Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time for action

I missed this the first time around. It's just been e-mailed to me as it's an occasional theme here.

Will Hutton, columnist and chief executive of the Work Foundation asks Misha Glenny, journalist and author

Q Should the EU threaten Italy with expulsion unless it gets to grips with organised crime?

A Bulgaria is on the verge of being denied significant development funds from the European Commission because its government has failed to crack down on organised crime. The Commission is doing this to demonstrate that membership does not give incoming countries the right to break the rules. That same leverage, however, does not seem to apply to member states which joined before the Balkan and east European members, not to mention founder members such as Italy.

Naples is the biggest organised crime-related scandal in Europe and successive Italian governments have demonstrated that they are hopeless, spineless and entirely unwilling to get to grips with a situation that shames the entire European Union. The influence the Italian prime minister wields over the broadcast media would not be tolerated in any other European country as it clearly represents an intolerable conflict of interests.

While Italy's expulsion would not benefit anyone, it may be time to consider the selective withholding of certain subsidies and benefits that Italy derives from EU membership unless it makes its central priority the eradication of Camorra influence in Naples, the 'Ndrangheta in Reggio Calabria, a slightly resurgent Cosa Nostra in Sicily, and the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia.


Update: Will sent me this, to amplify it all.

Direct democracy, liberty and liberality

A warning from Switzerland.

(h.t. Democratic Society Blog - again!)

Blogging, politics and journalism

Have a read of this will you?

(ht: Democratic Society Blog)

Alternative employment?

The Political Betting site is asking if Labour's dire polling will excite otherwise loyal MPs to seek a change of leader. In the past, the threat of losing their jobs has concentrated MPs minds wonderfully.

I have one question: Has the value that MPs place upon their jobs changed at all? It's a question that is pertinent to my post on the relative value we place upon politicians the other day.

Could Brown be safer than pundits expect because MPs are less likely to regard their job as the best-paid one open to them, or the one allows them to achieve their personal and social goals most effectively? Do MPs regard their job as the key to a high social status? Could Labour have 212 MPs who quietly think that a change of employment isn't as unattractive as you'd think it is? Maybe it's in everyone's interests to hang on to Brown for the time being?

Surely the threatened 212 MPs could get a job as a lobbyist, or work for a pressure group? They could get work as a columnist instead? It'd be less work, less travel, they wouldn't have people poring over their personal expenses making rude, unfounded suggestions about their motives all of the time. They could probably match their salaries with a couple of non-exec directorships and thereby improve their social standing among the kind of movers and shakers that impress the commentariat.

Or could it be that MPs value their social status with different non-metropolitan peer-groups more highly? And is this why the kind of people who do this job are the best people who can do the job?

As I say, these are just questions I have for you.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Minor personal note

As of now, I'm self-employed. It's a situation that I've wanted for myself for ages, and I've got here in a fairly crabwise sideways manner.

I'm telling you this because this blog could now go one of two ways. Either I get loads of work, and nothing appears here for months. Or the world spurns my charms and I'm posting frantically.

Or the third, more likely option. I get tons more work than I can do, and end up posting here as a displacement activity.

We'll see.

More than just poor taste

I've always struggled to explain to people why the purveyors of bad music aren't only responsible for a tasteless aesthetic.

Is there a deeper reason why...
  • James Blunt,
  • Keef and Mick,
  • Radiohead,
  • The Kaiser Chiefs
  • Pink Floyd,
  • Coldplay
  • Led Zep,
  • The Scissor Sisters
... or The Corrs should be dragged from their beds by a worker militia and summarily thrown from a high building?*

Well, scratch the bastards and see what crawls out ... every time.

(ta Padraig)



*Only joking. I really mean to say 'be given a jolly good ticking off in the reviews section of all good newspapers.

Twat-o-tron

Autogenerator from spEak You're bRanes.

As well as autogenerating comments from the BBC site, it also auto-generates a blog as well!




Update: I've just realised that the alma mater picked up on this one already - I've been summoned for a stern dressing down! *blush*

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Something to be abated by Mr Cutler

Is it noisy where you live?

(not everywhere is covered by this project yet)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Counterarguments?

A windfall tax on excess energy-industry profits. There's a good environmental case for it.

It has a powerful backer. And it solves the same political problem that less satisfactory rival proposals aim to address.

Roy thinks it's a political winner for Gordon Brown*.

What's wrong with the idea?


(*Fair warning: All comments along the lines of 'if Hattersley is advocating it, it's a bad idea'
will be deleted instantly)

Undervaluing politicians

The most interesting sorts of bloggers, I think, are the prolific ones that avoid groupthink and offer a non-standard combination of positions. S&M is as good an example as I can think of. And one of the valuable services he provides (to me, anyway) is that he has introduced me to a few of the arguments that I'm about to use against him.

For instance, here, when he argues that MPs don't provide incalculable value to the public, I think that he his general position of other issues should make it difficult for him to stand by this particular line.

The post implies a chicken-egg question: Do we get poor MPs because we don't pay them enough, or are MPs insufficiently impressive to make the case for higher salaries for themselves?

I'm a bit confused with Chris' argument here. On the one hand, he is (elsewhere) very keen on the idea that we aren't very good at spotting talent. Yet he's overconfident, I think (heh heh) about his own ability to recognise where MPs perform a worthwhile service.

Now, let us, for a moment, leave aside Chris' own caveats about whether salaries are hugely important in incentivising public sector workers to perform. It is much more productive to count the ways that MPs are undervalued:

For example, do MPs make the right decisions? I would generally pay top-dollar (if I had it) for the least-worst advice available to me, and this is what MPs - in aggregate - provide every day in parliament. I'd want my decisions to be made by a large-ish number of people who are sufficiently detached, not a hostage to pressure groups or any of the fanatics that keep Chris awake at night.

Yet our economy (and I'm a contributor to it) offers very lavish rewards to people who offer much poorer advice. CEOs of pressure groups, for instance. Lobbyists. Columnists.

I'd be keen for MPs not to be experts, but generalists who have access to a wide range of experts and an overview of the mechanisms that recommend particular policy decisions. This is the best way to make the big decisions that effect us all, and MPs are ideally placed to provide this service. We reward 'experts' more than we reward MPs.

In choosing experts and interpreting indicators (which is what they will essentially be doing when they make parliamentary decisions), they are all bound to make numerous mistakes, so I'd like those mistakes to be compensated for by the mistakes of others: I'd like an aggregated moral wisdom to prevail. From my extensive reading of Chris' site, I think that this is exactly what he would like as well.

Yet we all piss and moan about paying a few hundred MPs, while tens of thousands of people work in lobbying, campaigning, wonking - earning a great deal more than MPs do in many cases. These people make their living from an attempt to disrupt that aggregated moral process.

I'd like them to be the sort of people that lots of volunteers will turn out to support. Not the ones that will appeal to a small number of prissy wonks, or the ones that will wow couch potatoes. Better to have the ones that have enough personal traction to get the envelope-stuffers, the leafletters and the canvassers to give up their Sunday mornings. The ones who can appeal to activists as well as floating voters. So their lack of telegenics (?) is to their credit.

These are not bright stars that please a small number of paid commentators intensely. They offer a slight reward to a large number of active middle-aged folk that live in the constituencies that they hope to represent. Indeed, our revealed preference (heh heh heh) is for exactly the sort of people that we currently have in Parliament rather than ones that are more noticeably impressive.

