Sunday, 31 May 2009

No God please, we're British

According to a poll reported in the Sunday Telegraph, an increasing number of British Christians feel hard done-by: discriminated against at work, bullied, made to feel uncomfortable, even rejected by their own families:

As many as 44 per cent said they had been mocked by friends, neighbours or colleagues for being a Christian, and 19 per cent said they had been ignored or excluded for the same reason.

They also claimed that they are being discriminated against at work, with five per cent saying they had been turned down for promotion due to their faith. The same number said they had been reprimanded or cautioned at work for sharing their faith.

The report links the findings to a number of high-profile cases in which Christians have complained of discrimination or have been disciplined for expressing religious views, "including a teacher who complained that a staff training day was used to promote gay rights". We learn that "nearly three out of four" believed that there was less religious freedom in the UK now that 20 years ago, and a significant minority thought that "persecution" of Christians was worse here than in the rest of Europe.

There's a paradox here. Religion today is prominent in the public debate to an extent that ten or certainly twenty years ago would have seemed bizarre. This isn't entirely a consequence of 9/11, as is often assumed; a more plausible starting-point would be the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Nor is it a simple phenomenon, or one confined to these shores. But for various historical and cultural reasons, which I'll come on to, it is felt here particularly keenly. A decade or more ago Christians weren't being "persecuted" in Britain. They were being ignored. Their voice in public life was heard less often than now, and the most prominent voices were not pressure groups complaining of discrimination but Anglican bishops confident in their own irrelevance. The former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey publicly compared his church to "an elderly lady, muttering to herself in a corner". His predecessor, Robert Runcie, spoke of the C of E as primarily a focus for people's "vague feelings of religiosity". Both seemed to be fairly content with this state of affairs.

There has been a huge change since then. On the one hand, the relatively small minority of practising Christians seem to be doing rather well, politically speaking. Under New Labour, there has been an unprecedented expansion in religion-based schooling. The government has looked to "faith-based" organisations to fulfil some aspects of its social policy. Religious leaders of all persuasions are regularly and respectfully consulted by politicians. Most remarkably of all, the religious - including Christians - have been given novel legal privileges, enshrined in a new law against "religious hatred" and employment regulations that for the first time forbid discrimination on religious grounds. The latest Equality Bill recognises religious orientation as one of a small number of "protected characteristics" giving rise to new rights. Yet Christians aren't celebrating. Far from it.

The new survey is based on a relatively small sample of 512 worshippers, so it perhaps shouldn't be taken too seriously. But it does seem intuitively plausible that they would think so. Some might be speaking from personal experience. More will have read stories in the Daily Mail, along these lines: a British Airways worker forbidden from wearing a cross, Roman Catholic adoption agencies forced to allow gay couples onto their books, religious Christmas displays taken out of shop windows for fear of "upsetting Muslims", a street preacher arrested for proclaiming that Sodomites will burn in hell, Jerry Springer the Opera. And so on. These stories often trace back to test cases brought by a fundamentalist pressure group called the Christian Institute.

To judge by their complaints, Christians feel caught in a pincer movement. On the one hand, an "increasingly secular society" is held to be intolerant of religion in general and traditional religious and moral beliefs in particular. On the other hand, the state is believed to be unduly respectful of Islam, and society as a whole is seen to be compromising both Christian and Western values (including secular ones) out of a desire to be "politically correct", or to avoid being bombed.

I suspect something rather more subtle is going on.

It has long been bad form in England to talk about religion, or to be overtly religious. In Watching The English, social anthropologist Kate Fox notes that the characteristic national apathy has reduced the Church of England to "a sort of default option, a bit like the 'neither agree nor disagree' box on questionnaires". Most English people aren't even interested enough in religion to declare themselves agnostics:

We are not only indifferent but, worse (from the church's point of view) we are politely indifferent, we are tolerantly indifferent, benignly indifferent. We have no actual objection to God. If pushed, we even accept that he might exist, or that something might exist, and we might as well call it God, if only for the sake of peace and quiet. God is all very well, in his place, which is the church....

Our benign indifference remains benign only so long as the religious, of any persuasion, stay in their place and refrain from discomforting the non-practising, spiritually neutral majority with embarrassing or tendentious displays of religious zeal. And any use of the G-word, unless obviously ironic or just a figure of speech counts as such an improper display. Earnestness of any kind makes us squirm; religious earnestness makes us deeply suspicious and decidedly twitchy.

I would go even further. In normal English society, talk about God, like talk about sex, is tantamount to swearing. Stephen Pinker (in The Stuff of Thought) pointed out that swearing is aggressive because it forces a possibly unwelcome thought or image into another person's mind. "Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, a taboo word kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations." In the case of religiously-based profanity, he argues that the aggression consists partly in breaching the awe that normally surrounds the sacred, disrupting "the collective mind-control in which one doesn't look at, think about, or talk about a sacred thing casually".

The English taboo on "doing God" doesn't arise from a heightened sensitivity to the divine, however. My guess would be that it arose in reaction to the wars of religion that disfigured much of our Early Modern history. Except in Ireland, religious conflict was something no-one wanted to revisit, and so a national consensus arose to avoid the issue as much as humanly possible. Partly this was achieved by inventing a national state church that was distinctly low-key. The Church of England has often been not so much a religion as an antidote to religion.

But world events have forced religion - ie thoughts about religion - on an unwilling population. This has only served to heighten underlying unease at public displays of religiosity. Natural dislike of God-talk has been reinforced by fear (both of terrorism and of giving offence), embarrassment, an apologetic instinct, and good old British hypocrisy. It's a potent mixture. Partly, hostility towards religion generally is displaced hostility to Islam, which it is not socially acceptable to express (and possibly illegal). It's seen as safe to attack religion only by concentrating one's fire on Christianity, even if Christians aren't the worst offenders.

Moreover, for the minority of committed Christians, the prominence of Islam in the news has led to fears of "not getting their share", and has also sharpened underlying resentment (which has always existed) of the way in which overt (rather than cultural) Christianity has always been marginalised. This has driven them to be more assertive, both in terms of perception (seeing the reaction of others as "Christophobic", where previously they would merely have sighed and shrugged their shoulders) and in terms of aggressive marking out of boundaries. The secular majority feel resentment at being forced to confront a subject that they would prefer to ignore. Also, the state has ventured into more areas of which were previously informal life, creating problems (in terms of rights and duties) which previously did not exist. Social change, too, has left Christians isolated from the non-religious mainstream.

Take, for example, attitudes towards homosexuality. For centuries, religious and non-religious people alike assumed that homosexuality was wrong, at least socially. Even many who didn't mind the fact that gay people existed didn't want to be confronted with the evidence: "consenting adults may do what they like in private" was the code for "please to do not make me think about man-sex" (or one recalls the old story about Queen Victoria refusing to believe that lesbians existed). There were religious objections, of course, that Christians felt in particular: those obscure passages in Leviticus, for example, or tortuous theological justifications based on the self-evident naturalness of heterosexuality. But these were only ever subsidiary considerations. The general feeling that homosexuality was "wrong" - or at least yucky - was refelected in religious doctrine, not derived from it.

The retreat - at least at an official level - of homophobia (indeed, the invention of the concept of "homophobia" itself) has therefore left conservative Christians in something of a bind. The change of status of gay relationships - from being legally penalised to being legally protected - has happened within the space of a few decades. But having buttressed their anti-gay feelings with Biblical arguments, Christians were hardly in a position to flip moralities as easily the non-religious majority, most of whom were able to accept that times had changed. Indeed, acceptance of gay rights has swiftly become the easy, default option, the one that least required actually thinking about the issue.

Because talking about sex, to the British, is almost as embarrassing as talking about religion. So here's this group of people who aren't only breaking the (newly reinforced, but ancient) taboo by going on about God, they're also breaking the sex-talk taboo by boring on about what other people get up to in their bedrooms - thrusting (frequently unpleasant) thoughts about gay sex into the minds of people who would rather not hear about it, thank you very much.

It would be wrong to interpret increased talk of religion in the public sphere to increased interest in the subject. English indifference towards religion is deep-rooted, almost an article of faith, a hard-won achievement which has enabled tolerance to flourish. It is apathy with a purpose. History has given us a natural and healthy suspicion of religious enthusiasm. Recent events have reinforced it. So if Christians are suddenly feeling oppressed, they should not be surprised.
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Saturday, 30 May 2009

Voting for UKIP

Listeners to the Today programme at 7.30 this morning will have been treated to one of the most blatantly biased pieces of political commentary I have ever heard broadcast. Europe editor Mark Mardell was given free rein to tell the nation what he really thought of the United Kingdom Independence Party, concluding with the thought that they were little more than "licensed court jesters" at the European Parliament. I thought Nigel Farage's response, that it was "grossly unfair", was remarkably restrained in the circumstances. It is a lazy cliché to complain about pro-EU bias at the BBC, but believers in the myth of the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation will have found much it Mardell's little rant to confirm their prejudices. He even regarded it as damning of UKIP that it has not fitted easily into the cosy consensus world of EU deal-making - when that, surely, is their whole point. It is almost as though the Beeb (or at least its Europe editor) is so panicked at the latest polls (suggesting that UKIP might beat both the Lib Dems and Labour) that it has jettisoned all pretence at balance and gone for UKIP's jugular.

