Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who are MPs responsible to?

Mick's right. And so is Jenni Russell here.

Now, I think that it's fairly clear that journalists will ignore incompetence and opaque dealings on a grand scale - as long as they aren't being perpetrated by an MP. And for this reason - as Russell notes - huge administrative / public policy disasters are overlooked - after all, who is daft enough to think that MPs have much influence over public policy or the civil service in the first place?

But what if that were to change? What if MPs had the resources to be active participants in policy formation? What if they could appoint and fire senior civil servants? What if they were given resources in a form that their parties couldn't snaffle?

And what if political parties - and individual ministers could bring in their own people to run a department when they were to take office?

Then politicians would be worth scrutinising in some detail. They would actually start to run the country. Not that our useless fourth estate would actually bother to scrutinise anything much below the surface either way.

Oddly enough, an otherwise stupid leader in The Telegraph a few weeks ago (I linked to it yesterday as well) unwittingly had a grain of truth in it:
"The regulation of political donations has replaced a culture of conscience with a one of compliance: MPs are now able to behave shabbily, but then claim that they broke no rules."
It seems that everyone had dropped the pretence that MPs are elected representatives in any meaningful sense. We understand that policymaking or the oversight of administration is beyond them, and we're happy to see them placed in a situtation where all of their rivals can massively outgun them (pressure groups, vested interests, political parties, the political centre and the permanent bureaucracy, etc) and where their only role is to provide a rather desperate side-show - an institution that is unable to meet the very high standards of a fairly low-life media.

Their job is not to exercise their conscience in the interests of their constituents and the party that they stood for. The only job of an MP is to ensure that the paperwork if filed properly with an array of vile bureaucrats. MPs aren't responsible to voters any more. They report to Sir Humphrey and the Shit Sheets. Their only function is to not draw attention to themselves while staying within a series of pettifogging rules.

This will not be changed while there is such a concentrated focus upon how they manage their relatively paltry budgets - indeed, this focus will undermine the legitimate case that you would expect pro-democracy commentators to be making - that MPs should be more effective contributors to policy formation and the oversight of public administration.

Modesty forbids me from naming the only blog in the whole fucking world that is making this case.

There are those who are explicitly opposed to the representative democracy, and there are their numerous useful idiots in the commentariat. That's all.

Luckless limb of the law

You have heard setting fire to the policeman (mp3) before, haven't you?

And here's three peices of advice (some YouTubes doesn't embed - sorry)

Puritanism against democracy

This is a follow-on post from the one the other day on protestantism and democracy. The one that I cocked up a bit. Apologies for everything really. Long, wrong posts.
Here's another that probably won't clear much up....

As the conflicts in Northern Ireland recede, it can be reasonably hoped that the influence of radical protestantism will decline. The way that a direct internal party democracy brought the Ulster Unionist Party to the brink of destruction a few years ago, the DUP may have to weather storms in which it's own emerging aristocratic minority – those with a responsibility to serve the general will and thereby ensure their party's electability – will come into conflict with the larger body of opinion within their party – the negativists – who know only what they are against.

I would suggest (as an extension of the previous posts) that the simplistic and disastrous attitudes to internal democracy within the Unionist parties can be explained by the dominance that evangelical protestantism has over Unionism. By thrusting radical Unionism into government, HMG may be exposing the DUP to the consequences of their own puritanism.

Broadening this out, no political party has survived for very long with a direct internal democracy. Consider Labour in the early 1980s, with it's Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and it's internal warfare between constituency activists and non-compliant (anti-AES/CND/pro-EEC) MPs. Again, a baying puritan mob negated themselves.

So far, this looks like an optimistic post, doesn't it? Ok. Let's change that.

On the other hand, the wider political forces that are at play within western liberal democracy may be moving in the other direction. The 'aristocratic' (that word again) tradition of representative democracy has rarely faced as many potent challenges as it does today. Rarely have individual elected representatives wielded less power than they do now. The public appear to be prepared to offer unaccountable single-issue pressure groups an easier passage than ever before, while MPs and councillors have ever-greater burdens of accountability and scrutiny placed upon them, while having to provide more and more justification for every resource that they can call upon.

We are prepared to judge elected representatives in the light of their clashes with the 'men in white suits'. When a politician – who stands on identifiable ground – is cross-examined by a journalist who can present a moving target – the politician will inevitably come second. Yet this besting is widely used as a pretext for a disillusion with politics and a call for more constitutional checks-and-balances. (Argument made in more detail here).

