Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Can anyone stop Cameron's personal booze crusade?

There's an extraordinary story in the Telegraph - extraordinary not for what it says, which is that if (when) the government imposes a minimum unit alcohol price, probably 45p, multi-buy deals such as M&S's dinner + wine for £10 will be illegal - but for what it reveals about the open revolt within the Cabinet over the proposal.  Thus "a source" complains that "a policy that’s supposed to stop drunks and out-of-control teenagers ends up preventing respectable middle-class couples having a cheap dinner at home."  The policy is said to have have "raised fears inside the Government that middle-class drinkers will be hit hardest," and will therefore be a vote-loser.

It's not exactly news that David Cameron's desire to impose a minimum unit price, which will supposedly curb excessive drinking,  hasn't found much favour among his colleagues.  The former health secretary Andrew Lansley was said to have been particularly firm in his opposition, though his successor Jeremy Hunt may be more amenable to Cameron's way of thinking.  What's remarkable is the timing.  The announcement of a Home Office "consultation" on a MUP is due, after several delays, to be made tomorrow.  The Telegraph report, along with a flurry of others in recent days, looks like a determined attempt by someone within the government, possibly even within the Cabinet, to sabotage the proposal at the last minute. 

This comes after a report for the Adam Smith Institute by Chris Snowdon picked apart the computer modelling that led the government to claim that a 50p per unit price would save thousands of lives, concluding that the assessment was based on assumptions which "range from the questionable to the demonstrably false."  In Scotland, the proposal has already been driven through by the SNP administration, but faces a strong legal challenge on the basis of EU competition law.  Why the urgency in England?  Scotland has a worse drink "problem" than England.  If a minimum price is the answer, and is not in fact illegal, then the effect of the policy will soon become evident.  If it doesn't work, then adopting a wait-and-see approach in England would spare the government from an embarrassing (and no-doubt unpopular) failure.

The Minimum Price, while long demanded by the health lobby (which seems to believe that reducing the chance of early death is the only goal worth striving for in life) is only being forced on England because it is Cameron's personal obsession.  Cameron has a regrettable tendency - it's the most irritating thing about him - to go off on moral crusades.  He likes to ride a high horse, even though it usually turns out to have been lent to him by the husband of Rebekah Brooks.  We've seen it over "sexualisation" and now we're seeing it over alcohol.  His alcohol policy is of course inherently illiberal and unConservative (if people want to drink themselves to death, that's their right in a free society), but it's also bad, stupid and unnecessary.  Even were it to work, it would do so by increasing the profits of drinks retailers.  If the aim is to increase the price of alcohol, that could be achieved much more simply through higher duty, which would be entirely legal and would also benefit the Treasury.  Banning multi-buy deals will mostly hit people who are catering for parties or weddings. 

It's not even as though England and Wales have, by European standards, a particularly serious drink problem.  Consumption has been falling steadily for the best part of a decade, and has fallen most rapidly among the young - about whose supposed tendency to "binge drink" most of this moral panic revolves.  Extraordinarily, according to the most recent NHS statistics fewer than half of those aged 16-24 report having more than one alcoholic drink per week.  Among under-16s, the proportion had fallen over the decade from more than a quarter to a mere 13%.  A mere 5% of adult women and 9% of adult men reported drinking alcohol every day.  While it's in the interests of health campaigners to scare-monger about an increasing alcohol problem, the facts tell a different story.  Drinking will probably continue to fall in the years ahead, whatever the government decides to do.  If Cameron gets his way, no doubt he will want to give his MUP the credit for any reduction that occurs, but he will have no statistical justification for doing so.

Despite claims that the policy is aimed only at cheap booze and loss-leaders, MUP will push up the price of alcohol for all consumers.  It will hit the poor hardest, but the already-squeezed middle will be affected as well: the "hard-working families" who will be punished for wanting to relax over a bottle of wine at the end of a hard-working week; the pensioners who have few other pleasures in life.  And, of course, most members of the government know this only too well.  The policy may be popular with the killjoy BMA (or perhaps not: they want a Minimum Price of at least 50p a unit), it will go down badly with ordinary voters (and, to judge by Conservative Home, is already hated by grassroots Tories).  It will do next to nothing to tackle hardened drinking and won't even result in increased tax revenues.  Oh, and it will also be devastating for the Cornish cider industry.

So why is it happening?  How is Cameron able to drive through a policy no-one in his Cabinet wants, is unlikely to achieve its aims, targets a "problem" that is in fact diminishing with every passing year, will be stunningly unpopular and is probably illegal anyway?  Britain is not supposed to be an autocracy, in which one man's personal obsession makes law.  The business reminds me of the poll tax fiasco, which was Mrs Thatcher's personal project, imposed on an unwilling Cabinet and against much backbench opposition, which rightly saw it as an impending disaster.  Reports like today's in the Telegraph show that opposition to Cameron's scheme is, if anything, growing within government.  That should be enough to call a halt. 

I don't think that Cameron's stupid, however high-handed and pig-headed he is at times.  I think he knows that minimum unit pricing is a bad idea.  The trouble is that he is personally and publicly committed to it.  Not only has he announced his support for it, he has made great claims for what it will achieve.  A climbdown now would be seen as a failure of leadership, just it would have been a failure of leadership for Mrs Thatcher to have abandoned the poll tax.  If he abandoned the policy he would seem to be abandoning the goals that the policy is supposed to realise.  To demonstrate both his personal commitment to ending "binge drinking" and his authority as a leader, he feels bound to drive through a bad policy.  This is something that happens all too often in our political system.
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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Britain and Europe: is it different this time?

