Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Democracy is not the same as 'eating your greens'

If I have one perspective that I seem to press more than anyone else, it's the view that even a good idea becomes a bad one if it needs a referendum to legitimise it.

 I can't think of anything worse than a debate that is designed to polarise the electorate and then impose a hated result on up to 49.99% of the franchise. (I've done this one before)

A democracy that guarantees the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number is a travesty and I can't understand why it's not a deal-breaker for all concerned. A good democratic process would give us ample opportunity to put the question in a way that a good decision would result.

The deal on the currency's and Scotland's place in the EU, NATO and Eurovision should have been nailed down before the question was even asked so that people would know what they are voting on.

If I were a Scottish Nationalist I'd be very unhappy about achieving my goals in this way because it promises only a Pyrrhic victory. Scottish politics is a bitter affair at the best of times and it's the last place that would benefit from the decades of trench warfare that are likely to follow either outcome.

Yet, with all of this said, I think there are sections of the 'No' camp who see this as a great big Caledonian brain-burp. A messy decision to stick two fingers up to the English in general, southerners in particular, and very specifically David Cameron (who badly owes us all a dozen 'Portillo moments') rather than a real enthusiasm for independence.

There appears to be a view that the Scottish people may be sleepwalking out of misplaced skittish spite rather than a sober decision about the real question in hand. I think this is a serious mistake, and a misunderstanding of what a good democracy involves.

Though so many of the clever, good people that I know are, by a significant majority, urging a 'No' vote, it may be the case that a large slice of the Scottish people may reply: "We've heard your arguments and we've made our decision anyway."  

If they do decide to ignore the sober council that they are offered, we need to be clear: People aren't stupid. They've not been deprived of the opportunity to hear all of the arguments. That's democracy.

Democracy is not about ordinary people accepting the advice of the kind of people that technocrats would put in charge of everything. If we were to improve our democracy to the point that every pointyhead at Democratic Audit were to say that they were happy with it, the public would often stick two fingers up when they're told to 'eat their greens'.

As it happens, as far as predictions go, I'm with the bookies on this one. I think the vote will go with the 'No' camp - and probably with a larger margin than expected.

I could be wrong though...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Believing in anything

I've never had any sustained involvement in what you could call 'the far left'. It's always seemed something of a fools errand to me.

'Democratic Centralism' is the problem. It strikes me as anti-intellectual. It's a rejection of lots of aspects of 'the scientific method'. It makes for bad thinking, bad policy, bad strategy, bad organisation, bad activity, and - it seems - it is prone to creating structures that are designed to promote bad people (some links here).

I understand that, in politics, sometimes, you have to adopt 'collective responsibility'. Sometimes you have to horse-trade policies and you find yourself as a member of a political party that advances a position that you don't agree with - and that you have to agree to keep fairly quiet about it.

Sometimes, because of the demagogic simplification that is found in the way that the media interact with political thinkers, you are even obliged to pretend that you agree with things that you don't.

But, fundamentally, it has to fit within a democratic framework and has to be subject to open debate. There may be a bit of nod-and-wink involved.

Am I missing something really obvious here? Why does anyone get involved? Why aren't these outfits subject to similar rescue activities that religious cults are?

The counter-argument here is that these cults provide a framework of beliefs and that the alternative is even more worrying. Here are two links....
  1. The Anti-Imperialism of fools
  2. Edward Snowden's back pages
As someone (who?) once said "when you stop believing in 'something', you don't go on to believe in 'nothing'. You go on to believe in 'anything'."

Whatever you think, this highlights the big question facing anyone who wants to take part in political activity to achieve anything.

It's easy to cloak beliefs. Sloppy thinking results in dangerous allies. Simplifying to gain popularity can be disastrous. Scapegoating is always a mistake.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Does anyone disagree with any of this?

Blogging is dead. This one is still dying, slowly. I’ve got a day off and a bit of time to myself for a change.

So, returning to a theme....

How do we do things so that they’re done efficiently and fairly while going with the grain of humanity? We all want good products and services (and we’d probably call them something less commodified than ‘goods and services’).

We want to enjoy making them where possible and we want to have fair access to them once they’re made. Where production is actually enjoyable, or where it confers an elevated social status, we want access to these professions opened out to everyone. It’s both fair and efficient that way.

Of course we want people who make a greater contribution to production to be rewarded where there is any need for either unattractive work or sacrifice, or where we all benefit from the application of a particular ingenuity, aptitude or accumulated experience. We can argue about the proportions that this rewards should take – it can range from an hon-mench on the ‘employee of the month’ board through to a glittering mansion on the hill with all of the attendant yachts and Aston Martins. That would seem to be a legitimate area for political disagreement.

Similarly, if incentives make life better for us all, then we need incentives. In addition, I can’t see any problem with making access to the goods and services conditional upon a willingness to co-operate in the processes that produce them.

This also seems to be a legitimate area for political disagreement. That debate can ask what should happen if someone unreasonably refuses to attend education or training, refuses to turn up to work, refuses to learn the language needed to gain employment or to behave in a way conducive to production, and so on. Who makes judgements on this sort of thing? And what sanctions do ‘we’ apply to ‘them’? Do we starve them? Do we limit their choices?

Do we deprive them of social status, or do we just sigh and blame ourselves for not being ingenious enough to include them in the paradise we've built for ourselves?

Lastly, we want all of this to produce a bearable social environment for us to live in. We want to live and we want to love.

Obviously, we don’t want all of this efficiency and fairness to result in exhaustion or injury for ourselves. We want to be respected as people and we want our contribution to be valued. An absence of war and discrimination are the essential elements.

We also want it all to be sustainable so that we’re not enjoying the fruits of our labour in some toxic swamp or in retreat from rising sea-levels. We want to benefit from this efficient economy. We want convenience and a bit of diversity in our lifestyle. We have our families and our heritage – our identities, interests and friends.

Wherever possible, we want this pursuit of efficiency to use any synergies that are on offer. If you really like trains, being a train-driver should be an option. Leaving aside the two sliding scales here (reward and sanction – both of which probably come from our definition of fairness) on which we all have an opinion, is there anyone reading this who disagrees with anything in this post?

