Saturday, 31 October 2009

Irvine: Blair was completely clueless

Tony Blair's abolition (or, to be more specific, attempted abolition, followed by effective-but-not-quite-abolition) of the ancient and stately office of Lord Chancellor was one of the more remarkable and telling episodes of his time in power. Dishing a thousand years of history in the name of modernisation, it was an act of unparallelled constitutional vandalism, done with scarcely a second thought. It has led to avoidable expense, setting up and furnishing a new Supreme Court and paying a large salary to the holder of an unnecessary new post of "Lord Speaker". And it was done in a remarkably botched way. It was back-of-the-envelope stuff, partly carried out to remove a perceived anomaly, but mainly - so it is generally reckoned - to rid Blair of his former mentor Lord Irvine, an ancient friend of both Blairs (but especially of Cherie) who had long behaved as though he were still head of chambers.

The Times today has a new insight into the story: Derry has finally "broken his silence" in evidence to a House of Lords committee, and it's fairly explosive stuff. He describes, says the report, "how he fought, with increasing desperation over several days and in three separate meetings with Mr Blair, to save his job" - well, he would, wouldn't he? - but, more importantly, claims that Blair had no idea what abolishing the lord chancellorship actually involved:

Lord Irvine asked “how a decision of this magnitude” could be made without consultation with himself, the permanent secretary within government, the judiciary, House of Lords authorities and the Palace.

“The Prime Minister appeared mystified and said that these machinery of government changes always had to be carried into effect in a way that precluded such discussion because of the risk of leaks.”

Blair, in other words, had no idea that there were any legal consequences to abolishing the lord chancellorship, and imagined that the process would be no more complex or time-consuming than doing away with the department of transport or inventing the department of "communities". He appeared "mystified" when Irvine put it to him that killing off the position of lord chancellor raised rather serious constitutional issues.

Forget, for the moment, the argument about whether or not getting rid of Irvine, or his office, was a sensible idea. This is astonishing. Tony Blair, let it be remembered, trained, qualified and for a time practised as a barrister. Every first-year law student used to learn how the lord chancellor was the head and linchpin of the courts and the judiciary - how, in the words of an old Encyclopedia Britannica, the convolutions of history had conferred on him "an extraordinary range and variety of functions". As WS Gilbert put it, he embodied the law. Yet apparently as prime minister Blair had forgotten how the legal system worked in Britain and imagined he could abolish the lord chancellor with a wave of his pen. This isn't just mind-blowing incompetence, it's scarcely believable.

But no wonder he thought invading Iraq would be a cinch. Read the rest of this article

Why Catholics are worried about Halloween

For the eve of the Eve of All Hallows, it made an irresistible story. Some senior Catholic hierarchs have, it seems, been doing what comes more naturally to Protestant evangelicals: finding sinister Occultic and even Satanic dangers in Halloween. One minute you're a kid dressing up as a pumpkin, the next you're using a Ouija Board to summon the Prince of Darkness, that sort of thing. What makes the story pure late autumnal gold is its source: the Vatican's "official newspaper", L'Osservatore Romano. In fact, L'Osservatore is a lot less official than in used to be, back in the day when it was little more than a dry gazette of the comings and goings of men in black skirts, of interest only to diehard Vaticanologists. These days the editors strive to fill its pages with entertaining and eye-catching stories - yes, there's dumbing down even in Ratzinger's Vatican - and so often succeed that syndicated versions of its scoops regularly turn up in the international mainstream press.

L'Osservatore may be livelier than it was, but it still carries the Imprimatur - which some hacks seem to believe means that Benedict XVI sits down every week and writes the thing himself. Hence yesterday's heading in the Mail: "Halloween is 'dangerous' says the Pope as he slams 'anti-Christian' festival". Actually, this has nothing to do with the Pope - unlike a story from 2005, which involved the discovery of a letter written by some years previously by one Cardinal Ratzinger and warning of the "subtle seductions" to be found in the Harry Potter novels. Nor does it really have much to do with the Vatican. But it's interesting all the same. It derives from comments made by Joan Maria Canals, Father Canals (lest his name create any confusion as to his eligibility for the priesthood) who is a liturgical adviser to the Spanish bishops' conference.

L'Osservatore quoted Canals as saying: "Halloween has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian." He urged parents "to be aware of this and try to direct the meaning of the feast towards wholesomeness and beauty rather than terror, fear and death". And that seems to be about the sum of it, although the paper also "praised" (or merely reported on, perhaps) a church at Alcala de Henares in Spain which "had decided to hold a prayer vigil on Saturday night and the Paris archdiocese's idea of having children play a lucky dip dubbed 'Holywins' instead." The Times has a more balanced (though still rather churnalised) account, with a different quote from Canals:

“Children dress as witches, vampires, ghosts, masks, corpses, skeletons, and parents favour this type of festivity which plays with elements of death,” Father Canals said. “But when a relative dies they prevent them from seeing the dead relative.”

This is more interesting than the headline (Halloween is the Devil's work, say Catholics) suggests: Canals is aiming his fire not merely at Halloween but at the artificial treatment of death modern society: at once a matter of thrill and fascination (he might have mentioned horror films and violent video games) and something avoided, denied, clinicised. It is in the USA - the fons et origo of modern Halloween fun - that this process has gone furthest, and it's possible that there is some link between the two. Making play of fears is, after all, a powerful way of integrating and banishing them.

The Mexican equivalent of Halloween, the Day of the Dead, retains a close connection with death: it is an occasion for visiting and decorating graves, a day on which (as with Halloween's Celtic antecedents) the dead are supposed to come amongst the living. That festival is much spookier, more macabre, and more adult than American Halloween, which has long been as innocent and child-centred as Christmas; it is also more clearly of pagan origin, incorporating demonstrable Aztec survivals. Yet it is integrated into Catholic social and religious life, and causes no clerical denunciation. This, I think, is a clue.

After some initial unpleasantness and misunderstandings on both sides, the Spanish and the Aztecs got on surprisingly well, partly because their beliefs were so similar. Both to a striking extent made a pageant of, and found religious meaning in, death. This autumn's show at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, includes some gruesomely realistic statuary depicting the crucified Christ, images that speak to Spanish Catholicism at its most blood-bespattered. The Catholic, and especially Spanish, way of dealing with death is by confronting it head on; turning it into a fiesta, yes, but a (literally, often) bloody fiesta that fully acknowledges the reality of death and decomposition. The American approach is to deny the visceral realities and instead to indulge the comedy of spookiness, turning fright into fantasy. It's unreal. It's childish - which is why Halloween is for kids - but its spirit also pervades the adult population. And it's steadily becoming internationalised, partly through the soft power of American culture, partly because the condition of modernity is to drive a wedge between nature and culture.

The traditional role of the church, moreover, is bound up with explaining death and calming the fear of death, mainly by promising rewards in the afterlife. As death is removed from daily life and coated in plastic there's less need for Christianity's balm; except perhaps at funerals or in terminal wards, where mortality must, at least temporarily, be confronted. This distancing of death from life is, from the point of view of Catholic theology, spiritually dubious. It's also bad for business. The complaints from the Spanish Catholic dignitaries quoted in L'Osservatore are, then, not primarily about the occult. Not really. They express broader worries about the loss of church authority that occurs when people are not daily faced with evidence of death.

The Osservatore report quoted José Sánchez González, the Bishop of Sigüenza-Guadalajara, who complained (according to The Times' summation):

that Hallowe’en parties had a “background of the occult and anti-Christianity”. He said that he saw the dark influence of Hollywood playing with the young minds of Spanish children as they danced innocently around pumpkins, little realising that they were attending a pagan festival.

“Due to this influence, Hallowe’en started being celebrated several years ago and it is spreading more and more, without people knowing what it is that they are celebrating,” he said.

As The Times confirms, "the popularity of Hallowe’en has grown in Spain in recent years as the country has gone from being a bastion of Roman Catholicism to a more secular society." Cultural pride and fears about secularisation here mesh with more purely theological anxieties. Note how it's not the dark influence of Satan that the bishop claims to be worried about. It's the dark influence of Hollywood. Except that it's not a "dark" influence at all. It's a light, cheery, dark-dispelling, sentimental and most indubitably un-Spanish influence. And, worst of all, it is growing while his church, even in the traditionally most devout of its historic homelands, is losing ground. Every pumpkin, every trick-or-treater represents, potentially, a lost soul. Lost not to Satan, but to the Catholic Church.
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Friday, 30 October 2009

The Greater of two evils

So it won't be Blair. In truth, no informed commentator outside Britain ever imagined it would be. Some weeks ago a perceptive piece in Der Spiegel noted that the will-he-or-won't-he excitement over the Blessed Tone's candidacy for the top Europe job was a peculiarly British phenomenon. Indeed, it was a manifestation of domestic, not European, politics. Ever since William Hague conjured up "Gordon's nightmare" of the Blair presidential motorcade turning up in Downing Street, the prospect of Tony's Return has titillated and appalled in equal measure. Would Brown swallow his decade of hurt and throw his (much diminished) weight behind his old tormentor, just to spite the Tories? Did Cameron secretly want Blair, or would his opposition prevent the deal? Or would European centre-right parties go for Blair just to revenge themselves upon the Tories for breaking with the federalist EPP? Etc., etc.