Is the UK heading for the European exit door?  Something seems to have changed in the past few months, or even weeks.  The other day Channel 4 News devoted most of its hour-long run to debating the question of if, or how, Britain might leave the EU, and what the consequences would be.  The programme would have been inconceivable even a year ago.  The Observer has had advance notice of a speech to be delivered this week by Tony Blair warning that it would be "a disaster for the UK's economy and its power on the world stage" were we to leave the EU.

It's said that Blair "still hankers after a prominent role in European politics," following his (let's face it, humiliating) failure to become EU president a few years ago.  But whatever ambitions he continues to harbour, he must feel highly frustrated that he needs to make yet again the basic case that Britain is better off inside the EU.  Blair's grand ambition since before he became prime minister was to have the UK fulfil what he once described as its "destiny" as a fully signed-up and enthusiastic member of the European integrationist project.  Instead, during the ten years of his leadership this most Euro-enthusiast of British prime ministers (except possibly for Ted Heath) did more or less what Thatcher and Major had done before him, and what Brown and Cameron have done after him: followed the rest of Europe with a cultivated air of foot-dragging reluctance.  He did, it's true, achieve one grand pro-European gesture by giving up a hefty proportion of the British rebate.  But he was not thanked for it, at home or abroad. 

Blair's Euro-vision was always the stuff of fantasy: apart from the facts of geography, history and language that make Britain look to the oceans at least as much as to the nearby continent, there's the inescapable reality that fervent pro-Europeans like him and Nick Clegg have always been a minority in this country.  The mainstream view of the political and governing classes has been pragmatic, resigned, accepting that a European future was vaguely inevitable (and, indeed, provided tremendous gravy-train opportunities for the lucky few) but not dreaming the dream.  It's completely different on the continent.  Completely.  In virtually every other EU member state, there has long been an unshakeable belief among the official classes, for all their nationalistic manoeuvrings and public differences of emphasis in the moral imperative of an ever-deeper union.  Full-blooded Euroscepticsm, if it even exists, really is confined to loonies, fruitcakes and not-so-closet racists.  That is the big difference. 

There has always been a strong anti-EU current in British opinion, one that has never been reconciled to our membership and has opposed every step of further integration.  Usually a minority view, it has never been a negligible one.   Respectable politicians have argued for it, and governments have seen political value in feigning reluctance in all matter European.  So the question of Britain's membership has never quite been settled.  Or, rather, it has never quite seemed settled.  A feeling of semi-detachment has  infused the British relationship with the rest of the EU from the beginning.  The general atmosphere, I would say, has been one of "We could leave, if we wanted to, but on balance we probably won't".  Such sentiments make "Brixit" at least conceptually possible.  And what can be imagined might just happen.

Nevertheless, it does feel different this time.   Andrew Rawnsley, also in the Observer, thinks that this is an illusion: that the basic facts haven't changed.  He suggests that Euroscepticism might be peaking, or have peaked.  He notes the familiar quality of the debate in Britain - the Euro-sceptics are still, after all, making the same arguments in much the same way.  He argues that when forced to take a firm position the British people have tended, however reluctantly, to accept that it's better to be in than out.   "The most important point about the outists is that they have always lost."  The troubles afflicting the Euro may have put wind into Euro-sceptic sails for the time being, but that (thinks Rawnsley) might well start getting better and probably isn't going to get much worse.  At least, Euro-sceptics can't rely on it getting a lot worse.  Rawnsley also thinks it highly unlikely that Ed Miliband would want to wreck his (possible) premiership by committing to hold an in-out referendum.

 So on the fundamental question, in or out, here is the line-up of forces. On the side of remaining in the European Union: the Lib Dems, the Labour party, an important number of senior Conservatives, the vast majority of business and the vast majority of trades unions. On the side of leaving: a lot of Tories, a few noisy newspapers, hardly any businesses and hardly any trades unionists. That is why I say the outists are unwise to toast victory before the battle has even been properly joined.

What's most striking about Rawnsley's analysis is its Little Englandism.  His article is entirely about the balance of pro- and anti- European forces within the UK.  Britain's membership or not of the EU is, for him, entirely a domestic political debate.  It's about what David Cameron thinks, what Nick Clegg thinks, what Ed Miliband thinks, what the CBI thinks.  This inward-facing view of the politics is what really hasn't changed: even for pro-Europeans, it's all about Britain.  For Blair, too:

Friends of Blair say he believes that the EU still lacks effective leadership and too often fails to promote a "big vision". Instead it too often gives the impression that it is obsessed with arcane, if important, institutional reform. Referring to moves to reform Europe's institutions to end the euro crisis, a source said: "He will say that of course you have to get the politics and economics aligned but this has to be part of a grand plan not a series of incremental changes."

So Blair is passionately in favour of the European Union.  But not, it seems, the EU that actually exists; rather, the EU that adopts his own big vision.  His own British vision, which while at odds with other British visions is still clearly British. 