So, I think that this makes the case for more politicians, not less. I could extrapolate it into a need for more competing parliamentary institutions, but I'll do that another time.

It also makes the case for them to be able to command more resources than they currently do, in order to be even more independent of pressure groups, and so on. The one fly in my ointment is MPs over-reliance on political parties (groupthink being the main enemy of any 'aggregated wisdom' formula). This could be solved by the particular decentralising form of state-funding that I've been advocating here for a while.

I'd qualify all of this by saying that - aside from signaling - there isn't a particularly strong argument for MPs to have their pay increased that much - I couldn't turn any of the foregoing into an argument that we would get better MPs than we have if we paid them more.

The signaling is important though. Plenty of lobbyists earn six-figure salaries. Self-esteem is an important incentive, and to be gloated at by someone who contributes a fraction of what you do to the public good (or even subtracts from it) can't be easy to stomach.

By their very existence, and the kind of people that they are, they are each worth more than dozens of lobbyists, pressure groups, professional commentators and bureaucrats.

MPs are - by a country mile - the UK's most undervalued workers.

Sacred music

I've just seen this: Apparently, as an agnostic / borderline atheist*, I shouldn't like religious music.

I've been thinking about posting something on 'sacred music' for some time. Nothing very profound or original; just to pass on an observation that was made (in a much longer way) on a BBC4 programme a while ago.

It was something like this: That religious choral music is almost unique in that it is a concerted attempt to make noise that can be unequivocally described as beautiful. This is because the intended audience is not interested in getting laid, having a dance, or being provoked to think in any way.

When people compose music, they do it for all sorts of reasons, but very rarely simply to create something that is purely, subjectively beautiful, and this is why sacred music is so singularly fascinating.

What do you think about that? I don't think you need to believe in a god of any kind to see some sense in that argument, do you?

*I'm only an agnostic because I think that atheists are too religious for my liking

Popularity. And why losing elections isn't the end of the world.

Nothing new to say here today. A few pointers off though.

Firstly, there's this (from a review of 'Against the Machine: Being Human in the Era of the Electronic Mob' by Lee Siegel):
"...popularity for popularity's sake. It used to be that to be successful you had to stand out; to be different but Siegel argues that popularity is Web culture's Holy Grail. To be popular it's necessary to be like others, to be as like as many others as possible, so success on the internet goes to those who are more like everyone else than anyone else. It seems to me that mediocrity is inherent in this approach but Siegel makes a convincing argument that this is the way the internet will go."
And, totally unconnected, there's this from Foolish Interruption:
"In every walk of life a fair proportion of people in the top jobs - let's say half as a conservative estimate - shouldn't be doing them. We've all seen them, haven't we?: the bullies, the shits, the creeps, the toadies, the timeservers the yes-men, the plotters, the pushy, the venial and - oh dear, yes - the well-connected crowding out their more scrupulous and able cohorts. It's not that talent doesn't have a part to play, but often enough it needs a hefty slice of luck - being in the right place, having the chance to display your mettle - and quite possibly some of the other attributes mentioned here.

Think too of the professional pontificators who have nothing worth saying, financial speculators who can only follow the herd, the writers who can't bleeding write, the managers who can't manage, business people whose greed is matched only by their incompetence; why should politicians be any different?

Put it this way: it's not especially outrageous to suggest that there are a lot of politicians who have the capability to climb the greasy poll, but that that capability doesn't equip them for the job they are supposed to do: assist in the government of the country in the best interests of its people – and it certainly doesn't equip them to spot and support the best people to lead said government. If anything the nature of politics is such that it exacerbates this problem."
Just one comment on that second quote: The fact that politicians sometimes pick the wrong leader is actually very good for democracy. Increasingly, we are warned, politics is becoming a profession. A science. Power-through-triangulation. Once you are in power, you can pull the levers to ensure that you stay in power.

And people like me get upset when the party that they support balls it up. But it also creates an opportunity for democratic competition. And that's good, innit? EVEN if it results in The Bullingdon Boy grinning outside No10 in a few years time.

Euro 2008 - the PC guide

Apparently, we should be cheering for Sweden.

Via Platty's comments.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Blogger demographics

... from the US, anyway.

Go on. Have a look. See if there are any surprises there?

Rhizome - the new superpower

Here. Via Alex Harrowell (who thinks that the EU could be a prototype of a rhizomatic form of government).

(A Fistful of Euros has been very good in general lately)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Worth a look

Worth a look over at Westminster Wisdom: A good post on British industrial documentaries from the 1930s.

A nation laughs

In the same way that it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at John Terry's tears the other night, I hope that I can - for once - unite all of the readers of this blog in congratulating Doncaster Rovers on their magnificent win this afternoon.

Like the entire nation, my thoughts are with the supporters of Leeds United this evening.

Thoughts. And laughter.

The illiberality of plebiscites

Alex Harrowell on the illiberality of direct democracy, this time in Switzerland. I should really apologise, by the way, for linking to a post elsewhere that makes a case that I've been striving to make for some time.

More, perhaps than any other single issue, I wish that this point were widely discussed and acknowledged.

Working to avoid uncertainty

Gordon Brown's projected demise raises a few questions for me that I've not really seen answered.

There are more than one, but this post will focus on this:

Why has it taken so long for a 'Gordon Must Go' bandwagon to get rolling?

I have a theory about this: It is that the media has a collective subconscious that works to ensure that there is always going to be an easy story to write for tomorrow's deadline. When Ken Livingstone first made it clear that he intended to run for London's mayoralty, for example, there was a unspoken collective decision made that this would be a good thing.

It would wipe the smile of Tony Blair's face for starters. At the time, this was a new and interesting possibility. And it would advance the trope that a generally friendly media was comfortable with:
New Labour are a good thing. They are very sensitive to the prejudices of newspaper proprietors, they are not making a mess of the economy, but even WE object slightly to being patronised in the way we are, and the stage management is getting a bit irksome.
Thus 'spin' and 'control freakery' the first tentative punches to really land on the Blair project. The two bits of moany consensus-building that hacks could participate in without really annoying their bosses.

Ken Livingstone was a perfect vehicle for this. For over a year, he was completely soft-pedaled by the same hacks that monstered him a few years earlier. Red Ken, the honorary patron of Black Unemployed Anti-Vivisectionist Lesbian Anarchists Against The Bomb, the IRA apologist, the bug-eyed Marxist nutcase, became a cuddly, clubabble, lefty buffer. A reminder of when politics was about something, before all of this awful spin.

It was only when the blameless and reluctant Frank Dobson had been seen off and the mayorality was in the bag did the murmuring start again against Ken.

And Boris, I think, benefited from a similar conspiracy this time. Now, I know it sounds partisan, but I think that Ken genuinely has a grievance after the recent elections. He wuz robbed. On his watch, he got the Olympics here, pulled off a very successful implementation of a congestion charge, managed to secure massive investment in the Tube and finally got Crossrail off the starting blocks. Both Labour and the Tories supported the PPP that resulted in Metronet fleecing Londoners - surely the biggest failure of governance in the capital for decades? And who was the most vocal opponent to the original deal? Ken!

Did he get any credit for this? Did he hell. His many successes were ignored, and his numerous shortcomings were foregrounded. Boris' many weaknesses got the same treatment as Ken's virtues. Why?

