Saturday, June 26, 2010

Co-Go No-Go for Con-Dem-Nation

Via Iain Dale's Diary, a rather bizarre rant from a Tory blogger about Tim Farron's observation that the coalition is not a natural ideological fit -

"Farron who has lashed out at the Co-Go in a recent BBC interview, is clearly in denial over his parties permanent ties to the Tories."

First point - "Co-Go"? I've heard of Con-Dems and even Con-Dem-Nation, but if we're going to have a new abbreviation every other week it's going to get slightly dizzying. I can only assume this one stands for "Conservative Government", and if that's the typical perception of a Tory member it's hardly surprising Lib Dems are becoming ever more uneasy.

Second point - I suspect even those Lib Dems most passionately committed to the coalition will be somewhat startled to learn that their party now has "permanent ties" to the Tories!

It may be inconvenient, but we can't just stop thinking about abortion

I don't have any great pearls of wisdom to offer on the subject of abortion. As someone who in general holds socially liberal views, but who was also subject to the full force of Catholic indoctrination throughout my childhood, probably the most I'll ever be able to say is that I can see both sides of the argument. But perhaps it's my very uncertainty on the issue that caused me to react with such anger to an extraordinarily provocative piece on Yahoo by Ian Dunt, in which he asserts that the debate is now over, the pro-choice side has won, and everyone should just stop talking (and presumably thinking) about it. Dream on, Ian.

Despite the seeming polarisation on abortion, there are in fact two separate dividing lines on the issue, not just one. The first is whether abortion can be regarded as morally justifiable, and the second is whether it should remain legal. A great many people would answer 'no' to the first question, but 'yes' to the second. Dunt himself offers a useful summary of why that apparent contradiction is perfectly rational -

"Society is the process of settling competing freedoms among members. For instance, the smoker wishes to smoke inside the restaurant, the non-smoker does not want to breathe his smoke. That's a debate, right there. That's a debate worth having. In the case of abortion the balance is between the woman's right to do what she wants with her own body, and the right of a foetus to live...

There are two kinds of political problems: those which can be solved, and those which cannot be solved. You deal with the second category through management, which usually takes the form of regulation and harm reduction. Drug use and prostitution are two prime examples of human behaviour which simply will not stop, will never stop, and therefore must be managed rather than banned, so we can ensure they do as little harm to society as possible. Abortion is identical. It will happen. There is nothing you can do to stop it...Back street abortions kill. They are sickening and a sign of a morally bankrupt society..."

So that's a very compelling argument for why the answer to the question "should abortion be legal?" ought to be 'yes', within certain constraints (although I would contend that there's still plenty of room for debate over what those constraints should be). But what's infuriating about Dunt's article is that he then tries to blur the distinction between that point and his other - far less compelling - arguments for why abortion itself is positively desirable in a lot of cases. That may seem a fine distinction, but it's one that really matters, because it's perfectly possible for a country that intends to keep abortion legal to nevertheless make it an objective of public policy to minimise the abortion rate by non-legislative means. Conversely, a country in which Dunt's views hold sway wouldn't care one way or the other if the number of abortions continued to soar.

Dunt's most outrageous suggestion is that a high abortion rate is a good thing in the sense that it suppresses crime, because the unwanted babies of today are the criminals of tomorrow. Yes, that may in theory be an argument in favour of abortion, but to be logically consistent about it you'd also have to favour a selective cull of unloved children and disaffected young adults. Unless, of course, you can first establish that unborn babies are qualitatively different from other human beings.

Dunt makes the familiar assertion that a foetus is not actually a human being at all, it is a "thing". That's a perfectly defensible belief to hold, but he goes much further by implying that science has settled the matter beyond dispute. How he can credibly do so is beyond me, given that most of the science seems merely to relate to whether the foetus is conscious and experiences pain. None of that actually addresses the central (and much more elusive) question of its humanity, because adult humans can also in some circumstances not be conscious or aware of pain. I doubt if even most advocates of euthanasia would argue that such adults have forfeited their right to life, unless a living will has been submitted. Dunt also seems to think it is hugely significant that a foetus is not "recognisably humanoid" (presumably he means well before the 24-week limit). Well, neither are some of the most severely disabled adults - does that make them, in Dunt's words, just a "thing" or a "bag of cells"?