Actually, whether the UK stays in the EU or leaves is scarcely a matter for British politicians at all, any more.  The EU is changing radically as a result of the crisis in the Eurozone: it is changing in the direction of further integration, and further integration, moreover, on German terms.  Britain is scarcely part of this debate at all.  The new EU that emerges will not be one shaped by or for Britain, and it will not be one that Britain can belong to, whatever political will there may still be among British politicians.  The seeds for this were laid twenty years ago.  It was because John Major had a small majority that he felt the need, for purely tactical reasons, to negotiate an opt-out from the single currency in 1992, and later to promise a referendum.  And, later, because of Brown's feud with Blair, the referendum was not held at the opportune moment in 1997 even though joining the Euro was Tony's dearest wish.  The British opt-out was never intended or expected to become permanent.  But that's what happened; and because the Euro is the key building-block of the new EU infrastructure, the UK has in a vital sense already left.

It doesn't feel like that, which is why the debate here (Will there be an in-out referendum?  What treaty changes will Cameron veto?  Too many Brussels regulations) seems so familiar.  And its familiar outcome (in the EU but grumpy) also looks assured.  But don't be fooled.  In Germany, preparations to deal with British departure are already far advanced.  When Angela Merkel declared the other week that she "couldn't imagine an EU without the United Kingdom," she meant precisely the opposite.  It is because British exit suddenly looks plausible, even likely, that she feels the need to forestall it, in public at least. 

It may still, on balance, be in Britain's interests to remain in the EU.  And it may still, on balance, be in the rest of the EU member states' interests for Britain to remain a member.  But it's a finer balance now than it has ever been; and it's no longer enough.  The real question that is left is this: in the end, will we jump or will we be pushed?
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Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ratzinger: the grinch who stole Christmas

The Mail brings us a hilarious attack on the "killjoy" Pope who it accuses of "rubbishing" beloved Christmas traditions in his latest book.

With just under 34 days until Christmas the Pope has put a dampener on the festive period by rubbishing the idea that donkeys or any other animal have a place in the traditional Nativity scene. Benedict XVI also claims angels never sang to the shepherds to proclaim Christ birth's - trashing the much-loved carol 'Hark! The herald angels sing' in the process. From this falsehood the tradition of singing carols was born, the Pope says.

Oh dear. Is the pontiff channelling his inner Richard Dawkins? It seems so. In a desperate attempt to shift the million copies of the last instalment of his three-volume study of Jesus (which focuses, for reasons best known to his publisher, on the beginning of the story) Ratzinger has looked at the relevant passages in the Gospel of Luke and discovered, presumably not for the first time, that they contain no mention of the ox and ass so familiar from the Christmas crib. This is news! 

If Rowan Williams had said it, the Mail could happily have put it down to trendy Anglican liberalism. But we don't expect to hear such tradition-busting language from the Pope.

It is, it seems, an especially radical departure because the Pope's own Rome headquarters "regularly has a giant scene at Christmas and has displayed an array of animals at the heart of the Vatican, but the Pontiff is certain that is wrong."  There's no suggestion that a new, purified, donkey-free crib will be introduced this year, however, despite the Pope "debunking the theory". This is clearly scandalous.  Ratzinger should have the courage of his convictions and tear down the misleading Vatican crib.  Or else, follow his own logic and include a sack-bearing Santa along with the Three Wise Men, a character hitherto inexplicably missed out of Nativity scenes.  The original Santa Claus was a saint, after all, so there would be ample religious justification, at least as much as for the wholly fictional animals.

The horrified tone of the report suggests that, like some liberal Anglican bishop of decades past, Ratzinger has cast doubt on basic Christian doctrines. Which, of course, he hasn't. The books insists, as one would expect, on the historicity of the Virgin Birth, which many would consider strains plausibility rather more than the apocryphal presence of an ox and an ass in the stable. He even, it seems, accepts the story of the Star of Bethlehem, adopting the currently fashionable rationalising explanation that it was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

I haven't read the book, but it strikes me that in sticking so closely to the text of the Gospel narratives Ratzinger is being a bit, well, Protestant. The familiar Nativity story, with its choirs of angels, lowing animals, three kings and all the rest is a quintessentially Catholic one: a delightful hodgepodge combining the accounts in Luke and Matthew with details plucked from other parts the Bible (the ox and the ass, for example, are mentioned in Isaiah), stuff from apocryphal gospels that never made it into the official Bible and centuries of storytelling and art. The elements were brought together by St Francis of Assisi, who assembled the first nativity scene (featuring live animals) in 1223.

The Nativity story is rooted in the Bible but much of its emotional engagement and narrative depth come from the later elaborations. Nor are they illogical. Luke doesn't mention a stable, but he does say that Jesus was "laid in a manger." A manger implies, if it doesn't necessitate, a stable; a stable implies animals; the heavily-pregnant Mary had presumably not walked all the way from Nazareth, so there must have been a donkey. There were "shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night"; hence sheep. Three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh imply three gift-bringers; the costliness of the gifts imply that they must have been rich; and so on.

The result was part theology, part fairy-tale. But the whole beautiful structure began to unravel when the Reformation put an emphasis on the words of the Bible and to downplay the story in favour of the theology.  What was left was a children's story.  But without the supporting cast of shepherds, innkeepers, donkeys and camel-riding kings the few basic Biblical "facts", which the Pope prefers to concentrate on, look rather exposed.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why does Cameron want to destroy customer choice in the energy market?

To spare David Cameron's blushes after he announced a stupid idea in the House of Commons the other month, the government plans to destroy competition in Britain's energy market.