Because newspapers have joined Project Cameron? Well, yes, partly.

Because newspapers want to give Labour a kick in the goolies? Yes, up to a point - but not overwhelmingly. The Murdoch press is STILL hedging it's bets and The Daily Mail hates Brown a lot less than it hated Blair.

But that collective subconscious knew that there was a general anti-Labour story, one that involved Cameron shaping up as a viable alternative by beating Labour on it's own manor, and it is a story that that could be rehearsed easily. But the main attraction of Boris is this: He is going to supply so much great copy for years to come. The strain was evident throughout the campaign. Every time the camera fell on Boris, you could see him struggling not to say 'cripes' or 'picanniny'. Not to offer some Auberon Waugh-ish general insult in the direction of a fairly blameless demographic somewhere, or to be caught in some clownish tableau that could be recycled again and again.

And how does this apply to Brown? Well, I think that there is no appetite on Grub Street for Labour infighting at the moment. Sure, Brown is getting stick on a number of fronts, and he deserves some of it. But there's not a nice easy story there yet.

There aren't any identifiable factions. There are no Hesseltine-esque pretenders in the wings that can polarise the audience nicely. If Brown is deposed, it won't be at the hands of an ideological nemesis. If anything, it will actually muddy a narrative that everyone has settled for considerably.

Labour may choose to replace Brown with a uniting figure (Straw) in which case, normal service will be renewed shortly (old out-of-touch Labour plutocracy -V- shiny new pretenders). Is this the reason that Straw is being touted so easily at the moment? I ask, because I've not met anyone who really believes that Straw would be offered a coronation, or that he could have the beating of Cameron any more than Brown has. Is Straw the candidate that will balls things up the least for the commentariat?

On the other hand, if Labour choose someone who can kick Cameron around the park a bit (the boy David), that would really balls things up for everyone. You won't be able to say anything that rings true on less than 150 words, and the next election could really go either way again.

It's odd, isn't it? I don't think that newspapers really like uncertainty, even though you'd think they'd love it. Could it be that they work overtime to avoid it? And is Brown going to lose his job despite the best efforts of the commentariat to focus on other things?

Lower than low

I'm sure that liveblogging Eurovision allows you to make some terrifically sophisticated points, but why bother? If you turn on one of those also-ran channels that you get on Freeview at almost any time of the day, you can find a cultural artifact that is - to the power of about five squillion - much more debased than anything Eurovision will ever give us.

(update: Twittering Eurovision is the new 'water cooler moment', apparently)

But, for some reason, we don't subject it to the same ironic cultural cringe that we reserve for the Azerbaijani entry.

Take this; seen this morning on the David Hasselhoff's Top Fifty Power Ballads show (on one of those channels between BBC4 and E4). Probably the most objectionable four minutes of TV that I've ever watched.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On The Blanket

Here's Steve Platt writing about the now-defunct West Belfast publication The Blanket, one of the most interesting parts of the curious Irish Republican diaspora.

Public sector ethos redux

If you're here because of a link from Stumbling and Mumbling, I think you are meant to be looking at this post about TV detectives - a sequel to this one about the need for a public service ethos. (I think Chris has accidentally mis-linked).

And, for the record, this...
"This doesn't just mean that the neoliberal idea that everyone is motivated by narrow self-interest is wrong. It also means that there are dangers in "reforming" the public services. Reforms that introduce profit motives, or alienate workers by introducing heavier-handed management, might add to costs by reducing donated labour."
... is a very good point indeed. My only caveat is that Chris focusses on the ideology of managerialism - a newish phenomenon if I read him correctly. The more I understand his position here, the more I agree with it by the way. It may well be the epitaph of the 1997-2010 Labour government (if it does die in 2010):
Here lies the government that managed to enact the Crosslandite Democratic Socialist dream of redistribution through effective economic management, but entirely fucked it up because it allowed itself to be captured by useless management consultants.
But these TV tecs show that there is nothing that new about arse-covering useless British management.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A good day for Parliament

I think I'd rather stick needles in my eyes that get involved in a debate about human embryology. But I think that it is at times like this that Parliament comes into it's own and is at it's best.

It also rather makes the case for free votes, the absence of party whips, and for Parliament being less of a hothouse.

When Parliament is like this, I think that it makes the case that long prescriptive manifestos are probably not as good an idea as they appear to be during the run-up to elections.

A couple of months ago (I think it was a Sunday evening), there was a very good programme on Radio 4 about how the impact of broadcasting on Parliament had made the quality of deliberation a good deal worse than even the most trenchant opponents had feared.

Look as I might, I can't now find a link to the programme anywhere on the BEEB's 'listen again' service though.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Blogging feuds

I've only just seen this, so maybe you haven't seen it yet?

Think that the latest comments-box argument that you were in turned a bit nasty? It was nothing compared to this. Guido has been nicked for drink driving and not having car-insurance.

Tim Ireland went to the court to watch the sentencing.

Guido has had a supervision order placed on him and he has to wear an electronic tag to enforce a night-time curfew. He's calling Tim a stalker and Tim thinks he's also being called a paedophile by Guido sock-puppets.

I don't know. Do you think that Tim and Guido will leave it at that? Draw a line under things?

And where will this all end? I know Guido is a great man for betting. Maybe a bookie can be commissioned to do a spread on when one of them successfully manages to bring a high-value civil action against the other, or when one of them successfully engineers a custodial sentence for the other?

It would be in poor taste to bet on who will be the first to hire a hit-man, so I won't.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sharing items,.

In the header of this blog, a few weeks ago, I created a link to my shared Google Reader page. Now I know a lot of you are used to this sort of thing already, but a few of you may not have tried it properly. If so, I think you should. If bloggers generally were to use Google Reader (and similar tools) more than they do, I think that we would all be able to find and read more better material that we do at the moment.

If you don't know how to use it, go to www.google.co.uk/reader and set up an account. Subscribe to all of your favourite blogs, and then - if you have a web-enabled mobile phone, you will be able to browse all of the blogs you like much more efficiently.

You can 'share' and 'add star' to anything you like (from your phone, if you want to), and you can put a widget on your site (like the green one on the right) on your blog. It means that you find it easier to read the blogs you like, and you can drive traffic to the posts that interest you. As a result, we all get to read less chaff and discover a wider range of material.

Just a suggestion....

Buttoned up Britain. A good thing?

This post - about how government departments hold, manage and share data - makes a few very good points - it's well worth reading, even if you're not interested in government IT. It also prompts me to ask a few questions that I've been storing up for a while.

The whole ID card debate intrigues me, but it annoys me as well. It's a bit like the debate on the Iraq war a few years ago: I was against the war, but I found few of the arguments made by it's opponents very satisfactory. (My opposition was based upon a lightly-held agreement-on-balance across a wide range of anti-invasion arguments rather than an enthusiastic strongly-held agreement with any of them).

Similarly, ID cards. I kinda hope we never have them, I think that introducing them could be very problematic. IT incompetence and profligacy blah blah blah. I think there is enormous scope for unintended consequences - not always deliberately malign - arising from the type of info that his held / how it is acquired and used . There is also a reasonable (but widely overstated, I think) argument that such cards could be used by officialdom - and even future tyrants - in ways that would horrify us. They they would be used in ways that annoy us and inconvenience us is undoubtedly true.