I ask, because listening to people arguing about politics, it seems to me that a lot of people are straining to disagree with bits of this without actually saying so.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Prominent bloggers probably get more obituaries than most, and I don’t think that I can add much to the tonnage of praise and regret that has marked the passing of Norman Geras, late of Normblog.

However, I do have a three-part theory about why Normblog was so important.

Turning off the comments 
Sure – the quality of writing and thinking on the site were pretty impressive. It stands to reason that retired Professor who is on a mission is likely to produce something worth bookmarking. But the site's success can be traced to Norm’s decision not to enable the ‘comments’ function on his blog.

Even if you don’t write about anti-semitism, fielding comments can be a fairly soul-destroying experience. Once you start blogging about the You-Know-Whos, it gets a great deal worse. Norm’s combination of patient rigour and (almost) faultless civility would probably not have lasted long with that additional burden.

A lot of us started blogging to expose our thinking to a critical audience in order to develop our voice. We *needed* the commenters. We'd be depressed if we didn't get them.

Norm didn't have that need. His postings were unusual in that they tended to reflect thinking that was at a more advanced stage of gestation.

Turning off the comments feature on his blog undoubtedly suited Norm, but it created a temporary vacuum that allowed this thinking to take on viral properties.

To either challenge or develop Norm's thinking, you had to set up your own site or comment on the sites of others who linked to him. The need to respond, or to drag a tangent from one of Norms posts brought many of us over the tipping point.

Each new post, sparked by one of Norms, sent dozens of new readers Norm's way and attracted comments of their own.

Norm's politics had some of the properties we find in an Internet meme, or at least, one that works for the people who read newspaper op-eds.

It appealed to the innate fascination that politicos have for 'revisionism', and (treading carefully...) it was a sign of the muddle that the wider left was in at the time that an assertion of rational enlightenment ideas, or a rejection of anti-semitism, made his posts read like revisionism.

Many of us went through a cycle of curiosity, discomfort, reflection followed by the partisanship of the convert. But even for those who didn't, the challenge was compelling.

A good example

Most instances of Internet activism have been about harvesting existing support or giving energy and efficiency to already-existing viewpoints. Norm established what the necessary conditions are for the creation of an online project that actually changes minds.

I actually can’t think of another project that has changed minds as effectively as The Euston Manifesto. With all due respect and apologies to the other people involved, Norm was the one who co-ordinated the thinking.

It was his incremental work that smoothed the rough edges off it. Ideas that are going to gain traction need this kind of streamlining, and by the time The Euston Manifesto was published, it could be said to have created a new model for the promotion of political ideas.

That’s my fourpence worth. On the wider question of ‘political blogging’, October 2013 feels like the end of an era on that one. As the old 'personal blogging' space gives way to the social networks that are displacing it, it may be the case that we will soon be drawing a line under this particular episode and reaching our conclusions.

Has it improved the way we think, and talk about politics? The jury is still out on that one. But Normblog did. It cascaded and catalysed.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

An important aspect of democracy that some don't seem to have noticed

Watching the commentary on recent events in Egypt, and hearing the discussion about the moves to unseat Egypt's elected President, it reminds me of a recurring argument that inevitably follows when someone says that they are in favour of the promotion of liberal democracy.

I've often been asked about what happens when a new electoral process results in an illiberal government. I've been told that "if you promote liberal democracy, for example, in many countries in the Middle East, you create a situation whereby a totalitarian-ish Islamist party can take power".

Surely this presents us with a paradox?

Well... no it doesn't. If you hold an election, and the resulting constitutional settlement allows the winner to abolish, or rig, subsequent elections, then the election was not part of a process that could be described as 'liberal democratic' in the first place.

The reality of having to seek a renewed mandate on broadly the terms that you won the old one - that's a vital part of the covenant of a liberal democracy. It's not an optional extra.

When you create a situation in which everyone can vote to decide who the next government is, you have not created a democracy. You've had an election. It's not the same thing. (John Dewey is well worth reading on this).

I know little about Egypt, and almost nothing about Mohamed Morsi. But unless the Egyptian constitution would not permit him to rig the next election, it's not particularly anti-democratic for him to be overthrown so soon after an election - especially if he's been using his time in office to abolish important liberties.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Heads must roll at the LSE now.

If the LSE had the slightest notion of their role in society, they'd be offering John Sweeney an Honorary Doctorate. It is surely insane to argue that Sweeney and the BBC should not have gone to N Korea because the North Koreans ban journalists from entering the country?

Instead, they whine about how his decision to quietly join one of their tours in order to report from North Korea could have imperilled 'innocent' students and future trips to this sinister and murderous Kleptocracy.

There's an obvious one word answer to the LSE's charges; Diddums.

Or a longer one where you have to point out - to idiots - that their options to expose their students to disgusting propaganda may have been reduced because of a naughty old journalist.

Do the LSE imagine that it is their role to relieve any of their students of their rights to full enquiry, freedom of expression or assembly? That they should ask them to waive their rights or their desire to do these things when they sign up to a trip - and that they collude with the worst form of totalitarianism?

Do they imagine that the North Koreans will now revise their previously open and even-handed approach to how their hellhole is reported?

Surely, it should be a key part of the preparation they give to their students prior to such a trip? To disabuse them of the view that it's acceptable to collude with fascist propaganda. To understand that pleading innocence of this obligation is the essence of the Quisling. To stress that any and all opportunities must be taken to combat censorship of the most brazen kind.

This is a matter that is so simple and clear-cut. For all of the bleating from the LSE about how their students were being endangered (and I doubt they were in any serious way), there's not one word of admiration for the bravery of John Sweeney and the film crew that accompanied him. Had they been exposed on this trip, I suspect they would have found themselves treated very badly indeed.

I hope there are resignations at the LSE following this. And I hope that the entire British media unites behind Sweeney

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Immigration. Some things that no-one seems to be saying.