I have a confession to make. I voted for UKIP in the last Euro elections. I did so fully aware of the amateurism and unrealism inherent then (and now) in the party, and that their chances of achieving anything practical were negligible. I did so despite, not because, of the fact that their most prominent candidate was the preening orange absurdity Robert Kilroy-Silk. I didn't expect them to implode. I hoped that the responsibility of having a substantial presence in the European parliament would force UKIP to get its act together, to become a more realistic and practical outfit, to work towards being more than a small protest party, even perhaps to begin reshaping politics at a national level.

It didn't happen, of course. UKIP proceeded to act rather like a lottery winner who has no experience of managing money and blows the lot in six months. There were splits. Kilroy stormed off to form his own vanity party - no great loss, admittedly. There were expenses fiddles shocking even by the standards of the European Parliament, which in one case has resulted in imprisonment. There were ugly internal wranglings. The initial cohort of twelve was depleted to nine. They have done little or nothing towards reversing European integration, which has proceeded apace, still less advanced their ultimate project of pulling Britain out of the EU entirely.

UKIP are not and never have been my ideal party. They remain, to an uncomfortable extent, a party of amateurs. I'm discomforted by the stridency of some of their anti-immigration rhetoric. Their policy of pulling out of the EU entirely goes too far. I would prefer a radical renegotiation, backed up by a realistic threat of withdrawal, with large areas of public policy returned to full national control. This isn't because I object to "Brussels", but because the way in which directives are arrived at and imposed on the different peoples of Europe is profoundly undemocratic. The EU directive has proved immensely useful to governments - above all, perhaps, the British government - wishing to get controversial policies implemented without proper scrutiny and without even taking the blame. The data retention directive, for example, under which the government is attempting to put into being a regime of all-embracing surveillance on the population, is disguised as "implementing a directive", despite the fact that it was a policy pushed by the Home Office and imposed against the reluctance of several other EU states. That alone is reason enough to ditch the entire rotten system.

The EU can never work as a fully integrated democratic state because there is no such thing as European public opinion, no single debate, and very little cross-recognition of politicians. All countries, elections to the EU parliament are fought on domestic issues. Integrationists of good will (such as, for example, Timothy Garton Ash) bemoan this, but there is little than can be done about it. History, and above all language, has made the peoples of Europe different nations. An EU that worked with, rather than against, that centrifugal instinct would be more in tune with people in all European countries. It would have less institutional power, but it would get more done. William Hague's old slogan, "in Europe but not run by Europe", is a realisable aspiration. And the Conservative party - ideally led in Europe by Daniel Hannan - remains the party best placed to deliver such an outcome. For one thing, they will probably form the next government. UKIP are unlikely to win a single Westminster seat.

UKIP remain slightly ridiculous (with, as the phrase goes, "questions to answer"), and Nigel Farage is far from being my ideal political leader. Nevertheless, I will probably be voting for them again. The implosion of the big parties - at least in terms of public esteem, at least for the time being - gives UKIP another chance to become a serious outfit. They look set to reap a good haul of seats - perhaps even more than last time. They are now older and, I hope, more experienced. All smaller parties go through a stage of amateurism, embarrassing personalities and weird obsessions. The Greens are now so respectable that the extreme radicalism of most of their policies is scarcely examined in the mainstream media (certainly not by the BBC). Yet it is not twenty years since they were represented publicly by David Icke. Labour, in its early days, was a fringe party. The Liberal party, once it fell from power, spent decades dominated by strange men with long beards. Yet the Liberal Democrats are now a serious political force. There is no reason why UKIP should not in time undergo a similar tranformation. It embodies, after all, a point of view that is held by a significant percentage of the British population. Whether right or wrong, it deserves to be represented in Brussels by virtue of that fact alone.

The possibility that they might beat Labour is almost a reason to vote for them in itself. And a good showing by UKIP would have the pleasing side-effect of keeping the BNP out, or at least down. It will break up the consensus, make mainstream politicians realise that the existence of their parties is, in the end, dependent on the public being prepared to vote for them. It is a relatively safe form of protest. And it is also a vote on the issues.
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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Hurricane Ida

Paleontology can be a dangerous business. Like archaeology, it fuses modern science with archaic quests for origins and buried treasure. Today it presents itself as rigorous and technical, reliant upon cutting-edge gadgetry, computer analysis and painstaking, careful analysis. Yet it has never entirely shaken off its buccaneering beginnings. It remains prone to hucksterism and exaggeration. The discovery of the perfectly-preserved fossil of a "missing link", or of a monstrous and unexpected new dinosaur, or just of something unimaginably old, is guaranteed to stir the popular imagination, garner huge media coverage, even gain the discoverer a modicum of fame. No DNA sequence, however laboriously reconstructed, can hope to rival the impact of a striking fossil. Even naturally cautious paleontologists can find themselves caught up in the excitement.

Jørn Hurum, the Norwegian paleontologist (and Meat Loaf lookalike) at the eye of Hurricane Ida (pronounced "Eeda"), is not famed for his caution. According to The Sunday Times, last year Jørn thrilled the world with his reconstruction of a "turbo-charged" pleisiosaur, which he dubbed "Predator X". This was, he announced, "the most ferocious hunter ever", despite the fact that he had made remarkably similar claims for a very similar pleisiosaur, "the Monster", the previous month. If Predator X sounds like something dreamt up by the creators of Primeval, Ida's appeal is partly aesthetic. It is, by any standards, wonderfully preserved and beautiful to look at. The unique conditions of the Messel Pit in Germany, where it was found, ensured that details of its nails, its fur, even the contents of its gut, have been preserved for around 47 million years. This lemur-like creature (Darwinius masillae, as it has been named) gives us all a glimpse into the world of the Eocene, and enabled paleontologists to glean fascinating information about the early history of primates.

That should be enough. But of course it isn't. Ida's unveiling has been attended more by Barnum-style humbug than by objective presentation of scientific data. A breathtakingly hyperbolic press release described it as "the most significant scientific discovery of recent times". At the New York launch, mayor Bloomberg "stood beside Ida’s glass box, his arm around a schoolgirl who was wearing a T-shirt advertising a television tie-in" (according to the Sunday Times). London had David Attenborough, who narrated the documentary in his usual breathy style and was keen to sing Ida's praises. There's also a book, whose title, The Link, says it all (as does the chosen name "Darwinius").

Hurum and his "dream team" of international experts have made remarkably ambitious claims about Ida, most notably that it represents the earliest known "human ancestor". Scientifically, this amounts to the suggestion that because Ida lacks certain stereotypical lemur-like features, and shares others (notably an ankle-bone) with apes and monkeys, it may claim to be the oldest known fossil of a proto-monkey. There are a number of scientists who disagree. The matter is unresolved, which is partly why there has been so much criticism of Hurum and his team for going public - and how! - at such an early stage. The suspicion is that Hurum and his colleagues are working to the schedules and agendas of a production company rather than following the dictates of disinterested science.

Indeed, the backlash has been tremendous, the Sunday Times leading the charge with an article titled Origin of the Specious. Ouch. Many scientists, the report said, were "shocked" by the "media circus" surrounding Ida. The paper in which Hurum and his team of "world renowned" (as the film had it) experts had announced their findings was considerably more modest in its claims - and even those were still highly controversial. UCL's Christophe Soligo warned of "discovery bias, where we read too much into a good fossil just because we have it available", surely a wise caveat. Christopher Beard, curator of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, condemned the paper as "shoddy scholarship". Elwyn Simons of Duke University called it "bad science" which "plays into the hands of creationists". Beard was also worried that the price Hurum paid for Ida ($750,000) could make it difficult for paleontologists to acquire good specimens. "The big problem is that we have to go to the Third World and convince our colleagues there that these fossils have only scientific worth and not commercial value," he said. (Though to judge from this article in The Guardian, Beard's notion of fossil acquisition is hopelessly idealistic.)

"What could have been a unique opportunity to communicate science has quickly developed into a fiasco," lamented Brian Switek in The Times. "Science proceeds through discovery and debate, and hypotheses do not become accepted by flooding the media with press releases".

Hurum has hit back, asking why museums shouldn’t acquire fossils in the same way that galleries acquire art - and provocatively telling the New Scientist that he finds scientific conferences "extremely boring". He does admit that the hype "got completely out of control". It "evolved" beyond his ability to keep within the bounds of scientific respectability. Listening to his soundbites on the Attenborough documentary, however, it's difficult to absolve him of much responsibility for what occurred. He has been openly revelling in the attention.