He also makes this point about gender politics -

"For women to be equal to men, they must be able to approach the sexual act in the same way. They must be able to walk away from it. Men skip in and out of women's lives, dumping them with life changing consequences. Things will never be as easy for women, despite contraceptives and abortion. But we must strive to equalise the sexual experience as far as is medically and morally possible. It is the only way to secure full equality."

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The double standards sometimes cut both ways. I once spotted the female writer of an advice column using abortion to have her cake and eat it on the principle of 'responsibility'. A young pregnant woman was reassured that she was not yet a mother, and would only become one if she made the free choice not to have a termination. But a young man whose girlfriend was expecting a child was sternly informed that he was already a father, and that he'd better start thinking and acting like one. Now, it would of course have been reasonable to point out that he no longer had any choice over whether he was about to become a father, but if a foetus is just a "thing" it's impossible to justify the claim he already was one. In any case, according to the hard reality this columnist was so keen to acquaint men with, which gender is it that truly has the unequal opportunity to walk away from the sexual act? And which gender is enslaved to the potential long-term consequences (in financial terms, at a minimum) from the instant sex takes place?

Just to reiterate for the sake of clarity, I'm not trying to make an anti-abortion case. But Dunt's belief that we should essentially shut down all thought on the unresolved moral contradictions thrown up by this issue is extremely troubling. Indeed, wouldn't the lack of conscious thought reduce us at a stroke to a mere "bag of cells"?

Friday, June 25, 2010

And STV's studious neutrality isn't xenophobic either...

Gerry Hassan has a new article on the 'Anyone But England' phenomenon, in which he reaches a very different conclusion to my own. He doesn't actually use the word 'bigotry', but I dare say 'small-mindedness', 'xenophobia' and 'prejudice' amount to pretty much the same thing! I've already explained why I think the prevailing Scottish attitude towards the England football team has to be seen in the context of the unhealthy (and extremely unusual) media set-up we have, with broadcasters that earnestly claim to serve the whole UK dropping that pretence just as soon as England are involved in a football match. Gerry himself gives the game away when he talks about Scots annoyance at "the assumption in the English media that England might win the World Cup". I presume the "English" media he is talking about includes the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the UK-wide network ITV? For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not suggesting for a moment that the UK media should be anything other than totally supportive of England. But what they actually do is talk to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland audience as if they are English.

I must also take issue with a couple of Gerry's other specific points. He seems to regard the STV "who will you support?" campaign as an integral part of the 'Anyone But England' phenomenon. But how? Why? Not having an automatic loyalty, and being able to choose between the thirty-two teams for idiosyncratic reasons, is surely the 'default setting' for anyone from a country that has not qualified for the World Cup. Or is Gerry trying to tell us that the only way not to be "small-minded", "prejudiced" and "xenophobic" is to be actively pro-England? I can hardly think of a better example of a 'small island' mentality than not being able to imagine transferring your loyalty to anyone other than your nearest neighbour, regardless of who they are playing, regardless of circumstance.

But this is the comment from Gerry that really takes the biscuit -

"Some of the Scots claims border on the ridiculous. The belief that the English go on about 1966, was true forty years ago, but the only people who go on about it now are Scots football fans that can't get over it."

Has he never listened to a Clive Tyldesley commentary? Three seconds, Gerry!

All-time Eurovision top five

When I first added my list of other blogs I planned to include a smattering that covered all three of my slightly peculiar preoccupations, ie. politics, curling and the Eurovision Song Contest. But I was really surprised how difficult it was to track down dedicated Eurovision blogs (as opposed to full-blown websites, of which there are and always have been plenty). So I was delighted when the author of The Eurovision Times followed me on Twitter, thus alerting me to his/her very nice-looking blog's existence! One of the recent posts asks readers for their all-time top five Eurovision songs, which prompted me to get my thinking cap on. This is what I came up with...