The Tories have decided to make immigration a cornerstone of their mid-term build up. Electorally-speaking, I suppose there are reasons to do this. Given the perceived (I would argue, overstated) threat from UKIP, and the presence of Lynton 'Dog-Whistle' Crosbie on the team, this is only to be expected.

A few questions:

Firstly, is immigration something that politicians need to worry about for reasons other than electoral gain?

I'd say it is. I buy the 'free movement of peoples is good for the economy' line. I'd also argue that, in the highly devalued currency of what constitutes 'illiberalism', denying people the right to cross borders and live/work where they choose is a good deal more important than a lot of the alleged 'end-of-a-thousand- years-of-history' infringements that liberal commentators are keen to highlight.

I write this with the ongoing Leveson debate ringing in our ears.

As a matter of principle, it remains unstated, I would argue, because it makes a hypocrite of many of the people who selectively use civil-liberties arguments when it suits them.

But, on the other side of the argument, what about some of the poorest people in UK society? Does large scale migration damage social capital? I'd say it does, often very seriously, and that this argument is hugely under-made partly because it hits the least articulate and most poorly-represented people in the UK. Similarly, it hardly makes the labour market a more comfortable place for those same people either - a non-issue if what passes for public debate is anything to go by. Is an argument that the Labour leadership make sotto voce when they want the unions to buy into a slightly tougher line on this subject, but that's the only time I ever hear it. Is there some kind of liberal omertà on this subject? And is that sustainable?

Secondly, does the fact that politicians such as Cameron and Farage are jostling to own this issue create new dangers? Is demagoguery a worry here or is it simply a reflection of sentiment that is already in the country? Does the jockeying in the Westminster Village alter the the way people think? I would tentatively argue that it probably doesn't. Does the way newspapers report it? I'd strongly argue that it does.

Thirdly, the big question: Does the emergence of this issue, along with a few other worrying factors such as the tensions pulling at the EU, and the decline in trust between the people and the various social and capitalist pillars of our society, mean that we're living in dangerous times?

We take our open society and liberal democracy for granted, but is it really going to be something that we all spend all of our lives enjoying? I suppose that, If I'm lucky, I'll get another 40 years with my boots on. My children will get a lot longer I hope. Will that time see my country at war with its neighbours? Will it see another age of informers, secret police, patrolled borders, a real hungry economic collapse and extreme political movements?

In the chapter 'The Fall of Liberalism' in Eric Hobsbawm's 'The Age of Extremes' we see a collapse of liberal institutions throughout much of the globe. I hope you take this prompt to dig it out and read it for yourselves so I won't spoil it for you, apart from to say that he concludes that 'Fascism-as-catalyst' was really very far from being the sole cause of the gathering catastrophe that followed the 1918 Armistice in his view.

Hobsbawm discusses the fiction of 'the people' (one that liberal bourgeois society buys into but that sociologists and politicians often don't) that was tested and found wanting in the 1930s. That is, the people who have an identifiable common interest that can be met - with tensions resolved - by an agreed political process. Now, we haven't seen a slump on the inter-war scale, whatever newspapers try to tell you. Nor do we have the kind of nationalalst tensions we had then, though a break up the EU could fix that quite easily. But The 1930s didn't see migration on this scale either. If politicians are to have a credible policy that restrains immigration effectively, it will involve measures that will serverly strain bourgeois liberalism and leave it at the mercy of populism. It would need proper expensive border control, work permits and various measures to identify people without the correct 'papers'. It would involve internment. Sorry to sound alarmist, be we're talking of camps here - on a scale that we've not really braced ourselves for to date.

Why is no-one discussing any of this? And why do anti-immigration politicians not come clean about the need for ID cards, databases, arbitrary detention, deportations and large-scale surveillance? And why do those of us who want to live in a world where free movement is possible and easy not acknowledge the price that is paid - often by the sections of society that are least likely to vote?

It seems to me to be a very odd debate.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hawks and Doves

Imagine you have two rival organisations. One is a new outfit that you have just created called The Doves. Lovely people! Anyone can join - no barriers, No discrimination. No nepotism. No 'old establishment'. Highly agile and flexible. Very flat democratic structures - anyone can raise an issue and all decisions are taken out in the open. All of your structures are decided democratically. You're a paragon of transparency.

You set The Doves up because you want to challenge The Hawks. The Hawks are invitation-only. Opaque and undemocratic, they look like a cross between The Freemasons and The Illuminati with a bit of Bilderberg thrown in.

See what you did there? You gave The Hawks the sort of gift that they couldn't have hoped for in their wildest dreams. You gave them a weapon they could never have built or bought.

This is why you can never trust a hippy.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Journalism needs to develop a collective conscience if it is to survive

I started last Sunday morning in bed, the way I usually start Sunday mornings: Sitting up, reading loads of articles that had been recommended to me by my Facebook timeline during the past week - some blogs but mostly from newspaper sites - on the iPad or my laptop.

The iPad cost about £450 and the laptop cost a good deal more than that. I probably clipped a few things to Evernote from my work PC as well during the week. My WiFi connection costs me over £20 a month..... all in all, tech companies get paid a lot of money by me to make this lovely Sunday lie-in a good one.   

I usually clip articles that I intend to read straight to Evernote (which I pay for) and the only ads I really see are the ones Facebook serve up. Sometimes, if I notice people on Facebook or Twitter mentioning something without linking to it, I'll go over to Google, find out what they're on about and clip the article again for reading, so I do see the odd Google ad as well.  

For these reasons (and not because of any deliberate ad-avoidance) I dont see any adverts that are posted next to the articles. It would be fair to say that I don't pay a penny directly or indirectly to the authors or their agents for any of my Sunday morning reading.  

I rarely pay in any way for the journalism I consume. I get The Times app on my iPad to read on the way to work. I tried The Guardian one but it was so unreliable, I cancelled it.  
 My 'Times' purchase is an ill-considered one - and one that I don't get much value from. If I thought about it, I'd switch to the FT instead as I'm not keen on giving the Murdoch clan much of my tin, but I keep it on mainly because it's a fairly painless way for me to salve my conscience about not paying anything to read newspapers.

