Wednesday, 28 August 2013

In Syria, the right thing to do may be the wrong thing to do

The real test for our political leaders pondering Syria, and one which the evidence of their public utterance would suggest that they're failing, is to separate the principled moral case for punishing the Assad regime from a pragmatic analysis of what the proposed bombing campaign will actually do.

The first is easy, which is why it is so appealing to practitioners of the politics of emotion. Hit the bad guys who did the bad thing. Chemical weapons are barbarous and their use is contrary to international law. The Ghouta massacre was a monstrosity and deserves to be punished. By resorting to such means the Syrian rulers have put themselves beyond the pale of the world community: politics is a cynical game, and international politics most cynical of all, but it's hard to see Assad and his lovely wife ever being welcomed to cosy summits with other leaders. The new Cameron doctrine of "not standing idly by" is certainly in play.

I'm incidentally unconvinced by assertions that the Syrian power structure is not ultimately responsible for the chemical attack, or that there's insufficient evidence that they are behind it. There's ample evidence. They alone had the motive and the opportunity. As to why they would have done something so seemingly irrational as to have perpetrated a chemical massacre under the noses of UN weapons inspectors, and in defiance of Obama's well-publicised red lines, especially at a time when according to the consensus of news reports they are making major gains against rebel forces, there are a number of possible explanations. It may have been a rogue commander (this would be the natural explanation for an intercepted phone call from a senior Defence Ministry official demanding to know what had happened). It may have been Bashar Assad's hothead younger brother Maher, out for revenge after a failed assassination attempt on the president.

Or it may have been more calculated. Der Spiegel, quoting a defecting Syrian general, reports that recent rebel inroads into the Alawite heartland of Latakia have drained irregular forces from Damascus, where they had been supporting the depleted national army. According to the defector, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks." Lack of response to earlier small-scale gas incidents (the responsibility for which remains controversial) and Obama's evident desire not to get ensnared in another drawn-out conflict, may have led the Syrian leadership to underestimate the international reaction.

We don't really know. But any of these theories makes more sense than the suggestion that rebel forces killed hundreds of their own fighters, along with many women and children, just to attract international sympathy. Doubts about regime responsibility are so far-fetched that they make opponents of military intervention look ridiculous. Leave them to the likes of Galloway.

But even to ask "is Assad guilty?" or "how should he be punished?" is to seek to answer the wrong question.  For many opponents of Western intervention, our leaders must have a dark hidden motivation, whether it's to increase American power or just to test some shiny new weapons in the field.  Or they're merely indulging their narcissistic desire to play a leading role in events.  On the contrary, I think the problem is that our leaders aren't cynical enough.  They're motivated by the desire to do "the right thing"; and while the proposed action is morally justified it's strategically highly dangerous.

The intention seems to be "surgical" strikes, serious enough to serve as an effective deterrent, not devastating enough to hand Syria to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. How can such an outcome be guaranteed? It can't be. Too much depends on subtle balances of which even the best intelligence can't be fully aware. The planned missile strikes will certainly tilt the military balance away from Assad and, therefore, towards the rebels (both the "good" rebels, who want a constitutional democracy, and the currently much stronger Saudi-backed jihadists). But that won't necessarily hasten the end of the war. It may prolong it further.

While it's impossible to be sure what's really going on (I certainly don't know), if the balance of recent reports is anywhere near accurate the civil war has been heading towards a de facto partition of the country, with the regime solid in some areas and the rebels in effective control of other - and with Assad strengthening and extending his control over key strategic areas while being impotent to take back the whole country. It is possible to see a settlement emerging based on these facts on the ground. If so - and it would depend on a perhaps implausible realism on both sides - then striking at Assad's military infrastructure may wreck the best hope for short-term peace. It would strengthen both the morale and the capability of the rebels vis-a-vis Assad, but still leave the regime with enough fighting strength to dig in. The result could be the intensification of the fighting and yet more destruction of life and property.