Irrelevant. Or, at any rate, much less relevant than reading the British newspapers might lead one to suppose. In reality, what Blair was offering - a high-profile, glamorous, traffic-stopping superpresident who would overshadow national leaders - was precisely what most EU heads of government (Mrs Merkel especially) did not want. Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker - the anti-Blair, if you like, and currently the front-runner - told the Financial Times Deutschland, there was "an informal understanding that the first EU president wouldn't come from one of the bigger countries."

It won't be Tony. Which, despite his ghastliness, might be a pity - for he is, for all his faults, an Atlanticist and a free trader (this, of course, being one reason he was always an unlikely EU president). He is also an undeniably polished performer - it took many people in Britain almost a decade finally to tire of him - who could do the business. But if it isn't Blair, it might be David Miliband. Astonishing as it may seem to those of us who have observed him in action, it is apparently is on the cards that our godawful foreign secretary might be promoted (if that is the correct term, and it is) to do the equivalent job of "High Representative for foreign affairs and security". To be the voice to answer Kissinger's phone-call. And here's where things get interesting - if, for those of us who still believe in the superiority of the democratic nation state to the unaccountable bureaucratic structure being erected in its place, deeply depressing. For, despite the hoo-haa surrounding the Blair candidacy, the High Representative is probably the bigger job. And if the presidency goes to A.N.Other, it will certainly be the bigger job.

Here again I rely on Spiegel, which has a good sense of what is going on in Germany at least. Their analysis suggests that the Merkel plan was always for the common foreign policy to be led by the High Rep, while domestic issues were dealt with by the national leaders, the president being a chairman rather than a chief executive. "Angela Merkel has a dream" it maintains - the dream being of a Europe with a single, co-ordinated foreign policy and a single powerful voice to articulate and define it. Someone to answer that mythical phone-call.

In Merkel's dream, the high representative puts a face to EU foreign policy. He has his own diplomatic corps with hundreds of staff members. Indeed, you could simply call him the EU foreign minister. But in today's European reality it is not that straight forward. Euphemisms are required.

The Lisbon Treaty, it adds, "is actually designed to increase Brussels' role in foreign policy matters" - something which British ministers have always denied (although Miliband himself came close to admitting the other day when he claimed that without a "strong" EU foreign policy we would "become spectators in a G2 world"). But here British and French policy contrasts with that of Germany; according to Spiegel, it was in part to frustrate German moves for a fully co-ordinated foreign policy (run by the Commission) that the two countries "pushed through" the souped-up post of president of the Council whose "duties would include coordination of foreign and defense policy for 27 different countries." Clearly, a horse with two heads isn't going to run very fast.

The success of the Lisbon Treaty depends very much on who is appointed to these roles. And the relationship between the foreign minister and the Council president is not prescribed by the treaty. Who is the captain and who is the first mate?...Leading politicians in Berlin are worried that instead of producing a common foreign policy, these new positions will only lead to a power struggle.

Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the German parliament, told Der Spiegel that Germany wanted a president who takes "more of a backseat role" - anyone but Blair, in other words - and a more active EU "foreign minister". That, undoubtedly, is how Miliband sees the role. His accession to the role could be presented as a "consolation prize" to Britain for losing out on the grander-sounding presidency. But it would be anything but. It would represent the triumph of the German vision of an externally-united EU reducing the historical big foreign policy players, Britain and France, to the second tier in international diplomacy. It would also force a Cameron government to work with, and in "agreed" foreign policy areas (which increasingly is most of them) to defer to an arrogant, incompetent and - as the last few days have shown - petulant pipsqueak. And all because Blair (who would, genuinely, be ideal in the role) thought he could use his charm to win, and his guile to magnify, the dull and bureaucratic post of president of the Council. O the irony.
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Thursday, 29 October 2009

Watford playgrounds fiasco - an update

Watford's decision to ban parents from (in the mayor's words) "hanging around" two adventure playgrounds has provoked bemusement and anger in equal measure, with some speculating about the political damage the story may do to the Lib Dem's chances of winning the seat at the next general election. Belatedly, the council has tried to undo some of the damage caused, not just by the reports, but by their patently absurd and offensive justification of it. They are now claiming that the two parks "are closed, fully supervised facilities" indistinguishable from schools.

However, by Lib Dem Mayor Dorothy Thornhill's own admission a practice had arisen whereby some parents stayed to share the experience with their children. Neither Thornhill nor the Council have explained why this is dangerous, inconvenient or otherwise objectionable. While some have blamed press exaggeration for the controversy, it was the complaints of parents upset at being turned away that prompted the Watford Observer's original story.

Dorothy has written a new post (with slightly fewer exclamation marks than her original, deleted thoughts) in which she hopes "to reassure residents that I’ve not taken leave of my senses". She repeats the new line that only two playgrounds are affected, and says that the new rule was brought in after "a number of incidents". There's no hint as to the nature of these "incidents", but it would seem that at most some members of staff found the presence of parents at the facility distracting. She writes:

I’m not saying adults shouldn’t be allowed on playgrounds – I’d go out and shoot myself if this was the case – only on these specialised play facilities!

But that is precisely what she said! Her words, as widely quoted, were, "Sadly, in the present climate, you can't have adults walking around unchecked in a children's playground". Will she be shooting herself? I doubt it.

The council for its part seems to have dropped its original justification that the ruling was needed to comply with Ofsted guidelines, and Thornhill makes no mention of paedophiles or any threat of abduction in her new post. She also says, bizarrely,

What I have taken from this is the importance of the accuracy of language and the power of the web - none of these news stories would have appeared if we didn’t refer to our adventure play sessions as adventure playgrounds.

This was never about the language used to describe facilities (though, since they are permanent structures, the term "adventure playground" is clearly the more accurate). It was about parents being led to believe that they were not trusted around their own children - and, when the story broke, about the mayor's scaremongering about paedophiles and abduction to justify the ban.

It is important to be clear about this point. Despite attempts to suggest otherwise, this is not a story about the Daily Mail (which merely regurgitated the Watford Observer's report) or Henry Porter, or bloggers, misrepresenting a reasonable decision as "political correctness gone mad". The local newspaper gave the council, and the mayor, every opportunity to respond to the complaints of parents who found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly banned from their children's playground. They did so, and their comments were fully and accurately reported.

The council cited Ofsted guidelines and child protection issues as justification for the ban, and this is what kicked off the media storm. If today's explanation is the correct one, their previous explanation was (deliberately or otherwise) false. At the very least it was inaccurate and misleading, and suggested a woeful misunderstanding of Ofsted guidelines. As for the mayor, her overwrought, alarmist and offensive blogpost yesterday ought to raise serious questions about her suitability for the office she holds. Today she Twittered that she had spent the morning "putting the record straight". Attempting to extract her foot from her mouth, in other words.

People who wish to use this story as ammunition to bash the Daily Mail or Henry Porter are way off the mark. It's not what the mayor and council are saying now that matters. It's what they said in the first place.
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Adventure Playgrounds - why we say NO to parents

By the Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill (LD)

What has happened to the world!!! When a council fails to safeguard children they are, quite rightly pilloried in every newspaper. Yet, when we take a positive decision to safeguard children, by ensuring that all children left at a supervised play session are only left under the care of qualified CRB checked and legit staff, we get hounded for it! One journalist even declared we were breaching the human rights of the parents we don’t want hanging around!!!!!!!

The bottom line is we run two great adventure playground facilities that operate as a drop off for parents after school and at weekends. We have done this for years, no worries, parents happy and appreciative. At one playground a few parents started to stay around for all the sessions, this increased to the extent that staff felt they were spending more time worrying about what the parents were up to rather than watching and supervising the children! They should not have been allowed to stay that’s never been the policy, so yes we were lax in allowing it and have now decided to tighten up.

Imagine what those same papers would say if a child was snatched from the playground and we were accused of allowing free access of adults onto our site. Or worse still one of those adults was using it to acquire knowledge of and groom other children - yes sadly it happens we all know that. Again, we would rightly be pilloried . Those same parents don’t stay at school with their kids nor would any one expect them too. If parents want to play with their kids great there are loads of parks and places to go – we’ve got over 40 in Watford along with children’s centres and community centres; but our adventure playgrounds are supervised drop off schemes, where the only adults are our staff who will care for and look after your kids while you do something else. Bliss and oh and it’s free….. As a society we really can’t have it both ways.

The Heresiarch notes:

1) This piece first appeared on Ms Thornhill's blog, but it has since been removed.

2) Ms Thornhill was responding to the story that originally appeared in the Watford Observer, after parents complained that they had been banned from watching their own children using the facilities at two adventure playgrounds. It has since been reported in several national newspapers, and has drawn a typically forthright response by Henry Porter. He notes that the decision is "a fundamental breach of rights, but almost as serious is the offence to common sense."

3) Watford council claims that their refusal to allow parents to observe their own children using these public facilities is in accordance with government policy. They state, "Due to Ofsted regulations we have a responsibility to ensure that every authorised adult who enters our site is properly vetted and given a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check by Watford Borough Council."

4) Ofsted, however, deny that such guidelines exist. A spokesman is quoted by the Telegraph as follows:

"Ofsted would never seek to prevent parents and carers having access to their own children... Many settings operate very well with parents and carers present, and indeed this can be an important part of young children settling somewhere new."

It was, of course, Ofsted who a few weeks ago maintained that two policewomen would not be allowed to look after one another's children without being CRB checked and registered as childminders, so they can scarcely be regarded as lax when it comes to applying regulations. From where, then, did Watford Council get the idea that the rules should be interpreted so bizarrely?

