Friday, 31 December 2010

Politics on the brain

Conservatives are dinosaurs. That, at least, was the implication of a story on Radio 4 the other morning. Guest editor Colin Firth (himself a disenchanted Lib Dem, though Mr Darcy was undoubtedly a Tory) had asked scientists at University College London to discover whether political attitudes are hardwired into people's brains. To that end, a group of students who had previously been scanned were asked about their politics. Two MPs also had their brains scanned for the programme, but the report was unclear whether or not the machines managed to detect anything interesting going on inside their heads.

Subjects who professed liberal or left-wing opinions tended to have a larger anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain which, we were told, helps process complex and conflicting information. (Perhaps they need this extra grey matter to be able to cope with the internal contradictions of left-wing philosophy.) Conservatives, on the other hand, had a larger amygdala. This part of the brain was described as "very old, very primitive and to do with the detection of emotions". The take-home message was rather obvious: left-wingers are thoughtful, rational and able to cope with subtle ideas, while right-wingers are unevolved, instinctual creatures controlled by primitive emotions. One could almost hear the presenters' glee. As Gawker put it, here was the proof that "conservatism is a brain-disorder".

Professor Gereint Rees, who heads UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, was heard declaring himself "very surprised" that there was such a clear-cut result, while the reporter, Tom Feilden, described it as "remarkable". But the write-up on the institution's own website hinted that the findings were not particularly new. In the case of the anterior cortex, "previous research" had "showed that electrical potentials recorded from this region during a task that involves responding to conflicting information were bigger in people who were more liberal or left wing than people who were more conservative." The amygdala result, meanwhile, was "consistent with studies which show that people who consider themselves to be conservative respond to threatening situations with more aggression than do liberals and are more sensitive to threatening facial expressions."

It's likely, then, that the researchers began looking at the data with some expectation of what they might find. A 2008 New Scientist article, indeed, contained this instructive pair of sentences:

Tasks that involve dealing with conflicting information, for example, are known to activate an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Since liberals are generally more open to conflicting ideas, activity in this area of the brain would be expected to differ between them and conservatives.

The same article mentioned other research into possible genetic influences on political opinions:

In a paper presented in April 2007 to the annual conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, held in Chicago, Ira Carmen, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed D4DR, a gene involved in regulating levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is known that high levels of dopamine can cause obsessive-compulsive disorder. Carmen speculates that dopamine might therefore be linked to the need to impose order on the world. If so, variants of the D4DR gene that lead to higher levels of dopamine should be found more frequently in conservatives.


More recent work on the D4DR gene has pointed to a rather more subtle correlation: it appeared that those with a dopamine-suppressing version of the gene who have a wide circle of friends during adolescence were more likely to end up as liberals. Researchers speculated that such people would be more open to "different ideas" and, having many friends, would be more likely to encounter them. But it was not a large result. In any case, it's far from obvious that being open to unfamiliar ideas would turn someone into a left-winger. If you were, say, growing up in the Miliband household in the 1980s it would presumably be right-wing ideas that would strike you as new and exciting.

The stereotypes of both liberals and conservatives that feed into such studies make the results somewhat circular. If they reveal anything, it is about the roots of human personality rather than of political allegiance. It may well be that certain personality types naturally gravitate towards particular political parties or views: that authoritarian types are over-represented on the Right (though there are at least as many on the Left, in my experience) and social non-conformists look Left. But it would be dangerous as well as wrong to reduce the complexity of political debate to brain chemistry or genetics. There is, after all, no connection between the rightness or wrongness of a particular policy and the personality type most likely to find it appealing.

At the very least, there appears to be quite a bit of liberal self-congratulation on display in the reporting of these stories. Take the characterisation of the amygdala - supposed seat of conservatism - as a primitive and reptilian "fear centre". It is indeed an ancient part of the brain, but it is a fallacy to imagine that it hasn't evolved since the age of the dinosaurs, and an even greater one to assume (as the report invites us to) that the larger your amygdala the more primitive your psychology is likely to be. Actually, the reverse probably true. Also reported this week was a study into the relationship between the size of the amygdala and that of one's social network.

It was already known that primates with larger amygdalas tend to live in larger social groups. A Boston team led by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett measured the amygdala volume in 58 healthy adults using brain images gathered during magnetic resonance imaging sessions. After eliminating other possible factors such as age, social status or happiness, the researchers found - as they expected - that participants who had bigger and more complex social networks had larger amygdala volumes. This might, they suggested, be because those blessed with larger amygdalas were naturally more empathic and sociable.

If the UCL findings are to be believed, this new research suggests that far from being controlled by negative emotions, large-amygdala Conservatives are more socially-oriented and emotionally literate than the left-wingers whose organs are stunted and unevolved by comparison. This might explain why the Big Society has more natural appeal on the Right. Or perhaps it's just that Conservatives have more friends.

A very happy 2011 to all my readers, whatever the state of your amygdala.
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Wednesday, 29 December 2010

UK Uncut: Rough Music for the Twitter Generation?

In a much lauded article on Open Democracy the other week, Alan Finlayson claimed that the demonstrations against Topshop and Vodafone by pro-deficit campaigners "UK Uncut" represented "something of immense philosophical significance" that put "ethics and ideology... once more at the forefront of political contest in Britain". Unable to see the difference between the illegal and the immoral, he went on, the political and media mainstream had failed to appreciate the challenge represented by the new movement. And he produced this stirring paragraph to support his case:

Consider for a moment the real implications of the proposition that no act can justly be criticized unless it is against the law. The implication is that law is a full and total expression of moral values. Only totalitarians think that. Everybody else recognises that, while certainly informed by morality, the function of the law is to provide a framework within which civil society can function and can debate the rights and wrongs of actions. And it would be a cold and brittle society that relied on the law for the expression and support of all values, and that could not tolerate citizens sorting things out between themselves. Just as in sport we recognize that something can be within the rules yet still condemned as unsporting, so too most people recognize that behaviour can be wrong even when it isn’t actually illegal.

This is clearly true. Indeed, one of the most objectionable features of the previous government was its progressive erosion of this distinction. Not only did it have a regrettable tendency to ban things it disapproved of, it legislated away discretion by laying down ever-tighter frameworks, ever more prescriptive targets, ever more invasive bureaucracies, until it often seemed as though an action's moral value could only be judged by its conformity to a set of remotely decreed criteria. Some of the results became notorious. When mistakes by Haringey social services department led to the avoidable death of Baby Peter, for example, its director insisted that proper procedures had been followed; but if social workers had spent less time "following procedures" and more looking after the people whose lives depended on them the tragedy might have been averted. Or there is the misanthropic doctrine inherent in the various "safeguarding" policies that only people who have passed through extensive and expensive bureaucratic checks can be trusted not to be paedophiles.

But the target of Uncut's demos has not been the appropriation of morality by the state (or indeed by the law) but rather something like its opposite. The stores which activists have picketed were singled out for their alleged tax-avoidance. This isn't the only, or even the most obvious, moral ground on which they might have been impugned. What about Arcadia's reliance on cheap labour in the third world? Or the various environmental crimes of which many large companies might be held guilty? Or the cosy arrangements that corporations make with tyrannical governments? Or even, more old-fashionedly, low wages at home? What is so morally objectionable about tax-avoidance?

Tax isn't a form of charitable giving. Your taxes don't just fund schools, hospitals, subsidised university places and all the other things Lefties love. They also fund the (arguably illegal) wars they march against, and the police whose truncheons left Alfie Meadows fighting for his life. If paying tax were self-evidently virtuous then the government might today be providing opportunities for shoppers to donate their loose change to the Treasury rather than to "charity", or perhaps rejigging ATM machines to ask bank customers "Would you like an additional VAT charge to be added to your account?" Taxation is, in fact, expropriation pure and simple. It is money demanded with menaces: the very definition of robbery. That it is legally sanctioned, socially accepted, necessary for the state to function and, at least in some measure, spent on worthwhile projects should not alter this basic fact. Even the Mafia provides a social service (and of course "protection") to its clientelle. Most people don't pay taxes because they want to, but because they have to. Corporations are no different.

The most obvious difference between personal and corporate tax-avoidance is that we all benefit from the latter, in the form of lower prices and more jobs.

UK Uncut's concentration on the lack of social "responsibility" shown by businesses who want to minimise their tax liabilities strikes me as rather priggish. Finlayson tries to link the demos with radical campaigns of the past - the Suffragettes, the American Civil Rights movement and so on - that directly challenged "persons and institutions in society at large that sought to marginalize and contain minorities". But public shaming of this type actually has rather more disreputable roots.

In many English villages there was a tradition known as "rough music". If a resident had offended against the suffocating norms of rural life - typically a local woman who had begun an irregular sexual liaison - the neighbours would gather night after night under her window banging pots and pans. People would blow horns and shout insults. Effigies of the guilty parties would be paraded through the streets and then burnt. Eventually they would be forced to leave. Rough music was anarchic, democratic (or at least demotic), legally dubious and, at least in appearance, had the spontaneity and anti-authoritarianism of a popular revolt. But the message was resolutely reactionary and conformist.

