Friday, August 31, 2007

Pluggage in place of original content

Here's a really good-looking blog with and agreeable slant in general, and - in a recent post - an excellent round-up of Euroblogs. It's worth saving a visit to this post until you have a bit of spare time on your hands. There's a lot of good reading to be had there.

Another one for the blogroll when I get round to updating it.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Political parties – good or bad?

…. or why mavericks – even odious ones – make good MPs and bad mayors.

If one thing illustrates the potential benefits as well as the hazards of having strong political parties, it’s this whole Ken v Boris thing. It certainly illustrates the wrong-headedness of the concept of strong political mayors.

I’ve said before that I find Ken too problematic to vote for these days. If you’re interested, I’ve explained why here. And I’m really highly unlikely to vote for Boris either. I don’t need to elaborate on this any further do I?

So, does this make me one of those pathetic negativist dweebs who are always whinging about being ‘disenfranchised’? No. I’ve decided to clear myself of that particular charge. Here’s how.

Firstly, we all have a moral duty to ignore referendums, and throw eggs at anyone who goes into a polling booth to vote in one. With me so far?

Well, Mayoral elections are the same. The idea that one vote endorses one individual’s approach to almost everything in a particular sphere is little better than a plebiscite on a policy issue that most people don’t understand.

For this reason, I will probably not vote in the London mayoral election at all. And this doesn’t make me a whinging negativist dweeb. Result!

You see, even though I regard Ken as a the UK’s most obvious symptom of an illness that has afflicted the left since the heady days of Woodstock and Grosvenor Square, I think that he’s an adornment to the Labour Party and he was a net contributor to the quality of parliamentary life when he was there. I’d say the same for Boris in the context of his own party.

I’d go even further than that. Though they were /are all largely odious, George Galloway, Ian Paisley, or even Enoch Powell – in the context of 600+ other MPs – improve(d) the quality of the House of Commons. Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s also one of the magic ingredients of parliamentary democracy. And I’d be prepared to extend this argument almost to the shores (but not beyond) of fascism.

My argument is that this kind of distributed wisdom is the least unlikely way of getting humane and half-decent policymaking.

But distributed wisdom – whether it’s the type that was promoted by advocates of some versions of public choice theory, by Hayek, or the more swishy up-to-date ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ - only works if groupthink isn’t in evidence. And party groupthink is one thing you can’t – by definition - accuse these mavericks of.

So, could I vote for a Labour Party with Livingstone or Galloway in it? Absolutely. I’d probably want Galloway expelled, but it wouldn’t even have been a deal-breaker if he’d stayed. In fact, the presence of most mavericks – whether it’s the type that I often agree with (Denis MacShane, Steve Pound) or the ones I don’t (Tony Benn, Livingstone, Frank Field, Tony Blair) makes the Labour Party more attractive to me than if it were stuffed with Paulie-clones.

Now, I may struggle to vote for the worst of the mavericks if they were my local Labour Party candidate in an election. But I know for certain that I couldn’t vote for one of them in a contest that would hand them fairly untrammelled power as an individual. And the one thing that nearly drove me away from the Labour Party in the 1990s were the number of vile Blairite clones of the Margaret Hodge variety.

But if Labour started doing what Cameron did in Ealing Southall, and start describing themselves as Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, I’d even struggle to vote for the party I’ve been a member of for a quarter of a century. This is not, by the way, a particular whinge about Gordon Brown specifically. If the ballot paper said Shuggy’s Labour Party, Tom’s Labour Party or even Chris’ Labour Party, I’d even struggle then. It’s the paradox of political parties. On the one hand, if they are highly centralised, they are a damaging competitor to any decent model of democracy.

But if they aren’t, they could make the whole shooting match work the way that it should.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Passing the rope

Go on Boris, what do you make of this then?

Monday, August 27, 2007

August roundup no.1

I'm back. 'ja miss me?

I've been satisfyingly away from a keyboard for most of the month. I even avoided checking the www on my phone most of the time, which is a bit of a new one for me.

Here's a few observations from while I was away.

The Unrepentant Communist was here asking for a link. Will do during the next blogroll update URC. Meanwhile, here's a post on The Red Elvis to be going on with.

Also, I briefly interrupted the holiday to comment on this on the new-look DSTPFW site. My comment sums up the ideology of this blog in five words: Keith Richards is a cunt.

And finally, I don't normally do product endorsements, but I've been waiting for digital cameras to offer something that would justify buying one for some time. I've been waiting for ages for one with enough megapixels, most of the functionality of an SLR but with less of the bulk.

I used to take photography quite seriously a few years ago, and I'm probably going to be upbraided by Pootergeek for betraying the cause of windup cameras, but I treated myself to the Nikon p5000 at the start of the holiday, and I've been very pleased with the results. As a purchase, it exceeded expectations. So much so, I've even set up a Flickr account to show off the results.

