. It would not have occurred under the Conservatives. New Labour has taxed and spent, and it has borrowed and spent. But, what is far, far worse, it has not spent most of this money to our collective advantage.

A government that had the will to turn off the taps on all these wasteful projects and unproductive employees would find itself suddenly in the black. This would, perhaps, be indefensibly brutal, even ruinous, since so many jobs, and so much of the economy, is now dependent on the state. When Labour came to power, not much more than a third of the British economy depended directly on the state. Today it is almost half. We are fast returning to the nationalised state of the 1970s - with the difference that, sclerotic, unproductive and useless the old state industries undoubtedly were, they did at least make something. Today's state-dependent economy pretends to productivity but is actively parasitical, hollowing out and devouring its host.

It has become a commonplace to claim that Britain is "living beyond its means". But it is the government that is living beyond its means - or, to be more accurate, beyond our means. No wonder they are yearning for the Opposition benches. It's almost worth putting them back in power just so they are forced to clean up their own mess.
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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Terror Travesty

And so, once more, a high-profile counter-terrorism operation ends inconclusively, with the suspects released without charge. This time, at least, since most of those arrested came from Pakistan, the authorities can salvage some face by having them deported. The mere fact that they were suspected of terrorist sympathies is, after all, grounds enough for their removal from the country. Evidence, happily, is not required. Even so, this ought to be a huge embarrassment for everyone involved. And not just the police.

The raids on April 8th took place, we were assured at the time, only a few hours before they otherwise would have done had not Blundering Bob Quick walked into Number Ten with the names and addresses of the suspects tucked conspicuously underneath his arm. Gordon Brown himself publicly hailed the raids, unconcerned by any considerations of prejudice (perhaps he knew there was unlikely to be any trial, or perhaps, more likely, our rulers no longer care about unimportant trifles such as due process or the presumption of innocence). "We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot" he announced. "We have been following it for some time". Over then next couple of days, the usual police sources fed tasty morsels to the media who, as ever, repeated it without question though occasionally with embellishments of their own.

The terrorists, it was said, had been planning an Easter spectacular, an atrocity as bad as or worse than 7/7, and certainly involving more people. A nightclub was singled out as a possible target - as a "symbol of western decadence", needless to say - as was a shopping centre. The Sun's police source called the arrests "the most significant for some time":

Intelligence sources believe the Trafford Centre and a huge Manchester nightclub called The Birdcage were being eyed-up by the gang. And today it emerged that two other major shopping areas in Manchester had also been under observation.

The Arndale Centre and St Ann's Square — both in the heart of the city — had been visited by some of the suspects. A police source said: "Any explosive device going off in any of these areas could have caused carnage. These are among the busiest shopping areas in the North of England."

They had been visiting a shopping centre? That sounds mightily suspicious.

The Guardian, confusingly, quoted sources who denied that either the shopping centre or the nightclub were the target. Nevertheless, according to their report, "sources with knowledge of the investigation" believed that the execution of an "al-Qaida driven" plot was "imminent". It would be "highly ambitious", a "big attack". It threatened to cause "mass casualities".

Over the next few days more shocking details emerged. There were hints that some of the accused might have been seen taking photographs. The Mail "revealed" that "Members of the alleged Al Qaeda cell suspected of plotting a Bank Holiday terror atrocity worked for a firm based at Manchester Airport. At least one drove vans for a cargo company which has access to sensitive locations." One of the addresses raided, moreover, was being investigated as "a possible bomb factory". The Sun provided the rest:

COPS searching the homes of 11 terror suspects have seized bags of sugar — a common ingredient in home-made bombs...Scientists were last night analysing it to determine if it was a secret bomb ingredient.

Pretty thin stuff. And by the time the suspects were "released" yesterday few will have been surprised the investigation went nowhere. At most, any "plot" must have been at the very earliest stages of planning. Claims of an Easter bombing campaign were simply untrue.

We have been here before. We will go there again, I have no doubt. The Mail is now describing the raid as a "fiasco" and a "humiliating setback for the police". Inayat Bunglawala was denouncing the authorities on Radio 4 this morning, and again on CIF, accusing ministers of "smearing" the suspects. The allegedly independent Lord Carlile was being asked to review the operation. All this comes at the end of a terrible few days for the police, and indeed for New Labour.

But what of the media's own role in all this? Yet again, all sections of the press and broadcast media, from the Guardian and the BBC at one end of the ideological spectrum to the Mail and the Sun at the other, have been happy to regurgitate, no questions asked, whatever nonsense they have been fed by police and security "sources" or, what is worse, by government spinners. They must, surely, realise by now that all these "sources" have a pronounced tendency to exaggerate wildly both the strength of the evidence and the seriousness of the imagined plot. Of course, tales of mayhem narrowly avoided make for good copy. They also play into the hands of those who demand ever more draconian laws and ever larger sums of money to be wasted on "protecting" us from the negligible threat of terrorism.