5) Mayor Thornhill's lavish use of exclamation marks is oddly reminiscent of Glenda Slagg.

6) Thornhill genuinely seems to believe that parents pose a danger to their own and others' children. She writes of "the parents we don’t want hanging around", rather than "unknown adults". She also considers it "lax" that some parents were being allowed to watch their own children play.

7) Complaints about the presence of parents seem to have come from members of staff rather than from other parents. Thornhill writes, "staff felt they were spending more time worrying about what the parents were up to rather than watching and supervising the children!" Why were they worrying about what the parents were up to? Why should it be regarded as suspicious that parents took an interest in their children's play activities?

8) Since parents were not playing an official supervisory role at the playgrounds, they cannot be said to be in a position of responsibility. It is therefore illogical for Thornhill to claim that the decision has anything to do with ensuring that the children were "under the care of qualified CRB checked and legit staff".

9) The playgrounds are set up in such a way that it is easy to exclude non-related adults, and impossible to abduct children from the playground. The entrance to the facilities are controlled, and children have to be registered at the point of entry. Thornhill's melodramatic fears that admitting parents would lead to the playgrounds being infiltrated by paedophiles are demonstrably groundless.

10) Dorothy Thornhill was at number 43 on the Telegraph's list of the most influential Liberal Democrats in Britain, as compiled by Iain Dale with the aid of a panel of Lib Dem advisers. Dale described Watford as "a target seat for the LibDems at the next election" and added that "her tenure as mayor will prove crucial to their fortunes."

She Twitters at and her email address is

11) As Thornhill writes so eloquently, What has happened to the world!!!???

UPDATE (Important)
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Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Damian Thompson's "vicious and crazy" attack on Richard Dawkins

For reasons best known to himself, Damian Thompson has taken a break from his (rather premature) celebrations at the impending demise of the Church of England - and his own Catholic enemies, among whom is the retired cardinal - to launch an extraordinarily personal attack on Richard Dawkins. Under the heading "Richard Dawkins's latest attack on the Catholic Church is vicious and crazy. The man needs help" he compares the distinguished evolutionary biologist to "a dribbling loony on the top of a bus" and describes his long-known opinions about the Catholic Church as "the ravings of a man who appears to have lost all sense of proportion". "Seriously" he writes, "is there something wrong with him?" Damian often questions the mental health of people who disagree with him, an ugly rhetorical trope suggesting smallness of mind. Regular exposure to the poisonous effusions of his Holy Smoke blog certainly does nothing to dispel that impression.

Thompson's house style of triumphalist, sneering, ultra-papalist camp - in which he is joined, day after day, by a claque of equally mean-spirited groupies and hangers-on - does more damage to the image of Catholicism than Richard Dawkins ever could. I've never been as offensive about any Christian as Damian manages to be, virtually every day, about his fellow Roman Catholics who happen to have different views to him about the liturgy, or politics, or the status of Joseph Ratzinger as the greatest being to occupy the throne of St Peter since the days of Gregory the Great. His reaction to the prospect of Anglo-Catholic defections to Rome has been very much in character: catty, obsequious towards the Vatican, vainglorious, snidely dismissive of both Rowan Williams and the "liberal" (by his standards) Catholic hierarchy in England, and crudely self-promoting.

The other day he was gloating about an impromptu encounter he had had with Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor in Westminster Cathedral during the interval of a concert. Having spotted the former leader of England's Roman Catholic community, his first thought was to text something sarcastic on his Blackberry. Unfortunately for him, Cardinal Cormac (who will have been well aware of the nasty things Damian has written about him over the years, but is evidently a bigger man) came up and greeted him warmly. Did Damian pass the time of day, enquire after the cardinal's health or share his thoughts about the music? Of course not. "There was literally only one thought in my head," he writes - how to embarrass the cardinal over the Anglican offer business, about which Cormac is believed to have had considerable reservations. Then, having achieved his purpose - "the Cardinal did seem stumped" - he slunk off. Charming. The blog ends with a dig at his rival from the Tablet, Catherine Pepinster, who had "a steely glint to her spectacles that told me that she, at least, was not in the mood for banter".

So what has Dawkins done to attract Thompson's displeasure? He's only gone and pointed out a few home truths about the church that disaffected Anglicans have been invited to join. And in the Washington Post, of all places (and which I'm glad Thompson pointed me towards; it's rather good). According to Damian, the Dawk called the Roman Catholic Church “the greatest force for evil in the world”. Except that, as PZ Myers points out, he didn't quite say that. He had been invited (on the WP's "faith panelists blog") to consider what major institution deserved that title, and responded that "in a field of stiff competition" it was up there among the leaders. He went on to draw a contrast with the Church of England, an organisation for which he has often expressed a perhaps surprising affection:

The Anglican church has at least a few shreds of decency, traces of kindness and humanity with which Jesus himself might have connected, however tenuously: a generosity of spirit, of respect for women, and of Christ-like compassion for the less fortunate. The Anglican church does not cleave to the dotty idea that a priest, by blessing bread and wine, can transform it literally into a cannibal feast; nor to the nastier idea that possession of testicles is an essential qualification to perform the rite. It does not send its missionaries out to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, about the alleged ineffectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity. How does Pope Ratzinger measure up? The comparison is almost embarrassing.

Harsh, but perfectly fair, and not worse than anything he wrote in The God Delusion. He might have said more: Dawkins didn't allude, for example, to the warm welcome given by the Vatican to the lunatic extremists of the Society of St Pius X - including Bishop Williamson, who just the other day fined €12,000 by a German court for his remarks about the Holocaust. (Damian approved of the welcome, but not of Williamson himself, blaming the resulting fiasco on Ratzo's treacherous advisers.) There will, I suspect, be more than a few Anglicans secretly cheering the Richard Dawkins on, wishing they had someone in their ranks with the balls to tell it like it is. As for RD's remarks about the miracle of transubstantiation: it's strange, isn't it, that Damian Thompson is able to present himself as a sceptic about dubious treatments, conspiracy theories and other manifestations of "counterknowledge", while subscribing to Catholic dogma at its most absurdly baroque? The Catholic Church, Dawkins goes on to say, is "a disgusting institutution" , "where buggering altar boys pervades the culture" (well, even cardinals have stopped pretending that was never a problem) and, now running out of priests,

is dragging its flowing skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp: "Give me your homophobes, misogynists and pederasts. Send me your bigots yearning to be free of the shackles of humanity."

Yes, I can see why Damian might have been a bit upset at that. But there's a difference in the two men's vituperation. Dawkins is rude about the Catholic church as an institution; Thompson goes after Dawkins personally, as he goes after all his enemies. Perhaps he found some of the remarks struck a little close for comfort. Dawkins for his part seems to have become imbued with the spirit of the Reformation (note, for example, the unsubtle Whore of Babylon allusion) . By the time he reaches his final paragraph he sounds like a born-again Anglican:

Archbishop Rowan Williams is too nice for his own good. Instead of meekly sharing that ignominious platform with the poachers, he should have issued a counter-challenge: "Send us your women, yearning to be priests, who could make a strong case for being the better-qualified fifty percent of humanity; send us your decent priests, sick of trying to defend the indefensible; send them all, in exchange for our woman-haters and gay-bashers." Sounds like a good trade to me.

Except, of course, the C of E wouldn't be so direct.

As for Damian Thompson, the man clearly needs help.
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Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Why we should stop worrying and learn to love Tony Blair

Tony Blair leads a charmed life, does he not? Property tycoon, in-demand international speaker, high-powered peace negotiator, part-time adviser to a major US bank (with a more-than-full-time salary), faith supremo (whom even the Pope himself was proud personally to welcome as a convert), handsome, clever, and above all rich, he has lived more than two years since shaking the dust of Downing Street from his shoes with very little - make that nothing - to distress or vex him.

With several comfortable homes and a sunny disposition, he surely unites in his person all the blessings of existence. For most mere mortals, that would be enough - along with the onerous joys of "writing" his memoirs for an unheard-of advance. Blair, however, is willing (if long-whispered reports are to be believed) to sacrifice his life of ease for the tough, thankless task of being the European Union's first ever Lord High President, to sit and talk, on behalf of a whole grateful continent, with his peers from the United States and China, to cause traffic-jams in the name of international harmony.

He is the obvious candidate, as the Guardian reminds us. "He has the stature to play a leading role on the world's stage. He has the charm to cajole, the experience to back off, and the steeliness to persevere. He possesses that magic quality lesser worthies on the European stage so woefully lack." Or as that most beloved of Telegraph columnists, Mary Riddell, put it today, "his impatience, his grandstanding and his enthusiasm for liberal intervention would galvanise a sclerotic Europe that must... become a powerhouse of foreign policy." He will also, surely, be the man who can at last make us love Europe, as once we loved him. Some of us, anyway.

Are we not uniquely privileged, we inhabitants of an otherwise undistinguished island, to be the land that bred this hero, as Macedon bore Alexander, or Corsica brought forth Napoleon Bonaparte? Truly, we are not worthy: but he is, nevertheless, our gift to the world, as were Shakespeare, Newton, even Churchill. How the French will look upon with dismay as their own president has to wait his turn, how the Germans will recognise too late that they have lost yet another war. And our hearts will burst with pride. As that prince among politicians, David Miliband, put it so truthfully the other day, "it would be very good for Britain, as well as very good for Europe". And, best of all, we won't even have to vote for him. Other, wiser people will take that burden from us, as the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty completes the longed-for transformation of the European Union from an association of independent member states into a beneficent imperial superstate.