UK Uncut's demonstrators share rough music's self-righteousness and have equally "conservative" aims - shoring up a threatened social model based on high state spending in which the highest expression of morality consists in handing over your money to the government. Finlayson maintains that the new movement bypasses, even renders irrelevant, conventional politics: "Parliament is not the central and not the only power in the nation. Imagining that it was, was one of the most fundamental errors made by New Labour and its sympathisers." More can be achieved, he argues, by targeting individual transgressors, whether multinational corporations or "greedy bankers". Yet by choosing tax-avoidance as its Big Issue, the group expresses an abiding and paradoxical attachment to the conventional political institutions, a belief that if the state is no longer central then at least it should be, that its irrelevance is something to be regretted, because the best way to restore balance to politics and to society is to make sure that politicians get More Of Our Money.
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Thursday, 23 December 2010

The two Cablegates

What is the connection between Cablegate and Cablegate - between the WikiLeaks release of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic dispatches and the Telegraph's exposure of various Lib Dem ministers' uncomplimentary remarks about Tory colleagues (or, in Vince's case, Rupert Murdoch)? Superficially, not much. One was diffuse, almost unlimited, in extent, the other concentrated on a single phenomenon, the painful compromises inherent in Coalition government. One was an old-fashioned journalistic scoop, an undercover sting operation, while the other was dramatic evidence of how new technology has fatally undermined traditional notions of state confidentiality. But the stories have more in common that you might think.

Apart from the specific issue of NewsCorp's consolidation of its ownership of Sky, which caused near-fatal damage to Vince Cable's political career (damage that will I fear be compounded by his forthcoming appearance of Strictly Come Dancing, a show that the out-of-office Mandelson rightly considered to be beneath his dignity) the revelations in the Telegraph have not been particularly remarkable. They show Lib Dem ministers anxious to reassure their constituents - or rather undercover reporters posing as disgruntled constituents - that they have qualms joining in what they would like to present as a Tory cutfest. Their remarks were not private - they were made, after all, to ostensible members of the public - but were intended for individual consumption.

Politicians need to be able to send out contradictory signals, to be on message so far as the national media is concerned while still winking or dog-whistling at their own supporters. I've no doubt that Conservative ministers are (or were) equally blasé about sharing their frustration - or apparent frustration - with being held back by those soggy pinko Liberals. Many backbench MPs, after all, are happy to do so. It's part of the essential psychology of Coalition politics. Those involved want it to be known - want to believe - that this government is an arrangement rather than a symbiosis, that like oil and water the two parties may be in the same glass but do not mix. That theirs is a Nestorian rather than a monophysite union (or indeed a Chalcedonian fudge). The only question I would raise in relation to the reporting of this story is the lazy assumption that, when speaking unguardedly to "constituents", the ministers were revealing their true feelings. They were talking to voters.

It's the method rather than the discovery that is really striking in this story. The Telegraph's victims told its reporters the sort of things they might have said, strictly off the record, to trusted political correspondents. ("Don't quote me on this, but doesn't Osborne make you want to vomit?") Hitherto, the game has been paid according to religiously observed conventions, which is why there is grumbling that the sting amounted to a breach of normal journalistic standards. For public consumption, there must be a façade - shaky as may be - of ministers all singing from the same hymn-sheet (as the cliché invariably goes). Politicians and journalists may speak freely to each other, mais pas devant les enfants. But of course it is not not merely with political correspondents that MPs and ministers sometimes drop their guard. Like swearing, which used to be heard everywhere except TV, the pretence is somehow maintained that the public accept political coverage at face value. Any honest comment made on air becomes an embarrassing gaffe because the voters would be shocked - shocked - to discover that politicians do not always agree where they are meant to agree or (at least as often) disagree where they are supposed to be at each others' throats.

By treating elected representatives like shady businessmen or match-fixers who deserve the hidden-microphone treatment, by abusing (and perhaps undermining) the institution of the MP's surgery, by sending young female reporters to flirt outrageously with susceptible middle-aged men, the Telegraph has conspicuously flouted the rules. Who knows where it will end? As Nick Robinson observes,

Starting from today, politicians will be more wary about what they say to their own constituents, more suspicious of journalists and more keen to meet behind closed doors without the risk of microphones, cameras, prying eyes and straining ears. Candour will be less common, not more.

For one thing, if this sort of practice becomes common it will imperil the traditional reporting of politics. For (Robinson again) "political correspondents thrive on hearing, analysing and reporting on the gap between private and public statements." In other words, they depend on gossip (and especially on their near monopoly thereof). But then it might be that the traditional reporting of politics has had its day, reliant as it was on cosiness, on the cultivation of personal relationships - a certain conspiracy between journalists and politicians, indeed - and on the preservation of unsustainable fictions. (A personal favourite is the use of the word "private" to mean "public", as in the Robinson standard "Ministers are saying privately tonight...") The political correspondents were a privileged caste of gatekeepers, necessary in the era of limited information for keeping the public informed but now little more than unusually respectable gossip columnists. The secrets they held and occasionally divulged, the rearrangement of ministerial deckchairs, the narcissism of small differences between identikit politicians, none of it really matters. Not any more.

The paradox of WikiLeaks was that this quintessentially new media story - centred on a buccaneering website and the anarchic personality of its founder Julian Assange - was utterly dependent, for its impact, on the old-fashioned journalistic digging at the New York Times, the Guardian and the other old media "partners". The raw data dumped on the Net would have sat there largely ignored had it not been for the collaboration of the mainstream press. (It is strange indeed that American fury, in all its baroque "Fry him!" excess, should have been concentrated on Assange rather than the Gray Lady; perhaps there is something synthetic about it.) It points toward one way in which the old media may adapt to the advent of the new. The Telegraph's sting operation is equally paradoxical, not least in the way that the big scoop, Cable's views on Murdoch, proved so inconvenient to the newspaper that they attempted to suppress it. And failed. Yet no less than WikiLeaks this was basically a story of old media adapting the methods, or at least the psychological assumptions, of the new.

In the new environment, traditional journalism will have to ditch the old way of doing business - for example, by treating politicians with the disdain and lack of deference associated with a Guido Fawkes or even an Old Holborn. This isn't mere cynicism of the type Andrew Marr associates with bloggers. It's survival. In their different ways, the two Cablegates show what happens when information breaks free from the constraints that technology and ethics, or just habit, has previously always placed on it. I don't know whether it is good or bad (a bit of both, I suspect). But it is inevitable.
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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The WikiLeaks news recycle

Despite my promise to go away for Christmas, I couldn't help but notice this latest "revelation" from WikiLeaks that stunned the Daily Mail:

Around a third of young British Muslims favour killing in the name of Islam, according to a survey revealed by the WikiLeaks' publication of U.S. diplomatic cables.

A survey of 600 Muslim students at 30 universities throughout Britain found that 32 per cent of Muslim respondents believed killing in the name of religion is justified.

Shocking new evidence of "increasing radicalisation among Britain's young Muslims" claims the Mail. Well, not exactly. The report continues

A U.S. diplomatic cable from January 2009 quoted a poll by the Centre for Social Cohesion as saying 54 per cent wanted a Muslim party to represent their world view in Parliament and 40 per cent want Muslims in the UK to be under Sharia law.

Could it perhaps be the same survey reported by the Mail in similarly apocalyptic terms on 28th July 2008?

Nearly one third of Muslim students believe it can be acceptable to kill in the name of religion, according to a survey published yesterday.

It also found that 40 per cent want to see the introduction of Islamic sharia law in Britain, 40 per cent think it wrong for Muslim men and women to mix freely together, and 33 per cent want to see a worldwide Islamic government based on sharia law.

The findings were described by researchers at the Centre for Social Cohesion think tank, which commissioned the poll, as 'deeply alarming'.

It surely could.

The only revelation here seems to be that someone in the US embassy reads the Daily Mail. Which is rather worrying, I suppose. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Seasonal salutations

I've decided I can't face blogging over Christmas - too much else to do. Have a nice time. But I'll be checking in here occasionally and still haunting Twitter. Feel free to make random comments or start a discussion on some issue. I may join in. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Julian Assange: a few thoughts

The Guardian - not so much biting the hand that feeds it as serving it up with fava beans and a nice Chianti - has obtained details of the allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In doing so, the paper has fuelled the already raging war between various sections of the Left as to which should have priority - supporting alleged rape victims or defending a key campaigner against government secrecy who has annoyed the big bad US of A. I wouldn't wish to intrude on such private grief (though the spectacle has its funny side) and too much has probably been written about this already. But here are a few thoughts.

1. Where women are concerned, Julian Assange is a bit of an arsehole.

2. Some of Assange's arsehole behaviour may come within the Swedish definitions of rape and sexual assault. It may also come within many feminists' broad interpretation of the term rape. The wish to see him held to account is therefore understandable.

3. In an ideal world, men would not be arseholes. We do not, however, live in an ideal world.

4. If all the arseholes in the world were prosecuted for rape, the jails would be filled to overflowing and criminal justice systems would collapse under the weight. And there would not be enough taxpayers left to support the detention of all the jailed arseholes.