I watched the film - made by an outfit called Atlantic Productions but with the Beeb's imprimatur - which occupied a prime-time slot on BBC 1 the other night. In these days of uber-populism and ratings-chasing, for a science documentary to occupy such a position in the BBC schedules ought by itself to rouse suspicions about its content, or even its basic validity. (A recent Horizon film, for example, explored human perceptions of the body by persuading a group of volunteers to get naked and paint each other.) According to its closing credits, the film was "written and presented by David Attenborough", which suggests that the great man must at the very least have had a final say over the script. Which is a bit disappointing given the tone of the piece. It was more like a PR job than an objective documentary.

There was stirring music. There was the "overlooked masterpiece" meme: Ida was dug up as long ago as 1983 and then "lost" for a quarter of the century, like "an unknown Rembrandt" (or, later on, the Mona Lisa). There were dramatic reconstructions. Hurum's purchase of Ida from a dealer he met at a German fossil fair was portrayed as a cross between a shady cocaine deal and an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Scientists were filmed trying to pretend they were seeing the fossil for the first time. There were shots of Hurum's infant daughter, in whose honour the fossil was named (ahhh). As usual, the dramatic structure required a building up of revelations to a shattering conclusion.

But even by today's standards, the language of Attenborough's narration was shamelessly OTT. This was "the Rosetta stone" of paleontology. It will "feature in the textbooks for a hundred years" (said Hurum). It has "stunned the world", like "an asteroid hitting the earth". It was (in a particularly ludicrous non sequitur) "a fossil so detailed that it could help scientists reveal the origins of every person on the planet". Was it previously thought that there were people on the planet who might not be descended from early primates?

Attenborough made similarly excited claims in the accompanying interviews. "The link until now was missing. Well, it is no longer missing", for example. Which invites two responses. One, that there is not and never has been a "missing link" - the whole idea owing more to the treasure-hunting metanarrative of popular paleontology ("the Holy Grail of fossils") than to actual scientific procedure. And secondly, if there were such a thing as a missing link between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom, this certainly isn't it. As Cambridge professor Robert Foley, quoted in the Sunday Times, puts it,

This animal lived around 47m years ago but human-like creatures only appeared in the last 2m years. That’s a gap of around 45m years with many other species lying between us and that era. Any one of them could be called a missing link. Really, the term is meaningless

Attenborough/Hurum stressed that certain typical lemur features - notably the "grooming claw" and the "tooth comb" - were absent in Ida. This was taken as evidence that it was ancestral to us, and therefore on the "main line" of primate evolution. But the absence of these features could just as easily be evidence of Ida's primitiveness. Both the tooth comb and the grooming claw are specialised adaptations of lemurs which post-date the split between the two groups. There may have been other early primates directly ancestral neither to monkeys nor to lemurs, which merely died out. Almost certainly, there were. In reality, lemurs are no more "primitive" than monkeys or apes - they merely took a different evolutionary path. Their branch of the tree of life diverged earlier in time than the monkeys' from that which led to us. But they didn't stop evolving because of that.

No matter. Having established Ida's purported significance, the film rams the "missing link" point home with a largely irrelevant discussion of Lucy, the early hominid fossil. When Ida subsequently proves to have a monkey-like ankle-bone, we are explicitly invited to conclude that this creature represented the vital step towards humanity's manifest destiny of walking upright. And the film ended with a piece of rhetoric as meaningless as it was overblown:

We could all be descended from Ida... and, remarkably, exactly 150 years after Darwin first put forward the proposition that human beings are part of the rest of animal life, here at last we have a link which connects us not merely with apes and monkeys, but also with the entire animal kingdom.

HURUM: This fossil turns out to be really important for us as humans... truly it is a world heritage.. the first link to human evolution, long before we started to divide into different ethnic groups... a find like this is something for all humankind.

Long before we started to divide into ethnic groups? Seriously, is he taking the piss? Does he imagine that if he shows his Eocene fossil to some Israelis and Palestinians they will instantly patch up their differences?

Was this tendentious documentary really Sir David's work? Quite possibly. It's not the first time Attenborough has demonstrated what must be an unconscious preference for the discredited "ladder of evolution" model, in which the history of life is little more than an upwards progression with man at the top. It informed the whole structure of his magnum opus from the Seventies, Life on Earth. In the Ida documentary, the prejudice that lemurs represent a more "primitive" - and therefore original - type of mammal than the "advanced" apes and monkeys was very much to the fore. Attenborough commented, for example, that Ida represented "a crucial point in OUR evolution, when the early primates split into human and non-human groups". He might as well have said "into spider monkey and non-spider monkey groups" or "into Madagascan flying lemur and non-Madagascan flying lemur groups". Stephen Jay Gould once called this type of thinking the "most serious and pervasive of all misconceptions about evolution."

In a fairly critical article in The Age, Deborah Smith compared the reception accorded to Ida with that of a pop star. "Rarely, if ever, has an important scientific discovery been announced with so much hype," she wrote. Not so, I'm afraid. Scientific announcements are increasingly often attended by hype, whether it's a Martian meteorite that might just (but probably doesn't) contain evidence of life, or the detection of "ripples in time" offering evidence for the Big Bang, or merely some new treatment for cancer. Science has long since sold its soul to the PR machine. And for the historical reasons alluded to above, paleontology (along with archaeology) is especially vulnerable to this kind of treatment. Now, of course, we have computerised reconstructions of how the fossil animal (might have) looked and the awe-inspiring achievements of modern forensic technology to add to the age-old fascination of old things dug up. No wonder paleontology fires up journalistic juices.

But there's something deeper underlying all of this. In another of his essays, Gould noticed a facet of human psychology that is certainly relevant to the Ida case, the innate preference for origin myths over accurate scientific descriptions:

We yearn to know about origins, and we readily construct myths when we do not have data (or we suppress data in favour of legend when a truth strikes us as too commonplace). The hankering after an origin myth has always been especially strong for the closest subject of all, the human race. But we extend the same psychic need to our accomplishments and institutions - and we have origin myths and stories for the beginning of hunting, of language, of art, of kindness, of war, of boxing, bow ties and brassieres...

(From The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, in Bully for Brontosaurus)

The Ida saga isn't just a matter of scientific fact, or PR, or academic debate, or the compromises that science makes when it attempts to puts its discoveries before a wider public. It does indeed tell us about human nature. Not where we came from so much as what we are: people who love a good story, the more dramatic the better, above all when it's about us.
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Wednesday, 27 May 2009

I don't recall

Of all the various proposals now being put forward for Parliamentary reform, the one I really don't get is the concept of "recall" ballots. It strikes me as both dangerous and crazy. The idea is that any MP can be "recalled" if voters in their constituency collect enough signatures on a petition. This would then trigger a by-election. It was by such a device, of course, that Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California.

So far so good. It sounds like an eminently democratic procedure which - in conjunction with more transparency over expenses - would keep MPs snouts out of the trough. But an MP is far more of a team player than a governor or a mayor. One MP's loss could destabilise the entire government. And what would there be to prevent an Opposition party from going around the country collecting signatures for recall elections on a semi-permanent basis? At the moment, for example, there are widespread calls for an election. If "recall" were in operation, a general election (in all but name) could be precipitated by the simple expedient of forcing by-elections in all the current seats. Or just in the hundred or so most marginal seats. But then the incoming government would soon find itself vulnerable to the same trick. We could end up having an election every time a government were going through a bout of mid-term unpopularity. In other words, total chaos. Read the rest of this article

Blown away?

Further to my earlier remarks about the wastefulness and illogicality of investment in wind-power, which not all readers agreed with, I note this in The Times:

Europe should scrap its support for wind energy as soon as possible to focus on far more efficient emerging forms of clean power generation including solar thermal energy, one of the world’s most distinguished scientists said yesterday.

Professor Jack Steinberger, a Nobel prize-winning director of the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, said that wind represented an illusory technology — a cul-de-sac that would prove uneconomic and a waste of resources in the battle against climate change.

“Wind is not the future,” he told the symposium of Nobel laureates at the Royal Society.

Claiming that his favoured model, solar thermal generation, was on the brink of a great advance, he said "Governments need to focus on this area right now". Continued investment in wind generation, he strongly implies, will actually harm long-term prospects for carbon-neutral power by diverting resources from where it would best be spent. Which is more or less what I said. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Cameron's Grand Design

In a speech today in Milton Keynes, David Cameron promised to turn Britain into something closely resembling a democracy. Just a tad over-ambitious, I fear. Still, it was a fine piece of oratory. First of all, the Tory leader grasps the fact that public anger against the MPs expenses wouldn't have taken off in so explosive a way were it not for a seething discontent with the political process in the wider sense. And that this discontent arises, most of all, from a sense of powerlessness. This is not so much a disconnection between people and politicians as a disconnection between human beings and the system that governs them. He mentions frustration with central targets in the health service and education and - remarkable for a Conservative politician - increasing distrust of the police. There is "a sense of power and control draining away", he says. People "see a world that is built to benefit powerful elites, and they feel a terrible but impotent anger".

