Sunday, November 30, 2008

M'lud's questions

Never linked to a peerblog before, but here's Lord Toby Harris with some questions for David Cameron about the Damian Green affair.

The biter bit

"...the apparent assumption among disgusted commentators that it’s the police’s primary task to have more political savvy"
To be legitimately disgusted one would have had to disagree with most demands that parliament be subject to more rigorous dispassionate external scrutiny. Personally, I have disagreed with most recent demands for more transparency in MPs dealings, but I'm hardly part of the choir on this, am I?

Bloggertarian game invented

Meanwhile, further proof that all of this financial difficulty is caused by big government, NuLab and over-regulation. Via DSTPFW.

If inducements WERE offered....?

The articles linked to from this post make a claim that the civil servant (one Christopher Galley, apparently) received inducements from Damien Green in return for the information that he provided.

If this is really the case that the police are pursuing, then it changes matters dramatically.

Update: I've just seen that Galley stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2004 local elections (h/t Will)

If Mr Green has been offering inducements to a civil servant for leaks, it is an offence that - when you look at it in more detail - is extremely serious as I've argued over the last few days. It would be a profound debasement of politics and democracy.

If proven, Mr Green would have no option but to resign as an MP and face the full force of the law. And anyone else who knew the score on this would be guilty by implication.

Either way, it's an allegation that requires a detailed investigation and it seems that the police and The Speaker have less of a case to answer.

The revealed preference of liberal commentators

Tony Benn was on the wireless yesterday defending Parliamentary privilege against police intrusion. Parliament, Benn argued, 'is a court' and should be treated as such.

Unlike Owen's dad, I have no background in constitutional law, so I'm not going to comment on that further, but the very notion raises an interesting question which Owen fleshes out a good deal here.

But, contra-Dad, Owen seems to be arguing for a judicial model of democracy. One in which all evidence is assembled and submitted in a formal way. Let me see if I can unpick a few of the things that I think that Owen is arguing for here?
  • All research that government ministers consider should be commissioned in a transparent even handed way in order to reveal evidence. There should be no loaded questions, so this would suggest commissioning by a diverse committee?
  • The researchers should go off, answer their question without interference, and reveal the results in a timely fashion - to all at the same moment. Publishing on the Internet, for instance, would achieve this well enough perhaps?
  • Politicians should receive no representations of any kind from policy advocates unless it is done openly in the public eye.
  • Politicians should then be able to retire in private, consult each other (but only each other - no-one else) and reach a verdict upon with a pre-determined majority (in the current situation, 50% + 1) before enacting their conclusions as legislation.
There are lots of implementation details left out here of course - the question of bicameralism and so forth, but what Owen seems to be arguing for here is a much more mechanised and clearly defined process by which policy is to be made.

Disclaimer: Owen may feel justified in arguing that I'm reframing him here, for which, apologies. It's all in good faith - honest!

This seems to me to be the real 'e-democracy' question. The 'e' bit of government is really defined by the ease and flexibly with which information can change hands, access barriers removed and the 'workflows' by which it is processed agreed. A fortune could be saved on e-democracy projects if this were acknowledged.

This is something I've been over a fair bit in recent months. I think that Owen's view is actually the revealed preference of a broad wedge of the commentariat if you follow the logic our our Men in White Suits. A replacement of private discretion with public cant. No-one is arguing it in the specific terms listed above, but it is the inevitable consequence of a great many - perhaps the dominant - 'liberal' arguments about the changing nature of our relationship with the people who represent us.

One consequence of this sort of thing will be a great deal more 'unseemly' policing. There seems to be a growing realisation that the lack of intervention by government in police business (following Damian Green's arrest) - a lack of political discretion - may not be that good a thing.

As I say, I think Owen's view is a popular one (once you actually dig down it what many commentators are really asking for). But I think it is one that will wane in popularity in due course, now that we're emerging from a period of free-market orthodoxy. One consequence of the current 'primacy of markets tempered by regulators' model of governance is that regulators act and think like economists.

This post a few weeks ago was written after hearing Patrick Barwise speak. In it, I argued that OfCOM's model of regulation (one that is well on the way to the kind of policymaking that Owen is advocating here, I think?) doesn't work. In the case of public service broadcasting, it is unable to see the wood for the trees. As I argued ...

"When you get this kind of ultra-economic analysis, you know that its authors are long on logic and very short on context and their assumptions."

I'm not certain on this, but my current strong preference is to argue that the traditional British settlement is the least-worst available. And - on balance - all reform should be primarily based upon giving elected individuals more discretionary powers and removing powers from every one of their rivals. Everything else makes our democracy more direct in one way or another.

This is certainly not the revealed preference of almost anyone else that I've read recently.

How far is it defensible to have a 'mole' in a government department?

I would have thought that the combined forces of the commentariat would have been a bit more firm on this one over the past few days?

On economic issues, for instance, there there is a overwhelming need for clarity, consistency and decisiveness (i.e. you avoid financial speculation by ensuring that you don't hint you are going to do things - you just do them).

There is a suggestion that the Conservative Party are making this impossible to do, and that they have been pre-announcing variations on government policy in order to obtain a 'we thought of it first' party political advantage. This is not a trivial issue. It's a massive one. Why is no-one saying this?

And while liberals have been rightly outraged at the lack of deference to parliamentary privileges, let us also acknowledge that Damian Green's mole seems to have been actively disrupting what is, objectively, the most liberal immigration policy that the UK has ever had.

The first two of the four leaks listed here were specifically leaked in order to force the government to clamp down upon immigration and to more to identify and track people without UK citizenship.

Leak 3 & 4 were designed purely to embarrass a Labour Minister.

The Tories are not, I think, arguing for totally open government? All correspondence and e-mails between ministers to be placed immediately in the public domain? Politicians sometimes have to conduct unpopular elements of their policy privately in order to have results that they can defend at the next election?

This seems to me to be one of the bedrocks of Representative Democracy. In a Direct Democracy, all decisions would, indeed, be conducted with this level of openness. The Freedom of Information act seems to have led to more official circumspection and it seems to have driven thoughtfulness from the record as it is.

In an odd way, this is what is at stake in the Damian Green investigation. We are right to ask if current police powers should be able to survive this investigation. But can the Freedom of Information Act survive it either? Is it not time to allow government ministers the ability to discuss matters and reach decisions in private?

Will Parliament start defending itself from the tabloid agenda for the first time in years?

The word 'totalitarianism' has been bandied around a fair bit in the last few days. From a systemic point of view, the worst aspect of totalitarianism is where legislators are answerable to a thought police. In the UK, the state is not the only force that can punish politicians for thinking aloud....

Update: Owen has a significantly different perspective to mine here, including a good bit of argumentation around the the FOI issue. More on this in due course, perhaps? Owen is arguing against a really good, densely argued post by his father that puts me straight on quite a few issues here. Hat tip: S&M

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Social living is the best?

I suspect that - if you were to brainstorm the words 'socialism' - or better still, 'communism' with people who had never heard it before, they may suggest some variation on social living.

Kevin has evidence that it's good for kids.

Burning Spear has an opinion on it.

And Timmy wants to know why we don't do more of it?