On the other hand, they could save us all lots of time. They could make lots of transactions a lot more simple and they could increase the levels of trust in the economy. They could reduce crime - and not just by increasing the ability of plod to snoop on us. On a banal level, they could ultimately reduce identity theft, or allow us more control over our privacy rights.

And - to wrap this up, I'll add that I'm sure that this is far from being an exhaustive summary of the pros / cons. I'm no expert on this, and - as I've said - the way the debate has been conducted has annoyed me enough to make me stay out if it a lot of the time.

But here's a question: How far do we benefit from a relative openness of society? Note - I'm not asking if we do benefit - that would be a stupid question. But how far? The fact that the state doesn't track and cross-reference every financial transaction that we make, for instance: It is - I think most people would agree - a good thing? Our freedom to enjoy our little deviances, indeed, all of the individualisms that liberal societies rightly defend are not only fun for us, they are good for the general well-being as well. More creativity, innovation, social capital, etc.

In the same way that micro-management and hyper-accountability can be extremely demoralising and inefficient, any tax system that could give the taxman a true insight into our behaviour, allowing him to come up with fairer avoidance-proof ways of redistributing would undoubtedly be massively counterproductive as well as generally illiberal, irritating, and the cause of massive unintended consequences.

Again, how much? And let me make the question a bit more concrete.

In the UK, the police are not the world's worse by a long chalk. A bit pedantic, a bit bureaucratic, but no longer actively resisted by almost any section of society. In 1941, Orwell remarked that they were almost uniquely (for Europe) unbribeable, and I doubt if anyone could make the case that we have a force that is, by most standards, corrupt. Civil libertarians find it quite hard to get the public worked up about Plod's nosiness (with the exception of the vocal minority who get worked up about speed cameras and traffic wardens).

Similarly, on tax. A bit nosy. Too complicated, for sure. Clearly too lenient on high-earners - on dodgy pro-market grounds. But tax isn't brazenly avoided either. Not on the scale that it is avoided in other countries - including EU members states. It's legitimacy is fairly widely unchallenged. Tradesmen sometimes even look at you a bit reproachfully if you suggest that they take cash to avoid VAT.

Corruption is another one. Most examples of poor governance that bother most of us are down to incompetence and (in the case of disasters like Metronet), political wrongheadedness rather than calculated corruption, I think? Effective and mendacious lobbying is probably the biggest villain here.

We have negotiated our way / allowed ourselves to be conditioned into being a fairly regulated society that pays a fair slice of the tax that we are supposed to, and has a strong-ish centralised state - subject only to occasional recall at big elections, but moderated by fairly detailed independent scrutiny from NGOs and officialdom. Many would even make the case that this recall is fairly superficial. A shuffling of a governing caste. It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in, etc.

On the other hand, there is Italy, where none of this applies. Taxation is routinely and brazenly avoided at all levels. The black economy is most of the economy. Law enforcement is farcical and massive crimes regularly go unpunished while the dogs in the street can point at the culprits. Officialdom is massively inefficient and widely detested. Stupid pointless rules make law-breaking entirely justified in many cases. The police are hugely (and wisely) distrusted. Overt corruption is rampant, and massive public works are commissioned on spurious grounds. The contracts are divided up among cronies. EU funding is - frankly - stolen with the connivance of Italian officials. Political demagoguery is endemic. The media is largely owned by political cabals... and so on.

Two very different scenarios that are plainly possible in developed European economies.

We are very unlike the Italians, it's fair to say. We are very buttoned up here.

But are we at the optimal level of buttoned-up-edness? There is a widespread fear that ID cards will deepen this mood of public compliance and that we are sleepwalking into this - and that this may make things worse on lots of different levels.

On the other hand, there is also the view that the massive demographic and technological changes in society are weakening a lot of the pillars that support the UK's fairly stable settlement, and that - when they are gone, all hell will break loose. As St Thomas Moore is imagined to have said in Robert Bolt's 'A Man For All Seasons' on the related subject of a pragmatic abandonment of the rule of law:
"And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you ― where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast ― Man’s Laws, not God’s ― and if you cut them down ... d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?"
Are our buttons in danger of coming a bit too loose? And is this a bad thing?

There is, I believe, a partial justification for ID cards along these lines. Technology as an anchor in changing times. It will reduce the speed with which the wheels come off old settlements. It may not necessarily be a wholly convincing case, but it's one that deserves looking at. I also think that this justification doesn't dare voice itself very widely. Policymakers will hear it, and be able to consider it reasonably patiently, but I doubt that it will be discussed in places like this very freely. (If a long posts like this gets any comments, I expect a few will be the usual memebots).

But let me return to my big question: Can anyone point me to something that is worth reading that makes the case either for the deepening of the general British buttoned-up-edness OR something that would make the case that there are more hidden benefits in a general loosening on our current settlement. I've never read much Karl Popper, for instance, and I've found other people invoking him in this debate.

But any pointers would be gratefully received.

Tax. Redistribute. Plan.

Two good consecutive posts at Philosophy Etc.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Seven songs

A tag from Martin.

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to."

‘Bad luck is all I have’Eddie Harris – the title track from one of those LPs that you suspect would be massive if more people had heard it. I discovered it after finding a different track from the LP (‘Get on up and dance’). It’s a really extraordinary LP, very unconventional, bits of it teeter on the abyss between modal and free jazz, but it’s still great fun. It’s one to listen to with the headphones on, and expect surprises. BLIAIH is a long, funny blues.

Amazon are selling it back-to-back with the almost-as-good ‘How Can You Live Like That’ LP.

Fetch!

‘Shelter’Bedouin Soundclash – a bit of ska revival from a couple of years ago. For some reason, it reminds me of the long hot summer of 1981 when Nottingham rioted. Again, the whole album is worth having.

‘Man at C&A’The Specials – older ska revival. The soundtrack to Nottingham’s riots. I love the swampy mix of ska and dub – I’ve been digging this stuff out ever since I saw The Splitters playing a pub in Nottingham after Forest’s mighty triumph a the other Saturday.

Black Gold of the SunRotary Connection. For almost the same reason as I like the Harris LP – lots of electronic widdling under an irresistible groove.

We Live in Brooklyn BabyRoy Ayers – proto hip-hop. Lovely stuff.

My Elusive DreamsRay Lynam and Philomena Begley. I’m thinking of going to The Galtymore for their closing night with Big Tom, the godfather of Irish Country music. Ray and Philomena are the son and holy ghost respectively. It’s an evening that may mark the end ‘London Irish’ as a major identifiable ethnic group.

There was a time when one part of north London was ‘County Kilburn’ – not any more. Most of the big dancehalls – The National, The Gresham, The Forum have closed (or are doing other things), and the Galty is the only one left that I’ve been to before. I don’t have any Big Tom on CD, so I played My Elusive Dreams last night when I was thinking about it all.

And finally, 'We'll Live and Die in These Towns' by The Enemy. Because it was on in a shop yesterday and I've not been able to get it out of my head - the sheer Jam-ishness of it.








I really can't bring myself to tag anyone else though. Apart from, maybe Darren who seems to care about this kind of thing as much as I do. And maybe Andrew. And Hak because it will probably annoy her. And .... no. That's it.

No road back

A rare link form here to CiF: Mick on the irreversible peace in Northern Ireland.

Morality. Hardwired? Is it?

