Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): 01/01/2004 - 02/01/2004

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Classic fun

Try either link...both are worryingly addictive!

What is 'fair'?

I am always staggered by many modern politicians of today. Much of the political and indeed journalistic establishment seems to lack conviction and too rarely do we hear support for bills, decisions, people on the grounds that the figure involved just believes it. Yes we need reason and logical debate, but it can either be heartfelt or a more passive, cynical PR procedure; merely a regurgitation of over-choreographed interactions.

The main instance of this which has recently bugged me is the idea of 'fairness'. It is so often bandied around as the trump card of any argument. Seeing one edition of Question Time on (I'm saying my Hail Maries) BBC it seemed like a sprint for them all to grab the fairness card; whoever could shoe-horn it into the discussion first had the moral high ground. Now, I find this slightly sickening. Surely all politicians (or nearly all) want to be 'fair'? At least surely nobody wants to be 'unfair? So what we see then are discussions about the comparative impact of a policy or government on different sections of society being distilled into a rather unsophisticated slinging match of who is 'fairer'. Sad.

Of course, we all know why they do it; so that the ordinary punters on the other end of the TV think to themselves "oh, he (or she, to be fair) must be a jolly good chap. I'll vote for him, he's fair. Unlike all those other selfish people". When the standard of debate in this country is reduced to being a compaetition to seize the necessary buzz word we have reached a depressing state indeed. The public is deemed unable to make up its own mind about whether something is fairer, or even better, for them or fairer, or even better, for society at large. The result is that 'fair' can be banded around as the trump card it shouldn't be. What ought to matter is which is better for the country.

But what is fairness anyway? Does anyone really have any conscious idea? Why is it necessarily such a be-all-and-end-all?

I think that there is a clear difference which can be drawn between substantive and formal fairness. Formal fairness precludes unfairness in individual procedures, rules and processes of society. What of substantive fairness though? BW Hooker is tempted to describe it as "to do one?s part in any existing mutually beneficial social practice", fairness requiring reciprocation of advantages gleaned from society. As eloquently argued by Robert Nozick in the 70s, however, even if you had received benefit from communal practices, and even if this benefit was a greater return than your fair share of sustaining the practice would be, there may still not be a moral obligation to contribute to the practice. From a moral point of view it ought to matter whether when you accepted the benefit you knew that at a later date you would be expected to contribute to the practice by others. If you are ignorant when benefits are bestowed upon you that this is not a gift but part of a bargain there is an inherent wrong committed in enforcing the other side of the bargain. This is recognised by our law of contracts.

So fairness can in some way be seen to equate to what a person actually agreed to rather than what they would have agreed to: we approach the concept of a morally binding promise in order to fully appreciate fairness. The key question then is when a promise should be morally binding? What do we predicate our morals on? This way it seems that fairness, as a buzz word, is a truly fatuous one. It means what anyone wants it to mean. The real argument is about what moral rights should underpin society. Hooker advances one extremely plausible suggestion of a set of moral rights being justified if their communal acceptance maximizes expected aggregate well-being (or just that part of well-being constituted by autonomy). Perhaps this assessment needs to factor in an improvement in individual well-being as well to ensure a weighting in the interests of the poorly-off? Perhaps it needs a greater weighting than that? A much less comfortable ground for politicians to debate upon, I'm sure you'll agree. We may actually see their true beliefs then!

Friday, January 30, 2004

The end of New Labour...soul-searching for Howard

Despite having been a great fan of Mr Howard compared with his predecessor and because of my dislike for the Labour Party I feel obliged to link to this fantastically reasoned piece. I agree with practically every word.

"The Tories have what they wanted – a fatally wounded Blair still in office, his position sealed (buoyed even) by Hutton, but limping on when it comes to the meat and drink of domestic politics and vulnerable to all sorts of attacks over the failure of the public sector from Tories – and, indeed, from his own party, which smells blood.