This strikes me as an important question. Like other issues around 'collective action', what are the obstacles that stop us from benefiting from the advantages of social living? Surely some form of communal living arrangements can be incredibly efficient both in financial terms as well as time-wise? I'd be fine about cooking for, say fifteen people once a week.

Now, I understand that some of the obstacles include our preferences for a bit of privacy and a degree of flexibility about who we share our lives with. But here's my question: Is the development of ever-more sophisticated forms of social networking likely to make it easier to find people you'd be prepared to co-habit with? And are there social norms that could be developed that would result in a mutual awareness of the kind of boundaries that we all expect to be respected vis-a-vis nosiness?

Recall Parliament Now!

I still think that the outrage is justified over the way the police were allowed to enter an MPs office, jack his computers and files, and arrest him over a simple leak. That the Speaker allowed it to happen is an absolutely massive question.

There are bloggers who *always* write stuff about how we're living in a ZaNuLieBore Police State!!?!?!?!?! , but this time, I'm slightly embarrassed to say that I'm tempted to acknowledge that they have a half-a-point.

That the police (and this 'Terrorist Squad' business is, indeed, nonsense) can march into an MPs office is a huge issue. And the lack of general respect for Parliament these days means that this issue is - if anything - being understated (the 'we live in a police state' crowd don't generally have a track-record of stoutly defending representative democracy either - a partial explanation for this perhaps?)

As it happens, the reaction of a liberal democracy is our safeguard here: If this really *is* an over-reaction (and it looks like plod's powers have been massively over-extended here) Parliament is in a sufficient state of outrage to perhaps pursue it's own agenda instead of the tabloid one for a change. In the same way that this incident will lead to a review, so will go any other legislation that offends against Parliament's overview of balance on the issue of civil liberties.

It is also important to acknowledge - in this instance - that the government don't seem to have known it was going to happen in advance. But I hope that they will act to clarify the police powers in relation to parliamentarians in future either way.

So, in summary, I think that Dave is wrong here: This is bigger than the prosecution of Sarah Tidsall or Clive Ponting's because parliamentary privileges are absolutely sacred in a liberal democracy. That's why jury-tampering is a bigger offence than mugging. It is not only illegal, it threatens the basis of the rule of law. Jim's Forest Gate comparison doesn't work either.

I'm told that, in the late Saxon period (pre-1066) almost the only capital offence that remained was a debasement of the currency because, like jury-tampering, it also undermined the basis of the law. Tampering with Parliament is a similar matter in most people's books, I would have thought? The police should only do it if there is a bigger offence in the offing.

Now, if what Kerry McCarthy and The Guardian are hinting at - that this is actually a conspiracy - were true, then everything changes.

For parliamentarians to actively run moles in government departments would be an even more serious an offence than the one that Damian Green appears to have suffered at Dibble's hands - indeed, if the Speaker had been shown evidence to this effect, it would fully justify his decision.

It would show that the Tories were no longer acting as a parliamentary opposition, but were using their Parliamentary privileges to actually commission criminal activity - under laws that are a good deal more lenient towards whistleblowers than they would have been pre-1997.

But it seems unlikely that the Tories would be that stupid, and it would be quite tough to prove even if they were.

Either way, I really think that it is a mistake to not take this absolutely seriously. Parliament should be recalled - and The Speaker should provide a proper account of why he allowed Parliamentary Privilege to be breached in this way.

For his sake - it better be good!

Being in opposition: The correct use of Whitehall's concience.

Now here's an interesting one. I've just seen Mick's post over on Brassneck.

Firstly, it's something of a relief that most leftie bloggers have acknowledged the primacy of representative democracy in the Damian Green case.

I yield to no-one in my willingness to kick a guilty-ish Tory when he's down, but there is a bigger issue here: An MP has a moral duty to listen to a civil servant that has evidence of political mendacity. If a civil servant is being asked to lie, or to do something that is plainly not in the public interest, a good MP should channel it appropriately.

It isn't far from being a basic human right for someone to pass on information of dishonesty to an elected politician - if they are really very clear that they are doing so in the public interest. If a minister is lying on a matter of public interest, then it would be immoral to insist that they either keep quiet, or take it up with an official panel of bureaucrats (i.e. put yourself in a position where - if you don't keep quiet, you really *are* stuffed).

Unity has explained this in a good deal of detail here, and this is his conclusion:
"....the leaking of party political information to opposition members falls outside the legitimate scope of the public interest and amounts to political espionage.

I would hope that Green has not been stupid enough to accept information of that kind, but if he has and if, as the wording of one of the two charges implies, he may not only have a been passive recipient of leaked information but actually have taken an active part in soliciting and procuring information of that kind, then not only do the Tories protestations that he was only doing his job as MP ring extremely hollow but we have a major issue of political sleaze on out hand that Green, at the very least, will have problems wriggling out from under and which could easily engulf Conservative Central Office and the whole of its party machine if were to be shown that Green had passed information on to other ministers or to Tory HQ."
The thing is, even this is a bit harsh on Damian Green. If you have a deep throat who is passing info on to you because they, in all concience, can't stomach the way the country is being run, there may - just about - be a defence that you can't be choosy about the info you are being given. Pick up information about dishonesty on Monday. Notice a bit of juicy polical gossip on Tuesday. Meet the sympathetic MP on Wednesday and let him have the lot - why not?

But this is the rub. As long as you have satisfied yourself that your informant is acting primarily in the public interest - that they have come to you with the information because they are worried about the public interest, then you - as an MP - still have a tenuous defence.

However, here is where it can flip over completely. Mick raises an interesting possibility - albeit an unlikely one. The real problem with what Damian Green is accused of here is that - if it goes from a civil servant to an MP - an unburdening of concience, then that is very much in the public interest. But if it is a MP actually running an active all-purpose political informant in a government department, then it becomes indefensible. To do so would be to make the country almost ungovernable. It would massively overstep the mark of legitimate democratic opposition.

It would immediately legitimise covert recruitment of civil servants by The Labour Party in advance of a General Election that they may lose. It would be a declaration of open season on The Official Secret.

I think that Unity is a little hasty to pin this on Damian Green, and I doubt if the Tories in general are that stupid. The only thing that gives me pause for thought are the rumours that Mick mentions - that there may also be a mole inside the treasury.

If - and I doubt if there would ever be anything like proof - The Conservative Party - or a number of Conservative frontbenchers -were actively soliciting political informants within the civil service, - running them in a co-ordinated way like the police run informers - it would be beyond outrageous. It would be stupid and self-defeating, and the consequences for anyone involved in it - at either end - would be (career-wise) terminal.

And - oddly - I'm more worried about democracy here than I am about pinning one on the Tories. It would debase politics itself if any opposition were so desperate that it went beyond democratic opposition and into covert disruption.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Want to know the reason.

Why is this site and this one nicking whole posts from my site and not even offering any acknowledgement?

That's what I want to know.

I'm pretty sure that it's being done manually. But why?

Politics is exciting again, innit?

We now own RBS.

I wonder if we'll do a good job of it? And if we do, how far will it change the political landscape?