After Cameron's bizarre promise to put gas and electricity customers on the "lowest" tariff automatically, apparently whether they wanted it or not, Energy Secretary Ed Davey has decided to reduce the number of tariffs offered by each supplier to just four, and will "require that the companies put consumers on the lowest tariff available to them."  Customers who prefer a different arrangement, such as a fixed price deal, will have to go out of their way to request it, and it's not clear if there will be enough tariffs available to allow a choice between tariffs that have a standing charge and those charging merely be consumption.  Depending on one's energy use, the difference here can be as much as £300 a year.

The inevitable result of this patronising proposal will be the disappearance of the best deals, which have always been unusual, eye-catching offers designed to tempt canny shoppers-around away from the competition.  It was worthwhile for supply companies to make such offers because, human inertia being what it is, customers who can be bothered to swap suppliers on a regular basis will always be in a minority.  And the special tariffs are still profitable, because energy profits are enormous.  If everyone was on a special deal, profits would still be tangible, but would be considerably lower.  It would of course be nice if all customers were on a special deal, but that would require action to limit the profits of energy companies, and that isn't going to happen under this government or (probably) under any other.

Many poorer, less tech-savvy customers are on deals that are lower than they could get by shopping around; but so are many better-off customers who have enough spare cash not to worry about cost.  The real losers will be people on tight budgets who can be bothered to undergo the fairly minimal hassle involved in logging onto one of the "switching" websites to find the best deal.  If everyone is forced onto the same "low" tariff, it will self-evidently be a higher one than is currently available.  People currently on the best-value deals will, therefore, face an avoidable hike in their gas and electricity bills.  The principal result of this idiotic policy will be enhanced profits for energy companies.  A market that is perceived to be failing will be replaced by one that isn't any longer a market at all, but a mere cartel.

It is a myth that there is no effective competition in the energy market.  It's just that only people who make the effort to shop around take advantage of the lowest tariffs.  This is not a bad thing.  People who make an effort to shop around should be rewarded with cheaper prices.  People who care more about continuity of supply and who are less price-sensitive should pay more.  It's called the free market.  The government doesn't insist that Sainsbury's only offer four different varieties of bread, or ban them from offering special offers on one type of fruit but not another.  Some shoppers have hours to spend chasing down the best prices.  They will save money compared to people who want to get the shopping over with as quickly as possible; but they will almost always be poorer to start with.  The energy market is not that different.

If poorer pensioners and others unable to access the internet are, at present, paying over the odds, there are ways in which they could be offered targeted help to find a better deal.  For example, the energy suppliers could be required to identify such customers and offer them a better deal.  This would be considerably cheaper and less intrusive than the anti-competitive, paternalistic and statist measures that are being set in motion.

Another stupid policy from an increasingly stupid government.

UPDATE I see it all now. 

Asked if the government would regard the policy as a failure if it led to some people’s fuel costs rising, Cameron’s official spokesman told a regular media briefing in Westminster: “Our objective has been to work to help hard-working families who often struggle to pay their energy bills.

The government is obviously concerned that too many of those currently taking advantage of tariff-switching are on benefits, or lack the distracting presence of children, or are otherwise insufficiently hard-working or insufficiently families.  So if they end up paying more, good. Not so stupid after all?

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Abu Qatada is even worse than gay marriage

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

There is a moral issue facing Britain that should be of major concern to voters, and it is not gay marriage.

As a passionate opponent of the redefinition of the God-created institution of heterosexual marriage, I can understand the principled passion of those who, like the Chancellor George Osborne, support it ardently for reasons of fairness and equality. Mr Osborne also believes, according to his analysis of President Obama's election victory, that gay marriage is a vote winner, particularly among young people, and I would have to concede that he is probably right.

But gay marriage, important an issue though it is, at this juncture pales into insignificance compared with the legal shambles over Abu Qatada.

It is a travesty of justice that he cannot face trial in an overseas nation that had reasonable grounds to charge him with plotting a terrorist atrocity against its people. The responsibility for this disgrace lies with the European Court of Human Rights. That is why Britain's relationship with Strasbourg must now become a matter not of hand-wringing but of robust political action.

I will not conceal the Christian spiritual agenda bound up with my concern about the threat to social stability that Islamist terrorism represents in the country I love. Because Christianity spreads by persuasion not by coercion peaceable social conditions are vital for its dissemination. It is wonderful that social conditions in the United Kingdom currently allow for the proclamation of God's love in Jesus Christ. The privilege of living in a democracy also allows Christians to articulate views on a range of social and political issues for the public good, though it should be acknowledged that the threat to free speech once gay marriage is enacted, particularly for public sector employees such as military chaplains, is a very real one.

With the potential for Islamist terrorism now deeply entrenched in British society, our government has both a symbolic and practical moral responsiblity to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan in defiance of Strasbourg. It would not be difficult under the very public circumstances of this deportation for British monitors to ensure that he is not tortured in Jordan. But, as well as opposing the obtaining of evidence by torture, does not the British government also have a moral responsibility to assist the Jordanian authorities in getting as much information as they legitimately can out of Abu Qatada and to help wipe the smile off the face of evil?

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire
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Monday, 12 November 2012

Newsnight's two victims

Pity poor Steven Messham, horribly abused for years as a child at the notorious Bryn Estyn childrens' home in North Wales, horribly abused again over the past week at the hands of the media.