The BBC reports today that the annual counter-terrorism budget has now reached some £3.5 billion - spent on such activities as redesigning public building to preclude notional suicide bombers in cars driving into them. How many lives have actually been saved by such vast expenditure? A few dozen? A hundred? I can think of much better uses for the money - especially on Budget Day when we were reminded in stark terms of the unprecedented size of the national debt. Why not take that £3.5 billion away from the security freaks and spend it on, say, cancer research? After all, it's cancer, not terrorism, that really kills people.
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Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Shakespeare in Court

One of the many ways in which the United States remains - at least from the perspective of this side of the Atlantic - gloriously, unrepentantly old-fashioned is in its lack of a mandatory retirement age for senior judges. The result - combined with the divisively political nature of the nomination process, which encourages incumbents out of sympathy with the administration to cling on as long as possible - is that the Supreme Court often boasts some very elderly judges. The oldest ever was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was finally persuaded to go by his colleagues at the age of ninety. Today's longest-serving member of the bench is Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 88. The court's veteran liberal, he is likely to hang up his gown very soon, having achieved his aim of surviving the Bush administration. In the meantime, according to Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, he has been worrying about the true authorship of the works of Shakespeare.

Stevens is one of that relatively small but persistent band who doubt that a glovemaker's son from Stratford upon Avon wrote Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or even The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He has been on the case for more than twenty years, ever since he took part in a mock trial of the authorship question, and found no conclusive evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Which may, of course, simply mean that the rules of evidence developed for use in courts are of no more use in deciding questions of historical fact than in resolving scientific questions. He now says that it is "beyond reasonable doubt" that William Shakespeare did not write the plays. Instead, he is one of that small but determined band of literary heretics convinced that the plays were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford - a theory first put forward by a certain Mr JT Looney.

The report claims that "several justices across the court's ideological spectrum say he may be right". In fact, the only serving judge prepared to go on the record as agreeing with his view on the matter is the arch-conservative Antonin Scalia. I can't imagine they agree on much else. Scalia thinks it unlikely that the plays could have been written by someone from Shakespeare's comparatively humble background. With his usual decisiveness, he asserts that "pro-Shakespearean people are affected by a democratic bias". Stevens, meanwhile, compares the conventional story to belief in Santa Claus.

Stevens also claims that retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor ("Swinging Sandra", the legal weathercock who handed the presidency to George W Bush back in 2000) shared his doubts about Will. One who doesn't, Justice Anthony Kennedy, thought it a reflection of Stevens' "influence and power" that only two of the nine were prepared publicly to support the traditional view of Shakespeare's identity. Most, including Chief Justice Roberts, either declined to comment or proclaimed their ignorance.

The clincher for Stevens was the curious absence of books in Shakespeare's house in Stratford. "Where are the books?" he asks. "You can't be a scholar of that depth and not have any books in your home". I suspect he overlooks the very different culture of Elizabethan England, where education entailed memorising large chunks of literature. Only the very wealthy had large libraries. As for de Vere's claims to authorship, His Honor points to his interesting connections:

Justice Stevens mentions that Lord Burghley, guardian of the young de Vere, is generally accepted as the model for the courtier Polonius in "Hamlet." "Burghley was the No. 1 adviser to the queen," says the justice. "De Vere married [Burghley's] daughter, which fits in with Hamlet marrying Polonius's daughter, Ophelia."

What? Hamlet married Ophelia? When did that happen? No-one invited me.

This isn't the place to rehash all the arguments over authorship, and I have neither the expertise nor the desire to do so. I would just mention that, like all conspiracy theories (which is basically what they are) alternative authorship theories are more or less unfalsifiable. When expected evidence doesn't turn up, or seems to point in a contrary direction, that doesn't deter the true believer at all. There's a good example of this with Stevens:

Justice Stevens can indulge his love of the Bard at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a block from the Supreme Court. He says he had a particular brainstorm after learning the library held a Bible that once belonged to de Vere.

"In two of the plays Shakespeare has an incident using the bed trick, in which the man is not aware of the identity of the woman he's sleeping with," Justice Stevens says, referring to "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Measure for Measure." "And there's an incident in the Old Testament where the same event allegedly occurred."

Justice Stevens says he reasoned that if de Vere had borrowed the escapade from his Bible, "he would have underlined those portions of it. So I went over once to ask them to dig out the Bible."

Unfortunately, the passage involving the substitution of Leah for Rachel in Jacob's bed, Genesis 29:23, was not marked. "I really thought I might have stumbled onto something that would be a very strong coincidence," Justice Stevens says. "But it did not develop at all."

To be fair to de Vere, people in those days were sufficiently familiar with the Bible to know these stories by heart - and I'm not sure it was the done thing to deface Bibles by underlining passages useful for purely secular purposes.