Make no mistake, New Labour is now over. The top-up fees vote was merely a vote on the principle. Now come the votes on the details.

The Labour Party is now embarking on a prolonged civil war between the tiny guerrilla group of Blairite true believers and the bigger band of Brownites (lumped together with the rabble Campaign group types) with the vast majority sitting by on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. Blair’s authority is in tatters, and all chance of further reform across other areas is now over.

The likely outcome is Blair stays in office, wins the next election, and then disappears having done almost nothing between now and then, leaving Brown to take over and to govern as a traditional social democrat, uninterested in public sector reform.

New Labour formally ended last night."

The question is can the Tories get their act together to put the boot in in a governmental fashion. Th eir attitude has to shift from full-frontal attacks to a 'roll over Beethoven' approach of frustration at wasted time.

Do the Tories have the winning formula?

I found Charles Moore's article in today's Telegraph stimulating even if I don't entirely want to agree.

He basically argues that the reason for the Tories lack of political success in recent years has been a lack of low cynicism and high ideals. I broadly align myself with this analysis, but some of Mr Moore's detail I find difficult. Much of what the party has done may be viewed as opportunistic but it is not the cynical politics which has made Labour so successful. From a political view we long seem to have failed to grasp the broader political picture and managed to manipulate to the needs and success of the party. We have also seemed to lack the 'high ideals' which enable one to set oneself as automatically superior to political opponents. Labour do it, scornfully invoking all those 'without' in modern society; the Liberals do it in a pseudo-intellectual manner. This has long been the strength of the Conservative Party but to be successful it must make it the case again. I do not necessarily agree with his condemnation of Jim Prior's activities or that we need a neo-Thatcherite revival. We need to assert traditional Conservative values with a bit of long-term political nouse and the odd 'high ideal' thrown in for good easy recipe for a man like Howard surely. Certainly easier than Moore's charge that "we must find a way of abolishing or hugely reducing the licence fee while reviving the core of public service broadcasting."

Much of his criticism of the institution of the BBC I think is fair. Despite my gut instinct to be protective of what is and has long been a great British institution it has undesirable aspects for much of 'Middle Britain'. Moore's assertion of whether Wolfowitz or Hizbollah, Gerry Adams or Norman Tebbit would get an easier ride strikes a resonant bell. How to conserve this and yet improve the institution is surely one of the great testing challenges of what conservatism will mean in the 21st century. And it's not an easy question.

Sorry for the delay in postings for a while but I have been not only distracted by Hutton, Top-up fees and snow but have been down and out with tonsillitis for a while. I'm back now though...

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Anne 'Principles' Campbell

I wrote last week about the dreadful and shameless behaviour of Cambridge MP Anne Campbell (see below), predicting, inter alia, that

"Since being one of the first MPs to oppose the proposals, having suffered for her behaviour around the 1997 General Election when she, allegedly, flyered the whole university with 'No Tuition Fees Here' leaflets, it seems she wouldn't mind developing cold feet...

Watch this space for the survey's ambiguous results!"

It seems that having devised her most absurd little online poll she has done the inevitable and...abstained! I will write more on this later when I have calmed down, but for an MP representing a university town to abstain on an issue such as this is nothing short of disgraceful. There is no reason why she should show 'no opinion', especially as she has been such a long-time critic.

The only bright side is that the chickens must surely come home to roost at the next election.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Bromsgrove Rovers 1 - 2 Bedworth United

Poor performance and result from Bromsgrove. We're lacking some spark and it's looking like the manager's got to carry the can. The team can play but apparently we've resettled into a 3-5-2 formation which has never really worked all season.

The keeper, Paul Wyatt, has made a catalogue of errors - yet Rooney is standing by him as solid. If that's the case then he has to stand by his results now too!!

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Off with her Tonge...

Just had brought to my attention a quite shocking comment about suicide bombers by LibDem MP Dr Jenny Tonge.

