Thursday, December 11, 2014

Don't mention the...

There's an interesting little piece in the BBC magazine by the English correspondent of the Berliner Zeitung, more or less politely expressing bafflement at the Sainsbury's football truce ad. They do things differently in Germany apparently. The problem is, that parts of the article have a very obvious explanation, which Herr Borger has evidently missed:
Whatever else their experience of living in Britain, most Germans here share one thing: an astonishment at the extent to which military traditions have survived in modern British society - and, at least to my mind, go more or less unchallenged. The military top brass is regularly seen and heard on the media. Retired generals and admirals have seats in the House of Lords and take an active part in public debate. That would be completely unthinkable in Germany.
 Can we think of any reasons why that might be? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Before writing this, I thought I'd better just check and see what I've said about immigration before. Given that I've been writing this blog (albeit increasingly infrequently) for nearly 9 years now and it almost invariably tops the "what are you most worried about" charts in the polls, and that it seems to dominate public discourse (while apparently being something about which people aren't allowed to talk), I assumed I must have written something about it already. Well, it turns out that I haven't - which is itself an accurate reflection of where I place immigration levels on my own personal list of priorities.
It's probably worthwhile, therefore, before I start to set out what my views are on immigration. Basically, what Sam Bowman says here. Immigration is a reflection of the desirability of the country as a place to live and work: higher levels of immigration are symptomatic of a country's success. Those same immigrants are then causative of that nation's future success. While there are valid concerns (about which more below) immigration should be seen as a vote of confidence in the country, and a source of future prosperity.
Why then is everyone so angry about it? Is it because they're just big old racists who hate brown people? Labour (particularly risibly) and the Tories are engaged in a toughness battle on who can restrict immigration the most, while the Trots-in-tweed of Ukip embrace the impossibilist absolutism of an absolute 5 year ban. Bash a migrant, win a goldfish. It's understandable, if depressing - the public is so anti-immigration that any politician wanting to get elected almost has to go with the flow.
But, as I said above, why the hostility? I think there is actually a fairly straightforward answer to this - for all the standard "land of immigration" memes that get rolled out (rather poignantly, this rather good example is by Brooks Newmark, now just a punchline to a joke about press standards), the sheer scale of immigration in the last 15 years is unprecedented in British history. People talk about the Huguenot immigration of the late 17th century as being probative of a tradition of waves of migration. Some 50,000 Huguenots came to England over a 40 year period. Roughly 500,000 immigrants arrive every year now. Even as late as the early 1990s, net migration figures were roughly between 0 - 50,000.
Then something changed.
What changed was a rapid and sudden increase in immigration, from less than 100,000 annually to more than 300,000. In part this reflected the fact that the UK was becoming an increasingly nice place to live, and a good place to get a job. In part it was the result of globalisation - both capital and labour have become much more mobile over the past 20 years. In part it was the result of deliberate policy.
I suspect that a change in migration levels of this scale will always provoke a reaction. People generally don't like change. Visibly different populations create a perfect environment for resentment and mistrust. The closer-knit a community, the harder it is for incomers to assimilate (this, by the way, would be my explanation for why London reports by far the least hostility to immigration - most people in London are immigrants, whether that's to the UK, or just to London from elsewhere). If you add a leavening of genuine concerns (say, the strains put on local services by increased populations or, more tendentiously, the propensity of some minority immigrant groups to be much less tolerant of aspects of British society than we have come to expect) you make opposition more or less inevitable.
So, for what it's worth, there's my thesis. Immigration is a good thing, both as a marker of a good society and as a thing in itself. The unprecedented scale of immigration since about 1998, however, has caused local tensions that were probably almost impossible to prevent. What can we do about it?
There's the rub. There's actually very little that any Government could do to reduce immigration without the policy being deeply damaging to the wider economy (and society). As a starting point as poor old Nick Boles said (and then unsaid), freedom of movement of labour within the EU is a cornerstone of the entire project. This is not a battle the UK can win, and the fact that it's been picked as one looks like a marker set down towards Brexit (or, more charitably, like a colossal bargaining chip to be negotiated away). Another large component of immigration is marriage. Speaking as someone who married an immigrant, I'd be reluctant for the British Government to start banning its citizens from marrying who they pleased. The third key component is economic migration: people move here not only because there are jobs here for them, but because here is a great place to create jobs. These are not people we want to discourage from being here.
What should they do instead? Obviously, educate British children so that they can effectively compete in the modern market (and hey! at least progress is being made on that front). Talk about the benefits of immigration while accepting that there are downsides, and concentrating policy not on preventing the migrants, but on alleviating the social problems that come with them (Hopi is predictably good on this). Finally, be unapologetic in asserting British cultural values. New citizens of the UK should be welcomed, properly informed of British laws and customs, and left in no doubt that where cultures clash, it is British values that take precedence.
Obviously, none of this will happen. The Tories, Labour and Ukip will spend the next 6 months promising to be beastlier to immigrants, while never actually spelling out what that means (except for Ukip, who don't care when things are impossible, only that they fit on the door of a taxi), and one of the things Britain ought to be proudest of will become another grubby piece of politicking. Can't wait.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.