5. In fact it is very rare for men to be prosecuted for behaving as arseholes. It is especially rare in Sweden, which has one of the lowest rape conviction rates of any developed country.

6. If Julian Assange were not famous and controversial, the charges against him would either never have been brought, or would have been dropped at an early stage.

7. If Julian Assange were famous and controversial for some other reason than WikiLeaks - if he were a footballer, for example - it is entirely possible that he would be subject of a similar police investigation. It is therefore unlikely that he is being pursued because the US government wants to punish him for publishing classified material. But it is very likely indeed that he is being pursued because he is in the public eye.

8. There is a perfectly tenable position between on the one hand demanding that Assange "face justice" and on the other downplaying the wrongness of his behaviour or belittling the women involved. It should be possible to denounce him as a probable arsehole while affirming that the criminal law is an inappropriate vehicle for tackling his offensive behaviour. The process is sluggish, demeaning to his accusers and - in this case - has turned Assange into a martyr. Public shame, it seems to me, would have provided a much more effective remedy.

9. Is there a connection between Assange's arsehole behaviour with women and his work for WikiLeaks, between refusing to put on a condom when asked to do so and refusing to abide by traditional rules about the use of classified documents, between an anarchic private life and an anarchistic political stance? It's tempting to think so. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 17 December 2010

Will the government's new policy on prisoner votes be enough to satisfy Strasbourg?

The government has announced its proposals for giving prisoners the vote, as it has been forced to do by a number of (to my mind) perverse decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. Or so it claims. I suspect that a really determined response - a new Act of Parliament setting out in clear terms that voting rights were to be removed from convicts - would have satisfied the detailed terms of the Hirst judgement. Nevertheless, ministers say that they have no alternative but to award votes to prisoners, and no doubt that is how they were advised.

The proposals themselves are twofold. Prisoners sentenced to more than four years imprisonment will continue automatically to lose their voting rights. I must say I have strong doubts about whether the ECHR will find this acceptable. A ban on long-term inmates voting is just as arbitrary as one on all inmates (or indeed a ban on older children, resident aliens or members of the House of Lords). Indeed, in the Austrian case of Frodl - which is directly relevant - the Court could not have been plainer:

Disenfranchisement may only be envisaged for a rather narrowly defined group of offenders serving a lengthy term of imprisonment; there should be a direct link between the facts on which a conviction is based and the sanction of disenfranchisement; and such a measure should preferably be imposed not by operation of a law but by the decision of a judge following judicial proceedings.

The second measure announced today - which would seem to answer this very point - was that judges will have a discretion to impose a voting ban on any convict serving a sentence of less than four years. Superficially this looks rather clever. It will, though, inevitably lead to further anomalies. What guidance will judges have on the appropriateness of this additional penalty, and what grounds will there be to appeal against it? What is to stop some judges imposing a vote-ban on almost every prisoner who comes before them, and others never imposing it at all?

Unless there are very strict guidelines, under these new rules two prisoners, sentenced to the same jail term for very similar offences, may find themselves on opposite sides of the franchise divide. On the other hand, if the guidelines are restrictive enough to frustrate the exercise of judicial discretion - in other words, if the voting ban comes to be imposed semi-automatically on certain categories of offender - then we are back with the arbitrariness that the ECHR finds so objectionable.

Whichever way it works out, I don't doubt that some excluded prisoner will be taking legal advice ere long, and a new case will end up in Strasbourg. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Permission to speak freely, Bob

"I don't know what he was thinking" said a highly-placed Labour source. I don't know what he was thinking, either. Presumably Bob Ainsworth - an experienced politician, if not exactly a compelling one - did not imagine that his suggestion that the "war on drugs" had failed and that the authorities be better advised exploring various sorts of legalisation would be entertained seriously by the government, or indeed by the present leadership of his own party. It is only ever politicians on the margins - mavericks, young turks, retired or ejected former ministers - who dare to challenge the status quo on drugs policy.

Ainsworth himself may have come to realise, when he was in office, that the "war on drugs" was not working. And there are plenty of senior police officers who, sotto voce, will admit the same thing. But if Ainsworth had said as much while he was in government his career would have come to an abrupt end. As it was, the combined contempt heaped upon the hapless ex-minister was enough to bury the story by lunchtime.

It would be fascinating to see a WikiLeaks-style cache of the conversations that take place inside government about drugs policy. I suspect they would reveal widespread recognition that prohibition benefits no-one but criminal smuggling gangs; that it clogs up the prisons with people who, at most, need medical help; and that some version of legalisation would be more cost-effective and less wasteful of lives. But of course - the internal memos continue - it will never happen. It would send out the "wrong message". It would be too dangerous politically. The Americans would be annoyed. It would be seen as rewarding criminality. The Daily Mail would have a field day. And so on.

Drugs policy is one of those areas where inertia prevails and where a long-established consensus effectively stifles dissent. Of course, you are allowed to argue for liberalisation, but only so long as you aren't in a position to do anything about it. The last government (of which Ainsworth was a member) experimented with the mildest sort of tinkering about the edges - altering the classification of cannabis - and was rewarded by lurid headlines and predictions of doom. In practical terms, the reclassification made little difference. All it did was provide an irresistible opportunity for a later Home Secretary to demonstrate the requisite toughness by re-imposing the old classification. But in political terms, it was truly radical. I doubt it will be repeated - especially not by a government that has already made too many liberal noises for the Mail's liking and will thus want to avoid appearing soft.

The problem, though, is not that the "war on drugs" has failed. It hasn't. Criminalisation hasn't eliminated drugs from our society - some, notably cocaine, are more widely available than ever. But it has succeeded in implanting in the public mind and the public sphere a number of highly questionable assumptions. For example, that certain substances, by virtue of being illegal, have intrinsically dangerous characteristics. In fact, the danger lies mainly in misuse (overdosing) and, especially, in the adulteration of drugs with dangerous substances. Such problems would be greatly reduced, or removed entirely, if drugs were legally obtainable. Or the notion that the social problems caused by illegal drug-use are caused by the drugs. In reality, there are many people who function quite normally despite using drugs on a regular basis. They are the hidden majority of users: hidden because they rarely come into contact with the criminal justice system, and not fitting the stereotype of a problematic drug-addict are of little interest to the press.

In other words, the war on drugs is self-fulfilling and self-sustaining. It creates (or at least sustains) the very social problems that it alone seems capable of tackling. And because they are serious problems, serious measures are needed to tackle them. It's very difficult for a politician actually in office to break out of such a mindset. But I doubt Bob Ainsworth will be the last to take advantage of the freedom that comes with utter irrelevance.
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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

All Thatcherites Now?

Yesterday's revelation (courtesy of the Social Attitudes Survey) that the British today are more "Thatcherite" (anti-welfare and anti-redistribution) than they were when she departed the scene twenty years ago is not that much of a surprise.

In 1991, 58% thought the government should spend more on benefits. By 2009 that had more than halved to 27%.

Just over half (51%) backed policies to redistribute income from rich to poor in 1989, compared with 36% now. The researchers blamed the "significant change in political rhetoric" throughout the New Labour years, with the abandonment of Clause 4, the party's promise to redistribute wealth, and the emphasis in welfare policies on people going back to work. "This could be due to the reluctance of parties on the left to talk positively about redistribution, which has become synonymous with an 'Old Labour' 'tax and spend' approach," the report says.

Another, related factor might be that high-profile campaigns against benefit cheats have tarred all claimants with the same brush. A right-leaning (or at any rate right-talking) Labour party must have played a role in shifting the centre of political gravity, since there were few people opposing it from the left. (There's a contrast here with the party's authoritarianism which did meet sustained opposition, resulting in a detectable public shift toward the civil liberties agenda.)

The trouble with this assessment is that it implies the public are uncontemplative and sheeplike, meekly absorbing messages beamed at them by politicians. But why should the politicians have stressed such messages at all? New Labour's pitch owed much to marketing - the use of focus groups and the obsessive concern with opinion-poll data - and it was not so much creating as reflecting public opinion in its rhetorical utterances.

Possibly more influential was the press. The Daily Mail has painted a persistent picture of workshy benefit scroungers, typically immigrants, typically living in a four-bedroom council house with the latest in flatscreen TVs, typically claiming incapacity benefit while playing basketball or moonlighting as an exotic dancer. The stereotypes thus created undoubtedly helped to produce an atmosphere of hostility to welfare recipients. Even so, without an undertow of public suspicion the Mail's reports would have had less purchase.

Hostility to "freeloaders" is probably innate. Even vampire bats are intolerant of welfare scroungers. But that doesn't explain why such feelings should have become more widespread over the past twenty or thirty years. I think there are a number of factors at play:

1) Increased belief in meritocracy. Actual social mobility has not increased - on many measures it has been reduced - but there has been a marked decline in both deference and class-consciousness, and a convergence upwards of educational opportunities. Once there was a precipitous divide between the majority who left school at sixteen with few or not qualifications and a small university-educated elite. Now those who leave school "early" are widely assumed to be failures (who can therefore be assumed to bear responsibility for their reduced life-chances).

Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum that "there is no such thing as society" was widely and wilfully misinterpreted but it did accurately sum up the new individualistic morality: that people make their own luck, and that therefore the situation people found themselves in was to a large extent their own responsibility. If you believe that people's lot in life is largely beyond their control then you may have more sympathy - and be more willing to support - those who have fallen on hard times.

2) Less mutual trust and social cohesiveness. Partly this is a consequence of the aforementioned individualism, the growth of single person households and the hollowing-out of traditional communities. But there's also the changing face of the country. Because we live in a more "diverse" society - itself celebrated by those on the Left who decry the decline in support for welfare spending - people are less likely to think of their fellow-citizens as people like themselves and more likely to associate them with those feckless chavs or socially-housed immigrants they read about in the newspapers. So they ask themselves, "Why should MY taxes go towards supporting THOSE people?" rather than thinking (as they may once have done), "One day that could be me."

Welfare-friendly societies have usually been fairly cohesive and culturally homogenous - like Scandanavia - while by contrast the United States has been (culturally, economically, and geographically) highly diverse. But even the Scandanavian countries are more disparate than they used to be. A notable symptom of this is an increased enthusiasm for welfare cuts.

3) Welfare spending has declined as a percentage of GDP. Throughout most of the 1980s it was in excess of 10%, in times of high unemployment approaching 15%. Today it is half that. (There has been a large increase in overall government spending under Labour, but it has gone on other things.) One might imagine that this lower burden on taxpayers would lead to less resentment of welfare recipients; but the opposite appears to be the case. It may be that, with a smaller "pot" of money to draw from, those who are supported by the state seem particularly fortunate, almost as though they have hit a jackpot.

4) Another finding of the report - increased resentment of bankers and other high earners - while not surprising, suggests that Britain has not become an aspirational society in which wealth is celebrated. Indeed, according to the survey a majority would like to see a levelling of incomes, with the highest paid taking home a mere six times the average wage. This has given some cheer to believers in equality, but I doubt a disinterested belief in fairness lies behind it. Rather, it is a reflection of the same misanthropy (or self-centredness) that begrudges the poor their welfare payments. There's a difference between believing in equality and hating the fact that some people are considerably richer than you are. The banker is resented because, like the welfare recipient, he appears to be living parasitically off the labour or earnings of others. Both, too, are beneficiaries of the state's largesse - in other words, they are both being given "our money". For this reason, tax avoidance is becoming as unpopular with the public as welfare fraud has long been.

The fashionable notion of the "squeezed middle" is crucial here. In conditions of actual or perceived austerity (actual for some; perceived for the majority) those at the top who do not seem to be sharing in the general misery are unlikely to be popular. But there's also less desire to help those at the bottom, if only because those in the middle would like some help themselves. This isn't Thatcherism so much as traditionally British Eeyorishness.
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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Pastor Jones should not be banned. But I expect he probably will be.

Today we learned two things: that the would-be Koran-burning Florida pastor has been invited to Britain by the anti-Islam English Defence League; and that the Home Secretary is being urged to ban him. So far, so predictable. My strong suspicion is that he will indeed be banned. The change of government has not fundamentally altered the UK establishment's suspicion of free speech. Or, to be more accurate, its conviction that when freedom of speech threatens to conflict with administrative, political or police convenience, free speech must give way. There's no First Amendment in Britain (the ECHR equivalent, Article 10, is hamstrung by caveats). And there is now a well-established procedure for banning people from these shores whose views are deemed undesirable.

Theresa May has already acted earlier this year to ban another "preacher of hate", the Islamist Zakir Naik. To not ban Reverend Terry Jones as well would seem discriminatory, even churlish to let him in. And it would be easy to draw an equivalence between the two. Nick Knowles, whose Hope Not Hate campaign is demanding Jones be kept out, claims that Jones' presence would be "incendiary and highly dangerous" and would sow discord between communities. The same pragmatic reasons were advanced against Naik. His presence, we were warned, would give succour to extremists and would inflame tensions. In both instances, moreover, the implication is that letting the preachers in would mean, ultimately, more young Muslims becoming "radicalised" and thus lead to more acts of terrorism - in the one case as a result of Naik's alleged teachings, in the other because the "concern and fear among Muslims across the country" predicted by Knowles would harm social cohesion.

I wouldn't ban either man; I'm pretty much a free speech fundamentalist. But there is nevertheless an important distinction between the two cases. Naik was accused, plausibly or not, of directly endorsing acts of terrorism. He is supposed to have said that every Muslim should be a terrorist. He is no Anwar al-Awlaki; and it's hard to believe that any young British Muslim would be "radicalised" by hearing Naik - especially when one considers the many preachers of indistinguishable views who are in Britain quite legally and preach every week. Some such people, indeed, enjoy a respected position as "community leaders" and have the ear of politicians and the police. Nevertheless, on one interpretation of his views Naik was a friend of terrorism.

Pastor Jones, by contrast (as Cranmer points out) only ever threatened to burn a book - a threat he did not go through with, and which has not been repeated. And there's no suggestion that his trip to Britain, should it take place, would involve such a stunt. Members of the English Defence League, indeed, are quite capable of burning Korans without the physical presence of Pastor Jones to inspire them. Jones does not call for violence. He doesn't like Islam, though, and can usually be relied upon to say so. For many, though they don't quite admit it, this is precisely why he should be banned. Demanding his exclusion, though framed in terms of avoiding social strife, is a form of moral grandstanding: it is a way of expressing disapproval for his opinions. That's what always troubles me about such campaigns. It elides what should be an important distinction, between disapproving of someone (or something) and wanting them to be banned.

The high-minded principle of disagreeing with what someone says yet defending their right to say it has been eroded in recent years. For one thing, it's too subtle for an easy headline. It has even come to seem inconsistent. If you really disagree with something, the implication seems to be, how could you not want it to be banned? At a deeper level, the Voltairean principle conflicts with the tenor of the times. The desire to ban Pastor Jones comes from the same psychological place as the desire to ban airbrushed adverts or the open display of cigarette packets.

This is why, when Jones is banned, the decision will be framed in terms of a noble defence of British values. We will be told that his message of intolerance is unwelcome on these shores, that he represents a threat to social cohesion and to the good community relations that allegedly prevail here. We will also be warned of the dire consequences that would follow were he admitted - it is probably as a threat to "public order" that he will technically be denied entry.

The real reasons will be slightly different. There is little or no political advantage to be gained from a principled defence of free speech, but some to be gained from a demonstration of distaste for Pastor Jones and his ilk. Banning Jones will secure him in some eyes the status of a martyr. More to the point, though, letting him in (theoretically the default option, but in this situation it looks like a positive decision) would land the Home Secretary with personal responsibility for any trouble that occurred at the EDL rally he addressed. EDL rallies always end in trouble, either from EDL members themselves or from the "anti-fascist" demonstrators who turn up to oppose them. Pastor Jones would attract larger crowds, on both sides, than is usual. Some sort of incident is inevitable.

No doubt there will be a demonstration against the ban, which will also attract anti-fascist counter-demonstrators, and will lead to almost as much trouble. But the Home Secretary is unlikely to be blamed for that - she did what she could to defuse tensions, after all, by banning Rev Jones - so it won't matter.

Banning someone because you don't like their views is always wrong in principle, and rarely justified on security grounds. But it has become the default option and, for that reason, the easiest one for a politician to take.
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Friday, 10 December 2010

The New 'Varsity Rag

With apologies to Sir John Betjeman

I'm afraid those folks from the Sixties rather wish they had
The social media manners of a modern undergrad,
For tho' they were awf'lly worthy and up to a demo or four
You want to have the networked touch if you're going to outwit the Law.

CHORUS: We had a rag at Westminster. We had a rag in Whitehall,
And when we reached the Cenotaph we really had a ball.
We clambered over railings, but what really made my day
Someone pissed on Churchill's statue in a not respectful way.

We jeered at the politicians as they did their voting there
And then we marched our placards down to Trafalgar Square;
And we each had paint-filled baubles, and I'm happy to confess,
We threw them at policemen and they made a fearful mess.

CHORUS: We, etc.

We rolled down to the Treasury and knocked some windows in
And when we saw the royal car we made a dreadful din
And then we daubed some slogans, but what was the funniest part
When we got inside the Gallery we spared the works of art.

CHORUS : We, etc.

It was almost like the Bullingdon as we bayed for broken glass,
For the rioting student nowadays is a better sort of class,
But its funny how the Fuzz ride in and smash us in the head,
And pen us up in kettles till we almost freeze to death.

CHORUS: We, etc. Read the rest of this article

The Travails of Bold Sir Julian

This is a guest post by Valdemar

All the kingdom’s nobles have been unanimous in denouncing Julian of Assange, founder and prime artificer of WikiGuns.

The prevailing view at court is that Sir Julian is a traitor and should be subject to the full severity of the law i.e. roughed up a bit, stretched a bit, stabbed a bit and then burned a bit. ‘Exactly which bits get what treatment’, confided a leading courtier, ‘would of course be subject to royal prerogative, but we all know his majesty likes a laugh so they’d probably keep the scoundrel conscious, or at least breathing, for as long as is inhumanely possible.’