People like me are destroying the investment base of journalism. The only economic interaction I have with journalists is that their work nudges up the value that I place upon my iPad, laptop, Evernote and Facebook.

Objectively, people like me are far more vicious censors than any Ministry of Truth or any restrictive social convention. 
At least they allow some journalism to exist with a sustainable economic base. Do I feel bad about it? No. There would be no point in that.  
On the other hand, I would, if journalism as a craft with a collective conscience (and other crafts have these) woke up to the fact that their failure to assert the value of their work needs to be addressed radically.

But until then, there's no point. At the moment, I accept that we have a moral duty to part fools from their money.

Don't get me wrong either. I hate piracy and abuse of people's copyright. I work with film-makers and I know plenty of penurious musicians. I know how much learning, work and craft they put into their product. When some prick digitises their work and puts it on a P2P site - especially when the artist or their agents are either making it available at a price or choosing to exercise their moral rights - I regard this as a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance.

But newspapers are not filled with such craft. Nor do many of the writers have the chutzpah to demand that their work is valued in the way film-makers or musicians do. It would be a tough job to do if they did. After all, the blogosphere has established over the past decade that anyone can produce what a large slice of what most of the journalistic profession describes as the 'craft' of journalism is capable of producing - and that there are literally millions of people are already doing it in their own spare time.

Opinions are like arseholes - everyone has got one and no-one wants to hear any of them. We can all use Twitter to add our own flavour of cynicism and spin to what other people report. But good journalism - investigation, reporting, genuine educated insight - still needs to be funded. Unless it is, it becomes the exclusive terrain of those who would benefit in other ways from doing this work. As the professions of PR and journalism merge, this is already increasingly the reality here.

Good journalism won't ever be 'crowdsourced' like the Unicorn Cult of Wikipedians imagine it will be. When a 'journalist' copies the 'exclusive' work of a real journalist and reprints it without attribution, a profession with any sense of itself would hound them out of that profession. We're back to that 'craft conscience' issue. The missing component of all of the post-Leveson hand-wringing here in the UK has been journalists putting their hands up and saying "we have collectively failed - we have stood by and watched our profession degrade and it's time we did something about it."

That's the problem. It's not a profession or a craft that has any collective conscience. As such, it doesn't have the legitimacy that it needs to demand that its products are valued. Journalists seem to do little by way of demarcation between themselves and PR people these days. If it did, the profession and its industry would at least have the self-respect to be able to kick back against the scornful undervaluation of their work as much as the music and film businesses have.

But journalism is barely a profession or a craft anymore - except (ironically) the sort of stuff that people bother to clip to Evernote having read it in their Facebook or Twitter timeline.

What to do about this? It's hard to know where to start. You'd expect a craft that had a collective conscience to at least be discussing this. There is no question that the demand for real reporting and insight is larger than ever before. Other industries that have had their demand boosted by the arrival of the Internet have increased their revenue. But as long as it is the convention to give all of the content away to anyone with a browser and to allow search engines to index all of it without charge, no market can ever emerge.

Musicians like Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery have been saying this for some time. Journalists need to start demanding the erection of a paywall around their work. They need to start insisting that Google pays something to index their content - as a single supplier that dominates the market, it exercises monopoly powers here and it should either compensate for the damage that this does to journalists, or be broken up.

It's time for writers to stop being conned into creating demand for tech kit. They deserve a slice of that cash we all spend on hardware / services / WiFi. I don't particularly want to see paywalls, and I don't think that a functioning market will ultimately need them either. But until they exist on all titles that pay journalists and Google have to pay to index what is behind them, no-one is going to incentivise publishers to take them down. There will be no functioning market for journalism until paywalls are at least introduced. Doing so may concentrate a few minds wonderfully.

If such paywalls existed, personally, I'd pay a fair few quid a week to my ISP if they could route me around them. I wouldn't mind paying a bit to services like Evernote for the added value I get from clipped stories.

Newspaper sites could be negotiating deals like this - if they erected paywalls, but at the moment they can't. For some reason, I can't remember the last time I heard a journalist attacking publishers for not creating paywalls. Why is this? Even though good journalism is a valuable craft, perhaps the fact that few people perceive it to be so means that no-one is prepared to make the argument?

The failure to articulate a collective journalistic conscience is at the heart of this problem.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

How will the Tories react to confident forecasts of defeat?

The recent near-consensus (even among Conservative commentators) that the Tories are very very likely to be in opposition after the 2015 election makes this an interesting moment. This is the time that big moves are made.
I'm taking this opportunity to re-post something that I wrote elsewhere a few years ago on Slugger O'Toole about how the Tories made a move to make a coalition with the Lib-Dems possible after the 2005 poll results offered them a mountain that was too steep to climb by 2010. It draw heavily upon a prediction from a very good but now-defunct lefty blog.

I think that this move went almost un-commented upon at the time, but I think there are strong grounds to believe that it was the result of a deliberate strategy that paid off for the Conservatives.
Having shafted the Lib-Dems over PR and a few other things, the Tories behaved dishonourably since 2010. Having done so closes doors for them. Good. 
Read on....

