Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Authoritarian f*****wittage of the day

The Religious Hatred Bill which even Polly Toynbee thinks is a bad thing.

We're strongly in favour of free speech/expression here on Forceful and Moderate. If you aren't, you still have cause to worry. Labour are determined to reassure you that you have afraid of - these laws will be applied sensibly and carefully and not to, say, Rowan Atkinson...

...just like the counter-terrorism laws. As every hard-working family knows, petition-signing endangers the great British public - 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens each year!

I despair of this government and their poorly worded, illiberal and arbitrarily applied legislation. Honestly... if I didn't laugh I'd cry...

House rules

During our last 'blog strategy' discussion, LibertyCat and I decided we probably needed a comments/content policy. Results of the discussion so far as I remember were the following. LibertyCat - if you disagree with my recollection or want to add anything, I'll combine your remarks and mine into a single post and sidebar it.

  • The plog will be political discussion of national and international current affairs (including politics but also science, etc.) from a Liberal but not necessarily partisan perspective
  • The plog will not mention any 'lifestyle' stuff with two exceptions - first if we get personally (rather than bulk) 'memed' and second if we are 'journaling' from an event (e.g. a party conference)
  • Since LibertyCat and I enjoy debating politics with each other then some of our discussions will doubtless spill out onto the plog. Readers should not be surprised if LibertyCat and Femme-de-Resistance end up disagreeing with each other in the comments box. Feel free to join in!


  • Off-topic comments will be removed. LibertyCat adds that any comments on Israel/Palestine will be removed because he believes there are very few people who can discuss this subject intelligently and if you think you are one then you most certainly aren't. This is included in 'off-topic' comments because since neither of us will be blogging about Israel/Palestine (I will happily admit to knowing nothing about this topic) then no comments about Israel/Palestine will be on-topic. LibertyCat will leave any comments that do manage to be on-topic about Israel/Palestine since the person commenting will have demonstrated great innovation.
  • If a plog author removes off-topic comments then you can (apparently) be held legally responsible for any libellous comments. Thus, libellous comments will be removed.
  • Apart from that, the plog runs a free speech policy on comments in the great tradition of that quote spuriously attributed to Voltaire. If you feel the need to Holocaust deny and can do it without being libellous then feel free, although since neither of us are likely to be blogging about the Holocaust then you are very likely to have your comment removed for being gratuitously off-topic. If you do somehow manage to be on-topic, we will respond by researching your remark until we can throw facts/statistics at you to demonstrate that you are not only deeply offensive but also incorrect.


All memed out

I've been tagged by Liberal England. Much as I'm blogging pseudonymously about politics and keeping personal stuff off the plog (political blog) it didn't seem polite to ignore.

  • Finish my thesis
  • Watch the sunrise over the Alhambra Palace in Granada and go for long walks in Venice, Florence, Prague, Reykjavik, Beijing and Gualin
  • Start a business
  • Hold an art exhibition
  • Learn Italian, Chinese and take a foundation degree in art/sculpture
  • Run for public office
  • Make the world a better, fairer place by having been in it

  • Write coherently
  • Sing in tune
  • Play tennis
  • Stop fidgetting and concentrate
  • Tolerate being bored
  • Keep stuff tidy
  • Hold my tongue and stop arguing


  • Political activity
  • The Tate and National galleries
  • Architecture in the Docklands (glass, steel and water)
  • Friends and lover
  • Employment
  • The transport links and infrastructure
  • The statues outside the Dali Experience


  • To be honest (and I am too), basically, well... you know what I mean
  • Ouhhhhrrrr... NIB!!
  • Tell me about it
  • Ya whaaaaa?!
  • Sorry
  • I'm stuck again
  • Eeey ooop, luv, d'tha want stuffin'?!

  • The Daughter of the Empire - Ramon E. Feist and Janny Wurts
  • Deathstalker - Simon R. Green
  • A Song for Arbonne - Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Perdido Street Station - China Mieville
  • Time Travel in Einstein's Universe - Richard Gott
  • Wild Swans - Jung Chang
  • Good Business - Steve Hilton and Giles Gibbons

  • Spirited Away
  • Amelie
  • Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail
  • The Honest Courtesan
  • Tank Girl
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Pirates of the Caribbean


Monday, January 30, 2006

On private schools and standardised tests

This post discusses recent research in the US, which implies that private schools are actually worse (as measured by a standardised maths test administered to 11 year olds) than public (i.e. state) schools after correcting for the fact that private school students are richer, more intelligent, and come from happier homes.

Actually, I'm not surprised. I went to a private school which did very well in the A-level league tables. Everyone there was quite open about the fact that this was entirely due to the selective intake. We didn't actually try to maximise A-level scores. For example, the school offered Economics A-level instead of Business Studies (which is an easier subject and marked more leniently, something top universities overcorrect for by binning any UCAS form with it on). State schools which play the league table game do not offer Economics because an A in Business Studies is as about as hard to get as a B in Economics, but worth more league table points.

Parents send their children to private school to get them into top univesities. Therefore private schools focus on cramming for top unversities' selection processes, which give a lot of weight to things like extra-curiccular activities which state schools downplay because they aren't worth league table points. American public schools have their performance measured on the basis of standardised tests, which aren't particularly correlated with what top universities are looking for. You teach to the test, you get better results. You teach to the entrance exam, your alumni get into HarvOxYaleBridge.

Another point is that most private schools featured in the study are religious schools. The main mission of religious schools is religious indoctrination, not education. So it isn't exactly a damning indictment that they do badly on standardised tests.

Finally, there is the issue of actual education - the imparting of useful knowledge, life skills, character etc. This is a very low priority at state and private schools, but private schools are more likely to devote some resources to it. Actual learning, as opposed to bamboozling test-setters or admissions tutors, cannot be pinned down by statistics, but is immediately obvious to anyone who cares to look for it. So top private schools provide genuine education to satisfy the minority of parents who want it. State schools are accountable to politicians, who go by the statistics, and so don't need to.

I am who I am because of opportunities I had which I would not have been offered at a state school. None of them affected my exam grades. They were still worth the money.


Why I am not blogging about Hamas

I don't really give a damn about the Palestinian elections. Israel is a country of 6.3 million people with no important natural resources or strategic significance. Palestine doesn't have accurate census data, but the best guess is that 2.5 million people live in the occupied territories. In the wider scheme of things, the Israel-Palestine conflict is about as important as the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, or the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

Yes, the Israelis are occupying Arab land in violation of international law. Yes, the Palestinians blow up babies on busses. Yes, both sides abuse human rights. None of this is unusual in global terms. Stupid people, mainly American Christian fundamentalists and Arab Muslim fundamentalists, have taken sides in a way which makes achieving peace a lot harder. The rest of the world seems to have piled in as a way of proving how earnest they are in support for or opposition to the American foreign policy. If you look at who is running street-level campaings on foreign policy, you would think that the situation in Israel is the most important issue facing humanity.

Those who are paid to make foreign policy have to care what stupid people think about unimportant issues. I don't. I think we should butt out of Israeli and Palestinian business (subject to the normal provisions about selling arms to both sides being the act of ethical weasels but something the British Foreign Office will probably try anyway, even if you tell them not to) in the same way we butt out of other small unimportant countries' business.

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Come friendly bombs and fall on Loughborough

Charnwood District Council has decided that new houses can only be built in Loughborough if students aren't allowed to live there. That this is illiberal does not need justification. That it is stupid and that the District Councillors are a bunch of peabrained oafs who probably wouldn't even get into Loughborough College, let along the highly distinguished Loughborough University (11 RAE 5 departments, 3 5*'s, with much award-winning research done by PhD students who the Council is proposing to throw out), might. So here goes.

