Friday, 31 May 2013

Liberals in verse

Satirist Craig Brown has produced 22 clerihews for the New Statesman. One of them will interest Liberals:
John Maynard Keynes
Helped workers lose their chains
And, by way of relaxation,
Wrote The Inflation of Currency As a Method of Taxation.
The clerihew verse form was invented by the writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley when he was still a schoolboy. His best known is this:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”
We need more of this sort of thing in the party. To start the ball rolling:
Nick Clegg
Is quite often partial to a scotch egg
As is Vince Cable
When he is able.
Or this:
Lembit Öpik
Likes to be seen out with a young chick
But the thing preferred by Mark Oaten
Is verboten.
Or this:
Alex Carlile
Considers civil liberties are no longer worthwhile
Hence his method for fighting terror
Is an error.
Or this:
Jo Grimond
Was very slim and
Extremely tall
Which is very useful when your parliamentary party is extremely small.
Next week: Liberal haiku.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

“Britain is being shagged by sheep”

In a provocative ‘j’accuse’ piece in the Spectator, George Monbiot identifies the greatest cause of damage to Britain’s countryside but it is not one of the usual suspects:
Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so.
Sheep strip uplands of vegetation that might otherwise prevent erosion, landslips, flooding and droughts:
Deep vegetation on the hills absorbs rain when it falls and releases it gradually, delivering a steady supply of water to the lowlands. When grazing prevents trees and shrubs from growing, and when the small sharp hooves of sheep compact the soil, rain flashes off the hills, causing floods downstream. When the floods abate, water levels fall rapidly. Upland grazing, in other words, contributes to a cycle of flood and drought. This restricts the productivity of more fertile lands downstream, both drowning them and depriving them of irrigation water. Given the remarkably low output in the upland areas of Britain, it is within the range of possibility that hill farming creates a net loss of food.
Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. Only the merest remnants of life persist. Spend two hours sitting in a bushy suburban garden and you are likely to see more birds and of a greater range of species than in walking five miles across almost any part of the British uplands. The land has been sheepwrecked.
The farmers have an excuse, of course:
Farmers argue that keeping sheep in the hills makes an essential contribution to Britain’s food supply. But does it? Just over three quarters of the area of Wales is devoted to livestock farming, largely to produce meat. But according to the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment, Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity.
And this unproductive industry is kept going only by massive EU subsidies:
Do we really believe that keeping the hills bare, wiping out wildlife, helping to flood homes and farms and exacerbating landslips is a good use of public money?
How do the sheep farmers get away with it? What ultimately protects them is an enduring romantic image, which is at complete odds with reality:
I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition — the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity — helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, ‘who takes away the sin of the world’. The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday-night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.
This tradition, coupled with an urban cultural cringe towards those who make their living from the land, means that challenging the claims and demands of hill farmers is, politically, almost impossible. Instead we throw money at them.
That’s the way urbanisation harms the rural environment – not so much by building on green land, more by fostering an urban population that is ignorant of the countryside and will swallow any old sentimental codswallop about rural life.

Are there scientific reasons to oppose gay marriage?

There aren’t.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Busted: the greatest authoritarian myth of all

The Communications Data Bill would not have prevented last week’s murder in Woolwich. I know that. You know that. Even MI5 knows that.

But here’s another authoritarian myth busted: The greatest authoritarian myth of all – that Mussolini made the trains run on time. In fact he didn’t. Brian Cathcart explained why in the Independent in 1994:
Say what you like about Mussolini, he made the trains run on time. That was the famous last excuse for Fascism, conveying the idea that while dictatorship might not be very nice, at least it got things done.
It is an argument we may hear again following the election triumph of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and its allies, who include neo-Fascists. After all those years of chaotic politics and corruption, perhaps what the country needs is the smack of firm government. Mr Berlusconi, people may be tempted to say, could be just the man to instil punctuality in those recalcitrant Italian train drivers.
But did Mussolini really do it? Did Il Duce, in his 20 years of absolute power, really manage to make the railway service meet its timetable? The answer is no.
Like almost all the supposed achievements of Fascism, the timely trains are a myth, nurtured and propagated by a leader with a journalist’s flair for symbolism, verbal trickery and illusion.
Cathcart goes on to cite several eyewitness accounts of the unpunctuality of Italian trains in the 1930s. And we now know what a shambles Berlusconi turned out to be.

But why dredge up an article written in 1994 about events before the Second World War? It is because the article concludes with an important lesson:
Typically, [Mussolini] fell victim to his own propaganda. Mussolini’s biographer, Denis Mack Smith, points out that Italy usually imported its coal by sea, but after the Second World War broke out this was no longer possible and it had to come overland. The Duce’s railway system, however, was not up to the job.
“Only two of the nine railroads through the Alps had been provided with double tracks and their capacity was estimated as equal to little more than a quarter of Italy’s peacetime needs,” writes Mack Smith.
“As the trains running on time had become one of the accepted myths of Fascism, and as Mussolini had never charged anyone with the task of planning communications in the event of war, the matter had gone by default.”
Authoritarianism simply doesn’t work, and it’s the same whether the dictatorship is in politics or business (as Jonathan Calder explains here and here). Without the benefits of an open society, poor decision-making is never open to scrutiny or tested by criticism. That is because there is no tolerance for critical thinking and people are afraid to admit failure or suggest improvements. Hence bad decisions go unchallenged. Indeed, the spectacular failure of Fred Goodwin at RBS was largely the result of his dictatorial methods and the climate of fear he created.

Despite this, authoritarianism remains fashionable in certain quarters. In a period of uncertainty, there is a temptation to believe that the answer to all our ills is a “smack of firm government” – just look at the wistful hankering for a messianic leader that surfaced after Mrs Thatcher died. Meanwhile, the television shows The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den ignore the example of Fred Goodwin and continue to encourage the idea that management is basically about being macho and shouting at people.

In our age of impatience, instant gratification and shortened attention spans, it is harder to argue for such time-consuming processes as critical deliberation or rational problem solving. So politicians assert their authority through ill-thought-out ‘initiatives’. What matters is getting things done, without stopping to ask whether these things are any good. The difference nowadays is that, whereas Mussolini declaimed to huge crowds from a balcony, today’s managerialist politicians read out a press release in a branch of Morrisons.

Jo Swinson visits the Home for Well-Behaved Orphans

I am delighted when Jo Swinson arrives at the Hall this morning, passing through Rutland on ministerial business. After insisting that she join me for a second breakfast, I take her to visit my own Home for Well-Behaved Orphans.

The boys are full of the vaulting horse they have just made and will brook no delay in trying it out, so Jo talks to the girls. This, I reason, is no bad thing: we Liberal Democrats do not have half enough women MPs and I hope that some of her audience will find that they have a vocation as a result of her address.

I have to report that I am somewhat surprised by Jo’s approach. “Blimey,” she says to one girl, “you’ve been stirred in the ugly wok, haven’t you?” before describing another as “a bit of a munter”. Others are dismissed as “mingers”, “butters” and “complete double-baggers”.

One wonders whether this is quite the way to attract the fairer sex into politics. I suspect the first Lady Bonkers would have clocked Jo one if she had addressed her like that.

It is lucky that I have a bag of jujubes in my pocket to smooth things over.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West and Jonathan Calder is his literary secretary.

No prizes for being dull

On the New Statesman’s blog, Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris says that the Tories may be mad swivel-eyed loons, but at least they’re coherent mad swivel-eyed loons:
I am beginning to wonder if, entirely by accident, it’s the Tories who are moving towards a coherent position for 2015, while we in the Lib Dems look like the straight laced, steady as you go, slightly conformist middle men.
Yes, the Liberal Democrats are currently the better behaved half of the coalition. But if their overriding aim is not to frighten the horses, they will fail to offer a compelling vision for the future and won’t rally much support at the next election.

Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself why, despite the recent self-inflicted damage to the Tories, Liberal Democrat opinion poll ratings stubbornly continue to average 10%, as they have done since the autumn of 2010.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Who the f*** is in charge of Lib Dem election campaigns?

Members of the Liberal Democrats today received an e-mail from Nick Clegg, informing them that party president Tim Farron MP has been put in charge of the party’s 2014 local and European election campaign.

His appointment has been added to that of Paddy Ashdown (in charge of the party’s 2015 general election campaign); Martin Horwood MP (in charge of the party’s 2013 local election campaign); James Gurling (chair of the party’s Campaign and Communications Committee, a sub-committee of the Federal Executive); and Hilary Stephenson (no.2 at party HQ and in charge of the HQ directorate for ‘Elections and Field’). Meanwhile, much of the party’s real election campaign organisation actually takes place at ALDC’s HQ in Hebden Bridge Manchester.

It is not clear whether this byzantine arrangement has any logic, how it works, or who is accountable to whom. One sign of the confusion is that Gurling was not consulted about Farron’s appointment, even though the former’s committee supposedly oversees election campaigns of all kinds.

This is no way to run a railway.

Monday, 27 May 2013

A very English solution to race hatred

Anyone who would like their faith in human nature restored should read this story.

The far-right English Defence League (EDL) organised a protest today at the mosque in York. However, two wonderful things happened to ward off the threat.

First, a large number of local non-Muslims showed up to express their solidarity with the Muslim community, far outnumbering the EDL protesters.

And second, the mosque invited the EDL protesters in for a cup of tea and a chat.

Whoever said Muslims aren’t assimilating with English culture?

Crisis? What crisis?

The front page of today’s Daily Mirror is simply absurd. Above the headline (“IS IT REALLY TIME TO CHILLAX?”) is a strapline across the top of the page:
Our country is in the middle of a terrorism crisis, Prime Minister. And you’ve decided to go on holiday to Ibiza.
The Mirror is not alone. All of this morning’s tabloids have had a go at David Cameron for taking a week’s holiday. So let’s get things in proportion.

Our country is not “in the middle of a terrorism crisis”. There has been one murder committed by freelance Islamist nutters. It was a shocking attack, yes, but a single murder – however appalling – does not constitute a ‘crisis’. To indulge in this sort of hyperbole is to do precisely what the killers wanted. This applies especially in the case of the Daily Mirror, which accompanies its self-righteous reporting with a lurid invitation to “watch shocking footage of terrorists”.

Suppose Cameron had bowed to the demands of the tabloids and stayed in his office. What could he have achieved that has not already been done? Resurrect the Communications Data Bill, perhaps? Better he takes a break.

At the Huffington Post, Mehdi Hasan is spot on:
To be fair to the PM, he’s the one who said we should all carry on with business as usual, with normal everyday life, despite last Wednesday’s horrific crime, and we all praised him for saying so. Now, it seems, some of us cynically want to have a go at him for practising what he preaches. I’m with Dave - the only way to defeat terrorism is to refuse to be terrorised. Oh, and the only way to get ‘normal’, ‘in touch’ people at the top of politics is to allow them to do ‘normal’ and ‘in touch’ things like go on holiday. Even if it is, ahem, to Ibiza...

Sunday, 26 May 2013

UKIP founder says party has “gone completely fruitcake”

Remember Professor Alan Sked? He was the original founder of UKIP in 1993 but left the party shortly after the 1997 general election. Today he is the subject of an entertaining interview in the Sunday Telegraph:
Professor Alan Sked, who set up the euro-sceptic party 20 years ago, believes the party has become “anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual and racist”.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, the historian also revealed that he once expelled Nigel Farage, the party’s ebullient leader.
Sked seems to think he has created a Frankenstein’s monster:
“My great regret is that the party I founded has been captured by the radical Right and has gone all anti-intellectual. It’s gone completely fruitcake.”
He obviously has little time for UKIP’s present leader:
The academic paints a vivid picture of a young Mr Farage, the loquacious and hard-living former City trader who has led Ukip since 2006.
Prof Sked said it was not uncommon for the commodities broker to turn up at the party’s national executive evening meetings in a “relaxed” mood after a long day working — and drinking — in the Square Mile.
Not just drinking but, worse, bad grammar:
The academic also said that he received letters complaining about the spelling and grammar used in Mr Farage’s election literature.
“There seemed to be a bit of problem distinguishing its from it’s,” Prof Sked recalled, adding that Mr Farage did admit that writing was not his area of expertise.
“It was not always easy to portray us as a party that took education very seriously in such circumstances.” Mr Farage attended Dulwich College, the leading public school, in south London.
Ukip’s original leader even said that he tried to oust Mr Farage when he organised a conference exploring Ukip’s future direction after it failed to win any seats in the 1997 general election.
UKIP contains the seeds of its own destruction. These seeds seem to propagating nicely. We need to switch our attention to a more fundamental problem, popular disaffection from democratic politics, which has created the space for a party even as chaotic as UKIP to thrive.

Back from the dead: the snoopers’ charter

We all thought the snoopers’ charter (aka the Communications Data Bill) was gone. We thought Nick Clegg had killed it off. We thought it was safely dead and buried.

But today, a loud creaking sound could be heard as two coffin lids opened. One coffin contained the Communications Data Bill. The other contained former Tory leader Michael Howard (who you may recall had “something of the night” about him). Besides Howard, various zombies from among the Labour Party’s former home secretaries also sprang into action, aided by the Liberal Democrats’ very own Alex Carlile, who seems to have gone over to the dark side.

The BBC reports:
Labour and the Conservatives could unite to push through the controversial communications bill despite Lib Dem objections, a former Tory leader says.
The reason Howard and other leading Tory and Labour politicians want to revive this bill – apart, of course, from rank populism and instinctive authoritarianism – is a knee-jerk reaction to the murder in Woolwich. It’s an example of “hard cases make bad law” if ever there was one.

In today’s Observer, Henry Porter explains why mass surveillance wouldn’t have saved Drummer Rigby:
Two former Labour home secretaries, a security minister and a former “independent” reviewer of terror laws have called for the swift review of the communications data bill, following the Woolwich killing. If I didn’t believe these were the first reactions to a shocking crime, I’d put the interventions of Jack Straw, Lord (John) Reid, Lord (Alan) West and Lord (Alex) Carlile down to cynical opportunism, because I’m afraid that is very much how it looked.
Give our guys the tools to fight terror on the streets, they say; “the proportionate tools”, eagerly adds the former reviewer of terror laws, Lord Carlile. But not one of them bothered to produce the smallest evidence that the type of surveillance proposed in the “snoopers’ charter” would have stopped the two suspects, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale.
The simple flaw in their case is that both men were already known to MI5, which was aware of their associations and radicalisation. The agency, it’s claimed, may even have tried to recruit Adebolajo. If intelligence officers had thought it necessary, they possessed all the powers they needed to monitor the pair’s emails, texts, phone calls and internet use. Some 500,000 intercepts are already granted every year. So the idea that giving police and MI5 untrammelled access to the nation’s communications data would have provided vital information that would have averted Lee Rigby’s murder is almost certainly wrong.
Porter warns us about the role of the civil service in persistently reviving this bill:
...the forces advocating oppressive laws are never far from the surface. At the Home Office, there are still several senior civil servants, most notably Charles Farr, head of security and counterterrorism, who are committed to mass surveillance. Not just out of the belief that the public would be safer, one suspects, but because their personalities incline them to authoritarian solutions – obedience and control over personal freedom...
Sooner or later, another surveillance bill will appear, probably devised by Charles Farr, and almost certainly supported by [John] Reid and his nervy, authoritarian pals. If interceptions are to be upgraded to meet the challenges of developing communications, we have to be sure that they are compliant with a fully functioning democracy.
It could be worse. We could have had a Labour government:
In response to this terrible event, the government didn’t do too badly and we should be thankful that, for the moment, we are not facing another Labour attack on our freedom.
This is why I have never shared the view of some of my friends on the left of the Liberal Democrats that we and Labour are somehow together on the ‘progressive’ side of politics. The enthusiastic support for the snoopers’ charter shown by John Reid, Jack Straw and Alan Johnson should serve to remind Liberal Democrats with short memories just how illiberal New Labour was.