You know what? Over the past couple of years I've been having little swipes at 'kremlinologists' and going on about how politics is just boring these days. But it's not now, is it?

Even though it's presage has been a financial catastrophe that will have a real impact upon a great many people, in the long run, it may be a time for fantastic optimism as well?

Joined the club yet?

Damian Green arrested

Not much to disagree with in Anthony's first reaction to this news.

It seems that he was in receipt of documents from an official that were leaked. I suppose that this should be the cue for a debate on how far the Civil Service should be encouraged to be whistleblowers (yay!) and how far they should be discouraged from conducting personal campaigns against their employers for personal and political reasons (boo).

If this case is the former, and Mr Green has encouraged this, it makes him a good MP. If he has been encouraging the latter, however, it's not only a disreputable activity, it is a stupid one. If the Tories are in favour of a collusion between politicians and vindictive civil servants, then I'm looking forward to any (necessarily short) spell of government that they may enjoy in the next couple of decades.

Either way, it makes the case for more in-and-outers - but no-one wants to hear that one. Least of all, the civil service....

How the Congestion Charge could be decided in a way that improves the quality of governance

Here's Steve Platt on Boris' 'consultation' about the western extension of the Congestion Charge Zone:
"The problem is that Bojo’s consultation exercise, in which he promised to ‘listen to the people of London’ and go along with whatever they said, has about as much to do with democracy as a phone-in talk show. Those who bother to express their views are those who feel strongest on the subject.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s those who were being made to pay more for the privilege of driving their petrol combustion engines through any semblance of a sensible transport and environmental policy who shouted loudest. Out of 28,000 responses (London’s electorate numbers 5,044,962, by the way), 67 per cent of individuals and 87 per cent of businesses said get rid of the zone, let us drive for free. You’d have had a similar response if you’d proposed abolishing car insurance.

Much less well-publicised has been the response to Transport for London’s mini-opinion survey on the subject. This was organised to see how representative the responses to Bojo’s consultation exercise were.

The answer is: hardly at all. In the TfL survey, only 41 per cent of individuals (out of 2,000 surveyed) favoured getting rid of the western extension and only half of businesses (out of 1,000). Thirty per cent of individuals favoured keeping it as it is and 15 per cent said they would keep it but make changes to the way it operates (such as easing restrictions in the middle of the day).

On a crude reckoning that makes a 45:41 per cent majority in favour of keeping a modified scheme – which is an odd sort of popular mandate for its abolition."
Boris should have just said this instead:
"Blinking flip! I put it in my manifesto. I won the election. I'm going to jolly well do it .... er jove."
Aside from the waste of energy and resources that this consultation caused, this is the kind of abuse that we can expect more of as long as we have this illiterate demand to be consulted and 'have our say' on any contentious issue.

A properly structured (televised?) public debate based on evidence, (and not one of those 'have-your-say-a-thons' that TV debates usually consist of) and then voted on by the individuals who have been elected to the London Assembly would have been a different matter altogether. Or even better - a weighted vote of the Assembly (reflecting the London-wide interest) and the relevant local councillors in the boroughs and wards effected.

When people talk about a "disenchantment with existing democracy", the answer isn't to cook up some scheme whereby the usual suspects - the fanatics, if you like, have a shouting contest.

It's one where we find ways to make votes at a local government and a regional government level count. Where the best decisions are the result of a distributed moral wisdom - not the diktat of a handful of powerful players using their aggregated power.

That means that we need elected representatives to be more communicative - to show their working, and to explain their decisions. And here's the big question; I suspect that - if you got most of our senior politicians into a Chatham House seminar with a few political scientists, that this is the conclusion that they would eventually reach (though probably with an understandable lack of enthusiasm) as well.

But there is no sign that this model of democracy is being promoted or facilitated either by the political parties, the government, or by many individual politicians. It is not the system that the permanent bureaucracy expect to have to work for, and in my experience, they actively undermine anything that looks a bit like it. This new study offers some confirmation of this view.

This is a representative democracy solution - not a direct democracy one. The improvement and logical trajectory of the world's most successful model of governance is - and will be - blocked by incumbents, both political and bureaucratic. And there isn't a popular movement anywhere speaking truth unto power about this.

Why? Bigger fish to fry?


The Independent has launched a LiveJournal blog - an interesting decision. I've never quite got LiveJournal, though I didn't persevere for very long. But I doubt if they can be making a worse job of using blogging platforms than any of their rivals.

It's called 'Independent Minds' - bit of a hostage to fortune, eh?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Edward Leigh - the name that Labour fear

The latest in the series. In a recession, what you really need is a useless opposition.

It's a shame that Pete stopped blogging.....

HP convention latest

Over at Olly's.

Voting systems

What do you think about electoral reform? What is the ideal system of expressing preferences, counting votes, and allocating them geographically or to particular human beings with varying degrees of mandate?

These are big questions. But they always seem to be dwarfed by the problem of change. Is it possible to change the voting system when the people who were elected using it have the casting vote? Surely they will always tend towards the status quo?

The current system is bloody awful. It puts the final decision – the verdict on who runs a highly centralised state – into the hands of a small number of voters in a narrow geographical area. Some would argue that the good thing about this system is that it gives all power to the most impulsive and undecided voters.

Some would argue this... but I wouldn’t.

The current government have had little problem in establishing different forms of voting for non-parliamentary (House of Commons, anyway) elections. Some of the regional assemblies have been fought on systems that are different from First Past The Post and haven’t attracted much criticism as far as I can see.

The European Elections are fought on the odious Party List system – one that appears to me to be an absolute travesty of everything that is good about elections – and one that shows just how far my own party are from grasping what is – for me – the most important thing about democracy. That it works best when legislation is the product of what Tony McWalter calls ‘distributed moral wisdom’.

On the inertia question, it seems to me that the waning primacy of the House of Commons both in terms of its inability to compete with the Core Executive (boo!) and the gathering forces of regional government (yay!) is one of the most interesting developments of the last decade. Perhaps an elected second chamber will park the question permanently?

A full list of UK voting systems can be seen here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I is a bloke

Via Sadie, I've run NTaH though this. At 81% male, I'm almost as ball-scratchingly masculine as Sadie is (she's 85% and Pootergeek - yes THAT Pootergeek is 90%!!!).

I think that gadget needs a tweak. I tried to get in touch with my feminine side once, but it turned out she was a very butch dyke who smoked cigars. Which explains why I get on so well with butch dykes who smoke cigars.

Too strong locally to ignore - who have a missed?

I was taking to someone earlier saying that there were only four British politicians that really were so strong in local government that they couldn't be ignored nationally. That their presence in central government owed a lot to their power at a local level.

I don't mean people who first made a bit of a reputation in local government before becoming national figures (Stephen Byers for example) or people who were strong in local government and became non-cabinet level national figures (Ken Livingstone for example*).

I ask this because it's a significant characteristic of French politics that many national figures are local powerbrokers who are too are too strong to exclude from government. Where the cabinet - to some extent - choose the PM and not the other way around. A useful side-issue in answering Harriet Harman's great question.

I said 'four' because years ago, I developed this argument in an essay that has long-since been lost. The four were....
  1. Herbert Morrisson
  2. Joseph Chamberlain
  3. David Blunkett
  4. .... er ....
Who am I missing?