He echoes complaints about officious rule-following, box-ticking procedures and an officialdom "which treats us like children with rules and regulations and directives and laws that no-one voted for, no-one supports, but no-one ever seems to be able to do the slightest thing about". He condemns a legislative process in which bills are "dreamt up on sofas" and nodded through by MPs who "most of the time don't even know what they're voting for". He is willing to use the O-word - Orwellian - to describe New Labour's surveillance society. He notes that people "increasingly feel that the state is their enemy not their ally". He even blames political shortcomings for the alleged fact that "we lose our temper more than any other people in Europe".

Now obviously, telling people what they think they want to hear is part of the standard repertoire of the modern politician. It is meaningless without action to back it up - and it might just be empty words. Even so, that the "rage against the machine" - for so long confined to columns in the Daily Mail, online forums and beer-fuelled moan-sessions in the few remaining traditional pubs - has now entered mainstream political discourse in this way is a development which potentially has far-reaching repurcussions. Leaders in all parties will now be competing with each other to provide answers to this sense of dislocation. The terms of debate have shifted, for the time being at least, against Brown's vision of centralised statism.

Then there are Cameron's proposals themselves, which while they wouldn't by themselves resolve all the public grumbles are fairly radical. Cameron's answer is a "massive devolution of power:

From the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.

In practice, this would mean a decimated Parliament, local and national referendums, more powers for local authorities, elected mayors, direct public control over the police, and something resembling education vouchers (though not called that). He intends to abolish regional government (hooray). It's a heady agenda. And as for Westminster itself, Cameron seems to be proposing to dismantle much of the party system. Open primaries would enable independent candidates, selected by local voters, to stand under party banners. Without owing their position to central party machines, it's unlikely they would owe the party hierarchy much loyalty, either. Cameron wants fewer whipped votes, more power and independence to Select Committees, more scope for backbenchers to introduce legislation, more detailed scrutiny of bills. The result, in terms of the government's ability to pass legislation, could be extraordinarily disruptive. He declares himself in favour of fixed Parliamentary terms and a major reduction in the Royal prerogative. If all Cameron's proposals are introduced, the House of Commons would begin to resemble the House of Representatives. With the major difference that the government would continue to draw its majority, legitimacy - and membership - from Parliament. It could be a recipe for chaos.

No Proportional Representation, though. The present system, with its unbalanced distribution of seats, is overwhelmingly biased in favour of Labour. But that doesn't mean that the government is not facing meltdown at the next election, so unpopular has it become. PR, in the minds of its left-leaning supporters (now joined by Roy Hattersley) has always been seen principally as a device for ensuring quasi-permanent Lib-Lab government, so it's scarcely surprising that leading Labour figures faced with the disappearance of what they must have long considered their God-given majority (achieved last time on not much more than 20% of the available vote) should be rushing to embrace it. Hattersley is honest enough to admit that the principal attraction of PR, for him, is that it "offers the prospect of a progressive alliance". But might it serve the Conservative interest? Cameron doesn't think so:

Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos and leadership put before them in an election campaign, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals.

How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need? And hybrid systems like AV plus are even worse: they're not proportional, and represent something of a political fix.

Instead, he wants to redistribute a smaller number of seats to produce equally-sized constituencies which would eliminate most of the present Labour advantage.

The best argument for first-past-the-post is that it produces (most of the time) a strong government that can get things done without having to engage in horse-trading. It also prevents a defeated government clinging on to power by doing a deal with one of the smaller parties in the face of the clearly-expressed desire of the voters for change. So it is not always the most democratic solution. Tony Blair was dissuaded from adopting the Jenkins plan for AV-plus when he learned that, had it been in operation in 1979, Margaret Thatcher would never have come to power. Sometimes, it is necessary for a government to do unpopular things, and FPTP both makes this possible and ensures the proper punishment of a government that abuses its power, is incompetent or has simply been there for too long.

That said, a decentralised, open politics of the kind described in David Cameron's speech today would be one in which the professional political class has had many of its teeth pulled. So the argument that a PR-elected Parliament represents a conspiracy of the politicians against the people would have less force. And if a government so elected was hamstrung by inter-party niceties, then most of the time that would be no bad thing. Cameron's other proposals, after all, aim to strip power from the political machines who have benefited most from FPTP. He expresses a desire for MPs who "deliver more for less"; but what is really wanted is a Parliament that does less - or at the least passes fewer laws. So the question really is whether PR would weaken the impact of the suggested reforms. Candidates selected in open primaries and less at the mercy of the whips would come much closer to the ideal of the MP as a local representative than is presently the case. PR, by contrast, would increase party patronage.

Other sections of Cameron's speech are a little vague. He talks of bringing back power from Brussels - but, short of offering a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (a promise that will probably be meaningless by the time he gets into power) and referendums on any further treaties holds out little prospect of delivering. He's iffy about the Human Rights Act (especially the power it gives to judges) but the promised British Bill of Rights is still poorly sketched out. He scarcely mentions the House of Lords (though, to be fair, he has previously promised an elected chamber). He talks of the "post bureaucratic age" without promising the one thing that would actually achieve it, which is a drastic reduction in the number of bureaucrats. There's something a bit gimmicky - Blairish, even - in his extolling of the latest technology. And technology tends to date even more quickly than political programmes - even this one, which for all its internet connectivity has more than a whiff of Maggie's Victorian Values about it.

Still, the ambition of the speech is awe-inspiring. Putting Cameron's blueprint into effect would require possibly the biggest act of political self-renunciation since Diocletian gave up ruling the Roman Empire to grow cabbages. It will require remarkable levels of fortitude. Every time there's a major disaster or scandal, or the crime figures rise, or the health scare of the day hits the headlines, or people complain that their local school isn't up to much or a hospital is threatened with closure, every time John Humphrys gets a cabinet minister on the radio and asks "what are you going to do about it?", said minister will have to sit there and say "Sorry, that's not my responsibility". And when Humphrys retorts, "Why did we elect you?", when opinion polls show discontent, when the Opposition - the reinvigorated Labour Opposition - promises that they would take control of errant public services and put new procedures in place to make them work - ministers will have to have the strength of will to do nothing.

And it could all get rather unpopular.

There's also the accumulated inertia of the system, which he does at least acknowledge:

Politicians, and the senior civil servants and advisors who work for them, instinctively hoard power because they think that's the way to get things done. Well we're going to have to kill that instinct, and believe me: I know how hard that's going to be. It will require a serious culture change amongst ministers, amongst Whitehall officials - and beyond.

I suspect it will be much harder than he could ever possibly imagine. In one episode of Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby described a similarly ambitious plan for local accountability as "the most courageous I have ever heard". "Courageous", in Humphrey-speak, meant "mad".

Cameron's speech is inspirational, not simply because of what it promises in terms of giving us a real democracy, but because of the confidence it expresses that the British people will rise to the challenge of accepting the "responsibility" which he is offering. Giving "power to the people" is wonderful in principle; achieving it would require, not just self-restraint from politicians, but also a citizenry willing to put in considerable extra effort in managing their own lives, taking more interest in politics, being more active in their local communities, in addition to everything else that occupies the time during a full working life. It's a big ask. It threatens to rob the British of one of our greatest national pleasures, therapeautic grumbling. Can people learn to stop expecting (or not expecting) "the government" to step in and sort out every problem? Can we really bear the psychological burden of actual responsibility?

I'd like to think so. But I'm not entirely convinced.
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Madam Spanker

Mistress Switch (whom some of you may possibly remember) writes on her blog:

I'd like to become the new Speaker of the House of Commons. I'm great at bumbling and anyway, if they didn't do as they were told, I'd have my own way of keeping the House in order. A new meaning to the whips office. Wouldn't we have some fun there, what a great venue!!

Someone suggested to me a few years ago that I should consider running for Parliament, ha! Seriously though maybe we should start a party for CP lovers.

But it already exists, Andi. It's called the Conservative Party. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 25 May 2009

Review: What Price Liberty?

How freedom was won and is being lost
by Ben Wilson

It is 150 years since the publication of JS Mills' On Liberty - yet another in this year's astonishing procession of anniversaries - and the subject, if not the reality, of political liberty is more prominent now than it has been for ages. This is partly because, after years in which the government could count on only token opposition, the defenders of liberty have at last woken from their slumbers. But it may also underlie, at some deep level, the current crisis in confidence with the political process. Our politicians are hated, not because they are especially venal, but because they have not defended traditional freedoms. Many people may be unaware of what these traditional freedoms were, they may consciously have desired more laws, but they find themselves today more hemmed in by official restrictions - all eminently "proportionate", of course - than at any time in living memory; no wonder they find themselves lashing out.

In this somewhat febrile climate, it's good to find a book that takes the long view. Ben Wilson's new book What Price Liberty? wonders how it was that we "lost the habit of talking about liberty". In an effort to find out, Wilson examines the movements, debates, events and personalities that have shaped the uniquely British (or is it merely English?) view of personal and political freedom. At every stage, he finds, freedom was contested, denied, campaigned for; it had to be wrested, sometimes violently, from an unwilling establishment. Yet the direction was clear. It is the story of a society that more than any other (with the exception of the Americans) made the sense of themselves as a free people the core of their national identity; and then, over a period of a few short years, stood by and watched impassively, even enthusiastically, as a government that saw itself as modern and progressive took much of it away.