Postscript: An excellent piece by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator:
On Friday, I was thinking how lucky we are not to have Tony Blair anymore. Had he been still in power, there would be about 12 new laws being rammed through parliament by now.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The dying art of political oratory

Max Atkinson has written an interesting analysis of the decline of political oratory:
...a major change in the past 25 years has been the replacement of political speeches by broadcast interviews as the main form of political communication in Britain – even though interviews hardly ever result in anything other than bad news about the politicians themselves. As a result, effective political speech-making has become a dying art, in which there appears to be a curious collaboration between the media and politicians to continue relegating the coverage of speeches in favour of the broadcast interview.
At the same time, the politicians are also doing their bit to eliminate much of the passion and liveliness that were once a normal part of political rallies – by speaking in rather strange venues to audiences with little or no interest in politics, and certainly no motivation to applaud or boo anything they might hear.
That is the irony of the communication strategy of leading politicians and their advisers. In their desperation to ‘connect’ with the electorate, they succeed in doing the precise opposite.

I made this point in my criticism (here and here) of the Liberal Democrats’ ‘message script’. That contrived approach to communication sucks the life out of politics. But your average political adviser seems incapable of understanding this point, and so cannot understand why the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson have more popular appeal than the conformist, over-managed ‘on message’ clones.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Woolwich: Political and media hysteria only aids terrorism

Well said Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian:
We will not buckle to terrorism said David Cameron after the Woolwich murder on Wednesday. He then buckled. Everyone buckled. The home secretary buckled, the defence secretary buckled, the communities secretary buckled, the mayor of London buckled, the chief of police buckled, the press buckled, the BBC summoned its senior editors and they buckled. Everyone buckled.
The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets...
There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.
The clue to poor political judgement can be found in the poor political language:
Intoning a response to horror is one of the rituals of modern politics. The adjective mountain grows ever higher, depraved, sickening, horrific, barbaric, unspeakable. Damnation is sanctified by platitude. Unctuous “thoughts for the day” are uttered by religious leaders. If it bleeds it not only leads, it pleads for cliched analysis.
Jenkins advocates restraint:
In taking mundane acts of violence and setting them on a global stage, we not only politicise them, we risk validating the furies that drive them. Closing down the internet to starve terrorist acts of publicity is not feasible, and stifles the debate that should be taking place peacefully. But we do have the option to exercise self-restraint in the aftermath, to control the impulse to hyperbole. We can deny the terrorist the megaphone of exaggeration and hysteria. When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?
It is this echo chamber of horror, set up by the media, public figures and government, that does much of terrorism’s job for it. It converts mere crimes into significant acts. It turns criminals into heroes in the eyes of their admirers. It takes violence and graces it with the terms of a political debate. The danger is that this debate is one the terrorist might sometimes win.
So why do political leaders add to the ‘adjective mountain’? It is because our post-Diana, how-does-it-feel media culture – in which every news item must be turned into a vicarious experience – demands an emotional not a rational response. It is a brave person who risks appearing unfeeling by resisting that sentimental pressure. But such bravery is necessary for leadership instead of followership.

A cool analysis and a rational response? No, let’s tie another teddy bear to the nearest railings.

Postscript: More good sense on this subject from Frank Furedi and Jonathan Calder.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Woolwich: The selective memory of the EDL and BNP

Only hours after yesterday’s horrific killing, guess who showed up on the streets on Woolwich?
A 100-strong group of English Defence League (EDL) members marched in the near-by area last night and British National party (BNP) leader Nick Griffin took to Twitter this morning to call for a protest – ‘United against Muslim terror’ – for this Saturday.
There were no similar protests by EDL or BNP supporters after the mass murder committed by Anders Breivik in Norway. I wonder why?

UKIP: Police probe ‘racist’ councillors

The front-page headline in today’s Lincolnshire Echo: “Police probe ‘racist’ councillors in Lincolnshire”.

This news follows last Sunday’s post about the UKIP group leader’s comments on Facebook.

Three councillors are under investigation but all insist that their Facebook accounts were hacked:
Cllr Pain, leader of the opposition at Lincolnshire County Council, insists his Facebook account had been hacked into at least three times.
At least three times? If that were the case, did it ever occur to Councillor Pain to change his password?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The strange case of Tory homophobia

Former Tory MP Jerry Hayes has written a highly entertaining piece for the Guardian about the Conservative Party’s conflicted attitudes towards homosexuality.

He notes that history is repeating and quotes some of the vile things said during the decriminalisation debates of the 1950s by three Tory parliamentarians; Lord Winterton, William Shepherd MP and Sir Cyril Osborne MP. Hayes makes this delicious observation:
I suspect that nowadays Winterton, Shepherd and Osborne would be welcomed into Ukip, the sort of party one instinctively feels watches Roots backwards so that there is a happy ending.

Jo Swinson and the exploitation of interns

Jo Swinson MP has written a short article in PR Week, promising to end the exploitation of interns in public relations. But the problem with interns in the PR industry is less the exploitation of interns than the exploitation of the PR industry.

Most PR interns come from wealthy families and are privately educated. Their parents subsidise them by providing housing and income. Anyone without that sort of support would find it difficult to survive unpaid anywhere, let alone in central London where the PR industry is concentrated.

This is the main reason why the PR industry (especially the big agencies) is dominated by the products of public schools, and young people from more modest backgrounds find it so difficult to break in. (Interestingly, the people from more modest backgrounds who do break into PR tend to do so later in life at a more senior level, having first done a proper job).

The main benefit of tackling the problem of interns will therefore not be to end ‘exploitation’. It will be to force the PR industry to conduct entry-level recruitment more on the basis of merit than privilege.

Postscript: I should apologise for using the rather ridiculous term ‘PR industry’. It conjures up improbable images of manual labourers slaving away in the press release foundry or working long shifts underground in the spin mines.

Why America’s economy is recovering and Europe’s isn’t

The reason Europe’s economy isn’t recovering is a dogged insistence on austerity. That is the conclusion of John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker:
The big mystery isn’t why austerity has failed to work as advertised: anybody familiar with the concept of “aggregate demand” could explain that one. It is why an area with a population of more than three hundred million has stuck with a policy prescription that was discredited in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. The stock answer, which is that austerity is necessary to preserve the euro, doesn’t hold up. At this stage, austerity is the biggest threat to the euro. If the recession lasts for very much longer, political unrest is sure to mount, and the currency zone could well break up.
So why is this woebegone approach proving so sticky? Some of the answers can be found in a timely and suitably irreverent new book by Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown: “Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea.” Adopting a tone that is by turns bemused and outraged, Blyth traces the intellectual and political roots of austerity back to the Enlightenment, and the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. But he also provides a sharp analysis of Europe’s current predicament, explaining how an unholy alliance of financiers, central bankers, and German politicians foisted a draconian and unworkable policy on an unsuspecting populace.
The central fact about Europe’s “debt crisis” is that it largely originated in the private sector rather than the public sector. In 2007, Blyth reminds us, the ratio of net public debt to G.D.P. was just twelve per cent in Ireland and twenty-six per cent in Spain. In some places, such as Greece and Italy, the ratios were considerably higher. Over all, though, the euro zone was modestly indebted. Then came the financial crisis and the fateful decision to rescue many of the continent’s creaking banks, which had lent heavily into property bubbles and other speculative schemes. In Ireland, Spain, and other countries, bad bank debts were shifted onto the public sector’s balance sheet, which suddenly looked a lot less robust. But rather than recognizing the looming sovereign-debt crisis for what it was—an artifact of the speculative boom and bust in the financial sector—policymakers and commentators put the blame on public-sector profligacy.
“The result of all this opportunistic rebranding was the greatest bait-and-switch operation in modern history,” Blyth writes. “What were essentially private-sector debt problems were rechristened as ‘the Debt’ generated by ‘out-of-control’ public spending.”
In other words, austerians are playing a game of ‘blame the victims’ and the consequences for real people’s lives are disastrous.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Mad swivel-eyed loons? I’ll take that back...

