Monday, 31 May 2010

Eurovision and social capital - some thoughts....

Last Saturday over 8 million Brits spent a fun evening watching the Eurovision Song Contest despite the inevitability of the British entry languishing at the bottom of the pile as always. Now this doesn’t make Eurovision quite the most important event of the year – I guess the finals of the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent will get a bigger audience and one of the Great Debates in our recent election got more viewers.

However, Eurovision has become a mark in the calendar, something we share as a nation – part of the social capital of Britain. Now before you all rush off let me explain. Much of our TV viewing is only marginally social – if it’s not a solitary activity, it’s shared only with our immediate family and friends. Indeed, some critics of our modern culture single out the goggle-box as a prime culprit for the loss of social capital.

However, events like Eurovision belie that gloomy prognosis. What we see is a much broader engagement – not only the large numbers of viewers but all the other aspects of social interaction. There’s pubs and clubs organising Eurovision nights, some people get together with a bottle or two of cheap fizz and some chocolates and others make it a big family occasion. Workplaces have sweepstakes, the newspapers are full of stories and twitter, facebook and other bits of the interwebs abound with chitter-chatter. It’s more than just a TV event.

And today – whether or not we like it – these televisual events, Eurovision, X-Factor, World Cup and BGT, represent a new calendar. These are as much part of the social fabric as Christmas, Easter and Bank Holidays. But more importantly still they provide a bridge – these events allow us to interact, to get together and to share something – even something a trivial as a singing contest. We are provided with the means to engage in conversation – and this works even when the other person thinks Eurovision is a dreadful festival of plastic pop! We have an opinion, there’s no indifference and this results is positive engagement – building what has been called ‘social capital’.


Sunday, 30 May 2010


Pigs are better than sheep for a whole load of reasons. It’s not just the diet – pigs eat all the same stuff we eat which makes having one in the yard a pretty good idea (says he in a pigless environment) – but the lack of flocking. Pigs are family animals rather than herd animals.

But pigs get a poor press – it’s not just that Jews and Muslims won’t eat them (I visualise the Porcine High Command in their bunker near Basingstoke planning the exodus to Riyadh and pig liberty) – but the endless harping on about greediness, filthiness and general bad manners.

And all this stuff about troughing – especially the adjustment of politicians’ pictures to incorporate parts of pig anatomy (prize to the first one to feature the corkscrew-like porcine penis). Well it won’t do – stick food in front of a pig and it eats but how many politicians could find you a truffle?

Pigs are, I think, the champion domesticated animal – you can eat all of them, they don’t need great fields to graze on and they are prolific breeders. And the world (other than those parts with a silly taboo) gets sausages, bacon, chitterlings, belly pork, black pudding, gammon, scratchings, chops and spare ribs. What more could we ask?

Family values, good hygiene, low environmental impact, versatility and no fuss. Go on folks – ignore Bing Crosby – grow up to be a pig!

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Fuzzy boundaries, rational behaviour, rule-breaking and Laws


As the newspapers and airwaves are dominated by another example of a politician interpreting expenses rules rather creatively, I thought I would join in with the Great David Laws furore. Not to make a judgment as to whether he should resign, should abase himself before the public or have fifty lashes with the cat o’ nine tails, but to ask a broader question about rules and why we break them.

In doing this I am minded of the fact that we all break rules – sometimes because we don’t like them or agree with them but mostly because either we believe we will get away with our transgression or else the likely punishment is too minor to be a real concern to us. I recall being told of how, outside a certain school, a particular car was ticketed (for parking right outside the gates, on double yellow lines, on a corner within a set of traffic lights) time and time again. In the end, a policeman spoke to the woman as she parked and was told ‘oh, just give me a ticket, my husband will pay it.’

In this case the woman opted to take the consequences of parking closer to the school gates. She saw it as worthwhile – an affordable risk – and behaved accordingly. In a similar manner we (or most of us) routinely break speed limits and trim the edges of a host of other regulatory constraints (tell me you’ve never driven the short hop from the corner shop to home without putting on your seatbelt). The chances of getting caught are very small and – in most cases – the consequences that follow being caught are also small.

Apply this to other circumstances in life – have you ever been given a blank receipt by a taxi driver? What about that insurance claim – how creative were you? And what about sneaking an unwanted letter back into the bag while playing scrabble? I could go on listing examples – petty and not so petty – of how we are surrounded by the temptation of rule-breaking. Indeed some folk take the view that it is perfectly OK to be entirely selective as to which rules to abide by and which rules to ignore.

Partly, all this is a plea to take heed of Christ’s advice in Matt 7:5 (remove the log from your own eye and you’ll see more clearly to remove the mote from your brother’s) but mostly it’s to understand that like everything else, our attitude to rules is entirely rational. Rule-breaking is perfectly normal, rational behaviour – it must be because we all break rules and many of us do so every day. At the same time, our irritation, annoyance or even anger at the rule-breaking of others is also rational behaviour. Plus of course our insistence that rules are tightened, punishments lifted and transgressors exposed.

Rules serve one of two purposes – they enforce equality (by which I don’t mean modern “equalities” but rather that rules ensure we all play the same game – that our engagement with society is ‘fair’) or they allow control. In recent times we have seen a significant sub-set of laws for control – the use of regulation to ‘change behaviour’. In general we place greater importance on laws of equality since these are the laws that protect us and our property. These laws enjoy overwhelming support and their breach is seen as a very serious matter.

Rules of control, however, are less likely to enjoy overwhelming support as they are about governing our behaviour rather than regulating the game. We also (and this is reflected in punishments) see the boundaries of these laws in very fuzzy terms being willing to forgive less significant transgression under some circumstances. This brings with it the risk of arbitrariness – on the agency charged with enforcement acting inconsistently. While there’s no evidence of police bias against red cars, you are more likely to be stopped by the police if you are black and many enforcement decisions are based on value judgments made by officers – all this is evidence of inconsistency. And, as rational actors in this game, we do not like inconsistency since it means we cannot know if the rules of equality apply. Yet we acquiesce in fuzzy applications – we see it as OK for the copper to let the woman off a speeding fine but to slap the full fine on the boy racer who commits the same offence.

And, of course, where there is expectation of leniency there is a greater incentive to break the rules. Look, for example, at the relatively benign world of fines for overstaying in a car park. Even where the risk is considerable (a substantial charge to remove a wheel clamp) people routinely believe that the “I was only a couple of minutes late” argument will work. But look at it from the operator’s perspective and such fuzziness is not rational – enforcing the time is entirely sensible as the alternative is to have space that is occupied but not income-generating.

For public enforcement agencies, on the other hand, fuzziness gives power. The ability of the copper to stop or not stop, charge or not charge is central to their authority – these choices are exercises of arbitrary power. If officers simply enforced the letter of the law, their power would be constrained entirely by what is says in that law. Whereas we allow fuzzy edges to decision-making – call it discretion - you move the power away from the law and onto the individual officer.

Which brings us back to David Laws – because the administration of MPs expenses was deliberately vague, we have a system where fuzzy boundaries allowed for arbitrary and contradictory decisions. And now, with a new regime, it’s become like the attractive woman stopped by the gay cop – all the usual eyelash fluttering and cleavage revelation has no effect. She gets the ticket. Under the regime that existed before, Mr Laws’ behaviour was entirely rational – today with clear boundaries of permission, such behaviour is not rational.


Update: It seems that David Laws has resigned - which shows he has a little bit of class in my judgment. In doing this we see once again the triumph of the prurient and of those who merely seek political advantage from others mistakes. I ask whether those baying loudest for his head on a platter are so very innocent - or are they just the same but so far fortunate enough not to get caught.


Thursday, 27 May 2010

Time to put the trains sets away boys!


The other day, some of Bradford’s finest – including the wonderful John Pennington and Andrew Mason – presented a plan to link the two stations in Bradford City Centre so as to create a link between what were the Midland and GNR networks. And very fine it looks too – might enhance the city a little although it beats me how making is easier to pass through the city would regenerate the place.

