Thursday, 29 April 2010

Laying down the Laws

Great stuff from Lord Justice Laws, dismissing the appeal request of former Relate counsellor Gary McFarlane. Like the Islington registrar Lillian Ladele, McFarlane believed that his Christian beliefs prevented him helping gay people (in his case, as a sex therapist) and that, therefore, asking him to do his job amounted to religious discrimination. Laws (and with a name like that he should know what he's talking about) didn't waste too much time on McFarlane's hopeless case - the law, whether or not you agree with it, is fairly clear on such matters. But he also took the opportunity to offer some reflections on the nature of religious belief, the role of the law in policing a morally and religiously heterogeneous society, and the intellectual capacity of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. Cranmer didn't like it very much, but I think it was splendidly done.

Carey had gone to the trouble of submitting an affadavit in McFarlane's support, in which he called among other things for a specially-constituted panel of senior judges "who have a proven sensibility to religious issues" - in other words, who would interpret the law in a manner more keeping with his own prejudices. Even by Carey's standards, it was a remarkably duff idea. Who would appoint these special judges, and on what grounds? Him, probably. Laws commented that such an idea was "deeply inimical to the public interest". He also expressed himself "sorry that he finds it possible to suggest" such a procedure. I think that's a very polite way of calling Carey an idiot.

The judge reproduces most of Carey's bizarre affadavit before elegantly fisking it. "My heart is in anguish at the spiritual state of this country" wails the archbishop, apropos of nothing in particular, before accusing judges who dismiss demands for religious exceptionalism of having "clear animus to Christian beliefs". He even prophesies "a future civil unrest" should his demands not be met. Perhaps he's been taking advice from Lord Ahmed, who obtained a temporary ban on Geert Wilders by announcing that ten thousand angry Muslims would descend on Westminster to protest against the Dutch populist. In the event, of course, it was just Anjem Choudary and friends. In any case, Lord Justice Laws is made of stronger stuff than Jacqui Smith.

Carey had taken particular objection to the word "discriminatory". Accusing Christians of being discriminatory was tantamount to calling them bigots, he reasoned, and thus in itself - well, discriminatory. It's worth looking closely at his reasoning - or lack thereof:

The description of religious faith in relation to sexual ethics as 'discriminatory' is crude; and illuminates a lack of sensitivity to religious belief. The Christian message of 'love' does not demean or disparage any individual (regardless of sexual orientation); the desire of the Christian is to limit self destructive conduct by those of any sexual orientation and ensure the eternal future of an individual with the Lord.... The descriptive word 'discriminatory' is unbefitting and it is regrettable that senior members of the Judiciary feel able to make such disparaging comments.

... The comparison of a Christian, in effect, with a 'bigot' (ie a person with an irrational dislike to homosexuals) begs further questions. It is further evidence of a disparaging attitude to the Christian faith and its values. In my view, the highest development of human spirituality is acceptance of Christ as saviour and adherence to Christian values. This cannot be seen by the Courts of this land as comparable to the base and ignorant behaviour.


Carey appears to believe that merely by applying the law judges are guilty of making "disparaging comments" about Christianity. Laws has a neat answer to that. The archbishop doesn't know what the word "discriminatory" even means:

It is possible that Lord Carey's mistaken suggestions arise from a misunderstanding on his part as to the meaning attributed by the law to the idea of discrimination. In cases of indirect discrimination (such as are provided for by paragraph 3(1)(b) of the 2003 Regulations, which is centre stage in the present case) the law forbids discriminatory conduct not by reference to the actor's motives, but by reference to the outcome of his or her acts or omissions. Acts or omissions may obviously have discriminatory effects – outcomes – as between one group or class of persons and another, whether their motivation is for good or ill; and in various contexts the law allows indirect discrimination where (in a carefully controlled legislative setting) it can be shown to have justifiable effects. Accordingly the proposition that if conduct is accepted as discriminatory it thereby falls to be condemned as disreputable or bigoted is a non sequitur. But it is the premise of Lord Carey's position.


Subtle and devastating. Discrimination is a fact to be discerned, not a value judgement. The purpose of the law is not to make windows into people's souls. That's Carey's job, presumably, though it's questionable whether he has had much success at it.

At that point Carey's entire whinge collapses. But Laws is just warming up. He then turns to Carey's complaint that judges are insufficiently respectful of Christian belief - concerns that are "formulated at such a level of generality that it is hard to know precisely what Lord Carey has in mind." McFarlane's lawyer had apparently argued that "The fear of hell is central to the appellant's religious belief; and individuals ought to be informed of the consequences of hell." This seems to mean that he didn't merely want to be able to refuse to counsel gay clients, he wanted to be able to tell them that they were going to Hell. What a charming man. Anyway, this leads Laws to the conclusion that:

There is an important distinction to be drawn between the law's protection of the right to hold and express a belief and the law's protection of that belief's substance or content. The common law and ECHR Article 9 offer vigorous protection of the Christian's right (and every other person's right) to hold and express his or her beliefs. And so they should. By contrast they do not, and should not, offer any protection whatever of the substance or content of those beliefs on the ground only that they are based on religious precepts. These are twin conditions of a free society.


Spot on. Or, to put it another way, if you want to believe in fairies, that's fine. But if you take a job as a gardener don't expect the court to protect you when you refuse to weed a flowerbed that you believe hosts a thriving colony of elves.

Laws describes as "deeply unprincipled" the idea, implicit in Carey's utterances, that the law should give special effect to Christian beliefs simply because they have been around a long time. This would "impose compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion." Religious beliefs, he points out, are not objectively demonstrable: that's what makes them beliefs rather than scientific facts.

In the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

Furthermore:

We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.


As a statement of the proper role of the legal system in dealing with competing truth claims and demands for "respect" (which tends to mean capitulation) this can hardly be bettered.

Another classic from the judge who granted Simon Singh leave to appeal in such forthright terms a few months ago.
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Gordon Brown's missed opportunity

What's Gordon Brown good at?

Hmm. Tricky question. Alright then, what does Gordon Brown think he's good at? And what has he been most successful in persuading other people he's good at?

International economic policy, of course. There was a moment between late 2008 and the G20 Summit a year ago when Brown could present himself as the saviour of humanity from financial Armageddon. His "We've saved the world" remark - made at Prime Minister's Questions - attracted much merriment for its hubris. It was, of course, a slip of the tongue. But - no less than yesterday's "bigoted woman" gaffe - it revealed what he really believed. And there were many at the time and since who believed it to be not altogether preposterous.

Whether or not Brown did in any sense save the world at that time, his handling of the banking crisis is the strongest card he has to play. His greatest achievement, though, was keeping Britain out of the Euro. No-one else could have faced down Tony Blair in his pomp, denying him his greatest wish and saving Britain in 2010 from the fate of Greece. Brown's spending splurges have wrecked the country's fiscal stability and inflated unsustainably the size of the public sector. But we can assume that they would have happened anyway. At least the relative decline in Sterling has absorbed enough of the shock to allow at least the possibility of recovering provided the next government takes the necessary measures. We should thank him for that at least. It also gives him a huge stick with which to assault the Euro-fanatical Nick Clegg, though I doubt he will be too keen on using it.

No matter: the point is that if the economy is the prime minister's greatest strength, it is the international not the national dimension that he understands best. It's also the subject understood least by the ordinary voter. Or by the ordinary journalist, for that matter. However great the impact on all our lives of decisions made round tables by politicians and bankers, such events are never going to cause the same amount of excitement as Gillian Duffy. It was predictable that some incident of excruciating embarrassment was going to occur at some point during the campaign, and Brown was always the most likely victim. It was the feeling of tedium that came across most strongly in his notorious comments about the voter he'd just had a reasonably friendly conversation with. She was "just a bigoted woman". He'd rather not have to meet ordinary voters at all. He'd rather be at an important conference discussing the international economy.

So why isn't he? True, not being part of the Euro Britain isn't directly caught up in the troubles of Euroland. But that hasn't stopped him in the past. And, as he never tires of telling us, three million British jobs depend upon trade with Europe (although not "our membership of the EU", as he wants us to think). At a time like this Gordon should be saving the world, not touring around Rochdale bumping into grannies. The crisis should have given him the perfect excuse to abandon the campaign trail, leaving the Labour cause to more sure-footed performers like Alan Johnson, and head off to the continent to negotiate with his peers. This he could have portrayed as an act of noble self-denial. "The future of the European economy, and the world financial system itself, is at stake," he should have said. "Even if it costs me the election, my first duty is to help prevent a second - and more serious - meltdown."