This isn't inevitable. If reports of Assad's military recovery have been overdone (and they may well have been - there have been recent, underreported rebel gains) it's just possible that targeted airstrikes will tip the balance decisively in the rebels' favour, dooming the regime. But it's a huge gamble to take. The balance of probability at the moment must be that Western intervention will make the situation worse.

But perhaps it matters little either way. It is already too late to save Syria. The Assad regime was always brutal and undemocratic, yet the country over which it presided was a precious thing, a place where Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, secular and religious lived side-by-side in greater harmony than anywhere else in the middle east. That has been utterly destroyed, along with Syria's infrastructure and economy. Returning the country to anything like normality will be the work of decades, and even then its tolerant, mixed society is almost certainly gone forever. Neither the improbable restoration to supreme power of a morally bankrupt and illegitimate regime, nor the more likely triumph of Saudi-backed extremists, nor even an Iraqi-style attempt at democracy can alter that. Of all the tragedies that have followed the misnamed and misguided "Arab Spring", that of Syria is perhaps the worst. Even the outrageous deployment of chemical weapons is of small account set against the wider context of a wrecked nation.
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Monday, 26 August 2013

Compulsory voting, or why teenagers can't be trusted to abstain

A left-leaning think-tank, the IPPR, has a hare-brained scheme to fix (sorry, ambiguous: mend) British politics: compulsory voting for teenagers. It wants first-time voters (but only first-time voters, apparently) to face a fine if they decline to turn up to the polling booth. In a concession to liberalism, however, the newly enfranchised will be allowed to put their cross next to a "none of the above" box. Thus will young citizens learn their civic duty. "It could well help to reinvigorate democracy," suggested one of the report's authors (the report hasn't actually been published yet, but they're hoping for some advance publicity), Sarah Birch.

One can think of less coercive possibilities for attracting young voters. Perhaps - I don't know - the Telegraph might be prevailed upon to print large photos of attractive teenage girls clutching their first ballot papers and jumping for joy. It worked for exam results.

Compulsory voting has long been canvassed by people worried about declining turnout in elections. The disengagement of citizens from the electoral process is widely held to be bad for democracy. It certainly suggests that something is wrong somewhere; but to demand compulsory voting as a fix is implicitly to blame the people, who tend to be derided as apathetic or cynical. That they might have a good deal to be apathetic or cynical about seems scarcely to register with proponents of compulsory voting, who are apt to trot out misty-eyed tales of Chartists and suffragettes - or, worse still, the dead of two world wars who "fought for your freedom". Thus a disinclination to endorse one or other lookalike PPE graduate is less evidence of an unappealing choice as a rank betrayal of one's ancestors. Restricting compulsion to first-timers does at least introduce an element of novelty to the latest proposal.

It's hard to see the IPPR proposal working in practice. Imagine two twenty-three year olds, neither of whom has voted before, but only one of whom was eligible at the time of the previous general election. Should only one face a fine when the law comes in. Hardly fair. Nor is it fair (and can it even be legal?) to make compulsory for one section of the adult population something that is voluntary for everyone else. Implicit in the suggestion, indeed, is almost a contempt for young adults. A contempt that it entirely misplaced.

While it's true that in previous elections under-25s have proved less enthusiastic voters than other sections of society, especially pensioners, this isn't necessarily the result of apathy. It may be a rejection of the model of politics currently practised. Or it may be a perfectly valid recognition that for the majority of younger people party politics, with its overriding attunement to the priorities of "hard-working families", is simply less cogent than it will be later on in their lives. Conventional voting is something they will eventually grow into, like Radio 4. In the meantime, they're more likely to channel what political energy they have into single-issue campaigns - signing an online petition against Page 3, for example.

The IPPR's proposal seems to be linked to the growing push (which may even find its way into Labour's manifesto) for 16 and 17 year olds to be given the vote. This has also been seen, this time by shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, as "a really good way of reinvigorating politics". There's probably an underlying assumption that young people would be more more likely to back Labour, despite their generally hardline attitudes towards welfare. Khan was also reported to be backing the compulsory first-time voting idea last week.