*I would say, though, that Ken is a great example of someone who used his local powerbase effectively against the centre - but for the purposes of this question, he doesn't count.

The Crude Liberty Fetishists Movement

A movement has been formed with Henry Porter at it's head. They're doing a conference. They have a blog. It's all happening. Speakers include Iain Dale, David Elstein (the most committed and cynical campaigner against Public Service Broadcasting) and Dominic Grieve. 'Partners' include the Centre for Policy Studies and the Campaign for an English Parliament.

Oddly, you would have thought that Conor Gearty would have been asked to speak. Gearty is easily the most credible writer that I've found on the subject of civil liberties and he has a very good recent book to plug. For him, the whole question is inseparable from that of Representative Democracy - he sees the right to vote (and the right to vote within the context of Representative Democracy) as the core civil liberty. It is a liberty that is not especially valued by many (perhaps most?) of the speakers and partners of that conference.

Looking at that list of speakers, in almost every case, they have been flaky on that particular subject at some point. I would plot most of these people on the wrong side of the 'direct democracy / representative democracy' axis (or - following that link, dangerously high on the idealist/cynic scale).

Here's Gearty a while ago in The Guardian. I was going to selectively cut-and-paste a few choice sentences from it, but really, everyone who is thinking of going to that conference should read the whole thing - and hang around a bookshop long enough to get the gist of Conor's excellent book.

This fetishisation of individual liberties - one that works, at least in part,in opposition to Representative Democracy - needs to be opposed a good deal more that it is being at the moment.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Reading blogs as a substitute for formal education

Obvious omissions aside, this list is worth a look.

Via Bill T who wasn't omitted, obviously....

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A revolutionary programme

Here's Chris saying that the best policies aren't considered because of the constraints that politicians allow to have placed upon themselves.

He doesn't go into ways that those constraints can be removed though - and I think that this would go some way towards solving his problem. Here's the 'revolutionary' programme he was asking for:
  1. Increase the scope of the people who are actually elected to run the country according to very well-established principles of representative government - and ensure that their power is exercised in a more decentralised and less aggregated way
  2. Reduce the scope of people who haven't been elected to coerce us and to coerce or compete with the people we elect
  3. err..... that's it.
I understand that there are a few imperfections associated with people who are elected, but they're not as big as the imperfections of their rivals, and most of the reasons that they don't follow Chris' preference for choosing the 'effective' over the 'acceptable' can be dealt with by implementing point two of the programme (above).

These points may raise a few questions, but I'd be happy to answer them. In the meantime, would someone mind getting started building the barricades?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Harry Callahan on privacy

"Well, I'm all broken up over that man's rights!"

This sums it all up nicely:
"This isn’t some bastardised version of Pastor Niemoller’s famous speech, which as I recall did not in fact begin “first they came for the fascists”!"

Even our cities are no longer safe

I was just about to run up to the pub to watch Forest v Norwich, when I find out that there is Stupid Game international on TV starting now.

As this is a big city, I suppose that there is a small chance that there won't be enough inbreeds and sheepshaggers there to overrule me on my viewing choice. But I'm not betting on it.

A little way different

One of the finest, sweetest records ever made:

Crude liberty fetishists redux

I was told that Henry Porter (you know, that Henry Porter - the codpiece) has a blog.

Could someone give Conor Gearty the sort of money that you'd need to dine with Mr Porter - just to set him straight on a few things?

I've resisted looking until now. It's a great deal worse than I expected.

Empowerment, engagement or leadership?

Here's Kevin Harris on the question of 'community empowerment.'

Like the notion of 'community leadership,' I believe that it needs a good deal more examination than it's getting. And, with apologies, I've told you before that my main purpose in blogging here is to organise my own views and those that I read elsewhere. In the absence of a fully formed comment, there's this, this and this.

More later maybe.

Harriet's question (and the 'where do we put the silver spoons?' answer).

Purvis, Cameron or Windsor? Who would you want in your corner?

Apparently, people get the option of changing their name when they become King. I liked Sandi Tosvig's take on it (on the wireless, earlier today): Ethelred the I've-been-ready-for-bloody-ages.

In the meantime, on the question of Prince Charles' fitness to be taken seriously on matters of public policy, here's Anthony with another very good post:

"Yes, who needs politicians with their silly “democratic mandates” and their facile “years of experience hearing and channelling the views of voters”? If you really want to know how things are, you need to ask a man who was brought up surrounded by servants in a world of nearly unimaginable luxury.

It’s a strange fallacy, the idea that a hereditary monarch is going to be better at understanding the people than their elected politicians."
Most of the best stuff that I read these days is a restatement of the bleedin' obvious. However, it does raise another element of my recurring 'what sort of people do we want to represent us?' question. Harriet Harman's question about the complexion of Parliament should result in some interesting answers. Like all of the best questions, it's one that I think that few of us have a settled view upon.

As far as I can see, asking this question is one of the highest callings of any socialist government, and I'm surprised that my colleagues on the left haven't been holding bring-and-buys in order to raise money for Ms Harman's Xmas box in response to this move. Next time I see her, I'll be buying the first couple of pints.

In answer to the question, we all know people who are well-regarded by their peers. People who are widely trusted, competent, considerate, perceptive, dutiful, attentive, clever-enough, determined, reasonably incorruptible ..... go on - tell me if I've missed any virtues.

And as long as I had proof that their views on most policy issues were fairly lightly held, I think I'd be more prepared to vote for such a person than I would be to vote for someone who agreed with me on most things. Were this approach deployed more widely, I wonder if it could solve the BNP problem? And this in turn raises an important question: Are there social classes that would be disadvantaged by an electoral system that was able to select people such as this? Could a posh person qualify?

Reading this old post at S&M - and the comments underneath - we can find some of the answer. And while it's always satisfying to find arguments that show the unfitness of the current Tory leadership for power, I'm less certain that the notion of a non-social class-based 'political caste' is always a bad thing. Governance, surely, like other trades, can be imbibed over a long period and we don't have a problem with the fact that a lot of teachers' children go on to teach themselves, do we?

One of my favourite politicians at the moment is Belfast's Dawn Purvis MLA - a working class woman who really stands out above the noise and has taken a strong intelligent independent line on a number of things - not least the recent policing crisis. Here's a sample:
"Ms Purvis said, with irony, that the DUP and Sinn Fein had worked really hard - "hard to make unionist and republican dissidents relevant"; playing into the hands of the Real IRA on one side, and the Traditional Unionist Voice, on the other."
But imagine we were do draw a graph that showed the spread of social classes either by income or some other indicator: Would we want Parliament's profile to be similar?

Friday, November 21, 2008


Now that the BBC have been told not to build those local websites, we can be sure that private investment in high quality journalism will just come flooding in and we will see absolute proof that the BBC distorts the market!!?!

In other news, the reason the economy is in such a mess is because of too much government regulation!!

The Renegade

If Santa is reading my blog, he may wish to note that Mr Perryperson's Philosophy Football site is selling a Karl Kautsky t-shirt, and that I'm a svelte XL.