Elsewhere at the palace there has been much discussion of the sheer irresponsibility of randomly handing out so-called ‘firearms’ in a society where aristocratic warriors who have loads of time to practice with big swords should always prevail, as Our Lord clearly intended they should. Indeed, all across Christendom there has been consternation among the landed gentry that any knave or villein can now pick up a weird-looking iron tube attached to a bit of wood and – through the most fell and heathenish alchemy – slay their social betters, or at least have what some squires are calling ‘a decent shot at it’.

‘For nigh on a twelvemonth this organisation has been casually slinging around matchlock muskets like there’s no tomorrow,’ quoth a leading Plantagenet around yesternoon. ‘What this chappie with what is very nearly a girl’s name doesn’t seem to realise – or just plain doesn’t care about – is that to an armoured knight these things are just poison. High speed lead poison, to be precise. One volley from a few dozen peasants equipped with WikiGuns, and the time-honoured practice of trampling the stinking banderlog into a bloody pulp is gone. Along with your horse’s head and probably half your face. It really is appalling.’

While giving Julian of Assange a first-class ticket to the fiery domain of Asmodeus is of course a priority, more scholarly heads have been scratched far into the night over the wider issues raised by WikiGuns. How can a feudal society based on hereditary privilege survive in a world where the skills of mere artisans can be wedded to what’s been termed the ‘vaguely-motivated mucking about’ of maverick alchemists to produce such scary contrivances?

‘The very concept of anything new is in itself distressingly novel to most of us,’ observed Simon of Penge, a pious hermit covered in dung whose opinions naturally carry tremendous weight throughout the land. Simon has been offering conselling to fair damsels, most of whose gallant swains were left looking like badly-made collanders after the latest release of WikiGuns into the field of chivalry.

Some more savvy men-at-arms say that the only way ahead is to adopt WikiGuns methods. ‘With a brace of pistols each, we can shoot the buggers first, then go old school and squash them,’ opined popular blue-blooded thug Sir Lionel ‘Bang Bang’ de Montfort. He added: ‘It should keep us in the saddle for another couple of centuries, I reckon. Then it’ll be the Second Coming, so no sweat.’

But others feel that there should be no compromise with mere ironmongers. One option being considered by the Court is that all forms of metal production, plus the vital sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre industries, should be seized by the crown. This may be one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on New and Alarming Things That Cause Problems. It is expected to deliver a hard-hitting report by St Tadger’s Eve.
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Thursday, 9 December 2010

Cracking the Cracker Code

A festive tale tonight, ladies and gentlemen, although the themes we shall be exploring would be familiar at any time of the year.

Yesterday in Parliament Michael Ellis MP stood up and complained about the "absurd health and safety legislation, which has reached such dizzy heights in this country that the chief executive of Sainsbury's told me last week that Christmas crackers are now category 1 fireworks, and cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 16." He invited the Prime Minister to "put a firework up the Health and Safety Executive" - something which David Cameron would said would give him "enormous pleasure". Indeed, he was looking forward to it. The PM didn't quite commit himself to putting this particular provision on the bonfire of regulatory inanities that the coalition is always promising but never quite manages to assemble. But he was happy to give the impression that classifying crackers as fireworks, and banning children from buying them, was self-evidently silly.

Most people would no doubt agree. I certainly would. I can remember, as a small and inquisitive boy, tugging carefully at the ends of Christmas crackers, extracting the explosive bit and seeing what happened if I let it off next to my skin. It never did me any harm. It wouldn't have done me any more harm if I'd bought the things myself. But the law and commonsense are not always perfectly aligned, and the latest Pyrotechnic Safety Regulations - promulgated earlier this year - do indeed ban the sale of crackers and other "indoor fireworks" to anyone under the age of sixteen. On the other hand, Ellis was wrong to blame the Health and Safety Executive. The HSE didn't write the regulations, and has no role in enforcing them. From what I can tell, the HSE spends most of its time these days trying to discourage the over-implementation of regulations and directives rather than thinking up new types of barminess.

I'm not sure if Ellis was acting on his own initiative, but his question coincided with a press release from the British Retail Consortium also lamenting the crackpot crackers ban and warning that "trading standards officers will now be monitoring how retailers enforce the law." The statement went on to urge customers to show "understanding" as stores (taking no chances) applied the full rigour of the Challenge 25 policy to demand photo ID from anyone under pensionable age who might want to buy a box of crackers. At the same time, the BRC called for "a sensible attitude to enforcement" - presumably that is aimed at trading standards officers, rather than the shops who will, customers are assured, be enforcing it rigorously - and for the rules to be urgently reconsidered, pointing out that the EU directive which the new regulations are supposed to implement had "a more sensible age limit of 12." The directive "should never have been gold-plated to become 16 in the UK" BRC spokeswoman Jane Bevis is quoted as saying. It is a "ludicrous restriction" that had "slipped through the net" despite government promises to rein in "health and safety" madness.

The Express, meanwhile, had a story about a six year old girl distressed by a cashier's refusal to let her hand over a box of crackers from her mother's shopping trolley. The cashier apparently believed that by taking the box from the child's outstretched arms she would would be breaking the rules and would end up going to prison for six months. Or something.

You'd be forgiven, then, for thinking that this is a new story. But like most cracker jokes it's actually an old one. Two years ago, the Sun brought us the tale of twenty-two year old Heather Welsh from York, unable to buy crackers in her local M&S because she couldn't produce any ID. A local newspaper elaborated. The store, it reported, had signs put up everywhere referencing the Fireworks Safety Regulations 1997 and even the Victorian Explosives Act of 1875 in support of the ban. A York trading standards officer, meanwhile, quoted the regulations of 2004 to the same effect. The problem, apparently, was that christmas crackers contain gunpowder. This led into a tangential story about a cracker exporter who complained that "Some carriers refuse to transport crackers – because they are ‘too dangerous’. Airlines won’t touch them. I have to send them by road." He blamed that other usual suspect (along with the EU and the HSE) in such stories - the increasingly pervasive fear of being sued.

Go back a further two years to 2006 and the Sun, again, had a story about 18 year old Hannah Thomas being turned away from WH Smith in Weymouth. I won't bore you with the details, except to note the Smiths spokesman who defended the policy as "responsible retailing" because of all that dangerous gunpowder. It's one thing to stoically implement a daft law because one must obey the law to the letter (and this country has never lacked an heroic cadre of petty officials who take special delight - or see especial virtue - in enforcing the most pettifogging of regulations.) It's quite another, I think, to convince yourself that such a rule might actually be sensible.

So how old is the rule banning 16 year olds from buying Christmas crackers? It first appeared, I find, in the Explosives (Age of Purchase etc.) Act 1976 - which didn't explicitly categorise Christmas crackers as indoor fireworks but rather related to all products containing gunpowder, as did the 1875 Act that it updated. In 1875 the age for buying gunpowder had been set at thirteen. That the age limit did apply was made explicit in the 1997 Fireworks (Safety) Regulations, which raised the age for buying most fireworks to 18 but exempted "any cap, cracker snap, novelty match, party popper, serpent or throwdown." The accompanying guidance (pdf) specified that these items "remain subject to the prohibition on sale to persons under the age of 16".

What do I conclude from all this? A number of things.

First, like Christmas itself, the crackers crackers ban comes round almost every year; and each time it is presented as something new and unexpected, to be blamed afresh on Elf n' Safety, Brussels or whoever happens to be in power.

Second, pace the BRC the 2010 regulations are not a case of British officials taking the opportunity sneakily to gold-plate an EU directive. Civil servants merely re-issued the old regulations with a few changes in wording to take account of the new directive. The most that can be said is that they failed to take the opportunity to make the existing regulations more sensible. This is more likely due to inertia than any deep belief in the necessity for an age-limit of 16. But it also shows that our government doesn't merely rubber-stamp EU directives - rather, where possible, it combines them with existing British rules. And that this practice often results in more stringent rules than would otherwise have been the case.

Third, although the rule is an old one it is probable that it is now being more strictly enforced. But then many things - and especially age limits - are much more strictly enforced these days than they once were. It may be that until relatively recently few retailers or local authorities knew or cared that Christmas crackers were covered by the Explosives Act; or if they did regarded it as legal curiosity rather than as something that that should literally be implemented. I haven't been able to track down any cracker-ban stories earlier than the middle of the last decade. The cracker-ban, then, is a symptom of an increasingly rigid, conformist, rule-obsessed society in which initiative and common sense are both objects of suspicion. A culture in which officials treat christmas crackers as fireworks is also one in which a light-hearted Tweet about blowing an airport "sky-high" is categorised as a security threat.

Finally, the age limit itself. It's striking that the Victorians were quite happy for thirteen year old to buy and handle quite considerable quantities of gunpowder (the Explosives Act only covered "indoor fireworks" by implication). But then that era of imagined childhood innocence also allowed children of that age to work, while the age of consent - inasmuch as it existed - was twelve. David Cameron used to accuse the previous government of "treating children like adults and adults like children", but only the second of these was actually true. I've lost count of the number of things I was able to do as a child that are now illegal, from taking a penknife into school to buying a goldfish. We even used to be allowed to buy glue. And if it was technically illegal to purchase Christmas crackers, no-one seems to have been aware of the fact. I'm not that ancient.