The two ideas fit together neatly. 16 and 17 year-olds aren't legally adults, after all. Indeed, the age of functional adulthood is ever-longer postponed. A few decades ago, when most 16 year olds worked and most under 25-year olds had started families, a lower voting age would have made more rational sense than it does in an era when half of all 20 year olds are still in full-time education. Allowing - or forcing - teenagers to vote years before most of them have taken on adult responsibilities suggests an undervaluing of the franchise itself. So I was struck by Sarah Birch's rationale:

First-time compulsory voting could well be very effective in engaging young people in politics. There are many other things that young people are required to do, not the least of which is go to school.

This wouldn't apply to those at the older end of the age spectrum, of course, but it does link up logically with the extension of compulsory education to 18. Once the system were up and running, voting would in effect be compulsory between the ages of 16 and 21, years which were once the first stage of adulthood but have become (given the increasing circumscription of the lives of under 16s) the new adolescence. So the obligatory franchise will be not a badge of citizenship but rather a marker of continuing dependence on adult supervision.

The other justification for the IPPR proposal is that it would somehow correct an imbalance in the political process. As lead author Guy Lodge explains,

Unequal turnout matters because it gives older and more affluent voters disproportionate influence at the ballot box. Turnout rates among the young have fallen significantly which means there is less incentive for politicians to pay attention to them.

The idea, of course, is that the high turnout of older people means that politicians target their policies disproportionately towards their interests, protecting pensioners' "perks" such as free bus-passes while hiking up student tuition fees. This is less convincing than it at first appears. For one thing, pensioners' perks are small change when set against the brute facts of demography and an ageing population, which are steadily eroding the income levels from pension funds. Pensioners may be protected at the moment, but all the parties are now suggesting that many of the perks will be scaled back. No amount of enthusiastic voting is effective against a strong political consensus.

More profoundly, while politicians of all the main parties make a big show of pandering to pensioners, politics these days is a young person's game. The main players tend to be in their forties, with ambitious MPs and junior ministers in their thirties or even twenties. Behind them stand legions of special advisers, think tankers and PR gurus, many of whom are fresh out of Oxbridge or the LSE. The object of the game is to escape as soon as possible to a feather-bedded "retirement" of directorships and consultancies.

But hang on a minute. The problem that has been identified is one of young people's reluctance to involve themselves in mainstream democratic politics, even in the minimalist way that is expected of them. The suggestion is that if more young people voted, politicians would be more responsive to young people. Yet there are ever fewer front-rank politicians over the age of fifty. All those elderly voters haven't produced a government in their image. Quite the reverse: the ageism in politics can be ferocious, as Ming Campbell discovered during his brief stint as Lib Dem leader. If a generation of youngish politicians and genuinely young people behind-the-scenes doing much of the political work hasn't done anything to increase voter turnout among the young, one may well wonder why.
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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Joan Edwards' intentions

The now notorious will of the late Miss Joan Edwards of Bristol can scarcely be described as a masterpiece of clear drafting.  It directed that the proceeds of her estate be given to "whichever government is in office at the time of my death for the government in their absolute discretion to use as they think fit."  This could, on the face of it, mean several things, but it does not unambiguously or uncomplicatedly mean any of them.  If she had intended the money simply to go into state coffers, why use such a complicated formulation?  If she intended it to be used for the party political purposes of the governing party (or parties), this could easily have been specified.  She might have been hoping that wise ministers would designate a particular charity or public purpose to receive the money in her memory: but again, this would not be difficult to spell out.

The executors, who are also the solicitors who helped Miss Edwards draw up this will, state that they received clarification from her about her true purposes and that she confirmed that she intended the money to go to the political party of government itself.  This seems fairly eccentric, but it is not completely implausible; perhaps she trusted in the good sense of the British people to decide for her which set of politicians was worthy of her cash.  If that was indeed the case - and good professional practice would of course require that this be noted down in writing - then the panicked decision by the Coalition partners to give the money to the Treasury (where it will make no discernible difference to the national debt) frustrates her intentions. 