1. Is it True? - Yohanna (Iceland, 2009)
2. Je t'adore - Kate Ryan (Belgium, 2006)
3. If I Had Your Love - Selma (Iceland, 2005)
4. Fiumi di Parole - Jalisse (Italy, 1997)
5. In Your Eyes - Niamh Kavanagh (Ireland, 1993)

I was pretty sure of my top three, because I've thought about it before (although in Selma's case I'm going strictly on the studio version), but I'd have probably come up with a different fourth and fifth depending on which day I'd been asked the question. Other possibilities would be -

Diamond of Night - Evelin Samuel (Estonia, 1999)
Once in a Lifetime - Ines (Estonia, 2000)
Se på Mej - Jan Johansen (Sweden, 1995)
Oro - Jelena Tomašević (Serbia, 2008)
Lejla - Hari Mata Hari (Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2006)
Lane Moje - Zeljko Joksimovic (Serbia & Montenegro, 2004)
Tu te Reconnaîtras - Anne Marie David (Luxembourg, 1973)
Je N'ai Que Mon Âme - Natasha St-Pier (France, 2001)
Hemel en Aarde - Edsilia Rombley (Netherlands, 1998)
Il Faut du Temps - Sandrine Francois (France, 2002)

But the possibilities don't end there, because the poll as billed also covers songs from national finals that didn't make it to the Eurovision itself, which could include such forgotten gems as...

Until You Saved My Life - Sister Sway (UK, 1999)
Jutro - Jelena Tomašević (Serbia & Montenegro, 2005)
Kiss Me - Jennie (Finland, 2005)
Þér Við Hlið - Regína Ósk (Iceland, 2006)
Help Me - Emily Reed (UK, 2003)
One Gift of Love - Dear Jon (UK, 1995)
Iseendale - Ines (Estonia, 2006)
Never in a Million Years - Zee Asha (UK, 2002, disqualified)

But the above list is probably a strong clue as to why it's not the best idea to include eliminated national final songs in polls like this - even dedicated Eurovision fans are disproportionately likely to remember songs from their own country!

The endless cycle that fuels the academic selection lobby

I don't know how Peter Hitchens could keep a straight face on Question Time when he stated that what concerned him most about the current state of education is how dire it is for the poorest, and then in the next breath claimed that what would help is the reintroduction of academic selection. What he really means is that it would help a very modest minority of the poorest. The sole conclusion it's possible to draw is that Hitchens only places any value on the poor if they happen to be fairly bright - the others don't seem to even have an existence in his mind. Now, academic selection would of course also be massively advantageous for the majority of more affluent children, but I'm sure that's nothing more than a extraneous detail in his thinking. We know it's those poverty-stricken kids you've really got in mind, Peter.

The argument put forward by Hitchens and many others is perpetuated by an endless cycle - a large chunk of those in power and influence will always hanker after selection for the very simple reason that they benefitted from it themselves. Because they naturally have a self-image of having got to where they are today solely through their own endeavour, they imagine that the system that allowed them to do so must be the 'fairest'. But those whose lives were blighted by being shunted off to secondary moderns have - almost by definition - no voice with which to tell the other side of the story. If you want to know what really happens when you have "rigorous selection, solely on merit", you need look no further that the current undergraduate populations of Oxford and Cambridge, and see just how closely it matches up with the demographics of the general population.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cam'n'Clegg face the audience with a fantastical false choice

Back in the days when Paul Merton had his own Channel 4 show, he recounted the story of how a woman had reacted to someone advancing republican views. "You don't want the Queen? So what do you want, then? Hitler?"

"You can't really argue with stupidity like that," Merton mused.

For some reason those words popped into my head as I was watching the performance of Nick Clegg and David Cameron on the hastily-arranged Face the Audience show. They were both determined to present us with an utterly fantastical false choice - either you accept every last dot and comma of the Budget, or you do absolutely nothing, and don't tackle the deficit at all, with all the problems that would cause down the line. Anyone would think VAT was the only tax that could possibly have been raised, or that there is some kind of legal cap on how much bankers can be penalised for their wrongdoing, and on how far the wealthy more generally can be asked to pay their fair share.

Clegg said at one point that he was sure he spoke for David Cameron in reassuring us that if only it had been possible to claw in all the necessary funds by hitting the bankers alone, that's what the coalition would have done in a trice. Well, I'm absolutely certain he doesn't speak for Cameron in saying that, and frankly I'm dubious about whether he even speaks for himself.