Are children more irresponsible than they used to be? They are certainly more protected, from themselves as much as from others; and of course forty years ago most sixteen year olds would have been in work (thirty years ago they would have been unemployed). Yet the prevailing narrative about childhood is that it is under threat - that under the pressure of commercialisation and a pervasively "sexualising" media children are being forced to "grow up to soon", to look and act like mini-adults. The response - more protection, more legislations, more restrictions on what they can and cannot do. The age of puberty may have dropped, but the age of responsibility just keeps on getting higher. And the same press that points out the absurdity of the cracker sales ban has fuelled a moral panic about teenage drinking even as the number of teenagers who consume alcohol has steadily fallen. Because, after all, youngsters really can't be trusted. Better keep them away from those crackers, just in case.
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Tuesday, 7 December 2010

This new Home Office consultation exercise is a disgrace

The Home Office has launched a "consultation exercise" on its plans to tighten up visa requirements for foreign students. I use the scare quotes advisedly. The public and interested parties are invited to "Contribute your views to our consultation into how we can best reduce the number of students who can come to the UK". The Border Agency has no interest in hearing from people who question the desirability of a substantial reduction in student numbers; does not indeed seem to believe that such people even exist.

The consultation is based on a questionnaire - which you can fill out via Survey Monkey - which is so formulated as to preclude dissenting opinions.

Here's an example:

2. Do you think that only Highly Trusted Sponsors (HTS) should be permitted to offer study below degree level (at NQF levels 3, 4 and 5 / SCQF levels 6, 7 and 8) in the Tier 4 (General) category?

  • Yes – only HTS should be able to offer these sub-degree level courses
  • No – all sub-degree level study should be prohibited under Tier 4 (General)
  • No – study at NQF level 3 should be prohibited, even where the sponsor is a HTS
  • Don't know

In other words, if you believe that sub-degree level courses should be available from a wider range of providers you have no box to tick. If you believe that the status quo should be maintained, you have no box to tick. Only if you believe that the Home Office proposals are insufficiently draconian can you enter an alternative.

Regardless of whether or not the Home Office proposals are desirable or proportionate, this is a disgraceful way to canvas public opinion. It will also ensure that the results of the consultation have no credibility.

UPDATE Full Fact has some eye-opening material on the misuse of research by the Home Office in this area. It turns out that the much-trumpeted claim that 26% of foreign students fail to comply with the terms of their visas relate to those institution that were under investigation by the UK Border Agency for irregularities, rather than to students as a whole. Read the rest of this article

Elven Safety not a priority in Denmark

According to George Carey and co, our traditional Christmas is under threat from an unholy alliance of mililtant secularists and politically-correct multicultural commissars. This story from Denmark, however, suggests a more surprising source of anti-festive humbuggery. The Rev Jon Knudsen, the pastor of the Løkken Free Church in the Jutland town of Vendsyssel, has identified elves - in particular, the Santa-hatted Christmassy evles that decorate shops and homes everywhere at this time of year - as dangerous demonic threats.

Knudsen said that using elves as Christmas decorations was “comparable to decorating with Nazi flags”, and described elves of all sorts as “poltergeists that come from the devil and make children sick”. To make his point, he hanged an elf from his church roof with a sign round its neck reading “we reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises”.

Not everyone was happy with the stunt. Some local residents demanded the elven gallows be removed. And a dozen gnomes came out in sympathy to protest outside the pastor's home. Knudsen was also deluged with letters from outraged members of Denmark's elf community. Fearing trouble, he posted a guard outside the church. But to no avail: on Monday afternoon while no one was watching someone rescued. The culprit left a message that the elf was being “kept safe until after the New Year”; although he confessed, police declined to press charges, saying they had more important things to deal with.

The elf was unavailable for comment. Or possibly just suffering from a sore neck. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 3 December 2010

Qatar's FIFA success proves we are winning the war on terror

The award of the 2022 World Cup to tiny, gas-drenched Qatar has been greeted with an odd mixture of bemusement and outrage. Attention quickly focused on the inappropriateness of the choice. Qatar - the consensus seems to be - is too small, too hot, too undemocratic and too Muslim to play host to the quadrennial secular Haj (for it is written, is it not, that any true football fan must at some point in his life make the pilgrimmage to watch his country lose to Brazil or, in our case, Germany?) And of course they bought it. It's the only explanation. The only thing no-one is suggesting is that Qatar cannot afford to host the championship. So it lacks the infrastructure and the stadiums? No problem. They will just build some. It's small change, really.

Though it is discussed sotto voce, the Muslim dimension is the most troubling to many doubters. The idea seems to be that male supporters will be unable to drink themselves silly and that female supporters (if they are even let in) will be forced to walk around in burqas. And what is the point of a World Cup, we're meant to think, without booze and half-naked women? There's the football, of course. But the World Cup is about more than just twenty-two men kicking a ball around. It's the great global party, a collective carnival, the time when even those who normally can't stand football develop a temporary interest. What the Olympics were to ancient Greece the FIFA World Cup is to our global civilisation (apart from the Americans, of course, which is odd but also strangely telling). The modern Olympics, by contrast, are a yawn, an expensive waste of time. That's why, unlike the World Cup, the Olympic Games almost invariably lose money.

So: a Muslim country wants to get in on the act, wants to subsidise the decadent West's most decadent festival, will allegedly even pay bribes to get it. And people are outraged? We should be delighted. It shows, apart from anything else, that we are winning the global kulturkampf hands down. It is yet another indication of the strength, the universal attractiveness, of Western culture. And it will be a major triumph in the ongoing war against terror.

Qatar may not be a model democracy, and may have the usual anti-gay legislation, but compared with most of its neighbours it's a haven of liberalism. The woman in the picture was celebrating yesterday's news in Doha. Not exactly Saudi Arabia, then. Qatar's ruler is less corrupt, less beholden to fundamentalists, is more pro-Western and has a more visible wife than is normal for the region. Since he's sitting on the world's most substantial gas-lake, that's a cause for celebration in itself. But there's more. By hosting the World Cup, at vast cost, the Qataris are giving not just football but global secular culture the greatest possible plug. They are encouraging not just their own people, but all the inhabitants of that tumultuous region - Iraqis, Iranians, Saudis, Syrians - to plough their restless energy into a harmless game. And away from terrorism, fundamentalism and dreams of global jihad.

Football, to its fans, is a religion, or more than a religion. International sporting competition is also what civilised nations do instead of war. At one level, it was absurd to watch our prime minister and our future king abasing themselves before the decrepit and corrupt oligarchs who run FIFA. But at another, it was hugely reassuring. For they rightly recognised the galvanizing effect that hosting the World Cup would have had in England, just as it had in South Africa, just as it will have in Qater. But in truth, England doesn't need the World Cup. We have the Premiership and the Champions League for nine months every year. Some would say we have too much football as it is, and a World Cup would just be overkill. In the Middle East, on the other hand, soccer must compete with radical Islamism for the attentions of the young.

Football and the Jihad have a surprising amount in common, after all. Both have their pin-ups, their romantic warrior-heroes, their narrative of victimhood (the whole Israel-Palestine question boils down to little more than a prodigious case of "We woz robbed"), their irrational closed-minded team-loyalties, their hooliganism. Both are powerful vehicles for male bonding. The more football there is, then, the less terrorism there is likely to be.

The Qataris have done us all a huge favour. The emirate's most famous resident, Ken Livingstone's old mate Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, may be crowing that the decision marks the Muslim world's victory over the United States, but it really marks football's victory over theology, something he won't like one bit.
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Blowing my own trumpet

Apparently Heresy Corner has made it into Wikio's Top Twenty of British blogs this month:

1Liberal Conspiracy
2Left Foot Forward
3Guy Fawkes' blog
4Iain Dale's Diary
6Labour Uncut
7Sticky Fingers
8A Spoon Full of Sugar
9Papertake Weekly Challenge
10Cute Card Thursday
11Liberal Democrat Voice
12ConservativeHome's ToryDiary
13allsorts challenge blog
14Charisma Cardz
15Heresy Corner
16Political Scrapbook
17Saturday Challenge
18Stamping Ground
19ABC challenge
20Westminster Blog

Ranking made by Wikio

That's the general list. Stripping out the craftwork blogs, I would seem to have made the Top Ten in the political category. I'm sure Matt Wardman is right that this is mainly due to the Paul Chambers post going viral on Twitter, itself largely as a consequence of its being noticed by Stephen Fry. It won't last long. Still, I've been staring at the frosted glass for long enough, being resolutely ignored by Iain Dale, so it's nice to be in among the big boys. I feel I've earned my right to feel smug.

Self-promotion aside, the most striking feature of the political Top Ten is the continued march of the Left. Fully half the leaderboard is made up of avowedly Labour sites, including the leading two. There are only two proper Conservative blogs in the list: Dale and Tory Diary (I may dress to the right but I'm unaffiliated; Guido is a libertarian who dishes it out to both sides.) Lib Dem Voice is also up there, which means that Opposition blogs are currently beating the Coalition 5-3. This may reflect the subversive, oppositional nature of the medium, or the fact that the Left currently has much soul-searching to do (see, for example, this searing indictment of Labour self-righteousness by the party's former general secretary Peter Watt) or perhaps a falling off of anger among Conservatives since Brown and Co were ejected from office. Blogging is so often fuelled by impotent rage. The loss of the Right's blogging momentum may, though, be an early indication of trouble to come. We shall see. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Are Christians right to be Concerned?