The watchmaker: Is morality hardwired? And, on a different subject, is panicking under-rated?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Memebots

I like hijacking other people's words and using them to start hares running. On my own blog, I've used this word 'negativist' (much loved of Will of DSTPFW, from whom it came). And a while ago, we had 'bloggertarian.'

That was a laugh that was.

My favourite word at the moment is 'memebot.' I saw it a few weeks ago in the comments here, ...or more precisely, here:
"For examples, see just about every other article by Seumas Milne. The imperviousness to evidence and reason is quite remarkable. He’s not so much a thinker as trafficker in assertion; a memebot, if you will."
Seumas Milne is, indeed, a memebot. As is Simon Tidsall (dealt with nicely by Norm here).

These are both examples of journalists that offend my Eustonian prejudices, of course - I'm sure that you can find a few membots that exhibit them as well. Be my guest.

Other examples are, of course, or friends the bloggertarians. Raise a question - any question - and the answer is always 'sack public employees' / 'school vouchers' / 'government can't work' etc. The thick shitheads.

A one line assertion is always sufficient for memebots. It's getting so that you can't write a post anywhere without a few of them popping up to annoy you. It must stop.

The reason that I'm writing about it here is because I think it may be a useful shorthand comments policy for any bloggers who like getting half-decent arguments back in their comment threads.

In future, I may just delete commenters on the grounds that they are memebots. A one word explanation. Take my advice, for once in your life? Delete your memebots too. Life's too short to do anything else.

(crossposted here)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Above board

You know where you are with Guido.

I've still got (somewhere) an old badge that was given to me by a Nottingham anarchist in the early 1980s. It had the same message as the image on here (from here).

And apropos of this - fawkes / honesty, here's a think-piece by Guido. I've said this before, but Guido offers an honest above-board version of what most bloggertarians are thinking (but not saying).

It's a fairly good rendition of a profoundly anti-democratic ideology. Discussion isn't about promoting rationality. It's about being in what Adrian Monck calls "the business of distraction."

This is bloggertarianism folks. See it for what it is. It's not something to worry about very much though, I wouldn't have thought...

The big C

I'm not sure what point Alex Singleton is trying to make here, but he poses an important question.

Is David Cameron a decentraliser?

He may say he is, but the fact remains that it would be political suicide if he were to start thinking out loud about his bottom-up (*snigger*) approach in any detail.

The Tories may be enjoying their moment in the pollsters' sun. But they are going to struggle to offer any alternative to the current government unless they can move some of the big pieces off the chessboard. And this is his problem.

Leaving those pieces where they were was the historic compromise that New Labour made Tory hegemony in order to do what it thought it needed to do to win the election in 1997.

Me and Peter think that they could have moved a few of those pieces, by the way. But that's a different matter, innit? Many of Labour's problems were caused by their Conservatism (note the big C).

Efficiency and progress

....is ours once more...

Health and safety gone mad

Further to the previous post about Evidence Based Policy, it has a corollary. The way that new Labour has used odd byways to achieve what it wants.

They wanted to ban smoking in public places. Instead of saying "we won the election, lots of people want smoking banned and we agree with them", they came up with a cockamamie health and safety justification for it.

Rather than exercising democratic prerogatives, they looked to make a judicial case to achieve what they intended.

Now, in Northern Ireland, I think you'd agree with me that a few harmonious years of quiet from religious evangelists wouldn't go amiss. Even the outgoing First Minister has been too busy chuckling - and he's stopped finding time to tell Papists that they need to repent.

But now, the Old Bill are getting in on the act.

Evidence Based Policy Making

A quick question for Chris. I agree with him about Evidence Based Policy Making (EBPM).

Is the real reason that EBPM is so widely used because our political representation is taking an increasingly judicial quality?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The DI: A public service everyman?

"By the book Regan!"
"But Guv - I get results!"

When I'm trying to relax, I'm like a lot of people. I often do it watching a generic detective story on TV, or by reading a similarly-themed novel. And like good generic fiction, most of the embellishments simply mask the same story. The One Who Gets Results doing it in the face of opposition – not only from the bad guys, but from the bureaucrats who make the rules. The conspiracy of careerists.

Transpose this onto DI Frost's relationship with 'Mr Mullet', Morse (Thaw again) and his relationship both with his aspiring exam-sitting Sergeant and his time-serving boss. Or Lynda LaPlante's DI Tennyson. And, of course, the apotheosis of the driven DI: Ian Rankin's now-retired Rebus.

These characters are all, of course, flawed. They all have their own shortcomings. Morse is unable to form relationships. Tennyson has sacrificed her womanhood (the plot implies) to compete in a man's world – and she ends it as a lonely semi-disgraced drunk. Frost is 'a prat', widowed from a loveless marriage into a lonely insensitive late-middle age. And Rebus is all of these things.

They all detest authority. They are all regularly the targets of public-sector office politics. They're all cynical. Rebus confesses that he hasn't voted since the 1970s. They all hate criminality with a perspective that is lost in the kind of sentencing guidelines that let child-rapists walk after a few harmonious months in an open nick. They're all gloriously good at their jobs. They are all largely out of control. They are all utterly unaccountable to political structures that have only one concern: That the occasional cock-ups that are caused by pragmatic professional 'do-ers' must never land on the doorsteps of senior managers and politicians.

It's worth noticing that these characters are also nostalgic throwbacks. Reminders of a pre-modern age when men were men. Before political correctness went mad. Gene Hunt is also a DI. And in Life on Mars, Sam Tyler ultimately chooses the freebooting 1970s to the uptight present day.



But there is more to it than that. They are a very British phenomenon. They're more complex and humane than the American Dirty "I'm all broke up inside about your rights" Harry. And they are all the antithesis of the right-wing fantasy of the lazy, unproductive, self serving public employee. They are largely immune to the blandishments of promotion or pay-rises. They do what they do because they are driven by it. They will never simply shift professions because the pay or the package is better. And like teachers who know what they are doing, they make a nonsense of all management systems that attempt to emulate the market.

(I could digress again into football management: Wouldn't you prefer to have the fantastic Kevin Keegan or the late St Brian managing the team that you support more than anyone else?)

I suspect that this is part of the reason for the success of this particular narrative line. Millions of people – alienated from the contribution that they make to society – still need to believe that they are doing a good job – in spite of the tedious brainless mechanisms that they are forced to keep cranking. The Key Performance Indicators, the Quality Assurance, the Prince 2 Methodology, the stupid 'compliance' and arse-covering that fuels the Peter Principle of public service: The principle that lions must always be led by donkeys. The principle that people do what they're supposed to do in spite of what they are told to do.

It is worth acknowledging here that the decline in the autonomy of professionals has similar causes to the increasing decentralisation of political power. But I digress.

Everywhere, teachers, social workers, those who work in the caring professions, the charities, local government, community workers, and so on, watch Frost, Regan and Morse. And they watch them partly for affirmation. They take Rebus to the beach, and they return to work resigned to the permanent battle with a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Resigned to a world in which pointless box-ticking managerialist clones are valued infinitely more highly than the people who actually do something.

I'm tempted to conclude that Rebus and Frost are heroes because they make most of us heroes. They open up a social division that is masked by political differences between left and right, or even the divisions of class and ethnicity. It's there even in the difference between the successful wheeler-dealer and the £200k-a-year twat with an MBA. But most of all, it represents a bubbling under of resentment – fully justified – of the way that it is assumed that top-down management, obsessive lines of accountability, and the imposition of inappropriate 'market' mechanisms can improve the quality of public service.