But these proposals – plus the jolly plans to open up old railways (somehow I doubt that will mean Cullingworth getting a rail link again) and build new super-fast links between the big cities – got me to thinking about railways. More particularly, to considering why we bother – spending more money on our heavy rail network is just pouring money into a splendid dead end.

The problem with railways is that they require expensive infrastructure that only trains (and certain trains at that) can run on. And this is made worse by the fact that (a common trait in public transport) trains go from one place you don’t want to be (a smelly, untidy, often unsafe station) to another place you don’t want to be.

Quite frankly, roads are more flexible, can take a greater variety of traffic in greater volumes, are cheaper to build and maintain, cannot be held to ransom by operators and suit the dynamism of the modern economy. Railways – other than as commuter transport into an out from employment nodes – are a Victorian anachronism.

And looking to the future the benefits of roads will become still clearer as road vehicles become less polluting with the advances in hybrid engines, electric vehicles and fuel cells destroying the environmental arguments against this form of mass transport. By all means invest in urban mass transit and light rail systems designed to move large numbers of folk over short, congested distances but leave off driving new railways through the countryside in some rose-spectacled, harking back to a bygone age. Railways may look good, you may like them but they are not a solution to modern transport problems.


Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Wednesday Whimsey: Metaphysics, gnostics, sceptics and a defence of creationism

Let me start, dear reader, with the one clear fact in all this – there is a “creation”. OK it could be an entirely accidental creation, it could be a glorious combination of accident and subtle external intervention or the Great Goddess Woo might have made it from tears at the death of her pet dog. What you believe here isn’t important – what is important is enquiry – asking the question.

And this is where we have to distinguish between the sceptic’s question and the Gnostic’s question. Not only to recognise the distinction but also to appreciate that the two questions are complementary rather than conflicting. The scientist asks how it all came about – what was it that start the ball rolling (or the big bang banging if you prefer). And this is an important question to which there is no true answer merely a search for truth through the raising of further questions.

Now the Gnostic question is different – it is a metaphysical question rather than a matter of sceptical or scientific enquiry. It is to ask why. And this is done in the same spirit of enquiry as the scientist’s question. But with one major difference in that this enquiry does not provide an answer because the question is phrased in a way that makes it impossible to answer. Thus asking, “is there a god”, allows us to explore both sceptical enquiry of this question and also to consider the idea of godhead and the meaning of existence.

I do not claim superiority for either of the two questions – if I want to understand the world so as to exploit the wonders of the creation then I require scientific enquiry. Metaphysics – despite the misplaced claims of some – does not cure disease, bring riches or provide food and shelter. What metaphysics does do is to provide a context for us to consider why we love our partner, why we value community and how we deal with birth or death. I do not believe that scientific enquiry can fully answer these questions. And, more importantly, to attempt to use scientific enquiry in these matters is to use it as a tool of metaphysical rather than sceptical enquiry.

Under these latter circumstances, sceptical enquiry is no better than Aristolean logic, rabbinical discourse or the various tools of theological enquiry – from gnosis to Augustinianism. Which is not to say that sceptical enquiry cannot be used to examine metaphysical questions but that such a method of enquiry does not provide a less faith-based answer to those questions than other tools of enquiry.

So when we attack “teaching creationism” from the basis of science, we are right only so long as we are concerned with the teaching of science. We cannot say that stories of creation – however told – have no value and should not be allowed. This is to cut off reasoned metaphysical enquiry using a range of methods by saying only one method – sceptical enquiry – is valid in the exploration of metaphysics (which rather contradicts the central tenets of scepticism, of course). The term “teaching creationism” requires qualification – the addition of other words: “as scientific fact” or “as part of a science course”, is needed for the criticism to be valid.

Trying to understand the magic of creation using only scientific or sceptical enquiry does not work. We can explain and describe bits of that creation but the full appreciation requires other methods and other tools. The scientist tells me that The Gentry are just an ancient myth but I know the truth of it, I know the scientists are wrong. There really are fairies at the bottom of my garden.


Choice, markets and the middle-class busybody


Despite the best efforts of us all to educate about the wonders of market mechanisms, the liberation that choice brings and the salvation that is the price mechanism, I have concluded that some people are seemingly lacking in the genes that allow for the grasping of this concept. Billy Gotta Job appears to be in that class of deprived folk – ironic as his post touching on asparagus and education discusses this very type of genetic lack:

And it transpired that those who could smell the disgusting whiff from their own urine could also detect it in that of their fellow participants; whilst conversely those who thought that their own excretory juices were pure and undefiled were equally convinced that everyone else’s were as well. So it is now believed that everyone produces post-asparagus-munching foul piss, but only those with the necessary genome can detect the fact.

Now the point of all this isn’t to provide a long explanation of classical liberal economics – others have done this before me and better – but to consider how that very “…perspective rooted in middle-class volition and middle-class means…” that Billy talks of creates a belief that other people are not capable of exercising choice – mostly because the choices they exercise when given that chance seem not to match the choice us middle class folk might make in that circumstance.

You will have heard often from your friendly neighbourhood, middle-class busybody how controls are needed on advertising. Not because that busybody is taken in by the adverts – oh no – but because other, less intelligent folk, probably working-class and smelly will be taken in by Ronald McDonald and will rush off to fatten themselves up at his emporium. This – our busybody believes – is the wrong choice and must be stopped (or rather because banning Big Macs is too shrill, the argument is to stop them advertising – to remove their right to free speech).

And, every time the subject of education is raised, you will hear the same arguments. Giving parents a choice only confuses them – I mean what do the poor dears actually know about education? Well, given we’ve an education system that routinely condemns a third of young people to a semi-literate existence, unable to access work, confused, angry and excluded – a system created and managed by middle-class busybodies – there is a sound argument for change. And why not give a choice? After all before compulsory state elementary education was introduced the vast majority of children attended (fee-paying) schools and literacy levels were as good – maybe better than they are today.

So choice is a bad thing – yet it is the basis for markets to work. Without choice you have monopoly and this – as we know (and the public sector demonstrates every day) – brings higher prices, lower consumer surplus, inefficiency and diseconomies of scale. Yet we tolerate unnecessary monopolies in health and education – under the careful direction of expensive qualified middle-class busybodies – because we’re told that markets are a bad thing. I argue – with a great deal of support – that markets (cp) bring lower prices, consumer surplus, efficiency and economies of scale.

There may be circumstances – geographical restraint or unavoidable free rider issues – where markets do not operate well but this is clearly not the case for either health or education (and perhaps more controversially security) since we can see effective and efficient markets running parallel to state monopoly provision.

But the real issue to me is a moral one. If it is possible for me (or anyone else) to have choice in education and health, the Government should not have the right to reduce or remove that choice through fiat. This doesn’t mean I get my choice – the oversubscribed school remains an oversubscribed school – but it protects my rights. And choice requires that the barriers to market entry are removed – hence free schools (and I hope in the future free hospitals).


Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Idiots revisited (again)


A while ago I wrote in praise of idiots about those ordinary people who don’t partake of politics:

The ancient Greeks used their word for ‘private’ as a derogatory term for someone who took no part in “public affairs”. That word ἴδιος (idios) is the root for our term for a stupid person – idiot. Today – in the Greek sense – most of us are idiots and I think this represents progress rather than a problem. That barely more that a third of Bingley Rural electors took the opportunity to vote last time I stood isn’t a disaster and those people are well aware of the purpose and value of voting - which I guess is why most of them don’t bother

I also made the point that these folk don’t take part because they don’t see the point. What exactly is going to change in their lives if one patronising besuited politician is replaced by a different patronising besuited politician wearing a different badge? Now not everyone agrees with me – here’s Dick Puddlecote:

As someone who engages with many everyday working people on a daily basis, both professionally and in my spare time, THE most oft-repeated phrase I hear is "I don't do politics".

They'll all advance their thoughts about the ills of the world, though. After all, it's human nature. Van drivers, bricklayers, checkout girls, roofers, teaching assistants, spark's mates, cabbies, labourers, nursery nurses, road workers, cleaners, and the unemployed - they all have opinions. And most of them feel totally ignored.