1) The proposed ban is ludicrously overbroad, covering any student under 27. As a 25 year old PhD student in Cambridge, I am considered a "professional tenant" by my landlord, his freeholder, and their insurance company (all of whom stand to lose money if I trash the place). According to Charnwood District Council's planning committee members (none of whom are spending their own money, or indeed their Council Tax payers' money, on private student accommodation) I am a drunken kebab-eating nuisance.

2) Loughborough University and College employ 4000 people between them. The experience of mining towns following pit closures is that every job working directly for an outside employer supports two additional jobs within the local economy. This means that 12,000 people, or more than 1/3 of the working age population of Loughborough, owe their jobs to the education sector. The University and College won't survive if their students can't find a place to live.

3) Assuming that Charnwood Council don't want to destroy their economy, they know that students must live either on or off campus. Yet as well as trying to keep students out of off-campus housing, they also refused planning permission for an expansion of on-campus housing. The University is well stuffed, and has responded by curtailing expansion plans. Yes, that's right, the largest employer in Loughborough has cancelled a planned expansion because the aging nimby's on the local council didn't like the idea of young people having fun in their city.

4) Putting covenants in property titles is a long-term project which can make you look very stupid in the eyes of history. There are still houses in America with a covenant in the title that prevents sales to black people. I imagine that the Charnwood Board of Morons will want the students back when their economy starts tanking. Getting anti-student covenants off property titles could prove difficult when that happens.

5) This will have obvious unintended consequences for Loughborough residents in their twenties who want to become mature students.

Charnwood District Council is controlled by a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. While I expect this kind of vile behaviour from the Labour party with it's "Respect" agenda of keeping blacks gypsies students out of people's communities, I expect better from Liberal Democrats. I hope for the sake of the continuing leadership candidates that that Liberal Democrat group in Charnwood are Oaten supporters.

Scarier is the prospect that they are just "local campaigners standing up for local people" who found that "drunken students" figured high on the Focus grumble sheet, and then followed the standard thought process of illiberal numbskull politicians everywhere:
  1. Something must be done
  2. This is something
  3. Therefore we must do it

The party is the "Liberal Democrats" and not "UK FOCUS team" for a reason - because we exist to promote Liberalism. I believe "material disagreement, evidenced by conduct, with the objects of the Party" is an expellable offence. One of the objects of the Party is that people should not be driven out of their homes just because they are the wrong age. Another is promoting access to further and higher education.

The original Guardian article suggests that Leeds and Newcastle (both under Lib Dem majority control) are considering similar policies. I hope LDYS is ready with a large cluebat.

UPDATE 01/02: I have spoken to Leeds Uni Lib Dems and apparently Leeds have only introduced restrictions on purpose-built student housing, not on any housing being let to students. This seems a wholly reasonable application of planning law.

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I wish I had enough time...

... to comment intelligently. I may try later.

The envy of the world

A fascinating article in The Economist about the crisis in the American healthcare system. Since the US is notorious for its lack of full health coverage (46 million people are left uninsured) then it's not well-known that the US spends more on healthcare than any other country in the world.

I'm not au fait with the functioning of healthcare systems, perhaps because I live in a country with a centralised behemoth. The US system is predominantly employer-based and arose from historic accident. The US government gives tax subsidies to employers who pay for health insurance - exceptions are the poor/old for whom the government pays directly, people who buy their own health insurance and the unemployed, un-'poor' (e.g. students). Health care is supplied by a numerous providers. US healthcare provision is becoming increasingly expensive to government and companies - economic growth and employment is affected. The Economist recommends that the US adopts the system existing in many European countries - a "hypothecated" health tax raised by government and used to pay for care from a variety of healthcare providers. This should maintain choice and innovation whilst lessening the problems of the system.

European-style health care provision was also the approach favoured by David Laws infamous article in the Orange Book (Jo Otten summarises the chapter here). As with all policy, the devil is in the detail. The Economist states that healthcare is an area where market forces traditionally fall down - there is a distinction between the consumer (patients and doctors) and the person paying. The poorest are likely to be those with the highest insurance premiums (the elderly, etc.). An alternative vision of non-monolithic healthcare provision is presented by Steve Webb here. Steve Webb's approach seems to be the same as Chris Huhne's (this is the best I can do) which is to keep the NHS entirely government funded/provided, but to devolve management and control down to a local level to allow experimentation. As I say, I'm not hot on healthcare provision.

Neither of these systems is likely to be accepted in the US - the arguments/solutions are very different. But it got me thinking about what type of healthcare provision would be best for the UK. It would have to provide social justice, fairness and equality of opportunity whilst also being efficient, accountable, of high quality, and ideally giving choice. This is one issue I'm open to suggestions...

Pet off, Margaret...

Oh, for pet's sake...

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, is to produce detailed codes of conduct telling pet owners how to feed their animals and where they should go to the toilet, along with ways of providing “mental stimulation”...

Every domesticated animal will have a code of conduct tailored to their species, each of which is expected to run into dozens of pages...

Although any breach of these codes is not an offence in itself, failure to observe elements of the code will count against defendants in court... The law will be enforced by “pet police”; council employees with powers to enter property and seize animals.

Now, how have cat owners managed for the last 3,500 years, dog owners for the last 150,000 years and the Phoenicians in 1,000 years BC without Margaret Beckett to tell them that:

“Dogs should be introduced to cats very carefully. The dog should be on a lead at first so that it cannot chase the cat.”

Why devise a vision for Britain when you can write 18 page guides telling people that lobsters die unless fed. And just incase you're not convinced Big Bulldog is trying to watch you:

Pet shops may bring in a register of animals sold, with customers signing to signify they are above the age of 16 and have been given care advice...

... Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Welfare Minister, said: “The vast majority of pet owners have nothing to fear from this legislation.”

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A rush to the centre

A corollary of Godwin's Law is that whoever makes a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis promptly loses the argument. But in some ways, the functioning of a dictatorship (all power concentrated on a single ruler and his advisors) is a useful primer on over-centralised government. It's for this reason that reading Who runs this place? shortly after Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives has proved to be quite interesting.

In the first part of Anthony Sampson's book, he argued that:
  • The monarchy has lost its ability to awe
  • Most peers do not take the scrutiny function of the House of Lords seriously (out of 688 peers in 2000-2001, only 182 came on 60+ of the 76 opportunities available for attending debates)
  • Political parties only have a small percentage membership of the UK population and lack local roots
  • The civil service has become politicised and interlocked with the interests of business and
  • The cabinet lacks talent (who go into The city, etc. rather than politics).
The vacuum, Sampson claims has been filled with the Prime Minister, his unelected advisors and the media in conjunction with the Secret Service (think M16 and investigations into the 'sexed-up dossier'). As an example, he writes about the 1997 election campaign:

"For the election campaign [1997]... a 'war room' [was established] with a 'unitary command structure leading directly to the party leader'... they depended heavily on polls and focus groups... they could sidestep the traditional intermediaries between themselves and the public... they could also circumvent parliament and elected representatives... the New Labour campaigners worked through their sympathisers in newspapers and media centres"

You'd initially think that centralising power should make things more efficient but it doesn't. Anthony Sampson makes several arguments why it is a bad thing:
  • Increasing separation from the electorate - which leads to public disengagement from politics, a drop in turnout, a decline in the quality of people putting themselves forward to a career in politics and a lack of understanding of the 'real world' which makes for poor governance (think of the repeated references to the 'Westminster Bubble'). In the long-term it's bad for the political party itself both in terms of generating disunity (the murmurs and working against Thatcher and Blair) and losing touch with the interests of the electorate
  • Loss of specialist knowledge - Anthony Sampson argues that the disengagement of the trade unions from Labour have separated them from the voices of trade union members. Trade union membership has fallen but still remains higher than that of political parties and trade union leaders are more trusted by the electorate (33% agree with the proposition that they are telling the truth) than politicians (18% trusted on the MORI 'Veracity Index'). Failure to talk to backbenchers about issues in their constituencies again separates the cadre from the electorate - Tam Dalyell said that ordinary MPs "have a perspective to offer that is usually more profound than focus groups". Politicians with different skillsets (Sampson compares George Brown, the fur salesman and economics minister in Wilson's government with the preponderance of Oxford economists in government at the time) are of benefit to a government. Anthony Sampson blames the lack of reliance on expertise in the Foreign Office as a cause of problems getting a second resolution for war in Iraq, which Blair subsequently blamed on the French.
  • Inscrutability and a loss in accountability - unscrupulous people can fiddle the system. This destroys the confidence of the electorate in government.
  • Inefficiency - the mistakes and obsessions of individuals have a disproportionate effect on the mistakes and obsessions of the government. Further, by centralising power the administration becomes inefficient as all sections compete for the attention of the small cadre in charge.