In a post the other day, I questioned the use of the term ‘mad swivel-eyed loons’ to malign Conservative party members.

As if to disprove my point, Norman Tebbit has been interviewed in this week’s Big Issue on the topic of gay marriage and his eyes seem to be rotating through 360 degrees:
“The government discussed it for twenty minutes on the morning of its announcement,” former Conservative Party chairman Lord Tebbit told The Big Issue. “They’d done no work on it beforehand. I said to a minister I know: have you thought this through? Because you’re doing the law of succession, too.
“When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?
“It’s like one of my colleagues said: we’ve got to make these same sex marriages available to all.
“It would lift my worries about inheritance tax because maybe I’d be allowed to marry my son. Why not? Why shouldn’t a mother marry her daughter? Why shouldn’t two elderly sisters living together marry each other?”
Swivel-eyed, maybe, but not a ‘loon’. There is not a full moon till next Saturday.

Immigration: proof that The Sun is talking bollocks

Yesterday’s edition of The Sun claimed that foreigners would outnumber native British people in London by 2031.

Well, whaddya know? It turns out that The Sun’s claim is complete and utter bollocks. Full Fact has checked the facts and discovered a dubious form of statistical methodology:
(Abuse of research + absurd extrapolations =) bollocks + malevolence + dishonesty = complete bollocks.
Complete bollocks + desire to make money by feeding prejudices = complete and utter bollocks.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The real legacy of Margaret Thatcher

A lot of rubbish was said and written about Margaret Thatcher immediately after her death. The consensus was depressingly deferential – partly in the spirit of “never speak ill of the dead”; partly due to her supporters seeking to exploit the mourning to reinforce her legacy; partly due to her opponents being overwhelmingly defeatist; but mainly because, although the economic orthodoxy she established has crashed in flames, no one has any idea what to do next.

The few who dared to criticise her openly were no better. Many of these critics descended into appropriately 1980s-period SWP-style gesture politics (the ‘Ding Dong’ song and mock funerals and all that).

What was missing was some serious analysis and an historical perspective, and two commentators have helped to remedy that lack.

In the New Statesman, John Gray, ostensibly reviewing a book about Edmund Burke, observes that Thatcher sought to shake up Britain but that the results were far from those she expected and in some ways the opposite of what she wanted:
As a consequence of her leadership, the Conservative Party is in some ways weaker than it has ever been. Turning it into an instrument of her personal will, she triggered a coup that has left every subsequent Tory leader on permanent probation. Alienating Scotland, she virtually wiped out her party north of the border and planted a large question mark over the Union. Within England, her indifference to the human costs of de-industrialisation deepened the north-south divide. The result is a hollowed-out and shrunken party that faces huge obstacles in ever again forming a government. For someone who has been described as the greatest Conservative leader since Churchill, it’s quite a list of achievements. If you wanted to shake up Britain and change it beyond recognition, Thatcher was, of all postwar leaders, the one mostly likely to have this effect.
In short, Thatcher instituted the very kind of revolutionary politics that Conservatives were meant to oppose. Her politics is no longer a solution to anything but the present political establishment remains mesmerised by her legacy and unable to snap out of it.

TV documentary maker Adam Curtis, meanwhile, has a theory about why the pundits were incapable of analysing Thatcher after her death. As a corrective, he has put up a film he made in 1995 about Thatcher called The Attic:
It’s about how she constructed a fake ghostly version of Britain’s past, and then used it to maintain her power. But also how she became possessed and haunted by this vision.
I’m putting it up as a bit of a corrective to the terrifying wonk-fest that took over after Mrs Thatcher died. A conveyor belt of Think Tank pundits and allied operatives poured into the TV studios and together they built a fortress around Mrs Thatcher’s memory that was rooted in theories about economics.
They did this because economics is the only language that wonks understand. It’s a view of the world where they see the voters – the people who put Mrs Thatcher in power – as simplified consumption-driven robots.
What was missing was the fact that Mrs Thatcher was also a powerful romantic politician who created a strange but compelling story about Britain’s past that connected with the imagination of millions of people. It was fake, but it was incredibly powerful because she believed it. And the power of her belief raised up ghostly dreams from Britain’s past that still live in people’s imaginations – long after she fell from power.
The problem with wonks is that they can’t deal with emotion and feeling, and they don’t like stories. It means that they cannot connect at all with the feelings and imaginations of the voters. Yet the think-tankers have built a sarcophagus of economic discourse around Westminster.
What we are waiting for is a politician to come along who can connect with our imaginations and inspire us about political ideas instead of boring us to tears.
I fear that emotional politician might be a bloke called Nigel, propping up the bar with a pint and a fag and a thing about foreigners. In the meantime, here is the film:

Sunday, 19 May 2013

UKIP’s new councillors: the revelations continue...

More sordid details of UKIP councillors have come to light.

Following the resignation of “race-ranter” Eric Kitson from Worcestershire County Council, today’s Sunday Mirror has unearthed more racist rants on Facebook.

The Mirror reports several nasty outbursts but pride of place must go to Chris Pain, UKIP leader of the opposition on Lincolnshire County Council and the party’s East Midlands regional chairman. He wrote:
“Have you noticed that if you ­rearrange the letters in ‘illegal ­immigrants’, and add just a few more letters, it spells, ‘Go home you free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking ********* and take those other hairy-faced, sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel-riding, goat-********, raghead ******** with you.’”
Councillor Pain came up with a predictable excuse:
Mr Pain said the comments on his Facebook pages were “not my original posts or writings”, claiming his ­account had been hacked.
What Councillor Pain cannot deny is a report in the Lincolnshire Echo that his group made a unanimous decision to refuse to sign an anti-racism declaration.

The UKIP group took this decision in a week when, just a few miles from the county council offices, there were commemorations at RAF Scampton to mark the sacrifices of the Dambusters who died fighting the Nazis. It is probably safe to assume that Councillor Pain failed to notice the irony.

Postscript: Three UKIP councillors in Lincolnshire are now being investigated by the police.

How the case for austerity has crumbled

Make a pot of tea because you are about to read a long essay. It is a very good essay by Paul Krugman, explaining why the orthodoxy of austerity, adopted throughout Europe and North America in 2010, is profoundly wrong:
Three years after the turn to austerity, then, both the hopes and the fears of the austerians appear to have been misplaced. Austerity did not lead to a surge in confidence; deficits did not lead to crisis. But wasn’t the austerity movement grounded in serious economic research? Actually, it turned out that it wasn’t—the research the austerians cited was deeply flawed.
Krugman also takes apart the motivation of austerians and finds emotions rather than rationality; a flawed impulse to treat macroeconomics as if it were a morality play instead of a technical malfunction.

It is not as if we did not have the knowledge to prevent such misjudgements. But as Krugman concludes:
To the extent that policymakers and elite opinion in general have made use of economic analysis at all, they have, as the saying goes, done so the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Mad swivel-eyed loons? Think before you laugh

Today’s newspapers are full of reports that an unnamed ally of the prime minister described Conservative grassroots activists as “mad swivel-eyed loons”.

Liberal Democrats might be inclined to agree. The idea that members of opposing parties are bonkers is a tempting one but we should avoid it. Tory blogger Iain Dale demonstrates why:
Of course there are swivel eyed loons among the Tory Party membership. Just as there are in any party. It’s just a shame that the Liberal Democrats have more than their fair share. Just go to a LibDem conference and you will see what I mean.
Not so funny now, is it? And this contemptuous view of Liberal Democrat members has been promoted less by Tories such as Iain Dale than by our own party leaders and their hangers on. A recent post on this blog discussed Nick Clegg’s travesty of his party members, but he is just the latest in a long line of Liberal leaders dismissing their activists. Indeed, successive leaders have accumulated so many straw men that they now constitute a serious fire hazard.