When talking to pro-Palestinian lobbyists she said that she 'might just consider becoming one herself'. Well I don't normally like to weigh in to the Israeli-Palestinian, Jew-Arab arguments but in instances like this I am genuinely outraged. How can any politician even harbour an inkling of an expectation to be taken seriously and respected when they would contemplate killing innocent people?

Now I know that the life of many Palestinians is dreadful. I know, too, that there is a lot which could be done for them that isn't and a lot of oppression which can have no justification at all. Nevertheless, when I first heard about this I wondered if I could ever foresee a situation in which I would want to take the lives of other innocent people to prove a point? If I was so persecuted that I lost all hope, respect for myself and man and was ritually persecuted day-in, day-out would I ever feel anything other than repulsion for any flickering of an idea involving causing death to others?

The only answer I could find was a negative to both questions.

In what instances might I kill someone at all? Well, preferably never. I still think that I could find it in myself to take another's life in some circumstances though - and I hope this doesn't come over as just ghoulish:
-If I felt my life was being seriously threatened then I may not regret a killing of the individual threatening it or the individual endangering it. Here there has been a positive decision on that person's behalf to 'raise the stakes' though.
-In war, for my country, to kill another militant to protect national security. I would only want to do this in very narrow cases though.
-I could also, I hope, live with myself if I was involved in an accident and, with no fault on my behalf at all, someone was so seriously injured as not to survive.

Sitting here tonight I can contemplate no other similar situation. These are fundamentally different from the instance mentioned by Dr Tonge though. Firstly I would greatly and deeply regret any of the deaths. I would wish that none of them had happened. Yet it seems that part of Dr Tonge wouldn't; she could take the decision to kill in advance! For me there could never be any premeditation or planning. Furthermore, in no circumstance could I foresee any justification for killing someone innocent, someone who hadn't chosen to be in that situation any more than choosing to walk down the street in which you live should be a choice to risk being blown up by one of Dr Tonge's comrades.

This all seems very reminiscent of the row involving Cherie Blair a few years ago. My views then were that this was quite clearly an outrage. No circumstances can or should ever permit any harm being caused to innocent people. There is only one course of action open to her, as there was to Cherie Blair. That is an immediate apology...

...but what we are seeing is defiance. A shameful comment followed by a shameful response. The horrific thing is that the defences which will be trotted out as justifications for her comments are as applicable to bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11 2001. That is how absurd her stance is: any attacks aimed at innocent people are the lowest form of cowardice and the worst form of evil. There is and can never be any justification or motive deserving of sympathy.

But, beside the truly disgusting notion that in some circumstances it can ever be understandable to deliberately kill someone innocent, her comments are damaging for any hope of peace. Does she truly think that it is helpful to send out the message that the use by either side of the conflict of violence indiscriminately against innocent people is understandable? Does she think that this way the main problem, which is escalating and retaliatory violence, can actually be remedied? I can scarcely believe that she could be so blinkered in her pursuit of the revolutionary left for the LibDems that she can do anything other than condemn any killing of innocents. It should be for leaders to show those who live lives of despair, hardship and misery the way then can improve their world; that they need not let their desperation boil over into such horrific atrocities. Not to sympathise with or endorse their brutal and evil actions.


The Mirror amongst other organs carries a story about Pierluigi Collina, the world-famous bald, referee and the likelihood that he may be invited to join the ranks of English referees this summer. He will then be 45, at which age all referees must retire in Italy: in England, however, they may continue until 'the age of the zimmer frame' at 48.

This, for me, is classic over-regulation, and pumps me full of as much ire as the imposition of a retirement age for high court judges. Why do we feel that one age must be set out as the age at which one must become resigned to a future of dribbling liquidated pears down our bibs as we gaze dislocatedly at the ping-pong on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon?