The job of a judge, of course, is to weigh evidence and come to impartial conclusions regardless of prejudice or vested interests - a calling that the Supreme Court Justices have always performed with distinction. The vast majority of scholars think the Oxford theory is complete bunkum, but that in itself is no reason to doubt the cogency of Stevens' reasoning, or to wish him a speedy retirement.
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Monday, 20 April 2009

Georgia on my mind

You won't need me to tell you that the Labour party is in a bad way at the moment. Perhaps they've already written off the next election. Jackie Ashley of the Graun - who has stuck by Labour as loyally as she has stuck by Andrew Marr, despite having very good reasons not to - compares the party to the crew of a doomed vessel about to go over a huge waterfall. "Ministers no longer hope their boat will survive; now it's a question of who bobs up, amid the wreckage, after the white water."

So thoughts turn, as well they might, to the long-term: not just what will happen to the People's Party after the expected drubbing at the next election (assuming there is one, of course) but after the years of Opposition that lie ahead. It is in this light, I think, that we have to regard the row over the Hon. Georgia Gould, a 22 year old New Labour princess whose campaign for a "safe" south London seat (if such a thing still exists) is now sorting the Blairs from the Browns as in those saintly days of yore.

The Honourable Georgia is very young, of course. Yet her credentials to represent the good people of Erith and Thamesmead could only be doubted by the most churlish, or politically vindictive, old sod. The daughter of Tony Blair's long-standing polling guru Lord (Philip) Gould, she also has the strong backing of Tessa Jowell and has taken the trouble to lay out her wares in a lavishly-produced brochure. Which just goes to show how seriously she's taking it. According to Alastair Campbell, she is "a wonderful young woman of deep values and convictions, and whose dedication to Labour and progressive causes matches that of anyone I know". She went to Oxford (always a positive in my book). She has a holiday job with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. And she's blonde. What's not to like?

She might even be a political megastar, a Maggie in the making whose relationship to one of Tony Blair's closest political advisers had no bearing whatever on the speed of her ascent. That would seem to be Alastair Campbell's opinion: it was reported a few weeks ago that he rang up at least one local activist to claim ("ludicrously", thinks Kevin Maguire) that she is being spoken of as a future prime minister. She is undoubtedly fortunate in her connections, but the fact that most others have not had the opportunity she has does not mean that she doesn't deserve that opportunity; merely that, as Thomas Gray so wisely said all those years ago, full many a rose is born to blush unseen. Including, no doubt, many Labour roses.

And while she may be a blushing rose, Georgia's no shrinking violet. Nor does her membership of the New Labour aristocracy imply that she will be any kind of pushover. Almost six years ago, reported the Independent on Sunday, 16 year old Georgia told then education minister Margaret Hodge - to her face - that AS levels were "confusing".

Miss Gould and [her friend] Miss Birtles are in the lower sixth of the comprehensive Camden School for Girls in north London, and live with their parents near Fiona Millar and her partner, Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell. Camden School has been popular with Labour image-makers, who have used it to highlight new education initiatives.

Miss Gould, who will be head girl next year, told the minister: "AS-levels create this stress and pressure, meaning you cannot enjoy your subject or read around it. It's all about exam technique and about preparing for these exams."

An obvious point, perhaps, even a conventional one. But there's little to deny its truth. Who knows, with this sort of coalface experience she may, in politics, be able to do something about it. It should certainly disabuse sceptics of the idea that Gould has no knowledge of life at the grassroots, at least in the educational system. Which is, as Mr Blair used to say before he got obsessed with faith and war, what it's all about.

Miss Gould continued: "I haven't read a book that's not directly related to the topics I'll be taking my exams on for ages. I had to give up judo because of my GCSEs and now there is just no time to do anything else but work. To me, the sixth form should be about enjoying my subjects, not just about exams."

Not having read broadly didn't prevent her getting into Oxford, it would seem. Any dons reading this, take note.

But does her relative lack of experience matter? The notion that Georgia Gould is "too young" to be an MP is a strange one. At 22, she is not too young to be a barrister, or a junior doctor - the latter a far more serious and responsible job than being a backbench MP, which these days brings with it little more real power than a seat on a local council, though perhaps with a more generous expenses allowance. Was Alexander the Great "too young", at eighteen, to have embarked upon the conquest of Persia? Was Henry VIII too young, at seventeen, to have become king? (Probably). Is Georgia too young to walk into a division lobby? Too young to ask a Parliamentary question that has been written for her by the whips? True, she lacks great experience of life outside the rarefied worlds of Oxford University and Tony Blair's Faith Foundation - but so do many others, who get into Parliament after a few years of spinning, character assassination and figure-adjustment as a "special adviser" or lobbyist. It is, perhaps, an advantage not to have wasted several years of your life thus, more out of contact with the world outside politics than a constituency MP can ever be.