The Mail on Sunday was wrong yesterday to pursue him with unfeeling spite (though it was not wrong to point out the inconsistencies in his evidence; they matter, because truth and justice matter, especially where a crime as emotive as child abuse is concerned). It was disgraceful of David Mellor to brand him a "weirdo" on a politics TV show yesterday. But the Newsnight team who disinterred his ancient stories, forced him to relive his nightmares, showed his face and name on camera, failed to do the basic journalistic work of checking his story against the mountain of publicly-available information (or even to show him a photograph of his alleged abuser) and then abandoned him after the claims imploded, did him worse damage than either. They used him. He is as much the victim of the BBC's journalistic collapse as is Lord McAlpine.

As for the idea that concentrating on the crisis at the BBC distracts attention from the real and serious matter of child abuse: so, too, does sensationalism of the type exemplified by the Newsnight report. Seeking out highly-placed paedophile rings and top Tory abusers makes for good horror-show entertainment; but it bears very little relationship to the mundane reality of institutional abuse, such as was laid out in exhaustive detail by Mr Justice Waterhouse in his unfairly maligned report. It's well worth reading if you want the facts, rather than the fantasy, about Bryn Estyn. Far from being any sort of whitewash, it is detailed and damning about the failures of oversight and culture of neglect that allowed the terrible abuse there to continue and go unpunished for many years.

Pity, too, Lord McAlpine. As Boris Johnson rightly says, to accuse someone of being a paedophile "is to consign them to the lowest circle of hell – and while they are still alive." McAlpine has lived with this horrendous smear for years, at least since he was named by the defunct gossip magazine Scallywag around twenty years ago. (Scallywag, sued out of existence after it accused a blameless woman of having an affair with John Major, was the pre-internet equivalent of certain well-known websites.) The allegations, based (as the Guardian demonstrated convincingly on Friday) at best on a case of mistaken identity, have been disproved several times before. But they have never gone away. They have continued to circulate on the internet, besides being contained in David Icke's classic of conspiratorial literature, The Biggest Secret, which remains in print.

It was not new evidence that led to Newsnight disinterring this old, long discredited slur. Indeed, the BBC broadcast questionable claims about Bryn Estyn way back in 1999. Rather, it was the media and political feeding frenzy that, having sucked dry the malodorous corpse of Jimmy Savile was looking round for a new object of its righteous indignation. Tom Watson's histrionic claims in the House of Commons of a paedophile network at the heart of the Thatcher government gave permission (at the very least) for this new inquisition. Inspiration presumably came from the bowels of the Internet. Members of David Icke's Forum, for example, had been naming McAlpine and other alleged Tory paedophiles for weeks before Newsnight broke the story not-quite-naming him. So had various conspiracy-minded blogs. These people were crowing in vindication and expectation before the claims began to unravel, since when they have been bemoaning yet another establishment cover-up.

From David Icke to the right-on Twitter crowd falling gleefully on claims of Tory paedophile rings may not be such a long road. I'm struck, for example, by the tone of George Monbiot's abject apology to Lord McAlpine for having, perhaps libellously, named him on Twitter. Monbiot describes his tweet, as well he might, as "the worst mistake of my life."

The tweets I sent which hinted – as I assumed to be the case – that Lord McAlpine was the person the child abuse victim Steve Messham was talking about were so idiotic that, looking back on them today, I cannot believe that I wrote them.

So what possessed him? Why did he "assume it to be the case" that McAlpine was a paedophile, which was always a frankly preposterous notion?

I knew that Steve Messham had been treated appallingly, and I believed that the terrible things done to him had been compounded by a denial of recognition and a denial of the recourse to the law which was his due. When I saw his interview on Newsnight I was very upset. I trusted his account unquestioningly. I was horrified by what he said, and by the fact that the identity of the man he was talking about appeared to have been kept secret for so long.

Monbiot says that he allowed himself "to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage." But what he was actually carried away by was his own cognitive biases. I don't just mean that some people find the idea of a Tory paedophile ring at the heart of the Thatcher government plausible and even appealing. (Terrible crimes, yes, and one feels for the victims, but it just goes to show what those bastards were capable of.) It's also that people of Monbiot's predisposition (and Watson's) are drawn to the idea of establishment cover-ups, of rich and powerful manipulators denying justice to little people they have betrayed. Because Messham was an abuse victim (which no-one denies) Monbiot will believe "unquestioningly" anything he says; because McAlpine was a wealthy Thatcherite Monbiot will assume the worst of him, even that he raped children, without evidence.

Jimmy Savile exploited the "halo effect" he gained from being a popular entertainer and charity fundraiser to bat away the rumours about his abuse of under-age girls, rumours that we now know were well-founded. He also exploited the halo effect that surrounded the institutions which employed him and with which he was associated: the BBC, Stoke Mandeville hospital, the royal family and the Catholic Church (that last being especially ironic, or rather telling). But Lord McAlpine, and the other former politicians still being smeared all over the internet, have no such cover. Tories and Thatcherites don't get the benefit of the doubt. Not from the likes of George Monbiot, anyway.
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Thursday, 8 November 2012

Archbishop Welby: Just don't mention the rock badgers

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby will be called upon to preside with due solemnity over grand national events. This was one of the bits of the job that Rowan Williams did unambiguously well: coming from the Catholic side of the Anglican equation, he had an instinctive understanding of the more ceremonious aspects of religion. Welby by contrast seems to have an Evangelical's natural suspicion of ecclesiastical mummery. Indeed there are signs he struggles to take it seriously.