But then again, a lot of them say they 'don't do politics'.

Dick worries that this active disengagement results in politicians directing their efforts to a more reliable (so far as turning up is concerned) group of voters – and that group of voters will not do anything for the ‘poor’. I have some sympathy with that viewpoint – why else to we subsidise opera and not the club circuit and prioritise sports like rowing and sailing ahead of boxing or rugby league?

However, this recent election – the most tightly fought, attention-grabbing, important, change-making (select your own superlative) – reinforced what I said and, in its way, Dick’s concerns as well. Despite the leaders’ debates, despite a sense that there was a chance to change something, despite wall-to-wall media coverage of Cleggmania – despite all this the turnout at the election was still lower than at every election since 1945 bar 2001 and 2005.

Thirty-five out of every hundred electors didn’t make it to the polls – were either disinterested, disengaged, uninspired or simply not bothered. And this covers up staggering levels of non-registration – people who don’t even give themselves a chance to vote at all. Here’s the Electoral Commission report on the subject:

Evidence available from electoral statistics and surveys of levels of response to the annual canvass of electors suggests that there was a decline in registration levels from the late 1990s to 2006. The same evidence base suggests that the registers have stabilised since 2006, although it is likely that the completeness of the registers has declined since the last national estimate in 2000.

In the late 1990s around 10% of people weren’t registered – the Commission say the situation is now worse. In some places up to 20% of people are not registered to vote and concerns about false registration are making local authorities tighten up registration by removing non-respondents more quickly from the register. And, not surprisingly, the three groups most likely not to register are young people (over half of 17-26 year olds are not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and immigrant groups (31%).

So if 20% aren’t registered and only 65% of the remainder bother voting the real turnout in the election was just 52% - barely half the population bothering with the most closely-fought election in 30 years. Says it all really!


Sunday, 23 May 2010

On Spare Time (or being busy doing nothing)

During a weekend of intermittent gardening, I’ve been thinking about what we choose to do during what we call our ‘spare time’. Indeed, often our ambition is to have a life more dominated by that ‘spare time’ and less by undertaking tasks on behalf of other folk. Or rather doing things for other folk because we have to not because we want to.

Ah ‘spare time’. You see the point of it is quite simple – those jobs we choose to do – we don’t have to do them. I didn’t have to spend an hour sweeping the drive or a further hour weeding, digging over and mulching the front beds. I did all that because I wanted to, because I get pleasure from the result of my labours. And those labours are just for me not for you or for the boss or for anyone else.

I do them knowing I could stop any time – have a cup of tea, watch something on the telly or just sit down, catch a breath and admire my handiwork. Or I could choose to do another task – maybe bake some scones, catalogue the books or polish the silver.

And the benefit of our civilisation – that we have only to work for around 40 hours in a week to get the money we need to enjoy our spare time, that many folk can claim vast amounts of ‘spare time’ by retiring while fit and healthy enough to make the most of that time and that we add even more ‘spare time’ through generous holidays.

The measure of a civilised place – of a great society – isn’t how much we produce but how much spare time we have to consume that production. The protestant work ethic was always nonsense – work doesn’t make man, work allows us the freedom to make the most of our ‘spare time’. And if we choose to use that ‘spare time’ taking a leaf out of that Connecticut Yankee’s book and doing nothing, that’s fine!


Oh dear, free markets make us less free do they?


Now I don’t want to scare y’all but we’re all doomed.

At least in the opinion of two clever chaps writing in today’s Sunday Telegraph. They start well:

"According to the economist Friedrich von Hayek, the development of welfare socialism after the Second World War undermined freedom and would lead Western democracies inexorably to some form of state-run serfdom."

Not a lot to argue with there – Hayek, along with Popper, was the man who exposed socialism for what it really is: a threat to our freedoms. But then Peter Boone and Simon Johnson go and spoil it with this execrable nonsense:

Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe.

Oh dear, free markets make us less free do they?

This simple sentence contains its own contradictions – the words “free market” and “state capture by corporate interest” do not sit together. After all the state is captured (by whatever interest) in order to fix things to the benefits of that interest. That, my clever friends, is neither “free” nor a “market”.

More importantly, Hayek was absolutely and specifically right in the reasons for the problem – the inexorable expansion of the welfare state. And there, at the heart of the credit crunch, lie the real issues – corporate welfare in the form of guarantees to banks and individual welfare in the form of requirements to bend lending rules to match “social outcomes”. Yet the new masters of the universe are those grand men, trained in dirigisme by France’s grand schools, who propose further intervention, direction and control as the solution.

Our bloated welfare systems suck up nearly 20% of GDP – we’ve ended up like the wealthy family who supports Uncle Edward out of duty, supplying his whisky, allowing him to lunch out with friends and to stay in the old house despite him contributing precisely zero to maintaining the family’s wealth or income. And worse still the rest of the family has been spending the kids’ inheritance on trips to the theatre, season tickets for the opera and generally living high on the hog.

We may not like what has happened. We may be righteously angry with the bankers. It may be imperative to make substantial changes to the way financial systems operate. But if you think – like these two clever chaps do – that the “market” for money is in any respect free, unfettered, unregulated or gung ho, think again. Along with property markets, finance is the most controlled, interfered with, worried over and state-directed sector of our supposedly free system.

The current problems are a failure of regulation rather than a consequence of freedom. And we are to believe that putting in place a new super-structure, new rules and different oversight will make it all better? We’ll be back – in five, seven or ten years – with a new crisis, another recession, another failure of regulation. But we’ll clutch ever tighter to the welfare state that protects us failing to recognise that it is that very welfare state that, like a giant parasite, is eating up our wealth, our authority and our civilisation. Hayek was right and these two ever so clever chaps are wrong – intervention, regulation, control and state-direction are the problem not the solution.


Saturday, 22 May 2010

Ban yellow fields now! (Well not really but you get the point)

Yesterday while driving home through the glorious early summer sunshine, we passed through a bright yellow field of rape. As we drove I took in the sickly smell, felt the tell-tale itchiness in my eyes and the tightening of the throat – hayfever here we go!

It’s terrible you know. This agriculture stuff I mean – every year death rates from respiratory diseases rise during high pollen periods while farmers and their big business friends make profits from our suffering. And there are tertiary effects on non-hayfever sufferers not to mention workplace issues.

And the number of hayfever sufferers is rising – we have the makings of an epidemic of sneezing, spluttering and coughing. And nothing is being done to control or regulate the source. Millions of people are suffering, living in misery – even dying – because of hayfever. Yet the government takes no action, farmers are permitted to carry on polluting the atmosphere and making profits while others suffer.

What do you mean you’re not going to do anything? You acted because some folk got itchy eyes, irritated throats and maybe even died because of passive smoking? You’re in the process of doing the same for alcohol? But those of us whose lives are made a misery by pollen – we’re expected to lump it, eh? And my friend who can’t go in a theatre because of perfume – what are you going to do about that?

Or is your attack on drinking and smoking just an attack on our pleasures and nothing to do with health?


Friday, 21 May 2010

On changing one's mind (and removing beams from one's eyes)...


I’ve changed my mind on a great deal of things over the years – I’m not going to list them but they are many. Yet, somehow people seem rather unwilling to accept that, when somebody says they’ve changed their mind, generally speaking it does actually mean that they have done just that!

Which rather brings us to the matter of politics and the game of using past statements, whipped votes under an old regime and guilt by association as the basis for accusation – even when the person stands there and says, “I’ve changed my mind on that.” And sadly the equalities lobby is among the worst offenders in this respect.

Now it seems to me that a matter such as gay rights is one area where more folk than average have changed their opinions. I’m not saying that the new views accord with the further flung boundaries of the equalities agenda but that people have changed – folk accept gay people in a way that would be a great surprise to the majority back in, say, 1980. There are still areas –sport and especially football, for example – where being gay is a real barrier but attacking someone for their views 10, 20 or even 30 years ago is not a helpful contribution. Particularly where that person has said they’ve changed their mind.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that those who attack a person on the basis of past actions where they say clearly they would act differently today are guilty of bigotry and prejudice. And behaving so reprehensibly while clutching hypocritically to the moral high ground on an issue is, to this humble sinner, an act of monumental offence.