Before I draw parallels with the Hitler and Stalin book, I'd like to point out that Tony Blair and Hitler/Stalin are not directly comparable (this should be obvious, but...). Hitler/Stalin are an extreme example of over-personalised government and act as a primer on the problems of personalised styles of government. Anthony Sampson draws a parallel between Blair's drive for 'joined-up government' and Hitler/Stalin when he talks about the inefficiency of Nazi government as a result of Hitler's personalised rule and the resulting competition between departments for his favour. But there are other parallels. Part of Hitler's failure in Russia resulted from his racial obsessions which prevented him exploiting the discontent of the Russian peasantry. In fact the failure of the Germans to win WWII can be in part attributed to inefficiency in weapons production due to the personalised structure of the Reich government, a difficulty in receiving and responding to 'real world' information about the progress of the war and available weaponry, a tendency to ignore expert advice and the priorities of government being set by a very small number of people. Stalin had similar problems - his flat-footedness at the beginning of the German invasion of Russia was caused by him murdering/imprisoning his expert advice and because Stalin personally didn't want to deal with the implications of Hitler's troop movements.

Anthony Sampson writes that Blair "hardly talked about Labour history, which he associated with failure, and showed little interest in history altogether" upon New Labour's victory in 1997. I'm not too bothered about the deficiencies in New Labour's style of working but for their own sake, maybe Blair should read a history book.

More Screws of the World

If the Lib Dems feel they're having a hard fortnight with sex scandals then they're not alone.

For the benefit of those who don't manage to read this Screws of the World article before it disappears off the site then it's all about Nigel Farage (apparently the leader of the UKIP MEPs) and a "half-German, half-Swedish blonde" who is pictured in the altogether apart from a strategically located sheet.

It combines several things Kate Fox mentioned in Watching the English as characteristic of the English (no, not queue-jumping) such as unsubtle word-play (MaaSTRICHT, NO KIP, a 'European Union') and a sense of gossipy naughtiness (similar to seaside postcards) - everything is always *sordid* and *squalid*.

Finally, as with Mr Oaten, it suggests there is much more omitted in the interests of modesty/reserve/small children. Human nature being as it is, this encourages the reader to apply their dirty mind firmly to the problem and come up with something doubtless far more salacious than the truth.

Tory defects to Lib Dems

Because you're unlikely to read this in any of the broadsheets...

...Post on Who Runs this Place: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st century? tonight.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Found on Stephen Pollard

Found on Stephen Pollard:

You are a

Social Liberal
(95% permissive)

and an...

Economic Conservative
(60% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Strong Democrat

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

Some housekeeping

I've extended my links list from a combination of:


  • People they've all linked to
My method of categorising (left/right/foreign current affairs/libertarians) is rather problematic since some ploggers fall into more than one category and I didn't find anyone I felt was authoritarian above and beyond any other political affiliation. Although the top 3 categories are likely to be relatively valid, the 4th involved a lot of guess-work over which category particular ploggers should be in.

Please feel free to inform me of anything 'must read' that I've missed or if I've put any plog in completely the wrong place.

[NOTE: Most of the 'lefties' are on bloggers4labour so I haven't listed them separetely]


Scum scraping the bottom of the pan

Simon Hughes opens public toilets in 1994, a plaque is unveiled... in 2006 The Scum reports it as 'Gay MP hangs around loos'.

This is factually incorrect since he's not gay (he's bisexual). It's also misleading since there's no evidence given in the article he's ever been in there since they opened and 'gay MP' refers to a person NOT a plaque (which is the thing 'hanging around'). There's also a somewhat random change of topic/location mid-article:

He performed the official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the lavs in Elephant and Castle, South London. Bachelor Hughes, 54, — who revealed he was gay this week — was honoured with the polished plaque on the loos in July 1994. The “facilities” are even painted in Lib-Dem yellow. The Bermondsey MP caused a storm when he told The Sun he was homosexual a week after he denied it. He was left in the dark yesterday during a power failure in Manchester, where he launched his leadership challenge.

Upon casual reading it sounds like he was stranded in the loos in the dark whereas closer inspection reveals that the being left in the dark refers to Manchester whereas the toilets are in London (read the original and see what you think). They've once again used 'limp-dem'.

I think this breaks at least three items in the PCC's Code of Practice:

  • The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
  • The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
  • Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

And debatably a fourth:

  • Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

If persistent pursuit is defined as persistently trying to keep stories about an individual in the news when there is no cause to do so.

The Scum is definitely losing the open season on the Lib Dems. The Screws expose of Mark Oaten was funny (ok, not for his wife). This is just painful, especially since in one of the sweetest Lib Dem revelations this week it's revealed that Simon found it hard to admit to being bisexual because he hadn't told his mum which is just completely "aaawwwww"-inducing.

An e-mail will be going to the editor of The Scum in due course.

Friday, January 27, 2006

A journey into the previously un-gnome

I've read two books in the last month which I will try (albeit inadequately) to review here.

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

Was recommended by someone at a christmas party and piqued my interest after I read the excellent Mao by Jung Chang. It's an interlaced biography of, well, Hitler and Stalin. Hitler was born 10 years after Stalin and the chapters are arranged by life periods - early life, rise to power, etc. The biographies interlink fully during WWII. There's some comparing and contrasting of Hitler and Stalin's motivations and dictatorial styles which to someone who likes ideas rather than dates/events was the most appealing bit. Stalin was more a conventional calculating, 'Machiavellian' type whereas Hitler was a chaotic, disorganised fantasist whose power was to believe his own place in destiny, to intuitively understand others motivations (at least initially) and to drag people into his twisted vision. For those of you who like multifunctioning, the book also doubles as a doorstop - it's absolutely jam-packed with detail which sometimes detracts. Like any novel with too many characters/events it can get somewhat confusing, especially if you (like me) aren't particularly familiar with the period. Like any text, it's doubtless biased but the bias is well hidden (unlike with Mao: The Unknown Story) and it reads as a factual narrative. This makes it somewhat less horrifying and disturbing than Mao which lingers over the terrible human cost. The last chapter is the most interesting since it wanders discursively (but sadly briefly) over the legacy of Hitler and Stalin. It asks questions such as whether individuals or context make history and concludes that during periods of turmoil, individuals can have a disproportionate impact on events. Most of all it shows why although democracy is a dreadful system, it's an improvement on dictatorship. Definitely recommended despite its length - I'm not noted for my patience but I managed to persist with it until the bitter end!

Watching the English

Is a somewhat repetitive book written by a social anthropologist and initially brought to my attention by my co-blogger, LibertyCat. He prompted a free and frank exchange of views on several occasions by citing the views of this book on the wearing of natural fibres by the upper-middle classes and the social class of the owners of garden gnomes. Not sure whether he was actually convinced by any of the book - it's hard to tell since we argue for practice and thus invariably take opposing sides, but I'm itching to check whether his assertion on my social class last time we met had anything to do with my parents' spectacularly lower middle-class sofa.