Whatever view one takes of the drafting, there's clearly a difference between "the government" and "whichever government is in office at the time of my death".  The former may be said to be synonymous with the state: "I give my money to the government" means effectively the same thing as "I give my money to the Exchequer".  But Miss Edwards' formulation takes implicit account of the political situation.  Goverments change: "whichever government is in office on the day of my death" most naturally means "whichever bunch of politicians happen to have their feets under ministerial desks when I pop my clogs." 

Imagine Miss Edwards had died on the eve of an election.  In that case, the govenment in power at the time of her death would not be the same as the government in power when her will was executed and the estate distributed.  In that case, on a strict view, the money could not be given to anyone, since "the government in office at the date of my death" no longer existed.  Had she died in 2009 and the estate only finally wound up now (such delays are not unusual) the money could scarcely have gone to the Coalition, a government that was not "in office" at the requisite time.  Perhaps it would have gone to the Labour party.  But the Labour party led by Ed Miliband is not the same as the Labour government led by Gordon Brown, though it shares many of the same members.

Morally, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems would have had every right to keep the money, given the solicitors' insistence that Miss Edwards intended to make a political donation, however awkward the wording.  In the first instance it is for the executors to interpret the will; only if it is contested does ithe meaning of a will become a matter for the courts.  The solicitors are in a better position to know her intentions than the Daily Mail, which complained that "grasping politicians" had misappropriated the money, or than Polly Toynbee, who imagines (quite without evidence) that she "left her money to the people of the country" and that the two governing parties took "a chance to seize the money for themselves, carving it up between narrow party political interests."  Politically, however, this soon became impossible, because the Mail decided that it knew Miss Edwards had meant better than her solicitors did.  So the money has been sunk into general Treasury funds, where it will scarcely be noticed: the national debt grows every day by several times more than the £520,000 Miss Edwards left.  What a waste.  If the parties had to give up the money, it would have been better for David Cameron and Nick Clegg both to nominate a cause or purpose to receive their share of the money.  That might just have been what Miss Edwards wanted all along.
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Friday, 9 August 2013

The Gospel According to David Cameron

The unauthorised version
Dave has been talking about religion. Speaking during a question-and-answer session in Darwen near Blackburn, the Telegraph reports, he described the Bible as "not a bad handbook", but admitted struggling with some of the sayings contained therein, such as Jesus' instruction to the rich man to sell all he possessed and give the proceeds to the poor.

"But what I think is so good about Jesus’ teachings," he added, "is there are lots of things that he said that you can still apply very directly to daily life and to bringing up your children."

So I thought I'd help the prime minister out by offering him an edited version of the Gospels which might be of more use to him.

1. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Gideon, that all the world should be taxed. Because it was necessary to sort out the mess left by the last government, and all were in it together.

2. And Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger, because she and Joseph were unable to afford the bedroom tax.

3. And wise men from the East brought him costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the gifts were seized and the wise men deported, because it turned out they were in the country illegally.

4. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But it was discovered that Jesus had remained in the temple sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions, and all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And lo there was an Investigation, and social services were called, and Mary and Joseph were reprimanded for child neglect, and the doctors of the temple were placed under suspicion of abuse.

5. There was a righteous man named John, who came into all the country about Jordan, denouncing the wickedness of profligates and bankers. And this John wore a shirt of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; he had an unkempt beard and there were holes in his sandals. And Dave said, For God's sake, do we really have to be in coalition with these people?

6. There was a wedding at Cana. And the hosts had no wine to serve, for Gideon the chancellor had raised alcohol duty to deter binge drinking. So Jesus turned water into wine, and lo he was arrested for supplying alcohol without a licence. And that was the end of Jesus' political career.

7. Dave saw a man who was stricken with palsy. And he said unto him, take up your bed, and walk, for ATOS has declared you fit for work. And the crippled man did as he was told, and all hailed it as an example of a successful welfare policy promoting the interests of hard-working families. And the crippled man collapsed, but no-one noticed because his apparent recovery had already been entered in the statistics.