"...the political right in the UK got a lot of things right in recent years without ever taking to the streets with placards – particularly in its understanding of the gamechanging potential of digital media.
Not being privy to their gameplan, I can only sketch it out the way I saw it. One bit of critical analysis I was recently reminded of came from a now-defunct Marxist blog called Socialism in an Age of Waiting. They noted that the Tories’ outlook was very bleak after the 2005, and that – barring an earthquake – it was unlikely that they’d be able to achieve the kind of swing needed to overturn the Labour majority in 2010. They went on to argue that the Tories needed to come up with a narrative that could make it possible for the centre-left populist Lib-Dems to get into bed with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament (pre-Lehmans and the spectacular personal car-crash of Brown’s leadership, this looked like the only foreseeable electoral scenario that could offer the Tories a glimpse of power). Even with the ‘earthquake’, it turns out that their analysis was accurate.
“…an intelligent and adaptable Tory leadership would give some serious thought to courting the LibDems, with a view to forming a grand anti-Labour alliance around policy positions that both parties could sign up to with only a few adjustments, and, crucially, with the enthusiastic support of much of the media for glib rhetoric about “consensus” and “freedom”:
  • a commitment to proportional representation, presented as a matter of fairness (which it would be), but in the sincere hope that it would prevent Labour from ever having a majority again (which it might well do);
  • wholesale privatisation of education, health care, pensions and social housing, to an extent that would make New Labour’s PFI programmes seem positively Bevanite;
  • a lot of earnest-sounding guff about human rights and civil liberties, coupled with little if any reduction in repressive measures, on the shrewd assumption that most people won’t notice the difference most of the time;
  • a commitment to overhaul the EU in an even more free-market direction, neatly balancing Tory Euroscepticism with LibDem populism, and probably in alignment with the trend in other major member states;
  • hostility both to increased immigration and to any further breaches of the “sovereignty” of nation states, thus combining (overt) right-wing little-Englandism with its (covert) liberal-left counterpart, and usefully blocking off any serious challenge from UKIP, Veritas, the BNP and the like; and,
  • given that New Labour will have been in power for 12 or 13 years by the time of the next election, the usual blether about the need for a new start, new faces, new this and that, of the kind that the media will dutifully lap up and regurgitate.
But of course the Tories are the stupid party, and their leaders are neither intelligent nor adaptable – or are they?” (hat-tip: Will Rubbish, who was impressed enough at the time to take a copy of this)
In fact, we have no idea if The Stupid Party ever did fully grasp the favours that were being done for it by it’s more intelligent and adaptable outriders in the blogosphere. They should be grateful though, because a number of important planks were laid between the Tories and the Lib-Dems online – not least in the way that civil liberties arguments were successfully conflated with free market ones. Labour’s managerialist inflexibility was successfully portrayed as authoritarianism (I argued this at length elsewhere at the time). The liberal-left fell for this one hook-line-and-sinker. That the cult of the methodological individualist was used to remind a Lib-Dem party of the L-word that was really only there as a reminder of the party’s bureaucratic heritage. It created the kind of weather that allowed the Orange Book authors to turf out the left-ish Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell and rise to the top of a traditionally socially liberal party."

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2013 predictions

Here are my predictions for 2013:
  1. The number of economists who will be crowing about how accurate their predictions for 2013 were in twelve months time will be, or be close to, zero
  2. Commentary in the mainstream media will continue to be dominated by people who can be relied upon to have a simplistic and polarising view on absolutely everything rather than having any valuable insight on anything
  3. On 31/12/13, the facts upon which public debate are based upon will still be supplied by journalists working under the constraints that have made journalism almost entirely dysfunctional
  4. It will not get any harder for a well-heeled pressure group to dominate the news agenda at the expense of the public interest
  5. Politicians will be no less convinced that their decisions must be dictated to them by economists, the commentariat, churnalists and wealthy pressure groups
  6. The number of people who profess themselves to have been 'turned off politics' will not have decreased by the end of 2013
Happy new year!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Awaiting Lord Leveson

I understand the principled arguments against press regulation. Really. I do. I probably agree with most of them as well, in all of their impoverished fiddling-while-Rome-burns glory.

 But can everybody else who opposes this please also acknowledge that British journalism has been a recurring car-crash for decades now? We don't have regulation already? Apart from the right journalists have to only print the prejudices of their proprietor that their advertisers don't object to?

It's not as if there is some beautiful crystal garden there that is about to be ruined by the heavy jackboot of the state, for f**k sake. We have Europe's most distrusted press corp. Our anti-regulation journalists have allowed their industry to turn into one where beating competitors is a sideshow. Beating regulators is the main event, and actually reporting what is going on with any accuracy or lack of bias is..... well.... just so analogue.

As a result, monopolies have thrived while the local press has been gutted. Journalists have allowed the perceived value of their work to be diminished almost to nothing, and then they wonder why no-one will invest in it. Reporting has been suffocated by an Oxbridge-dominated commentariat who imagine themselves to be experts about everything. Every public debate is reduced to a set of polar simplifications and competing groupthinks that get picked up, cab-rank style, by the appointed overpaid class of celeb mouthpieces.

I don't know about you, but if I never heard from Simon Jenkins, Matthew d'Ancona, Peter Oborne, Janet Daley, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Fraser Nelson, Andrew Rawnsley, Henry Porter, Seamus Milne, Benedict Brogan or (..... add your own in here) it wouldn't be a moment too soon. If any of us never saw another page of our infotainment tabloid sector, would we be stupider or wiser?

Don't get me wrong. There is a place for good commentary. I specifically left a few names out of that list because there are one or two of them that understand that there's more to being a columnist than simply playing the simplifying roles assigned to them. But it's the ubiquity of it all that is so unacceptable.

There is no reason to imagine that a regulatory ecology that has Parliament as a player is necessarily any worse than one that is only regulated by our self-serving metropolitan chattering classes, within the confines of an industry that has no notion of the public interest at all. We have norms and rules that regulate how our press works already. They are useless and counterproductive. The most convincing argument for press regulation is to spend a short period watching most of the most vociferous opponents making their case.

Democracies and markets rely upon wide access to reliable information and our press is not, currently, an asset to civil or commercial society. If anything, it's the opposite - and that needs fixing whatever else Leveson comes up with.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dexys: What are they like?

I travelled up to Cambridge the other night to see Dexys showcase their recent LP. Declaring an interest here, this is the only band I've over-played to the point of having to replace the vinyl albums.

But that was a long time ago, and dealing with that short-noise-long-silence gap made the gig a particularly unknown quantity from the outset. Recent interviews with Kevin Rowland have shown us a more equivocal soul than the smash-and-grab merchant behind Burn It Down - but surely the whole point of Dexys was the emotional incontinence and the fanatical self-assurance of one man who Knew He Was Right?