I'm unsure why this book irritated me as much as it did since it's right on some stuff - queuing being a prime example. It's painfully repetitive (as I said before) - raking over English discussion of the weather, the use of humour, fair play and light-hearted moaning. It labours to death the English phrase "typical" which I've never heard used. It probably riled me because although in the best tradition of science it expresses this is a generality and not a rule applied to everyone, I think I took its assertion that I was socially uneasy, moderate, reserved, conformist and inhibited (except when the dipolar opposite) rather personally. It was also because the book seemed to be implying that there were a significant minority of people out there who did actually judge people on their use of the word 'serviette' and their ownership (or otherwise) of a Ford Mondeo and this just depressed me.

I probably should not take the book too seriously (another thrashed to oblivion characteristic of the English) since it thinks I'm fluctuating over a spectrum extending from working class (my habit of saying "Ya whaaaaa?" if I don't hear someone) through lower middle-class (use of the word 'lounge') right through to upper middle-class (my choice of reading literature in the lavatory/cloakroom/WC/toilet/loo/bog) and upper class (my enjoyment of garden gnomes without even considering if they are ironic).

Conclusion - it's a life-changing work. Since I can't emigrate to Italy imminently, I'm going to make a fresh start the next time I travel on public transport by engaging in lively conversation with those senile old ladies who talk to everyone on trains.

In answer to the Guardian

In answer to The Guardian:

Is someone who has chosen to live most of a life in shame and shrilly defended "privacy" really a safe person to put in charge of a political party?

I'm supporting Chris Huhne, but I was supporting Chris before this news broke. A right to privacy is a principle and should be shrilly defended - the media have no automatic 'right' to know about the sex life of public figures unless it involves a lack of consent (you know - children, dead people, animals...). Yes, he should have said 'no comment' to the Independent instead of being lawyerly (which to the untrained man in the street is equivalent to lying) but was evidently hoping to draw a line under it to avoid it being raked over the coals, dissected, etc. As a leadership candidate you want to be known for your ideas - not for an ex-partner's opinion of your bedroom technique. Whether the decision he made at this point of *how* to best shut down the rumours was a political misjudgement is a different matter...

And old habits die hard. Simon has been in politics a long time before "five years ago" when "four MPs... cheerfully photographed in shirtsleeves on the dancefloor" in the Gay Times would have shown "bravery". I've never been bisexual or gay and in the public eye so I don't know what it's like but these guys do:

Stephen Fry, actor
"I sympathise with Mr Hughes. It is very easy to get over-judgmental, but people have personal issues, families and friends, that can affect whether they are open. Things have changed during the time that Mr Hughes has been an MP, and it is much harder to announce a change mid-way through your career. "

Julian Bennett, fashionista from Queer Eye for a Straight Guy
"If people live a lie for many years, it makes things harder when they come out. A lot of people wonder why you would keep being gay a secret, but it can be difficult to suddenly declare that you are gay. I will hold hands with my partner on the street, but was not 'out' until I was 26."

Shame? Not really. The only 'shame' is that we live in an age where the sexual orientation of unmarried, middle-aged members of parliament is still deemed worthy of an interview question. After all, no one has asked Chris Huhne whether his wife ever goes on top or Menzies Campbell's opinion on al fresco action so why is asking Simon Hughes what gender of partner he prefers legitimate?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Any questions? This time minus Rowan Atkinson...

My overwhelming feeling was I didn't find anything out from the hour of Any Questions? that I didn't already know. Consensus broke out almost constantly and disagreement was almost entirely implicit. The audience didn't get much of a say either.

All the candidates' had a compelling radio manner, although sometimes Menzies sounded like he was addressing a rally. Most of the time he had a warm Scottish burr. Chris Huhne does indeed have a deep, reassuring voice (or is that a deeply reassuring voice). I wasn't necessarily convinced by Chris from his Meeting the Challenge speech - he sounded monotonic but this wasn't the case here.

The first question (How would you do better than Charles Kennedy?) pretty much set up the candidates' 'stalls' which were reiterated throughout the remaining hour. Menzies focused on his experience, maturity and energy. Simon talked about campaigning/vote percentages, appeal to minority groups and social justice. Chris portrayed himself as the candidate with experience communicating with the media and as an economist who could directly challenge Brown's economic failings. Chris sounded by far the most 'policy heavy' and the most well-informed. Both Menzies and Simon had a tendency to fall back onto 'Churchillian' rhetoric. I only felt Menzies sounded as though he had authority when he was talking about Iraq/Afghanistan and Kosovo.

The second question was about Charles' resignation which Simon used to position himself as the 'I didn't knife Charles' candidate, mentioning how he expected Charles to reconsider his position after he'd led the party through the May local elections. Jonathan Dimbleby plugged away at this issue for a while.

Dimbleby proceeded onto the West Lothian question which generated an outbreak of consensus. Following this, around 10 - 15 minutes were spent fruitlessly discussing whether politicians had a right to a private life, whether we should introduce privacy laws and whether Mark Oaten should have resigned. Interesting but told me nothing about the candidates. Simon's response was faintly revealing given today's revelations - it seemed from his reply that he felt sex scandals were 'catastrophic' for the people concerned, which explains his attempts to evade discovery of his bisexuality. The hung parliament question didn't distinguish the candidates in any way either.

The remaining questions were policy-related but focused almost entirely on taxation and the environment. Disagreement was implicit and by focus rather than content. Both Menzies and Simon claimed to be on the centre-left (queried in Menzies case by a hostile questioner from the audience) but they differed in their focus whilst talking about income tax. Simon talked about a higher rate of income tax for the better off but didn't commit to a figure. Menzies and Chris discussed 'fairness in the tax system' and the non-regressiveness of taxation. Chris mentioned that if environment taxes went up, other taxes should come down.

A mildly diverting waste of an hour, but if I was undecided beforehand then I'd have remained undecided.

On political judgement

So the Scum have found proof that Simon Hughes is less than completely straight. Count me unsurprised - it has been pretty well-known among active Liberal Democrats that he was bi since before I joined the Party in 1997. For the Scum, homosexuality is sufficient to condemn him - although fortunately this is unlikely to affect any election results, since this particular rag is trusted by the public even less than politicians.

All the other papers have, of course, jumped on the story because sex sells. Unfortunately, they need a non-homophobic excuse for printing scuttlebut about a politician's private life. The least lame attempt comes from large numbers of Lib-Dem hating lefties such as these Guardian newsblog commentators. They tell us that Simon ran a homophobic campaign against Peter Tatchell in the Bermondsey by-election. This is still pretty lame, because he didn't. The infamous "straight choice" leaflet did not describe Simon as a straight choice, it described the election as a straight choice between Tatchell and Simon - an implicit squeeze against the "Real Labour" candidate John O'Grady (who was responsible for most of the homophobia). On the other hand, it isn't that lame, because it's easy enough to falsely claim that Simon ran a homphobic campaign and rely on the fact that the public won't understand the facts.

For those who aren't prepared to lie, they are left with the standard lame trick used to nail politicians in sex scandals - the "it's not the sex, it's the lying about the sex" line. Unfortunately, Simon didn't lie either. He has never claimed to be straight, never gone campaigning with his wife and kids, never made sexuality an issue in his political career beyond being the unwitting beneficiary of a homophobic campaign run by other people. Fortunately for the muckrakers, he had however just denied being gay in an interview. While he isn't gay, he is bisexual.