The recent decline in liberty and liberty-consciousness - most of it, anyway - has happened when Labour was in power. It's tempting, then, to blame the present government. And not unfair, given the openly contemptuous language used by politicians such as Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Jacqui Smith and (to a lesser extent) Gordon Brown for traditional principles of legality and freedom and the checks and balances of our unwritten constitution. But it's not just their fault. As Wilson himself notes, part of the problem may lie in inadequate teaching of history. In an age transfixed by whizz-bang technology traditional brakes on state power can all too easily be seen as obstacles in the way of progress, archaic forms to be circumvented if not abolished entirely, rather than as a priceless legacy to be cherished and handed on.

English liberty is contained in no grand Declaration of Independence or Charter of Fundamental Rights (Magna Carta itself being largely a dust-dry list of tax reforms). It is more of a habit - or a habitat, an ecosystem that has grown organically and unplanned. This has been its greatest strength, but it has also left it vulnerable. It lacks the safeguard of entrenched constitutional rights. Politicians concerned with short-term advantage, ministers and bureaucrats concerned with efficiency and technical solutions, newspapers and members of the public demanding that "something be done", have all been liberty's pallbearers.

"Society" writes Wilson, "very frequently needs to be saved from a headlong rush towards things it may later regret - the history of liberty is, without a doubt, the constructions of restraints which are counterintuitive and very often go against the instincts of human nature". Such restraints in Britain have been rarely been set down in law: rather, politicians, civil servants and the police have (usually) known where to draw the line - and the public, too, has known instinctively when the bounds have been overstepped. But the price of liberty, as someone once said (Jefferson? Paine?) is eternal vigilance. And as Wilson comments, "without a questing mind and an appetite for exploration the passion for freedom dies away".

Of course, there are still many people in this country who feel an intense cultural attachment to traditional concepts of freedom - otherwise Wilson's book would have no market, and I wouldn't be writing this blog. And perhaps the pendulum has begun to swing away from the authoritarians. As I noted at the beginning, the "crisis of liberty" is a big theme at the moment. Yet polls continue to show strong support for crackdowns and security measures of one sort or another. Notice how many times Jacqui Smith uses the word "safe". Or consider the ambiguity of the word "security", which evokes both a comfortable image of being at home with a loved one in front of a roaring fire, and a heavy in a uniform, perhaps holding a gun, demanding to see your ID.

Wilson rightly, in my view, stresses the importance of the autonomous, responsible individual as the centre of any true understanding of liberty. In an important chapter, he notes how freedom is inseperable from risk, and that therefore attempts to improve safety - of individuals as of society as a whole - will inevitably endanger freedom. The free individual is, from the point of view of the state, a dangerous individual. He or she might act in an unpredicable way, might abuse their freedom, might harm themselves or others. Better to be safe than sorry (actually, no, it isn't; it's usually better to be sorry). Obviously, there is a balance to be struck. Absolute freedom must be constrained by something. What has been most dangerous, I think, is the increasing centrality of the state as the mechanism of constraint. Previously there were such things as family and community authority, religion, deference, local associations and the rest of Burke's "little platoons". They too could be oppressive, often deeply so, but they at least gave people a sense of their relationship with others as members of society not defined by an all-seeing state.

Many of the problems Wilson identifies will be familiar: the over-eager recourse to legislation, the specific difficulties thrown up by multiculturalism (he discusses the "embarrassingly equivocal response" of liberals to the Danish cartoons), the stoking-up of fears of terrorism and crime (not always the fault of the government), the growth of databases and, yes, health-and-safety. Such "enemies of freedom" are both disparate and of a piece. What they have in common is, at base, a narrowing of scope.

My own understanding of freedom is predominantly spatial: it as, psychologically speaking, having enough room to breathe. Unfreedom is a pressing in from the outside on personal space. Today, people in Britain (and, I daresay, in some other places too) feel the envelopment of the state around ever more aspects of their lives. Things that until a few years ago could be done informally and ad hoc - everything from arranging a gig in a local pub to rewiring your front room - must now be cleared with some bureaucratic agency. Forms must be filled in. Fees must be paid. Paradoxically, even the government has lost much of its former liberty, as a human-rights culture imposes expensive and often counterproductive procedures on central and local government, even on the armed forces, in order to comply with health-and-safety directives, equality laws and the like. Even as it controls us, it finds itself tied down like Gulliver at the hands of the Lilliputians. The result is a type of despotism unprecedented in history: a tyranny without a tyrant.

Reading this book will help you understand how we got into our present mess. It's also valuable as an incisive, intelligently-written historical survey. But it comes with a health warning. "The liberal phase in our history seems to be coming to an end" writes Wilson towards the end. It's almost enough to make you want to kill yourself.

What Price Liberty, by Ben Wilson, is published by Faber and Faber (RRP £14.99)

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Sunday, 24 May 2009

Archbishop reveals how his mind works

The Sunday Times carries an interview with the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. He manages to dig himself even deeper into the hole he began excavating for himself when he described abusive Irish priests as "courageous". "We shouldn’t forget that this account today will also overshadow all the good that they also did," he says. He seems blind to the fact - stressed in the report - that the systematic brutalisation and maltreatment of the children caged in Ireland's "industrial schools" went far beyond the actions of a minority of perverts. And this really takes one's breath away:

The vast majority of abuse in this country happens within the home. This does not mean that all homes are bad. Just one act of abuse is too many but it should be remembered that the priests who have abused are a tiny minority of the total number of priests and the abuse they have carried out is a tiny proportion of all abuse – less than a half of 1%.

I don't know if he has the figures to back this claim up. But this sort of special pleading is scarcely appropriate given the enormity of last week's revelations.

Then Dominic Lawson asks him whether celibate priests can "really understand the full complexity of human behaviour within relationships". Nichols tells him:

Experience also has its shutters. No two marriages are the same. Nobody experiences everything and there are other fields in which experts speak without having first-hand experience of, I don’t know, say . . . sadomasochism.

I find that answer disturbing on so many levels. Especially as Lawson then suggests that Nichols can't be considered a graduate of the university of life, and he protests, "I do live a human life from top to bottom".

Lawson thinks that Nichols is "the church’s most media-savvy operator". Poor church. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Praying Politics with Rowan Williams

I don't know if Rowan Williams has employed the services of a ghost-writer (a Holy Ghost-writer, perhaps) but his latest message to the nation, in the Times, contained none of his usual opacity. Clarity can be dangerous too, of course. His most headline-catching assertion, that "the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price" for the future of British democracy, has been greeted in some quarters with a similar reception to that accorded Archbishop Nichols' ruminations on the "courage" of child-raping clerics in Ireland. But that wasn't even the main point of his column.

A word, first, on the denigration of politicians. There have been three main targets for public anger over the past couple of weeks. First, a number of particular MPs and ministers who appear to have milked the system. Not all are equally guilty; but some undoubtedly did treat the public purse as their personal piggy-bank, even if they were "within the rules", and a few appear to have committed something close to fraud. Many others fell into the category identified by Nadine Dorries - they were told that the Parliamentary allowance was "a pot of money with their name on it" in lieu of salary, because no MP "had the political courage" to raise MPs salaries. If true, of course, this would mean that all those MPs were complicit in a fraud against the electorate to disguise the true size of their salaries. I hardly think this redounds to their moral advantage, but hey.

(By the way, the Dorries Blog has now been taken down after the Barclay brothers' solicitors served notice on her server. It is exactly as I feared - though since the twins are famously litigious this hardly makes me a new Nostradamus. Can you libel someone by calling them "litigious"? Yes - but only if they don't sue you over it...)

Then there's anger at "the system". This is, potentially, at least, fruitful, even necessary anger. It has focused rather too narrowly on the issue of MPs' pay and allowances, but the fury isn't due to that alone. The spectacle of MPs feeling entitled to help themselves to what look like perks at the taxpayers' expense - perks denied to most members of the public - reinforces the belief that they belong to a pampered elite. And they do. The political-media class identified by Peter Oborne and others has over the past decade or so developed many characteristics of a self-perpetuating caste (including hereditary succession). Politicians and political journalists talk to each other, and to focus groups. When they address the public, it is in patronising soundbites. There has been a strong sense that questions of policy and public service (which for most voters, is what "politics" is really about) is far less important, to politicians, than the soap opera of personalities and fluctuating careers. This is what "they're all the same" really means.

The homogeneity of politicians, and of their messages, is something new - or at least something revived (there was a "political class" for most of the 19th century, after all, when many leading figures began as Whigs and ended as Tories, or began as Tories and ended as Liberals, or belonged to informal Parliamentary groupings). Gordon Brown let the cat out of the bag when addressing the Royal College of Nursing recently (his "apology") with his reference to MPs as members of the political "profession". Politics has, indeed, increasingly acquired the characteristics of a profession, including a conventional career-path (student activist; special adviser/lobbyist; candidate; MP; minister; has-been; lord), regulatory bodies (now to be greatly expanded) and, most importantly, a sense of professional camaraderie. And, as George Bernard Shaw said, all professions are a conspiracy against the public.