It says:
"Emancipation of their class appears to them a foolish dream. It is football which moves them and to which their material means are devoted."

Supporting almost every football team is a bit of a foolish dream these days. However, if Karl had spent his mid-teens in Nottingham in the late 1970s, his quote would have been more apposite then than it is now.


A disproportionate economic argument that threatens the BBC

As conservatives everywhere are deserting the old free-market standard, one of the last facets of it that they will abandon (because it’s so useful in their culture wars) is their hatred of public service broadcasting in general, and the BBC in particular.

They hate the BBC because it has concrete standards. Or, perhaps, it may be increasingly accurate to say that it had them.
Even the slightly tarnished reputation though, the BBC is beyond compare – and this is why the press – those who see themselves as the BBC’s rivals – are at their most poisonous and demagogic when they attack the Beeb.

The BBC represents the thinking of metropolitan elites – smartass folks who think we are descended from Monkeys. It is antithetical to the politics of its most vocal critics, not on the grounds that it’s taken sides in an intellectual argument, but that it fetishises the application of reason and intellect to a problem over the prejudices of angry losers.

However, the most dangerous line of attack is always a market-based one – one that has a superficial logic to it. A logic that often attracts people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the BEEB. It has two key elements;

  1. It is illiberal to compel people to pay a licence fee
  2. The BBC distort the workings of the market that would otherwise be benign.
The first point is absolutely correct – in the same way that it would be correct to say that it is illiberal to compel people to pay a tax. But today, only ultra-conservative fanatics would argue this – and politically, ultra-conservative fanatics no longer even need to be included in discussions any more.

The second point is both wrong and irrelevant. Let us first look at why it’s irrelevant before showing why it is wrong as well – just to be sure:

When you get this kind of ultra-economic analysis, you know that its authors are long on logic and very short on context and their assumptions.

I can understand the argument that the motor industry (to take an example at random) should not be subsidised. Why protectionism is not in the interests of humanity as a whole. That it is inefficient and unjust. I’d even agree with it more than the tossers who flew in to Washington in their Lear Jets to beg for a handout yesterday do.

On an even more clear-cut case, there is no rational objection to Europeans importing 100% of their rice from Asia (if indeed they do). But importing 100% - or even the majority of their TV content from the United States would be a different matter, surely?

To some extent, you can see what TV schedules would look like by scanning the offering of your local multiplex cinema tonight. Nearly all films that are either US-oriented or some transatlantic fudge at best.

Also, look at the importance of the industry. In human terms, TV and radio alone are absolutely vast. On average, the UK citizen spends six hours a day consuming radio and TV’s output.

The importance to our democracy is huge. The importance to our culture is huge – UK produced content is a glue that holds the country together in many ways. And I’ve already outlined why it is politically important that we have a broadcasting ecology that has to meet agreed standards. Compare Sky News in the UK and Fox News in the US if you don’t believe me about the benefits of UK regulation.

They may be vastly important in human terms, but as an industry, it is fairly small. Patrick Barwise of the London Business School points out that it is a £12bn industry – a mid-sized one that is dwarfed by the telecoms sector that OfCOM also regulates.

We have a debate on broadcasting and radio that the government has allowed to be dominated by economists who think that TV can be reguated in the same way that telephones are. These people should only be a sideshow. The systemic damage to the UK of running a broadcasting industry that is tainted by protectionism is minimal – while the consequences of not doing so would be to threaten an industry upon which so much hangs.

The question of how much of our disposable income we spend on the licence fee – the supposed injustice of a non-progressive ‘tax’ is fairly irrelevant given the relatively small amount concerned, and the relative importance of the product. And nine-out-of-ten of the people who bleat about this will never complain about regressive taxation at any other time!

The words ‘relatively’ and ‘relative’ are bearing a lot of weight in that last paragraph. We are talking about the relative difference between a dormouse and an elephant here. But seeing as the BBC’s critics wouldn’t acknowledge a point unless it was nailed through the middle of their forehead, let’s do just that now in the forlorn hope that it'll register:

The presence of the BBC – and to a lesser extent Channel 4 – does not distort a 'benign' market equilibrium. This is because economics of broadcasting are very unusual. In most spheres of industry there is (or perhaps, there was?) an assumption that 'public' is inefficient and expensive, while ‘private’ is bustling, busy, and lean. In broadcasting, the absolute opposite is the case.

The cost-per-viewer-hour of BBC content is very significantly less than that of pay TV. This problem is compounded by the fact that the only way that pay-TV can bring money into the industry is through advertising or subscription.

In the absence of the BBC and C4, if you have to pay more for more expensive TV, you will have to increase the subscription significantly because TV advertising is not only in slow decline, it also can’t be increased (in revenue terms) by making more time available to it across the board.

More channels = less revenue for most of them (particularly ITV and C4 in the UK’s case). So advertising funded TV is in long term systemic decline. And does lightly regulated Pay-TV defy the gravitational pull and actually make programmes? Hard-hitting documentaries? Drama? Kids TV? No. It doesn’t.

It doesn’t at the moment, and it is an ideological fantasy that it ever will. Sure, Pay-TV generates significant revenues. But they go largely to a few football clubs, players and agents (many of whom are not UK based, if we’re arguing about whether the cash goes into indigenous content).

Any profit maximising pay-TV operator in their right mind will much prefer to source imported content because it's a great deal cheaper, massively less risky, and usually of quite a high quality in itself. US-originated content is also designed to create a more attractive context for advertisers, so it delivers the consumers to those who are prepared to pay to reach them.

It will never generate revenue for UK-based producers. Neither will it provide a universal service. If the BBC were scrapped, a profit-maximising Sky would have a highly expensive ‘premium’ service for a small wealthy minority, and a standard service that would be out of the financial reach of the poorest sections of the population.

So here it is. Get rid of the BBC and you can say goodbye to any noticeable level of locally produced programmes – drama, documentary, kids TV and news programming. The democratic damage will be incalculable in a state where public service broadcasting has filled the gap left by our lack of bicameralism. You also increase the vocal range of a bunch of very thick seedy right-wing blokes that wouldn’t know news or comment standards if they were to bite their knackers off.
The BBC has enemies. It's time that this was acknowledged. And it's time that the majority of people who wouldn't want these demogogic sad-sacks to increase their influence to take sides.

The Man in the White Suit

You know what would make for a useful conversation?

Get ten trades unionists, ten industrialists and ten environmentalists into a room and show them all The Man in the White Suit. A drop of truth-serum in their tea on the sly would set it all up nicely.

They'd all enjoy it. And anyone listening in to the conversation afterwards would probably learn a lot. The whole thing is here.

Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood - the perfect combination.

"I should have joined UKIP instead..."

Get your laughing tackle around this:

"I'm no racist, but..."

(hat tip: Bill)

Good work by - I'm not generally amused by 'Downfall' parodies, but this one is somewhat appropriate, innit?