8. And Dave went up into the mountain, and taught the multitudes, saying, Blessed are the geeks, for we wish to encourage successful tech start-ups in this country.

9. For whosoever hath, to him more shall be given, and he shall have more in abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath. And I'm not ashamed of that. Rewarding success is the foundation of a successful economic policy.

10. Consider the birds of the air. They sow not, neither do they reap. Yet they expect their heavenly father to feed them. Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin. Yet they expect hard working families to pay for them to be arrayed like Solomon in all his glory. Well not any more. Under this government, the lilies of the field are going to have to pull their weight. And the birds of the air will have to work for their breadcrumbs.

11. My message to these layabouts is simple.  Don't come to the taxpayer, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?"  Get a fucking job.

12. But I say unto you, whoever watcheth porn on the internet will be presumed to be a sex offender in his heart.

13. Every hair on your head is numbered, and that number will from now on be held in a secure database run by G4S, so you can rely on us to keep you safe.

14. Many are called, but few are chosen. But you can increase your chances considerably if you went to Eton.

15. Beware of false profits. I have ordered HMRC to institute a crackdown.

16. You have heard it said, "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say unto you, Beware! For your neighbour might well be an illegal immigrant or a benefit cheat. You have a duty to report them.

17. And Dave came down from the mountain, and lo, there were five thousand gathered. And the people grumbled because there was no food for them to eat. And Samantha said, there is a lad here, who hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? But Dave said, Fear not, it will make a very pleasant lunch for me.

18. And a rich man came unto him and said, Master, what must I do to get into the House of the Lords? And Dave asked him, saying: Do you do good works, and obey the law, and give to the poor? And the rich man confessed that he did not. But Dave told him not to be afeared, but that he should go and make a large donation to Conservative funds. And behold it came to pass according to Dave's saying.

19. For is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a child from a working class background to join the Bullingdon club.

20. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they said unto him, Master, this woman was taken in the very act. And Dave said, Not another one of Boris's? And they replied unto him, No. For lo she is a scarlet woman, and Boris prefers brunettes. But Dave was astonished, and sore afraid, for the woman knew many secrets. But verily it was all sub judice, and nothing could be reported. Which caused Dave to heave a sigh of relief.

21. And Dave went into the temple, and saw all them that sold and bought in the temple, and the tables of the moneychangers, and he went up to them, saying, Congratulations, this is a fine example of a successful finance industry and a vital contribution to the economy.


(Any additions will of course be gratefully received)
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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Why do so many Nobel laureates look like Richard Dawkins?

There's a great parody in the current issue of Private Eye in which Craig Brown pretends to be Richard Dawkins on Twitter.  It captures perfectly, with almost documentary verisimilitude, in fact, the blend of irascibility, conceit and high-handed disdain for religion that shines through Dawkins' online persona.  A few examples:

Somebody tell the old ladies in the local church that arranging the flowers won't get them a place in heaven.  Such stupidity.

"You can't prove God doesn't exist." Er, no you can't.  But is anyone REALLY stupid enough to think that is a good point? Apparently yes.

Listening to St Matthew Passion.  Very beautiful in parts but why couldn't Bach try harder to keep God out of it?

Hard to overstate how deeply I despise St Augustine.

The only trouble with Brown's send-up is that it can't quite match the original for sheer obtuseness.  But perhaps Dawkins is merely trolling.  His usual technique is to say something pointlessly provocative, wait for the inevitable backlash (the traditional response, playing on his well-known love of grammar, is "Your a dick") and then express innocent bafflement that anyone could possibly object.  As often as not these days, his target is Islam and/or Muslims; a predeliction that seems close enough to an obsession to have attracted accusations of racism.  I don't believe that myself, but I do suspect that being accused of race-baiting has only increased his determination to push things.