Why do we not introduce a more dynamic system in so many areas, whereby if somebody is still up to the job but 90 they can continue? How much skill will be lost and wasted by the Italians if Collina does come to the Premiership? How many rapier-minded members of the judiciary waste some of the prime years of their intellect?

More to the point though, this sort of arbitrary requirement must allow many decrepit incompetents to continue in many walks of life. Surely a number of referees are no longer physically up-to-it at 45? I know for a fact from watching Bromsgrove Rovers that the eyesight of a not-inconsiderable number is already slipping unacceptably! Why can't we have fitness tests for all referees who have been reffing for longer than five years (say)?

What should matter is whether they are up to the job or not, not what year they were born in. Make ability the criterion, not age in and of itself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

RIP Mr Orwell...but welcome to 1984

George Orwell died on this day 54 years ago. A sad celebration, but nevertheless it is worth remembering not only how deep and enticing his writings were, but also how worryingly prescient his most famous novel actually seems!

Disproportionately dull

This intriguing piece from quite an intriguing blog:

"Stopping the BNP

Interesting press release from the Electoral Reform Society today demonstrating how the BNP have benefitted from the First Past the Post system of elections. I have to say that the psephology of their argument was a bit dodgy to say the least. Their premise was that the BNP won six seats last year in 12 wards on the basis of a third of the votes. If this pattern is repeated in the next two years then that will give them a majority. However, if my memory serves me correctly the BNP have subsequently lost one of those seats in a by-election and the complacency that allowed them to make these gains in the first place is being addressed. In particular the Liberal Democrats have shown themselves very adept at defeating the BNP simply by campaigning on the issues and showing people that the premise that the main political parties don't care and have let them down is not true. The Electoral Reform Society do have a very good point however in illustrating how under First Past the Post it is possible for a small minority party to pick up seats and gain influence in local Councils on a small proportion of the vote. It is a fact that a large number of Councils are balanced in no overall control on First Past the Post, undermining the argument that PR will lead to such results. It can happen under any system. The issue is that STV will give an outcome that reflects the way people voted, First Past the Post will not. As a result Councils will be more accountable and receptive to public opinion and needs. If that is not a convincing argument for change then I don't know what is."

All sounds very comfy and nice doesn't it? Well, actually it's not as 'nice' as it might sound. What really peeves me about much of the debate which gets thrown at us by the pro-PR platoon is that it will be 'fairer' and more representative. In doing this though they really fail to answer several key questions.

Firstly, how is the system unrepresentative? It may not be perfectly proportionately representative of votes cast across the whole area up for election but the current system ensures that every voter is represented by one person who is directly accountable to that individual.

Secondly, Mr Black says he doesn't know what is a convincing case for change if the case he lays out isn't. That probably explains why I always find the LibDems so unconvincing. I fail to see how councils will be more receptive to public opinion under PR - the only viewpoint which council leaderships will be more receptive to would be local Party opinion. It will, after all, be the Party's view of their actions which would guarantee them a berth high up the list at the next election!

If anything, I would prefer to see some de-politicisation of local elections so that our elected representatives actually do fight for the interests of the small groups of people who elect them. That way we can be sure that councillors positively try to represent the interests of their voters. Under the current system elected representatives' positions are more greatly affected by their reputation for getting things done amongst a relatively small population than under a PR system where one person's view matters much less.

I know there are (some) advantages with PR, but the greatest disadvantage must undoubtedly be this fundamental change in the accountability of our politicians.

And the ERS (originally name Campaign for PR...or something very similar) may have a 'good point' about the BNP being more likely to win seats under first-past-the-post systems, but it is a 'point' which should have no 'point' at all. We cannot and should never decide what system we use to manifest our democratic will in elected individuals with reference to the relative success of any party, least of all one which most of us want to destroy. Let us destroy it at the ballot box by reason and argument, not by fixing the system.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

What is Howard's Way?

Today's editorial in the Daily Telegraph gives what is, for them, something of a poke at Michael Howard's leadership of the Conservative Party.