This isn't actually a lie. Simon is a lawyer, and knows this. It isn't even particularly Clintonian - gay has a definite meaning, and Simon is not gay. But nevertheless I cringed when I heard that he denied being gay. What people want from their politicians is honesty, not legalistic truth. Simon's denial was (deliberately) misleading, and was therefore a political misjudgement for which he is now paying the price. Had he given the correct answer of "I'm not married, so it's my business who I sleep with." then the speculation that inevitably surrounds a single man in his 50's would have continued. But there wouldn't have been a story the respectable papers could print about the outing.

How will this affect Simon's leadership chances? In my view, a major lapse of judgement should be held against a candidate. We need a talented politician who knows when not to leave hostages to tabloid fortune. On the other hand, it isn't a resignation issue. Mark Oaten unfortunately had to go because he had become a national laughing stock. (Within the Party he was a laughing stock before the rent boy story broke, but that's a different matter). Simon Hughes is just a politician who was outed as gay. He is still perfectly capable of doing his job.

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Simon Hughes on sex scandals

And in other news, Simon Hughes gladdens my heart by doing what I was recommending to the next MP faced with a sex scandal (or potential sex scandal):

“I am perfectly willing to say that I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past... I hope that does not disqualify me from doing a good job in public life and I propose to carry on doing that with the usual enthusiasm and determination... I am very happy to make a clear statement about the issue... I have always taken the view that somebody’s sexuality should not be of great significance in the public domain... It is a private matter... It should not be significant in terms of people standing for public office..."

And on the BBC website :

"I believe that people have a right to a private life, providing that their private life does not impinge upon their public responsibilities... I have always maintained that someone's sexual orientation should not be a barrier to public life in modern Britain... I strongly believe that people should have a right to personal privacy... I do not believe that anything that I have done has impinged upon my capacity to serve my constituents or fulfil any of the roles that I have sought, undertaken or am seeking for the future."

If just he'd done it the first time around and before circumstances forced him too...

Prominent what? For Pete's sake

Yet another 'prominent' Lib Dem says Lib Dem MPs are going to defect. This 'prominent' character "chairs the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs forum". I've never heard of the Lib Dem foreign affairs forum. Sadly I can't find out whether I should be embarrassed by my ignorance - the lead link when you Google (boo! hiss! shame! resign!) "Lib Dem foreign affairs forum" is James Graham.

So what makes you a 'prominent Lib Dem' then? Harold Elletson used to be a Tory MP but that makes him a 'prominent ex-Conservative' NOT a 'prominent Lib Dem'. I guess that blogging, an ex-SAO position and having co-written a booklet probably makes me a 'prominent Lib Dem' too. Or as my friend (a PPC at the last election in an unwinnable seat) wrote about Mr Graves being a 'prominent Lib Dem' - "Heck, that means me 'prominent'! BOW DOWN TO ME!". I'm assuming the criteria for being a downright irrelevant Lib Dem is being an armchair member - even delivering the occasional FOCUS round would make you "a lead activist in the last general election".

So I wonder - if I went to the Independent and told them that 10 MPs were seriously considering their position (the entire shadow front bench would be more fun but suggests collusion and thus too easy to prove as a lie. A few unnamed MPs semi-secretly soul-searching is much harder to disprove)... Would they run the story citing me as a 'prominent Lib Dem' despite the fact I know absolutely zilch... nada... zero... about the intentions of our parliamentary party?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Any questions, Mr Bean?

I am going to try the radical tactic of live-blogging the Any Questions Lib Dem leadership special streamed off the internet whilst simultaneously watching Johnny English on ITV1. This should be interesting...

Dunno what I'm listening to ATM... Oh yeah, the news... And an advert involving orange gloop...

[This hasn't really worked - will review Any Questions tomorrow evening in more detail]

Go away Polly: Response to comments

My post on Polly Toynbee's Guardian column has attracted an interesting comment from Paul Leake which I thought deserved a response on the main site.

People who aren't members are entitled to a view, and those who as members are entitled to more than a view (ie. a vote) would do well to consider opinion outside the party, even if ultimately rejecting it - at least if you want the Lib Dems to be successful. Of course you can still disagree with her conclusions :)

Non-member supporters are entitled to a view, as are potential supporters. The members would do well to take their views seriously when we cast our votes. Analysts and commentators are entitled to offer advice, although as voting members we should take the advice of people who don't share our values with a pinch of salt. Supporters of other parties can (and should) take views on what the possible result of the leadership election means for them, something that should be only marginally relevant to us.

That isn't what Toynbee is doing. Her thesis is that a Hughes victory is a good thing for left-wing Labour supporters such as herself because a Hughes-led Lib Dem party will put pressure on Labour from the economic left and force Brown to move further left than he otherwise would when he becomes leader. But she phrases the article as advice to Liberal Democrats. Our political aims are not the same as those of left-wing Brownites (if they were, we would be left-wing Brownites and not Liberal Democrats) and we should not be choosing our leader with the interests of left-wing Brownites in mind.

Since her advice is based on the assumption that we want something which we don't, we should know better than to follow it. She should know better than to offer it too. An article about how a Hughes leadership victory would be a boost for the Brownite left of the Labour party is a useful contribution to the political debate in the UK, but to phrase it as advice to Liberal Democrat members is just rude.

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Traitor of the week

Apparently Google (unnofficial motto "Don't be evil") has joined Microsoft (unofficial motto "More evil than Satan himself"), Yahoo! and Rupert Murdoch by going into the censorship business on behalf of the Red Chinese.

Why is this important? In the words of internet guru John Gilmore, "The internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it." At the moment, various groups including Peacefire are helping Chinese internet users route around censorship, with some success. Self-censorship is much harder to route around.

This kind of behaviour undermines the competitive advantage of free societies. The good guys usually win because a society that allows the free exchange of information invents things like the Internet (and the Bomb, for that matter), whereas a society that censors dangerous ideas like "democracy" and "Tibet" does not. Furthermore, technologies like the Internet spread give the bad guys a kind of Hobsobn's choice between economic stagnation and tolerating access to unauthorised information. A Commified Chinese Internet purged of deviant thought (something that China could never build for itself) will not have that salutary effect.

Yahoo, Microsoft et al. are devoting their considerable technological skill (which could only ever have been developed in a free society) to ensuring that Red China gets all the economic benefits of the Internet without the freedom. If Red China becomes an economic superpower while remaining a communist dictatorship, then it will be an existential threat to human civilisation in the way in which Nazi Germany and the USSR were, and a bunch of disgruntled camel-thieves never will be. While I knew Microsoft were felonious scum for a long time and accordingly expected no better, to see Google behaving in this way is a pity.

Google's decision is motivated by the desire to increase its share of the $151 million a year Chinese search market. In hard currency, that is thirty pieces of silver.

P.S. See this excellent article for a (slightly) more charitable view of what Google have done


Illiberal of the week

Or maybe illiberal of the day (I'm sure someone will turn out to be more illiberal by the end of the week) is David Cameron on his youth scheme:

"If it isn't compulsory or if it isn't universal it could tend to be something else that well-off families do because it's good for their kids but it would not actually reach some of the most marginalised families and excluded children who actually would really benefit."

Translation: poor 18-year olds (and their families) can't make their own decisions about what they want to do for three or four months after leaving school, so I'm going to make those decisions for them. I'm one politician in London who doesn't even know them whilst they're living their lives 24/7 so OF COURSE I can make life decisions on their behalf. Rich people won't need coercion because they will all agree with me anyhow - isn't it great being right?

[Thanks to Angus for drawing my attention to this latest attempt by Mr Cameron to attract liberals to the Conservative party].

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Wheeeee... This is funky...

This should be a podcast of Chris Huhne's experience in business, journalism, Westminster and Europe. It's very funky and one of a set of 5. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem too happy to run 'on the blog'. It's running in a separate window. Anyone know how to get it to get it to run in the blog itself.