This is probably a bit less discreet that a blogger should be, but what the hell. You can look if you want. (Is this the blogging equivalent of boring your friends with a holiday slideshow?)

More soonish, if I can get back into the swing of things.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Going a bit quiet here for a while now.

I know posting's been a bit thin here for a while, but I'm still off to County Mayo for a few weeks to marinate gently in draught stout.

The blog can twist in the wind for all I care.

Hammer the blogroll while I'm gone whydontcha?

Go on. Look.

Libertarian Jesus.

(Inadvertently endorsing Ann Coulter in the comments).

Doesn't haloscan let you change the settings Mr Rodent?

The best defence of liberties?

Shuggy is taking Roy Hattersley to task here for his heretical take on J.S. Mill's notion of liberty.

I don't think that this is a matter that can be taken too lightly. Democracy and liberty circle each other (would it be too pretentious to describe it as a dialectic?), and it is often very tempting to jump in on the side of liberty. When we do, it is possible that we do so at the expense of democracy.

Politicians are always cursed with having to make the case for why they should tell us what to do. We - the public - rarely feel obliged to apologise for the damage we would do to each other if we weren't compelled to behave properly by politicians. Yet 'majorities' often oppose measures that they are eventually convinced of - once they've seen them imposed and understood the sense behind them.

Taking Shuggy's examples, both the seat-belt rules and the smoking ban (not just in pubs, but on the bottom, then top decks of buses, trains, the tube, aeroplanes, hospitals, offices and so on), were initially resented. But most smokers I know (and I was one for long enough myself) either looked forward to the creeping bans or welcomed them in retrospect.

Most of the opponents of these bans would not advocate their repeal now, I think?

As far as I can see, the real question is "how far do elected politicians know what is good for us - and are there points at which they know what is good for us better than we do ourselves?"

Many self-declared liberals (and I think Shuggy may be one of these) tend to take the view that there are very very few areas in which politicians know what is good for us more than we do ourselves.

I'm not so sure though. Put crudely, I'd suggest that Shuggy appears to be a little over-confident about our willingness to avoid self-harm if drugs were more freely available, or our willingness to embrace seat-belts if we hadn't been required to do so. It is possible that he is right of course, but it would be a lively experiment to find out the truth.

That we often do stuff that turns out to be bad for us is beyond doubt. It's our right to make mistakes, surely? But I'd also suggest that we often do stuff that *we think* is bad for us - and we do them anyway. This is a more ostentatious exercise of our liberties, and again, it's fair enough in most cases.

But let's go a step further and argue that sometimes, we do things that we think are bad for us, and we wish that someone would come along and stop us from doing them. Or that - once they've stopped us, we recognise that they were either right to do it - or that it isn't another thin-end-of-the-wedge on the way to some totalitarian nightmare. Fags and seat-belts, for example.

This - I think - highlights one of the oft-hidden charms of European liberal democracy. Liberalism was often conflated with conservatism in the nineteenth century because it represented a genuine fear of the tyranny of the majority that manifested itself in resistance to democratic reform. Democracy would leave the majority to impose confessional, property and cultural norms on the rest of us. To over-ride 'aristocratic' wisdom.

Liberties were designed to minimise this. There isn't enough time to make the arguments for why such a tyranny would be disastrous. And - from the days before universal suffrage, it was a very sensible thing to worry about.

But the big surprise was just how humane and tolerant representative democracy is. We didn't stop hanging people in this country because some pressure group of lawyers managed to triangulate Parliament into banning it (as they have done, regrettably, with smoking). We ended the drop because people were prepared to accept that an elected group of representatives would behave more humanely than they would do themselves.

When the majority wanted the rope brought back (led by demagogic newspaper editors, naturally), Parliament defended humane principles. As it did with homosexual, race relations and marital reform in the 1960s and 70s. Enoch may have spoken for Britain, but it destroyed his parliamentary career.

Also, liberties - when they are removed - tend to be removed with some sensitivity, and with safeguards and negotiations. And this isn't just for what political philosophers have remarked as the 'aristocratic' (in the classical sense) nature of parliamentary democracy. It's often naked self-interest. Politicans have to appeal to cross-cutting alliances, and an insensitive injunction can lose you your job.

Politicians are better at defending our liberties than we give them credit for. They are more aware of the unreasonableness of pressure groups and newspapers than anyone. And they will continue to be the real defenders of our liberties as long as the many attempts to make democracy more direct continue to fail.

That last sentence is the bit that worries me though - and regulars here will know that it's the main preoccupation of this blog.

Update: Politicians are good at dealing with slippery slopes as well. Hat tip: S&M.

Hoping for the worst

A good post over at Freemania, and the punchline is worth waiting for.

And, while we're about it, I recall writing up Oliver Kamm arguing that Tory bloggers were not always an asset to the Tories. Well, it's nice to see the way that ConservativeHome is proving to be a valuable tool in the Tories internal debate. The stupid party really do believe all of this Direct Democracy crap.