Speaking in Liverpool Cathedral in October last year, shortly before he left the deanery for the more exalted role of Bishop of Durham, he raised an eyebrow at the "very strange" investiture ceremony, which involved "judges in tights and wigs, and much proclamation, and a great deal of prorection." It was, he said, "like Gilbert and Sullivan". He went on to refer to clerics like himself as "strange men dressed in ornate curtain material"; although on this occasion he resembled nothing so much as "a middle aged, balding man looking like a tour guide.

He clearly has a sense of the ridiculous, though being quite so up-front about the absurdity of ecclesiatical garb surely runs the risk of letting daylight in on magic. Here he was on Maundy Thursday:

Oh, the trouble is I quite like all this episcopal bling. As long as I don’t see photos of myself of course. Then I see my ears stick out, and in a mitre, lacking Bishop's Michael’s stature, I slightly resemble a self‐propelled tulip. Only slightly. I hope.

There was an unfortunate incident in February last year when the then Dean of Liverpool corpsed during evensong. The Old Testament lesson, which it was his turn to read, was taken from Leviticus. It was a long passage enumerating various non-kosher animals,

And then suddenly something happened which I warmly advise you against. As I read, I could see in my mind's eye what this looked like to the casual visitors who were wandering in and out of the cathedral and stopping to observe the service, even in some cases to take part. Many of them were clearly foreigners, and they came into this extraordinary building and found a middle aged man reading about not eating rock badgers, various types of owl and reptile, and not even eating camels. And a statement that God really didn't like any of that. Moreover, this same middle aged man is wearing what to the initiated looked like a dressing gown and nightie, the wrong way with the nightie over the dressing gown. As I thought about it the absurdity struck me more and more forcefully and as I got to the three types of owl or vulture that you are not meant to eat, I began to laugh and was incapable of stopping myself. I could hear the choir stalls rattling as the men and and boys of the choir themselves collapsed in helpless laughter. Eventually I had to stop the lesson before it got to its end, gasp out "God doesn't like you eating any of these things," and stagger back to my seat.

So, if you want to knock the next Archbishop of Canterbury off his stride at some important moment (not that you would, of course), you know what to do. Just sidle up to him and whisper "rock badger" in his ear.

There's a good chance that Archbishop Welby will preside over the next coronation, a ceremony more ridiculously Ruritanian than anything he has yet had to face. Should be fun.
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Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A prophetess named Janet

It would be inhuman not to have a twinge of sympathy for Janet Daley. Yesterday, fearing she would be robbed of the priceless gift of being able to say "I told you so" to the massed ranks of journalistic sheep who took their cue from the opinion polls (which almost unanimously pointed to a narrow win for Obama) she went instead with her "hunch" and called it for Romney.

Time to stop being a wuss. I will take my chances and say it straight out: I think Romney is going to win – not just the popular vote but the electoral college as well.

Not that this was just a wild stab in the dark, you understand. And certainly not just "Republican wishful thinking". Most of the major polling organisations, she thought, were "over-sampling Democrats deliberately in states where they believe that this corresponds to actual voter numbers", but their assumptions were out-of-date and wrong. Worst of all, they didn't take into account the indefinable X-factor: enthusiasm. Romney supporters were fired up and determined to boot out the hated president, whereas disappointed Democrats were simply going through the motions.

It is something far more indefinable: something which those of us who have been engaged with politics for half a century or so are inclined to trust. As that brilliantly perceptive commentator Peggy Noonan has said, Obama’s campaign does not look or feel like it is winning – and Mitt Romney’s does. The turnouts and atmosphere at Obama events are rather pitiful by comparison to the tremendous, ecstatic receptions that are greeting Romney and they are notably pitiful by comparison to the thunderous Obama pre-victory march across the country in 2008.

The same could, of course, have been said about Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996, or indeed about most re-election campaigns with the possible exception of Reagan's. No incumbent can ever match the irrational promises of hope and change on which all first-time candidates base their pitch. That is especially true of Obama, who inevitably failed to live up to the hype of 2008. But incumbency remains a trump card. Americans, history shows, are inclined to give their presidents a second term unless they screw up really badly or their rival is insanely charismatic. Reagan beat Carter; Clinton beat George Bush senior. It's possible that Obama might have beaten Romney, but Romney always had an uphill task. He might just have done it if Obama had continued to perform as badly as he did in the first debate, though the demographics were always on his side.

Daley went on to compare enthusiasm for Obama with that short-lived British political phenomenon of Cleggmania: "That too depended on the noisy support of young voters who proclaimed their passionate commitment to their hero – and then didn’t bother to turn up and vote." Whereas Romney's "enormous crowds" were composed of "grown-ups." Does she include the Birthers and the Creationists in the category of grown-ups, I wonder? Or does the concept of "grown-up", in her mind, consist overwhelmingly of white people and disproportionately of men? I suspect that may in fact be the case, actually, which isn't to suggest that Daley is in any sense a racist or unenthusiastic about her own sex: it's just that power in the United States remains overwhelming in the hands of people who look like Mitt Romney, and that people who wield power are more likely to be

The polls were close enough to mean that a Romney victory wouldn't have been astonishing, at least not mathematically or psephologically astonishing. Yet Janet Daley was at least right to note that she was going against the grain in her prediction. As I pointed out before, whatever the polls said, most of the world was assuming an Obama walkover until very recently. A Romney victory would have seemed like a thunderbolt - although a few people at the Telegraph would have been pleased. It would have been especially tough for David Cameron having to pretend to be on the same page as a genuine conservative. That said, Tony Blair managed it with George W Bush, and Romney was a in most ways a more moderate proposition than Dubya.