And the subtext - "You can't possibly vote me out of office at a time like this." Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

What's so offensive about Popegate


Balliol was once the home of effortless superiority. Now it would appear to be the home of brainless stupidity. The news that both men implicated in the Popegate dossier are graduates of one of Oxbridge's most intellectually elitist colleges ought to be a cause of major concern, even if the offence to Dr Ratzinger and his peculiar institution blows over. Yes, it was funny (if not at all witty). Pope jokes are inherently amusing, not least because the Roman Catholic Church is an anomalous absurdity and its current leader combines a Bond villain accent (and name) with a face that might have been put together by Hammer's make-up department. But I can say that; I'm not writing as a representative of the Queen and of the government that invited the pontiff to come over here in the first place. Nor, sadly, am I being paid handsomely by the taxpayer to sit around thinking up - sorry, "brainstorming" - juvenile pope gags.

Steven Mulvain, a wet-behind-the-ears 23-year old, was responsible for the distributing the bizarre document, which offered suggestions about the forthcoming Papal visit some of which were sensible and others fatuously offensive. But it was his somewhat more senior colleague Anjoum Noorani who we now learn was responsible for convening the forward-planning committee whose ideas, Benedict condoms and all, were so embarrassingly leaked. Some have played up the religious implications of Noorani's name. Indeed, there was apparently not a single practising Catholic on the committee charged with planning the papal visit. It's easy to contrast this casual approach to the sanctities of the Catholic faith with the aching deference this government traditionally shows to the real and imagined sensitivities of Muslims.

That somewhat misses the point, though. The clue is not in Noorani's (presumed) religious background but in his other background - the one he is standing in front of in this photograph, a whiteboard covered in squiggles. A "proper" Muslim would have had some understanding of the religious sensitivities involved and respect for the person of the Pope. A proper Muslim would not have been making jokes about condoms and abortion. Noorani's religion is not Islam but managementspeak and PR babble. He and his brainstorming session are symptomatic of the dumbing-down of public life.

Philip Johnston in the Telegraph had a good piece about the contamination of government by "jargon-filled rubbish imported from the world of management consultancy." But the problem goes beyond Birtification. See Charles Crawford's despairing account - from a former insider - of the damage wrought on the Foreign Office by Gordon Brown's obsession with targets. He is withering about how and the traditional diplomatic strengths of local knowledge and in-depth specialisation have been supplanted by a culture of buzzwords, fashionable enthusiasms and overarching visions. The ex-ambassador quotes a former colleague's complaint that the diplomatic service currently "has more people working on Change and Diversity issues than they have working on the Middle East peace process - a disgrace and utter madness, yet typical of the FCO's currently warped world view."

Crawford also noted the other day that "judgement" was no longer a criterion on which the Foreign Office assessed its staff. It has been replaced by more zeitgeisty concepts like "leadership" and "delivering results". It's easy enough to blame New Labour, with its love of targets and hatred of anything traditional or elitist, for this sort of tosh, but I suspect the Blair administration has been as much the symptom as the cause of it. Other, profounder, causes have been at play: a loss of nerve on the part of the old elites, the complete ascendency of the media and the news cycle, a generalised and growing distrust of institutions - most powerful when internalised by those who themselves run those institutions - a truncation of attention-spans and an hysterical neophilia. The best word for it is infantilisation. Britain, and probably most other western countries as well, is regressing to a state of toddlerism, or at best arrested adolescence.

It's profoundly irritating, as a citizen, to be addressed by government ministers or TV news reporters like an educationally subnormal five-year-old. This election campaign has been depressing in its relentless concentration on the Pop Idol aesthetics of the leaders and the almost complete disregard of the huge fiscal challenges facing the next government. Most depressing of all is the thought that talking down to voters may actually work. Scott Chisholm advised Nick Clegg to imagine that his audience had an average age of ten, and look what happened to him. As to the black hole, a party promising savage cuts where its opponents offer only efficiency savings and more maternity leave is likely to lose a lot of votes; at least it's a risk politicians have good reasons for not wanting to take.

Is it merely a case of pas devant les enfants, though? Are politicians and broadcasters patronising the audience out of intellectual hauteur - because they think we're stupid - or because they themselves are as moronic as they imagine the public to be? Incidents like Popegate - which eerily resembles an episode of The Thick Of It - suggest that even the most intellectually accomplished and highly educated among us we are suffering from advanced brain-rot. We are indeed being ruled by idiots, even if the idiots concerned swank around with first class degrees from Balliol College Oxford.
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Sunday, 25 April 2010

How to dish the Whigs

The year was 1867. Lord Palmerston, for decades the dominant figure in British politics, had died in office two years before. His successor was Lord John Russell, almost as old, but as keen on Parliamentary reform as Palmerston had been against it. The great Reform Act of 1832 with its restricted and largely middle-class franchise, though not much more than a generation old, was already looking dated. But Russell's very limited proposal for reform, backed by the increasingly powerful Gladstone, had succeeded only in dividing his party. A new Tory government, led by Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, had come in - and promptly amazed everyone by introducing its own reform package. Not only did this bill go further than the Whig-Liberal proposals the Tories had helped to defeat, but during its passage Disraeli accepted virtually every liberalising amendment offered. Not for the last time, a Tory government had the courage and political flexibility to introduce a reform at which its supposedly more progressive opponents had balked.

Disraeli's concession was both a tactical and strategic masterstroke. When asked why he had accepted reform, he declared that he had done it "to dish the Whigs" - and, no doubt, getting one over on Gladstone was for him a large part of the pleasure. The original limited proposal would have hugely benefited the Liberals - Derby described it as "the extinction of the Conservative Party and of the real Whigs". Although the vastly extended franchise delivered a large Liberal majority in 1868, it also laid the foundations for more than a century of Conservative success. Disraeli sensed that the new era of mass politics was as much an opportunity as a threat, because many of the new voters were instinctive Tories, tradition-minded and patriotic. They were what used to be called the "respectable working classes", and in modern terminology the C2s - the very people, in other words, who put Mrs Thatcher in power and in 1997 swung decisively behind Tony Blair.

It's worth noting the state of British politics on the eve of the 1867 Reform Act. For more than a generation, there had been three-party politics, the main consequence of which had been to shut the Conservatives out of power. A group of "liberal" free traders, followers of Robert Peel, had defected from the Tories in the wake of the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws and aligned themselves with the Whigs. Their leader was Gladstone. Without the extension of the franchise this situation might have persisted. Reform favoured the Tories, long-term, because it broke the anomalous three-party logjam and forced the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals together. The natural political order of two alternating parties was thus able to reassert itself.

Proponents of proportional representation (along with many of its opponents) believe that it would free politics from what they think of as the artificial straightjacket of the two party system. It's certainly true that in formal terms we might end up with more parties - at any rate, more parties with representation at Westminster. The Greens, UKIP, quite possibly the BNP, perhaps the English Democrats or even the Rev George "So Macho" Hargreaves' Christian Party would get their seats. The Conservatives might split into a centrist party and a more right-wing linkage between traditionalist Tories and UKIP. Labour would be reduced to a socialist core. The big losers, paradoxically, would be the Liberal Democrats, the party generally assumed to have most to gain. They would lose their unique selling point of being the protest party, the none-of-the-above party. They could become the excluded middle.

Stable politics is always binary: there is one bloc on the left and another on the right, and public sentiment - at least, sentiment among that part of the public that is made up of floating voters - awards either bloc the right to govern. The precise system of election, while of great interest to psephologists and political obsessives, matters less in the end than human nature, of which the swing of the political pendulum is a manifestation. To some extent Thomas Carlyle had a point when he dismissed reform as "the calling in of new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility and balderdash by way of amending the woes which we have had from our previous supplies of that bad article." Yet there are times when the system cracks, and this may be one of them.

The three party politics of the past 25 years - ever since the defection from Labour of the SDP gang of four - has enabled the Lib Dems to sit somewhere in the middle. By being significantly behind the other two (at any rate in terms of seats), in a system that punishes savagely a third party lacking the geographical gravity of Labour and the Conservatives, they have preserved a certain ambiguity. Neither right nor left, fish nor foul, they have offered something for everyone and a home for disaffected voters from either side. With PR, they would be forced to align themselves more definitively on one side of the political divide. And, looking at the views of their members it's pretty clear where that would be: the centre-left. Once in bed with whatever remained of the Labour party - a union-dominated and socialist hard core - the party would soon suffer by association. When the public wanted a change away from the politics of collectivism and state overspending they would know who not to vote for.

There's opportunity as well as danger for the Lib Dems in this, of course. My guess is that most would sooner or later line up with the Blairites in a new centre-left party, leaving the socialist Left to what remains of Labour. Yet it's hard to see such a party ever being in coalition with the Conservatives. They would have an opportunity for power, as part of a left-of-centre bloc, but they wouldn't in normal circumstances hold the balance of power. There might also be room for a liberal, small-state party (a Clegg party, perhaps) which would generally dress to the right. The voters, meanwhile, would once again be faced with the perennial choice between left and right, progressive and conservative.

The sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are natural partners has led both dreamers on the Left and pessimists on the Right to imagine that a proportional voting system would enshrine permanent centre-left government. Or at any rate, as Peter Mandelson (according to Peter Oborne yesterday) thinks, "keep the Tories out of power for a generation." This has not, though, been the experience of Germany or Spain. Nor of Scotland. In most cases, PR leads to changes of government at least as regularly as under a two-party system with first past the post. And for the same reason: it presents the voters with a clear choice, for or against the government.

I agree with Jackart that the prime justification for any voting system has to be its ability to throw out an unpopular government. But it seems perverse to be saying so at a time when the system of first past the post could well fail that basic test, and in the most spectacular way possible by awarding the party with the fewest votes the largest number of seats. This, of course, is largely a result of the absurd distribution of seats, currently so unbalanced that a casual observer might think it had been gerrymandered by the government. But even with a fairer distribution FPTP would still be struggling to cope with the current situation, just as the 1832 system struggled to cope with the unusual political geometry that followed the Conservative split of 1846.

Three party politics is inherently unstable and anomalous. Whenever it occurs - in the years after 1846, in the 1920s, and again today - what it indicates is flux, a two-party system in turmoil. It is a transitional phase during the rise of one party and the eclipse of another. At such times, politics is (in the technical sense) chaotic - which is why elections can produce bizarre results. But the system invariably settles into a new equilibrium, which may last several decades before it, too, breaks down.

The only real advantage of PR over FPTP is that it can cope more easily with these periods of political transformation. That flexibility, though, can be a drawback: fringe parties can emerge from nowhere and storm the citadels of power. A British Geert Wilders would get nowhere under first past the post. To get into a position to threaten the balance of the system, as the Lib Dems currently find themseleves, requires years of patient groundwork. That's why this realignment is happening in 2010 and not in 1983. However frustrating this may seem to those laying the groundwork, it does at least prevent the lunatics taking over the asylum.

Let's assume, though, that the present electoral system can no longer contain its own contradictions. Change may be inevitable. If the election produces a hung Parliament, change will be inevitable, and even a Conservative victory may only postpone it. What, then, is the best approach for David Cameron to take? Were he to cling stubbornly (or as a matter of high principle) to a system that already disadvantages his party, the result might be a Liberal-Labour deal that is even worse, such as Gordon Brown's favoured solution of Alternative Vote. That really could lead to "the extinction of the Conservative party" - even of democracy itself. Under AV, Labour would have achieved larger majorities in 1997, 2001 and even in 2005 when the party obtained a mere 36% of the popular vote. AV institutionalises the anomaly of three-party politics. It would lock the Liberal Democrats out of power as well. If any system is capable of producing sempiternal left-wing government, it is AV.

Alternatively, David Cameron could learn the lesson of 1867. By embracing the inevitable and cutting a deal with the Lib Dems going beyond what Gordon Brown is offering them, he would be in a position to seize the initiative and shape the new electoral system. He would be able, for example, to insist on a system that preserved some sort of constituency link which many voters rightly value. Like Disraeli, he would be well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a system that would neutralise the advantages that Labour, with its dependence on a concentrated geographical block vote, currently enjoy. Gordon Brown - or whoever succeeded him - would be outmanoeuvred and left looking out-of-date. They would, to coin a phrase, have been dished. An opportune embrace of PR would be squarely in that conservative tradition, best summed up in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's famous phrase: "For things to stay the same, everything will have to change."
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Friday, 23 April 2010

Lotfi Raissi - a lucky man

I'm pleased to see that Lotfi Raissi, the innocent Algerian who was mistaken for a terrorist by the US authorities and spent five months in Belmarsh despite the complete lack of evidence against him, is finally to be compensated. The false allegation that he had something to do with 9/11 destroyed his life and rendered him virtually unemployable, yet the government that colluded in his arrest has still offered him no apology. After years of foot-dragging by the authorities, Raissi resorted to the law, claiming wrongful arrest. He finally won his case last month - and now, after a few more weeks' prevarication, the Ministry of Justice have conceded his entitlement, which will now be independently assessed.

In an interesting phrase, the Court of Appeal described Raissi as was the victim of the "heightened emotional atmosphere" in the aftermath of September 11 2001. I think that means that the US and British authorities were so desperate to find someone to arrest they didn't particularly care whether or not there was any evidence. Indeed, Raissi remained incarcerated in Belmarsh for several weeks even after a judge expressed concern at the lack of evidence. Lawyers for the US authorities asked for time to find some - and even when they couldn't continued to oppose his release. They continued to press for his extradition for more than a year - long after it became apparent to the dimmest legal or investigative intellect that the whole matter was, at most, a case of mistaken identity. They pursued him for months in the full knowledge of his innocence, and even opposed the final quashing of the extradition request.

It was truly appalling. Yet in a sense Lotfi Raissi was extremely lucky. Had the 2003 Extradition Act been in force, then neither the lack of any credible (or even incredible) evidence, nor even Raissi's ability to demonstrate his complete innocence would have been of any help to him. The UK courts would have been unable to halt his extradition - in which case he would probably be languishing today in a high-security American jail cell while the authorities attempted to find a fig-leaf to cover their embarrassment. His case should have served as a terrible warning of the way in which New Labour legislation has left the extradition system wide-open to abuse - both with regards to the unequal treaty with the United States and the similar, but more "equal", European Arrest Warrant.

The practice of extraditing people to foreign jurisdictions without even the most minimal safeguard - proof that there is at least some case to answer - is scandalous. Yet it defended on grounds of efficiency, and whenever valid questions are raised about the principle, or particular shocking instances adduced, we are told that without such casual arrangements terrorists and murderers would be to more difficult to extradite. Or at least that it would take longer. Perhaps that's true. But it would be a price well worth paying. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Young Evan

After Dr Evan Harris and his geek army saw off the challenge of Cristina Odone on Monday (she had caricatured him as "Doctor Death" over his support for assisted suicide and abortion), the Lib Dem science spokesman may join Vince Cable and Nick Clegg as one of the party's national treasures (and certainly as one of the Daily Mail's betes noires). He was already a hero to many science and free-speech activists, of course, for the leading role he played in the cause of libel reform. I myself heard him speak on the subject - with genuine passion - when I gatecrashed last year's Lib Dem conference. Last night he was in action again at a rally which was, in part, a celebration of Simon Singh's victory over the British Chiropractic Association.

He's certainly one of a limited number of politicians who can be trusted, on subjects like science, to know what he's talking about. Allen Green (Jack of Kent) announced on Twitter yesterday that Harris's existence had won the party his vote in May, outweighing even the "Euro and PR silliness" that many people think the Lib Dems are all about.

Nick Clegg was rather hesitant the other day when asked if he had voted for the party he currently leads (or its forerunner) in 1987. This morning on Today, Chris Huhne went so far as to suggest that Clegg - once Leon Brittan's assistant in Brussels - might easily have joined the Conservatives and ended up as "one of David Cameron's bunnies" (not as Tory leader, then?). Evan Harris would have had no such problem: in those days he was a dominant figure in Liberal/SDP politics at Oxford University. I've come across an historical account of the period, entitled The Leperous Distilment, which paints a vivid picture of the young Evan. The author (whose contemporaneous cartoon of the doctor appears above) had mixed feelings about the future MP:

On the one hand, he took an extraordinary amount of work into his own hands, behaving with feverish activity, always a central figure in elections. This had its own problems, for he frequently took so much upon himself that failure to meet agreed commitments was often inevitable. But the club was considerably dependent on his activity, a dependence which increased with time as his informal links with the Oxford West constituency (OxWAb) developed and themselves provided the justification for his responsibilities.

He also slowly became convinced that nobody else in the club ever did anything. All who disagreed with him over the merger, or his style of management, he saw as "armchair activists" or "whining Liberals", guilty of disloyalty. Thus his reaction to a paper on organisation and presentation was that it was wrong to criticize the Party. Finally, his demands on others to match his own efforts (such as giving activists uncut leaflets to deliver) tended only to make them feel taken for granted.


There follows a detailed account of the obscure machinations of student politics, which doubtless seemed important at the time but are hard to follow now. (Think People's Front of Judea.) There are endless rows about leaflets, which while supposed to keep members up to date were more often a vehicle for in-fighting and personal smears. Harris - undisputed leader of the pro-merger faction - emerges as something of a control-freak with perhaps surprising similarities to Gordon Brown. An opponent suspects him of trying to "drive out radicals" - it was "often and rightly complained that his amendments to membership lists, which by rights he should not have had possession of, made it impossible to distinguish between non-activists and non-members". When it comes to campaigns he is "omnipresent"; his opponents "divisive subverters". One meeting descends into "actual physical violence" between Harris and a leading female activist.