Yet there are those - many, it would seem - who are unhappy at the prospect. Not the emulous French, who seem to be among Tony's most fervent supporters, but people in Britain. Truly it was said that a prophet is without honour in his own country. From the Left and the Right the ingrates come to put the boot in. In the Guardian there's George Monbiot, that climate change bore, who claims that the Left is "united in revulsion" and that Blair himself is "one of the two greatest living mass murderers on earth." He fantasises about the Man of Faith being hauled in front of the international court in The Hague. From a different place entirely comes Max Hastings, writing in the Mail that it is "extraordinary, indeed grotesque, that a leader whose standing in his own country is at rock bottom should be deemed a worthy first president of Europe."

What is extraordinary about that? Has not the EU long been the destination of choice for politicians rejected by their domestic electorates? Neil Kinnock, anyone? A place where they can prove themselves and make a real contribution - almost like a rehabilitation centre for once and never-quite leaders. Tony Blair's new job, if he gets it, will be the same but on a grander scale, as he himself is on a grander scale. The role of the president is tailor-made for his talents. Without him, its potential will be unrealised, the shiny new Lisbon Europe runs the risk of being stillborn. With him, 500 million of us will have our own Obama. And Obama - who, after meeting him on two occasions, felt moved to hail him publicly as "my good friend Tony", such is the man's magic - will surely want to listen to his advice. Would he really pay so much attention to some nonentity from Luxembourg? Of course not.

Most peculiar is the obsession that Blair's detractors still have with the Iraq war, the mistakes he allegedly made, the slight gloss he put on the truth in furtherance of his noble aim of toppling Saddam Hussein and reshaping the Middle East in George W Bush's image. "It is hard to imagine a more devastating indictment of a leader than that he took his country to war under false pretences" harrumphs Hastings. The otherwise pro-Blair Guardian wonders if Europe should be "represented by a man who has thus far failed to provide satisfactory answers to so many questions which bear on his trustworthiness". I struggle to see the relevance of this. The war is over (well, over-ish); surely it is time, as Mr Blair himself likes to say, to "move on". If his fellow European leaders are happy to forgive Tony his small slip (if slip it was), then his own countrymen and women should have a similar generosity.

Against the Iraq war, after all, must be set the profound and wonderful change he wrought in our nation. Think what a kinder, happier, safer place it is now than when he rescued it from the malign grip of John Major and Kenneth Clarke. And it's scarcely Blair's fault if the economy collapsed shortly after he left. The economy was always Gordon's responsibility. Tony just did the smiley stuff, the world peace, the election victories. He was good at that. Soon, let's hope, he will be winning victories for Europe.

It's jealousy, plainly, that explains the churlish reaction in Britain to Blair's potential candidacy. David Cameron is worried about being overshadowed and outgunned, when he comes to power, by a man of whom he remains deeply in awe. Columnists and green-eyed failed politicians on all sides just can't get over the fact that he's Tony Blair and they're not. They've noticed that the rules of luck and karma that bring down most mortals don't apply to Anthony Charles Lynton, that whatever he does and whatever is said about him he will always emerge on top, that he has been kissed by the angels. Their only recourse is to jeer and try to do him down, to take pop-shots at him as though they were grand restaurant critics and he a mere baboon. But they only do themselves down. Yes, it's unfair, but so is life. They should grow up, and realise that what's good for Tony Blair is good for Europe, and what's good for Europe is good for the world.

Sadly, though, it may not happen. Der Spiegel is reporting that Blair has "only a slim chance": "Blair would steal the show from the foreign minister and marginalize the heads of government of Europe's smaller nations. The distribution of power within the EU could shift fundamentally. And nobody really wants that." So Tony may be forced to spend more time with his money after all. What a pity.
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Monday, 26 October 2009

Sense and the Census

It seems that the Conservatives are objecting to some of the proposed questions for the 2011 Census, described by the Mail as "the most intrusive ever carried out". They are especially alarmed by the suggestion that householders will be required to enumerate the names and dates of birth of any overnight guests they might have, which looks like an opportunity to pry into the nation's bedroom antics. Nick Hurd calls the new questions "yet another sign of how the Labour Government has no respect for the privacy of law-abiding citizens", and predicts that "an increasingly invasive and intrusive census will erode public support, cost more and result in a less accurate survey."

Well yes. If some questions seem designed to get people's backs up, others almost invite a frivolous response. One question slated for 2011 asks (in English) "How well do you speak English?" - with "not at all" as one of the possible answers. Who thought of that one? Henry Higgins? The notorious religion question will still be on the paper. I'm hoping to see healthy growth in the Jedi community, though the followers of Yoda now face stiff competition, numbers-wise, from devotees of His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As for the overnight visitors demand, which may potentially cause embarrassment 100 years hence (when - who knows? - many people now under 30 may still be alive), there's a simple expedient if you have something to hide, or merely resent the intrusion. Lie.

That's the big flaw at the heart of the census: it is entirely dependent upon people's willingness to give full and correct answers. In theory, you're obliged to answer every question fully and accurately, on pain of having your eyelids torn out and being hung upside down in the bowels of the MI6 building, or whatever dire punishment the government in its infinite wisdom has decided upon. In practice, the process of collecting and collating the information is so huge and expensive that it there are no spare resources to devote to checking the accuracy of every piece information. In fact, if they had the capacity to verify people's responses, they wouldn't need to ask the questions in the first place. They'd know already. Actually, they probably do know most of it already - or some other part of the ill-co-ordinated government behemoth knows already, which is why the entire Census concept is horrendously out of date, even as it tries to justify itself by becoming ever more elaborate.

Many people last time spent hours poring over the Census form, adding up figures, counting all their light fixtures (or whatever it is the question wanted to know) as though it were a tax return and inspectors were waiting with fierce dogs to pounce on anyone who made the tiniest slip. The truth is that it really doesn't matter what you put. Me, when the 2001 monstrosity dropped onto my mat (more than eight years ago, unbelievably) I just randomly ticked boxes. Not because I wanted to deceive, or because of my libertarian objections to the intrusiveness of the questionnaire (though I had, and have, such objections) but because it was just too long, and once I'd got as far as page 4 I simply couldn't be arsed. The work section, from what I remember, asked the same question about three times, and seemed to require a detailed break-down of a typical day. I just wrote "see above". And that, to be honest, was probably more than I needed to. The entire form took me under five minutes to complete. Anyone who takes more than ten minutes, as far as I'm concerned, is a dope.

Put it this way. In these days of (theoretically) omniscient databases it's easy to imagine that the state is using the Census form as a way of building up a detailed picture of every detail of your life. It isn't. If it wanted to, it could - and, in many cases, does. But the government statisticians who compile the Census are interested in generalities rather than specifics. It would be much cheaper and just as effective to use random sampling rather than a blanket survey to discover what is needed for policy planning. The Census persists, however, because it has always been there, gathering snowball-like accretions with every ten-year reissue until in size and complexity it approaches a tax return. It gets larger and more intrusive because it needs to justify its continuance; if it didn't exist no-one would try to invent it. But that's bureaucracy for you.

Of course, you are legally obliged to answer all the questions. The chances of actually being prosecuted are, however, fairly slight. At the time of the 2001 survey, a "non-compliance policy" was devised which, out of around a million non-returned or incompletely-returned forms, produced 38 successful prosecutions. None of these was for giving inaccurate information. The policy, indeed, was designed with the specific aim of producing a small number of high-profile convictions and, especially, avoiding possible acquittals. Tellingly, a 2003 follow-up report noted that the idea "was not necessarily to achieve significantly higher levels of response in the current census itself. Rather it is to discourage non-participation in subsequent censuses".

In particular, the Office of National Statistics only took legal action "in cases where it has obtained clear and sufficient evidence of a refusal that more or less guaranteed success in the courts." People who claimed, truthfully or otherwise, that their forms got lost in the post were not prosecuted. The ONS took a stricter line on non-returners who had been abusive to its staff (fair enough), but there also seems to have been a policy of targeting those who claimed that the Census violated their human rights. One such objector was charged £2500 in costs. However, most people were not charged in 2001, and they will not be in 2011.

The message is clear. If you object to a particular question, ignore it or make something up. If you object to the entire Census, claim that it got lost in the post.

Nevertheless, I'm fully behind the spirit (if not the grammatical logic) of Nick Hurd's statement that "Just because the Government has the legal powers to ask these questions does not give the state the licence to ask anything they want." Most people will meekly cough up the information asked for, even if they don't want to, even if they regard the whole business of (for example) defining one's race for the benefit of officialdom as offensive. It doesn't say in the report, however, that a Conservative government would scale back the Census, and remove several questions. In fact, there's no hint in the report that there's likely to be a Conservative government in place in 2011, although most people now assume that there will be. That is slightly odd.

Whatever current Tory intentions, the Census is an obvious candidate for abolition in the new age of government austerity. The last one cost almost £300 million; the next will be more lavish still. According to a document I found on the ONS website (which seems to be the source of today's story, despite having been hidden there, in plain sight - as so often happens - for almost a year),

A labour force of some 30,000 temporary field staff will be employed to carry out the Census. There will be a hierarchical management structure to this field force, headed by some 100 or more Census Area Managers employed for about a year before the Census and for about four months beyond. Each will be responsible for the enumeration of an area of about 500,000. As in the 2001 Census, Welsh-speaking Managers will be appointed to oversee the enumeration in Wales.