Ah, you think, but we need politicians with "more experience of life" so that they can adequately represent their constituents. A New Statesman article raised this issue a couple of week ago. "What we really need" wrote Nick Greenslade "is people with experience outside the London media bubble." But that, of course, is not necessarily a question of age. There are many people twice Georgia's age who have little or no experience of life outside the London media bubble. Some of them are in the cabinet.

How can you empathise with your constituents’ job insecurity if you have never had a job to lose? Similarly, no elected representative can truly understand the significance of rising fuel and food prices and the importance of interest rates if he or she is still living at home and has never had a mortgage or the responsibility of running a household budget.

A hundred years ago, such arguments might have been - were - raised against giving the vote to women, few of whom had outside jobs or were responsible for paying the mortgage.

Georgia Gould may, for all we know, be a 21st century William Pitt the Younger - who only got into public life at such a strikingly young age, needless to say, because he, too, was very well-connected (his father being, erm, Pitt the Elder). It was normal in the 18th and early 19th centuries for ambitious young men to make their Parliamentary debut not long after their 21st birthday, a precocity made possible not merely by the eternal mechanics of nepotism and string-pulling but, more specifically, because of the rotten nature of the pre-Reform Act House of Commons, in which a substantial number of seats were at the disposal of wealthy landowners or political power-brokers. These days, as the Guardian's John Harris put it, "It is one of the more convenient results of Labour's hollowing-out that to become a parliamentary candidate in even a traditional stronghold, you need only face an ever-smaller selectorate - in Erith and Thamesmead, it numbers 279 people." But, however objectionable the old system undoubtedly was to democratic sensibilities, it produced Pitt, who saved us from Napoleon.

So perhaps it is time for a novice. Indeed, given the long period of time Labour is likely to spend out of office, so cordially are they are now hated for the disasters that they have wrought upon the country, it may be a good time for a novice. Georgie has as lot of growing up to do and a lot of experience of life and politics to gain: where better to do so than in the hard, unrewarding slog of opposition politics. If Labour get back in again, as presumably they will, then she will be both more experienced and no older than most of her colleagues: in poll position to lead part 2 of the New Labour revolution. You have been warned.
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Friday, 17 April 2009

Free Woolly

Long-term Comment is Free stalwart "Woolly Minded Liberal" has been banned, and his profile erased, for reasons which are far from clear and which the moderators have declined to discuss. On one thread, dozens of comments calling for Woolly's reinstatement have been deleted.

Woolly could be trenchant, even downright rude, at times, and his views on such matters as ID cards were, especially given his choice of moniker, rather strange. But if occasionally predictable he was always razor-sharp and made a valuable, and valued, contribution to debates. He was at his best, perhaps, in the religion threads, where his thoroughgoing scepticism (even about the existence of Jesus) produced some lively responses. A few months ago, Atheist Bus Campaign progenitrix Ariane Sherine thanked him personally for the input he gave in developing the now famous posters.

For anyone suffering from post-Woolly withdrawal symptoms, I've cobbled together some choice Woollyisms.

On the Atheist Bus:

This is more about atheist awareness. It is still impossible to get elected in the USA unless you pretend to have an imaginary friend and its still looked down upon here. Only last year Nick Clegg provoked a media storm by not sounding sufficiently religious.

All over the western world atheists are coming out of the closet and discovering that there are rather more of us than the media pretends.

Good job Ariane. Good job.

Any chance of another project for Darwin's bicentenary? Something along the lines of "If you believe that evolution is only a theory then you are an idiot!"

On journalistic standards:

I am currently enjoying Darrell Huff's book "How to lie with statistics" which was first published back in 1954. Its very dated in some ways, the idea of £30/week being a lot of money for a working man and the use of the word 'Negroe' for Americans with black ancestry (often only some and frequently a lot less than half) does look odd these days. But that isn't what the book is about.

What it is about is depressingly familiar to readers of Ben Goldacre's website and Saturday Guardian column Bad Science - the pisspoor state of journalism. Things were no better in the 1950s it seems, journos were lazy and innumerate back then and just as liable to strip out all meaning from any bit of science or research as they are now. They were at least as prone to sensationalism.

I had to laugh at yesterday's Guardian with its bold striking and deliberately deceptive headline bewailing a 'record fall' in house prices only to discover that it was just the biggest decline since the last one in 1991.

Plus ca change. There never was a Golden Age of responsible or professional journalism. The current generation, with certain exceptions, is it seems somewhat better than those that went before. At least the Guardian has some properly educated types who know a little about science working for it even if they are banished to the 'backwaters' of the Science section.

On the consolations of religion:

The problem is that I don't want the brain-dead rest you offer : I'd be bored in minutes. What I want can't be found in religion, it can only be found in the real world.