Over the last few weeks, to an even greater extent than usual, we've seen that the leitmotif of modern politics – individual corruption of politicians – is drowning out every other issue.
  • That it is impossible to succeed in modern politics without funding, there can be no doubt.
  • That individuals will no longer provide that funding, there is no doubt.
  • That all of the institutions that rival representative democracy can raise huge amounts of funding without encountering much by way of scrutiny, there is no doubt.
Yet serious broadsheet newspapers are using this situation as a pretext for editorials saying that “MPs ... are drinking in the last chance saloon.”

After years of being pilloried for their mendacity, irresponsibility and excess, the dead trees have discovered the sweetest and most unprincipled revenge in their ability to make hay with the standards of accountability that politicians have allowed to be placed upon themselves.

The smaller picture is that this post may be making a reasonable point. The larger picture is that anyone who thinks that a post such as that is worth writing is ignoring the massive and systematic failings, and the downward trajectory that democracy is heading in order to take sides in a fairly irrelevant bunfight. It's a puritanism that is making impossible demands upon a political system that can only get by under a thin fog of venality.

This is not – by the way – a justification of any specific cases of political naughtiness. The perception of slackness should damage individual politicians' electoral prospects.

But would it not be fair to say that a political culture that had anything vested in the success of representative democracy would not allow a situation to arise whereby elected representatives have their resources dwarfed by their party, who in turn have their resources dwarfed by their political centres, who in turn have their resources dwarfed by pressure groups, vested interests and other rivals in the media and the permanent bureaucracy?

To illustrate this, I'll use an the example of a politician that I don't usually have much sympathy with.

Ken Livingstone stands accused of an outrage. He won an election, and having done so, he chose to appoint people that he trusts. People who share his views. Surely he would have been a lot better off with a shower of bureaucrats who don't support his programme and will suffer no downside if they bugger it up for him? Thankfully, at least non-puritans such as Paul Anderson and Dave Osler are providing a bit of proportion here.

What I'm trying to say in all of these posts - in my clumsy way - is that puritanism - in all of it's forms - is always likely to be a thorn in the side of a functioning democracy. It is a powerful tool - first and foremost - in the hands of budding demagogues.

Democrats need to recognise this, and have a strategy to deal with it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Clarifying something

I've had an e-mail complaining that this post is too long. Shuggy has gone one step further, and written a post saying (nicely) that it's wrong.

However, I have the drop on Shuggy here. I know what the post was meant to say. And Shuggy hasn't really understood what I meant to say. He has, however, given me some perfectly reasonable criticisms of what I actually did say. So I suppose we can er ... call it a draw?

Actually, looking back on it, I've missed a couple of vital disclaimers that change the meaning of a lot of the post. Blogging is part-time and unpaid – that's my defence. So, here, I'll do two things to remedy this, as briefly as I can.

Firstly, I'll correct the misunderstandings. Secondly, I'll summarise what I intended to say.

Firstly, Shuggy says:
“His argument, if I've understood him correctly, is that Protestantism is more illiberal - in practice if not in theory - than Catholicism and that this has fed into politics and finds its secular shadow in the tension between 'liberals' and 'democrats'.”
Though that post looked like it was about religion, it wasn't intended as such. I just wanted to use some observations about religious debate to illustrate other matters. I was actually trying - rather clumsily - to use the type of Protestantism that is all too evident in Northern Ireland to illustrate some of the problems with individualism and liberalism. It wasn't intended as any kind of defence of Catholicism, and I allowed the modern fudge of liberal high-ish churchness and 'Catholicism' to become interchangeable in a way that I didn't intend.

For the avoidance of doubt, I accept that Catholicism has all of the reactionary potential of Free Presbytarianism. Even on a whimsical level, Anne Widdecombe left the C of E because it was no longer reactionary enough for her – and she chose to run to the Roman church.

I was, however, preferring an 'aristocratic' form of government to the (small) one that some radical liberals would choose. I think that radical protestantism illustrates the shortcomings of some radical liberals – but I wouldn't intend to take this any further than that.