So to all those people attacking Theresa May for what she did in 1998 I say this:

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye


Thursday, 20 May 2010

Consensus, collaboration, cooperation - whatever! Is it all such a good thing?

We‘re all (or most of us are) in a rather consensual, cuddly and collaborative mood. And what a shift from the confrontation of the election – the accusations, challenges and cutting damnation of carefully constructed straw men are all set aside as we march together into the glorious, bright co-operative future!

Now don’t take this the wrong way folks as I’m all for working together to deliver betterment, but I’m a little concerned by all this consensus malarkey. Mostly because it isn’t really consensus or co-operation – it’s compromise. It’s like some kind of policy top trumps – I’ll let you have regulation of drinks pricing if you let me have a supermarket ombudsman (and yes, I’ve deliberately chosen unpleasant controlling, interventionist policy choices where the nannies have won over those who believe in freedom).

So we get compromise – no problem where the difference between the parties is small you say? Well look at the public health and anti-social behaviour agenda – schools won’t be allowed to fingerprint children but there’s nothing about stopping them bullying governors into agreeing to weigh kids. And we see again the straw man of “24 hour licensing” blamed for drink related anti-social behaviour.

Compromise risks indecisiveness and dither. Compromise leads to policy dumbing down – to the lowest common denominator rather than the right choice. And compromise undermines challenge and question – it reinforces received wisdom and further elevates the sacred cow. Above all, consensus and compromise hands to organised groups set up for the purpose of special pleading – mostly calling for more restrictions, more constraints and less freedom – the ability to play divide and rule.

I may support the “coalition” – and much in the programme is admirable – but I am not so starry-eyed as to believe that it represents some magical new dawn in our politics. Indeed, the themes of recent years persist – there’s still a shoot the messenger attitude to advertising, there’s still a planned assault on personal freedom in the guise of public health programmes and there remains a view that saving and investing is somehow a reprehensible activity.

So let’s have a realistic response – less of this bubbly, frothy, ooh-ing and ah-ing over the new government and a little more perspective. Consensus and collaboration are here because they are unavoidable not because Nick or Dave – let alone their respective armies – wanted to adopt that approach.

Here’s to the revolution!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Let's give 'The Big Society! a go - it has to be better than what we've got!


There are two views of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – the cynical, knowing, left-wing view that it’s just window-dressing for spending cuts. And the rather more enthusiastic view from others that the ‘Big Society’ could mean a profound shift in the relationship between government and governed – a first stone in the tricky journey towards the voluntary society.

I’m rather more sceptical about the proposals – after all the social sector (“civil society” as we now have to call it) faces an enormous challenge over the next couple of years as the paymasters (mostly local government) retreat back into the redoubt under the onslaught of spending cuts. Most people in this sector recognise the real change that could come from the ‘Big Society’ but, as soon as the positive noises cease, another voice pops in; “how’s it going to be paid for?”

There is a further contradiction in the proposals published yesterday – how do we reconcile (especially in big metropolitan areas like Leeds and Bradford) the centralising and controlling instinct of the council with the liberation implied in the ‘Big Society’? This was David Miliband’s ‘double devolution’ that never happened – how can we be so sure that it will happen this time?

If we’re to set up training for community activists, will it be delivered by the voluntary sector or by bureaucrats within local council?

If we’re to transform the delivery of services within the most deprived places will that be community-led or yet another chapter in the “let’s all hug poor people” statist approach to community development?

If we do hand real influence to local communities over planning are we prepared to face the consequences and to argue that this is right?

Above all – in a time of spending constraint – are we prepared to make the argument for effectiveness trumping efficiency?

At the moment we’ve seen some fine words but I have still to enjoy my buttered parsnips. We don’t yet know just how all this will work – will big monolithic quangos like the Homes & Communities Agency be broken up? Will local councils be instructed to outsource services to the voluntary sector (so much for localism – eh)? And will the cosy oligopoly dominating the welfare agenda be challenged by smaller, creative approaches?

I may be sceptical but I know in my heart – as a conservative – that this is right. This is Burke’s small battalions, this is ordinary everyday folk doing things for their neighbours – not for cash, not because they’ve been told to do so but because it’s the right thing to do. Or at least I hope that’s what it’s about.

Lets' see.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

...And you don't believe inflation is a problem?


After a month or two of complacency, I’m back to worrying about inflation. Not just because I’m a substantial net saver and inflation is very bad news for me but because the damage it will do to our fragile economy is enormous. Unless, of course, you’re a bank with big, unrevealed debts on your balance sheet or a government with the biggest ever national overspend.

At the moment the Bank of England – by sticking to the received wisdom of neo-Keynesian economics (by which I mean the kind of Keynesian economics that Keynes never proposed) – is playing fast and loose with its reputation. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

Rising core inflation may indicate firms feel confident enough to be rebuilding margins, which would be at odds with the BOE's insistence on a substantial U.K. output gap. Or it could reflect the continued impact of the 25% devaluation in the trade-weighted value of sterling. Either way, it raises questions about the accuracy of the BOE's inflation model; as Fathom Consulting points out, U.K. GDP is now 12% lower than the BOE forecast in November 2007, while inflation is 2.5 percentage points higher.
Each month the Bank’s excuse is that “temporary factors” are to blame – this time it’s the rise in duty on beer and fags that’s identified as the culprit for a sharp spike in the rate. But most forecasters – presumably using the same factors – were at or around 3.5% rather than the 3.7% of the headline rate. But the Bank still argues that:

“…higher oil prices, a rise in value-added tax to 17.5 percent from 15 percent at the start of the year, and past falls in sterling were driving prices higher, but were only short-term factors that would abate over the coming months. The temporary effects of these factors are masking the downward pressure on inflation from the substantial margin of spare capacity in the economy,”

In other words, we’re still facing deflation rather than inflation. But the Retail Price Index (RPI) has jumped to 5.3% - despite the continuing downward pressure on mortgage rates! The reality – month after month – is that we have never been in a situation of deflation and now we are lurching dangerously towards a possible further acceleration in rates. Maybe this is temporary – I hope it is for sure – but when the Bank doesn’t understand how service industries don’t carry capacity gaps like manufacturers and that the real economy is not sustained by unearned money but by the creation of real added value.

Sadly UK based economists (with notable exceptions) continue to peddle the Bank’s line that inflation will quickly fall back. Fortunately we have the Yanks to keep us straight on these matters!


Sunday, 16 May 2010

Indulgent ramblings on political position and a further chapter in my vain search


The game of positioning ourselves within some accepted political taxonomy is a fascinating one but, for many of us, we end up wondering just how such positioning assists us. Especially when we encounter other people who adopt the same positioning. Moreover, why should we define ourselves through some game of political positioning and not through other traits, characteristics or preferences?

However, I will indulge you will a little speculation – a moment of wordplay. Here are some words that, on occasion, I have used to describe my self politically.

Conservative; Liberal; Libertarian; Right-wing; Tolerant; Intolerant; Sceptical; Doubting; Cynical; Optimistic; Anarchist; Tory

To this might be added a similar list of descriptions given to my manifest politics by others – some of which might be appropriate in polite company!

Now the wise among you will have spotted just how contradictory some of these words are – how combining them creates a concept as incongruous as to be impossible to parse. However, I do think that such an exercise is useful. If you read about me on this blog, you will see I describe myself as an “occasionally intolerant libertarian”. Clearly a contrary statement? How can you be libertarian and intolerant as the moment you move away from tolerating something you move away from liberty?

So it is with being a Conservative anarchist. After all anarchists wish to destroy, to pull down the state – anarchy is the very antithesis of conservatism. And does not a conservative wish to maintain the proper order of things (I always think of this as librarianship rather than conservation)? The problem comes when the “proper order of things” is wrong – we keep Sauron in power because that’s always been so, it is the proper order.