None of this means that all MPs are bad people, or dishonourable, or in it merely for themselves. This undifferentiated hatred aimed at the persons of MPs - the third of the "angers" - is dangerous and wrong, as Rowan Williams is correct to point out. Even within the limits imposed by a failing system, the majority of MPs do their best. Even the fact that they are to a large extent products of a conveyor-belt which detaches them from the public they are supposed to represent is not actually their fault. It is a consequence of the general hollowing-out of the system, and of the transformation of political parties from mass movements to centralised marketing campaigns. There is a danger that the collapse in faith in the system - an inevitable working out of Lincoln's maxim that you can't fool all of the people all of the time - will make the political class (once they get over the present difficulty) even more self-isolating and unaccountable.

Archbishop Williams' actual focus was much broader than the plea to hug an MP which was picked up by the headline-writers for an easy quote. He was writing about what he called "a basic problem in our moral thinking" - the tendency in many walks of life for people to do what they can get away with "within the rules", rather than instinctively doing the right thing, informed by a developed moral conscience. He finds the prevailing attitude to be a form of "moral myopia", and a consequence of people lacking self-respect - which he interestingly defines as "that sense of being glad to do certain things because they're the kind of things they are". Following the letter of "the rules" is, he finds, a poor alternative to acting from inner principle. And it's getting worse:

Regulation comes in, necessarily, when you recognise that you can't rely as much as you might hope on people's intelligence or goodwill. But this can turn into an excuse for failing to encourage intelligence and goodwill in the first place. Exhaustive anti-discrimination provisions, for example, get enacted when authority has found reason to suspect a comprehensive lack of charity and good sense. But they can also weaken the conviction that the best foundation for fairness is an ingrained habit of respect, bound up with one's own self-respect. And, once again, they create that disreputable atmosphere of asking how little you need to do to comply.

He thinks that politicians, or others, should recover a sense of "vocation":

We talk about people's vocations most readily when we see them clearly doing things that don't bring easy rewards. But if the culture is such that regulation takes the place of virtue, we shouldn't be too surprised if public figures show signs of the virus and take refuge in the “no rules were broken” tactic. We trust volunteers in various settings because we sense that they act out of gladness to be doing what they do, never mind the rewards....

It would be a tragedy if our present troubles spelt the end of any confidence that politics and public service could and should be a calling worthy of the most generous instincts.

I think's that's almost spot-on. Williams believes that the best answer to this problem lies in "religion-based morality". He would, of course. Even if he's right (he isn't), I don't think that could be the solution for a society as deeply secular as modern Britain. In any case, there are severe problems with any religion-based morality. Quite apart from being based on probable falsehoods, religious systems are (or can be) morally just as lazy as rule-following. Indeed, they often are little more than rule-following; it's just that the rules are laid down by priests or found in ancient texts rather than being imposed by bureaucrats. That said, religion does often provide an effective short-cut to moral behaviour. Often, the religious answer is a good approximation to what a philosophically correct answer would be, and reaching it doesn't involve the complex ruminations for which only professional philosophers have the time, inclination or training.

Religion sometimes provides the wrong answer, of course: it can institutionalise oppression, create misery for those who don't fit in to a rigid social or sexual template, and demand perverse and immoral behaviour. And once religion gets into a position of power, whether in Iran or in Ireland, it tends to behave worse than almost any secular regime. I won't be voting for the Rev George Hargreaves. Nevertheless, we do, if we are to restore a functioning democratic system, need something like a sacralisation of political life. We used to have it - but it didn't owe much to religion. It was a creed rooted in the historical experience of British development, above all in the conventions that once governed public life but which, because they were largely unwritten, were powerless in the face of a ruling clique that saw no reason to abide by them. Indeed, Tony Blair made no secret of his impatience with the niceties of British (really, English) constitutional form. It is no coincidence that New Labour's trashing of ancient forms and liberties has gone hand in hand with the triumph of a disjointed, dessicated and largely cynical political elite.

In the phrase ironically beloved of our present rulers, British politicians generally used to "play by the rules". For the Tories, their inner constitutionality - their instinctive Whiggism - was bound up in their sense of themselves as politicians. Many Labour politicians who did not share this sense of an ennobling history (though many did, of course) had their own inner light, derived from the working communities from which they sprang and of which they often had personal experience. Such instincts still exist in many of today's politicians, but the culture and tradition of service that nurtured them has been destroyed. In its place, we will get "external regulation", more elaborate codes of conduct, more mutual suspicion and scrutiny. It won't work. Rowan Williams is right about that. For once.
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Friday, 22 May 2009

Nadine Nadine

The lovely Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Beds, is making her bid for blogosphere superstardom with a series of increasingly hysterical blog posts.

The other day, as she tried to defend herself over parts of her expenses claims, she was regaling readers with details of her marriage break-up, and how it led to her spending only a couple of days a week in her "main home". This was all very sad until you remembered that millions of people all over the country have to cope with divorce and separation without the taxpayer cushioning the blow with a nice fat cheque.

Yesterday she made a stir with her claim that some MPs were on suicide watch. The atmosphere was "unbearable" she wrote; "People are constantly checking to see if others are ok... If someone isn't seen, offices are called and checked."

Well, it's nice to know the honourable members are looking out for each other. Today there's more of the same:

What they are doing by taking out a few MPs a day, from all parties, not allowing them to defend their position, not printing what they say, shouting over them and doing this day after day after day amounts to a form of torture which any group of human beings would find difficult to bear.

As an ex nurse who managed on a measly salary I know how angry people are. The system has been wrong and scandalous. But everyone in the media and political world, other than those MPs like me who came in after 2005 knew about it. Therefore they are all culpable.

The truth may not be palatable and hard to swallow; however, it’s the truth. Treating a group of people in this almost sadistic way is as appalling and has to stop.

The comment about MPs who came in after 2005 doesn't make much sense. In an earlier post she claimed that "MPs prior to 2005 were sat down and told 'this is your pot of money with your name on it, and our job is to make sure you have it as it's really part of your salary'." This, she thinks, means that "it was how it was done" and "MPs knew no different". But many of them clearly did know differently.

As for "everyone knew about it, therefore they are all culpable" - well, it's true enough that Lobby correspondents have long been too close to the political system for the health of the democratic process, and that for years questions were not asked that ought to have been asked. But the only people genuinely culpable are those MPs who claimed unreasonable allowances. And despite the daily drip-drip of revelations, that is only a minority. Not everyone asked for payouts on a phantom mortgage, claimed for his 'n' hers second homes, or used the "rules" to dodge capital gains tax. If it's wrong to tar everyone with the same brush, it's equally wrong to pretend that everyone is equally guilty.

But I'm most taken with Dorries' idea that making MPs face the embarrassing consequences of having their claims made public is a form of torture. If nothing else, it displays a remarkable capacity for self-dramatisation. It's hardly waterboarding, is it? And I'm sure they can cope. No-one goes into politics who doesn't have an abnormally thick skin - that's one reason why some MPs thought that asking taxpayers to fund their duck-islands, moat-dredging costs or "high-quality bookcases" was reasonable in the first place. If they are feeling uncomfortable at the moment it's no bad thing. Although looking at the immoveable smirk on the face of Hazel "totally unacceptable" Blears yesterday hardly didn't make me want to pick up the phone to Amnesty International.

And what does she mean by "a group of people", anyway? All politicians? Or just the ones who have been subject to the most searching questions? It's not entirely clear. Dorries' tendency to emote online doesn't always lend itself to rational analysis. She blogs more like a Californian cheerleader than a member of Parliament.

Hopi Sen thinks that, with her anti-abortionism, "woman of the people" style and effortless ability to embarrass the party she's the British answer to Sarah Palin. Most unfair. Palin was actually quite an effective governor before she was talent-spotted by the McCain campaign and it rather went to her head. She's also much better dressed.

The Telegraph reports today that David Cameron had slapped Nadine down. An unnamed senior source described her comments as "wacky". Now she responds, "Excuse me? Err, no he hasn’t. What a corker."

She reveals that "the Telegraph has rang Central Office and asked them to ask them to remove my blog and not mention the contents of my blog on air, which I think, is very different".

Grammar obviously isn't her strong suit. Still, the poor girl's been under a lot of pressure lately. As to why the Telegraph wants her to remove her blog, presumably it has to do with various allegations about the Barclay twins, the paper's famously reclusive owners. For example, there's her suggestion that the "fiercely Eurosceptic" brothers are ordering the publication of the details as part of a dastardly plot to undermine Parliament, "with the hope that the winners will be UKIP and BNP". "A quick online check of the Barclay brothers and their antics on the Island of Sark is enough to give this part of the rumour credence" she continues. Alternatively, you could go through any number of back-issues of Private Eye. Then there's this fascinating stuff:

Another rumour is that the disc was never acquired and sold by an amateur, but it was in fact a long term undercover operation run by the Telegraph for some considerable time, carefully planned and executed; and that the stories of the naive disc nabber ringing the news desk in an attempt to sell the stolen information are entirely the work of gossip and fiction.