Woolly on Woolly:

By a happy coincidence I was thinking on the train this morning about who or what the next New Militant Atheist (CIF Faction) featured Imaginary Sky-Pixie of the week should be and was wondering about nominating myself. So many of the Deluded claim that atheism is a religion (Woolly's Law) that I think it is justified. I was thinking that we should do Richard Dawkins, maybe we will one of these days, but you've tipped the balance.

So there we have it folks, apologies to the abrupt change in the advertised batting order but this weeks Sky Pixie to be militantly disbelieved in is me : WoollyMindedLiberal. The pixie-eating Dawkins Sharks are still a bit peckish so get Disbelieving hench-atheists, militantly now.

Perhaps the mods will relent, or Woolly will sneak back under a different guise. Or perhaps not. Either way, please contribute your thoughts to the Official Heresy Corner WML memorial thread (as recommended, mirabile dictu, by the mods).

Update: You may also be interested in another Woolly-themed discussion over at CIF Refugees
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Being Sarky

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has "managed to insult three of his country's closest allies" during a lunch with French parliamentarians, reports the Telegraph:

Mr Sarkozy, not known for his tact, said US president Barack Obama was “not always up to standard on decision-making or efficiency”, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was “perhaps not very intelligent” while Angela Merkel “had no choice but to come round to my position” when she saw the state of German banks.

But did he have anything, complementary or otherwise, to say about our own Supreme Leader? There's no hint of it. I checked with the website of the French left-wing daily, Libération, where the story was first reported (noticing along the way that the fame of our own frazzle-haired chanteuse Susan Boyle has made it across the channel - an item about her appearing, bizarrely, above a story accusing Sacha Baron Cohen of "sodomising fashion").

I find, first of all, that the slur upon their prime minister has caused a stir in Spain, where Sarko is due on a state visit in less than a fortnight. A right-wing newspaper is quite amused, although one of Z's political opponents finds the president's behaviour not quite the done thing. The full quote reads, rather bizarrely, "Zapatero may not be very intelligent. Me, I know some very intelligent people who didn't make it through to the second round of the presidential election." This is apparently an allusion to Lionel Jospin who was beaten into second place by Jean Marie le Pen in 2002. He then added, mischievously, "I myself have often beaten opponents who were more intelligent and better educated than me." Which is not an admission I would expect to pass the lips of Gordon Brown.

As for the comments about Mrs Merkel, they amounted to little more than what Libération described as "autocongratulation". Sarko's remarks about Obama, meanwhile, were rather more rounded than the Telegraph suggests. Thus he described the president as "very intelligent and charismatic, with a subtle mind" but noted that, due perhaps to his lack of government experience, there were "a number of things on which he has no position". His strongest points were reserved for Obama's stance on CO2 reduction. He told his guests, "I said to him, You've made a speech, but it is necessary to take action." (Tu as fait un discours, il va falloir des actes: note the use of the informal tu, which may represent a significant departure in international relations, unless he's lying about his grammar, which is possible). "Here in Europe, carbon targets are enforced with sanctions", he added sternly. Which is fair comment, although France itself invariably manages to avoid paying.

But if Sarko said anything about the big G, it was not considered sufficiently interesting to be noted down. This despite the fact that discussion at the lunch centred around the G20, which was held in London, and which Gordon Brown used as an opportunity to pose as "Chancellor of the World" (© Nick Robinson) and grand impresario of the coming world recovery. Our prime minister, it seems, merits not even the passing tribute of a sigh. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The smearer smeared

You have to feel just a little bit sorry for Damian McBride. And not merely because, at 34, the balding, florid-faced erstwhile "special adviser" doesn't look a day under fifty. No - he has suffered the fate of hired assassins throughout history. He was dispensable. Indeed, the more effectively he did his job, the more dispensable he became. Today's "apology" by Gordon Brown - timed, perhaps, to coincide with the news that Damian Green has no case to answer (thus splitting the difference between two embarrassing stories) - did contain the looked-for enunciation of the s-word, but apart from that was a typically Brownian lesson in evasiveness. "I was horrified, I was shocked and I was very angry indeed" he claimed. As no doubt he was. But whether his was most shocked at the content of the emails or the fact that they were leaked is less clear. This was the best line:

"I take full responsibility for what happened. That's why the person who was responsible went."

Logically, that constitutes a prime ministerial resignation statement. But the last time I checked Gordon wasn't en route to see the queen. Persumably what he was taking personal responsibility for - claiming responsibility for, more like - was sacking McBride. That's actually quite big of him, because when it was first put about that Smeargate's main man was departing Downing Street the story was that he was resigning out of his own sense of decency and contrition. Indeed, early reports indicated that the PM spent most of Saturday trying to work out a way of saving McBride's blotchy skin, so central was he perceived to be to Team Brown. But now Gordon wants everyone to know that it was he who first, loudest and definitively insisted that Damian must go. It was even stressed that McBride would not be entitled to a "severance package" (unlike, for example, Blundering Bob Quick, who would surely be under pressure to resign today, had he not conveniently had to go last week).