We live in such a time. For approaching 100 years, the proper order has been for important things in our lives to be ordered by the state – health, welfare, education, protection. This is the proper order – it is what we must conserve come what may and despite the growing evidence that its outcomes no longer serve our interests (where we are the “people”) but instead serve the interests of those who administer the system. The conservatives in this system are not those usually labelled in such a manner but a different group – a group who consider themselves liberal, social, caring and progressive.

So we must change. And the change must allow those people currently conserving a system that does not serve the people to be what they proclaim themselves to be – liberal, social, caring and progressive. And to achieve that we must remove the methodology of the modern state and replace it with a democratic version of that which went before – voluntary action (both individual and collective) overseen by a government tasked solely with upholding the protection of the law and of our freedoms. And within that new order, as conservatives we act to protect and maintain its hierarchy, structures and methods from those who would seek some form of permanent revolution.


The gnosis of sticky rhubarb cake

I was considering writing a short – fully illustrated – piece on the wonder that is sticky rhubarb cake. But, as if often the case with these ideas, hunger intervened and the cake is reduced to scrapings. Showing you good folk a few crumbs left on a plate would be unnecessarily cruel, I fear. So you will have to imagine the glories of that cake – the crisp stickiness of its topping, the sharpness of the rhubarb and the soft sweetness of the sponge. That such mundane ingredients – sugar, flour, eggs, rhubarb – transform into such joy is one of life’s deep magical truths. I wonder – perhaps you do to – how we stumbled on the combination, on the idea of turning sweet sticky goo into soft, luxurious cake.

Was there some recalcitrant god or goddess of cake who Prometheus-like swept down from the heavens to reveal the truth of baking to a bemused and awestruck cavewoman? Or was The Book of Cake inscribed on golden tablets – now sadly lost to us – but fortunately transcribed and passed down through the generations? Maybe cake is a temptation of the devil whispered in the ear of that cavewoman – an artifice to drag us from the true path of sacrifice and salvation? Or a reward from the faeries!

Whatever the occult truth of baking, we can be pleased that we have its wonders around us (albeit for a very short time as connoisseurs of summer fete cake stalls will know) and that a vast collective of cake-makers has taken to the ether to spread the word. Indeed, there are times when it seems every single American food-blogger is presenting luscious cakes, buns and muffins – perhaps it is this epidemic of home baking that accounts for Yankee waistlines rather than the ubiquity of burger and chips.

So, dearly beloved reader, have faith in that rhubarb cake – it was real, it looked fantastic and…

…you can imagine how it tasted!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

What exactly is the necessary qualification to hold a cabinet post?


I was struck by the implied theme of a recent post from the Laser Cat Party on the subject of cabinet diversity. And it wasn’t diversity but qualification – with the argument being that George Osborne isn’t “qualified” to be chancellor or rather as Charlotte puts it – “monumental overachievement”.

You see the problem is that George has never had a “proper” job (although it remains unclear as to what constitutes such a job) something he appears to share with most of our current crop of leaders:

After graduating from Oxford University, Miliband became a Labour Party researcher and rose to become one of then-Chancellor Gordon Brown's confidants, being appointed Chairman of HM Treasury's Council of Economic Advisers. Miliband was elected Labour Member of Parliament for the South Yorkshire constituency of Doncaster North.

Born in London, Miliband studied at Oxford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and started his career at the Institute for Public Policy Research. At 29, Miliband became Tony Blair's Head of Policy whilst the Labour Party was then in opposition and was a major contributor to Labour's manifesto for the 1997 general election which brought the party to power. Blair made him head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1997 to 2001

Pretty close to George’s career – and the same could go for shiny politician after shiny politician. Posh school, Oxbridge, policy or research job, suck up to existing leaders, safe seat, cabinet…..

But this is to stray from my point, which was to ask a simple question: what exactly is the necessary qualification to hold a cabinet post? Do you have to be an economist or financier to be chancellor? And a social policy wonk or former top copper to run the Home Office? An ex-teacher to be in charge at education?

Surely this isn’t the case – we want top MPs to have experience, to be clever, decisive and able to lead. But we don’t want a government of policy wonks and statistics geeks! Which is why Charlotte worried me a little with her comment on Theresa May:

“As an aside, I looked at Theresa May’s Wikipedia page and found this:

From 1977 to 1983 she worked at the Bank of England, and from 1985 to 1997, as a financial consultant and senior advisor in International Affairs at the Association for Payment Clearing Services.

A natural fit for the Home Office, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

And why not? Clearly, clever and connected and with more pre-politics experience than all the Balls, Milibands, Osbornes, Blairs and Camerons put together!


An outsider's thoughts on Labour's choices

Although I guess it’s none of my business, I can’t resist penning a thought or two about the Labour leadership election. I understand that, so far, we have a brace of Milibands and are expecting Balls to join in over the next couple of days. And we may yet see a candidate from the ‘left’ – perhaps John Cruddas. Game on as Labour tweeters like to say!

But catch your breath for a minute and ask yourselves a question – what sort of party do you want Labour to be over the coming few years? Be cause it’s plain that these candidates each offer a different direction. You have a choice between European-style social democracy, a tribal and cynical union-dominated approach or a real attempt to remake the party as a voice for ordinary people.

The Milibands – privileged background and education, pro-European, urbane, metropolitan – represent the shining besuited Euro-elite, the sort of candidates that Paris, Bonn and Madrid would approve. But this positioning means nothing to the ordinary working class voter who’s probably a bit doubting of the EU project and thinks the bloody foreigners should butt out of British politics thanks. The Milibands are part of that patronising Labour elite that gave us Mandelson, Harman and Blair.

Balls – despite his (well-disguised) posh background, Balls represents the cynical side of Labour politics. Lots of sound and fury followed by remorseless attacks on the Party’s enemies (internal as well as external). This is the trade unions’ party (as distinct from the trade unionists’ party), the party of group rights and the party of big government. It is the approach rejected by the electorate on May 6th

The third choice for Labour is to find again the place from which it sprung – the needs and aspirations of hard-working people employed in the private sector. These people – some are trade unionists but most are not – stuck two fingers up at the nannying, hectoring, interfering government of Brown. These people look across at public sector workers and see feather-bedded, protected employees – and worse, that comfort is achieved with their taxes. And these people want to drink beer, smoke fags, go by plane to Benidorm and Paphos, drive pick-up trucks, eat pies and give their kids a chocolate bar to go in the lunch box. They have absolutely nothing in common with the metrosexual niceness of the Milibands or with the bullying authoritarianism of Balls.

It isn’t my business but if the Labour Party wants to find its voice and place they have to get through to these voters – and to the 75% and more of C1/C2s who didn’t vote Labour – they have the chance to change the narrative. To be the party that say to ordinary folk: “you enjoy the money you earn how you like and we’ll try to look after your interests. To help protect your jobs, to support business, to provide doctors, schools and coppers and to defend the country.”

Maybe someone will step forward and make that offer. If they do Labour members would be mad not to take it.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Pride and the Parks Department

We brushed up the broken glass
Gingerly picked up the condom some youth left at the bottom of the slide
Tried to get the swing gate back on its hinges
And wondered…

…do we just give up?

We stepped round the spit and sick
Shook our heads at the fresh gum on the tarmac beside the benches
Picked up the crisp packets and the beer cans
And wondered…

…maybe we did give up?

Glass smashed in the phone box
The swing twisted, broken – no use to local kids
That skateboard park the youngsters petitioned for…


We come back.
We mend, we clean, we tidy…
So good kids can play, mums can chat and nice folk sit in peace
Or play bowls

…we didn’t give up.


Friday Fungus: Pleospora papaveracea and the war on drugs

My mycological fascination button was activated by this little posting from Al Jahom about research into using Pleospora papaveracea (and other mold-like fungi) as a biological agent to control opium poppy production back in 2000. And recent reports on a serious fungal infection of Afghan poppies! Some of the research abstracts are here and one concludes that:

In the field, P. papaveracea was more consistent in its effects on opium poppy from a local seed source designated Indian Grocery. P. papaveracea caused higher disease ratings, more stem lesions, and equal or greater yield losses than did D. penicillatum on Indian Grocery. The late-maturing opium poppy variety White Cloud was severely damaged by disease, regardless of formulation or fungal treatment. P. papaveracea was the predominant fungus isolated from poppy seed capsules and the only fungus reisolated from the field the following year. These studies provide a better understanding of the infection process and the differences between these two pathogenic fungi and will be beneficial for the development of the fungi as biological control agents.