It struck me watching the programme that, if this government is going to survive its full five year term, there is going to have to be some kind of relaxation (even if only an informal one) of the normal principle of collective responsibility. Cameron and Clegg were both essentially defending a Tory Budget tonight, so it's no surprise that Clegg looked the most ill-at-ease. Liberal Democrat supporters looking for reassurance that the coalition has been worthwhile will have wanted to hear their leader say "OK, this is not exactly what we wanted to happen, but coalition is a constant compromise and we've been able to offset some of the worst effects". Instead, they saw him dying in a ditch trying to defend the Tory policies he was berating just a few weeks ago.

One point on which I can commend the government, however, is their apparent determination to stand firm on the ring-fencing of the overseas aid budget. A member of the audience tonight trotted out the now familiar suggestion (previously advanced by the likes of Irwin Stelzer) that much of that budget is poorly-targeted. That's undoubtedly true, which is an argument for making sure that every pound of the very small proportion of national wealth set aside for international development is properly prioritised and helps those who actually need it most. It's not an argument for clawing the wasted money back to the exchequer. If there's one group of people more vulnerable than those clobbered in Britain by George Osborne this week, it's the poorest of the poor in Third World countries.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Scrapping Trident would have been the real 'tough choice'

It's testament to the fact that Jeremy Paxman is perfectly capable of facilitating an illuminating discussion - on the rare occasions when he can temper his belligerence - that on Monday's Newsnight there was a very interesting philosophical exchange between Labour MP John Mann and "Red Tory" Phillip Blonde on the case for means-testing benefits that are currently universal. I must admit this is an issue that hurts my head slightly - on the face of it, paying child benefit to millionaires can scarcely be seen as redistributive, and Mann's defence of universality on the basis that middle class people "need to have a stake in the welfare state" didn't seem terribly convincing. He was probably on stronger ground with the "thin end of the wedge" argument, ie. that once the principle of universality is abandoned, the range of people eligible to receive child benefit would gradually be squeezed, until eventually those genuinely in need are affected.

However, that debate is now purely academic, as George Osborne surprised many by not introducing means-tests for child benefit in his Budget, instead choosing to claw the money back through a freeze in the benefit across the board. Clearly, the new Chancellor's notion of us "all being in it together" is that both rich and poor must suffer an equal hit in absolute terms, and it doesn't take a genius to work out which group will be suffering a greater proportionate loss of income as a result. It's essentially the Poll Tax philosophy, albeit marginally better disguised. Mark Easton's report on the BBC Ten O'Clock News confirmed that the bottom in society will be taking a bigger hit than anyone other than the very richest - "fairness is in the eye of the beholder," he wryly observed.

So much for 'tough choices' across the board, then - there can hardly be an easier choice for a Tory Chancellor than to hit the vulnerable sections of society who would never dream of voting Conservative anyway. Which brings me on to the choice the Tories regard (for some reason) as so tough that it's unthinkable even to confront the issue : Trident. All I can do is weep in despair every time a journalist points out to the SNP that cutting Trident would "only" save £3 billion this year. OK, but how much does the child benefit freeze save annually? How much does the penny-pinching at Stonehenge save, even as a one-off? And yet those cuts were deemed utterly essential - while the future of Trident isn't even up for discussion.

Whenever I've managed to get defenders of Trident to engage honestly about their motivations, it seems to boil down to this - "yeah, probably we don't really need it, but somehow it makes me feel better about our status as a country, so I'll always support it". And yet these are the self-same people who would denounce the proper protection of jobs and welfare spending as "grossly irresponsible at a time of crisis". Giving up on a hugely expensive status-symbol (that in truth was fairly superfluous to this country's defence even at the height of the Cold War) to ease the burden on the poorest should be the easiest choice in the world. If for purely psychological reasons it doesn't seem quite so easy for our new masters, then no problem - they talk about "tough choices", so let's start with that one.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lesson of the day : never rely on a Liberal Democrat to defuse a bombshell

It's slightly surreal to think that it was just a few weeks ago that the Liberal Democrats were unveiling 1992-style posters, warning of the Tories' devastating "tax bombshell". This was a direct reference to the "plans" - denied in non-denial fashion by David Cameron - to increase the rate of VAT, and it triggered a furious attempt by journalists such as Andrew Neil to force Lib Dem spokesmen to acknowledge that the Tories were in fact "planning" no such thing. The response was that, while the Tories weren't openly admitting their intentions, nothing but a hike in VAT could ever make their sums add up.