Today's was a classic:

For an Oxford man, that's some admission.  It's also true, as it happens: the 32 Nobels Prizes awarded to people with a connection to Cambridge's largest college far outweigh the number given to persons of Muslim background or faith.  It's dramatically true if you exclude the Peace Prize (and Dawkins was really making a point about science) and the prize for literature.  Only two Muslim scientists have won the Prize: the Pakistani Abdus Salam for Physics and the Egyptian-American Ahmed Zewail for Chemistry.  It's also true that (again excluding the peace and literature prizes) Trinity boasts more Nobel laureates than the entire female gender.  Only 17 women have ever been awarded one of the scientific prizes.

Clearly this signifies something.  But what?

Looking at the list of Nobel laureates since the prizes were first awarded in 1901, the most striking thing is the overwhelming predominance of Western countries, in particular the United States, and of a handful of institutions.  Of 863 individual winners, 338 have been American or based in the United States.  A further 119 have been British.  Germany is in third place with 101 winners, and France a distant fourth with 65 (which is more than Trinity, but less than Cambridge as a whole).  Most of the remainder come from other Western nations.  Again, the effect is even greater if Peace and Literature are omitted.  The university affiliations tell a similar story, with the top US institutions (Harvard alone has 147 affiliated winners) and Oxbridge dominating the lists.

The reason for this isn't an international conspiracy.  Rather, it shows that modern science (by which I mean academic, research-driven, resource-intensive science) has been and remains an overwhelmingly Western phenomenon.  To ask "where are all the Muslims?" as Dawkins does is to miss the point.  One might as well ask, Where are all the Chinese? China has just 8 native-born Nobel winners, and all but two of them are affiliated with Western universities, mostly in the United States.  There are approximately the same number of Chinese nationals in the world as there are Muslims, and China, like Islam, had its golden age (in China's case, several of them) when it led the world in technology and science.  Japan does rather better, with 20 winners; but then Japan adopted the Western model of university-based scientific research in the late 19th century, and even so only won its first Nobel Prize in 1949.

Given the type of work that wins a Nobel Prize for science, it's still remarkable that Trinity College has so many more winners than other Cambridge Colleges, but it's not all that remarkable that it has more winners than most non-Western countries put together.  It says something about the way modern science developed, and about the continuing place of Anglo-American institutions within modern scientific research, but it says no more about Islam than it says about China (or about women).  Which is to say, not much. After all, the country that boasts almost half the world's Nobel prize winners is also home to millions of creationists.

I suspect that what Dawkins wanted to suggest, if he wasn't being simply dickish, was that something in Islam is indeed responsible for the decline of Arab science, that was once so promising.  Here's another of his Tweets:

Do we hear boasts about their science?  Jim Al-Khalili has written an excellent book, Pathfinders, about the medieval Arab pioneers of such fields as optics and medicine (has Dawkins read it?  It would be rather surprising if he hadn't).  Al-Khalili is President of the British Humanist Association, as it happens, so you won't find him "boasting" about the scientific superiority of Islam.  But he has written that,

... the scientific revolution of the Abbasids would not have taken place if not for Islam - in contrast to the spread of Christianity over the preceding centuries, which had nothing like the same effect in stimulating and encouraging original scientific thinking. The brand of Islam between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the 11th century was one that promoted a spirit of free thinking, tolerance and rationalism. The comfortable compatibility between science and religion in medieval Baghdad contrasts starkly with the contradictions and conflict between rational science and many religious faiths in the world today.

You can in fact make a similar case for Christianity, despite what Galileo experienced at the hands of the Inquisition.  Both Islam and Christianity, in their different ways, present a vision of the world that is ordered, that accords with natural law, and that as the product of an intelligent designer is inherently intelligible.  If you say that Christianity held back science, you have to explain why the modern scientific revolution took off in a Europe that remained profoundly Christian.  Newton, for one, believed that his scientific work was in large part a religious undertaking.  If you say that Islam is anti-science, you have to explain why for many centuries it was anything but.  It's probably true that the Muslim world became more religiously conservative, and thus more anti-science, just as Western Europe was becoming more religiously open.  Likewise, China under the Ming dynasty largely withdrew from international trade just as Europeans began their great voyages of exploration.   