There's something almost superhuman about Harris's energy and commitment, especially when you remember that as a medical student he would have had rather more onerous commitments than the historians and PPEists who tend to dominate student politics. The main split appears to be, not between pro- and anti- merger camps but between those who prefer to sit around discussing political philosophy and those, notably Harris, who see the priority as success in elections. The pamphlet's author tends to side with the former: his Harris is something of a bully. On the other hand, while Harris has become a prominent national figure his Oxford opponents are nowhere to be seen. And the machine politician of twenty years ago is now better known as an MP with an unusually strong interest in ideas. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Clegg's Diana Moment?

There was an interesting discussion earlier today on the Left-wing blog Though Cowards Flinch (I don't normally go there, but Alix Mortimer tweeted me in its direction) on the meaning and durability of "Cleggmania". Paul Cotterill argued that "the sudden desire on the part of a section of the public to be feel attached to some kind of sudden mass movement of emotion is a bit like Dianamania." As in 1997, he thinks, people want to feel they have "an active part in a some kind of anti-establishment swell" - an essentially shallow emotion, he implies, casting Nick Clegg in the role of Diana's brother Earl Spencer who briefly articulated a public mood but was "no real reformer, no real catalyst for change." David Cameron gets to be the Queen, "struggling to cope with forces he doesn’t understand." (Perhaps he forgets that Her Majesty soon recovered her popularity and five years later was cheered in the Mall by crowds almost as large on the occasion of her Jubilee.)

Cotterill is a believer in the myth of the anti-Tory majority; he imagines that the Clegg bounce reveals a public desire for "real political change, of the kind that involves real shift in power over material resources". He means socialism, I suppose. Good luck with that. A somewhat deeper analysis came in a comment from Hackney landlord and occasional blogger John Q Publican, who challenged the comparison with the florid but transitory reaction to the car-crash at the Point D'Alma. He thinks something profound is going on:

The expenses scandal left most of the country not, as people keep trying to say, anti-politics but anti-politician. We’re looking at potentially the highest voter turnout since WWI and an immense flood of non-party, issue- and policy-based activism. That’s not anti-politics; that’s what politics looks like. The oligarchy haven’t seen it for so very, very long that they had genuinely forgotten what a politics looks like.


I sort of agree (though not, obviously, about the highest turn-out since WWI; in the 1950s, turnout percentage was in the mid 80s, and we won't see that again.) However, John Q fundamentally misunderstands the Diana phenomenon. He dismisses it as "a Murdoch-manipulated outbreak of public hysteria which resulted in very little except the deaths of millions of innocent flowers", unlike the "real political shift" indicated by the Lib Dem surge. Wrong.

Dianamania was not manipulated by the media. The media no less than the Palace were knocked sideways by the strength of the public reaction - though, fleeter-footed than the Windsors' triple-barrelled flunkies, they learnt quickly how to dance to the new popular tune and were soon joining in with "Show us you care, Ma'am" headlines. It was, however, a case of "I am their leader, I must follow them". The crowds began assembling in London before dawn - and this was long before Twitter. It was a real, if transitory, phenomenon.

As Anthony O'Hear wrote at the time:

For once, those who usually lead and form public opinion could only watch and follow....Some of us may have felt we were in a foreign country that week, but we weren't in Iran or Israel. The crowds were British in their restraint....And their emotion, it has to be said, was genuine, misdirected maybe as in the case of the man who said Diana's death meant more to him than that of his parents, and, in that sense, irrational, but it was not insincere or superficial. Whatever it was people felt, they really felt it...


So what was it? Not grief, though it bore the appearance of grief, for it ended with the funeral (as did the sense of constitutional crisis that had been generated). That a few years later Prince Charles was able to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles amid widespread public approbation, if not exactly enthusiasm, was testimony to the shallowness of Diana's grip on the national psyche. Was it anger, then, at the old system? Not really (and here's a key difference with today's political mood, which is fuelled by anger). It was more like a huge national party, a collective celebration of a new, more emotional, less hidebound way of being British. It was so powerful because it had been a long time coming, and so widespread because the ground had been prepared well in advance.

"Sometimes" wrote O'Hear, "in the history of a people there is a defining moment, in which a nation discovers what it has become. In such a moment, it decides what it wants to be. It resolves what it will go on to do."

Dianamania is something now looked back on by many with embarrassment, as a "moment of madness" in which the country found itself swept up in an orgy of grief. Certainly, it went nowhere - far from becoming the Evita figure many predicted, the princess herself has been largely forgotten and written out of history. What remain are a few vivid memories: the crowds growing by the hour, stupified by mourning for someone they never knew; the mountains of flowers; the sudden, but temporary, collapse in support for the monarchy; Earl Spencer, a largely expatriate serial adulterer and deserter of women (as well as a bear of very little brain) speaking for England, if not the world; Elton John; and, of course, Tony Blair.

Diana's posthumous triumph was at least as much Blair's, though neither Paul nor John Q mention him. He rode the tidal wave of sentimentality and shallow grief with the skill of a champion surfer. The Diana moment was about the triumph of feeling over logic, but it was also about the desire for a change of mood, an end to the old way of doing things, shaking off the shackles of deference and tradition. In a strange way, it was about hope. And it was democratic - though very far from being egalitarian - but also, as democratic sentimentality tends to be, rather bullying. Those who didn't share the mood felt alienated and excluded, while those who did imagined, somehow, that their emotional directness gave them a moral superiority. It was a touchy-feely era, after all. Bill Clinton was in the White House and no-one had heard of Osama Bin Laden. One of the decade's best selling books, you may remember, was John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Blair and Diana in their different ways (but not, perhaps, so different) embodied the new national mood. Although the media were as taken aback by the scale of Dianamania as the Palace was, the signs of a sea-change had been detectable for years. Diana herself prefigured it. In her transition from royal wife to free-floating uber-celebrity, famous for being compassionate, she demonstrated that personality and image now mattered more than institutions, history or, indeed, actual achievement. Her intuitive grasp of media manipulation was comparable with Blair's: think, for example, of the way she stitched up her ex-husband on Panorama.

While she was the harbinger of the new society, Blair did not so much create the mood as transmit it, reflecting the nation back to itself. That, briefly, made him untouchable. In retrospect it has made him unspeakable. Because the new mood turned out to have been a fantasy, and New Britain has soured into cynicism. All that remains is the emotional self-indulgence that seeks someone to blame.

There are definite similarities between what happened then and what appears to be happening now. Just as Dianamania didn't come from nowhere, it appears that Cleggmania didn't either. Political Betting notes that the move in the polls towards the Lib Dems had begun prior to Thursday's debate, and suggests that "a myth is being created" that the surge was entirely the consequence of his strong performance. I concur. While Clegg's performance was stronger than that of the other leaders, it was not exceptionally so. Had the tide been with Cameron that day, it's quite conceivable that post-debate polling would have reflected a belief that he "won". Likewise with Brown. A large section of the public was primed to be receptive to the Lib Dem message and responded accordingly.

One point on which I share John Q's analysis is that the swing to the Lib Dems - which is really a swing away from the two major parties and, even more, a swing away from "business as usual" - has been a long time coming. He traces it to the Iraq war protest - which is, perhaps, when the feeling that there was an arrogant and out-of-touch political class first became palpable, even the received wisdom. Iraq has scarcely featured in this campaign - and even the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan has largely been ignored, perhaps because (unlike Iraq last time) it's difficult to portray it as no more than Blair's folly, launched on a lie. It's not easy to get fired up against an honest mistake. But I think we can go back even further. Back beyond Dianamania itself, even.

In the run up to the 1997 election, Blair and his henchmen (or puppet-masters) Campbell and Mandelson succeeded in making the question of trust in politics synonymous with "Tory sleaze". In so doing, they encouraged suspicion. The idea that politicians - British politicians - might be institutionally corrupt scarcely existed before the exposés of the early Nineties. Once they had alerted the public to the possibility of corruption, and the media to its newsworthiness, it was only a matter of time before the spotlight turned on them. And once it did - harmlessly at first, as when Blair sidestepped the Ecclestone affair by declaring himself "a straight sort of guy" - the eventual reckoning was inevitable. As Bagehot warned, magic does not long survive exposure to the daylight.

Or perhaps the seeds of this extraordinary election were planted earlier still. When four Labour frontbenchers defected to form the SDP, their new movement (in alliance with the old Liberal party) quickly established a monumental lead in the polls. There was heady talk of breaking the mould of British politics. The mood passed - pessimism, or common-sense, or tradition reasserted itself - but it is at least possible that without the Falklands factor the mood of dissatisfaction with the conventional parties would have swept the Alliance into power. Whether it reflected a longing for consensus politics or a desire for something entirely new, the brief flowering of the SDP demonstrated that, even then, the big parties had surprisingly shallow roots. Since then, their active memberships have shrunk dramatically.