They are keen that he puts his own stamp on the policy of the Party in preparation for the next General Election and also the mayoral, european and local elections this May. In this we agree and we both believe he will do this.

They then go on to suggest that the Party Chairman, Liam Fox yesterday 'made a strong plea for a return to Thatcherite principles, or "liberation Conservatism"' and that the only way for Mr Howard to assert his belief of 'making the people large and the state small' was to cut taxes. They suggest that Mr Howard's 'trumpet' has given an uncertain sound on this issue and that the only logical argument is to announce a fiscal policy of tax cuts. If that's what the editor thinks then I'd suggest that when the Barclays take over they realise that he is trumpeting out of his rear and move him on...very fast...but preferably not with Andrew O'Neil as a replacement(but that's another post waiting to happen!).

Howard's position has always been very clear: in the long-term, lower taxes. These are desirable, these must be the Party's aims, these accord with its beliefs. In the short-term, lower taxes than Labour and the Lib-Dem scoundrels and scoundrelesses, as the Party believes in restrictive spending for smarter and more effective spending.

However, also in the short-term, he is thankfully more than aware that there are more pressing concerns for the electorate such as university funding, improving health provision in this country, improving education in our schools, sorting out what will probably have amounted to re-nationalisation of the railways and a whole host of other public service issues which are of great concern to the political middle ground. When he is still developing policies on these it would be reckless to make specific tax-cutting pledges: the other side would just criticise all the Conservatives' new public service reform proposals as 'removing' money to try to cover unsustainable promises and to fill in black holes in their spending plans. This is especially so when these proposals are likely to require significant initial expenditure to get up and running and at a time when the national debt is exceeding even Gordon Brown's 'prudent' expectations. It is also here that he can be boldest at evincing the Party's beliefs into consistent policies to help Britain's one nation.

So, it would seem, logic could dictate an alternative to rigid tax-cuts. Long-term, lower tax. Short-term, lower tax than the squandering scoundrels and socialists. Always, more confidence in you to choose how you lead your own lives.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Who's a pretty hun then?

A classic story of today about Winston Churchill's parrot, which at the age of 103 is alleged to be the oldest parrot in the world. Apparently it still comes out with the swear words that Churchill taught it when he first bought it in 1937. Only such a great man as Churchill could possibly have come up with that thought. Oh to know what Mr Blair would have taught his parrot...or more interestingly what truths the parrot would have heard him utter across the kitchen table!

Sunday, January 18, 2004

More sense from Madsen Pirie

This links in absolutely with the piece below about the dangers of positive discrimination and how it can be used as a diversion from the real problems.

Women may be vicious but they're hardly ever violent!

There is an entertaining article in today's Sunday Telegraph about the pacifying effect of marriage and women on men!

Saturday, January 17, 2004


Having heard that Anne Campbell, the Labour MP for Cambridge was going to consult students at the University as to how she should vote in the debate on the bill including deferred fees, you can imagine the excitement with which I went to view the online survey.

When I got there I felt just one thing: underwhelming disappointment.

Despite my initial surprise that Ms Campbell was going to fetter her discretion as to how she would vote (which I thought was in breach of Parliamentary rules) the scales soon fell from my eyes when I heard on the radio that she had 'pledged' that the results of the survey would 'inform' the way she votes. My what daring for a modern politician to use the opinions of those she represents to 'inform' her thinking. Presumably, that means, which ever way she votes she can say at the next election that she 'consulted us' and that our points of view 'informed' her opinion: so don't you students dare moan.

Nevertheless, if the results of the survey had been overwhelmingly against the bill then I am sure she would have struggled to do anything but oppose it. Here comes the second catch. As you can no doubt see the survey is structured so as to render any results all but unintelligible. Almost every question is do you prefer the status quo or the government's proposal?