And – clarifying a second point – in using the term 'aristocratic', I was referring to the concerns of about democracy voiced by Plato, Burke, Mill and Schumpeter among many others. Not literally aristocratic in the way it is commonly understood (resolving itself into oligarchy and plutocracy). More 'aristocratic' in that it involves an administration of people who are expected to use their judgement and access expertise.

It's an application of the word that I've found in various texts, but I can't remember what they are now, and I can see why anyone would bridle at the way I used it. One of Burke's speeches is the single most quoted text on this blog (apart from Brian Clough's biography).

So, here's what I meant to say:
  • I listened to a Protestant being interviewed, and it reminded me of something that worries me about the kind of future that many radical liberals would like to promote.
  • Protestants – like many radical liberals – prefer to leave many important judgements to individuals who don't enjoy the vantage points that more aristocratic experienced well-connected and publically accountable individuals have.
  • Those 'aristocratic' individuals (in practice, elected representatives) are likely to make decisions that will result in a better and more tolerant society. This is less likely to be the case in a political settlement that fetishises individual liberties.
Radical liberals often object to some institutions because they are seen to be a project of 'elites'. I suppose this is what I was trying to illustrate with my Catholic / Prod opposition. The EU and the BBC are good examples, but I would argue that radical liberals are often really gunning for representative democracy itself.

This attack on democracy is rarely explicit - indeed, it is often cloaked in demands for more democracy - and there are large sections of the chattering classes that routinely fall for this.

I hope this clears everything up. ;-)

Update: It occurs to me that I could have saved a lot of typing here with a reference to the low church - whig - liberal continuum.

Move along now...

Most visitors to this blog won't be interested in the Temple Bar Trad website.

Most. But not all.

Two things

  1. Pilger: Barack Obama is an Uncle Tom (ta Padraig)
  2. Rubbish: Gramsci in McEducation

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Protestants and liberals

I've just got back from a trip to Northern Ireland. As I was driving over the Glenshane Pass between Derry and Belfast, I was lucky to hear what was, for me, one of the most entertaining bits of radio in long time. It was a phone-in on RTE1 – one of the Republic's main stations – with one Wallace Thompson - a leading Evangelical from the North on the vexed question:

Should the Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin sell rosary beads?

As an agnostic (I'm less religious than an atheist) I could be a disinterested spectator. Mick of Slugger has summarised it nicely here, but listening to it in full provided quite an insight into the different mindsets on the island of Ireland. It also highlighted a strand of thinking that is evident way beyond Our Occupied Six Counties / Our Wee Province (delete as applicable).

In summary, Wallace was a stout defender of the standard evangelical line: That religion is a business between God and man. That God's word can be found in a very comprehensive book that can be read by us poor sinners, and that anyone – particularly anyone in a funny hat – who attempts to provide you with an interpretation of God's word that isn't supported by a layman's reading of said book is to be actively distrusted.

It is a position that adopts a fairly rigid evidence-based approach to the big issues. Also, only a limited amount of evidence is admissible (one leather-bound volume). It prefers the cold rationality of The Word to the more ambiguous emotional fuzziness of idolatrous imagery. Of rosary beads. And 'prefers' doesn't go far enough. If you are in favour of The Word, then you must be against the beads. And not to be against the beads is to be a channel for blasphemy.

This is not an approach that wastes it's time with any considerations of light and shade. Yet Thompson's tone was superficially reasonable – his defence of being 'born again' demands it. And leaving aside the obvious flaws in his argument (the less-than-conclusive proof that God actually exists, and the slightly more manageable doubts about the reliability of the various biblical texts as a timely account of the matters that they purport to report), he made a few appealing points.

From the perspective of the individual worshipper (in the unlikely event that I were to become one), for instance, I agreed with his dismissal of Ecumenism.

And I particularly enjoyed the reaction of most of the callers to his well-argued deduction that The Pope is, in fact, the Antichrist. Admittedly, not a new position from a Paisleyite, but still refreshing to hear nonetheless.

Now, I'm not going to go much further on this aspect of the show. I'm no theologian, and I expect that there are plenty of readers who are a bit more patient with God-botherers than I am who can offer a more nuanced account of this than mine.

But the discussion did highlight an important issue about the impact of protestantism upon political debate. And the rejection of ecumenism provides a good jumping-off point.

There is no doubt that – from the point of view of the individual - ecumenism is very unattractive. If you believe in something, how can you justify the negation of that belief into a massive fudge of consensus? It's like the worst aspects of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and straightforward lazy thinking all rolled into one.