There is no doubt that P. papaveracea is effective against opium poppies – especially when the plants are young and the Afghan growers’ description of the disease affecting their crops is consistent with a mildew-like fungal infection. P. papaveracea is a natural parasitic fungus of poppies native to central Asia – not the product of genetic engineering or manipulation.

However, there will always be concerns about the deliberate introduction of biological agents – even naturally occurring ones – to a given environment in terms of secondary effects as well as impacts on human health. There is no confirmation that the Afghan reports are the result of deliberate human action and it could be a natural outbreak of an existing fungus. Indeed, the outbreak could be effectively controlled (I suspect) through the use of the aerial spraying techniques used to control fungal and pest threats to less controversial crops.

Similar fungal agents are being developed to control coca and marijuana production and recently Peru has passed a law banning the use of biological agents in coca eradication. Also – as has been the case with apples and roses – breeding programmes are likely to result in disease resistant varieties.


Thursday, 13 May 2010

Common Purpose - purveyor of received wisdom but no conspiracy


Are you a joiner? No, I don’t mean someone who’s good with wood but someone who joins thing, who “takes part”, who becomes a ‘member’. This is important because some people who aren’t joiners worry that people who are joiners are getting together to fix stuff in their collective interest. I guess all this starts with Adam Smith:

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

The criticism of masons, trade guilds, unions and other combinations has always been that the purpose of meeting is to arrange matters so as to exclude those outside the ‘club’ or to promote the interests of members at the expense of others. And now, it seems that the centrist, social democrats have their secret society, their go at doing the fixing things in their members’ interest – it’s called “Common Purpose”. And – as sure as eggs is eggs – the tin hatted, conspiracy theorists are on the case:

“Common Purpose is identifying leaders in all levels of our government to assume power when our nation is replaced by the European Union, in what they call “the post democratic society.” They are learning to rule without regard to democracy, and will bring the EU police state home to every one of us.”

Now this is admission time. I have spoken to “Common Purpose” meetings on several occasions (although I haven’t done and would not do their “course”) – all Chatham House Rules” but otherwise very cuddly and convivial. For me, it was a chance to ‘tell it like it is’ rather than feel constrained by the possibility of publicity. But what stood out was the sheer lack of challenge, of questioning of independent thought. As if those assembled were unable to see what was said and to ask whether it was right. What I saw was the triumph of received wisdom rather than some attempt to form the vanguard of some new authoritarian super-state.

Now for the tin-hatted ones, I have a further guilty secret to reveal – my wife is a Common Purpose ‘graduate’. She quite enjoyed the course, got some business from it and came away with a very jaundiced view of public sector values.

For most folk Common Purpose is just a networking organisation, something to put on the CV and a break from work. True, it promotes a pro-state, EU supporting view at its national level but locally it’s just a networking group that has disappeared up the pompous backside of the state so as to get funding.


Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: The Spirit of the Unicorn

“Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a gold horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. ‘There’s a unicorn in the garden,’ he said. ‘Eating roses.’ She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him. ‘The unicorn is a mythical beast,’ she said…”

Thus opens one of the incomparable James Thurber’s little fables – from the same place that gave us ‘little girls aren’t nearly so easily fooled these days’, and (for all my libertarian friends), ‘anyone who you or your wife thinks is going to overthrow the government by violence must be driven out of the country’. If you haven’t read ‘Fables for Our Time and Illustrated Poems’ you have missed a treat of wit, charm and humour – so get out and do so (although my wife once went into a bookstore in New York enquiring for Thurber books and got the response “who?” – rather sad given he is maybe The New Yorker’s most famous ever writer!).

But that wasn’t the point – I didn’t want to talk about not counting one’s boobies before they’re hatched but about mythical beasts. And where better to start than with that most elusive of such beasts, the unicorn. Now clearly, being neither female nor a virgin, I have never encountered a unicorn. Indeed, those who have encountered the beast are of course sworn eternal silence as to mention its existence or reveal its location is to condemn it to death.

Mythical beasts – whatever their provenance – are now mere symbols. Our unicorn indicates chastity, purity and honesty (perhaps explaining the beast’s rarity) just as the wyvern shows us guile, exploitation and wickedness. And, like much of legendary and religious symbolism, mythical beasts give us a shorthand of morals, values and virtue. We can use such mythic metaphor for anything – even shy depression. Such beasts are real in that we know what they are, can describe them and can appreciate their role and purpose – and that reality is to me the same reality as gods, devils or the Lorelei. These symbols explain – make easier to understand – some of the dilemmas of virtue, the vagaries of fortune and the wonders of nature. Without them the world is two-dimensional, prosaic, dull and lacking in magic. And without magic we are not human.

Unicorns do not have a scientific reality but a reality of the spirit – a symbolic truth as important to understanding the world as the laws of science. They show us beauty, perfection of spirit, purity and faith - surely things we can believe in, even aspire to? And the unicorn's darker side - the loss of such magic with growth and adulthood is just as important.

But nevertheless a unicorn may be a mythical beast but it is the most beautiful of mythical beasts!


How I'm strangely cheered by coalition....maybe


So we have a coalition – a “working-together”. I find this strangely cheering but am not sure why. After all I wanted and campaigned hard for an outright Conservative victory and would do so tomorrow. And – despite having many enthusiastically Labour supporting friends – I cannot understand at all why anybody who retains their marbles and a modicum of common sense can vote Labour.

But I am cheered. Firstly I think it’s because it’s gone surprisingly smoothly since the inconclusive election result. Credit for this must go to David Cameron who set out a willingness to negotiate a coalition right from the start. And to my party for avoiding (so far at least) a monumental fit of the grumps over having to co-operate with another party.

Secondly I am cheered because there are some areas (other than their truly bonkers economic policy) where the Liberal Democrats are more consistent than my party. I’m hopeful now that we will get a bonfire of Labour’s authoritarianism. This will cover ID cards, DNA databases for sure. I hope it will include the unnecessary Digital Economy Bill (although I support property rights including copyright – and will campaign against any attempt to water down the protection of those rights), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and a string of provisions under various Terrorism Acts.

Lastly, however, I am absolutely delighted that Labour is no longer in power. Not just Gordon Brown but the entirety of that controlling, bigoted, judgmental, interfering, dissembling and institutionally unpleasant excuse for a political party. Yet again Labour has done untold damage to my country. Not just bringing the world’s fourth largest economy to its knees but compromising our international reputation, creating the infrastructure need to institute a police state and destroying, on the spurious grounds of health or safety, a central part of English culture – the pub.

I’m looking forward to the coming months. I know there will be some disappointments. I doubt whether the health gauleiters will allow relaxation of the smoking ban or the unjustified assault on the drinking habits of harmless folk. But I am confident that some of the decisions and changes will begin to unpick worst of Labour’s poisonous legacy.


Monday, 10 May 2010

On sheep...

Sheep. Trotting along dutifully behind whoever heads for the gap in the fence. Proferring received wisdom as if we'd just thought of it yesterday. Following blindly the latest fad or fashion, unthinking, unquestioning - assuming that the crowd is right.

Today we have new words for sheep-like behaviour, words that make it seem terribly clever, awfully trendy - terms like "crowd sourcing" and "the wisdom of crowds". We've convinced ourselves that we can replace our critical facilities with opinion polling, focus groups, surveys and questionnaires. We can count references or word frequency and pretend that somehow this gives a profound insight into deeper truths. We replace thinking with counting.

Sheep. Bleating about safety, security, the comfort of groupthink, the blanket of conformity. We pretend we're oh so radical when, in truth, we're just tagging along with the crowd. Whether it's the latest political fad, the newest music or the trendiest film, our behaviour is to snuggle up to the big crowd.