Righteous fury

"This is what really gets my blood boiling about these C-list Tories, UKIPers, BNP members, Daily Express readers and all the other usual suspects that refuse to pay their Licence Fee in the hope that they can get a few column inches devoted to their dismal and frankly unoriginal show of dissent in the local papers. They actually want to be oppressed. Now, you can call this whatever you want but it most certainly is not oppression."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sargeant and Boris - same sort of success

This whole argument surrounding John Sargeant's jump / being pushed off the dancing programme - and I mean pretty well every argument that I've read on the subject - is pure bollocks.

This was not a righteous snook being cocked by the masses towards the elites. It was not the hot breath of democracy on the necks of the faceless fixers.

This was another example of the Boris Johnson factor: I'm fairly certain that Boris was able to gather enough votes to get himself past Ken on the grounds that voting for him would be a bit of a laugh. The Tories knew what was on YouTube before they selected him, for fuxake....

Even I was almost (n.b almost) tempted to vote for him myself, purely because having him as Mayor will - at some point - add to the gaiety of the nation. He will, surely, make a compete tit of himself at a moment when every camera in the world is on him, won't he? On the night of the election, the pubs were full of people with slightly mad grins on their face.

They'd done something a bit daft and were going to have a bit of a laugh as a result.

Voting for John Sargeant was just a way for the public to tell those who were taking it all to seriously to lighten up a bit. The reward was watching the judges squirm. Voting for JS was was like putting a penny in to a machine that always guaranteed a laugh.

And like any budding demagogue, I'm with the people on this one. It's a nice antidote to the Ross / Brand hysteria a few weeks ago anyway.

Subsidy scroungers

From the excellent new 'Other Taxpayers Alliance' site, here's the first in a series!

"Sir Tom Cowie, Life President of Arriva, the train operator whose poor punctuality seems to grow in proportion to its subsidies."
Stop subsidising these scroungers!
Here's a nice quote from John Band a while ago that I meant to link to at the time, but didn't:
"...the TPA is a lobby group for well-off people. If it - or indeed, anyone whose concern with cutting taxes is motivated by ideology rather than personal venality - were truly interested in tax cuts for moral or efficiency reasons, it would focus on addressing the 80%+ marginal tax rates faced by very poor workers, rather than the frankly immaterial amounts of tax paid by those of us lucky enough to earn or inherit a lot of money."

The Taxpayers Alliance and sundry 'libertarians'

Firmly in the category "stuff I'd really like to have done myself if I could have got around to it", here is a lovely idea that should be added to every blogroll:

Dedicated to keeping an eye on one of the UK's most odious pressure groups. Please link to it. Now. Please?

(Hat-tip: Andreas)

And while you're at it, link to Bubblewrapped as well please? The site that gloats because it's right to gloat.

And reading this....

" economics Conservatives have retained a vestigial loyalty to the Thatcherite paradigm. That is why their attacks on Brown ring so hollow: voters know that the problems did not begin with Brown's chancellorship. They intuitively grasp paradigm shifts and believe that the Tories are still working within the economic framework that initiated the crisis.

Burdened with debt and broken by speculation, voters want an alternative to the economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years. The irony is that Conservative social thinking should allow them to dispense with this ideology. Instead, they sound as if they plan to practise Thatcherite austerity in the face of a deepening and deflationary recession."

....I sat on the train this morning thinking: Maybe some of them would actually be prepared to sign that statement after all?

An cúpla focal in your ear

It seems that an Irish Language Act is to introduced in Northern Ireland shortly. What 'introduced' means, exactly, I don't know as the ways and means of Stormont are something of a closed book to me.

Either way, I'd find it hard to be against such a thing as I'm generally keen on structural rules that disrupt the flexibility of cultural markets. The protection and enhancement of languages provides for the kind of cultural interventionism that I'd like to see more - not less - of.

Yet I can't help thinking that they may end up being just another peg to hang the ubiquitous sectarian needle that lurks in every corner of Northern Irish political discourse.

How long before an Ulster Scots Language Act is introduced as well?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


This gorgeous site of short old topical films is well worth a look- wait till you have time though - you won't want to leave it. I posted something a while ago here about how good a (non-financial) investment street-scene photography is, and how fascinating the product can be.

I wonder if any of it is going on these days? Is it something that no-one values enough to actually do? I don't - but I'm sure that in 30 years, I'll wish I had.

(Hat Tip: Bill Thompson)

Oh - and Bill is also helping to spread this one around about Old St / Silicon Alley web development outfits: "You don't have to be Matt to work here - but it helps."


A nice economic stats explainer here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tory bloggers - the people that Labour fear

A while ago, I argued that the 'advantage' that the Tories had over Labour in the blogging stakes was not an advantage at all.

If you knoworramean.....

(I particularly liked that bit about how ConservativeHome = Continuity IDS).

Quick question

Quick question: regardless of content, what's the best looking blog that you know of?

I like Chicken Yoghurt's rotating use of cartoons. I like Irish Left Review's group-blog layout. I used to like Conservative Home but it's dated very quickly.

Do any stand out for you?

Hello flowers! Hello sun!

Here's Don Paskini and a good post on 'community empowerment'. A few bits to quibble about there - I may return to it when I've got a bit more time.

It really is a sign of the times though, that a site like The Liberal Conspiracy thinks that there is some margin in engaging constructively with a Labour government.

I know they always think that's what they've been doing, but ... oh ... call me a witless optimist if you like, but somehow, things seem a lot more possible now than they did three months ago. The current economic crisis may be a calamity visited upon us all by the thieves of Wall St and The City in the short term .... but .... just think of the amount of bullshit that we aren't going to have to take seriously in future - post Obama, post Lehmans.

All together now....
The Witch!
What is she good for?
Absolutely nothing!
Say it again!

The Devil has the best tunes

Tom Freeman has a couple of nice aphorisms on his site today - here.

I like the libertarian, Keith Preston's view of democracy:
"An institution in which the whole is equal to the scum of the parts."

or H.L.Mencken's ....
"...a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

And de Tocqueville’s aside that...
“ election is nothing more than an advance auction of stolen goods.”

Misanthropy is always funnier than the alternatives - something that is slightly upsetting. Take one of the factors in 'Parkinson's Law' for example:
'An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals'

All good funny stuff, and all broadly in line with the less palatable extremes of crude public choice theory.

Then there's Colbert:
"The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to get the most feathers with the least hissing."

And while many of Machiavelli's best lines weren't distilled into aphorisms or were lost in translation, reading him is quite a laugh as well.

On Radio 4's News Quiz, Jeremy Hardy got lots of laughs when he said that "Capitalism is a nice idea in theory, but it will never work in practice." I wonder if he's ever been here before?

As a response, I will now change the sub-header of this blog from "Be reasonable - demand the possible" to "The road to hell is paved with bad intentions". But all of this just goes to show, once again, that if you want laughs, you should probably be looking elsewhere.

I used to work on a leftish magazine many years ago. The Xmas special issue had a jokes section, and unusually, all employees were consulted, including the reptiles in the ad department (yours truly). It became quite a bone of contention. My suggestions, and those of some of the blokes / blokier women (Post-Feminists) excited enough anxiety for a committee to be set up to vet each suggestion. As one sage commented, "this is no laughing matter."

Public notice

I recently fiddled about with the templates here, using Blogger's new, tidy, widget-management system, and replacing it with my clunky old freehand template.