Yet, from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism is a valuable tool. It is a concept that would have passed the kind of moral tests that Machiavelli set for practitioners of statecraft. It creates the kind of space that the more responsible clerics can use to ensure that society isn't in a permanent state of civil war. This is useful when the likes of Wallace Thompson can go on the radio in a nominally catholic state and believe (as he evidently did) that it is perfectly reasonable to call the Pope 'The Antichrist' (Catholics being his disciples).

The wider population, the ones who are less interested in such theological conundrums, and more concerned with being able to get on with their lives without a fear of being burned for heresy, deserve some kind of cushion in such circumstances, and if ecumenism is it, then so be it.

The protestantism of the Free Presbytarians, among others, is a rejection of the aristocratic arrogance of Popery. But in rejecting that aristocracy, it replaces it with the rule of a many, all wielding 'a little learning'. A literal and legalistic interpretation replaces the prerogatives exercised by higher clerics. And in doing so, it revives Plato's fears about democracy. That it privileges opinion over knowledge.

This finds echoes in the tension between a rule by representatives, and one in which consitutional and legal protections are placed to the fore. In religious debate, as in the wider secular disputes, this robust individualism results in an entrenchment of class and cultural barriers, an inevitable acceptance of sub-optimal policy outcomes (a monopoly of 'available' evidence), and a rejection of everything that is tolerant in modern societies. Any extended dialogue with Wallace Thompson may have strayed way beyond rosary beads and into a condemnation of many other forms of ungodliness. If a set of beads form the pretext to call someone a disciple of the Antichrist, then what happens when the more expansive liberties – drinking, shagging, etc, raise their naughty little heads? An elective (and dismissable) aristocracy is, thankfully, likely to be a little fuzzier.

And there is a direct correlation here, I would argue, with the political tensions between liberals and democrats. Where the liberals demand constitutional defences for the rights of individuals and smaller prerogative powers for elected representatives, the consequences will always be the same. More lasting privilege. Poorer quality-standards of public policy. Less tolerance. Think of longer prison sentences, more executions, less redistributive taxes and a high burden of proof required to justify taxation, more vetoes, social censoriousness, more entrenched hereditary property rights and tougher immigration policies.

Think of the difference between most EU states and the US. Then think about the trajectory upon which we are headed. Open any liberal newspaper and see the handwringing about the decline of one kind of liberty alongside demands to increase the liberties that are the cause of that decline. The more liberties you demand for individuals, the less you get.

Where evangelicals prefer the unmediated message, there is an individualism that is implicit in many strands of liberalism – an individualism that will not accept any version of aristocratic governance – even it's most benign version – representative democracy. If I were forced to choose between high and low church, I'd go high every time. I am – and I believe that most of the political centre and left would agree with me here – a catholic rather than a protestant agnostic.

I just wish that most of the political centre and left could find the time to sit down and think through the consequences of their nominal preference for representative government, because at the moment, there's a hint of the 12th July in the air everywhere.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Perennial underachievers

Too busy to post much at the moment. In the meantime, here's John Otway with a participative audience:

There's more and similar you YouTube. Otway still tours.

Here's Wreckless Eric in his 'Len Bright Combo' incarnation.

And here's Vic Godard performing 'Ambition' live lately.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Saturday morning vibes

More PP. Here she is with some white boys again. If you're not weeping like a baby at the end of this one, you need a sensory transplant.

From Ian Levine's YouTube page, some Northern Soul: 'Everything's Gonna Be Alright'

Ocean Colour Scene are much maligned, I fear. Here's 'The Day We Caught The Train':

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Next Sunday

The TUC - among others - are campaigning for a new Bank Holiday - 'Community Day.'

I can't see any recommendations on the site for a specific date, but elsewhere, there are suggestions that it could fall on the birthdate of the NHS. If I recall correctly, others mooted a day in November as part of the remembrance timetable.

Next Sunday will be Robbo Day. The birthday of John Neilson Robertson - described lovingly here on the Bridport Red's website.

And this will be the third year of this blog's campaign to have it esablished as a national holiday (though being on a Sunday slightly undermines the case this year).

20th January. Robbo Day. Write to your MP. Because, when all of us lie on our deathbeds and look back on our lives, we will all do so in the certain knowledge that - compared to John - we have been found wanting.