There are many reasons why modernity originated in Western Europe and its American offshoot, and why the West continued to be ecomonically and politically dominant for so long.  Political, geological and geographic factors all played their part, as to a lesser extent did philosophy and theology.  But the long list of Western Nobel laureates has a more proximate cause: the weight of economic and intellectual capital that has accumulated in a small number of leading institutions, among which Cambridge university is among the most significant.   Religion has very little to do with this. I can't predict the future of the Nobel prizes, but I will say this: if you go to Cambridge today you won't have much difficulty finding Muslims doing science.  Among then may be a future Nobel laureate. She may even be at Trinity.
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Monday, 5 August 2013

Peter Capaldi and Doctor Who's diversity problem

Is the choice of a middle-aged, heterosexual white man as the new Doctor Who actor legal under the 2010 Equality Act?

Peter Capaldi might be an excellent actor, he might be the best available actor for the job, and many might be pleased that the recent run of progressively younger Doctors has (for a while at least) been reversed.  It would be fun to see him swearing, Malcolm Tucker-style, at a Dalek.  But there are grounds for believing that his selection is a sin against diversity.  Capaldi will be the 12th in the official sequence of Doctors, the 13th if one includes Peter Cushing's portrayal in two 1960s film versions.  All have been male, white, British and, so far as one can tell, predominantly heterosexual.  (Russell T Davies gave David Tennant's Doctor some bicurious moments, but that's about it; not much to set against the parade of attractive young women that all the Doc's incarnations have invited aboard the Tardis.) 

As a public body funded by the taxpayer (all right, the Licence Fee payer, if you're being pedantic, but the Licence Fee is legally classified as a tax) the BBC is subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty, which is set out in s149 of the 2010 Equality Act.  This provides that public authorities must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to three issues: eliminating discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advancing equality of opportunity (mainly by meeting the special needs of people with "protected characteristics" including race, gender, sexuality, religion or disability; and fostering good relations in society generally.

The choice of a specific actor in a long-running TV series probably doesn't, in itself, involve the PSED in all its box-ticking complexity.  After all, the race, gender and sexuality of most fictional characters are pretty well established.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a male Sherlock Holmes, for example, so it would seem unreasonable to insist that women be considered for the part (although the updated American TV series Elementary introduced an interesting twist  with a female Dr Watson).  We expect TV to tackle issues of race, but casting can't always be colour-blind.  As for disability, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore said it all in the One Legged Tarzan sketch.

But Doctor Who is different, not least because the essence of the character is in its protean ability to regenerate.  Potentially, the Doctor might be anything: male, female, black, white, old, young, even (I suppose) something other than humanoid (why ever not?)  More to the point, whenever the role is up for renewal - at least in recent years - the possibility of a female Time Lord is canvassed and speculated on, not just be fans but by the writers and producers.  Current supremo Steven Moffat fuelled speculation at last year's Edinburgh Television Festival by saying that "It is a part of Time Lord lore that it can happen - a Time Lord could potentially turn into a woman. The more often it's talked about, the more likely it is to happen someday."  Nor is there any mythological objection to a black actor playing the role.  Indeed, Luther star Idris Elba was one of the most widely-tipped names this time around.

The fact that the Doctor might potentially be female or non-white could well be enough to give rise to Equality and Diversity issues.  Fulfilling the PSED, moreover, wouldn't simply be a matter of establishing that women and ethnic minority actors were given equal consideration in casting: the wider need to advance equality and "foster good relations" might be held to take precedence over the naive search for the best available actor or Moffat's ideas about story arcs.  At least since its reinvention in 2005 Doctor Who has come to have a remarkable (non-fans would say inexplicable) profile in modern British culture.  What is basically a light-hearted piece of family entertainment has come to be discussed and intensively analysed in terms of politics (including sexual politics), morality, social dynamics, even religion.  It's a medium with (many observers are convinced) a message.  The Doctor himself (for now) is a role model and a touchstone of decency; when he does something ethically dubious, or even debatable, the shock can be palpable.  Playing the Doctor is much more than just an acting job.