Anyway, back to Daley, for whom at one point things seemed to be looking up. At one in the morning our time she noted the "massive crowds"; one of her friends had queued for two hours yesterday morning before giving up and going home. Given her earlier thoughts, this must have seemed an optimistic sign. A couple of hours later, it was "breathtakingly, unbelievably close", "so close that virtually all of the battleground states still defy prediction." By four o'clock she had more-or-less given up on a Romney victory, but still hoped to claim a moral victory at least:

Although Mitt Romney could possibly get the electoral college votes he needs – the crucial states of Ohio, Virginia and Florida are still too close to call – the maths are getting harder. But what he has got, at least at this moment, is a majority of the popular vote. So even if the final numbers show that more American voters want him to be president than Barack Obama, he could lose the election in the end. Which means that both camps were right – those of us who believed intuitively that there was a popular groundswell for Romney, and those who bored for the nation with endless reams of statistical data.

At least she didn't do a Donald Trump and demand a revolution.  When even that small crumb of comfort was snatched from her, Janet changed tack, seeing in Obama's victory "a warning for Labour", largely on the basis that voters still blamed George Bush (who was, after all, in power) for the financial crisis of 2008 and all that has ensued. Unfair, of course, given Obama's general uselessness with the economy.

But if this proves anything, it is that the parties which held power when their national economies tanked are going to take a very long timeto recover from that ignominy. People who have lost their jobs, seen the value of their homes collapse under them, and had their savings debauched will not forget who was in charge when the ship went down. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls beware: your fingerprints are indelibly printed on the scene of the crime.

It's a good thought. Shame it didn't occur to her yesterday. She has after all been engaged with politics for half a century or so.

More comfort for Janet Daley, though, might come from the fact that she wasn't alone. Steve Forbes told almost exactly the same story yesterday. After confidently predicting that Romney would "win big" he gazed into the crystal:

One of the big Wednesday morning stories will be why most of the polls didn’t have this right. The basic answer is their model. Incredibly, in the face of contrary evidence, a number of polls used the 2008 model for this election although there was little objective evidence that those turnouts would hold for this contest. This time – and early voting confirms this – the relative Democrat/Republican split is almost even. In 2008, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a good margin. Moreover Romney is well ahead among independents, which Obama carried four years before. That’s why his popular vote margin will be 3 points or more.

The enthusiasm factor can be seen in the crowds – Romney is attracting bigger ones than Obama and the upbeat mood at these GOP rallies is palpable. A few months ago a number of GOP voters were tepid towards Romney. They have since become fully committed.

Perhaps they were. But there were never enough of them.
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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Tom Watson and child abuse: the return of the Paedoph Isles?

"Why is it that we can no longer think of the British Isles, without the word 'paedoph' in front of them?" - Chris Morris, Brass Eye

The scandals arising out of the revelations about Jimmy Savile are now well into their second month and getting frankly ridiculous.  On the day that Theresa May announced new inquiries into previous inquiries about a Welsh children's home that was the centre of an abuse scandal more than twenty years ago, the Sun speculated openly that Savile was not just a paedophile and/or necrophile but possibly a murderer as well. 

After "exclusively" revealing that the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe (whom Savile visited in Broadmoor, rather as the late Lord Longford used to visit Myra Hindley) had described some of the allegations against Savile as "a load of crap", the paper drew attention to the fact that one of Sutcliffe's victims was found murdered "yards" from the DJ's flat in Leeds.  They then spoke to two of Savile's victims, one of whom suggested that "the police now need to seriously investigate the possibility that Jimmy Savile was a child killer."  The other was "seriously wondering now if Savile could also have been a killer," on the grounds that "if he didn’t get what he wanted who’s to say he wouldn’t have killed to get it?" The Sun also roped in a forensic psychologist, Dr Ian Stephen, who said (or was induced to say) that Savile might have been capable of murder: "It is possible that he upped the game."

I suppose anything is possible.  He liked under-age girls, so why shouldn't he have been a serial killer as well?  But there are many people who lived in the vicinity of at least one of Sutcliffe's murders; and if the mere fact that Savile spoke to Sutcliffe in Broadmoor suggests that he was the Ripper's accomplice or fellow murderer, maybe we should start worrying about Lord Longford as well.  As for the comments by Savile's victims, it reads to me as though the Sun has been feeding them lines.  Savile's reputation is so thoroughly trashed (as it deserves to be, of course) that almost anything that can be said or believed about him, from necrophilia to murder.  The merest hint of an accusation is enough.  Evidence is not required, and anything that a victim, or an alleged victim, says will be automatically believed. 

The same seems to be true about events in North Wales.  Ever since Tom Watson stood up in the House of Commons and spoke darkly about a "paedophile ring in Downing Street", implicating a senior political figure with a link to the Thatcher government, a torrent of claims and speculations has ensued.  This morning a former inmate of Bryn Estyn children's home in Wrexham went on Five Live to tell Nicky Campbell how abusers, including "two MPs, judges, senior serving police officers, market traders and business people from all over Britain" would select children to abuse at a nearby motel.  Their names were taken off statements given to the earlier inquiry presided over by Mr Justice Waterhouse, said Keith Gregory, adding for good measure that most of them were Freemasons. 