These rumours do have some credibility given that this has all erupted during the European Election Campaign and turn out is expected to be high with protest votes, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, or should I say the Barclay brothers.

Now, if this is all a power game executed by the BBs, how would they do that?
It is a fact that these men are no fools and are in fact self-made billionaires.
I would imagine and believe that if any of this is true, they know the British psyche well enough to whip up a mood of public anger, hence the long running revelations in the DT.

Dorries seems to be trying to book herself an appointment with Mr Justice Eady.

Where does she get all these conspiracy theories? She explains that as "a cheeky scouser" she has made friends with some of "the faceless and nameless in Parliament". One in particular is "a mine of information";

He reckons this is all a power game. That the British public are being worked like puppets by two very powerful men. Whipped up into a frenzy to achieve exactly what they want.

His very poignant words to me were "if any of this conjecture is true, Parliament will become full of racists, fantasists, and has-been celebrities. We will be rendered impotent and may never again regain the authority to withstand the pressure, opinion and whims of the overtly wealthy."

Scary stuff!

Scary indeed. Though not quite as scary as the thought that Nadine Dorries is already a member of Parliament.
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Thursday, 21 May 2009

Blowing in the wind

Why wind? As a giant wind-farm opens in Scotland, it should be obvious that wind power is not the future of energy supply in Britain or anywhere else. Wind-turbines are expensive and inefficient, they ruin the landscape, they are noisy when they work (which isn't very often) and they kill birds. In Taiwan, noise pollution from a wind farm has been held responsible for the death of four hundred goats. The amount of electricity they generate, even now, is negligible. It is said that the vast new Eaglesham Moor plant could potentially power the whole of Glasgow - but that is only when it is operating at full capacity, which even in a country as windy as Scotland is not even half the time.

Even as the new plant opens, plans are announced to expand it still further (although it already covers 55 sq. km), while over in Shetland an even more elaborate wind-power scheme is attracting increasing opposition. A BBC report quotes Professor David MacKay of Cambridge, who said that a "100-fold increase" in wind farms in Britain would be necessary to achieve the government target of a complete decarbonisation of our electricity supply system by 2030. The only other alternative to carbon generation he mentioned was nuclear power - itself an outdated and non-renewable technology that brings with it its own problems.

The wind turbine has become a synedoche for environmentally sustainable power generation. Ed Miliband, the absurdly-titled secretary of state "for climate change" (shouldn't that be the secretary of state against climate change?) said recently that opposing the damn things should be "socially unacceptable... like driving through a zebra crossing". Why? Because opposing wind-farms, in his mind, isn't simply opposition to one particular form of energy production, but opposition to the principle of renewable energy in general. This is nonsense. It is opposition to the most obtrusive, least efficient and most expensive type of renewable energy. James Lovelock, responding to Miliband's chilling statement of eco-authoritarianism, put it rather well:

If wind energy were the one practical and affordable answer to global warming then I would grit my teeth at the loss of the countryside and accept it. But I know that windfarms are no answer to global warming in northern Europe....

Global warming is real and deadly and we have to do our best to counter it but we must not be led astray by the special pleading of an industry made rich by over-generous subsidies paid for by your taxes and one that is bound to fail to deliver.

In Germany, Lovelock reminds us, "despite more than 17,000 wind turbines across Germany the nation is emitting more CO2 than before it built them". With only 17% efficiency, the wind farms have to be supplemented by more conventional (carbon-emitting) sources of energy generation which themselves are prevented from operating at their maximum efficiency because they are working in tandem with the turbines.

Germany is becoming dangerously over-reliant on wind power, a path Britain and even the US look set to follow. Indeed, the National Audit Office calculated in 2005 that wind was the most expensive way to fund carbon emission reductions in Britain. It gave a figure of £70-£140 a tonne of carbon saved - even more than the figure for Germany. Needless to say, such findings have failed to make much impact on the drive for wind-power in either country.

It's not as though there aren't alternatives. There are far more efficient and less environmentally damaging technologies available and soon-to-be available. Tidal and wave generation offers far more power without the inherent unreliability of the wind. Best of all, they are hidden. The plants may cost more to build than wind-farms but, being more efficient, will save money over the long term. Geothermal energy may be even better. This taps directly into the inexhaustible energy of the earth itself, and (technicalities aside) consists of little more than a hole in the ground. It has almost no environmental costs. Looking further ahead, but not too much further, a more reliable source of wind-power - and one far less destructive of the environment - may be had by tapping into the jet stream of the upper atmosphere. Then there is carbon capture, which would enable the substantial surviving reserves of coal to be exploited at little or no environmental cost.

Some of these options are being explored, but the need to do something right now - to demonstrate steady progress towards ambitious targets - means that resources are concentrated disproportionately towards the dead-end of wind power. Long-term, this will mean that the targets are less likely to be met. Certainly, they will be difficult to meet without massive expense, waste and disruption. An alternative strategy of investing in the truly sustainable technologies of the future, would produce less immediate progress but, once in place, the gains would be real and lasting. Today's wind power is a stop-gap, but the damage it does to the environment will be irreversible.

So why is the government, the environmental movement and so much of the public discourse wedded to this wholly irrational strategy? Clearly, money has a great deal to do with it. On the time-honoured principle of throwing good money after bad the huge resources, both private and public, already "invested" in wind power must be justified by being increased. Figures released to Parliament in 2007 show subsidies rising to over £1 bn by 2012. Diverting resources into other types of renewable energy would mean writing off substantial sums, which would be embarrassing all round. Better to keep on wasting the money. Wind power was first on the scene, which means that it now supports an entire industry of designers, propagandists and assorted experts. With lavish subsidies on offer, it is in the interest of power companies to exaggerate wind power's potential. Wind farms - even if built in the wrong place - represent jobs and money today, while other potential energy sources represent jobs and money tomorrow.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay about the "evolution" of the QWERTY keyboard, pointed out that the conventional layout has survived, despite its relative inefficiency, because a series of historical accidents led to its becoming the first widely adopted design. It wasn't better than rival designs - in fact it was a whole lot worse. But once it was established, it proved impossible to dislodge, and we are still stuck with a layout invented in the days when typewriters more closely resembled the Gutenburg printing press than today's laptops. Incumbancy is a powerful advantage. As Gould wrote, using another example,

Suboptimal politicians often prevail nearly forever once they gain office and grab the reins of privilege, patronage and visibility. Mammals waited 100 million years to become the dominant animals on land and only got a chance because dinosaurs succumbed during a mass extinction.

The turbines now have the wind in their sails. Wind power occupies a niche that could be filled by a more efficient and less environmentally deleterious technology. There it has become largely self-sustaining. There's something else, too. Wind turbines are highly visible. Building wind-farms is a statement about the commitment of society to an environmentally sound future. They make their supporters feel morally superior to their opponents, who can be dismissed as selfish Nimbys. The uglier the wind farms are, the more they ruin the environment, the better: for their very unattractiveness draws attention to the sacrifice that they represent. They are Gaia's temples. The clacking of their sails is like a prayer offered up to Nature to forgive our environmental sins. It's mad.
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Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Does God have to be good?

Somebody called Charlotte Allen wrote a column in the LA Times recently that has succeeded in what one assumes was its primary intention of pissing off atheists everywhere. It has gone massive in the Godless blogosphere over the past couple of days. I might as well join in the fun. Allen's argument isn't particularly original or well thought-out, but it is forcefully expressed - so forcefully that it can be held up as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the case against the so-called New Atheists. Sam Harris dismissed it as "one of the most embarrassingly stupid attacks on the “new atheists” to be published in a major newspaper".

Allen claims that atheists are "crashing bores" who are always whining about being "oppressed", thus demonstrating "boo-hoo victimhood". They are obsessed with "the minutiae of Christian doctrine"; their blogs focus on an "obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain". Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are constantly going on about how clever they are and, by comparison, how stupid religious believers are for believing stupid things. And they sound so angry, probably because they had bad experiences in childhood.

"The vitriol is extraordinary", she writes, ironically for someone who begins her column with the words "I can't stand atheists".

Whatever the deficiencies of her general argument, Allen does at least identify a striking duality in the case made by atheists. Here is what she writes:

And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in "The God Delusion," accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God -- and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently -- why does it matter whether he's good or evil?

The case for atheism does indeed seem to consist (usually, at least) of two logically quite separate propositions:

1) There is no God

2) Religion is a bad thing

The first is a question of fact, or of something very like fact. Either there is a God, in the sense of a Supreme Being who ordains the universe, or there is not. The existence or otherwise of the deity may be inferred from the nature of the universe, or it may be known more directly (for example, by God, or gods, speaking to individuals - though this itself raises severe problems of proof). Either way, though, there is some objective sense in which "Is there a God?" is a question that in principle has an answer, even if it is impossible, in this world at least, to resolve.