Since then, until this morning's prime ministerial "apology", the line has been consistent. McBride represented a culture of spin and smearing that has "no place in politics" (despite the overwhelmingly dominant place such tactics have had in British politics for more than a decade). He acted entirely alone. No-one else (apart from his colleague in villainy, Derek Draper, who has also been shunned) knew anything about it, or would have tolerated it if they had. (Really?) Indeed, his actions represent the polar opposite of everything Gordon stands for and has been labouring to achieve - all those "values" he keeps going on about, presumably.

Call him what you like - thug, bully, mud-slinger, symbol of everything that is most lamentable and pernicious about modern political culture - one thing that has never been in doubt is McBride's ferocious loyalty to his boss, a man for whom he was willing to do practically anything. He smeared Brown's opponents and possible rivals within the Labour party, he fabricated scandals (according to Boris Johnson the other day, the Myra Hindley row that overshadowed the launch of the London Olympics last year was one of his), he kept the press pack on their toes. By the look of him, the strain seriously damaged his health. It may even (hints Guido, not to mention McBride's own raddled complexion) have driven him to drink. And his reward? The bodyguard's privilege of dying in a hail of bullets aimed at someone else. Undying ingratitude. Journalists who once trembled at his every utterance will now cross the street to avoid is gaze.

I am often reminded, at times like this, at one of the more memorable passages from Machiavelli's The Prince:

When Cesare Borgia occupied the Romagna he found it under the rule of weak masters, who rather plundered their subjects than ruled them, and gave them more cause for disunion than for union, so that the country was full of robbery, quarrels, and every kind of violence; and so, wishing to bring back peace and obedience to authority, he considered it necessary to give it a good governor. Thereupon he promoted Ramiro de Lorqua, a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power. This man in a short time restored peace and unity with the greatest success. ...And because he knew that the severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the unscrupulous character of his minister. Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to executed and the two parts of his body laid out on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.

No severed head or bloody knife for Damian McBride, of course, but the principle is the same.
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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

His master's voice

Ed Husain, currently the government's top go-to guy for all things "Muslim", is at it again. The celebrity ex-Islamist, whose Quilliam Foundation is almost exclusively funded by the government, is hosting an "event" on the subject Britishness. Visitors to the new-look Quilliam site are now greeted by a fluttering union jack linking to a preview for the seminar, which offers such delights as Liam Byrne - the cabinet office minister who was recently forced to apologise for the misuse of his MPs postage allowance - on the subject of "How do we build a Britain of shared values?" We are told that "for security purposes" the venue for the event cannot be disclosed. That's how high an opinion these people have of their own significance.

The concept of Britishness, currently much in vogue, would seem to have two princpal aims. Firstly, to do something about the Muslim "problem"; secondly, to give Gordon Brown a point of contact with people in England. Even as his own sense of "values" has been revealed (to anyone who didn't know) to encompass employing professional character assassins and an inability to apologise, so he has continued to make speech after speech demanding that his definition of national, international, economic, moral or spiritual (it depends on his audience) "values" form the basis for policy and, indeed, nationality.

In a CIF piece plugging his seminar, Ed Husain wonders "What in Britain glues us together to prevent us from turning on one another?"

Simple common human decency, of course. People of whatever political, racial or religious "identity", if they are reasonably brought up and not sociopathic don't need Gordon Brown, or Ed Husain, lecturing them about "Britishness" to know it's generally not a good idea to massacre hundreds of their fellow-citizens. Or fellow non-citizens, as may be.

Husain seems not to get this obvious fact. He quotes what he calls the "powerful, instructive words" of 7/7 ringleader Muhammad Siddique Khan, "You are at war with my people, and I am a soldier." He says:

In Khan's mind, "my people" were not those with whom he grew up, attended school, worked, shared national sports aspirations and lived. To him, being British meant little more than holding a British passport. He was not alone.

Indeed he was not alone. He had three equally delusional colleagues. Even if you add in all the two hundred or so people charged with offences under the terrorism act in the past decade - or the couple of thousand "under surveillance" - you are still looking at a minute segment of the population. A very high-profile segment of the population, because of the disproportionate media coverage of anything connected with terrorism, but still a negligible one. There are probably many people to who "being British" means little more than holding a British passport and who present no sort of danger either to life and limb or to social cohesion. They might be Scottish nationalists, or utopian internationalists, or members of the global financial elite who prefer to keep their assets in the offshore accounts Brown and his fellow G20 leaders have been getting exercised about recently. Or they might feel so disgusted by the government's policies that they feel ashamed to be British. Which is, surely, their right in a (supposedly) free society. Ed Husain again:

We need to move beyond simplistic debates about identity and engage with the deeper issues that are at stake. Too often, commentators have suggested that a united society can be built on shared tastes in sport, food, and clothing. This is not enough: such arguments overlook that the 7/7 bombers played cricket, ate fish and chips and dressed in jeans.