The bunker mentality and a fear of the ‘enemy within’ began during Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership. Iain Brodie Browne reminded us recently of Thorpe commissioning Stephen Terrell QC to investigate the Young Liberals in 1970. During David Steel’s leadership, his coterie regularly accused grassroots members of not being “serious about power”, when what was really happening was that local pioneers of community politics were winning power and outshining a self-appointed nomenklatura who had never won so much as a seat on a parish council. In 1986, the then chief whip David Alton made up a baseless story about people “walking in off the streets” to vote in the defence debate at the Eastbourne party conference. Immediately after the 2005 general election, Charles Kennedy launched an attack on party activists, blaming them for controversial policies that he felt had embarrassed the party.

Party leaders come and go but the dishonest narrative remains the same. A small elite is convinced that it knows best; that politics is all about the people at the top; that if we want to be “serious about power”, we must become more centralised and jettison party democracy (a process described as ‘modernising’); and that the job of party members is to shut up and deliver the leaflets.

This paranoid narrative says more about the accusers than the accused. And it is the same story in the other mainstream parties. But we know it’s untrue. If you have worked with members of other parties in some joint endeavour such as local government, you will know that most of them are basically decent human beings who share your sense of duty to society. Conversely, you will have encountered a few people in your own party who are deranged or complete arseholes (and in some cases, both).

So a lot of Tories oppose the EU and gay marriage? Of course they do. That’s why they’re Tories. It is a political position with which Liberal Democrats strongly disagree, but we live in a pluralist society and it is legitimate to express those views. The Liberal position is that such views are fundamentally wrong, not a form of mental illness. The way to deal with them is through argument, not exclusion.

I’ll leave the last word to Tory MP Douglas Carswell, not someone Liberal Democrats would normally agree with, who expresses a universal truth about political participation:
“The Conservative Party has haemorrhaged members since 2005, but my own association in Clacton has massively expanded its membership. Instead of treating the membership as the enemy, the modernisers should respect them as shareholders,” he said.
“If you treat the membership as the problem, you will eventually end up with a membership of one.”

Get ready for the Eurovision Whinge Contest

Tonight is the final of the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which the United Kingdom will lose. But don’t despair, because tonight we will also be treated to the annual Eurovision Whinge Contest, which the United Kingdom will win – hands down.

(If you want an assessment of the Eurovision runners and riders, visit Will Howells’s blog).

As usual, we will blame our dismal result on bloc voting. The Nordic countries will vote for one another, as will the former Soviet republics. But there is no Turkish entry this year, so the Turkish-German alliance can’t happen. Likewise, no Cyprus means no mutual back-scratching with Greece. And none of the former Yugoslav countries has made the final, so we will be spared the sight of incestuous voting by people who were literally slaughtering one another less than twenty years ago. The absence of these blocs won’t stop the accusations.

Then there will be British incredulity at the, er, musical tastes of East Europeans. How can people write, perform or enjoy anything so naff? Was the defeat of communism for this? (In an era of Simon Cowell’s talent shows, no one seems to notice the irony or hyprocrisy of this stance).

As Fraser Nelson reminds us, the British don’t get Eurovision. He also points out that this year’s British entry (‘Believe In Me’ by Bonnie Tyler) has failed to enter the UK’s top 100. Even we don’t like our own entry, so why should anyone else?

British reactions are conflicted. We know that Eurovision is an orgy of kitsch yet we wonder why there is no cutting-edge, quality pop. We think we should win yet make no serious effort to succeed. And then we wallow in the ensuing xenophobic media coverage, where the ‘unfair’ Eurovision will be used as a stick to beat Europe.

Britain needs to make up its mind. Either Eurovision matters or it doesn’t. If the UK wants to win, it should set about the task with ruthless efficiency – and could easily do so, given that the British have produced more quality pop than the rest of the world (apart from the USA) put together. Or we can decide that the whole thing is a joke, make no serious effort and accept that the victors will be countries for whom winning really means something.

But so long as Britain enters mediocre songs performed by has-beens or nonentities, self-righteous indignation is not an appropriate reaction.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Fairer society? You must be joking

If Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrat ministers want to salvage any credibility for their repeated claim that they are creating a “fairer society”, they should act over the scandal of Atos Healthcare, which has been accused of using unfair methods in assessing people for disability benefits.

The BBC has interviewed Greg Wood, a former Royal Navy doctor, who resigned from Atos earlier this month after working as an assessor for two-and-a-half years:
Dr Wood says he believes Atos assessors are not free to make truly independent recommendations.
He said he felt compelled to speak out because it was “embarrassing to be associated with this shambles”.
“It’s very unfair on the people making claims, they deserve a fair assessment and as a taxpayer I’m pretty cheesed off about the £100m plus that’s being sprayed away on this dog’s breakfast,” he said.
Of course, you might prefer to believe Atos’s denials. If Atos is right, we can expect it to take Dr Wood to court and win. If all we hear from Atos is more PR blather, this scandal will only undermine the coalition’s claims about ‘fairness’.

Queen’s Speech amendment: “an act of venal self indulgence”

Former Tory MP Jerry Hayes is usually worth reading and his verdict on those Tories backing the Queen’s Speech amendment is no exception:
The amendment to the Queen’s Speech could be the beginning of the end of the Conservatives in office. It is an act of venal self indulgence which will horrify those sentient members of the electorate who actually think and care and will antagonise those who fear for their jobs and families.
What is it meant to achieve? No parliament can bind another. But this amendment doesn’t even try to. It is just an expression of regret that the government’s legislative programme doesn’t mention a referendum. Most Labour MPs and all Lib Dems will vote against so it will be defeated.
What a thoroughly futile and pointless exercise. And according to some MPs this is just the beginning.
So apart from making them all look like incompetent fools more interested in a stunt to save their own miserable skins it is a gift to the Faragistas.
Hayes’s views (which once would have been a mainstream Tory perspective) now seem like a voice in the wilderness. No wonder he is exasperated with his former colleagues:
This freak show has got to stop. But it will get worse. This is a gift for Farage giving him a sense of importance that is totally unwarranted.
But this whole farce is just beginning to gain momentum. The Onanistic wing of the Tory Party are now pressing for a referendum on gay marriage. Completely nuts.
Hayes recognises something that eludes most fanatical eurosceptics. In all the grandiose talk about what the Great British Public thinks about the European Union, an important fact is forgotten. Most of the Great British Public couldn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Seventy years ago tonight...

Seventy years ago this evening, nineteen Lancaster bombers of the RAF’s 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton near Lincoln to bomb the Ruhr dams in Germany. The anniversary has been marked by events at Scampton and over the Derwent reservoir.

The Dambusters raid was an extraordinary act of bravery and a remarkable technical achievement for its time. The military usefulness of the raid was probably limited, but the propaganda value was immense.

The casualty rate was high, even by the standards of RAF Bomber Command. 53 of the 133 aircrew who participated in the attack were killed, a casualty rate of almost 40%.

During the Second World War, the casualty rate on individual RAF bombing raids was usually no more than 5% but the overall casualty rate was still very high. Wikipedia’s page on Bomber Command records:
Bomber Command crews also suffered an extremely high casualty rate: 55,573 killed out of a total of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war. This covered all Bomber Command operations including tactical support for ground operations and mining of sea lanes. A Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in World War I.
Only 27% of all bomber aircrew who served during the war avoided death, injury or capture. The Wikipedia page adds:
Statistically there was little prospect of surviving a tour of 30 operations and by 1943 the odds against survival were pretty grim with only one in six expected to survive their first tour, while a slim one in forty would survive their second tour.
Pupils at my school in Lincoln had a sobering reminder of this. In the entrance hall was a glass case containing a book of remembrance to all the old boys who had died in the two world wars. Each day, the book would be opened to a different page, displaying portrait photos and brief descriptions of two of the dead. The casualties of the First World War were mostly infantry. Those of the Second World War were mostly bomber aircrew.