There's no doubt what a persecuted Christian looks like. She looks like Aasia Bibi, the Pakistani mother who has been languishing in jail for 18 months after an altercation with neighbours led to her being accused of making uncomplimentary remarks about the prophet Mohammed, and who is now under sentence of death. The country's president would like to pardon her, but for the moment his hands are tied while fundamentalist mobs take to the streets demanding her execution. Indeed, were she to be released tomorrow it is likely that their bloodlust would soon be satisfied.

Her case is extreme, but far from being unprecedented. In many countries whose leaders cleave to the faith of Islam Christians labour under civil disabilities or more informal but pervasive types of discrimination. Or they may be tolerated so long as they do not try to fulfil the New Testament commandment to spread the gospet. And there are other countries, such as China and Russia, where Christians (and other religious people) who do not belong to particular state-sanctioned churches are looked upon by the authorities with considerable suspicion.

A campaign launched today seeks to convince us that British Christians are in a similar plight to that of Aasia Bibi. Backed by no less a Christian than Lord Carey, once the Archbishop of Canterbury (technically the most senior commoner in the land), Christian Concern have produced a pamphlet detailing alleged examples of "Christianophobia", most of which seem to have been culled from the pages of the Daily Mail. You may be familiar with the cases of Nadia Eweida, the British Airways check-in clerk who was banned from wearing a cross on duty, or Lillian Ladele, the registrar who declined to conduct same-sex civil partnership services. Or the Catholic adoption agencies who closed themselves down rather than submit to equalities legislation. Or the councils who every year think up creative new ways to avoid saying "Christmas". It all adds up to a deliberate attempt to sideline Christianity and oppress Christians, claims Christian Concern. Christians are being made to feel "ashamed", they say.

The main culprit in this wave of persecution is a conspiracy of liberal, politically-correct public employees, who are imagined as both actively engaged in a process of de-Christianisation in the service of an atheistic human-rights agenda, and craven, terrified of minority (especially Muslim and gay-rights) special interest groups. Either they are using the banner of diversity cynically as an opportunity to undermine the traditional British way of life, or they are gripped by a self-hatred and multiculturalist dogma that renders them powerless to defend the national culture. Or both.

The notion that Christians are suffering widespread persecution in Britain is paradoxical. There are, after all, thousands of Christian schools. Every hospital and regiment has its Christian chaplains. There are 26 Anglican bishops in the House of Lords. Most contributors to Thought for the Day, even now, are Christian. The uncritical enthusiasm with which the BBC - usually singled out as a hotbed of liberal anti-Christian political correctness - reported on the Pope's recent visit was striking.

But then the whole basis of Christian Concern is a paradox. On the one hand, they claim for Christians a minority status, which they need in order to prove that they are being discriminated against. At times, they seem to be advocating a new sort of identity politics, in which Christians (or just fundamentalist evangelical Christians) as a self-designated minority group demand rights and special privileges. The invention of the term "Christianophobia" (or sometimes "Christophobia" - they haven't quite worked out what to call it) speaks to this embrace of grievance culture. The analogy with "Islamophobia", coined as part of an Islamist political project to conflate valid questioning of religious attitudes with racism, is entirely deliberate.

And indeed, unless you believe the Census returns, Christians - committed, religiously active Christians - are a minority in Britain, though they remain comfortably the largest and most publicly prominent of our religious minorities. And Christian Concern represents only a minority of this minority. A glance at their website reveals a particular set of obsessions - abortion, opposition to gay rights, the supposed decline of marriage, the right to proselytise at work - that are clearly not those of the majority of Christians, let alone of society as a whole. Their main, unacknowledged struggle seems to be for control of British Christianity. In this, as in their authoritarian and somewhat paranoid outlook, they strangely resemble Islamists. And of course their call for more overt religiosity in public life runs counter to the long-standing British reluctance to talk too much about God.

On the other hand, Christian Concern claim to represent the historic national culture of the majority. They appear, indeed, to claim exclusive ownership of large parts of our national life, like Christmas, for their narrow brand of Christianity. And so when they (though not the religiously apathetic or tacitly humanist majority of their fellow-citizens) are inconvenienced or merely annoyed by some manifestation of political correctness, they assert that the whole country is the victim of anti-Christian persecution. Not only do they believe that society as a whole should reflect their particular set of prejudices, they seem genuinely confused when it does not. And angry: in some ways Christian Concern resembles the English Defence League at prayer. There is, for example, a section of their website devoted to warning about the threat of Islam.

Christian Concern seem to think that persecution is just another word for not being in charge.
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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rhetoric and reality on Climate Change

Sitting here shivering at the end of the coldest late November in living memory (well, in this living memory at any rate) it's somewhat surreal to contemplate the assembled panjandrams of the climate alarmism industry sunning themselves in Cancun while delivering apocalyptic pronouncements of the doom that will befall us should a sufficiently draconian regime of carbon control be imposed upon the world. "Global warming? Yes please, I'd like some of that here" sums up, I'm afraid, my present mood.

Of course, we should not expect signs of apparent cooling in some places (or even a "slowing of the rate of warming" globally) to disrupt the accumulated science. Evidence is rarely definitive, and the warmists can always fall back on their theories (as Einstein once said about an observational test of Relativity, if the experiment did not confirm his theory then so bad for the experiment). Data can always be reinterpreted to fit in. And whatever scepticism may exist among sections of the public, most governments - and ours more than most - accept the consensus that the earth's climate is getting warmer, largely as a result of human activity. But still, it's hard to escape the sense that much of the urgency has gone out of the debate. No-one really expects a breakthrough at Cancun.

So where does this leave the advocates of action to forestall global warming? In a state of desperation; for while they have (for now, perhaps for ever) won the scientific battle, the gap between what they see as essential and what is likely to happen is steadily widening. Whatever targets may be agreed by conferences, the world's carbon emissions keep on increasing. It doesn't really matter how many eco-lightbulbs we put in our European homes if China and India keep pumping out the carbon, as of course they will. The most sensible response would be to accept defeat and begin planning to mitigate the effects of global warming when it occurs. The trouble is that neither the scientific establishment nor the political process is yet in a psychological place where they would be able to admit their limitations. Instead they dream their pipe-dreams.

The Royal Society has just published a strikingly downbeat paper by Professor Kevin Anderson (Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) and Alice Bows of Manchester University which reveals a lot about the warmist scientists' current mood of existential pessimism. It begins by noting the Copenhagen commitment to keep the global temperature rise below 2° Celsius. The Canute-like confidence with which the EU and the British government believe that they can bend the planet to their will is indeed unintentionally hilarious.

The EU maintains it ‘must adopt the necessary domestic measures … to ensure that global average temperature increases do not exceed preindustrial levels by more than 2°C’. Within the UK, the language of many Government statements suggests, if not a zero probability of exceeding 2°C, at least a very low one. For example, in July 2009, the UK Government published its UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, in which it stated explicitly that ‘to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change, average global temperatures must rise no more than 2°C’. The previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, subsequently reiterated this commitment, stating ‘we should limit climate change to a maximum of two degrees’

Anderson and Bows assert, however, not only that the mechanisms now being adopted will fail to achieve this, (they dryly refer to what they term the "pivotal disjuncture between high level aspirations and the policy reality") but also that even such a limited temperature rise would have more seriously disruptive consequences than often envisaged. Most of the paper is taken up with a detailed analysis of how most projections of future temperature rise have failed to take full account of the impact of the accelerating development of China, India, Brazil and other such countries. Anderson and Bows substitute their own, more alarming, projections.

They might, of course, be wrong; time alone will tell. The accuracy or otherwise of their predictions, however, is of no consequence politically: all that matters is whether or not they are believed and whether or not their conclusions are acted upon. The two are by no means the same. Even in countries like the UK where policy is directly informed by the views of climate change scientists Anderson and Bows claim that "the scale of current emissions and their relationship to the cumulative nature of the issue is not adequately understood." But a bit later the authors imply that perhaps it is understood after all.

Put bluntly, while the rhetoric of policy is to reduce emissions in line with avoiding dangerous climate change, most policy advice is to accept a high probability of extremely dangerous climate change rather than propose radical and immediate emission reductions.

Policy makers tacitly concede, write the authors, that "avoiding dangerous (and even extremely dangerous) climate change is no longer compatible with economic prosperity." Governments and their adivisers are interested in what is "feasible", not what would actually solve the problem of climate change. I find this reassuring. The starting point for any new global scheme ought to be an acknowledgement that (if the science is true) it will simply not be possible to limit temperature increase to under 2°C, and we had just better get used to it.

But the authors of this paper cannot bear so much reality. Anderson is reported in the Telegraph as calling for economic stagnation to be imposed on Western countries for a twenty-year period (the paper refers only to "planned austerity") and even for World War II style food and energy rationing to be imposed.