And that's not counting the publicity campaign to persuade people to fill the damn thing out, the IT systems that will need to be bought and upgraded to crunch all the numbers, not to mention the mopping-up exercise that will follow to find some high-profile refusniks to randomly persecute. And for what? To tell the government things they either already know, or if they don't, MORI could find out for them in a couple of weeks. The last Census - despite intense efforts to ensure compliance - was notoriously inaccurate, and created real problems of resource allocation as a result. The document cited above referred to "a less compliant society" as being one of the major challenges this time around, which suggests it will be even more inaccurate this time around. I was also interested to note that proposals for even more intrusive questions, about income and sexual orientation, have been quietly dropped for fear of provoking widespread disobedience.

The whole thing is a ridiculous waste of public resources, an anachronism belonging to the days of horse-drawn carriages, and a monumental cheek. The Tories should promise to scrap it now - while they still can, before they get into government and the Civil Service turns them, as it turn all parties of government, into a bunch of zombies.
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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Carey joins in BNP hatefest

Hating the BNP is the new environmentalism. A way of showing you care, that you're (despite any evidence to the contrary) a Good Person. It's a bandwagon everyone wants to jump on, from expenses-fiddling former ministers to generals to TV personalities. Even - especially - those who would to a casual observer appear to sympathise with at least some of the BNP's stated opinions. Peter Hitchens, for example, assures us that the BNP leader is "a great geyser of slime" while he himself is "a long-term enemy of the BNP"; and then gets to his main point, which is "the blindingly obvious truth that Labour has helped create the BNP and Mr Griffin, through its callous and incompetent laxness on immigration." In similar vein, Melanie Phillips calls them "a half-baked neo-Nazi rabble" (if not nearly so bad as the Islamists).

On the establishment Left, meanwhile, the Question Time saga has given some Guardian writers the best excuse they've ever had to indulge their visceral fear of the traditional white working class.

I was half-expecting Katie Price herself to emerge from the wreckage of her latest relationship to give the News of the World the lowdown on her distaste for the BNP leader. "Even after my latest boob job, Griffin's still the biggest tit I've ever seen", perhaps. Instead it was George Carey, an almost-forgotten former Archbishop of Canterbury, who - fresh from condemning the Pope's Blitzkrieg on what's left of the Church of England - has used his occasional pulpit in the Screws to denounce Old Nick and all his works. It was, he wrote, "a pity that none of the other panelists [on Question Time] challenged Griffin's deceitful attempt to align his despicable policies with Christianity. This squalid racist must not be allowed to hijack one of the world's great religions." Is that all Christianity is now, George, "one" of the world's "great religions"?

Griffin, says Carey, is "a sly, shifty figure who would hide unpalatable truths, and cynically spin regardless of the truth, for the sake of votes and funds." Which makes him sound just like any other politician. The archbishop also finds the BNP and Griffin to be "irredeemably evil" - which strikes me as being theologically somewhat unsound, since presumably the way of repentence and salvation is still open to him should he disavow his racist views, but what do I know? - yet also, strangely, to have a point about immigration.

Sadly the other political parties were let off the hook. The cowardly failure of successive governments to address our open borders is the reason the BNP has gained admittance to the political mainstream. With the latest estimate that our population will rise by nearly 10 million by 2030, politicians are ducking the unpalatable truth: we are now one of the most over-populated countries in the world.

It is asking a huge amount of the British public to accept an open-door policy on immigration. They have seen a massive influx of newcomers, they have seen their jobs hit, and they feel ignored. There have not been adequate resources to help community adapt to these massive changes. Yet it is not only a question of resources but the failure to absorb and integrate new communities. The discredited policy of multiculturalism must be abandoned once and for all. Now a controlled approach to immigration is needed with clear caps set on population growth. If the mainstream parties begin listening to the voters, the BNP can be consigned again to the fringes.

Make no mistake about it, immigration MUST be a major item on next year's General Election agenda. Let us vote in a party that is going to deal with this in a balanced and firm way. If we fail, the BNP will feed off the anger and frustration of citizens of all races and religions in this small island of ours.

This argument, of course, is now the standard explanation for "BNP" success, and it has been heard rather too often in recent days. All three politicians on the QT panel trotted it out, as did most newspaper columnists who expressed a preference. How can it be, I wonder, that mainstream politicians are "ducking" the issue of immigration when they seem to talk of little else? But however familiar the argument has become, it's something of a jolt to find an archbishop making it. Carey devoted more of his piece to an assault on the government's open door immigration policy than to his attack on Griffin for "hijacking" Christianity, which was rather perfunctory.

Carey might have quoted St Paul's words that "there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus", or written of the great contribution made to his own church by the likes of Desmond Tutu and the present archbishop of York (or perhaps the departing bishop of Rochester is more to his taste). He might have extolled the legacy of Martin Luther King, or explained just how it was that Christianity has been distorted in the past by the Ku Klux Klan and the upholders of Apartheid in South Africa. He might have reminded readers of Christ's central teaching of "love thy neighbour", and of the work done by Christian missionaries and doctors in the third world, or mentioned the little-known fact that one of the earliest recorded archbishops of Canterbury was an African. He might, in short, have explained why he thought Nick Griffin was wrong to use the Christian history of Britain in his propaganda. Instead he chose to grouse about immigration. And to do so in the pages of Britain's sleaziest newspaper. Is this not utterly bizarre?

The archbishop shares this week's News of the World with a 28 year old woman who boasts of having had 900 lovers ("making up for lost time" being her bizarre excuse) and an astonishingly bitchy set of revelations from Katie Price's former "best friend", Michelle Clack. Clack - Jordan's bridesmaid - told the paper that the horse-riding plastic surgery addict was "a nasty, selfish bitch and a shameless liar who needs serious therapy" - and, what is worse, "doesn't actually like sex." Lovely stuff. The paper also had an exclusive interview with the Queen.

That, at least, is how it was presented. Like everyone else, it seems, her Maj has (in time-honoured fashion) "let it be known" that she too disapproves of Nasty Nick. She "erupted with fury", we are led to believe, when told of the BNP's enthusiasm for Winston Churchill, and has "ORDERED all the royals to join forces with her to unite Britain against hated BNP leader Nick Griffin."

Is this a real story? Did a courtier volunteer this information, or did the News of the World solicit it? If the former, what precisely is the Palace up to giving an exclusive to the Murdoch-owned tabloid? And even if, as I suspect, the official was merely responding to an approach, the move seems constitutionally dubious. Even if the entire political establishment is at one in its dislike of the BNP (albeit with differing motives) wading into the public debate in this fashion may open the Queen to unwelcome lines of enquiry - about the absence of black faces in the Royal Household, for example. Perhaps her majesty, a woman of only half British parentage married to a full-blooded German, is simply worried that she might not count as "indigenous" under Nick Griffin's criteria.
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Saturday, 24 October 2009

His Bonnie from over the ocean

Poor Bonnie Greer. The general, if not universal, consensus has it that the Newsnight Review regular did best in the bearpit that was Thursday's Griffin Time. I thought so (at least among the panellists: the best contributions came from the floor). Chris Huhne was quite forceful, but his attempt to portray the Liberal Democrats as uniquely tough on immigration (tougher than Labour, anyway) was deeply weird. Jack Straw was his usual mixture of oleaginous and disturbingly right wing; hearing him - after all he has done during the past twelve years - cheered to the rafters simply for not being a racist will not form one of my pleasanter memories. Sayeeda Warsi was shrill and unconvincing, and there was no sign of the Union Jack scarf we were promised. They made a dispiriting trio. If this is what reaching out to potential BNP supporters means, it would be better by far just to ignore them. If some people want to vote for fascists, let them. Nick Griffin isn't going to form the next government, or any government.

Greer played a more subtle game, treating the BNP leader, as he deserves to be treated, mainly as someone who Needs Help. Her gentle humour was a more effective weapon than Straw's ranting (Sunny Hundal does not agree, which only confirms me in my opinion) and more authentic than Huhne's impersonation of Enoch Powell. It was, she writes, part of a game plan: "There was no way that I was going to live up to any negative pictures that he would have had about me, or of any other black woman, even at the risk of looking ineffective". It may, though, have worked a little too well. Bonnie seems to have landed herself with a stalker.

It began backstage. Greer told the Standard,

"I was the last to emerge and when he saw me, he turned and smiled his greasy smile and clumsily half extended a hand. I ignored it and thought to myself: what are you about? Are you forgetting I'm black? Are you forgetting you called me a black history fabricator? Are you trying to show me you aren't racist?"

And it got even worse when they were seated:

"We were seated next to each other and as we were having our microphones attached, he leaned towards me like I was his new best friend and tried to make small talk. "Bonnie, how many times have you been on?" he asked. "Bonnie, do you find it scary?" I looked him straight in the eye. "No," I replied sharply, "but you might."