Next question - how do you make a podcast?

Panic? What panic?

Lib Dem chaos, Scandal-hit Lib Dems in Freefall or:

that the party is facing headlines claiming it is facing its worst crisis for a generation and is collapsing. And that must indeed be the party bosses' greatest fear

The party is apparently:

reel[ing] from the resignation of its home affairs spokesman following allegations he had an affair with a rent boy

Let's look at this sensibly... The Telegraph says:

A Guardian/ICM poll, mostly conducted before the story broke on Saturday evening, puts the party on 19 per cent - two down on the previous month. The Tories, on 37 per cent, maintained their one-point lead on Labour. A Mori poll in Saturday's Sun had the Lib Dems on 15 per cent, their lowest rating for five years.

In 2001, the Lib Dems were expected to be happy with a gain of 2% to 16% so it just shows how we shouldn't "consider giving up" if dropping to 15% is the party "facing its worst crisis for a generation". Further, the Lib Dem's poll rating always drops after a general election (can anyone find me any stats) and after the Conservatives elect a new leader. So we're actually holding up very well and our credibility is just fine thank you very much.

And why would our credibility have taken a knock? Well, first we had the unexpected "Politician revealed to have been an alcoholic" shocker. And now we have the even more crisis-ladened "Man revealed to have used a prostitute and (possibly) lied to wife"... Around 10% of the male population admit to having used a prostitute and 99.999% of the married male population have probably omitted to tell their wife something. Anyone have a percentage for the number of men who have had an affair? Nothing like being a man of the people, eh. It's not even like he had an affair with another woman - he was getting something his wife couldn't give him. I'd be more scared if we had 600+ people in parliament who never did anything silly and had nothing the tabloid press could get hold of. It's not even like the Lib Dems are dead against prostitution. IMO he shouldn't have resigned in the first place (in fact, it's worse for a liberal party that he did) and he certainly shouldn't step down as an MP. As the Telegraph says:

He has done nothing illegal - just embarrassing. He hasn't lied: no one has ever thought to ask him if he liked rent boys. He hasn't been hypocritical. He coined the term "Tough Liberalism", but he never called for a crack-down on prostitution. Quite the reverse: the Liberal Democrats want to liberalise the sex trade. Only last week, Mr Oaten, as home affairs spokesman, was saying: "We support the piloting of managed zones in designated areas in cities." On gays and lesbians his party believes in "a diverse Britain, not one shackled by conformity, ignorance or intolerance". He wants to boost the pink economy, and has done so himself in a rather bizarre way. He hasn't abused his position as an MP to win favours or make money, and his out-of-hours activities haven't impinged on his job as a conscientious constituency MP.

In short - panic? What panic?

[NB: Have put a long comment clarifying my position on Mark Oaten's resignation. I didn't want to create a new post but realised it wasn't clear what I thought after having a debate with LibertyCat on this topic last night on the phone].

Chris moves into second place...

... according to The Telegraph:

Chris Huhne, originally a rank outsider, yesterday overtook Simon Hughes, the party president, to become second favourite behind Sir Menzies Campbell, the acting leader.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Gunning 4 Chris

You'll note that I've just put a 'Bloggers4Chris' box up on the blog.

I've blogged at length about why my first and second choices are going to be Chris and Menzies but in summary...

The Lib Dems are portrayed by our opponents as ideologically woolly and not to be trusted on the economy. The other parties are competing on the basis of being the best manager. We need to set ourselves apart and take on our critics by showing that we are 'the ideas party' and that we have a clear and coherent vision of what we want a future liberal Britain to be like.

Chris has excellent credentials both as an economist and also devising some of the party's most innovative and liberal ideas (e.g. the Huhne report). He also has experience as a journalist and can communicate our ideas to the media - a third party is not guaranteed to be listened to by the press.

He's said very sensible things about the fallacy of the endless media debates on our left/right positioning:

"I don't think it's useful to be talking in left/right terms when you are looking at liberal issues where we are very distinct from both the Conservatives and from Labour..."

About avoiding increasing absolute taxation and the environment:

"Of course, if we put green taxes up, other taxes can and should come down."

And about the highly centralised state.

The rest is further down the blog...


This is a local town, for local people...

Menzies Campbell said that: "just as government does not always know best, neither does the council".

And this morning Peter Preston has a go at trendy localism. From the Lib Dem point-of-view he's doing a few rounds with a straw man.

First he advances a lot of arguments about the US and Switzerland:

Is it fair... that a murderer in Oregon will face no death chamber while a murderer in Texas prepares to fry?

Local democracy [in Switzerland], honed over centuries, means a host of different hard things: different taxation levels, different asylum policies, different education fees and subsidies, different benefits.

There is a tradition in certain parts of the Lib Dems that local is always best which is what Menzies was attacking and, yes, Peter P. you make the point that local isn't always best. Likewise he's correct that quangos, etc. don't give local residents a real say. But IMO he's not so hot on the rest.

The Lib Dems are in favour of bringing things "closer to real people" but this isn't necessarily to a local level. It's to the most effective level. Finding "head teachers for 127 needy schools" isn't a decision that national government should be concerning itself with. Street lighting and local schools are decisions best made by local people. The two specific examples he cites from the US and Switzerland are the death penalty and being able to see Brokeback Mountain. These are universal human rights and free speech issues and are best decided at a national level. Defence and asylum are also best made at national or international level - security threats to Avon and Somerset don't come from southern Welsh people invading from over the Severn Bridge. This is why Menzies isn't keen on "passing power down to the people" merely out of a "misty haze of benevolence".

He then goes on to say "like it or not, in our warm bath of Britishness we are already a quasi-federation" citing Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Wales are partly devolved but in general:

The UK has a highly centralised system of government, and the powers of local government are very limited. Central government exercises considerable controls over local action. The main power local government has is one of conservative resistance, usually in the form of a failure to put central government policies immediately into effect

We have a long way to go before we can be compared meaningfully to Switzerland. In fact, AFAIK we are the most centralised country in Europe. A little gratuitous localism would probably merely be redressing the balance.

He goes on to cite the customary fears of devolving things downwards:

don't think consistency or equality. If you don't like it in Geneva, then you can move to Bern or Basle or wherever. Choice is getting on your bike. Fed up with Islington? Push off to Wandsworth instead.

This suggests he thinks two things:
  • Centralised control delivers uniform services. Given just how centralised we are - do we have uniform, equal provision. No? Surprise, surprise.
  • Variation in service provision and consistency is all bad. There's a lot of stuff on this in the Orange Book about how inconsistency, variation and freedom can lead to good practice arising spontaneously in one place and being transmitted to others. This is somewhat more efficient than one group of people in Whitehall coming up with a plan, rolling it out across a pilot area and then the UK... discovering it doesn't work... devising another plan

The Tories and Labour are authoritarian parties and have centralising instincts so their policies are no doubt window-dressing or an 'aspartame mush'. But the Lib Dems are for appropriate localism so don't tar us with the same brush.

Losers with no sense of humour

This post related to a specific individual and has been removed at their request

Go away Polly, the leadership contest is members only.

A friend just pointed out this column by former Owenite, now Brownite, and general witch Polly Toynbee. Like most of the Guardian's columnists, Toynbee begins by assuming that the real story is entirely internal to the Labour party, and devotes more than half her space to discussing that. In the middle third of the column, she does deign to talk about the Liberal Democrats. Her advice is more than usually asinine.

This is now the question Lib Dem would-be leaders must answer. It may maximise their vote to dance about saying "neither right nor left", but what is the point of merely existing in nothingness? Labour die-hards call them no more than a franchise - a painfully accurate accusation. Collect up their literature and they face quite different ways according to their local opponent.