The controversy over the RAF’s area bombing campaign meant that wartime bomber aircrew were never issued with a campaign medal and had no memorial (apart from the Airmen’s Chapel in Lincoln Cathedral) until one was unveiled in London last year.

With perfect hindsight, it is possible to question the efficacy and ethics of the bombing. At the time, Britain faced an existential threat from the Nazis and did what seemed best to defend itself, when the final outcome of the war was by no means certain. It is right that we remember the self-sacrifice of people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. In the case of RAF bomber aircrew, that means people who were effectively on a suicide mission and knew it.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

UKIP’s new councillors: the implosion begins...

It’s started.

In Worcestershire, UKIP “race-ranter” Eric Kitson is embroiled in an on-off controversy over whether he has resigned as a county councillor, only a few days after being elected.

UKIP’s national office says he has resigned but the county council confirms he has not – at least not yet. The council is nevertheless investigating Kitson’s racist comments on Facebook.

In case you doubt the terms “race-ranter” and “racist”, consider this:
The posts made on Mr Kitson’s facebook profile, which has now been taken down, included one of a Muslim being spit-roasted on a fire fuelled by copies of the Koran.
He also said, in reference to Muslim women: “Hang um all first then ask questions later.”
UKIP admitted it had not been able to vet its candidates before this May’s elections, so we can expect more such episodes in the coming months. But given that the pre-election media hatchet job seemed to have no adverse effect on UKIP’s vote, don’t assume any post-election embarrassments will necessarily damage UKIP.

Postscript (1): Eric Kitson’s resignation is now confirmed. Kitson has also been interviewed by the police.

Postscript (2): More revelations here.

Bankwatch with Bill Oddie

In a spoof documentary, Bankwatch with Bill Oddie, the naturalist protests against HSBC’s illegal logging by entering the den of a creature closely related to humans: the banker.

HSBC has made nearly £100m bankrolling some of the world’s most destructive logging companies in Sarawak Malaysia, and is at risk of violating international money laundering rules.

You can find out more from the producers of the film, the NGO Global Witness.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Well said, Delia Smith

Delia Smith is quite right to criticise TV cookery shows such as MasterChef for intimidating aspiring cooks, and to claim that Britain has lost its grip on home cooking.

Never have there been more food programmes on television. Never have more cookery books been sold. Never have people spent more on fitted kitchens and kitchen gadgets. Yet fewer people than ever can actually cook.

Cooking skills are no longer handed down from generation to generation. Most of those who do ‘cook’ lack the basic skills but can only follow recipes. They can turn out a passable imitation of a TV recipe but have no idea how to make an omelette.

Traditionally, Britain took a puritanical, protestant attitude to food. It was simple nourishment and nothing more. Most people did not have the disposable income to indulge, yet in practical terms food was a greater preoccupation. It took more of workers’ income to buy and more of women’s time to prepare, since there were no convenience foods or modern kitchen gadgets.

Over the past forty years, the situation has been reversed. Food has become a positional good but people no longer have the time or willingness to cook properly. Cookery is something people experience vicariously via TV food programmes, while they shove a Marks & Spencer’s ready meal in the microwave.

Never have people been more pretentious or neurotic about food. But the advent of supermarkets, chemical preservatives, fridges and freezers means that most middle-class people are eating less fresh, seasonal, organic or locally-produced food than their working-class great-grandparents.

TV producers know this, which is why most food programmes have given up any pretence at instruction. They have become pure entertainment. The worst culprit is the BBC’s MasterChef (“cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”), which promotes the mistaken idea that, for any domestic cook, nothing less than Michelin-starred restaurant standards will do. It makes people feel ashamed to produce a simple casserole, even though that is much more practical for home entertaining than MasterChef’s labour-intensive, chefy food.

One TV food programme defied the trend and exposed Britain’s dirty secret. The 2009 BBC2 series Economy Gastronomy revealed a nation spending a fortune on takeaways and ready meals, and apparently unable to shop or cook properly.

Delia would doubtless approve, since not all TV cookery programmes come in for her attack:
She admitted to having a soft spot for BBC2’s Hairy Bikers, David Myers and Simon King, who she said made cooking funny but also made viewers think they would like to make the dishes they cooked.
Nigel Slater likewise makes cookery accessible rather than intimidating. But ask yourself what most viewers of Nigella Lawson or Paul Hollywood are staring at, and it’s not their shortcrust pastry.

Monday, 13 May 2013

When the Germans envied British manufacturing

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when Germans envied British manufacturing. Admittedly, the German in question was Hermann Göring.

Göring’s envy was prompted by the performance of the RAF’s de Havilland Mosquito aircraft. Wikipedia’s page on the Mosquito explains:
The Mosquito famously annoyed Luftwaffe Commander in Chief Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring when on 20 January 1943, the 10th anniversary of the Nazis’ seizure of power, a Mosquito attack knocked out the main Berlin broadcasting station, putting his speech off air. Göring complained about the high speed of the aircraft and its wooden structure, built by a nation he considered to have large metal reserves, while Germany had shortages of such materials and could not produce such a design.
Göring said:
“In 1940 I could at least fly as far as Glasgow in most of my aircraft, but not now! It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that? There is nothing the British do not have. They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops. After the war is over I’m going to buy a British radio set – then at least I’ll own something that has always worked.”
That’s where the Nazis went wrong. They had no Vorsprung durch Technik.

Where did the British go wrong? They replaced their geniuses with nincompoops.

Politicians on the couch

Is politics good for your mental health?

If you are an elected representative, you will both smile and wince at today’s 15-minute drama on BBC Radio 4 in the series How Does That Make You Feel?

Fictional MP Richard Fallon (Roger Allam, who played another fictional MP Peter Mannion in The Thick of It) is confessing his anxieties to his psychotherapist. He thinks he is being denied promotion because of his obese son and his lack of visibility. But his decision to remedy this problem by taking part in a fly-on-the wall TV documentary series has made matters only worse.

The programme is repeated at 19:45 this evening or you can listen online at any time in the next seven days.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Why re-privatise East Coast?

Just what is the point of re-privatising the East Coast railway operator?

East Coast is the state-owned inter-city train operator on the main line from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland. It is due to be re-privatised this month.

Along with the rest of British Rail, the service was originally privatised in 1996 but it had an unhappy history in private hands. The first private operator was Sea Containers trading as GNER, but it was stripped of the franchise in 2007 due to financial difficulties. The franchise was then awarded to National Express, which lost the franchise two years later when it refused further financial support to its National Express East Coast subsidiary.

The franchise was re-nationalised in 2009 under the East Coast banner. This was always intended as a temporary measure, so a return to the private sector comes as no surprise. That is not the issue.

As Rachel Graham points out at OurKingdom, the issue is that East Coast is outperforming other operators and providing far better value for money:
The coalition government re-iterated their intentions to re-privatise the East Coast mainline rail network this month. This despite a new report by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) showing the line as the most cost efficient. The Financial Times stated that the report proves the East Coast line is “the most efficiently run rail franchise in terms of its reliance on taxpayer funding”.
The ORR report shows the East Coast line required the lowest level of government funding as a percentage of total income, at just 1.2%, a mere 0.2% of the overall share.
The irony of Britain’s privatised railways is that they receive far more in government subsidy – both in real terms and as a percentage of overall income – than British Rail did before privatisation. And this higher subsidy is being provided despite growing passenger numbers.

It is unclear what concrete benefits privatisation of East Coast would bring. The burden on the taxpayer is unlikely to go down. There can be only two possible motives. One is a dogmatic belief in privatisation regardless of the consequences. The other is a scorched earth policy, a desperation to privatise East Coast before the Tories lose the next general election (similar to John Major’s original privatisation of the railways ahead of the 1997 election). These two motives are not mutually exclusive.