Where the caring conviction professional is subordinated to a system that believes that professionalism is an entirely transferable skill.

It reassures me that there is an overwhelming need for the development of a public service movement – one that is distinct from either the short-term material demands of the people who work in the public sector, and one that is distinct from the kind of public service that attempts to mimic the market.

One final point: It's tempting – with all this talk of managerial depravity – to be pessimistic about the quality of public service. But – as I've argued in other contexts where there is a widespread perception of decline (democracy and liberty) prominent setbacks mask a general trajectory of improvement.

My first teacher – when I was at primary school – is also a close friend of our family. She is a leftish catholic working-class Glaswegian who grew up in the 1940s and 50s. In the early 1970s, I'm told, she threatened to walk out of her job when her headmaster suggested that a policeman should visit the school to talk to the kids. I know that black professionals in London often reacted in a similar way in the 1980s and 1990s. But I think that the police are now fairly widely trusted in a way that they weren't then. And I'd also accept that this is partly the result of politician-imposed accountability.

So you could, perhaps, conclude that I'm arguing two contradictory positions here: Anti-managerialist, and high-accountability?

Maybe you'd be right. And that is where a popular culture of disrespect keeps the politicians and the managerialists on their toes. If the public continue to be cynical, perhaps managerialism will eventually give way to a more convincing public service ethos?

As usual, it's a case of two-steps-forward-one-step-back. In the meantime, keep reading Rebus. Build the anger. Because tomorrow belongs to us!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Leadership and nationalism - some questions

Shuggy has a really good post up here. I have two questions arising from it:

Firstly, is Shuggy right in saying this?
"We're always being told that parties are collapsing, their grassroots withering on the vine. We were told this about the Tory party under Hague and IDS. Like the Church of England and the monarchy, it was suggested that we couldn't assume that the zeitgeist would retain their services indefinitely.

Philosophically true, I'd agree - but it seems a little arrogant in retrospect given the state of play now. The withering of the grassroots is a phenomenon that has afflicted political parties across Europe and certainly in Britain. But so what if parties are 'hollowed-out'? They are still going to compete in elections and someone has to win. Those whose prognosis relies on an analysis of the state the parties are in make some acute observations - but they understate the importance of leadership. For those of us who are sympathetic to Labour, ours is a disaster that simply can't be dismissed as a function of a palsied grassroots."
I ask because I think that this needs a bit of thinking about. I'd question how leadable a hollowed out party can be.

Machiavelli's republicanism had an almost Darwinist sub-text: That achieving power by the successful marshaling of the forces at your disposal can provide a leader with the momentum that they need to really lead. In democratic terms, you can't do that if you were the beneficiary of a coronation. You can fight a big fight once you've shown you can win a few smaller ones. And hollowed-out parties usually lose minor skirmishes.

And while I'm slightly more upbeat than the bookies about Labour prospects at the next election*, my biggest worry is that Cameron appears to be able to get the Tories to act in concert - and that at the next election, we (Labour) will be faced with the kind of organisation you can only have when you have thousands of reasonably disciplined councillors (each pulling their own social networks out to knock on doors and identify voters).

In 1997, I know that a lot of New Labour's stage management was in getting people around the spokesmen. We had to position them - on camera - surrounded by grinning activists. Part of a crowd - a tide even. Cameron will be able to do this because - for the first time - the Tories aren't hollowed out.

My second question is this: I've noticed that most of the bloggers that I like in Scotland have a passionate dislike of Scottish Nationalism. Now, is this a dislike of SN (Prop: The SNP) or a more general objection to it?

I ask this because, I suspect that I would be in favour of a much greater level of devolution - even to the point of independence - from the rest of Britain if I were Scottish. I think that all decent socialists should favour decentralisation of power wherever possible, and the idea that you should be largely governed by people who owe their position to the effective triangulation of a few thousand voters in the home counties ... well, were I a sweaty, I'd not be very keen.

At the risk of blowing a few gaskets, I'm asking this in all innocence. Is this an objection to the Tartan Tories, or to the very idea of nationalism?

*... and unlike the commentariat, the bookies aren't paying out on Tory bets yet.

Emmylou assessed

I've been looking around Norm's archives, and I've just seen this post that I missed at the time. It's a roundup of Emmylou Harris' back catalogue.

I'd broadly agree with most of Norm's judgements here, apart from to say that I remember liking Evangeline a bit more than Norm did at the time (alas, my copy went west a long time ago). He's right about Elite Hotel and Luxury Liner - both absolutely outstanding examples of how universal Country music can be in its appeal.



Here's the title track from Luxury Liner - an old Gram Parsons song that went through a number of incarnations prior to this (including a fantastic duet with Emmylou - I think, on the incomparable Return of the Grievious Angel, but I'll need to check that now).

And - good as it is - the Wrecking Ball album saw Emmylou re-inventing herself in a slightly contrived way. I never thought of her choice of songs as cynical before this album. Most of them are very good, but the migrant madonna nobility that is intended to shine out of her lyrics - courage and dignity in adversity - becomes too much of a recurring theme for my liking.

As I say, all good songs individually, but you feel like you're being hit over the head with it after a while.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The shape of things to come.


Panini Football 80 Nottingham Forest Nottm reds
Originally uploaded by radfordred

Found this shot of an old Panini collection on Flickr. I'm pretty sure I had the full set myself at the time.

Two more seasons to go before we're in the Champions League.

Projecting values

Here's a not-that-good article, but one with a few interesting observations in it about the concept of a democratic recession. (via)
"I’ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation — which I call: “The First Law of Petro-Politics.” As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.

“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power."

And, on a similar theme, here's Norm on a concert of democracies: The idea that there could be a qualifying club of nations that have achieved an acceptable level of democratic accountability, that can act in common as a counterweight to the UN.

On a lighter note, people who promote democracy, or even philanthropy are often accused of a form of cultural imperialism - the projection of inappropriate values on people who aren't likely to really benefit from them. But it is worth remembering that, sometimes, this sort of projection is the greatest gift that anyone could receive. And while we're on the subject of the imposition of grand themes, there is a competition going on to choose a suitable rival to the Angel of the North - but this time in Kent.

I don't know why they're struggling to find a suitable subject for a massive statue. A number of perfectly good prototypes for a 50 metre-high statue have already been done.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Political Darwinism in action.

A good optimistic post over here.

In Northern Ireland currently, the following is happening:
  1. SF and the DUP are at their electoral peak. Both are in government and starting to look a bit grimy to those that didn't think they were grimy already. Both are gradually wilting under a welter of internal divisions and challenges from their ultras.
  2. Northern Ireland is going through a reorganisation. There are 26 councils in Northern Ireland. They will be narrowed down to 11 in the next few years. That means that a lot of councillors are going to retire soon
  3. Double (and even triple) mandates are becoming an electoral issue. Politicians holding more than one of the main elected offices - MLAs, councillors, MPs and MEP. They are becoming less acceptable to the public and can be expected to disappear soonish. So, more de facto resignations of one kind or another.
  4. Politicians who thrived on a highly divided society on the verge (!) of conflict are no longer finding life as easy. Yet more turf on the political Darwinist fire.
  5. New boundaries and electoral settlements mean that politicians are having to reach across communal and sectarian divides and look for second preference votes.
  6. Most of the parties are starting to acknowledge the all-Ireland dimension and are becoming a bit more post-modern in their understanding of sovereignty. The SDLP are actively exploring links to the Fianna Fáil - the largest party in the south. Old rigid assumptions are going out of the window.
What does all of this mean? Well, draw your own conclusions. But I think that it's a good time to be involved in the SDLP (and probably in the Ulster Unionist Party, if you're that way inclined). And it could be a great time to keep an eye on the little dull details of political evolution.