We don't dance about anything. "Neither right nor left" is not a piece of tactical postitioning, it is an indictment of the state of British politics. With both Thatcherism and Footism discredited, everyone sane agrees about the big economic issues. The big issues of 2006 are questions about national identity, the management of public services, and how to deal with what used to be called noisy neighbours and is now apparently "anti-social behaviour". On all these issues, the division is between right (i.e. Liberal) and wrong. And yet morons like Toynbee still insist on talking about right and left - no wonder the electorate get turned off.

But times have changed since the SDP. Where once there was a great savannah of available political space, now the air is too thin to breathe between New Labour and Cameron Tories. Both parties have stolen Lib Dem land: all now preach the new localism.

We don't have to be between New Labour and Cameron's Tories. We are liberal, they are illiberal. The Liberal Democrats don't just preach the new localism, we actually do it - try googling for "most improved Council". While the other parties (more specifically, the Monster Raving Loony Party) may have stolen David Owen's political turf, they is still plenty of space for a principled Liberal party.

But there is a need for a party more radical than Labour, a party that says no to war and no to wasting billions on new nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors, that dares to talk of the greed of the rich, of boardroom kleptocracy and the duty of top earners to shoulder a fairer share. Already the Lib Dems alone own civil liberties, and they are the pluralists who would rebuild council and Commons chambers in horseshoe shape under proportional representation, offering the one crucial "choice" that Labour and Tories refuse - the choice to vote for any party in a fair election.
Quite right too. Didn't you just say that we danced with nothingness, and were a franchise and not a party? The issues you just mentioned aren't perpheral. Civil liberties matter - right now people all over the world are being arrested, tortured, and shot for writing columns like yours.

They will never win; that's not their function.

Our function is what we say it is, not what a Labour-supporting Guardian columnist says it is. We say our function is to form a Liberal Democrat government, with Liberal policies and Chris Huhne as a Liberal Prime Minister. You want to see a Labour government, with socialist policies. So we really don't care what you think we should be doing.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Chained to the womb

Another depressing article on women in today's Sunday Times which pretty much summarises the front-line of feminism: "the most insoluble of human conflicts — families versus careers"

Feminism has lost the plot quite a bit which is why it's not really trendy to be a feminist. There are probably 3 main threads of which two are a red herring.

The first red herring is why there are fewer men than women in any given occupation and whether men and women are actually 'on par'. But it doesn't really matter if it turns out that men are better, on average, at maths and science or have a higher IQ on average. This is because our understanding of intelligence is pretty vague (does it include 'creativity' and what is 'creativity'? Is art a form of intelligence?) and it's not entirely clear that academic qualifications or IQ tests actually measure functional 'intelligence'. IQ is not directly correlated to 'success' - emotional intelligence and motivation are also important. It's also an average - it would mean that there would always be fewer women in maths and science but that shouldn't decrease the employability of an intelligent woman who was good at maths and science. Of course, in practice it would mean HR men with low IQs would assume a woman who walked through their door had a lower IQ than a man who walked through their door which is why the reaction to Mr Summers was a number of women preferring to walk out than "black... out or throw... up".

The second red herring is covered by the second page of the Times article, the debate about whether women flaunting their bodies, enjoying pornography, etc. is liberation or the normalisation of oppression.

Yep, it's a peacock. It's a bird (ok, it's a male bird). It wants to attract a mate. It displays. It wants to get down and dirty with other birds. It probably enjoys it. It doesn't spend ages concerning itself over whether displaying its assets means it's subjugating itself to matriarchal (or patriarchal) oppression. Period.

The third thread is the real front-line of feminism. This is the most insoluble of human conflicts - that women still have to choose a career or a child, whereas men can have both. Or, in the words of the Guardian article - Stuck on the 'mummy track' - why having a baby means lower pay and prospects:

Before they have children, the average hourly wage for female workers is 91% of the male average but declines to 67% for working mothers juggling jobs and childcare. Their wages relative to men then stagnate for 10 years before showing a modest recovery, reports the study, Newborns and New Schools. But even when children have left home, the average hourly wage for their mothers remained at 72% of the male average

The number of women who are sacked or pushed out upon becoming pregnant is still disgracefully high. School-age children cause a problem due to child-minding duties, which restrict... working hours. Women are worried by reports that nurseries may restrict their child's development.

This state of affairs affects women with different interests and aspirations differently. During my Gap Year I worked with a fair few clerical workers who felt they were in a rut careers-wise, who didn't feel they were indispensible to their work or making a difference (the 'small cog' syndrome) and whose fulfilment in work was from their colleagues rather than the nature of their work. Many of them wanted to give up full-time work to look after children whilst keeping their social contacts by working part-time but often felt they couldn't afford to do so. Where they felt they could go part-time, their working hours were conducive to child-care and the development of their career wasn't a high priority. They felt that bringing up a child was far more satisfying and fulfilling than filing paperwork or typing. It was somewhere they could feel they made a real difference.

At the other end of the spectrum, the super mums like Ruth Kelly (4 children, economics reporter, deputy editor of the Bank of England's quarterly financial report) or Nicola Horlick (5 children) are well-off enough to afford hired help.

The third class of women are those who are not able to afford a nanny and who don't have relatives who could look after children, but who view their job/career or their extra-curricular activities (e.g. voluntary work) as their main sphere of influence. They want promotion and their job often requires long hours. Assuming they've a suitable partner at that point, these women have an unpalatable choice. Either they choose not to have children (or hope they can make enough money before they become infertile to pay someone to look after them) or they consign their career to the scrap heap. By making the choice to look after children and losing at least some of their income, women who have been competing with men in the workplace suddenly become a dependent (kinda like being a teenager and trying to beg money off your parents over again). And to women who value their job rather than just their colleagues, housekeeper and carer can't compare. Worst case scenario is that it's soul-destroying - this could be my mum (who gave up work to look after me):

A married woman in late middle-age wakes up alone, again. She cleans her big empty house before settling down to a pile of ironing. She makes herself something modest to eat. She switches on the radio. The day goes on. Perhaps later she’ll do some gardening. She feels a little lonely, to tell the truth, but she knows it’ll pass. The children have left home and she hasn’t spoken to her husband for several days. He’s away... working. She imagines him getting ready... She notices a kitchen worktop is dirty and dutifully wipes it.

[In case you're wondering - it's Doreen Davis]. It's a situation where the woman is long out of the job market, has become unaccustomed to employment, is possibly depressed, whose self-esteem and identity has narrowed down to how well she's cooked carrots and who can't conceive of escape because she has no self-confidence, no independent identity left and nowhere to go. Don't tell me it's an admirable sacrifice - it's tragic. Giving women a proper choice is the real front-line of feminism.

[This is a rant - cue flames :D]

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Oaten in (alleged) rent boy shocker

Seriously, you couldn't make it up...

The means of removing Kennedy was compared to Tory removals of their leaders but surely this an emulation too far?
I suppose it could be worse...

[Addendum: The papers are full of Mark Oaten this morning. Not entirely sure why he had to resign. I think that the only time sexual affairs should lead to a political resignation is something that directly compromises the job of the candidate, e.g. the classic MP/Russian agent scenarios during the Cold War or if it's something that is (and should be) illegal. It's obviously going to be very difficult/upsetting for his wife and family if they had no inclination that he was interested in sexual exploration, because it's a huge breach of trust in a marriage. People do change over a lifetime and become interested in investigating different sides of their character (and sometimes sexual desires) and I think the best way of dealing with that is being upfront and open about it to the people around you so that no one feels betrayed. The original Screws of the World article is here].

As an aside, I've never really got the whole 'football kit' fetish... It's not like football kit is figure-hugging or has a sensual texture. It must be a David Mellor tribute (although that was found to be a fabrication).