Taliban 0 – Infidels 1

Gratifying news from Pakistan. Despite threats from the Taliban, there was a large turnout in Saturday’s election. This will also be Pakistan’s first transition from one elected government to another.

The victor, Nawaz Sharif, is not exactly a paragon of virtue. But the bravery and determination of Pakistani voters is something to applaud. They defied Taliban threats and turned out at considerable risk to their own safety – in the run-up to the election, more than 100 people died in election-related violence.

What can the Taliban possibly find objectionable about democratic elections? Reuters reported:
Gunmen kidnapped the son of a former Pakistani prime minister on Thursday as a letter from the leader of the Pakistani Taliban revealed plans for suicide bomb attacks on election day.
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, in a message to the group’s spokesman, outlined plans for the attacks, including suicide blasts, in all four of the country’s provinces on polling day on Saturday.
“We don’t accept the system of infidels which is called democracy,” Mehsud said in the letter, dated May 1, and obtained by Reuters on Thursday.
So that’s it. Democracy is a system of infidels. That probably explains why liberal politicians were most at risk. The BBC reported:
The Pakistani Taliban threatened to carry out suicide attacks ahead of the election. They have been blamed for numerous attacks throughout the campaign on Pakistan’s three most prominent liberal parties.
The PPP along with the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP) were singled out for threats, and were forced to curtail their campaigning as a result.
The Taliban is a source of much paranoia in the West, so an important fact is forgotten. The Taliban is deeply unpopular even in Islamic countries. The people of these countries are young, increasingly educated and urban, and have similar aspirations to young people elsewhere. The last thing they want is to be pushed back into the Middle Ages.

Today, the Pakistani Taliban must be feeling even more devastated than Manchester City supporters. At least City supporters can drown their sorrows with a few pints.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Empty rhetoric – 55 years on

A word of advice for our political leaders and the halfwits they employ to churn out banal slogans along the lines of “centre-ground-one-nation-squeezed-middle-ordinary-struggling-hard-working-families-alarm-clock-Britain”.

Apart from anything else, you are not original. Empty rhetoric is nothing new.

Peter Sellers nailed it in 1958, with two important differences. First, politicians in the 1950s were perfectly capable of making up their own bullshit without the paid assistance of an army of special advisers. And second, no one nowadays would heckle with “What about the workers?”

Friday, 10 May 2013

Our top ten blog posts

This blog began exactly six months ago on 10 November 2012. It has steadily gained a bigger audience, but which are the stories that attracted the biggest audiences? Here are the top ten posts, starting with the most popular*:
  1. Stay “on message” or be EXTERMINATED! (28 December 2012) – The most popular post by a long way, in which the Liberal Democrats’ new ‘message script’ was revealed.
  2. New Lib Dem peerages: runners and riders (14 February 2013) – A list of new peers has been drawn up and we speculated who was on it. At the time of writing, however, the list has still not been announced.
  3. Laws scrapes home (8 January 2013) – The third of three posts on the controversial appointment of David Laws to chair the Liberal Democrats’ working group that will draft the next general election manifesto.
  4. And Clegg’s next slap in the face to the party is...? (27 March 2013) – Following the controversies of secret courts and immigration, we raised the issue of the Communications Data Bill. Thankfully, on this topic Nick Clegg subsequently accepted his party’s view.
  5. The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism (17 March 2013) – A detailed account of the factionalism within the Liberal Democrats that began in 2001, and an analysis of why the plotting by ‘economic liberals’ is ultimately doomed.
  6. Clegg to abandon electoral reform? (1 April 2013) – The date provides a clue. Our April Fool’s Day story fooled several of you but its plausibility says a lot about the party’s relationship with its leader.
  7. Quote of the Conference (10 March 2013) – And the quote came from former MP David Howarth, speaking in the debate on secret courts.
  8. Laws to write manifesto? (5 January 2013) – The first of three posts on the controversial appointment of David Laws to chair the Liberal Democrats’ working group that will draft the next general election manifesto.
  9. Racial equality too dangerous to debate? (22 January 2013) – Our report on the decision of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Conference Committee (FCC) to reject a motion on racial equality for debate at the party’s spring conference. We also examined the long-simmering internal row behind this controversial decision.
  10. Gay marriage – never mind the Tories, what about the Labour and Lib Dem rebels? (5 February 2013) – On the day of the Commons vote on gay marriage, the media focus was on the Tory rebels. We looked instead at the Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents of gay marriage.
* Popularity is ranked according to the number of pageviews (i.e. clicks to individual posts) recorded by

Tory membership plummets

Buried within a bigoted report in the Daily Express about gay marriage is an interesting fact: membership of the Conservative Party has fallen from 400,000 to 130,000.

Given the sharp fall in Liberal Democrat membership, there is no reason to feel smug. Even so, the fact that some senior Tories think their loss of members is due to gay marriage shows the extent to which they have been unnerved by UKIP.

Although many Tories dislike gay marriage, is there not a more plausible reason for the decline in their membership? The average age of Tory members is so high that they might simply be dying of natural causes.

Meanwhile, in a distant galaxy far, far away, there is a bizarre news report about Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell. Three Eddie Stobart trucks have been named after his wife, daughter and granddaughter. It turns out that Sir Bob has been a member of the Eddie Stobart Fan Club for twenty years. This fan club has no fewer than 25,000 members, which is equivalent to 59% of the Liberal Democrats’ membership (42,500 at the end of last year).

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Europe: If only rational argument were enough

On the Left Foot Forward blog, Phillip Souta (director of Business for New Europe) demolishes many of the Eurosceptic myths surrounding the EU.

Souta warned that leaving the EU could jeopardise the 49 per cent of foreign direct investment stock in the UK that comes from other EU countries, as well incur significant import taxes for British goods entering the EU market. Souta also points out that the practical arrangements for life outside the EU simply haven’t been thought through.

All sound, rational arguments, which will give heart to pro-Europeans. The trouble is that most Eurosceptics aren’t moved by rational arguments one way or the other. Their hostility to the EU is essentially a gut reaction. And the EU isn’t even the focus of their ire, but merely a symbol of a deeper resentment of all that’s changed in the past fifty years and a desire to pull up the drawbridge.

Sadly, the Age of Enlightenment, despite having begun over 250 years ago, is still work in progress. Until that project is complete, pro-Europeans will need to develop an emotional appeal to complement their rational arguments. They won’t be able to win a referendum campaign unless they do.

Postscript: The need for a strong emotional case is reiterated by George Smid of Corby Liberal Democrats.

UKIP, 1963 and the Fall of Man

Deep down, what is the true source of UKIP’s appeal?

Recent posts here have discussed UKIP supporters’ resentment at everything that’s happened since 1963 and that the only thing they like about Britain is the past.

1963 seems to be a key turning point, and not just because of Philip Larkin’s poem. The significance of that year was analysed in an article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian.

Jeffries acknowledges that everything didn’t suddenly change in 1963. But 1963 was significant as the year of the Profumo scandal, when the hypocrisies of the establishment were laid bare. It was also the cusp of a long process of sexual liberation:
Writing of the effects of liberalising legislation on abortion, gay sex and the reduction of censorship in the 60s, Andrew Marr in A History of Modern Britain stresses this lapsarian image: “A fair verdict is that the changes allowed the British to be more openly themselves, and that while the results are not pretty, the apple of self-knowledge cannot be uneaten again and returned to the tree.”
The key word here is ‘lapsarian’. Might this be the real reason for UKIP’s appeal? Its supporters are yearning not just for the 1950s but for a time of innocence. Their yearning is based on the oldest idea of all, the basis of Judeo-Christian mythology, the Fall of Man. Deep down, UKIP supporters want to return to a time before Adam and Eve ate the apple, when God punished them by driving them out of the Garden of Eden and into the world where they would be subject to sickness and pain and eventual death.