And, bearing in mind the line that Bernard Crick trotted out earlier today - "that local government was the school of democracy" - Northern Ireland could be in the weird position of having the highest standard of political representation anywhere on these islands within the next decade. That would be a total reversal of the current situation.

At the risk of seeming anti-intellectual...

There's this from the Annual Bad Writing Contest
"If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the ‘now-all-but-unreadable DNA’ of a fast deindustrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglossic wilds and others of the inner city."

Bernard Crick on decentralisation

A letter from Bernard Crick in today's Guardian:
Strangely, Gordon Brown set out clearly a new theme and potentially popular direction for Labour in his Fabian Society speech of 2006: "People and communities should now take power from the state and that means ... a reinvention of the way we govern: the active citizen, the empowered community, open enabling government." This implied, he said, a new constitutional settlement, taking citizenship seriously, rebuilding civil society, working for integration of minorities, and to be internationalist at all times. In other words, a radical decentralisation of power.

Does this have to be just good rhetoric and thoughtful mere words? He could use his office to transform politics by diminishing the centralised state and enhancing and trusting local government. Despite the craziness of trying to micro-manage a county of 50 million (England) from the centre, both major parties are nervous of local government because they are scared of the tabloid press forever trumpeting one local folly of the other side as if it were typical. We used to believe and teach that local government was the school of democracy. I once remarked to a secretary of state for education that if we could no longer speak and mean socialism, we might at least speak and mean democracy.
Bernard Crick
Edinburgh

The thing is, I'm not sure that this is good short term political advice. Letters to a newspaper rarely offer that. But Bernard's spot-on, isn't he?

You could sing those last two sentences, if you could ever find an air to fit them...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Reasons to be cheerful



Arthur Seaton: Abrasive irony and nihilism at its best.

I'm slightly torn on this one. On the one hand, I'm sort-of inclined to agree with Henry Porter here, commenting on the prevailing professional disdain and cynicism that characterises much of public life these days:
"My response ... is to ask what right have these people got to be so disappointed and world-weary? There is no sense that they have earned the privilege of this 'abrasive irony and nihilism'.

And I cannot escape the suspicion that the objects of their disdain - commonly politicians and celebrities who get into a scrape - may have done rather more with their lives and probably risked more than the wise guys in the TV studio or those who comment with truly jaw-dropping rudeness on the web. Weltschmerz and Cynic Inc have infected so much of the public discourse that you forget people are not like this. They are in the main more trusting, more hopeful, more resourceful and a lot kinder than is ever acknowledged in the public arena.

This could all be written off as a rather silly turn-of-the-century mood if the pessimism did not affect so much of our politics and our attitude to the huge problems we face, not just as a nation, but as a species. Speaking last week at the launch for Philippe Sands's book Torture Team, Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, mentioned in passing that he was an optimist. It was a striking admission, not just because the most senior judge in the land probably has every reason to view humanity with exasperation, but because so few people in public life will confess to optimism.

Optimism is held to be the preferred tipple of unrealistic fools; the optimist is still seen as Pangloss, the brave idiot in Candide who finds reasons to be cheerful as he is enslaved and faces execution. Voltaire casts him as the enemy of reason, a triumph of hope and faith over experience, if you like. Today, it is the other way round. The pessimists - the Panglooms - are the enemies of reason because they believe with a vigorous but untested faith that we are doomed and that nothing can be done. So they crumble into feckless nihilism.

The point about Bingham's optimism is that it has philosophical basis and is born out of a belief in reason, and the conviction that human beings can improve their lot if they believe in each other, the rule of law, and put aside fear and fear of failure to address the difficulties we have created."
On the other hand, Peter Ryley mounts a spirited defence of disrespect here, and I think that - if anything - he understates his case. So how can these two positions be reconciled?

Its actually quite simple. When Ian Hislop parades his ill-earned superiority over anyone who has ever actually done anything worthwhile in their lives, we can draw our own conclusions. Porter is right to remark that our debased market elevates useless turds like this in a fairly artificial way.

Hislop's main focus is political corruption, and he's jolly angry about it as well. Yet he lives in a country, and an age, where political corruption is no more than a residual sideshow. There is no comparison between Britain today and, say Italy, where almost every piece of legislation and judicial decision is bought and sold like so many kilos of Marscapone. Or Belgium, or even Ireland (though the latter is somewhat overstated IMHO).

And if you globalise this comparison, and anchor it in time, Hislop is probably in history's bottom 0.01% of the population as a 'victim of political corruption.'

This is not to say that we don't live in a corrupt age. We do. We are, daily, cheated by bureaucrats who take our money in taxes and do nothing of any value with large chunks of it while remaining unaccountable to anyone. We are cheated by the fund-managers who control what stock we do own in crude ways that damage our own interests.

We are cheated by the intellectual dwarves who claim that the massive disparities in wealth can be explained by our 'meritocracy' when, in reality, it can be explained by the simple formula: Wealthy parents nearly always equals wealthy children. We are cheated by a dishonest and lazy media, feeding us a low-grade Prolefeed that Big Brother would have killed for.

This previous paragraph could have quadrupled in length, but I think you get the picture.

The reason that Ian Hislop is a worthless little shit is because he is another cheat. He takes a seven-figure paycheck on the pretence that he somehow 'speaks truth unto power.' He is able to take the piss out of politicians because they are easy targets. They don't have the lawyers or the resources that their plutocratic rivals have. The old man had something to say about this, and it doesn't really need adding to.

Porter is right to be disappointed with his own cohorts - the paid commentariat. I can even understand his consternation with us rude bloggers - after all, no matter what we say, we really want to join that commentariat, that professional elite of critics, don't we?

But is he right to be pissed off with a wider, more incohate, public cynicism?

I think not. Most of us don't really aspire to actually run the country. I suppose I shouldn't include myself in that last sentence, but bear with me, will you? I think that the public probably understand that individual politicians aren't totally to blame for any recent ills in a way that our demagogic commentators don't. If this weren't the case, Labour wouldn't have even held on to 24% of the voters last week.

We don't really aspire to directly influence policy very much because we don't understand it, and wouldn't want the responsibility. As Chris has pointed out repeatedly, we make our best decisions in the same way that stockbrokers do - when our modus operandi is led by 'ironic detachment'.

We need no more get emotional about individual issues that don't directly effect us, or that we don't have a well-informed position on, than we need to get emotional about stock (if we were born lucky enough to own some, in lots of cases).

Part of me would love it if more of the electorate were able to leave the relatively nihilistic disdain for the forces that envelope them behind, and felt that they were in a position to change things themselves. But they don't, and the rate at which most people - those who live in that large pool - bleed into the much smaller pool of people who think that their opinions actually count for shit - is far too slow. If this process were to speed up, it would make sense to be annoyed about public cynicism. But it will only speed up when the people who compete with our elected politicians start to feel a similar heat, or a need to be accountable to the rest of us.