For some reason, it imported an old saved version of my blogroll rather than the most recent one. I really can't think why it did that, but there you are. As a result, some of my favourite blogs have disappeared from the blogroll and I've had one or two slightly indignant '... and I thought we were friends!!' emails from people to whom no slight was intended. Not that a few slights are occasionally dished out, just to keep the old juices flowing...

So, if you were on the blogroll, and are now not, please let me know and I'll fix it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Web-usability and decentralisation

Anthony has a really excellent post here about the tensions between demands for local accountability and the needs of national government. Don't let anything I say here now distract you from reading the whole thing.

The core question that Anthony goes over is the need for "balancing effectiveness and democratic accountability in delivery of local services centred around individuals."

I read the post just after having looked at an online presentation about usability and the iPhone (ta Kathryn), and it started me thinking about different models of decentralisation. And Anthony's implied use of the term 'user-centred design' (OK, he didn't use those exact words, but still...) made me think about how developments in software will change things. How the medium will shape the message.

Usability and interface design is a fascinating subject. It's a huge growth area in commercial web-development, and the increasing seriousness with which it's taken says a lot about the maturing industry. It has the potential to turn unused services into highly efficient ones if it's done properly.

The practice of usability in design offers a number of lessons that translate well outside the world of XHTML and CSS.

The title of first book that I flicked through on the subject about seven years ago - 'Don't Make Me Think' - is one such lesson that has implications for the whole dialogue around choice. How far does it get in the way of ... well... choice? And, really, since about 2001, books like that, and the work of Jakob Nielsen and others have had a massive impact well beyond the GUI design sphere.
Another is the question of the legitimacy of market choices as a rival to democratic ones. One of the staples of Public Choice Theory has always been that we make only one big decision at the ballot-box every five years and a few smaller ones in between, whereas we indicate dozens of preferences each day at the checkout (and, increasingly, via Worldpay). As Chris Dillow put it when I interviewed him a while ago, "imagine if we bought our food simply by voting for Tesco or Sainsbury every five years."
Now, I don't want to go into it too much here as it's the subject of a book rather than a blog-post, but - as Tom suggests here, this notion of rationality, with markets as their expression, leaves a great deal to be desired.

Indeed, picking up on the discussions around 'behavioural economics', perhaps in some ways, usability and web-design can tell us more about people's preferences. When Anthony talks about user-oriented design of local government services, it is noticeable how little attention is paid by policymakers into the subject of web-usability.

Usability works in a number of ways. Firstly, it re-focuses the design of the interface upon the needs and preferences of the user. In terms of web-accessibility (a separate, but closely-related idea), this means allowing users to customise the interface to meet their particular physical requirements. Poor eyesight? Change the font-size. Dyslexic? Change the fonts and the colours, use a speech-browser, and so on.

One mistake a few commentators make is that accessibility = political correctness. In reality, what this evolving science does is that it removes bureaucratic and diagnostic boundaries around needs and abilities. The 'skip navigation' links that appeared early on when sites had a separate 'text-only' interface. The convention has now been mainstreamed, and many of the better websites offer automatic browser-sensitive options such as single-column views of websites for mobile phones.

So a highly literate, perfectly-sighted athlete can navigate their way around your website on their mobile phone, while riding a bicycle, using only their thumb. And someone who doesn't have the use of their hands and has a visual impairment can using assistive technology interfaces can do so as well.

Things move on. It's a couple of years since I worked around accessible web design, and I know certain approaches to web-accessibility rapidly move from orthodoxy to heresy in this evolving sphere, so I'll leave it there.

But there are other issues. Matching expectations with the use of language, for instance. Have a look at as an example. The design is straightforward, the language used is attractive, and subtly honest - you don't get scripts that pretend to be human in some way with the messages that you are given.

And then there is commercial usability. Large retail websites spend a fortune watching user groups use their website. Put most crudely, eye-tracking software will tell a researcher exactly where on the screen a user first glances when they decide to buy something. The 'Buy Now' button gets moved to that spot as soon as the research results are in. But, more broadly, whole businesses can be re-designed following a usability exercise.

One report that a saw a while ago said that eye-tracking software could even be applied to window shoppers. Look at an item in the window, and find some context-sensitive help that tells you what a bargain it is. Privacy issues abound there, of course.

Enough, already. What I'm trying to say, in summary, is this:

Services can be perfected quite rapidly using other evidence than market data, and this is starting to happen in a way that it didn't use to.

Now, back to Anthony's article. Much of the distrust between Westminster governments and local bureaucracies is in the quality of service design and implementation. One thing Anthony didn't really pick up on is the way that this results in a managerial centralisation - where services are boiled down to processes that are designed to remove professionals and expertise and replace them with a more narrow, er.. flexible workforce. We are seeing feedback mechanisms and - ultimately - service design being perfected centrally and applied locally.

It would be interesting to hear views on how effective this approach is destined to be - it's one that has been barely started, but one that could be expected to evolve rapidly over the next decade.

Will we have a need for locally-designed and implemented services in ten years time? Or will we have replicable bureaucracies all over the country - doing things in the same way, responding to feedback in the same way, allowing users to shape services in the same way? And if so, will this clarify the real political questions that preoccupy elected representatives?

Will it reduce their reliance upon local civil servants? I'm inclined to think it will.

Will it increase the power of those elected representatives? I'm inclined to think it will.

In the wider context of e-government infrastructure combined with post-bailout new thinking, this is an exciting time. I'd argue that a centralisation in the way that services are designed by users may ultimately provide local government with the kind of 'dashboard' that it needs to actually make manageable local decisions again without exciting the displeasure of a Whitehall bureaucracy that can snatch powers away at the first hint of incompetence.

Perhaps this is very deterministic - even idealistic - but it is possible, surely, that centralisation in service design will result in political decentralisation. A new sort of 'subsidiarity'?

I know I'd really need to write a book rather than a post to make this point properly, but can you see where I'm going?

Oh - one final point: Have you noticed that the countries that are the best at designing usable process-fitting products that value design as highly as technical innovation (mobile phones, flat-pack furniture) are the Scandinavian social-democratic societies that have spent the last thirty years being the least distracted by the irrelevant arguments around the need for a universal market determinism in everything?

Friday, November 14, 2008

What do I do now Joe?

Joe The Plumber is writing a book. He has a website. He's planning a blog...

"The other day, I was contacted by 72-year old man who pleaded with me to share his story with the media and politicians. He and his wife lost all of their savings in the stock market recently. They worked all their lives for this country and now they have nothing. Why? Because of corruption in Washington. That man asked me, “What do I do now Joe?”"
Well, for one thing, you can forget about blaming Washington and have a look at Wall St instead?

(Hat tip: Tim on Facebook)

Meanwhiles, who sucks the most? Gum-voting here:

(Via Dominic)

Time to slip the apron strings

On the subject of profligate politicians, doing politics on the rates, I'm generally in favour of it. The more politics that gets done on the rates, I reckon, the less other anti-democratic stuff gets funded out of the public purse.

If Parliament had the resources it would need to take over the management of regulators such as OfCOM, the odious Standards Board, the useless BBC Trust and so on, I'm sure that they would be run a lot better. If politicians had direct control over financial regulators, for example, we could have saved £tens of billions this year alone!