But atheists, at least the celebrity atheists and a high proportion of those committed to atheism, aren't satisfied with that. They want to go further, to argue that religion has harmful consequences. It encourages ignorance and laziness, for example. It is responsible for wars and acts of terrorism. It leads to damaging guilt about sex. It wastes time and intellectual energy that might be spent on more useful thoughts. It is a tool of the powerful to oppress the masses (this is usually a left-wing critique). Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great is largely taken up with arguments of this kind - which, given the state of the world today, is hardly surprising.

That is the short answer to Allen's question. Even if God does not exist, it matters a great deal what sort of personality is ascribed to him, because God represents for believers an ideal to strive towards. The double argument of the atheists ("there is no God" + "God is not Great") is only the mirror image of the equally mashed-up argument of believers, which is in turn concealed by the double-meaning of the very word "believe". To "believe in God" means, almost invariably, both to believe that God exists (as one might "believe in" Bigfoot) and to believe that religion is morally virtuous and worthwhile (as one might "believe in" the Labour party). Whether or not God exists, religion undoubtedly does. Asserting the non-existence of God, then, is one plank (and not an essential one) of the broader and more pressing argument against religion.

It is of course possible to be an atheist yet hold to the view that religion is useful and beneficial to society. One might look at the great works of music and architecture that belief has inspired, to the example of religiously-motivated charity workers, or to the role that religion has undoubtedly played in maintaining social cohesion. Thinkers from Seneca onwards have argued that the social utility of religion is what matters, not whether it is true. Or one can ruefully say, considering the beauty of religious myths, or the idea of a loving God welcoming his children into an eternity of bliss, "if only it were true, if only I could believe it". But such thoughts are most unlikely to propel one towards a position of campaigning atheism. So it is only to be expected that people who make a big deal of their lack of belief should also point out the downside of religious belief.

There ought, logically, to be a fourth belief-position: that God exists, but is a complete bastard. There would seem to be abundant evidence for such a belief. If you take, as many do, the Bible seriously as a source for information about God, you don't have far to look for examples of divine bad behaviour: cruelty, murderousness, capriciousness, hypocrisy, lying, genocidal tendencies, racism (to say nothing of misogyny and homophobia), above all perhaps a bullying sense of entitlement. And not just in the Old Testament, either. The God of the philosophers isn't much better: he created, or appears to have created, a world of pain and suffering, in which the weak go to the wall and the evil prosper, in which nature is red in tooth and claw and the lives of most people throughout history have been nasty, brutish and short. Believers can sing hymns all they like about the mercy, compassion, greatness and fundamental goodness of God - but isn't that so much whistling in the dark? Even if there is a God, why should we fondly imagine that he cares about us?

Needless to say, many believers recognise these points. Even Charlotte Allen, who writes, "atheists don't seem to realize that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses". To theists of her persuasion, the struggle to reconcile belief in a loving God with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is something of point of honour: it shows how serious and intellectually committed they are, how they want to engage with deep questions. It is almost heroic. The persistent complaint from believers and their supporters (such as Terry Eagleton) is that atheists (or at least atheist arguments) are necessarily shallow because they can't be bothered to spend time trying to "get it". Being religious, for these sophisticates, is a perennial struggle to continue placing trust in an infinitely wise God despite, perhaps even because of, the weakness of the case. They like to see themselves as being more subtle thinkers than non-believers, who are stuck in a literal-minded world where straightforward questions might lead to straightforward answers. This position, of course, is every bit as "arrogant" as the mocking tone sometimes affected by atheists when ridiculing religion.

For their part, most atheists seem just as committed as believers to a view of God which, by definition, elides his existence with his supposed goodness. Take, for example, David Attenborough's reply to religious correspondents who chide him for not crediting God with creating all the wonderful animals he has spent a lifetime filming:

They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.

Attenborough seems to be saying that the cruelty of the natural world, or at least its amorality, is an argument against the existence of God. But it's clearly not an argument against a Supreme Being. A wholly objective God would be as interested in the welfare of the worm, who does after all have to survive in the world, as in the child. It is merely an argument against an idea of God who wishes to make the world as nice as possible for human beings. Yet believers will not be satisfied with such a refutation. They will want to say that in the great cosmic scheme of things God has his purposes, that the world as a whole demonstrates the goodness of God.

For believers, goodness is one of God's essential attributes. If you say that there is a creator or a supreme being who is not essentially good, then you are not merely denying a particular property of God, you are denying God's existence as firmly as if you were to say that the origin of the universe needed no outside intervention. God, in other words, cannot simply be defined as a Supreme Being, or as a Creator. God is a good Supreme Being, a good creator. By the same token, to deny the existence of God is to deny goodness itself. Nonsense, of course, but nonsense encoded in the DNA of language itself.
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Simon Says

Here's a video of Simon Singh's words to the meeting in London on Monday called in his support. (via New Humanist). There are also extracts from some of the other speeches, including the MP Evan Harris. Nice to see such a big turn-out. Singh says that he and his lawyers are "working incredibly hard" to identify grounds for appeal.

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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Deposing the Speaker

Steve Richards in the Independent thinks that Michael Martin is being unfairly treated:

Suddenly here were noble, crusading MPs turning on the Speaker who appeared to be culpable for it all. Fleetingly, it was easy to forget that MPs, and not the Speaker, had claimed for moats, plasma TVs and the rest. It was an inadvertent deception. Most MPs know how loathed they are, but it was a deception nonetheless. It all felt too easy, the theatrical calls for him to go, the outraged indignation from some MPs afterwards as they rushed out to the nearby television cameras. The removal of the Speaker would address none of the more awkward fundamental issues that brought about the crisis.

Richards thinks that Martin is being set up as "a scapegoat, a symbolic scalp" whose removal will produce no lasting change. Hardly. This is Air Miles Martin we're talking about, a man perfectly happy to let the taxpayer pick up the tab for his wife's taxi fares, who more than once tried to stifle proper debate and inquiry into MPs allowances, and who paid lawyers from the public purse to put the frighteners on critical journalists. His departure has been a long time coming: he has been the most accident-prone, the most personally compromised, and the most divisive Speaker in living memory.

The function of a scapegoat is to displace guilt. An innocent victim is selected and, ritually or otherwise, loaded with the sins of the community and driven out or killed. The scapegoat is other - in the original case, a goat, in other historical examples a slave, a foreigner or a member of a despised community. Whole communities might be scapegoated. Often, in European history, it was the Jews, blamed for everything from the Black Death to the military success of the Mongols. Outbreaks of scapegoating typically occur at moments of crisis, when a form of panic sets in because normal solutions seem to have failed. There's certainly an atmosphere of crisis at Westminster, even of panic, but there's nothing illogical in the selection of the Speaker as fall guy. He was personally at fault for at least some of the culture of trouser-stuffing, he had failed to anticipate or answer the public mood, and he was no longer seen (if he ever had been) as an impartial and competent president of the House.

He went with as little grace as he could muster. He might have taken the opportunity to apologise to Kate Hoey, his treatment of whom last week precipitated this crisis. He might have shown some contrition, some awareness that confidence in him, in Parliament and outside it, had collapsed for a reason. Instead he simply announced that he was going. He made the strange claim that the House of Commons is at its best when it is "united", which is almost the opposite of the truth (the Iraqi parliament, after all, was very united in the days of Saddam Hussein, and they are still renowned for their displays of unity at the People's Congress in Beijing). But, ironically, he had in his final 24 hours managed to unite the House. Almost everyone was agreed that he had to go. The one redeeming feature of his farewell performance is that it didn't descend into a maudlin and hypocritical fawning session, with MPs of all parties coming together to salute Martin's great qualities with moisture in their eyes. But I'm sure something of the kind will be arranged.

Yesterday's scenes in the Commons were unprecedented; they broke every Parliamentary convention. It was almost a revolution. It can no longer be said that MPs are out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking. They know, all right; perhaps for the first time, a majority of MPs actually seem to get it. That's why they were able to overcome the strong taboos that hedge the person of the Speaker with a kind of divinity and tell him, to his face, to resign. That's also why we saw Gordon Brown today announce that errant Labour MPs will be deselected. He realises (as does David Cameron) that if the parties themselves don't get rid of MPs who have abused the system, the voters will. Both will be hoping that once a new, arms-length expenses regime is put in place the fuss will die down and the voters will go back to sleep. I fear they may be right. A pay package is easily fixed. A handful of greedy MPs are easily got rid of. There are much larger problems, but they are issues of principle, concerning the very architecture of democracy. The short termist, media-driven political process we now have is inimical to the serious, rather dry and highly complex debate that would be required to rebuild a failed system. So I'm predicting a few more weeks of gradually diminishing chaos, followed by a return to something like business of usual. Read the rest of this article