This being the case, is it acceptable for another white male actor to take the role?  Did the BBC even consider all these issues and carry out a full PSED assessment before deciding on Capaldi? 

If the notion that the BBC might be legally obliged to choose a female Doctor (or at least be able to demonstrate that they considered the equality impact of their choice in rigorous detail) sounds a bit far-fetched, consider the recent fuss over the Winston Churchill fiver.  As everyone knows, campaigners led by Caroline Criado-Perez brought a heavy weight of public opinion to bear and eventually managed to embarrass the Bank of England into a rushed announcement that Jane Austen would feature on the next £10 note.  Less well known, but according to Criado-Perez crucial, was her invocation of the 2010 Equality Act. 

In a series of letters to the Bank, Criado-Perez demanded to know whether the committee charged with banknote design had fulfilled the PSED when considering its choice of Churchill.  Her case was that the loss of a woman on the £5 note (the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry) would have a negative impact on equality.  In a piece written for the Guardian last month she accuses the bank of being "dismissive, patronising, and vague to the point of wilful obtuseness" and of failing to engage with her legal points.  Prior to the climbdown, she says, she was fully prepared to go to court over the issue.  Had she done so, and had the court judged that the PSED was engaged, the Bank would have been obliged to prove that it had undertaken a "rigorous" equality assessment before making its decision. 

It's entirely possible that it never occurred to those responsible for banknote design that they might have duties under the Equality Act; that might explain the Bank's caginess.  After all, the design of a note doesn't directly affect anyone.  It's not as if only white men are allowed to spend money.  There's no evidence (that I'm aware of) that whether or not there is a woman on reverse side of the money causes any woman to do less well at school, earn less at work or lose self esteem.  Nor would a selection procedure based purely on historical merit feature more than a small minority of women.  For reasons of historic discrimination which saw women excluded from most professions and largely confined to the home, our culture and history has been made predominantly by men.  Male soldiers and politicians, male inventors and scientists, male philosophers and entrepreneurs.  White males, at that.  A smattering of women, yes (more as the 20th century got underway) but not enough to guarantee that one in four banknotes would always feature a woman.  Not if historical significance was the only criterion.

So if the PSED is to be applied to banknote design as well as to more obvious things such as recruitment or the offering of services to the public, the conclusion must be that public bodies have a duty to advance gender (and other forms of) equality in purely cultural or symbolic ways.  And the Bank of England appears to accept this.  Note the language of their official statement on July 24th:

In the light of recent concerns, and in order to ensure that our notes represent the full diversity of British people, the Bank has decided to review the approach to, and criteria for, selecting characters to appear on banknotes. The Bank’s Court of Directors discussed this at its meeting on 17 July, and agreed to the Bank’s plans to undertake a review.  The purpose of the review, which will be overseen by Chris Salmon, the Bank’s Executive Director for Banking Services and Chief Cashier, is to refine the criteria for character selection, and establish a process to ensure that potential candidates are consistently judged against those criteria.  In particular we will review:

a. The principles that guide the choice of historical characters, given the need for the choices to command respect and legitimacy.
b. How the process for choosing characters could ensure, and be seen to ensure, the delivery of those principles.

The Bank will also review whether it can take further steps to operate within the spirit of the Public Sector Equality Duty when deciding on future characters.

Is Doctor Who, perhaps the most talked-about British produced TV series and (16 year hiatus notwithstanding) the longest running, not a cultural product at least as significant as the design on banknotes - notes that, like the Doctor, are subject to periodic regeneration?  If the changing face of our money provides opportunities to make statements about the importance of fostering a diverse society, surely the changing body of Doctor Who does as well.  Not just an opportunity, indeed, but after the passage of the 2010 Equality Act, a positive duty.  Acting ability can no more be the only measure of suitability for the role of than Doctor than pure historical greatness can be be measure of worth to appear on banknotes.  Not any longer.  Having a white man continue to play the role in the future may not be legally an option. 

Anyone want to try a judicial review?
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