On Sunday afternoon, in bars up and down the country (but particularly in the East Midlands), silent middle aged men will be observed standing alone, looking pensive - perhaps wistful.

If you see this, look closely. Has he bought a second pint that is standing beside the one he is drinking? The pint that will remain untouched?

That pint has been placed there in the hope that John will pass by and accept the offer. And talk about that night, 1st round, second leg, when everything changed forever.

20th January. Robbo Day. You know it makes sense.

Useful site

I found a reference to this in my stats. It tracks anything that particular bloggers have linked to at the Guardian site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Until the pips squeak

Led Zep - live!! Anyone who encourages this filth should be taxed into penury.

I was in the newsagent the other day, and the shopkeeper asked the bloke in front of me if he wanted to buy a lottery ticket.

"Nah" he replied. "It's a stupidity tax, innit?"

A fair point. But it occurred to me that there is a more lucrative stupidity tax than the extra few quid that they make during a rollover week. Led Zep tickets, for example. If anyone ever deserved to have £8,000 taken off them, it's Led Zep fans. And - apparently - £8,000* is what some people paid.

I hope the all the touts who made a killing were ex-Mod wideboys.

And the worthless soap-dodgers that weren't rich enough to afford an actual ticket still got stung for a reasonably hefty idiocy-levy - £125 - just to own a used stub.

Harvey Goldsmith wasn't impressed.

But here's a suggestion; Why don't a bunch of civil-minded pop stars - the ones whose tickets are rare enough to fetch a decent price - establish their own joint auction site, and insist that a sizeable percentage of the tickets for their British gigs are auctioned though it - as part of the contractual negotiations?

All profits above the face value could go to fill in for some of the money lost in the recent Arts Council cuts that will have a significant impact on small theatre. A willingness to do this sort of thing is the only redeeming feature that Radiohead have. Perhaps this could be their next stunt?

Now, if this is an orignal idea of mine (and I doubt it is), I'm slapping a patent on it here and now to prevent it ever being abused by shitheads like Pink Floyd, Led Zep, The Scissor Sisters, The Kaiser Chiefs or James Blunt. There is a poetic justice in those gigs funding fat blokes who spent their teens in Sta Prest.

And here's a second idea. As public service broadcasting becomes a less reliable underwriter for the performing arts, why doesn't the BBC offer free adverts to regional theatre to fill some of the gap? No money would change hands. More people buying tickets at regional theatres would improve grass-roots funding, and the BBC would see the benefits in the long term.

I've been meaning to write a post for some time entitled "Why the BBC should take advertising - as long as it isn't paid for." And one day, I will.

OK. Maybe someone else has had those ideas. Maybe they're just plain unworkable, or daft. I don't know. But whenever public funding disappears from any walk of life, there are people who suffer. And that isn't good. But, like cuts in adult education, cuts in arts funding - particularly smaller scale performing arts - have a highly corrosive long term impact upon the quality of all of our lives.

So, at times like these, even stupid ideas may be worth a second look?

*The £8k is a figure I saw in a newspaper article. It may not be correct. But whatever the real figure was, it was huge.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Opportunity for vengence

Change your (!) name by Deed Poll - online! For £9.99

I can't believe that this isn't, somehow, open to abuse?

Thursday, January 10, 2008


V. busy lately. I've been in Belfast and will be back and forth there quite a bit in the coming months.

Last week, my first visit to Stormont coincided with the heaviest snow in years. My camera battery was dead, but there's this on Flickr:

Meanwhile, here's Dave Osler on the idiocy of cutting adult education.

Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop is worth a look - especially this one. - Via The Ingrate (also worth a regular visit).

Also, via The Ingrate's sidebar, a Mod Mod World. Tons of viewing there. It's a bit light on The Chords though - the high point of the Mod Revival.

The Clarkson Mindchange.

Will Davies - Facebooking at work. (Introduced on his blog but the whole Register article is worth a read).

And Last on Match Of The Day (via Bob)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Small Faces with PP Arnold: Tin Soldier

Ronnie Lane: Ooh La La

... and finally, changing the subject a bit, if you think that you don't really like traditional Irish instrumentals, have a look at Craobh Rua's MySpace page and give The Antrim Narrow Gauge Jigs a try or the other instrumental (Skip Jigs). You never know.