And, if we stand alone? Proudly saying we won't flock? What happens? Ah, yes - that flock gets together attacks us, condemns us for difference. The flock may even break off from doing down another flock long enough to cast the lone ram out into the wilderness or worse still to pen that independent beast up safely away from any corruption that might come from actually thinking differently.

Sheep. Thoughtless, careless and lost without the flock around them. I think sheep would want "fair votes".


Sunday, 9 May 2010

Dave, Nick - it's the economy that matters NOW not voting systems

This is beginning to get me annoyed. Look guys and gals, it’s pretty simple. The only thing that matters right now – the ONLY thing – is sorting out the government’s financial crisis before it comes over all Hellenic.

By all means have a nice fireside chat about voting systems in the down moments from sorting out the mess. But we don’t have to have another election for five years – yes, folks you’ve got five years to discuss and explore the options on voting reform.

But we don’t have five years to sort out the deficit, begin to reduce the debt, stabilise the economy, end the squeezing out of private enterprise and get the economy going again. I’m not sure we’ve the luxury of five months to do this urgent work – the markets, the lenders and the investors won’t give us five days if we insist on blabbering about voting systems rather than sitting down and working out what needs to be done NOW to sort the public finances out.

So Dave, Nick and all the other chatterers – shut up about voting systems and get on with sorting out Gordon’s mess – it’s why you were elected!


Saturday, 8 May 2010

We really do need to reform the POLITICAL system not the VOTING system


I’ve said a few times that we need to look in some detail at our political system – not because it’s unfair but because it promotes the corrupting of politics and government. And the main fault here rests with the ‘professionalisation’ of politics. Back in February I wrote this about reforming our political system:

“And those concerns? Firstly there is the issue of accountability. Secondly there is the matter of selection. And third there is the question of what we elect MPs to do. If our parliament debates the arcana of voting systems it does so without answering the real questions around our democracy – how we allowed MPs to get beyond the law, why those MPs (or most of them) felt empowered to indulge in an exercise of blatant exploitation and why we allow them to create a special, privileged and protected position for the political party.None of these questions – how we hold MPs to account, how candidates are selected and what we the people want our MPs to do – are addressed by changing the system of voting. That merely creates the illusion of a substantial change without making the real changes we need. And those changes?

Direct election of the executive
Terms limits for all politicians at whatever level
The power of recall
Ending state funding for political parties
Repealing the Registration of Political Parties Act
Restricting all election campaigning to the promotion of individual candidates

Without these changes the voting system – how we choose – is of little or no relevance and will do nothing to restore public confidence in politics, let alone enthusiasm!”

…and this on electoral reform:

“So beloved reader, I want you to sit back, gaze at the flowers, light your proverbial pipe and think for a few seconds. That’s right – think. In all these great thoughts did “let’s have a new electoral system that works just like the current system but not quite” enter you mind? In fact did “let’s have a new electoral system” enter your mind at all?”

I’m not sure recent events have changed my mind.


Dave - remember who voted for you and why!


I’m not going to say anything much about hung parliaments, coalitions and such matters. My main concern – and it’s a big one – is that the worries and concerns of ordinary folk in places like Cullingworth will get shoved aside in just another metropolitan elite stitch-up. If my friends and neighbours are worried about anything it’s certainly not what, whether or how we should have electoral reform. Nor is it the “low carbon economy” – whatever that actually means.

And these voters have just given a massive endorsement to Philip Davies – who campaigned on immigration, crime, personal freedoms and ending political correctness. Yes, those old Tory core issues still matter and provide the distinction for many ordinary voters. And, as I said before these ordinary working folk – employed in the private sector – are becoming the new Tory core vote replacing the professional classes. And if you don’t get this yet look at the places where these people live – look how they voted last Thursday. The big swings to Conservatives were exactly where I said they’d be – places like former mining communities:

Wakefield 6.9% swing; Pontefract, Castleford & Normanton 12.5%; Don Valley 10.6%; Rother Valley 8.0%; Bolsover 11.2%; Derbyshire NE 8.6%; Amber Valley 6.9%; Erewash 10.5%; Leicester NW 12.0%

This pattern repeated itself across much of the North and Midlands – these communities have been let down by Government and are rightly fed up with the endless metropolitan obsession with greenery, processes and what they see as political correctness. These are the people who – at some future election might deliver David Cameron a majority. If their concerns about schools, hospitals, crime and immigration aren’t met – if we fall back on the interests of the comfortably off metropolitan elite then these people will look again at fringe parties, will stop at home or even – god forbid – start voting Labour again.


Thursday, 6 May 2010

Thoughts: some hope for the future and why you mustn't vote Labour


It’s a grey, drizzly day here in Cullingworth – more October than May. But the birds are singing, the badgers have crapped all over the garden and the air still smells of spring. And, of course there’s an election on!

So what can we hope for? Not in the result of the election – that will be what is will be. I feel a clear winner would be good and I certainly don’t share Julian Dobson’s optimism about prospects for a hung parliament. And my pessimism comes from experience – from ten years of horse trading on a hung council. It doesn’t work – politicians are reduced to what I call veto politics. We can stop a policy being implemented but instigating and seeing through a new idea or a changed approach just doesn’t happen – too risky you see.

This polity leads to the triumph of the apparatchik – the politician who is only really interested in staying in a comfortable, well-remunerated post and will do nothing that might threaten that position. Indeed, such politicians will often work across party lines to stop the efforts of others. Everything is tactical, all sense of mission or vision is lost – we have government by a combination of inertia and the lowest common denominator.

I hold out little hope that we will see any change to the unwarranted and unjustified attack on the pleasures of ordinary people. We’ve seen smokers cast into the outer darkness on the basis of dodgy science, we’re now watching as ordinary drinkers stigmatised because of the antics of drunken louts or the illness of long-term alcoholics and the guns are being rolled out to attack the English breakfast and the American burger. Watch closely as other pleasures are identified – gambling, racing dogs or horses, holidays on the Costa – either for reasons of health or environment your judgmental masters will make these more expensive or worse effect a ban.

I hold out little hope that there will be the change we need – the rebirth of individual responsibility supported by the extension of personal freedom and choice. But I do hope that schools will be freed from the producer interests – the bureaucrats, the unions, the know-alls that have so damaged the lives of children from poorer communities these last 30 years. I do hope that more decisions will be passed down to local communities – that we can escape the “District Commissioner Approach” to community development where some educated, middle-class know-all lectures poor people about how they should behave (including – see above – an unjustified attack on their pleasures).

I hope for a government that’s a little less hectoring, a little less interfering and a little cheaper. I hope that the success that free schools will bring will direct us to freeing other services from stifling bureaucratic incompetence. And I hope we will see a government for which the first reaction to any problem is to propose a new law.

And I’m pretty sure that the only way to realise this hope – to have any chance of getting even a little bit closer to the future I want for my family – is to vote Conservative. And I shall do so – and urge you to do likewise. But if – for some reason of historical discomfort, a particular policy or dislike of the candidate – you can’t bring yourself to vote Conservative….

…please, please, please don’t vote Labour.


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Might we still get the referendum we were promised?


The Taxpayers Alliance have pointed out that the Lisbon Treaty needs to go back to parliament for "re-ratification" presenting an opportunity for that august body to get it right this time and have the referendum that was promised to us back in 2005.

"In order to rush the Treaty through in the first place, the current draft failed to sort out the vexed issue of the distribution of seats in the European Parliament. As a result, there are various imbalances in the number of MEPs held by each country – and there are several “ghost” MEPs who currently work in Brussels but don’t actually have any voting powers. To sort this out, the European Parliament is expected to vote this Thursday in favour of holding a new Inter Governmental Conference on 17th and 18th June. At that conference, part of the Lisbon Treaty will be rewritten – requiring full ratification again by the Parliament of each and every EU member state."

Over to you Dave!


Wednesday whimsy: Community (or Why Elections are Important)

Yesterday got me thinking about why elections are important. OK, I hear you – what a silly thing to think about – of course elections are important, we’re choosing a government, electing an MP, playing the liberating game of democracy!