Well, one good thing can now be said for the Lib Dems - they were completely right and Andrew Neil was completely wrong, but given the circumstances I don't think that's going to do them a lot of good. Perhaps I just missed the small print on those billboards saying "but, hey, we love Tory tax bombshells!".

UPDATE : Until I saw this photo, I'd completely forgotten that the ill-fated billboard launch took place in Scotland. Tavish Scott does seem to have an uncanny knack of finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time (eg. Jack McConnell's government). Still, at least Charles Kennedy can hold his head up high.

Shortage of spine-tingling national anthems

Watching the preliminaries of the South Africa v France game, it struck me that this was one of the very rare occasions when there were two national anthems back-to-back that really did the job they're supposed to of summoning up the blood. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of four countries' anthems that I would really put in the 'spine-tingling' class -

South Africa

Of course there are a second tranche of anthems like Flower of Scotland and Land of My Fathers that get under your skin after you've heard them a few times, but they don't have quite the same instant hook.

It's not as if the world is short of inspirational music, so why do most countries always plump for the irredeemably banal and dreary? The petition to 10 Downing Street a few years ago calling for God Save the Queen to be replaced with Gold by Spandau Ballet may have been tongue-in-cheek, but in some ways I think they had a point.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

'Anyone But England' isn't anti-English, let alone racist

Sunny Hundal has written a couple of posts berating HMV's decision to stop selling 'Anyone But England' World Cup T-shirts in their Scottish stores, following a complaint from the Campaign for an English Parliament. The gist of his argument is that by regarding "anti-Englishness" as "racism", the CEP are defining the English as a race, and thus implicitly suggesting that people from ethnic minorities cannot legitimately hold an English identity.

I know where Sunny is coming from, but it has to be borne in mind that there are serious instances of anti-English prejudice in Scotland (and of anti-Scottish prejudice in England) that ruin lives and even end in violence. There has to be proper legal protection for the victims - and if we can't call it racism because of problems of definition, what do we call it? Is a beating inflicted by a thug who hates English or Scottish accents really less worthy of note than a beating inflicted by a thug who hates Asians?

The issue here isn't so much that anti-Englishness is not racism, it's that wanting England to lose at football is not an example of anti-Englishness, let alone racism. This nonsense comes round every time England play in a major international tournament, with even Andy Murray being outrageously branded a racist by Tony Parsons in one of the most offensively misconceived newspaper columns ever written by someone not called Jan Moir. The 'anyone but England' impulse is in truth perfectly natural given the hopelessly unbalanced media environment we live in. If English people were only able to watch the World Cup via a Europe-wide German TV network, and the commentators and presenters insisted on talking at those English people as if they ARE GERMAN (because, after all, there's not that much to choose between 'Germany' and 'Europe'), what do you think the reaction would be? If people are to be branded bigots simply because they've had a gutful of the insufferable Clive Tyldesley and his ilk...well, it looks like I'll just have to live with being a bigot.

What's really revealing about the HMV incident is what it tells us about the true nature of the Campaign for an English Parliament. Can you imagine the old Campaign for a Scottish Assembly - let alone the Scottish Constitutional Convention - wasting its time over such froth? It sounds suspiciously like the CEP are more interested in wounded English pride and petty score-settling than they are in pursuing the noble aim of a national parliament for England.

SNP take lead in ComRes subsample

I think we can safely put this one down to the gargantuan margin of error (witness the percentage change figures), but all the same it's reassuring to see this can still happen occasionally. These are the kind of numbers we wouldn't have batted an eyelid over back in the summer of 2008...

SNP 37% (+24)
Labour 27% (-27)
Liberal Democrats 17% (+6)
Conservatives 13% (-5)
Others 7% (+3)

Of course these subsample findings will now become even less meaningful than they were before, because they relate strictly to Westminster voting intention, whereas it's Holyrood voting intention we really need to know about. We could do with a full-scale Scottish poll from one of the more reliable companies - while TNS have a distinguished history in their previous guise as System 3, they've been producing some distinct outliers of late. My hunch is that Labour are ahead, but not quite by the margin TNS suggested recently.