As the Telegraph astutely observed this morning, the mood of this campaign resembles a by-election. One polls put Labour support lower than Michael Foot's in 1983, and Peter Kellner (of all people) has been speculating about a possible Lib Dem majority. People are not thinking rationally about what set of policies they would prefer on the economy, law and order, education and so on - or, at least, that is not the predominant consideration. The appeal of Clegg is that he is (or, rather, appears to be) none of the above. That they might not agree with his policies doesn't matter, because this election is not about policies - not even about the economy, which given the size of the deficit it ought to be. That is not to say that the popular mood is irrational, however. Far from it. The system has become the main issue - and the only way to effect real change in the system is to break it, which means voting for whichever party looks plausibly able to do the smashing up. Right now, that's the Liberal Democrats.

I don't much like the way this is going, largely because I believe the change David Cameron offers would be more profound and democratising than anything likely to emerge from a hung Parliament. But then I was never really caught up in Dianamania.
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Monday, 19 April 2010

Would PR stop the political pendulum swinging?

Here's the Conservatives' nightmare, and the squishy left's wet dream. There's a hung Parliament, perhaps with Labour soundly beaten into second or even third place yet clinging onto their status as the single largest party. Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg do a deal: full proportional representation, alongside sundry other constitutional tinkerings. The referendum is carried. Result: permanent centre-left government. "The danger facing the Conservatives is existential" thinks Ben Brogan. While Guido brings us a panicky email from Peter Bingle of PR firm Bell Pottinger:

If David Cameron does not become PM on 6/7th May the electoral system will be changed. The first past the post system will be abolished and there will not be a Tory government for a very long time if ever again. Perhaps John Major will go down in history as the last Tory PM.


These gloomy assumptions spring from the unstated belief - perhaps gleaned from paying too much attention to the output of the BBC - that Britain has a permanent left-wing (or at any rate "progressive" majority) and that, therefore, it is only the Labour-Lib Dem fracture, combined with the minority-rule that comes with First Past the Post, that allows the Conservatives ever to form the government.

Would a changed voting system really sink the Tory party, though?

Imagine that PR had been in place at the last general election in 2005. Labour would have been considerably short of a majority and with not much more than 35% of the vote there would have been a strong case that it had been rejected by the electorate. The Lib Dems might have propped up Tony Blair (if only as a more attractive proposition than Michael Howard) but they would have extracted some serious concessions - killing off ID cards, perhaps. At any rate, it couldn't have been worse than the past five years.

Now fast-forward to today. The coalition has struggled on to the end of the Parliamentary term, but - buffeted by recession and revelations of the way many MPs have abused the expenses system - it has become deeply unpopular. Charles Kennedy was forced to resign as foreign secretary and party leader after an incident at a Brussels summit at which he appeared to be incapable. The Chancellor, Vince Cable, is widely regarded as a doomsaying misery-guts. His rows with Gordon Brown are legendary and with the two at loggerheads economic and fiscal policy has become deadlocked. Few believe the coalition could last much longer, even without the election. Indeed, many express astonishment that it has survived as long as it has, given the contrast between the two parties. Since most Blairites were swept away in 2005, Labour has returned to a semblance of traditional socialism. The Miliband brothers, while still loyal to the coalition, are standing at the election under Liberal colours.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, as the only major party untainted by incumbency, were able to sell their message of change to a disillusioned public - among them many former Lib Dems unimpressed by their party's support of a discredited prime minister. Other voters - including many young people - have signalled their intention to vote Green. After Caroline Lucas was controversially allowed to participate in one of the leaders' debates one opinion poll put Green support at almost 30%. Wilder commentators speculated that they might become the second largest party in the new Parliament. It's certainly quite possible that they will hold the balance of power. David Cameron, it had been noted, has increased his environmental rhetoric recently as a part of a "love bombing" strategy, though the post-debate polls brought panic in Tory ranks, with senior members of the shadow cabinet touring TV studios to explain how the Green manifesto, if implemented, would prove economically ruinous.

In the end, the Green surged subsided, as anti-government feeling coalesced around the Conservatives. UKIP also put up a strong showing, as did some independent candidates who were forced by the system to stand under a collective banner - Society, Trust and Liberty (or, as one wag adapted it, Sod The Lot). While the Tories' 41% put them short of an overall majority, David Cameron managed to cut a deal with the DUP and UKIP (Nigel Farage accepting a post as health secretary, much to his own amusement) and the independents signalled that they would respect what everyone agreed was a public desire for a new government. So David Cameron walked into 10 Downing Street.

The big losers, it turned out, were the Liberal Democrats. Tainted by their association with Labour, and widely seen as fractious and incoherent, the party split. One faction, led by Chris Huhne, joined the reduced Labour benches. The other, restyling itself the Liberal Party and led by a young ex-public schoolboy by the name of Nick Clegg, signalled that it saw its long-term future as in a loose alliance with the Tories. Many on the traditional Left vowed that they would never forgive Blair for agreeing to voting reform - which, they reasoned, had doomed the Labour Party to long-term oblivion. The future, they gloomily predicted, would be one of almost permanent centre-right government.

They were, of course, wrong.
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Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Chaos Election

This election is now officially fascinating.

Politically, it's dead, of course, which is why Thursday's debate degenerated into a beauty contest won by the most plausible salesman. That so vapid a performance as Nick Clegg's attracted so many plaudits is testimony both to the low level of expectation prior to the event and the fickleness of public opinion. In truth the debate was a dismal spectacle: three men squabbling for possession of a tiny patch of ground marked out for them by focus groups. That's not to say that there are not real philosophical and policy differences between the main parties; just that they weren't on display the other night. Some have been impressed by the attention to detail shown to varying degrees by all three men. They were expecting nothing but soundbites and cheap caricatures; instead there was what passed for forensic dissection of the implications of various policies. It was an illusion. The real issues - the gargantuan budget deficit, the futile and unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan, the approaching pensions crisis - figured scarcely at all.

Instead, three members of the political elite were allowed to interact with each other before a silent, and silenced, audience. That Nick Clegg came off better than the others in a three-way face-off isn't particularly surprising - he was the least familiar face, he spoke first and he had a straightforward (if disingenuous) message: I'm different. What is significant is that his victory should have been translated so rapidly into a turnaround in the polls. It was, after all, only a TV show. And we are not electing a president (even though it is so often - and deliberately - made to seem as though we are). The volatility is a sign that the electorate is unenthusiastic about any of the parties on offer, yet still sufficiently connected with the democratic process to have a residual feeling that they ought perhaps to vote for someone. Cleggmania is the last dying gasp of a bankrupt political system.

So what's so fascinating? Not the politics, but the maths. The interaction between the three main parties, combined with the uneven distribution of seats, means that the election is - in the technical sense - chaotic. It cannot be predicted. All results are possible, including a nightmare one in which the Lib Dems secure the largest number of votes and are a distant third in terms of seats, while Labour, soundly beaten into third place, romp home with an absolute majority. It could happen, though a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party - though far fewer votes than the Conservatives - increasingly looks the most likely outcome. Neither result would be remotely acceptable from a democratic point of view, and the former could result in a crisis of confidence making the expenses business look straightforward. And then what? Crowds out on the streets, as would be inevitable in a country where democracy was newer and less careworn? A collective shrug, more likely.

What is happening at the moment isn't really a democratic election. It looks and sounds like a democratic election, but it isn't. It's a game of three-dimensional chess played by statisticians and PR experts, none of whom have a clue how it will play out. That's what makes it so fascinating, but also so infuriating. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 16 April 2010

What I didn't tell the leaders

I was sad not to feature in any of the party leaders' homilies during last night's TV debate.

It's my own fault, I know.

While not in hospital for the operation I was not having to correct a rare but treatable condition, I was unable to explain to a visiting David Cameron how, owing to New Labour's obsession with target-setting and centralised top-down control in the NHS, the hospital trust was unable to access the medicines I needed but which NICE had not got round to approving. Nor did I see the troubled frown that would have crossed his features when I told him about the rat I'm sure I would have seen scurrying across the sheets as I shivered, starving, in the undignified hospital gown that New Labour had delayed replacing until just before the election.

I also missed the opportunity to let him know that while not laid up in the hospital my house was not burgled by an early-release prisoner who stole literally everything in the place to fuel his drugs habit; and I was unable, therefore, to hear his assurance that under a Conservative government there would be no such burglaries by early-release prisoners, and that even if there were I would be quite at liberty to kill any that invaded my home.

Mr Cameron would, I'm sure, have listened carefully to my succinctly-phrased explanation of how Labour's policy of inviting millions of immigrants to enter the country legally and illegally had impacted on local services. And he would have heard, with a suitably concerned expression, that as a teacher my job had been made impossible by the four hundred thousands separate boxes I am required to tick each morning. But since neither he nor I were there, we were unable to have this important conversation which would, I'm sure, have provided much material for the debate and thus improved what was generally regarded as a disappointingly flat performance.