Outgrowing certainty is surely a sign of a welcome maturity in most. But will it really work for Kevin?

This was reflected in the current sound. The tightness and purposefulness of the popular stomping recordings was missing and the 'difficult' 'Don't Stand Me Down' sound dominated - a choice that would have suited the more dedicated fanbase in the hall.

Gone was the punch or the conviction that the three-piece brass section gave the first LP. Gone, also was the twinkling pantomime Celtic pixie-ness or the passionate Caledonian soul of their Too-Rye-Aye phase. Now there's no 'Emerald Express' - just a sole fiddle.

But the new LP is a fine original piece of work. It has the feel of a bunch of musicians, some of whom had been in the same band at different times around thirty years ago, who have recruited some other journeymen to put together a bit of musical theatre, reviving some of their old idioms on the way. In itself, it's funny, and at points, poignant. And this is also true of the song-cycle of unwelcome maturity, infatuation, commitment-phobia and lonely old age.

The first hour of the gig was a track-by-track performance of 'One Day I'm Going to Soar'. And very good it was too. The second hour was more flaky and thin though. I won't spoil it for anyone who has tickets for this tour (I'm going again on Sunday!) by naming most of the chosen tracks, but in that hour we got only a handful of tunes including a painfully protracted 'Come On Eileen'.

A lot of it was glued together with a stilted conversation between Kevin and Pete Williams dressed as a policeman which stretched the audiences willingness to suspend normal expectations to the limit. It was a thin hour.

All in all, it was one last wild waltz and the new LP's showcase was worth the entrance fee alone. But if this show is to run and run, rather than provide us with one final cameo appearance, they need to decide: Either keep this line-up and lean heavily on Don't Stand Me Down for the back catalogue next time, or hire a driving brass section and more Celtic Soul Brothers and The Strong Devoted and tighten the whole set up.

Those of us with almost a tribal loyalty to Don't Stand Me Down often forget what fine LPs the others were.

It's a gamble. Personally, I think that the breadth of Dexys 1980s output is a largely unacknowledged jewel that would grab new audiences by the nuts. It would need a lot of conviction to pull it off, and maybe the new, introspective Mr Rowland would say that he's grown out of that now?

We may never know.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Left losing its mind about brain-work

In recent years, an unconfident left has watched shiny new bandwagons passing by and it has sometimes jumped upon them in hope.

A few years ago, Islamism looked oddly attractive to some. Today, its 'copyleft'.

For some reason, there seems to be a view that support for copyright infringement is popular (this report - pdf -comprehensively demonstrates it isn't).

Opposing the enforcement of intellectual property laws also looks like quite a radical cause. You get to stick it to the man - especially when the man is the MPAA - Universal, Disney or (history fans) EMI (who?)

And then there's something of a mystical pseudo-rationalist view that the internet offers unlimited quantities of magic dust that multiply knowledge and - on some utilitarian calculation - make copyright infringement a small crime that has a large benefit to mankind and the commons. 

There's a ton of bad science behind that one. There's no reason it has to be an either/or question. We are told that the very mild measures outlined in the UK Digital Economy Act or the French Hadopi law designed to reduce file-sharing are somehow 'censorship'. That these measures, and those around Sopa/Pipa in the US would somehow 'break the internet' if they were ever passed.

Then there's what Andrew Orlowski of The Register refers to as the Pseudo Masochism of self-styled civil liberties campaigners who claim any enforcement of IP law is a form of censorship. Take the celebrated Newport State of Mind parody -  it was totally censored as you can see here, here, here and lots of other places.

And the closer you look into it, the more you find that it's more of an issue for corporate monopolies, the very-very right wing and even the fascist and neo-nazi far-right.

In the last few weeks, evidence of Google dog-whistling up campaigns from supposedly liberal organisations has happened at the same time as a surprisingly slick campaign at EU level against the global anti-counterfeiting treaty, ACTA.

Thing is, the music / film / TV industries that lose so much from having their work nicked like this are mostly populated by small independent producers, small labels and freelancers who have to invest in their own kit, skills and training. Many have spent a great deal longer learning their craft than the over-paid professions that they compete with.

Journalists, bafflingly, have bought the liberality of this argument hook line and sinker - none more than The Guardian - a newspaper group whose business model could be summed up as Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun. (another h/t to Andrew Orlowski for that one). Meanwhile, as a profession that has dedicated itself to openness, local newspapers everywhere have died on their arse. The writing is on the wall, but can you find any journalists who are prepared to read it?

They pay taxes at decent rates (unlike the ISPs, search engine(s) and hardware manufacturers who benefit from copyright violation). And creative work has a great multiplier effect on the UK economy.

When the DVD market is hit by piracy, it still hurts. Badly.

If you want a good - if long - outline of why this is an essential issue for anyone who has ever believed that people should be paid and not exploited for this work, this open letter to Emily White is worth a read. But more to the point, creators rights are basic human rights. Why have we decided to forget this?

Next time you speak to the opponent of copyright enforcement measures, ask them...
  1. Do you think copyright should just be abolished and that music/film/TV work should just be appropriated with no compensation to creators (usual answer: No)
  2. What effective enforcement measures would you support (usual answer; Er..... waffle waffle whataboutery - usually something about how totally unfair some pricing models for music were in the past)
  3. OK. Now answer that first question again (usual answer as above)
The whole debate is being distorted by a false flag campaign that actually wants to abolish copyright altogether. The Pirates make no bones about it. The words are more weasely from the Open Rights GroupWhich brings me to the final argument: That the music and film biz totally missed the boat and should have adapted earlier. That they should have adapted. 'Home taping didn't kill music' we're told. Because knocking up a few mixtapes for your mates is exactly the same thing as pulling down entire record collections and movie catalogues off a torrent, innit?

Google and Apple don't get their copyright breached because they would have your bollocks in their pockets 30 seconds after you did it. Musicians, on the other hand, can't enforce their rights, so they've kinda got it coming to them.

It's feudalism - pure and simple. And, apparently, it's a liberal cause as well.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Alan Turing - 100 today

The 'Bombe'. This machine killed fascists.
I don't like petitions in most cases - not for anything that is any kind of complex policy question, anyway.