Where's my proof, I hear you ask? I have none: Apart from to say that Parliament surely couldn't have done a worse job - and if it had, you the voter would have been able to make the tossers take the blame.

Isn't it odd how effective the civil service are at getting people who aren't politicians to run the country? And how complicit we all are in this process?

Now, on the same theme, here's one set of politicians who are doing their stuff on the rates and really taking the piss. Time to slip the apron strings and sort something out for yourself lads?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.

Here's a really good post from Will Davies about the problem of 'moral bragging'. If we didn't have a cultural cringe when people brag about how they've done something good, would it make us behave differently - and better?

Will suggests it may. As he says:
"Don't knock spin: people who choose to project a positive image of some form are typically obliged to at least partially live up to it (this is the same reason why Corporate Social Responsibility should not be dismissed too lightly)."
And that's the thing, isn't it? Personally, I don't believe - deep down - that people respond positively to a grouping (say, for example, a political party) telling the public that they are the good people and the other lot are mad, bad and wrong. Or even the milder version of it. I don't believe it works because something tells me it would backfire. I suspect most people I know would agree with me here.

BUT politicians do keep doing it. This is either because they don't know something that is obvious to myself and my mates, or it's because they know something that myself and my mates don't know. I'm kind of inclined to believe that the latter is true - though obviously, it's a fairly ropey rational process that leads to this conclusion. As Will says:
"Bizarrely enough, the spin politicians apply to their own lives is the direct inverse of the spin we apply to our own lives; while they play up their moral heroism and play down their aesthetic taste, we do quite the opposite."
And why don't we brag about our altruism for self-interested reasons? It's a bit like that thing Mrs T said about power: If you feel the need to tell someone you have it, you haven't got it. We know the one thing that would convince everyone that we are charlatans would be if we were to trumpet our little kindnesses and sacrifices.

Going back to that first quote though, there's something else:
  1. Politician highlights their own virtues
  2. Will is happy about this because politician is obliged to go some way towards living up to this heightened expectation. Politician rewarded with short-term 'bounce'
  3. Politician eventually falls slightly short (whilst actually being quite a paragon by most people's standards)
  4. Mass response: cynicism, idealism, disillusionment, nihilism etc etc
Would the same thing happen to ordinary people who started bragging about their nicenesses? Would a social reputation for 'dispenser of kindness' be effectively abolished in the same way as alchemy was? Because alchemists weren't abolished for the same reason that torch-bearers were. They didn't become obsolete. Their customers began to believe that it had never been service worth paying for in the first place.

So - on the one hand, I'd be inclined to tell Will to keep his virtues to himself. As one Yeshua Ben Joseph allegedly said:
"...when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you."

Matthew 6.
On the other hand, having being brought up as a Catholic, one of the few other things that stuck, perhaps, is a contempt for despair. The greatest sin of all. This may be the reason that Spiked Online (among other libertarian organs) gets so far up my nose. It's the utter impatience with the very idea of a positive human agency - that no situation is so bad that it won't be made worse by someone trying to improve it. Do-gooders, and nanny-staters, and so on.

Is this idiocy the result of kindness never being able to speak its name? Never being able to underline it's own importance?

Maybe. But, in conclusion, I have no answer to Will's question really. It's a good one though, isn't it?

Labour's fear deepens

Hopi is wrong.

George Osborne is the name that Labour fear!

Dead Witch - latest

This, over at GToR is really worth a look.

....for all the left’s remarkable resurgence, it still has no idea what it stands for. The post-industrial, post-cold war left remains, as this work incontrovertibly illustrates, a decidedly reactionary tendency, a loose bundle of issues and grievances having as much to do with one another as, well, as adjacent stories in a newspaper....

.... the newsprint theory of social progress – the creation of a progressive majority organized against a series of immanent, rightist wrongs, and sharing nothing so much as common heading, the obvious being obvious, that of the New York Times.

It does - for me - raise a bit of a question: How far was the liberal capitalist consensus - the one that has broadly engulfed even ultra-pristine organs such as My Very Own Labour Party (removes cap, stands up straight for a moment) - one that was the product of political devilment, and how far was it simply a consequence of the popular narrative?

I ask this because, I suspect, that many of these liberals are feeling a bit hard-done-by at the moment? After all, they - y'know - opposed the bail-out - y'know, deep down. And it was the fault of the government dontcha know?

Has the left failed to frame anything of a narrative because of a lack of a following wind? And will this all change - now that The Witch is Dead? Can we expect an end to this nonsense and a growing realisation that there is a need to develop an understanding of how collective action works and how it can be translated into a programme?

Is this the reason that Labour really needs at least one more term?

I think - and I hope - that a programme can only be developed once you have a following wind. I say this because I think we (the left) have one now for the first time in a long time. Just look at how Thatcherism developed as an example. It was sort-of serendipitous for them in many ways.

Mrs Thatcher only really stumbled on council house sales and privitisation largely by accident. Looking back now, it's hard to believe that it wasn't all hatched in the basement of the IEA in the early 1970s, but in reality, it wasn't in the 1979 manifesto, and only cast a pale shadow over the 1983 one....

Scrap The Standards Board!

Flying in the face of everything that is proper and decent, I'd like to say that Dizzy is absolutely right in saying that The Standards Board wastes its time and our money. (OK, it's an old post, I missed it the first time, but still...).
Between 2004 and 2008, the Standards Board for England investigated a total of 2937 complaints. Of those 2344 either had "no evidence of breach" or "no further action".

That means that 80% of the complaints that were made were, for want of a better word, spurious and/or baseless. The total cost of investigating these complaints was £21,024,225 of which £16,274,604 was spent on the spurious or baseless complaints.

Is there, or can there be, a justification for the existence of quango that spends 80% of its time investigating things with no outcome at a cost of £16.2 million? I'd say there isn't.

Me neither. And all of this really does throw complaints by right-wingers about how democracy is all a waste of money, and that politicians are doing politics (and lavish lifestyles to boot!) on the rates.

If you were to argue that £21 million should be spent on state-funding for political parties over a four year period, I expect that you'd get the usual barrage of abuse from the anti-politics hardcore that we all (and most readers of this blog - yes - I do mean you) give an easy ride to most of the time.

But £21million to fund a group of bureaucrats with a brief to create an effective rival for politicians? No bother. Not a squeak. Or not until Dizzy squeaked, anyway....

Song of the day!

I was walking down the street
And tripped up on a discarded banana skin
And on my way down, I caught my head on a protruding brick chip
It was the government's fault.
It was the fault of the government.
I was very let down with the budget.
I was expecting a one million quid handout.
I was very disappointed.
It was the government's fault.
It as the fault of the government.
I became semi-autistic type person
And I didn't have a pen
And I didn't heve a condom
It was the fault of the government
I think I'll emigrate to Sweden or Poland
And get looked after properly by government

They have vouchers in Poland?

While you're here, this is the song of tommorow - and with any luck, the next coupla decades:

Go on. Ask! "What are you on about?"

Ask me - while I'm still pissed? Please?