Sadly, Nick Clegg was unable to hear my exasperation, as an ordinary hard-working citizen who expects fairness and honesty from politicians and those with power and influence in society, with the greedy bankers and spoilt arrogant MPs who had stolen all my money. He therefore missed the opportunity to assure me that none of the MPs concerned were Liberal Democrats and while some of the bankers may have been he was pretty sure that most of them were Tories.

As a black gay woman, I would have liked the chance to thank Gordon Brown for making it possible for me to have my operation in a hospital that was not only new - thanks to the private finance initiative which he wisely pioneered - but which took issues of equality seriously enough to employ many well-paid staff to monitor the race and sexual orientation of patients. This, the prime minister (who would have been on a purely low-key, private visit unhindered by the presence of journalists and film-crews) was not in a position to stress, would never have happened under a Tory government.

I'm also sorry that I was not there to hear him congratulate me on the record exam results that my non-existent children are not achieving, year on year, thanks to the record investment put in by his government. Nor did I hear him remark, as is apparently his wont, that Nick Clegg certainly agreed with him on this, as on all other policies and topics, except the most important one, which is the need for five more years of a continued Labour government.

No, I missed a treat. Still, it was fun to watch Nick Clegg's total humiliation, wasn't it? Out-classed, out-gunned, and out-of-shot, I can't have been the only one wondering why they ever let him on. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 15 April 2010

British Spinewizards Association: Setting the Record Straight

The British Spinewizards Association is pleased to announce the successful conclusion of its long-lasting legal action against the defamatory and hurtful lies of Dr Simon Singh.

Technically, the decision of the Court of Appeal went against us, in that it wrongly found that when he accused us of happily promoting bogus treatments for which there was not a jot of evidence he was expressing an honest opinion. Rather than making the scandalous claims about us that he obviously was. However, we are still satisfied that we won a resounding victory, for the following reasons:

1) Mr Justice Eady agreed with us. Mr Justice Eady is the most experienced libel judge in the country. His opinion matters far more than three tossers in the Court of Appeal, one of whom humorously styles himself Lord Judge. And expects to be taken seriously. Bogus or what? The Court of Appeal know nothing about libel and were obviously talking out their arses. So really, we won.

2) Simon Singh has repeatedly said that he did not intend to accuse us of lying. All he meant to say was that we couldn't care less about scientific evidence, which is entirely different and in no way harmful to our reputation. Get that? Simon APOLOGISED. So we have magnanimously agreed to accept his grovelling apology.

3) Our lawyers - who advised us that we could screw money out of Simon Singh by taking him in front of Mr Justice Eady - think we could have won in the Supreme Court. That's good enough for us. Simon Singh hasn't won, it's just we aren't going to give him the opportunity of losing properly.

4) Thanks to all the publicity the case has attracted, many more people not just in Britain but throughout the world are aware of the benefits of spine-wizardry in treating all manner of ailments. Business is booming. That's why our members will be happy to stump up the costs of Simon Singh's legal team. This one's on us, Simon.

We leave this libel action with our heads held high. We won the support of the country's top libel judge, Simon Singh APOLOGISED, and we have demonstrated our commitment to free speech and scientific debate by allowing his phony so-called "victory" in the Court of Appeal to stand. Basically, we won. Got it?

An alternative version of this statement (pdf) appears on the website of the British Chiropractic Association (no relation). Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Why shouldn't eight year olds wear padded bikinis?

After months of campaigning by tabloids, moral-panic merchants, members of the child protection industry, the increasingly tyrannical Mumsnet and David Cameron, Primark (a shop, I'm told, that specialises in cheap imported clothing of questionable durability) has bowed to the inevitable and removed padded children's bikinis from its shelves.

The clothes-shop horror has united normally antagonistic parts of the media and the world of politics. It was, according to The Guardian's Kira Cochrane, the bikini that "should never have existed". Meanwhile, a story appearing under the headline "Paedo Bikinis Shelved" celebrated "a victory for the Sun". This may seem a strange development from a newspaper that used to feature 16-year old topless girls on Page 3 until the practice was banned, but perhaps the paper has developed a guilty conscience. Or perhaps not. Gordon Brown joined David Cameron in condemnation. "There's something wrong when companies are pushing our kids into acting like little grown-ups when they should be enjoying being children" he said.

I don't want to be contrary just for the sake of it, but what is really so evil about these garments? There seem to be two main arguments against them. First, we're told that the sight of little girls with what appear from a distance to be abnormally developed breasts will entertain - and perhaps encourage - paedophiles. Girls wearing the tops would be "made attractive to predatory perverts" as the Sun had it. A "child protection consultant" quoted in the paper went even further, saying that "It never fails to amaze me just how many High Street household names are now prepared to exploit the disgusting 'paedophile pound'." Paedophile pound? Were these items being bought by paedophiles for their own amusement? Or is any pound spent, however innocently, on an item that might appeal to a paedophile therefore a "paedophile pound"? After all, where vulnerable children are concerned you can't be too careful.

Somewhere, somehow, the justified desire to protect children from horrific abuse has metamorphosed into something that is itself pathological. "There are paedophiles everywhere!" exclaimed a concerned-sounding woman on the radio this afternoon. She sounded literally paranoid. But has anyone ever demonstrated a link between the wearing of padded bras (or other "sexualised" clothing) and actual abuse?

Has any child been abused after her age-inappropriate clothing attracted the attention of a passing pervert? Or is the argument that the mere possibility that a paedophile might glimpse such a garment is in itself a reason to ban it? Similar faux concerns have, after all, been adduced to disrupt activities that previous generations considered entirely harmless or even beneficial - parents taking photos of their and others' children performing in school plays or taking part in sports, for example, or even playing in the park or on the beach. Richard Dawkins, in a passage from The God Delusion which reads oddly in the light of his recent enthusiasm for arresting the pope, wrote that

We live in a time of hysteria about paedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692....Today's Just Williams, today's Huck Finns, today's Swallows and Amazons are deprived of the freedom to roam that was one of the delights of childhood in earlier times (when the actual, as opposed to perceived, risk of molestation was probably no less).


He went on to say that, in his opinion, the Catholic Church "has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America." Oh dear. Still, his main point stands. The principle that something should be banned because it might conceivably appeal to paedophiles - which has led to legal absurdities like the recent ban on cartoons featuring imaginary teenagers - has no logical end-point. There are millions of images - quite innocent to most eyes - that might light some twisted part of a paedophile's brain. But the vast majority of people are not paedophiles, and society should stop distorting itself as though they were.

The other argument, of course, is "sexualisation", subject of a high-profile though seriously flawed report by media-friendly psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos. Thus a spokeswoman for the Children's Society criticised Primark for "premature sexualisation and unprincipled advertising". The Sun's "online parenting editor" Sam Carlisle, meanwhile, lamented the destruction of childhood innocence. "Seven year old girls still dream of ponies and pianos" she wrote, "not cleavage and fake tan. They are little kids, not Lolitas." I thought the whole point about Lolita was that she was a kid. For a newspaper as demotic as The Sun, incidentally, the class bias in Carlisle's phrase "ponies and pianos" is remarkable. But perhaps that's what really horrifies the politico-journalistic elites: these stuffed bras aren't just inappropriately sexualising, they're chavvy.

The report contained several mentions of "shocked parents" and predictions that outraged mothers would boycott the store if it continued to stock the offending garments, which "come in candy pink with gold stars or black with white polka dots." But if the bikinis are so offensive, why did they go on sale? Who was buying them? Could it be that, far from pandering to the "paedophile pound" or pushing children into premature mock-sexuality, the padded bikini-tops in fact appeal to the quite normal and healthy instincts of many young girls?

Whisper it quietly, but children are not asexual. Even if they aren't aware of sex as adults understand it, they are certainly aware of sexual roles. Much to the chagrin of blank-slate idealists who want to bring children up in gender-neutral fashion, sexual identity tends to assert itself in early childhood. Little girls are intrigued by and want to explore the world of adult womanhood. That's why they play with baby dolls - they are practising, semi-consciously, for the day when they will become mothers. That's why they play with their mother's make-up box. It's entirely natural - and innocent - for them to dress up in grown-up clothes, even stuffing their fronts with to give themselves make-believe breasts. It's not a bad thing. They are looking forward to the day they will become women.

"Let children be children" is the cry. But only adults want children to be children all the time. Adults retrospectively romanticise the childish state. Children don't. They live it; and sometimes they'd rather be grown up. Or at least pretend to be. It's part of childhood, even if it occasionally makes knowing, over-protective adults uneasy.

This is where the padded bikinis, boob-tubes and the like come in. That they should be appealing to little girls, with their bright colours and resemblance to the outfits worn by tweeny pop idols, is hardly surprising - however much they might horrify some parents. Small girls want to emulate Britney or Miley or whoever it is this week - of course they do - and Britney and Miley didn't get where they are by being dressed like bank cashiers. And while the pop stars' costumes might seem obviously sexual in nature, it is young girls, teen and pre-teen, who form (and have always formed) their core audience. How many thirty-five year old men will you find in a typical Britney gig, who aren't either gay or accompanying their daughters? Very few. For all the apparent sexualisation, it is a juvenile product, aimed at juveniles.