But I've signed this one and I hope you do the same. A few weeks ago, £millions was spent celebrating the (whatever colour it was) Jubilee. Today, the centenary of fascism's greatest nemesis will go largely unmarked.

They also serve who smile and wave, I suppose, but our country's shame at the treatment of this man is only matched by our failure to properly recognise the enormity of his contribution - both to the war effort and to our wider economy and culture.

I'll be getting a nice cake in to share with the kids. They need to know about this.

Pic credit: Pic from here.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Greek elections - voters and distributed judgement

What do voters know about their vote in the Greek elections?

Looking at the BBC's summary of party positions (scroll down) there is really only one party that can tell its voters how its MPs will act - the Communists who are promising to kick the table over and return to the Drachma.

All of the other parties are really standing for a variation on the 'stay in the Euro and renegotiate the bailout' line, whatever they are actually saying - variations on the 'Swedish healthcare on US Tax rates' policy.

Circumstances beyond the control of these voters will determine the choices of the politicians that are elected when the counting is over. There is, for example, a chance that Frau Bundeskanzlerin will blink and offer a deal that is good enough to persuade a majority of Greek MPs that honour has been satisfied.

Or there is a chance that she will have her arm twisted by a combination of a newly emboldened French left, or even a Greek government playing its extremely weak hand well.

Or the third option: The new Greek government may overplay their hand and find themselves in an impasse that is disastrous to all concerned.

Whatever. It tells us a lot about democracy because this Greek election is oddly similar to any that any of us have voted in. Sure, it's a more extreme situation and the consequences are nastier than normal, but the Greek people can have no certain idea of what the best hand to play is.

They don't know how the outside world will react, the politicians concerned are all knowingly offering an unrealistic account of how they will behave the moment the polls close, and they don't know what the consequences of any outcome will really be anyway.

So, just another election then.

One small upside of the current Greek situation is that pundits have been remarkably backward in coming forward with confident predictions. The benefits of this should be observed approvingly everywhere.

Uncertain people are voting for uncertain politicians who will take decisions that have mysterious consequences. The only power Greek voters have is to play a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, gaming each other into coming up with a final configuration of Parliament. Correspondents are full of stories of lefties switching to New Democracy while other former moderates dive off to a Syriza party that is offering an extraordinarily radical set of proposals.

Whoever wins (polls say its currently 'too-close-to-call' in the race for that vital majority that awards 50 extra seats) will struggle to claim to be the unity government that Greece will need the moment the whole bailout package has been finalised one way or the other.

Voters seem to be signaling in a negotiation more than they are voting for candidates in a party. A vote for Syriza may be, for instance, closer to an attempt to look confident at a Poker table than it is an indicator of conviction. I could totally understand a vote for almost any of them regardless of any underlying political positioning.

This can't bode well for Greek governance in the long term. It's like voting in a referendum and then having to have your whole government shaped over the long run by your vote on a single issue. In many ways this is a referendum - and probably a better one than we'll ever have in the UK.

Every European politician needs to put themselves in the shoes of their Greek counterparts and update their understanding of what an elected representative is for. And every voter needs to do look at the situation Greek voters are now in and update their understanding of what a vote actually is.

Elections. They're a hoof-it-and-hope affair at the best of times. Politicians need to learn that they don't have a mandate and they do have an obligation to get into genuine human negotiations with their political rivals and not get stuck in a 'prisoners dilemma' sort of partisan grandstanding. And voters need to learn that a vote isn't a direction to government - it's a feeble speculative intervention in a whirlwind - that's all.

It's still better that all of the alternatives...

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Ireland are playing their Euro 2012 group matches on Poland, thus this.

As an aside, the most compelling political argument I've found recently has been the one that the Tories are making vindictive cuts, not because they need to, but because they want to.

The need for a restructuring of the economy (and it is needed) is being used to justify score-settling by nasty Thatcherite fantatics.

That this is an opportunistic political attack dressed up as economic prudence. That it's not the cuts we object to, but their choice of cuts.

When they identify the barriers to growth, they don't see banks that won't lend, or these mythical startups that fail to materialise, or a private sector that hasn't got the entreprenneurial nuts to jump into the space vacated by the public sector.

They don't see consumers and businesses who are keeping their cash in their pockets because they don't know if tomorrow is going to be more rainy. They don't see the unmet need for housing or the uncertain caution of people in precarious employment.

No. They see trades unions who are too strong. Workers who enjoy anti-social employment rights. Bosses who can't fire anyone they please.

Unions have the potential to be the rallying point here. I'm not sure it's an opportunity that they always take, but if ever there was a time for a 'free trade union' campaign in the UK, now is it.

It's a slightly anti-political argument - it plays on a general suspicion about the motives of the political caste. But this isn't something to be afraid of. If it helps to nudge Labour out of it's own bunker-mentality, so much the better.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few things a few people should know about copyright Pt1.

I like 38Degrees most of the time. They campaign on issues that I agree on. I know one of the people there slightly, and I know that they take on some of the criticisms I've made about the democratic problems around petitions and write-in campaigns. I also think that there are some issues where the Westminster Village needs to be jogged out if it's own obsessions - especially on important issues that slip below the radar at election time.

I also like the way they're diversifying into other constructive forms of crowd-sourcing.

But where I worry most is the way that campaigns can be built up because they have a superficial appeal to a particular activist demographic. On complex questions this can be the case. 38 Degrees and AVAZZ have both made their presence felt on issues around copyright. There is a general, slightly muddy contention that the open internet is always a good thing and that the benefits of letting it rip in all ways outweigh any benefits related to curbing the way it's used. So, no porn-blocking, no piracy-enforcement, and so on.

It's not an argument I've ever seen made much beyond being an idealised contention, though for the most part, I'm in complete agreement with this view (except where it comes to the 'piracy enforcement' which I'll come to in a sec). It's a fashionable view. And, if you hold it, I suspect you may be receptive to claims that support it.