According to today's Times, Griffin "repeatedly" tried to engage her in conversation. "He was trying to vibrate towards me; I was trying to edge away from him" she said. "He was like some creepy guy who bothers you in the pub". At one point during the broadcast, I noticed Griffin tapping Greer affectionately on the back and attempting to share a conspiratorial remark. When he came out with his spiel about indigenous Brits ("the skin colour is irrelevant", he maintained, by which I assume he meant that he hates Poles almost as much as he hates black people) she offered him a reading list. "Come see me at the British Museum [where she is a trustee] and I'll give you some books." Big mistake. Griffin handed her his business card - which she is now "considering putting up for sale on ebay" and afterwards described her as "a smart and charming lady". He accepted her (presumably rhetorical) offer to come up and see her museum, which she must now deeply regret. His enthusiasm would appear unrequited. She found him "dangerously narcissistic" and suggested that "in America he would have been on the David Letterman show" as an object of ridicule.

I thought it was Letterman himself who's the object of ridicule these days; but then Bonnie Greer has been in Britain for two decades and perhaps she's above such trivia. Personally, I'd like to see Griffin get the Jon Stewart treatment, though he'd also make a good candidate for Jerry Springer.

It's possible that Griffin's enthusiasm for Bonnie Greer is all a pose, of course, a cynical and doomed attempt to persuade people that he's not really racist at all, just tough on immigration and with a heart bleeding for the plight of the indigenous population. What better way than to say nice things about an inoffensive-looking American woman of colour? But perhaps, just perhaps, he really does have a crush on her. Stranger things have happened. She's an attractive woman, and he probably hasn't been in the proximity of such an intelligent person since his Cambridge days (in her most elegant stiletto-strike, Greer revealed that Nasty Nick had come away with a Desmond). She was nice to him: at least, she wasn't overtly aggressive towards him, which if you're Nick Griffin might well seem irresistibly flirtatious.
The coup de foudre, indeed, might explain why a man used to mugging for the cameras seemed so uncharacteristically nervous. Who hasn't been on edge during a first date with someone they really fancied?

Being racist in general does not necessarily preclude warmer feelings towards an individual - as the mixed racial heritage of most African Americans tends to demonstrate. Perhaps, like his friend from the "non-violent" faction of the Ku Klux Klan, he fantasises about being master of a Southern plantation, with Bonnie as his favourite slave-girl. Or perhaps his fantasy is more prosaic but equally delusional, and he imagines that Greer might see past the maligned caricature conjured by the liberal-dominated media elite into the decent and sensitive soul within.

I hope Bonnie Greer is taking appropriate evasive action.
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Friday, 23 October 2009

An account of bear-baiting, c.1575

The bear was brought forth into the court, the dogs were set to him ... Very fierce both one and the other, and eager in argument: if the dog in pleading should pluck the bear by the throat, the bear with traverse would claw him again by the scalp ... thus with fending and proving, with plucking and tugging, scratching and biting, by plain tooth and nail on one side and the other, such expense of blood and lather was there between them, as a month’s licking, I ween, will not recover.

It was a sport very pleasant to see, to see the bear, with his pink eyes, tearing after his enemies' approach; the nimbleness and wait of the dog to take his advantage and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid his assaults: if he were bitten in one place how he would pinch in another to get free; that if he were taken once, then by what shift with biting, with clawing, with roaring, with tossing and tumbling he would work and wind himself from them; and when he was loose to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slaver hanging about his physiognomy.

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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Tearing Down the Fences?

This is a guest post by Father James Rattue

For Andrew Brown, characteristically, the Vatican’s announcement of a new Apostolic Constitution to be issued by Pope Benedict, allowing disaffected Anglicans a congenial means of submitting to Rome, was a humiliation for Archbishop Rowan Williams. In Mr Brown’s world, most things are. When the sun beats down on the Serengeti, the bearded one hangs his head in shame; when the rainclouds break over County Sligo, the Primate of All England weeps bitter tears. To see the Apostolic Constitution (which hasn’t actually been published yet) in terms of bitter interdenominational rivalry, and assuming the Pope wakes up each morning thinking of new ways to rub Rowan Williams’ nose in his own impotence, is of course only what we might expect of journalists reared in the traditions of modern political reporting, which in turn seem to have adopted the models of sports and celebrity gossip. The Today programme even mentioned Anglicans hoping their Church would ‘fight back’, which, charitably, shows some slight misunderstanding of the message of Jesus Christ.

What is actually happening, or what it appears will happen, is this. Since 1980 Anglican clergy have been able, should they choose, to submit to the Roman hierarchy and be re-ordained, even though they may be married with families, on a case-by-case basis. Pope Benedict plans to give Anglican converts their own bishop or bishops (who they will be is another matter), and allow them to celebrate recognisably Anglican services (what they will be is also another matter – probably not the very Protestant 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but the old English Missal which many Anglo-Catholic churches used once upon a time, or one of the older versions of the Episcopal Church of the USA’s Prayer Book).

At the press conference where he and the RC Archbishop Vincent Nichols announced the scheme, Archbishop Williams stated these arrangements were ‘nothing new’, but what they do is smooth the passage for potential converts. Converts won’t be ‘crossing the Tiber’ as isolated individuals, but as groups, parishes, even perhaps whole dioceses (the only Anglican diocese which has ever corporately ‘poped’ was Amritsar in 1975).

Papa Benny is usually portrayed as an ultra-Catholic conservative, trying to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; seen from that viewpoint, this would indeed be fishing in the muddied waters of the Anglican Communion to scoop up a few tiddlers. But that isn’t how he sees himself. In his own eyes he’s trying to return to the genuine position of Vatican 2, which has been woefully misunderstood within the RC Church as much as outside it. The Council’s declaration on Ecumenism turned the Church around from the defensive mode it had inhabited since the Reformation: instead of assuming that all non-Catholics were going to Hell, and condemning other churches for not being Catholic, it instead welcomed the signs of Catholic identity that still survived in those churches, and committed itself to working to encourage them. In practice many RCs concluded that differences between churches didn’t matter at all, and the liturgical changes ushered in during the 1960s encouraged that impression.

Benedict sees his mission as restoring to the Roman Church its properly Catholic centre of gravity, focused on restating the basic principles of the liturgy, encouraging more traditional forms of it, and trying to make things easier for traditionally-minded Catholics. That means being friendly towards the Society of St Pius X, Nazi-sympathising oddball bishops notwithstanding. It also means looking at some of the traditionalist Anglican groups and saying, "Yes, you look pretty much like I would like Catholics to be." Anglicans know about beautiful liturgy and they know how to use hymns properly; they will be able to teach the rest of the RC Church some lessons in both.

Benedict is also desperately concerned about the unity of the Church. Back in July 2008 he told journalists that the last thing he wanted was for the Anglican Communion to detonate. Left to themselves, traditionalist Anglicans will, most likely, leave the mainstream of the Communion and set up on their own, as many have; in the Pope’s eyes, schism is a disaster, and he wants to find ways of avoiding new denominations being established in a spirit of bitterness and rebellion, which helps nobody. The Apostolic Constitution will be one of those ways.

If Papa Benny is widely misjudged, so is his opposite number at Canterbury – who of course isn’t really an opposite number at all, because he has less room for manoeuvre than I have in my little parish. Rowan Williams came into office buoyed up by the expectations of the pro-gay, pro-girl Catholic liberals in the Church of England that he would vigorously follow their agenda. As the former Bishop of Worcester recently wrote in the Church Times, they thought he would use his ‘immense gifts’ to ‘assist all of us to move to a larger perception of this complex reality’, which you can accurately translate as ‘persuade everyone else to agree with us’. He hasn’t, and the most vocal liberal Catholics now cordially loathe their Primate with the violence of a jilted lover. The kindest word they will use, apart from ‘disappointment’, is ‘ditherer’. But , in the first place, Williams’ last effort to tell his Church what to do, when he and Archbishop Sentamu of York tried to persuade the General Synod last year to put in strong safeguards for the anti-women bishops crowd, ended in Synod telling them both, effectively, to sod off.

Secondly, what seems to have happened since Rowan Williams moved to Lambeth is that he has come to parallel conclusions to Benedict: that Catholic Christianity within the Anglican Church has disintegrated more than anyone imagined, and that Canterbury must rediscover its centre of gravity as Rome is attempting to. But the centrifugal process has gone far deeper in the Anglican Communion, and if the Archbishop’s ‘immense gifts’ – especially the gift of what his biographer calls ‘ventriloquy’, presenting to embittered foes their own position and their opponents’ in terms that make them both appear more reasonable than they are – can’t stop bits of the Communion flying off, the next best option is to co-operate with Rome in turning potential schism into ‘realignment’. That at least stands more chance of furthering what Williams thinks is God’s mission for the Church. If the traditionalists leave, he is left with reintroducing the rest of the fractious, liberal Anglican Church to a Catholic tradition it barely knows exists. A tough job, but at least it’s only one rather than half a dozen.

If the Vatican announcement was such a humiliation, why was Williams sat next to Vincent Nichols to endorse it? Why did Nichols want him there? If he didn’t, what on earth could have persuaded him (no great ecumenist) to agree? Why would Williams have wanted to turn up just in order to be rubbished? How perverse would that be? The simplest explanation is that the press conference was exactly what it looked to be – a joint declaration of a policy that suited both parties to it.

This may all sound pretty remote to the good atheist readership of Heresy Corner, although as an Anglican priest trying to edge my own congregation gently in the direction of that Catholic centre of gravity, I hope you can understand my interest. What may, possibly, pique the interest of Heretics generally is not the ecclesiastical politics of the story but the spirit behind it. It represents not the triumph of denominational rivalry as it appears, but the erosion of those very rivalries. Previous Anglican converts to Rome, sailing across the Tiber as individuals, couldn’t help being given the impression, no matter how kindly they were treated, that their entire spiritual lives as Anglicans were essentially void and meaningless, something to be discarded and even repented. Pope Benedict is instead explicitly recognising that the Anglican tradition contains Catholic elements of worth which don’t have to be surrendered because of a change of outward allegiance.