Everyone has their own magic bullets that would cure this, of course. Mine is political decentralisation and democratic socialism, and if you cast around the blogosphere, there are plenty of similar memebots churning out their own answers. None of them are perfect, of course.

But, in the meantime, a resentful and slightly contemptuous population will create a tide that is slowly lifting all boats - even if they do so by electing a shower of inbred clowns to run the country in 2010. After all, Things Can Only Get Better - like they have done in this country for the last century - regardless of who is temporarily in power.

Twittering

I've not used Twitter and it doesn't sound like the sort of thing I'd bother with (though I said that about weblogs a few years ago...).

But this is good (via Katherine - but on Facebook this time).

I'd be interested to see a more mundane one of these that shows how the dynamic of discussions in blogs change as the reader-numbers change - and the degree to which commenters are likely to have their own blogs changes.

So, a high-volume site like CiF or Harry's Place where most of the commenters don't have their own blogs will tend towards trollery, while lower-volume sites where most of the interlocutors have their own site (or where the site has a comments policy that discourages non-bloggers).

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The end of an error


A picture speaks a thousand words, so I'm nicking this one from Dom at Mist Rolling In From The Trent - I hope there's no objection?

The hangover is slowly retreating now, after an evening drinking within earshot of the mighty Splitters. I've nothing to add to TTSBU's very good account (or NFFC's) of yesterday's stresses - and the triumph against the odds - except to say that this is really the end of a three year nightmare.

Just before Forest were relegated into League One, I met a few QPR fans - and they really weren't gloating when they told me (paraphrasing):
You think relegation is bad, but you've no idea just how bad it is. Imagine how terrible it is to watch a big club having to play in the third division, times it by ten, and you're still not there.
I soon found out that they were right. You have to play in cup competitions you've never heard of. The newspapers ignore you. You have to play fucking Weymouth in the first round of the FA Cup. You have to play Yeovil in the League. All of these little clubs can't wait to get stuck into you. You have to be beaten comprehensively by Yeovil in the League. You find out something that you didn't know: The town of Cheltenham has a professional team - and you find this out because you see that they are your fixture for the coming Saturday.

Yesterday, Yeovil and Cheltenham were central to the day that has brought this vile interval a close.

Today, three other clubs that really can't imagine life at the third level may have to find out what we have: Leicester, Coventry and Southampton could all go down today.

I say this with no gloating or nastiness. If they go down, they will deserve all of the pity you can muster. The poor sods.

Update: Cancel that. Leicester have gone down. East Midlands rivalry trumps pity.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The need for a public service movement

Peter Ryley has a really good post up over here. I think everyone has their own version of this bit of evidence...
"...a mere one week before the 1997 landslide, Labour strategists felt they could still lose if the Tories announced another cut in income tax. The election victory had been a foregone conclusion since Britain was forced out of the ERM in September 1992."
... that we were sold a dodgy bill of goods. That 'no compromise with the electorate' had to be replaced with a recognition that the Tories and their allies in the media were running a narrative that we couldn't ignore.

And our suspicion was that this had provided an odd assortment of Atlanticist (worst kind) Christian Democrat entrists with the pretext to mount a mini-coup on the next Natural Party of Government.

One of his main themes here, though, is worth looking at:
"The public sector, Labour's natural support base, has been alienated by 'reform' - a permanent revolution of part-privatisations, pseudo-marketisation, micro-management through targets and bloody performance indicators, resulting in rising bureaucratic workloads. Labour initiated none of this; it was all Thatcherite in origin. In 1997 I expected that the damage would stop, instead it has intensified."
There is a problem with this. I think it would be fairly hard to make the case that Labour hasn't delivered the kind of funding that many on the left (and on the left of Labour) would have hoped for. Labour has chucked money at a public sector that hasn't shown a capacity to spend it particularly well - not least because of the dose of clap that it has caught in the management department. They've mostly done it in a fairly Crosslandite way (public spending drawn from good fiscal management, stability and surpluses rather than from a radical reworking of redistributive taxation).

The problem is the one that Peter rightly points identifies: an inability to understand that the public sector is managed in a different way, incentivised differently, and has strategic needs that are just incompatible with the (massively over-rated) management methods of the private sector.

But this refusal to identify with the public service ethos is something that few Unions have really targeted. Unions still only really get animated about bread-and-butter salary issues. They don't see the point in taking on the ideology of modern management because they don't have a ready response to it. It doesn't have a ready-made narrative that they can explain in the split-second of face-time that they get with their members.

The current fiscal uncertainty will result in public sector cuts and a round of fairly feeble strikes over the coming months that are unlikely to achieve anything apart from - bizarrely - driving some of their pro-strike members to vote Tory next time. Labour will be damaged for its short-term failings in the one field that it has succeeded rather well in overall, and that damage will be inflicted partly by the people that we would expect to campaign on behalf of the public service ethos.

New Labour has a handful of founding myths. Things like...
  • You can't take on the press and win - and there's no point in complaining about it
  • That you can't suggest a raise in taxes and win an election afterwards
  • That you can't win an election with a divided party.
I'm sure you can come up with a few of these yourself. And it would be unfair not to acknowledge that they are all, to some extent, positions that have been arrived at through the bitter experience of the 1980s and 1990s.

But probably the most potent one is the myth that Labour can only present itself as a party that represents the public interest if it can distance itself from producer lobbies. It's a tough one to explain, given the party's umbilical link to the unions, but the the Labour Party politicians that I know say that the whole thing can be explained in three short words:


You can argue all you like about how fair this is, but until the people that work in the public sector can articulate just how bloody awful the quality of public sector management is - how destructive the centralisation, the managerialism, and the pseudo-market simulations are, the Labour movement is going to struggle to win elections and do what it thinks needs to be done. And - given the NUT history, those who work in the public sector have to make the case that professionalism involves a greater level of dialogue between the providers and the users of these services - and that dialogue shouldn't be dominated by politicans, newspapers or employers.

If the myth of the pernicious producer lobby is to be overcome, the public sector is going to need to co-ordinate its voice more effectively on things other than short term pay and job losses. There is no articulate institution that has the respect of the general public, or - failing that - the means to project itself over other competing forces. Such a force is needed. It needs to establish what most people who work in the public sector know: That the public service ethos is alive and well.

At the moment, after yesterday's débâcle, getting the kind of government we'd like is almost the least of our worries. But it is never too late for the establishment of a public service movement. It isn't too late because the benefits will take years to feed through - whatever happens between now and May 2010.

Sacking surplus politicians

On the face of it, this proposal from the New Local Government Network (NLGN) makes sense. In summary, they want to replace the Greater London Assembly with a council made up of the leaders of London's boroughs.

I'd go one step further and get rid of the elected mayor as well - and just have a regional assembly made up of nominated councillors, who in turn nominate a mayor.

This would not only be a very good idea in principle for London. It would also provide a template for regional government throughout the rest of the UK. You could sack all of those MLAs in Northern Ireland, the MSPs and the WAMs. And you could set up regional assemblies where they don't really sit properly everywhere else.

It would mean that councillors would have more power, and people would have a reason to care about which councillors they elect. And it would allow you to establish real regional government throughout the UK - without having to have a referendum.

In the worst case - if you have to have a referendum, it would be winnable, because the question would be framed in the kind of terms that would appeal to the fuckwits who usually advocate referendums.

People would be asked if they want to sack elected politicians.