And what Husain's argument overlooks is that there were just four of them.

It strikes me as ridiculous to frame citizenship programmes around the needs of such an unrepresentative group of disturbed individuals. All that the state should require of its citizens is that they pay their taxes and obey the law. Beyond that we are in the realms of propaganda and indoctrination, neither of which strikes me as being particularly "British" - any more than Brown's recently-announced plans to inculcate a sense of national identity by using British teenagers as a source of unpaid labour. Britishness as something defined by and imposed by the state is - apart from anything else - profoundly un-British, an irony the prime minister seems incapable of understanding.

Nations are brought together by shared stories, by a national spirit, by indefinable eccentricities. With a government unable, or unwilling, to celebrate our shared national story - which used to concentrate on such things as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII's wives and the Victorians' conquest of much of the known world - what is left but a series of empty platitudes, a statement of "values" that say nothing whatever about being "British" as opposed to being French or Taiwanese. Or there is an appeal to such things as freedom of speech, the British constitution, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and other parts of our national inheritance that have been systematically undermined and betrayed by New Labour, whether in the form of the Lisbon Treaty or the latest Criminal Justice Act.

In a speech to the British Council in 2004 Gordon Brown spoke of "the importance of and the need to celebrate and entrench a Britishness defined by shared values strong enough to overcome discordant claims of separatism and disintegration". That sounds like it was aimed at the Scots Nats. But what were those "shared values"? Here's an instructive passage:

Take David Goodhart's recent contribution to the multiculturalism debate. In questioning whether there is an inherent conflict between the need for social cohesion and diversity he emphasised that what we need is "a core set of social norms". Who we are does matter.

And while Melanie Phillips argues that a culture war is raging, she has a remedy rooted in shared values of Britishness. There is hope, she says, because if citizenship is to mean anything at all ministers must sign up to an overarching set of British values.

Interestingly, while Sir Herman Ousley, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, directly assails her views and Goodhart's, he too returns to that same starting point - that there are British values all can share.

The fact that such different people can agree on the need for "shared values" rather implies that these values do no amount to very much. Did Brown have anything specific to share? Well, while he admitted that "a strong sense of national identity derives from the particular, the special things we cherish" he was much more impressed by the general and the vague. There was "a uniquely rich and diverse culture" and "a characteristically British set of values and qualities that, taken together, mean that there is indeed a strong and vibrant Britishness that underpins Britain." Which means what, exactly? An orange, after all, has a characteristically orangey set of characteristics which, taken together, make it recognisable as an orange rather than a lemon. Such as its orange colour and the distinctively orangey taste.

OK, Gordon could do slightly better than that. Britain was "remarkably outward-looking and open" (compared to where? Outer Mongolia?) and a "vigorously adaptable society" that was "both creative and inventive" (there's a special prize for anyone who can pin down the difference between creativity and inventiveness). But it's also "rooted" - "Britain's roots are on the most solid foundation of all - a passion for liberty anchored in a sense of duty and an intrinsic commitment to tolerance and fair play." All characteristics strongly represented by the present government, needless to say.

Brown admitted that these values are "of course to be found in many other cultures and countries" but then goes on to claim that "taken together they add up to a distinctive Britishness". Which is, of course, a complete non sequitur. It is not "values" that define Britishness but particular things - fish and chips, thatched cottages, red postboxes, roads that become impassable every time it snows, the Grand National. And these things change over time. Curry houses are now as "British" as old-fashioned pub signs, not because of officially sponsored programmes of multiculturalism, but because they have been naturally absorbed into the landscape and into the national psyche. And it wasn't some national characteristic of tolerance and cultural pluralism that made for the spread of Indian restaurants; it was because people wanted to eat the food they provided.

A national culture is organic and unpredictable. Attempts to impose it from the centre usually fail, or produce ugly results. Perhaps the United States of America, which has long harboured the conviction that "Americanness" is a moral as well as a political category, is exceptional. But even American patriotism flows from (and was built up by) that nation's long and particular history, and is sustained by unique cultural artefacts recognised everywhere as distinctively American. One could go further: the tendency to take abstract values such as liberty and democracy and concretise them as national characteristics is, itself, an defining feature of the American "spirit". It is emphatically not part of the British national spirit - which is partly why government attempts to build a national "statement of values" can only strike a false note. Especially if, as Brown did in that speech, you try to derive such values from "the great tradition of British liberty" that he has done so much to undermine.