In turn, Rowan Williams appreciates this, and was only able to share that table with the Archbishop of Westminster because the Anglican Church no longer sees itself as ‘anti-Roman Catholic’, no longer part of the Reformation alliance standing foursquare against the Whore of Babylon. This is perhaps the closest the Roman and Anglican Churches have yet come to the surrender of their mutual bigotries.
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Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Abusing the evidence

Yesterday the Guardian delivered the coup de grace to one of the Home Office's most notorious and shameful campaigns of public disinformation. In two impeccably researched and faultlessly argued pieces, Nick Davies ripped apart the statistics that the government has used to justify its policies on people trafficking and prostitution more generally. One of his reports showed how, despite high-profile police raids and the lavish use of resources to tackle what was claimed to be a widespread problem, very few perpetrators have been brought to justice. A six-month campaign by "government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country" - Operation Pentameter 2 - was hailed by Jacqui Smith as "a great success", yet yielded only 15 convictions.

Davies' other article laid bare the process by which the figures commonly used by ministers and repeated uncritically by the media actually came into being. First, estimates were made using flawed methodology and unjustified assumptions - often by researchers with a settled view (that all prostitutes are by definition abused victims, for example, or that all foreign sex-workers are by definition "trafficked"). Next, caveats were disregarded and figures rounded up. Then different sets of dodgy statistics were lumped together without regard to accepted scientific practice. "Up to" became "at least" and then "by the most conservative estimate: the actual figure is probably much higher".

Some numbers were plucked out of thin air to decorate speculative press articles, from whence they were inserted uncritically into Home Office reports and thus became official statistics. In the end, a figure which had itself no basis in research became so widely quoted that its very repetition lent it weight, until it came to be described routinely (and not inaccurately) as "the most widely-accepted figure".

In this way, a survey which identified 71 probable victims of sex trafficking yielded a figure of 4,000. This bogus statistic then served as the basis for sensationalist reporting, policy formulation and finally legislation.

This dubious use of statistics has continued in the face of strongly voiced opposition from more careful researchers, such as Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon (who gives her response on Charlotte Gore's blog) and Dr Petra Boynton. And it's not hard to see why. As Boynton notes:

Davies mentions that academic research was ignored or exaggerated. But there’s more to this story than that. Politicians have systematically disregarded academic research, holding in higher regard studies without ethical approval and full of methodological flaws. It’s not that politicians such as Harriet Harman and others were not aware of the wider evidence that discusses the real health and social needs of prostitutes. It isn’t that academics have not been trying very hard to explain to journalists and ministers that there is reliable evidence that could underpin policy. It’s that a number of politicians have deliberately disregarded the advice from academics specialising in prostitution research, opting instead for cherry picked studies and unreliable statistics to suit their agenda.

In the end, it's the women the government claims to want to help who are the main victims of the government's warped priorities. They're also the least likely to be listened to. As Brooks-Gordon points out,

For all her frothing at the mouth over ordinary punters, [Harriet] Harman will not listen to ordinary (ie active) sex working women and to my knowledge has refused to meet with any of the real sex worker organisations so far, preferring second hand information from those who have received money from her department.

Davies has done more than anyone in Britain to expose bad journalistic practice, above all in his book Flat Earth News. The Guardian, by contrast, has done more than any other media outlet to propogate the views of anti-prostitution campaigners like Julie Bindel for whom the statistics - real or invented, plausible or absurd - are in any case of less importance than their ideological crusade. Their convictions have an almost religious intensity: it is not because of the evidence that they believe in the prevalence of sex trafficking, but despite it.

Rahila Gupta, for example, chides Nick Davies for not mentioning "the report into trafficking by a home affairs committee, published in May, which gave an estimate of 5000 trafficked women and children in the UK, based on an aggregation of the figures provided by those working in this field", apparently oblivious to the fact that those were precisely the figures whose credibility he had so comprehensively destroyed. Meanwhile Denis Macshane, who used an unsubstantiated headline in the Mirror to claim in Parliament that there were no fewer than 25,000 victims of trafficking, describes those people who bother to check their facts as "self-appointed experts indulging in a futile war of statistics". Priceless. Or, as Brooks-Gordon puts it, "beyond parody".

Part of the problem is that "trafficking" is hard to define. At one extreme, unwilling girls are kidnapped, drugged or otherwise coerced from their home countries and end up as sex slaves in brothels run by criminal gangs. This is what most people think of when they hear the phrase "sex traffic"; and, as Davies stresses, it does occur. The government, however, has sought to conflate this fairly small-scale problem with all instances of women coming into Britain, legally or otherwise, and ending up as prostitutes. And in so doing they ignore good evidence that a significant proportion of such women are already involved in the sex trade and see Britain as a more lucrative market. According to Davies, even mail order brides are counted as trafficked women in some officially-approved surveys.

But it would be a mistake to blame confusions of this type for prompting the government's legislative folly. Nor have they been hoodwinked by either radical feminists or the religious groups who with whom feminist campaigners have entered into an unholy alliance. Davies tellingly compares the government's wilful misuse of research evidence to the scaremongering over Saddam Hussein's alleged WMD. But such an abuse of research has become second nature in the Home Office.

A more recent and even closer parallel can be found in the document put out to justify the government's proposals to continue with its illegal storage of DNA data of the innocent. The research used was tendentious and was subjected to devastating scrutiny by others in the field, but even those responsible for it distanced themselves from the way the government had attempted to use it. Last week, in what was widely seen as a climbdown (but which was more likely a way of heading off an expected Lords defeat) the government shelved proposals to write their proposals into law. The retention of DNA samples by the police still goes on, however, in defiance of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, and will do for as long as the government to get away with it.

The pattern described by Davies recurs time and time again. The government, often already decided a particular policy, adopts or commissions parti pris research which it proceeds both to cherry-pick and to exaggerate. Its press releases, backed by authoritative-sounding "official figures" are then regurgitated by the press, exaggerated some more, emotionalised (and usually personalised via some well-chosen case study), editorialised, action is demanded, until some minister shows up on the Today programme to be berated by a fired-up John Humphrys demanding "what are you doing about X?" X, of course, being the problem (or imagined problem) highlighted and exaggerated by the government's misuse of statistics and research. And the minister proudly announces the policy the government had had in mind all along - only to be told by a spokesperson for a pressure group or fake charity that it's a good start, but not nearly enough.

We've seen this process in campaigns to tackle binge drinking or obesity (aka "the obesity epidemic"), in demographic predictions and assessments of terrorist threats, in education policy, in foreign policy - in fact, there can be few areas of government policy untainted by the selective use of statistics and tendentious research. The government has loudly proclaimed its commitment to "evidence-based policy-making" while instead pursuing policy-based evidence making. In the short run, this has produced some extremely bad legislation. In the longer term, it risks destroying public faith in any evidence put forward by the government. Even when their figures are accurate no-one will believe them.

There's a simple way round this: for all research reports and statistics issued by government departments to be independently validated and peer-reviewed, and departmental press releases checked for accuracy and balance by outside experts before being issued to the media. That, though, would present politicians with a dilemma. Either they really would have to base policy-making on evidence - which might lead generally to better laws, but would have the effect of increasing their dependence on experts, which risks reducing democracy to a cipher. Or they could drop the pretence and admit that scientific research is only one of several factors that influence policy-making, others being popular prejudice, knee-jerk responses to moral panics and the desire to please their supporters and backers. At least then we would be free to have a proper democratic debate.
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Will "jobs for the girls" fuel the Nasty Party?

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

David Cameron’s move towards all-female shortlists for Parliamentary candidates appears to be motivated by ideological rather than electoral considerations.

He appears to be convinced as a matter of moral principle that a Conservative Party that does not significantly increase its quota of female MPs is somehow deficient. Where is the clear evidence that a Conservative candidate would be more likely to win a seat if she were female?

Even if there were a reliable survey in a particular constituency that pointed in that direction, the problem for Mr Cameron is that his inclination towards positive discrimination is not strongly shared by those most inclined to conservative values in Britain today. When they compare the male-dominated Parliaments of the past with the present one, whose female quota has increased significantly through the New Labour all-female shortlists, they are even less inclined to be persuaded by David’s Cameron’s moral fervour about "diversity".

For this reason and also because it is fundamentally anti-meritocratic, positive discrimination is likely to boost the pitch of the BNP to conservatively-inclined voters. Meritocracy became a cherished value to Conservatives and to British society more generally under Margaret Thatcher. It was not only non-public school Conservatives who cheered when she beat the Clarendon public school old-boy network at their own game.

As Ann Widdecombe pointed out yesterday, Mrs Thatcher had no need of all-female shortlists. Her rivals for the Conservative leadership were all male and when she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979 and in two subsequent General Elections her Labour rivals for the job of Prime Minister were also male.

Mr Cameron’s approach, if taken to its logical conclusion, would require an all-female shortlist for the job of party leader and, if we do not get another female Prime Minister before too long, an all-female shortlist of potential contenders for PM.

For an old Etonian to play anti-meritocratic games on the platform of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party is therefore none too clever.

The BNP’s ‘retro’ pitch with its invocation of Winston Churchill and his stand for ‘Christian civilisation’ is already aimed at the sort of person who is drawn both to a meritocratic winner and to the perceived moral superiority of the past.