You only have to spell it out to realise that it's not going to happen. We don't, fortunately, live in the kind of centrally-planned, authoritarian state that would be necessary to impose such drastic disciplines. The present government's economic strategy, moreover, is utterly dependent on achieving growth - not to mention its chances of achieving re-election. Imposing a policy of economic suicide on Britain, or even on the whole of Europe, would in any case have very little impact: the developing countries will continue developing whatever we do.

The policy-planners are aware that emissions targets and the like are largely symbolic, even if the economic damage they will do is far greater than any benefits they may bring. They are not actually stupid. They have calculated that the appearance of action on climate change is important for its own sake - rather in the way that medieval kings spent the taxes they extorted from their subjects on building cathedrals or going on crusade. This is gesture politics; the futility of the gesture does not make it any less virtuous. The aim is not to prevent catastrophic global warming, which will happen or not happen in its own good time (and beyond the electoral cycle) and which humanity will cope with, as it has always coped with climatic change. It will bring as many benefits as harms. Rather, the aim is to be seen to be doing something, so that the eventual blame attaches to someone else.

And if the planet doesn't overheat, so much the better. It will vindicate the policies, just as a rainstorm vindicates the shaman's dance.
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Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Blair/Hitch verdict

The debate in Toronto between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on the question of whether or not religion is a Good Thing (transcript here) was more eagerly awaited than many heavyweight boxing contests. In the event, it lacked the baroque rhetorical flyting that marked the earlier, insult-laden encounter between Hitchens and George Galloway. Hitch was the more colourful speaker, needless to say, and he prevailed. Not only was the motion defeated (though a closer analysis of the voting suggests that the initially undecided split fairly evenly between the two) but his arguments sounded more forceful and compelling. But then he has been schooled by a lifetime of journalistic controversialism, while Blair's political success was based on a remarkable ability to agree with several opposing viewpoints simultaneously. Hitchens has never done warm words, and wasn't about to start now.

Still, I want to concentrate on Blair's contribution, which in some ways was the more interesting. His points weren't in any sense new, of course (in this debate, there are no new points) but the humble and apologetic tone in which he expressed his belief that religion did, sometimes, make the world a better place - at least, some religious people did - was striking. It might almost be said to have done Hitchens' job for him.

Greta Christina has made an astute point that religious speakers in debates like this often seem to be seeking atheists' approval.

Typically, these believers acknowledge that many religions are profoundly troubling. They share atheists' revulsion against religious hatreds and sectarian wars. They share our repugnance with religious fraud, the charlatans who abuse people's trust to swindle them out of money and sex and more. They share our disgust with willful religious ignorance, the flat denials of overwhelming scientific evidence that contradicts people's beliefs. They can totally see why many atheists are so incredulous, even outraged, about the world of religion.

But they think their religion is an exception.... And they want atheists to agree.

Christina offers two explanations for this phenomenon: that theists believe at some level that atheists - of the humanist variety - have higher (or at any rate more conscientious) moral standards than believers; and secondly that getting the atheist "stamp of approval" will help them to differentiate themselves, in their own mind, from the bad believers, the suicide bombers, the oppressors of women, the creationists... Obviously, she's talking about liberal believers who, God aside, share most of their outlook with humanists anyway. She's not talking about fundamentalists, who don't care what atheists think of them because the atheists will be going to Hell. She's talking about what might be called religious humanists, or Anglicans (of all religions), or Karen Armstrong-style fudge merchants. She could easily be talking about Tony Blair. Indeed, though it wasn't written in response to the Toronto debate, her article is a remarkably good summation of its general atmosphere.

To begin with, the former PM readily admits - how could he not? - that while he would like religion to be part of the solution, it's a big part of the problem:

Therefore, what I would say is I actually think that yes of course a lot of these conflicts have religious roots, I actually think it's possible for religious leaders to play a positive part in trying to resolve those, but in the end, it's for politics and religion to try and work out a way in which religion, in a world of globalisation that is pushing people together, can play a positive rather than negative role, and if we concentrated on that, rather than trying to drive religion out, which is futile, to concentrate instead on how we actually get people of different faiths working together, learning from each other and living with each other, I think it would be a more productive mission.

This, of course, is what his Faith Foundation is meant to be all about. Blair's position is a pragmatic one, as befits a politician:

I'm not claiming that everyone should congregate on my space, I'm simply claiming one very simple thing, that if we can't drive religion out of the world because many people of faith believe it and believe it very deeply, let's at least see how we do make religion a force for good, how we do encourage those people of faith who are trying to do good, and how we unite those against those who want to pervert religion and turn it into a badge of identity used in opposition to others.

Which is far enough as far as it goes (which is a long way towards accepting the atheist criticism, of course - see Greta Christina above). I'm sure he didn't mean to imply that it would be better for all concerned if we COULD drive religion out of the world, and that persuading members of the different religions to get along was making the best of a bad job. Still, these admissions presented Hitchens with something of an open goal:

It's very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting to bridge the religious divide in Northern Ireland, but where does the religious divide come from?

In one sense Blair's contention is unarguable. Given that there are going to be many religious people, it is better that they should do good in the name of religion than do evil. And yes, of course, there are many selfless humanitarians who are motivated - or at any rate who believe that they are motivated - by a religious faith. A moral purist might object that it is better to do good for its own sake, rather than from a belief that God will reward the do-gooder, or that doing good is carrying out a divine command. But for the beneficiary of the good work, that scarcely matters. What matters is that someone is doing a good thing.

In making the argument for faith, Blair didn't make the argument for any particular religion. He was careful to praise the example of various religious figures, such as Jesus or Mohammed, but when he spoke of what was good in religion, he stressed compassion, altruism - not only something found in the teachings of almost every religion but the very thing that religious believers share with humanists. The quintessential thing about religion, he suggested, was not unique to religion at all. The most he could claim was that religious believers might be more likely than non-believers to devote their lives to such a cause.

It's a good dodge, but it doesn't strike at the root of the problem that Blair readily admitted when he discussed the problem of scripture. The "single most difficult argument" to counter, he said, was that "the bad that is done in the name of religion is intrinsically grounded in the scripture of religion." His answer seemed to be that scripture should be reinterpreted in the light of the modern world. And of course that is what "progressive" religious types have always done. So that when the Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord or that children who answer their parents back should be stoned to death, or the Koran says that Muslims have a duty to make war on unbelievers, or whatever, the correct response is to say that we must interpret the scripture in a more "sophisticated" manner, until what it "really means" is almost the precise opposite of what it appears to say.

In other words, you should pick and choose the bits you like and ignore the rest. Which is fair enough, if you don't then continue to claim that the scripture is inspired by God, or even the direct Word of God. Some religious teachers do make such an admission. Most, though, try to have things both ways.

The problem here goes beyond religious texts. Put simply, the bits of religion that cause the problem - the tribalism, the archaic attitudes towards sex and the position of women, the cruel attributes of God - are precisely what makes each religion distinctive, that anchor every faith in a particularity and definiteness. Not to mention the doctrines: God chose the Jews, God disapproves of condoms (at least He did until last week), God comes in Three Persons (no he doesn't: there is No God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet)... Whereas the bits that Tony Blair wants to stress, the things that every religion shares with every other - the altruism and so on - are common also to humanism. They aren't really "religion" at all, however many believers do good things in religion's name.

As far as I can see, this is insoluble. Religion, like the IRA, isn't going to go away, which is why Blair's modest project of encouraging different religious people to work together for unobjectionable good ends is about the best we can hope for. But it will never be fully realised, because if it were the differences between the various religions would evaporate - and if that happened, then religion itself would disappear to be replaced by a more-or-less spiritualised humanism. In which case, religion would lose its purchase on the human imagination, which comes from the myths, doctrines and scriptural teachings that make every religion distinct and dangerous. Result: less religiously-inspired humanitarianism, which would probably just mean LESS humanitarianism. Oh yes it would.

Blair wants to say - spends much of his life saying, in fact - that the "true" essence of religion lies in compassion and observance of the Golden Rule (a biological phenomen also known as reciprocal altruism) while religiously motivated war and intolerance is a perversion of its inner spirit. But religion isn't just about being generally nice and loving one's neighbour. It's also about the claim that particular beliefs are true, and (just as importantly) about other beliefs not being true. What dooms any universalist project is that religious beliefs make little sense in the absence of contrary ideas. Even when Europe was almost entirely Christian there were heretics, Jews and Muslim Infidels to oppose; later Catholics and Protestants had each other to despise. Further afield, Hindus and Muslims squared up (the Sikh gurus' largely unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the two notwithstanding) and there have always been lots of different sorts of Buddhist. Although, to be fair, Buddhists don't waste too much of their time hating one another.

Everyone agrees - well, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens agree - that religious strife is a Bad Thing. They only disagree about whether or not it represents the true nature of religion, or whether the altruistic, compassionate dimension is the fundamental one. It's not so simple. There is an energy that propels religion, that turns some people into saints of compassion and others into suicide bombers; and it's the same energy in both cases. You can't have one without the other. It's not just wrong, it's wicked, to pretend otherwise.
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