Every other British party that has taken this particular powder had watched itself fall to bits. Now, in the interests of transparency, Mr Miraj should name the Conservative frontbencher who offered him a seat in the Lords in 2005.

Heh heh.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


Not gerrymandering. It's slightly different, you see. And then there's the additional element of individualism.

What am I on about? Go and read a good post by a generally v.conservative American blogger about long-term shirleyportering over there.

I found it through a good precis here by Ashok - who seems to be blogging for all of the right reasons.


I've never quite thought of it like this before. But....

q: How do reduce the world's stock of vegans?
a: Shag vegans, Or even a snog will do.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of vegetarians, here's a nice story about Fat Buddah and people who are paid to adopt the position of the most easily offended.

Friday, August 03, 2007

To read Johann Hari or The Prince? Tough one...

Shuggy has given a good an overview of the recent Hari / Harry’s Place spat – and there’s little there to disagree with, though I think that even Shuggy is making a small mistake by being drawn into a meaningless argument.

The reason I say this is because, I think, the real problem is the certainty that the likes of Johann Hari exhibits in debate. I recall his columns in 2003, upbraiding all-and-sundry for their objective alliance with fascists. Now he's equally certain that everyone who agreed with him about Iraq at the time is not only wrong, but was dishonest in the first place.

And he's threatening to sue bloggers into the bargain?

Shuggy focuses upon Hari's convert-like zeal, but I'd be more interested in his need to express certainty in all things. Like Hari, Shuggy also supported the war, but he did so, IIRC, along similar lines to the way I opposed it. He spent more time dealing with idiotic arguments that he disagreed with than saying exactly what various forces should be doing. Good bloggers rarely try to bluff expertise. Columnists depend upon such an illusion for their salaries.

If blogging has taught me one thing, it is not to express certainty on anything that you're not a real expert on - and even then, do so with tons of caution and lots of caveats. Or do it with a bit of tongue-in-cheek.

This tends to remove much of the needless venom from most arguments, and makes you less willing to look for reasons to call your opponents out on their personal integrity.

For instance, my own view on the Iraq war was, broadly, that I didn’t have any of the tools I’d need to decide whether it was a good idea or a bad one. I was inclined to think it was a mistake, but I found that all of the core arguments that the anti-war movement used not only had a huge degree of unwarranted certainty and simplicity underpinning them, and they all seemed to be geared to achieve a bigger, unspoken objection; To oppose the Americans and / or Bliar in all things.

This was obviously stupid. I’m not sure whether an PhD in International Relations and a peer-reviewed thesis on ‘Regime Change in Iraq’ would have made me much more qualified to comment on it than I am though. And as my main source of information on the region is journalists, discretion would seem a fairly sound position to take.

The only area that I DO feel qualified to comment on is that liberal democracies can often choose to cut-and-run when a long-term commitment is needed. That Bosnia had shown us that liberal democracies are not going to do what is obviously the right thing even when their nose is being rubbed in reasons to act. In 2003, I doubted that it would be all over by Xmas and felt that a job half-done could be worse than a job not done at all.

And this is an argument that I'd make with regret. I'd underline, again, my view that European liberal democracy isn't as robust as it likes to think it is, and Something Should Be Done About It.

As you will see from what is probably my only other comment in writing on this, I had a few other views on it. But the way things stand at the moment, this may turn out to have been as good a position as any. It wasn't a fantastically eye-catching insight then or now, and you’d struggle to turn it into a half-decent column. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Most of the things that are worth saying about public life are either too boring to print, or can’t be said at all.

Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ provides a good example here. It said the unsayable. There was little that anyone who had experienced the Florentine court would have disagreed with, but no-one would ever have expressed Machiavelli’s insights publicly at the time. It was full of inelegant truisms, and made a reasonably convincing moral case for an appropriate use of arbitrary brutality.

The book itself was only dedicated privately in Machiavelli’s lifetime, and wasn’t published until after his death. And unlike the over-published twits of our op-ed pages, Machiavelli is still worth reading nearly 500 years later, while there is no value in reading what Simon Jenkins, Johann Hari or Polly Toynbee wrote this morning.

The novelty of The Prince was that it uncoupled virtue and practicality. It made the point that very few commentators will make – even today: You don’t always to the right thing by doing the virtuous thing – often the reverse is true.

This has a valuable lesson for us though: Paid commentators – particularly the ones that routinely take polemical positions - are nothing but unqualified purveyors of elegant cant for the most part. There’s almost a formula here: If you write on a wide range of subjects and publish very regularly, and adopt eye-catching positions, you are almost certainly not worth reading.

It is time for us all to arise and drag them though the streets to a public scaffold to have their shoulders broken like poor Machiavelli. I say this, of course, with tongue firmly in cheek. In the meantime, we should all just ignore them for the most part.