Here's 38 Degrees from a couple of years ago:
The Digital Economy Bill .... gives the government the ability to disconnect millions. Schools, libraries and businesses could see their connection cut if their pupils, readers of customers infringe any copyright. But one group likes it, the music industry. 

This resulted in a significant write-in campaign. There are a number of things wrong with their position (do read the whole thing):

a) Millions? Schools, libraries and businesses?
Er.... only after a range of warning letters. In France, the Hadopi Bill (generally seen as being a good deal more draconian) has reduced piracy significantly without resulting in any civil liberties fiascos it's opponents suggested would happen. The amount of disconnections are expected to be negligible.

This is a massive over-egging of the civil liberties argument to the degree to which the only rational conclusion about the people who make these claims must be this: That no measures that curb illegal copying of copyrighted material are acceptable.

b) "But one group likes it, the music industry."
We'll, yes, they do. I suppose they could have added Disney/Time Warner/Universal from the film industry as well. But this isn't just the big music industry. It's also smaller labels. And its not just the industry. Actually, the most active part of the 'industry' that is supportive of steps to curb illegal copying is the Musicians Union. And then there are independent TV production companies. They hate it as well - and they see their ability to fundraise for new productions being seriously hit by falling DVD sales.

Then there's Equity, the actors union and BECTU (who - declaring an interest, I work for part-time - I blog here on my own time though). And PACT, the independent producer trade body. Not just Hollywood.

Because only one part of the opposition to legislation like this has the lobbying muscle to make itself heard doesn't make it the only part of the opposition, yet these voices get no name-checks.

And here's AVAAZ:
"The oppressively strict regulations could mean people everywhere are punished for simple acts such as sharing a newspaper article or uploading a video of a party where copyrighted music is played. Sold as a trade agreement to protect copyrights."

There is other stuff in there about pharma and patents, areas on which I have little knowledge, but seeing as it sits below such an outrageously over-stated and simplistic case as the one about copying, if it is a good case, it's tainted by association with a bad one.

The claims about censorship (as I've argued at perhaps too much length in the comments here) are nonsense. My real problem with this is that, undisclosed in these circles, is the huge global battle upon which so much hangs. And - more to the point - politicians are now openly speaking about how these campaigns shift them away from decisions they would have otherwise made.

Google stands to benefit hugely - and we're talking about eye-watering numbers here - from the weakness of artists in enforcing their rights.

They have a huge interest in not dealing with piracy. By 'dealing with' I don't just mean 'stopping' but also 'not facilitating an alternative'. The continuing presence of rogue sites that they could easily block damages the capacity others have to create a legitimate market. Delay in enforcing the Digital Economy Act, for example, is the perfect outcome for them.

Google are a monopoly here. As we've seen, they're as close to governments now as Murdoch ever was. When you have a monopoly position, your responsibilities go way beyond some dumb compliance with regulations. (I'm awake to the irony of me posting this on a Google-owned bit of software, btw).

Google are looking down the barrel of a fantastic opportunity here: They could end up as the world's default collecting society - collecting a fraction of the amount that national or regional players would (from Google!) for monetising unlicenced content. Creators will only have a monopoly to turn to.

When you oppose copyright enforcement without coming up with an alternative, then you essentially favour the alternative that inertia promotes. When Johnny Rotten said 'Never Trust a Hippy' he was talking about Richard Branson's Virgin Records after they'd just made the leap from EMI and A&M.

Say what you like about those businesses, they paid something from the profits they made out of musicians' rights. More than Google ever will, I suspect.

I hope no-one gets involved in the next write-in campaign without addressing these questions first.

I've got a few more of these to come as well - stay posted. In particular, it's worth focussing on the degree to which the industry that carries and 'adds value' to content has mushroomed without much benefit to the people who actually make the content.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Esoterica - elsewhere

I'm not religious. Really, I'm not. But I've mentioned here (and here) before that I think sacred music is fascinating. And the biggest, fleeting doubt I've had about my choice of agnosticism has been in learning about the direct relationship between proportion and beauty - the Fibonacci Sequence in structure and design or the mathematical basis of musical harmony, as examples.

I think most agnostics with a limited grasp of natural sciences prefer 'cosmic accident' as an explanation for most natural phenomena, don't we?

I'm not alone in seeing some profundity in these things. All sorts of esoteric cults have grown up around this evidence. Picking at these subjects, I keep stumbling over various artefacts and concepts - the Harmonograph, the 'music of the spheres' or many and varied artworks that I think are worth thinking about.

I suspect my interest will be more similar to curious fascination that drives most readers of The Fortean Times than it will be to the kind of interst expressed by any 18th Century sub-Freemasonary sect.

Rather than boring you about them all here, I've just started using Tumblr to keep track of them here if you're interested.  I've not really got my head around how Tumblr works, but I think you can post things on to it yourself if you feel like it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Copyright. Patented in Ireland.

The Statute of Anne came into force on the 10th April 1709 (303 years ago today). I mention this as it’s seen as the cornerstone of the anglo-saxon model of copyright (often contrasted with the more continental approach to intellectual property) and it’s a subject that I’m having to think about quite a lot in the course of my work.

I mentioned this to my mother recently. It’s very rare that I discuss anything with her without her finding some Irish connection – usually a connection with Mayo, or – if possible – a connection with the small north-western portion of that county.

I figured the idea of copyright couldn’t have been conceived by some fella from Tallaghan Bawn or anything like that. And, in this case it wasn't. But she was, obviously, happy to correct me any 'copyright wasn't an Irish idea in the first place' misconceptions I may have had:

“The first historic mention of Copyright, which set the universal precedent, can be traced to 6th Century Celtic Ireland. It is contained in a judgement of Diarmaid, High King of Ireland – the legal equivalent of today’s Supreme Court – in his finding against the Christian missionary Columba, founder of monastic rule, later canonised as Saint Columcille, who had become and incorrigible plagiarist......
....The High King took that well-founded legal precedent and extended it in his famous judgement against Columcille thus:
“As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book its Copy.””