So Nigel Farage thinks he can turn the clock back that far? Good luck with that.

Nick Clegg: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”

Here is the shorter Nick Clegg: “The members of my party are a bunch of romantic amateurs with no interest in winning power. They’ve been useful in the past delivering the leaflets but, now we modernisers have taken over and single-handedly put ourselves in government, they can all fuck off.”

Here is the longer version.

Following the Liberal Democrats’ net loss of councillors in last Thursday’s local elections, Clegg made a dubious claim:
“The Liberal Democrats are on a journey from a party of protest to a party of government.”
This questionable narrative was demolished yesterday in a post on Liberal Democrat Voice by Nigel Lindsay. The idea that the Liberal Democrats were ever a ‘party of protest’ is a myth.

Clegg failed to distinguish between what the party is and the sort of votes it attracts. Yes, the Liberal Democrats attracted protest votes before they entered the coalition government in 2010. Opposition parties usually do. But the Liberal Democrats were never a ‘party of protest’. The party always had comprehensive policies and it ran many local councils, and took part in government in Scotland and Wales, long before Clegg even became an MP.

To dismiss his own party as a ‘party of protest’ is an insult to the many members who built up the party, won elections and took part in administrations throughout the country. But this dishonest historical revisionism is all of a piece with Clegg’s conference speech last September:
“The Liberal Democrats, it was said, are a party of protest, not power. Well two years on, the critics have been confounded. Our mettle has been tested in the toughest of circumstances, and we haven’t been found wanting. We have taken the difficult decisions to reduce the deficit by a quarter and have laid the foundations for a stronger, more balanced economy capable of delivering real and lasting growth. But conference, our task is far from complete, our party’s journey far from over.
“I know that there are some in the party – some in this hall even – who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on. Break our deal with the Conservatives, give up on the Coalition, and present ourselves to the electorate in 2015 as a party unchanged. It’s an alluring prospect in some ways. Gone would be the difficult choices, the hard decisions, the necessary compromises. And gone too would be the vitriol and abuse, from Right and Left, as we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground.
“But conference, I tell you this. The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition – a “stop the world I want to get off” party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them. There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government.”
To begin with, there is the straw man argument. Precisely who are the party members who want to “turn back”? Who wants a “stop the world I want to get off” party? Clegg never tells us. He can’t because they don’t exist. Sure, Clegg has many critics within the party but none fit this caricature. If you’re going to pick fights with your own members, at least have the decency to take on real people and their actual criticisms with honest arguments.

It gets worse. Later in that conference speech, Clegg told the people on whose shoulders he stands that they were now history:
“Fifty, sixty years ago, before I was born, small groups of Liberal activists would meet up to talk politics and plan their campaigns. Stubborn and principled, they ignored the cynics who mocked them. They simply refused to give up on their dreams. They refused to accept that Liberals would never again be in government. And they refused to accept that Liberalism, that most decent, enlightened and British of creeds, which did so much to shape our past, would not shape our future. We think we’ve got it tough now. But it was much, much tougher in their day. It was only their resolve, their resilience and their unwavering determination that kept the flickering flame of Liberalism alive through our party’s darkest days.
“At our last conference in Gateshead, I urged you to stop looking in the rear view mirror as we journey from the party of opposition that we were, to the party of government we are becoming. But before we head off on the next stage of our journey, I want you to take one last look in that mirror to see how far we’ve come. I tell you what I see.”
“Stop looking in the rear view mirror”? This is patronising advice, to put it mildly. Clegg’s casual dismissal of his membership is reminiscent of the message left by the dolphins in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when they departed Planet Earth just before it was demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.

If you are a student of this sort of revisionist history and can bear to read a fuller account, may I recommend The Clegg Coup by Jasper Gerard? It is possibly the worst book ever written about contemporary politics (see my review in Liberator #350).

Nothing Gerard wrote was new or original, but his book consolidates Clegg’s revisionist history in one handy volume. All the predictable tendentious claptrap and bald assertions are here – the party has gained power only thanks to an elite that is ‘modern’, ‘bright’ and ‘new’... anyone outside this far-sighted elite is old-fashioned, unrealistic or irresponsible... political wisdom can be found only within the Westminster Bubble... [cont. p.94]

This delusional worldview has its roots in the 1980s. As my Liberator article explained:
The template was set in the mid-1980s during Neil Kinnock’s battles with the hard left in the Labour Party. This stereotype is now regularly applied to all members of all parties, irrespective of its irrelevance. After all, ‘wise leadership vs. irresponsible members’ is a simple narrative, which lazy journalists can wheel out with the minimum of effort whenever there is a difference of opinion within a political party.
But the media are not the chief culprits. The prime movers are the party leaders’ hangers on, cliques of self-appointed ‘insiders’ who believe they can make their leader look ‘strong’ by picking fights and stage-managing battles with the membership.
In the Liberal Democrats, since the days of David Steel and Richard Holme, we have seen successive party leaders’ kitchen cabinets brief the media against their own party members, with wild allegations about ‘dangerous radicals’ and ‘embarrassing policies’. There have also been repeated attempts to dismantle party democracy.
The governing idea behind this behaviour is that there are a select few who know what is best for the rest of us. Party members should simply shut up and deliver the leaflets. But as membership figures plummet in all the mainstream parties, we can see that, without a voice, there is little incentive to carry on delivering.
Elitists try to make their prejudices intellectually respectable by arguing that grassroots campaigning is redundant, and that being ‘modern’ and ‘professional’ means switching to centralised techniques such as phone banks and glossy mailshots. The strong variation in the party’s votes between constituencies with strength on the ground and derelict seats relying solely on a centrally-organised ‘air war’ suggests that this theory has no evidential basis.
The basic problem is that a political elite, sharing the same managerialist agenda, sees a vibrant party membership not as a strength but as a nuisance. Life would be so much easier without them.

Stripped of its rhetoric, what Clegg is saying is the argument of elites down the ages: politics is for the grown-ups and don’t you worry your pretty little heads about it. He keeps repeating this argument because he resembles the villain unmasked at the end of each episode of Scooby Doo. He fears that, if he doesn’t dispose of his members, they will eventually unmask him, when he will say, “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Nick Clegg’s dog-whistle politics

How often does it need saying? There is no need, repeat, no need for the Liberal Democrats to be spooked by UKIP or to appease xenophobic opinion.

UKIP is basically the Conservative Party’s problem. It is threatening the Tories’ right flank, giving Tory backbenchers the jitters and prompting the Tory leadership to react with rightward moves on various issues (as today’s Queen’s Speech demonstrates, with its emphasis on immigration and the dropping of policies on plain cigarette packaging and overseas aid).

UKIP is not the Liberal Democrats’ problem. There is no rational reason why the Liberal Democrats should move rightwards on immigration or Europe. If anything, the effect of UKIP on the Tories opens up a greater space for liberal opinion. The opportunity is there for the taking, to appeal to voters who don’t buy into the UKIP/Daily Express ‘drawbridge up’ agenda.

Nick Clegg obviously doesn’t see things that way. The Daily Express reports:
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the Liberal Democrat leader said: “We need to be an open country in terms of welcoming people who want to make a contribution to the United Kingdom, but of course we should stamp out abuse.
“We need to stamp out levels of illegal immigration and of course we need to make sure that our public services and our benefits are not simply a free-for-all when of course there needs to be some relation to what you put in and what you get out.”
The idea that hordes of immigrants are coming to Britain to sponge off the welfare system is a complete myth. There is no “free-for-all”. It’s a non-problem. Despite this, Clegg seems to think that action to combat this imaginary threat is vital (and it’s a topic on which he has recent form).

Clegg continued:
“My advice to the Conservative party, if they’d listen to it, is don’t run after Ukip as it would just strengthen Ukip’s hand.”
In which case, why is Clegg ignoring his own advice and indulging in this unpleasant dog-whistle politics?