Stop there a second and think about it, think about the election and what happens – about the extended period of campaigning, about the debates, the endless stream of leaflets and all the chattering excitement of the media. Is this just about choosing an MP or even choosing a government? Agreed that’s the obvious and ultimate purpose of the election – that’s what we get the day after we vote. But don't elections have a deeper purpose – a purpose beyond that of choosing some person to represent us in choosing a government?

After all, if all we wanted to do was make this choice we could get it all out of the way in a week – especially if we applied the technology available to us to manage voting. But we don’t, we stick with a clunky, old-fashioned system dating back to the 1872 Ballot Act and candidates run decidedly old media campaigns involving the same techniques as we used back in 1872 – giving out handbills, writing letters and identifying supporters through a canvass.

In one respect we stick with this system because it ‘ain’t broke’ – we’re familiar with its workings, there’s a sense of ‘doing our civic duty’ involved in wandering down the local school, church hall or (for the lucky residents of Leeming) the Lamb Inn! And we are comforted by the familiar noises of elections, the inevitable call that “this is the most important election in a generation” and the chuntering sound of politicians and media hacks playing the age old game of stats tennis.

And this is why elections are important. Elections are one of the few times of shared national community, one of the rare occasions when most of us do something together. Tomorrow, millions of people from the Scilly Isles to Shetland will cast a ballot for their favoured candidate – electing people who will sit in the same house and decide about our government. And this shared act is more important, more significant that the outcome of the election – it is a shared act we prepare for. For some the preparation is limited – perhaps just making sure the poll cards are ready by the door but for others it’s treated like first Holy Communion! Debates are watched, discussions are held, manifestos are read, leaflets are poured over and local candidates are asked pertinent questions that will guide our decision “on the day”.

So the important thing about the election isn’t really the result but the act of community that voting represents. The shared decision-making – however flawed the process may be – speaks of what we believe significant: that no man is more important than another, that the nation is a place to which we relate and that we, the people, retain the right to determine who rules that nation. These are hard won things, matters we are rightly proud of and the election reflects these rights and values not some petty scrap between different factions clambering up the greasy pole of government.

Of course I care who wins tomorrow but I also care – as a good Conservative – about the traditions of the election. And I know that this great act of national community is why the election is important.

Monday, 3 May 2010

"The village will keep me fit!" - thoughts on the "Big Society"

I ran into Brian Church this morning while out canvassing in Denholme. Now Brian’s in his 70s, has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and has every reason to slow down a little, to enjoy his retirement. But Brian was still out delivering the Town Council newsletter!

I first encountered Brian during the campaign to stop a landfill being built on the edge of Denholme – he knew every inch of every footpath around the village and reported all the problems with the developer assiduously. Brian turned up to every campaign meeting, reported to the local forum and provided invaluable input to the inevitable public enquiry.

As well as this campaigning, Brian set up a local environmental group. Not to campaign but to spruce up some of the village’s untidier corners – we got the group a little money and Brian scrounged bits of stone, plants and fencing from local companies. Four or five little projects were competed – a little garden at the entrance to the village, the raised bed round the mechanics institute, the tiny green at the top of Old Lane and loads of bulbs throughout.

Any way, I was chatting to Brian – asking about the Parkinson’s and some other village matters – and he told me a little of the doctor’s advice about walking being good for managing the condition. And Brian came out with this little gem – as good a description of what David Cameron means by the “Big Society” as you’ll find:

“The village will keep me fit”

That really is what it’s about – a place where people get involved because they’ve something to offer and because they want the place where they live to be a pleasant place. And what they get back isn’t money or kudos or medals. What they get back is a good feeling, a sense of community and, in Brian’s case, a reason to carry on doing things for the village.

And for Brian the village is almost a living thing – it is the people, the trees, the old buildings, the new estates, the changes – good and bad and the sense that it’s worth looking after, it’s worth a bit of love. You might, on arriving in Denholme, find an unprepossessing place stuck on the top of the South Pennines. You’ll see big trunk road, some old terraced housing, a Co-op and a big public hall. You might even think the place a little unattractive, certainly not your typical, roses-over-the-door English village.

But look a little further you’ll find something more remarkable – you’ll find people like Brian (and Nora and Barbara and Ann and Steve and Sharon) working hard at making the place more than what you see on your visit. You might bob into the Town Council meeting and see nine unpaid politicians talking about the minutiae of village affairs. You might meet some scouts, or kids from the youth club. It might be the cricket club that gets your attention or the football club or the Denholme Elders (what a great name for a group that is!) who meet to reminisce and share their experience of living in Denholme.

This is the “Big Society” – these are ordinary people freely working to make where they live better, happier, safer and more friendly. It’s not about strategies, governance and policies. It’s not about clever folk in big corner offices. And it’s not about taxes or public spending. It’s about saying; “yes, we do want you to do that, we’re not going to stop you, we might even help a little – after all it’s your village in the end!”


Sunday, 2 May 2010

Why you should vote Conservative on May 6th

Yesterday’s Telegraph Magazine carried an extended profile of David Cameron that was a good read. However, the opening paragraphs included a quote from Cameron that, to me, was a clear exposition of conservatism:

'People who tell you too much about their utopia, I always get a bit worried that suddenly we’ll be forced to wear the same uniform. When you hear about someone’s vision to remake the world, you do need a bit of, “hmm, that’s interesting… How much freedom am I going to have in that one, and how much is that going to cost me?”

Conservatism is the philosophy of the doubter – rejecting the idea of ideological purity, the search for the City on the Hill, with a more practical, considered and flexible approach. An approach rooted in place and the histories of place. Conservatives embrace a philosophy of values rather than an ideological search for a perfected future – a rejection of utopias.

This ‘real’ Conservatism is different from the liberalism that lay at the heart of Thatcher’s repositioning of the party – which may explain partly the discomfort of some in the Party with Cameron’s rediscovery of the politics of place and community. These ideas – central to the traditional Conservative idea of government – were set aside by Thatcherism.

“Even so, the election of 1979 might have been little more than a psephological curiosity had it not been for something far more important than the statistical outcome. For the fact is that the Conservative party had been swept into office on a programme which seemed to mark a conscious change of direction, not merely from that charted by its political opponents, but from that followed by all British Governments since the war, including its own Conservative predecessors. Hence the seemingly self-contradictory notion of ‘The New Conservatism’.” (Nigel Lawson)

For the first time, British Conservatives were grasping at an ideological position – at least in the rhetoric of politics if not in the reality of government. And that ideological position owed more to Gladstone’s liberalism than it did to the pragmatism of Disraeli or the scepticism of Salisbury and Balfour. What Cameron has done is to set out again the ancient cause of the conservation – a cause defined by Lord Blake in his history of the party:

“There was a…belief that Britain, especially England, was usually in the right. There was a similar faith in the value of diversity, of independent institutions, of the rights of property; a similar distrust of centralizing officialdom, of the efficacy of government (except in the preservation of order and national defence), of Utopian panaceas and of ‘doctrinaire’ intellectuals; a similar dislike of abstract ideas, high philosophical principles and sweeping generalizations. There was a similar readiness to accept cautious empirical piecemeal reform, if a Conservative government said it was needed. There was a similar reluctance to look far ahead or worry too much about the future; a similar scepticism about human nature; a similar belief in original sin, and in the limitations of political and social amelioration; a similar scepticism about the notion of ‘equality’.”

I don’t agree with everything in the 150 page hardback book, nor do I like the outlook or views of every Tory standing for election. But if what we get is an end to government believing it can solve every problem – including problems specially invented for the purpose of solution – then I will proceed with a smile on my face. I don’t expect to stop being angry and annoyed at the stupidity, mendacity, busybodying and bulling of government and agents of government. But I do know that with a Conservative government I’ve more chance of being free to speak out, free to buy and sell and free to move around this great land of ours.

Vote for the politics of place and community. Vote for honest doubt about the ability of government to solve all the world’s problems. And vote for what Cameron said:

How much freedom am I going to have…and how much is that going to cost me?

With a Conservative government you’ll have more freedom and it will cost you less – and that alone is reason enough to Vote Conservative.