Tom Watson's latest intervention in the House of Commons was almost as baroque.  He stressed, of course, that his concern was only for the victims, "thousands and thousands of children, whose lives have been ground into nothing, who prefer to kill themselves than carry on, who have nowhere to turn, to whom nobody listens, whom nobody helps."  But he seemed just a little too keen to rub the government's nose in it, suggesting that the type of inquiry now being set up - an inquiry into the actual allegations that have been made, that is, rather than a no-holds barred witch-hunt - would constitute the "basic building block of a cover-up" and be a" dereliction of the Home Secretary's duty".  He didn't abuse Parliamentary Privilege to name the Tory at the centre of the Wrexham allegations.  He did something possibly even worse, talking of "the spectre of a paedophile cabinet minster" that had apparently "transfixed" the media. 

Let's just say that the name most often rumoured to be the Downing Street aide associated with Wrexham - which may turn out to be the wrong name, if it ever comes to be officially confirmed - is not and never was a cabinet minister.  So Watson is presumably alluding to other, even wilder rumours that have indeed been flying around the loopier corners of the Internet (the David Icke Forum, for example). 

To what end?  Watson says that limiting the inquiries to North Wales and Savile "would guarantee that many sickening crimes will remain uninvestigated and some of the most despicable paedophiles will remain protected by the establishment that has shielded them for 30 years."  Which sounds fine and compassionate but in fact suggests that he is in the grip of a profoundly dangerous obsession.   The cases of Savile and the North Wales childrens' home are prominent because victims have come forward to tell their stories.  They have, in other words, some evidential basis that can be investigated.  Watson seems to want a virtually unlimited inquiry into alleged establishment paedophile networks that he has already decided must exist, and into a shadowy establishment cover-up that he is also presupposing.

If such an inquiry were to be set up, premised on the assumption of some vast paedophile conspiracy at the heart of the British state and establishment, who knows where it might lead.  The very fact that it had been established would give credence to what are, as yet, unsubstantiated and somewhat overwrought claims.  If it eventually concluded that there was no basis to the broader claims, this would itself be seen as evidence that the cover-up continued.  Alternatively, dozens or even hundreds of people might find themselves under police investigation or else be seen as guilty by association.  A broad-based inquiry process could well lead to a full-blown moral panic, as the battier claims of conspiracy theorists received a polite hearing from Lord Justice Cocklecarrot.

You may remember the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of around twenty years ago.  In Rochdale and Orkney, families were broken up on the say-so of social workers advised by cultish self-appointed "experts".  Innocent people were convicted in what in retrospect seem like show-trials.  Meanwhile, respected media outlets gave air-time to claims of child-sacrifice and highly-placed Satanic networks.  Here we go again, it seems.  (One of the things David Icke's followers insist upon is that the establishment paedophiles are also Satanists, and quite possibly blood-drinking pan-dimensional lizards as well.)  On the pretext of listening to victims, the most bizarre claims and allegations will be treated as Gospel, and the net will be cast ever-wider.  With his "thousands and thousands" of victims of elite paedophile rings, Tom Watson is already sailing into deep Ickean waters, where Jimmy Savile and the Kray twins rub shoulders with Ted Heath and members of the royal family in a great big Satanist/secret service/necrophile vortex.

One Jimmy Savile is bad enough.  That he was able to get away for so long with a string sex offences against vulnerable girls is reason enough - and work enough - for an inquiry.  If serious, credible allegations have been made against a known, politically-prominent individual, then they too need to be investigated thoroughly.  But beyond that, what are most needed are caution and a sense of perspective.  Tom Watson, and his fellow Witch-Finders, have shown too little of either.
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Sunday, 4 November 2012

Papal Balls

When a priest invites an altar boy to come up and feel his balls, it doesn't usually end well. But fear not. All that is happening here is the culmination of the Coptic Church of Egypt's months-long search for a Pope. Representatives of the clergy and laity had already voted, but in time-honoured fashion the final choice was left to a blindfolded boy. Weird, perhaps, but at least it works: the Copts now have a new pope, Bishop Tawadros, while the secretive Crown Nominations Committee apparently hasn't managed to agree on a choice for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, even though when Rowan Williams told the world he was moving to Cambridge the late Pope Shenouda III was still going strong. And the process is much more transparent than the CNC, literally so in fact.

The scene in Cairo's main cathedral, and indeed the atmosphere, was incongruously like the National Lottery draw. The three names were placed in clear balls, which in turn were placed in a glass urn and swizzled around before the chosen boy was led up to the altar. Loud cheers erupted when the name of the lucky winner was read out. But was all entirely as it seemed? Watch closely:

It looks to me as though the officiating bishop is guiding the boys hand in a suspiciously firm manner. I've watched the earlier part of the proceedings (the video is over 4 hours long, so I'm not putting it up here, but it's on YouTube) and it strikes me as being quite vulnerable to influence. The same man was responsible for folding up the pieces of paper, putting them inside the glass balls, putting the balls inside the urn, sealing up the urn with ribbons and wax (a process that took several minutes and which any magician would recognise as being a classic piece of misdirection) and, later, briefly shuffling the balls. The shuffling was so perfunctory, the officiant - who was not blindfolded - could easily have kept track of which ball was which.

I'm not saying that the choice of the new Pope of Alexandria was rigged. But the whole thing does look decidedly iffy. Read the rest of this article