Another thing. How many of those kicking up a fuss about the presumed sexualisation of pampered Western preteens will be sparing much thought for the children slaving in third world sweatshops to produce these tawdry clothes at ridiculously cheap prices?
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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Back to the Future? A review of Red Tory by Phillip Blond

Phillip Blond's Red Toryism is high-concept political philosophy, a deliberate oxymoron, which may account for its popularity with sections of the media. That and the notion that he provides philosophical and moral ballast for the Cameron project. If Cameron wins on May 6th, this book may be seen as seminal - though it is no more likely to influence policy than Will Hutton's The State We're In did for New Labour. If the Tories don't win the election, it will be forgotten within a month.

Some of Blond's practical suggestions - centred around local community involvement and freeing public services from the deadening control of Whitehall targets and bureaucracy - have found their way into this morning's manifesto, though it's not clear to what extent, if any, he was personally responsible for them. But in any case they seem small-scale and meagre when set against the author's profoundly bleak assessment of the national condition, which takes up rather more than half the book.

His opinions will find an echo, somewhere, among many who find themselves out of sympathy with aspects of modern life. Religious conservatives of all denominations will bemoan, with him, the decline in marriage and the multiplication of pornography. Civil libertarians will share his distaste for the apparatus of a surveillance state which he is not embarrassed to call totalitarian. Daily Mail readers will like his attack on Welfare dependency, while Guardianistas will thrill to his evisceration of Thatcherism and neo-liberal free market economics. At times he sounds like a younger, less intellectual Roger Scruton, at others like Prince Charles. And throughout there's an undercurrent of barely-suppressed hysteria. "Passive and compliant," he writes, in a sentence that sums up both the tone and the content of Red Tory, "all we can do is shop."

I both agreed and disagreed with Blond's analysis, sometimes at the same time. The key point of his critique is that the monopolistic tendencies of the state and big business reinforce one another to the detriment of ordinary people and of the human-scale neighbourhood relationships that make life rich and rewarding. Society has been hollowed out. Instead, the state assumes a dominant position, and each individual's relationship with the state is one of dependence and supplication. By mitigating the worst effects of market capitalism, through the provision of basic services and a social safety net, the state makes possible the very exploitation it presents itself as counteracting. At the same time, social liberalism - and the solipsistic pursuit of individual gratification which (Blond thinks) it implies - dissolves social bonds, requiring an authoritarian state to maintain the peace. There's thus a close connection between the rampant liberalism of the markets and the increasing authoritarianism of the state, resulting in an increasingly unequal, fractured, mutually-suspicious and morally vacuous society.

"Back to the fifties" seems to be the message - though whether he means the 1950s, the 1850s or the 1250s isn't entirely clear. His evocation of the past is drenched in nostalgia. The vision he offers is bucolic and, in a sense, deeply reactionary - he complains, among other things, about the 18th century enclosure of farmland, and bemoans the decline of Northern working-class choral societies. A lot of bad developments turn out to be the fault of the Bloomsbury group. He hates television, which "presents children as sexually available"(!) and rhapsodises about real ale. Thinkers he disapproves of include not just the obvious (Adam Smith, Jean Jacques Rousseau) but Kant and John Locke. It's harder to identify who he does agree with, though he speaks highly of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, both of whom were essentially humourists - and, well, not exactly in the same league as Kant.

More than occasionally Blond recalls WS Gilbert's "idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and all countries but his own." He praises German manufacturing prowess, Italian banking and Swedish community values. But then he lambasts Big Brother for "broadcasting casual sex between the 'housemates'", oblivious to the fact that such scenes occurred with much greater regularity in continental versions of the show. He damns the public services by pointing out that they have become less productive under Labour, while private productivity has increased by a third. That doesn't sit terribly well with his attack on big business for sacrificing human values to the bottom line, though, does it?

There are other gaping holes in Blond's analysis. In particular, he ignores the role that the market has played in lifting the standard of living of the great majority of people, bringing them material goods, cheap travel, entertainment, and indeed medicines that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago. He says nothing whatever about immigration which, like it or loathe it, has wrought profound changes to the social fabric; but perhaps to admit this would spoil his odd vision of an unchanging community, cut off from the rest of the world and the forces of globalisation, which the markets and the state have invaded and despoiled. The book is long on rhetoric, much shorter on verifiable facts. His call for a "new politics of virtue" is so quixotic as to be practically meaningless.

Characterising the current state of society as combining private libertinism and public authoritarianism, Blond prescribes the reverse. But the past wasn't just a place of happy families and virtuous public spiritedness: it was also characterised by poverty, bigotry, low expectations and early death. The communities he hymns were stifling prisons for anyone who didn't conform to a narrow set of social expectations, for women who wanted to fulfil their potential, for gay people, and for those who lacked family to look after them. There were workhouses and debtors' prisons.

And yet, and yet... There are things here I found myself responding to. Blond's prescription for improving front-line public services by handing responsibility to front-line professionals answerable to the public rather than the administrative target-setters, for example, rings true. He suggests a model of co-ownership in which there is a direct relationship between citizens and service-providers, with the state doing little except providing resources. He argues for "a complete reversal of decades of employee mistrust and the embedding of centralised management as a result" - easier said than done, perhaps, but surely a goal worth aiming for. And sometimes I think he hits a bullseye:

The welfare state in itself is a vast body of employment, ranging from the front-line staff administering benefits to the professionals at the top managing the whole scheme. In essence, the social underclasses have become a product, the careful supervision of which gives constant opportunities both for employment and career advancement for those claiming, no doubt sincerely, to assist... Herein lies the great tragedy of the welfare state: it produces a managerial class whose interests, however unconscious or unintended, are intimately tied up with the eternal perpetuation of the problem they purport to address.


How true.

An odd mixture, then, of sensible moderation and romantic silliness. Ultimately, as befits a former theology lecturer, Blond has produced a tract - a Thought for the Day spun out to the length of a book. For all its pretensions, this is rather a shallow book. But his analysis, however sketchy, shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. He's definitely onto something.


Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, is published by Faber&Faber (£12.99)
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Monday, 12 April 2010

Dawkins and the Pope

I was a bit suspicious when I read yesterday the Sunday Times headline "Dawkins: I will arrest Pope". True, the professor's pronouncements concerning His Heiliness have been somewhat theatrical of late - "a leering old villain in a frock", for example. But after telling us that Dawkins was planning "a legal ambush" during the Pope's visit to Britain, the article went on to describe the idea as a joint venture by the professor and Christopher Hitchens, backed up by two lawyers - and I couldn't help thinking it seemed much more like Hitch's style. Also, one of the lawyers mentioned, the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, had already had an article in the Guardian (on Good Friday, deliberately or otherwise) setting out the case he intended to put before the courts. So I guessed one or other of them must have had the brainwave, with Dawkins lending his name as additional weight.

Almost. It turns out the idea was, indeed, Hitchens'. Here's Dawkins' version of events:

Here is what really happened. Christopher Hitchens first proposed the legal challenge idea to me on March 14th. I responded enthusiastically, and suggested the name of a high profile human rights lawyer whom I know. I had lost her address, however, and set about tracking her down. Meanwhile, Christopher made the brilliant suggestion of Geoffrey Robertson. He approached him, and Mr Robertson's subsequent 'Put the Pope in the Dock' article in The Guardian shows him to be ideal. The case is obviously in good hands, with him and Mark Stephens.


Who was the high profile lawyer Dawkins suggested, but couldn't find her address? I'm guessing Helena Kennedy.

The business reminds me of the story of Camp Quest, the humanist summer camp, whose launch in the UK was supported by the Richard Dawkins Foundation with a modest contribution. The Sunday Times inevitably described it as the Dawkins Atheist Camp and presented the initiative as part of the professor's cunning scheme to indoctrinate the next generation in the faith of Atheism and Evolution. He had "come up with a novel idea to wean our children away from God" the report lied, "summer camps for would-be little non-believers." Dawkins was understandably miffed, and did his best to set the record straight. With only limited success, as the Camp Dawkins line had already been recycled on hundreds on news sites. The notion of Richard Dawkins as sort of atheist Pope, personally orchestrating anything ever done by an atheist, is almost as pervasive in the media as the idea that Benedict XVI bears personal responsibility for anything ever done by a priest, and with even less justification.

Similarly, the good professor was angered by yesterday's headline, which he described as "a straight lie". "Needless to say, I did NOT say... anything so personally grandiloquent" he insisted. The title was eventually changed to something less misleading, but which still implied the stunt was his idea. As for Hitchens, he probably would like personally to arrest the Pope; he must be getting fed up with Dawkins always being billed as Number One Atheist.