Ed Husain's piece today is just such a collection of empty clichés, but with a particular Islamic twist. He thinks that we lack a "connected identity here in Britain" caused by "atomised, self-centred existence" which is, indeed, a feature of modern life, especially in cities, but not I think particularly a British problem. He also claims, bizarrely, that there isn't enough discussion about national identity or "citizenship", that "a national conversation is overdue":

British bashfulness also prevents us from talking about ourselves. "Mustn't grumble" stops us from complaining about our identity malaise. An aversion to ideas and anything remotely intellectual – unlike the eager French – blocks any discussion of shared values, or common ideas that glue us together. But for how much longer? I believe that this lack of a vigorous debate is damaging Britain.

On the contrary, I think there has been far too much debate about "national values" recently. It's boring, alienating and irrelevant to most people's lives. More to the point, constant self-flagellation and navel-gazing about the perceived lack of "shared values" fuels the very sense of alienation Husain identifies as the problem. He also claims that "since losing its empire, Britain has failed to re-invent itself or to find a new, attractive identity." That complaint echoes one first made by US secretary of state Dean Acheson in the 1950s. Britain has, of course, re-invented itself (or been subject to attempts at re-invention) many times since the Second World War, highlights including the Swinging Sixties, the much commoner lowlights including "Cool Britannia" symbolised by a pointless, largely empty "Dome". In former days, British identity tended to be an unspoken, low-key type of nationalism, symbolised for example by the absence of any form of national dress. Flag-waving was confined to Last Night of the Proms and the occasional royal wedding. It didn't need to shout, and certainly not to obsess about what it was.

The current Brown-directed garbage about citizenship elides two very different things: an individual's relationship towards other people, whether in their local neighbourhood or at a national (and indeed international) level, and the individual's relationship with the state. "Citizenship" is both a legal concept, based on entitlement to a passport and the vote, and a moral concept, based on living in a society. The same word may be used for both; but that does not mean that they must be or even ought to be confused. To combine them, as the present British government is trying to do, in an artificial "Britishness", is to assert the state's sovereignty over both individuals and social groups, even to nationalise personal identity. I suppose that's the idea. Hence the paraphernalia of ID cards, lessons in "values", "citizenship ceremonies" (at the moment just for immigrants), repeated consultation exercises, a putative "national day" and the new proposal for "compulsory volunteering".

To be frank, I worry about the government interfering in questions of national identity at all. Just as it should not be for the state to justify someone's personhood, so it what constitutes Britishness - or any other national spirit - is not in the gift of a particular government. Gordon Brown happens at present - and, one hopes, not for much longer - to be prime minister and head of the political administration. That is all. It is no more for him to define "Britishness" than it is for Max Clifford, Rowan Williams, Ed Husain or the late Jade Goody. A set of "core values" set down by a here today, gone tomorrow politician is at best worthless, at worst positively pernicious.

A relatively new factor, of course, is the effect of massive immigration - although for the majority of immigrants adapting to British life has been generally trouble-free - and (of particular concern, for obvious reasons, to the celebrity ex-Islamist Ed Husain) the existence of a disaffected element in the Muslim community. There is a problem here, but it is a fairly narrow one. Husain appears to want to recast the whole of British identity, even culture, to deal with it. He writes:

But can a secular, liberal democracy in 2009 sustain values-based challenges from faith communities?... Without fear of racism or Islamophobia, it is time to ask the difficult questions. Can religiously observant Muslims really integrate into Britain? And should they? How can a nation that has pubs as its shared space, ever truly welcome non-drinkers? How do ordinary Brits really feel about those who prefer orange juice to beer? And how can religious, marital monogamists raise children in a sexually liberal society that values individual choice over collective obligations?

Quite apart from the fact that there have always been non-drinkers and non-fornicators who have had no problem feeling a sense of belonging, this formulation shows a perverse (and, dare I say so, almost Islamist) wallowing in the seamier side of national life. Do readers of the Daily Mail who enjoy tut-tutting over pictures of drunk teenagers feel less "British" as a result? And to answer his last question, "marital monogamists" should do what marital monogamists have always done, and attempt to instil their values in their children. And if the children rebel and go their own way, then they will be distressed as parents have always been distressed at the behaviour of their offspring. But they will probably get over it. Most people grow up to become marital monogamists eventually, after all.

If all Ed Husain is saying is that all children, including those from Muslim backgrounds, should be taught that they live in a secular state and that they have a duty to obey the law, then I agree with him. He appears to be saying something far more ambitious, however. He clams (absurdly) that we are currently facing "the strongest challenge to Britain's value system since the civil war"; his solution, it seems, is that a new notion of national identity ought to be constructed, which everyone of whatever background should have a duty to adopt. Such ideas are illiberal and, coming from someone who wrote a bestselling book describing his longtime association with Islamic radicals, presumptuous in the extreme. He appears not to understand British culture or national character at all. But then again, I suspect he's really just doing his paymaster's bidding.
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