Now, for a supposedly intelligent government and a member in a constituency with one of the best universities in the world this seems remarkably intellectually lazy. Where was the option to outline our own different alternative? Why couldn't we just conclude 'Are you in favour of this aspect of the government's bill? Yes or no'?

Of course the answer is in the Guardian (where else!) when they describe yesterday's meeting in Cambridge:
  • 'Musing on the meeting afterwards, Ms Campbell said she was not surprised by the students' views, but was now considering backing the first vote on January 27 in the hope of pushing the case for a flat fee later in the parliamentary process.'

  • Since being one of the first MPs to oppose the proposals, having suffered for her behaviour around the 1997 General Election when she, allegedly, flyered the whole university with 'No Tuition Fees Here' leaflets, it seems she wouldn't mind developing cold feet...

    Watch this space for the survey's ambiguous results!

    Welcome, introduction and hello

    I hope that readers will enjoy this blog: it was inspired by the blogs linked to two people whom I respect greatly and whom I have been lucky enough to meet.
  • Dr Madsen Pirie's for the ASI

  • Stephen Pollard's

    This week as President George W. Bush visits the UK in a trip surrounded by controversy, further controversy rumbles on in the US while he's away. What's more, I can't help but reckon that the stories stateside will have a longer lasting resonance over here than any protest against his visit.

    Justice Janet Rogers Brown was nominated by Dubya himself to be an Appeal Court Judge, but the appointment was filibustered by Democrats in the legislature. Why? She was right-wing and most notably had opposed the introduction of group quotas for positive action in California. The main root of the controversy sprung from the fact that she was a black woman herself, thus leading to great soul searching from groups that, by instinct, wanted to castigate her as an oppressive white male 'master' of the Right.

    For me this raised all sorts of issues. Most notably it made me supremely thankful that the selection of judges in our country has absolutely nothing to do with the political process. We may all hate and sneer upon our politicians but at least we can have some respect for the bumbling bufties who make up our judiciary. Then again, Mr 'Something of the too-far-Right about him' Blunkett will ensure a shake-up there soon enough!

    More pointedly though it made me think about the issue of positive discrimination or affirmative action a little more. Don't get me wrong, I would naturally place myself on the side of the civil rights movement, but what has begun to really bug me is a disturbing trend to move away from talking about equal rights for all towards some exercise in social engineering.

    Discrimination and unfair, disparate treatment on spurious and irrelevant grounds is wrong. My view is that it should be opposed whenever it so much as threatens to peek its ugly head above the parapet (to mix metaphors). The way forward is a true meritocracy. Unfortunately, at a time when we seem nearer to this goal than ever before the same movement, daunted by this, seems to have had a collective change of heart. Now we very often hear that discrimination is the way to go, so long as the sort of people we oppress and discriminate against are the sort of people who may have been discriminating in the annals of time.

    Of course it's not put this way: it's framed as 'positive action' or 'affirmative action' to give it a respectable appearance which it really lacks. In reality it is nothing more or less than discrimination, albeit for an individual purpose. We don't strengthen the arguments against the bigots who naturally discriminate by discriminating for our own purposes ourselves.

    This is an issue which is very relevant to Cambridge too: this year Margaret Hodge said that Universities such as ours should lower entrance requirements for students from state school backgrounds and those without a record of going to Cambridge. Will people never learn? The way to improve situations such as this is not by some perverse system of social engineering. Instead the key is to raise the low standards which cause disparities at their root and to tackle discrimination wherever and whenever it exists on any ground other than discrimination.

    I was brought to such a quandary by this question this week when I heard about the orchestra in (yes, you guessed it) the USA which had decided on 'affirmative action' as the way forward. Aaron Dworkin, the conductor, wants an orchestra of people who can't play. In this way he thought that they would achieve diversity. No. By constructing a group of those who can best achieve its purpose everyone's endeavour will be best rewarded. Diversity is a desirable not an end in itself.