Of the four horsemen of the Popocalypse, so far it's Robertson who has put forward the most elaborate legal justification for the move. He devotes part of his article to an attempt to prove that the Vatican is not a proper country and that therefore the Pope is not entitled to diplomatic immunity. He points out that the Vatican owes its origin to the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini's fascist regime and finds it "risible" that statehood "can be created by another country's unilateral declaration." (What about Robertson's native Australia, which was brought into being by a "unilateral" act of the Westminster Parliament?) He also makes much play of the fact that the Holy See is not a full member of the United Nations but only enjoys observer status. But membership of the UN has never been part of the definition of statehood. Switzerland only joined the organisation in 2002. The People's Republic of China was unrecognised by the UN until 1971, largely as a result of the United States vetoing its membership in preference to Taiwan.

An interesting technical point skirted over by Robertson: the Holy See is not quite the same as the Vatican, or even its "metaphysical emanation", as Robertson describes it. It is much older (having a continuous existence since the days of Roman Empire) and does not owe its existence or its diplomatic character to the Lateran Treaty. The Papacy retained its diplomatic missions even after the extinction of the Papal States in 1870. The Vatican, however, is a fully sovereign entity under international law - arguably it possesses greater legal independence than any of the member states of the European Union. It has full diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world (the only significant exceptions being China, Saudi Arabia and Israel) and its officials travel on Vatican passport. Whatever the precise status of the Holy See the Pope's status as a head of state is not really in doubt. Whether or not he should have that status is of course a different question.

The other lawyer involved, Mark Stephens, told the Guardian that he was "convinced we can get over the threshold of immunity." Is he really, or is it just bluster? And even if he managed to persuade a judge that the Vatican did not qualify as a state the problem would remain of finding a crime with which to indict the Pope. One idea would be to send him to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Robertson writes that the ICC "now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity." But even its worst enemies don't seriously suggest that the Catholic Church was systematically - as a matter of policy - organising the abuse of children. At most officials within the church failed to act against the abusers or failed to share information with the civil authorities.

These are grave charges, but by no stretch of the imagination do they come within the purview of the ICC. There's more chance of them issuing an arrest warrant for Tony Blair, frankly. No-one suggests that Ratzinger himself abused anyone. If heknowingly suppressed information regarding Father Hullerman while he was Bishop of Munich in the early 1980s there might be a case to answer - but the judicial initiative would have to come from Germany. British lawyers have no authority to launch such actions themselves. "The third option" said Stephens, "is for individuals to lodge civil claims." As he is presumably well aware, however, civil claims for compensation would not lead to anyone's arrest, least of all the Pope's. But then Stephens specialises in media law - and Robertson wrote the textbook. And whatever specious legal reasoning they may employ, this is really just a publicity stunt.

I didn't think I'd say this, but I'm beginning to come round to Damian Thompson's way of thinking, at least in part. It's not that the pope bears no responsibility for his past mistakes - he does - and Thompson minimises the catastrophic damage caused both by Benedict's failure to act more decisively and by his reluctance to offer a full public and personal apology to the victims. But Thompson is surely right to point out that there were bishops and Vatican officials whose actions were more reprehensible, yet who are escaping the intense scrutiny reserved for the man at the top. Ratzinger did too little, too late - but he did so at a time when there were still powerful voices in the Curia who wanted to take no action at all.

That said, the media feeding frenzy is understandable. The Pope is supposed to be the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and he has conspicuously failed to give a lead. He has behaved throughout like a bureaucrat rather than a moral and spiritual leader. He has managed to convey the impression (which may well be true) that the "good of the universal church" matters more to him than the suffering of abused children. Every day he remains in office the church's reputation declines. As Dawkins himself writes gleefully,

He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice - the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution - while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.


Some in this country hope that legal fears will keep the pope from our shores this autumn, or that the government will withdraw its invitation to him. I don't. It'll be fun.
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Sunday, 11 April 2010

What's so wrong about promoting marriage?

For such a modest and relatively benign policy, the Conservatives' announcement of a transferable tax allowance for married (or civilly partnered) couples has attracted an extraordinary amount of vitriol. On the one hand, the measure is condemned as ineffectual - "derisory" in Vince Cable's words - while on the other it is portrayed as a return to the moral authoritarianism of the 1950s. Anyone would think they had advocated fining divorcees or even (as Gordon Brown did at his party conference last year) confining single mothers to "a network of supervised homes."

Among other absurdities, we had Deborah McIlveen of Women's Aid claiming that the proposal would penalise victims of domestic violence who wished to escape. Kate Bell from Gingerbread characterised it as an attack on single parents, as though the evil Tories wanted to take money away from needy children. Nick Clegg called it "patronising drivel". Ed Balls managed to make both criticisms, in one breath damning it both as "gesture politics" and "deeply unfair." But if it's just a gesture, how can it be deeply unfair?

Yesterday's Times leader column asserted that recognising marriage in the tax system "is not a good idea" on the grounds that "It should be no concern of the State to make judgments on the lives of couples who choose not to marry or people who wish to be solitary." That begs a number of questions, not least whether giving a small advantage to some married couples (the lower-paid will benefit most) disadvantages unmarried ones. If paying £12 a week less in income tax is so important to them, they will have an obvious solution: get married. It's unlikely many will get married solely on that basis, though. In that sense it obviously is gesture politics; but it's a nice gesture - a small token of appreciation rather than the usual one-fingered salute.

But it's the other point I wish to concentrate on here, the alleged "making judgements". The idea that people's personal relationships are or should be a no-go area for the state is strange coming from politicians and columnists who otherwise have supported ever greater and more intrusive state intervention. The very people who think it is the business of government to penalise drinkers and over-eaters, who support "awareness campaigns" and expensive advertising in support of, for example, the highly dubious propositions that pregnant women should avoid so much as a sniff of wine or that eating a government-endorsed quota of fruit and veg wards off cancer, come over all non-interventionist and libertarian when it comes to marriage. They'd rather set fire to an effigy of an overweight child.

People happy to enforce mad schemes to ban traditional lightbulbs on the spurious grounds that this will somehow offset the vast and growing carbon emissions of India and China are alarmed by the suggestion that the government should have an opinion on what is the best environment in which to bring up children, even if all that is on offer is a modest "reward" for the married rather than a penalty for the unwed. It's all very peculiar.

No doubt they would say that "lifestyle" campaigns are not simply for individuals' benefit, because the costs of obesity, alcoholism, smoking-related cancer, death on the road, landfill, carbon emissions, etc etc etc are borne by the state - in other words, paid for out of taxes. Yet this argument ought to apply, a fortiori, to marriage. As the recent report from New Labourish Demos demonstrated to no-one's real surprise, on average and in general children whose parents are and remain married are healthier, do better in school, are less prone to criminality and drug-taking, have better employment histories, are less dependent on welfare benefits and form stronger relationships in their turn. This is not simply good for individuals, it benefits society and in doing so saves the taxpayer money. Huge amounts of cash are annually expended on treating the victims of social breakdown, whether through social services, the NHS, the criminal justice system or out-of-work benefits. Encouraging marriage ought to be a no-brainer for any government, not on moralistic grounds but on the grounds of cold hard cash.

The real criticism of the Tories' policy is not that it unfairly penalises the unmarried (because it doesn't) but that it is too modest really to make a difference. It is gesture politics at its most gestural. Vince Cable was of course right when he said that people wouldn't get married because the government was offering a tax break worth not much more than ten pounds a week. The logic of the previous paragraph is that the government ought to adopt a far more punitive approach towards lifestyles which are costly to the taxpayer. Nor do the arguments that favour marriage as the best environment for raising children apply to gay relationships which do not envisage procreation - though there are, of course, gay households with dependent children and heterosexual households with none.

However, considered in less mathematical terms, what the Conservatives are really proposing to do is to "send a message" about the importance of marriage. The paradox, of course, is that many (perhaps most) of those who display a visceral hatred of anything that smacks, however obscurely, as state support for marriage are themselves married (Mr and Mrs Ed Balls, for example). And as we've seen, they aren't the type normally to oppose intrusive message-sending (or worse) by the state when it comes to matters of lifestyle choice.

Two possibilities. One is that the idea somehow threatens the modern romanticisation of the married state. Now that marriage is neither socially enforced nor economically essential, and premarital cohabitation is the norm, the act of getting married has come to seem more like a grand statement of love than as entry into an institution. The prevalence of divorce strengthens the idea that marriage is mainly about personal convenience and fulfilment and certainly not about promoting the good of society as a whole. How dare the government besmirch the purity of our love by making it - however obscurely - financially advantageous to tie the knot.

I also wonder if some of these left-wing progressives, used to think of themselves as being in the avant-garde of social and political change, aren't rather embarrassed at being reminded just how conventional their own lifestyle choices are.
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