Friday, January 20, 2006

Class, Shmass

Apparently more and more people self-define as working class. This is not necessarily surprising - opinion polls asking people "Are you X?" do not measure how many people are, in fact, X. They measure how socially acceptable it is to be X. So the real question is not "Why are more people working class?" but "Why do more middle class people feel inclined to lie and claim to be working class when they aren't?"

To work this out, it helps to think about what class actually means. Generally, this can be one of 4 completely different things.

  1. The government defines "social class" by occupation. If the main income-earner in your household is a professional, you are social class A. If the main income-earner in your household is an unskilled labourer, you are social class E. In a world in which plumbers (class C2) earn more than academics (class A), this is increasingly unconnected with income, but fits reasonably well with the ordinary English meaning of "class".
  2. Anthropologists (and snobs) define class by culture. The most famous anthropological study of English class distinctions is Nancy Mitford's work on "U" and "non-U" English More recently, Kate Fox's (highly readable - and recommended) book Watching the English deals with the issue in great detail. It is in this sense that America is a "classless society" - while there is a hereditary elite in America, they use the same vocabulary and drink the same beer as everyone else.
  3. Marxists define class by how someone relates to the means of production. Marx divided people into the proletariat, who made a living by selling their labour, and the property-owning bourgeoisie who lived off the profits of their business. To a Marxist, a city slicker on £200,000 can still be part of the proletariat if he does not own his own business. Will Hutton's analysis of Britain in terms of a 40-30-30 society is arguably an attempt to redefine Marxist class in a way that is relevant now that the middle class own the means of production through their pension funds - although Hutton doesn't use the word "class".
  4. Lazy people sometimes say "class" when they mean "How much money did your parents have?" Even if Wayne Rooney's children end up being total chavs, most people will not consider them "working class".

So what are people thinking about when they claim to be "working class"? It isn't point 1 - a manager who self-defines as working class presumably knows that he has a managerial job! It isn't point 3 either - nobody except the odd Marxist theorist uses the word "class" in this sense. Point 4 plays a part - saying "I am working class" implies "My parents were dirt poor", which in turn implies "Look at me and all my money - and I earned it all myself." But mostly it is about point 2.

Eliza Doolittle needed to acquire middle-class manners in order to get a middle-class job, because of the stigma that attached to Cockney culture in 1913. Nowadays, the tabloids insist that even a Prime Minister with a thoroughly upper-middle class upbringing engage in regular displays of vulgarity to prove that he is a "man of the people". So of course more people say that they are working class.


Thursday, January 19, 2006


I've received this comment :

"if that's true, why do the British Social Attitudes surveys report more and more respondents defining themselves as "working class"?(See also)"

About the following line in my article about Labour:

"The rise of the service industry has increased the size of the group that self-defines itself as middle-class......"


What I should have written is either 'increased the size of the group that is defined as middle-class' or increased the size of the group of "skilled and unskilled workers [who] regard themselves as middle class". This article claims the UK middle-class defined by occupation and status is definitely growing. More interesting, the same survey found that ~ 25 % of people in management still regard themselves as working class. This is possibly due to the:

"The post war boom in so-called professional managerial jobs [which] propelled millions from working class origins to middle class aspirations" [my 'rise of the service industry']

This number seems to have grown over Labour's period in government with people working in "technology, engineering, medicine and teaching" regarding themselves as working class.

The ICM research in 1998 quoted on the BBC webpage also found that 1% of people regard themselves as upper class whereas the figure in terms of status and profession is 22%. From my experience, this is because 'upper class' conquers up images of Lord somebody (dressed in plus-fours and tweed) shooting pheasants outside Chatsworth House. This rules out almost everyone from being upper-class themselves, whilst watching the Fulfords swearing at each other suggests the fabled upper classes are still out there but we haven't noticed because we haven't met any of them (as a consequence of not being upper class). Apparently, it's not just me who's confused about who the upper class are these days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Every Tory needs a Tebbit

I'll admit to following Celebrity Big Brother. Not watching it, but scanning the Channel 4 website to see what George Galloway has been up to since his infamous cat incident. I was wondering what his wife thought to him licking Rula, but vaguely recalled that she had decided to divorce him. I'm unsure if they've been reconciled or not.

Anyway, that led me to this and the following line caught my eye:

One of Cameron's attention-grabbing initiatives that didn't quite grab the attention was the appointment of MP Philip Davies as a 'political correctness eradicator'.

Further investigation reveals that Cameron doesn't seem to have appointed anyone (I couldn't locate it on the Conservative website anyway) and it just looks like Mr Davies thought it was a good idea. Political correctness is one of the favourite rant topics of the reactionary right. There's nothing like a mention of Winterval or Ba Ba White Sheep (this appears to be a myth) to fill empty column inches in the Daily Mail. My position on it is this:

a) I agree with Armando Iannucci in the Observer article above. If people say politically incorrect things they are just rude and thus:

'I don't think we should ever stop people from saying politically incorrect things: I just think we should be more up-front in telling them they're just plain rude.'

b) When people do silly things in the cause of political correctness, they permit people who attack political correctness because they want to be rude and bigoted to get wider public sympathy. This harms the cause of preventing genuine discrimination. A good example this week of something silly is the attempt to prevent the homophobic abuse of horses. It's a pedantic point that informing a policeman his horse was gay was not actually an insult especially if the horse was, in fact, homosexual (the sexual orientation of the horse doesn't appear to have been established). More substantially the horse (not understanding English) was unlikely to be insulted whatever it had been called, the young man doubtless would not have made the remark had he been sober and the police could have spent the money and time investigating something like a homophobic assault (on a human). [NB: The guy was with friends when he shouted the remark. Amongst his friends was a former Balliol LGBT officer]

On the other hand, having a political correctness Tsar (they're always Tsars) might be a smart move for Mr Cameron as a sop to the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade who are feeling somewhat disenfranchised by the new caring and sharing Conservatism. It would show he was on their side. In fact, I recommend he appoints Mr Tebbit or one of the Tory Taliban as Shadow Deputy Leader in the same way as Tony Blair appointed Prescott. They could wheel Tebbit out every now and then to compare George Osborne to a seahorse (George Osborne is cuter than Mandelson so is definitely not a mitten crab). Giving people a strong left-hook is, of course, optional.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

So where did you come from?

This surname profiler has caused great excitement and distress in the household, after my mother discovered her maiden name is southern [shock! horror! gasp!] and in 1881 was predominantly concentrated in Reading.

Cheap shots at marginal figures

This George Monbiot article points me to Melanie Philips latest screed about global warming.

The politics of both these articles is an attack on decisions made under scientific uncertainty. If the results published in Nature are accurate, then planting trees is not a carbon sink. That does not mean that decisions taken while we thought that planting trees was a carbon sink are evil - it certainly does not expose any kind of ideological conspiracy. It just means we made a mistake.

Melanie Phillips' belief that global warming is not real is not based on an appraisal of the scientific evidence - something her claim that "most of the atmosphere consists of water vapour" demonstrates she is manifestly unqualified to do. It is based on a belief that people who claim to care for the environment are in fact motivated by anti-Americanism. Even if the current scientific consensus on global warming turns out to be wrong, this belief will remain throughly bogus.

Similarly, Monbiot's opposition to allowing carbon sinks under Kyoto was not based on science - he makes it clear in his article that his real problem with them is that it "allows us to carry on polluting" and "buy absolution". The political case for allowing other types of sink (offsetting carbon emissions by investing in energy-saving technology in the third world, for example) is no weaker than it was before, despite Monbiot's loud claims of vindication.

Politicians making decisions under scientific uncertainty should make the best possible decision on the basis of the best available scientific evidence. They shouldn't be expected to try and outguess the scientists on future scientific developments. Blaming the politicians when the scientific consensus changes encourages them to do just that.

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