As an Evangelical Christian, I am clearly more appalled at the attempt by the BNP to draw Christ into its shameful cause than I am by its invocation of Winston Churchill. For the BNP to commandeer Christianity is utterly deplorable. Those men and women who are most pro-active in standing up for Christian values against political correctness in Britain today happen to be black Evangelicals such as Christian registrar Lillian Ladele and in the case of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Pakistani background.

It would be tragic if David Cameron’s tilt towards political correctness were to help the really nasty party.

The Heresiarch adds:

I sincerely hope there aren't many Conservatives who would rather vote for the BNP than for a woman. Nor can I imagine that there are many of them. And, of course, most BNP support comes from traditional Labour areas. Tories are more likely to defect to UKIP.

David Cameron's problem is simple: local associations have historically been reluctant to choose female candidates. However unfair it is to promote people on the basis of sex rather than pure ability, a political party is more than a collection of talented individuals. It's also a public face. These days, a male-dominated front bench is a serious political liability. Cameron must at least give the appearance of trying to do something about it.
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Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Generals declare war on BNP

It's a good rule in a democracy that generals should keep their noses out of politics. So what should we make of today's extraordinary intervention by a group of very senior retired generals (among their number the Conservatives' worryingly loose cannon Richard Dannatt, but also the hitherto exemplary Lord Guthrie) who wrote a joint letter condemning the influence of the BNP? A public-spirited attempt to disassociate the army from neo-fascism? A statement of the obvious, destined merely to give Nick Griffin yet more publicity in advance of his appearance on Question Time this week? Or, as Griffin himself claimed, a Tory plot?

Here's what the braid-bedizened quartet wrote:

We call on all those who seek to hijack the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage to cease and desist. The values of these extremists — many of whom are essentially racist — are fundamentally at odds with the values of the modern British military, such as tolerance and fairness.

They seem to be referring to the party's use of World War II imagery such as pictures of Spitfires and Winston Churchill: The Times spoke of "widespread frustration within the Forces at the fact that the BNP is allowed to portray itself as the party of patriots in its literature". And it's obvious why they should want to single out the racist BNP in this way. However, hijacking the good name of Britain's military for their own advantage is scarcely a BNP preserve. Most politicians try from time to time to curry favour with the electorate by wrapping themselves in the Union Jack. Gordon Brown does it every week in the House of Commons.

Worse, emoting with moistened eyes about the heroic sacrifice of our troops has become a substitute for debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan and how long we are going to be doing it. Indeed, it has become the standard way of deflecting debate. Griffin's invocation of Britain's historic stand against Nazi Germany is in poor taste - and, of course, somewhat ironic given the philosophical roots and still-extant sympathies of his organisation. But it's a side-issue compared with, for example, the poor standard of military housing.

I was even more struck by the claim that "tolerance and fairness" represented "the values of the modern British military". Tolerance and fairness are all very well in their place, but aren't much use in combat. Like the police before it, the army now finds itself under siege by the forces of modernisation, with its morale-sapping drives towards diversity, health and safety and human rights compliance. The aim is to make it better reflective of the society which it is supposed to defend. More gender-balanced, gay-friendly, non-racist, committed to "progressive" goals of developing human potential. A politically correct army that ticks all the currently fashionable boxes. The sort of army you can bring home to your Guardian-reading mother (if you are unfortunate enough to possess such a thing). An army that loses wars.

"When the blast of war blows in our ears, Shakespeare's Henry V advised his troops at Harfleur, "then imitate the action of the tiger". But that was a long time ago. These days things more cuddly-feely. Sailors go to sea clutching ipods and turn to jelly when confronted by a few Iranians with rifles. And then they sell the story of their personal hell to the newspapers. The British are less cowardly than the Italians, who pay their enemies to leave them alone; less cautious than the Germans, who in a strange historical reversal make sure there are no enemies in the vicinity in the first place; and less technologically obsessed than the Americans, who don't mind blasting away at the enemy so long as the enemy is in no position to fire back. The British army, unlike most of its Western allies, still contains fighting men. But the rot has undoubtedly begun to set in - and like the rotting of a fish, it starts at the top.

In an ideal world, there would be no contradiction between a military that embodied liberal principles of "tolerance and fairness" and a battle-hardened killing machine. But we don't live in an ideal world. And if, for reasons partly political, partly cultural, partly the result of historical drift, we prefer to have a nice army, we can't expect it to win anything. The Taliban, currently doing much better than NATO in Afghanistan (as anyone who can look past the domestic spin will be well aware) don't do cuddly. They don't do tolerance or non-racism or non-discrimination. And they sure as hell don't do gay-friendly or gender balance. The point isn't that we should want to emulate the Taliban, or that tolerance and fairness are bad things. The point is that the Taliban are winning.

But why are senior generals so keen to jump on the anti-BNP bandwagon? Explaining how much you really hate the BNP is of course an easy way of demonstrating moral virtue in today's Britain. But it's also part of an organised campaign. James Bethell and Tim Montgomerie set up "Nothing British" in March to, as their report Stolen Valour (available via their website) puts it,

help protect Britain’s fragile qualities of freedom, tolerance and fairness from the forces of extremism and racism sweeping Europe, represented by the British National Party, its surrogates and other neo-fascist splinter groups.

This is an admirable aim. Or at least it would be if (1) Britain's qualities of freedom and tolerance were "fragile" (they're not) or (2) if the main threat to them came from the BNP. These "qualities" - which Gordon Brown likes to call "British values", as though they existed nowhere else - face their greatest challenge from the government itself, which has spent twelve years preaching and passing illiberal legislation, and from the dissatisfaction produced by the radical transformation of society that there has been. At most, the BNP feed off anger that is widespread among certain sections of the population. They even help to stoke it up. And of course it's reprehensible. But, other than gaining a few council seats and, latterly, two MEPs, I struggle to identify what precisely the BNP has done that makes it such a danger to democracy. They do not appear to be orchestrating race-riots. Their councillors, when elected, behave much like any other councillors. They appeal only to a relatively small minority of voters - and while they have grown from a small base, that has been accompanied by moves (feigned as they might well be) towards the political mainstream.

Whenever he is interviewed (which is increasingly often, given the media's strange obsession with his party) Nick Griffin strives to appear rational and moderate. His dissent from centrist politics is expressed in the language of cheap populism rather than cranky race-hate. He denies being a Holocaust denier. Yes, of course his policies are ugly, and he is a smooth media-friendly face of a party that contains many thugs. But that is because he realises that without mitigating the BNP's excesses he would have no political future. And the reason for that is simple: the values of freedom, tolerance and fairness are not "fragile", but deeply rooted. If they can survive New Labour, they can survive Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time.

Reading Nothing British's report, I find myself getting increasingly alarmed. Convinced that the BNP represents a huge threat to democracy, Bethell and Montgomerie claim that there's a need "to understand the causes of the anger and frustration" - which they put down to "policy failures". And while they say they want to appeal to "Britain's inherently benign values", they also recommend "brave solutions that sometimes challenge the liberal Establishment’s orthodoxy". In other words, they believe that the only way of defeating the BNP is to embrace some of its policies.

In a paranoia-drenched foreword, Charles Moore writes that "the military is under a new attack" and that "a newly-confident generation of neo-fascists are cynically exploiting the reputation of the military with enormous energy" and with "with the slick marketing tools of modern communications". He means that Nick Griffin appears on a platform with a picture of a Spitfire in the background. He also means

YouTube videos, political roadshows, dividing lines [what are dividing lines?cm], Photo-shopped imagery, Astro-turf community groups, FaceBook communities, even the cover of charitable social action.

I'm not sure what "dividing lines" are either. I must say, though, I'm impressed by Moore's mastery of Web 2.0 jargon. But really, what is this all about? So some BNP activists use the internet. It's not evidence of their insidious success, it's an admission of failure.

There's a Reds under the Beds quality to some of Nothing British's suggestions. They worry about racists infiltrating Remembrance Day events and urge the Charities Commission "to be vigilant about those who solicit donations under false pretences". And then there's this:

Nothing British also asks for greater care to be applied to the mental health of troops returning from combat, particularly those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. This is to protect disgruntled service personnel from being the victims of prey from racists who seek to exploit their highly specialised skills learned during their time in the military.

The mental health of returning and former servicemen is an important issue, and a neglected one. But I find rather offensive the suggestion that they should be looked after primarily because they are vulnerable to racists. They are vulnerable and deserve support; that's all that matters.

The people behind Nothing British are right to object to the BNP's appropriation of patriotic imagery. But they are wrong to make too big a deal of it. And they are very wrong indeed to if they think that the way to counteract the BNP's influence is to take on board its legitimate concerns or to adopt its less extreme policies. Labour has been playing that game for some years now, with ghastly results (including increased levels of support for the BNP). Nothing British is a largely Conservative-based group - though it has no direct connection with the party - and Tim Montgomerie writes today that "the Left are ill-equipped to fight the kind of extremism represented by the BNP", since they lack the patriotic instincts and "tough-but-fair" immigration policies to tempt away their supporters.

That may be so. But there is not a jot of evidence that the BNP have anything approaching the level of support they would need to translate their policies into reality. Nor - unless the economy implodes like the Weimar republic - is there any prospect of that even happening. At least so long as mainstream politicians don't feel the need to give them a helping hand.
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