I went to a Book of Common Prayer service last weekend, and when I wasn't soothing fidgeting children, I felt comforted by the familiarity of the service, and moved by the delicate grandeur of the words. What there is of my faith is rooted in tradition and association: we went to church every Sunday when I was small, and whenever I go to communion now I flinch if a word is out of place, or even if the vicar lays his stresses differently. I'm out of the habit of sermons though, and while this one got slightly tangled in a digression about Paul's first letter to the Corinthians I flicked ahead to the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony.
Obviously, the main memories triggered there are those of my own wedding (although we did cheat slightly by using the 1925 version that leaves out all those brute beasts and their carnal fornications), but it struck me how apt the title is. A marriage is (or should be) solemn, as well as joyful. Getting married is a hell of a big committment if done properly. Two people are joined, with neither submitting to the other, but both becoming something greater. Something as serious as that deserves its attendant ceremonies. But the ceremonies can of course be stripped away, and the entire service reduced to its core: two people agreeing to become one partnership, making that committment before witnesses, and evidencing it by signing a contract.
Get past Archbishop Cranmer's text, therefore, and marriage is a very straightforward thing: a legal contract granting certain rights on the parties to it, that they would not otherwise have. Contract law is the cornerstone of the English legal system, and freedom of contract is at its heart (and something that divides us from Napoleonic Code countries - here everything that is not expressly forbidden is allowed, there it sometimes seems that the opposite is true). It is odd, then, to see an English judge strike at the heart of the philosophy that underpins his profession
It is not the role of the state, in my humble opinion, to go round telling people how they should form their relationships... I do not support two classes of adjudication depending on whether there happens to be a marriage,’ he said. ‘I support the extension of the existing system of judicial equitable distribution to the unmarried, warts and all.’
As it happens, I more or less agree with Mr Justice Mostyn's first sentence. It isn't for the state to tell people how they should live their lives. If people want to get married, the state should enable it; if they don't, then the state should not force them. That's why I support marriage for same sex couples. It's the second part that I have an issue with. Because a key role of the state (perhaps the key role) is to ensure that the rule of law is followed.
If an unmarried couple split up, neither party has the right to the assets of the other, any more than if flatmates move out. This might seem like a slight against unmaried cohabitation. It isn't though, or at least it isn't meant to be. It's about choices. There's a related piece in the Telegraph that might help unpack this a bit.
For five years now I’ve been living in unwedded bliss (well, on good days) with my partner, and currently we have no plans to change the status quo... When cohabitees separate, there is no guarantee that capital and income will be divided equally, and this has proven to be financially disastrous for some – especially in the case of women who are long-term, unmarried partners and without any property in their name.
We sorely need new legislation to give equal status to cohabitees in the event of separation. Instead of turning marriage into a political issue and promoting the idea that marriage can save families, while cohabitees will destroy them, we should equalise them in law, thereby freeing the debate to focus on the really important issue of how to make relationships last, regardless of their status.
Let's ignore, for a minute, the difficulties of definition (at what point do you become a co-habitee, entitled to protection? When you first leave a toothbrush at hers? When you buy a house? When you have children?). The first question to ask is: if you are concerned about the extent of your entitlement to joint assets if your relationship breaks up, why don't you agree a formal contract dealing with it before the event? It wouldn't need to be public - just get it drawn up by lawyers (or do it yourself), signed and witnessed. Job done, rights protected. If it helps at all, there is a standard form version of this contract, that any local registrar can sort for you, for less than a lawyer would cost.

If a couple doesn't get married it's either because they don't want to, or because they want not to. Which is, obviously, entirely fine. Nothing to do with the state. But, because it's nothing to do with the state, there is no justification for the state to intervene at the end of the relationship to make sure everyone gets what they would have got had they been entitled to it. Mr Justice Mostyn is arguing that the state should enforce contracts that have, as a result of the deliberate choice of the parties, never been entered into. Without even considering morality or religion, that's a staggeringly bad idea.

Friday, October 10, 2014


The headline results of last night's bye elections aren't, in themselves, terrifically newsworthy. Douglas Carswell wins in Clacton, and Labour win in Heywood and Middleton. The details underneath are where things get more interesting. OK, so Clacton may not be a representative result: there was a strong personal brand for Douglas Carswell which will have distorted the result. Even so, to win 60% of the vote in a bye election is impressive.

But a big Ukip victory in Clacton was pretty much priced in ever since Carswell announced his defection. The second bye election, in the old Labour heartlands of Heywood and Middleton is a more interesting result. Let's just quickly look at what Labour's share of the vote there has been recently:

1992: 52.3%
1997: 57.7%
2001: 57.7%
2005: 49.8%
2010: 40.1%
2014: 40.9%

Labour's official line on this bye election has been that they have marginally increased their share of the vote and it was only because Tory and Lib Dem votes collapsed that Ukip got so close. Well, this is true as far as it goes. The problem is it appears to have slipped peoples' mind that 2010 was an historically bad result for the Labour party. Led by electoral kryptonite, the economy in pieces, the party in a shambles - doing basically as well as in 2010 is not an achievement to be proud of.

If Labour, as the main party of opposition less than a year before the General Election, aren't able to sweep up anti-Government votes in a bye election, what does this say for their prospects in 2015? For that matter, what does it say that they are winning 11% of the vote in Clacton - a seat where they won 40% in 2005? The picture may become a bit clearer after Rochester and Strood, but it's starting to look like Ukip are going to be the key to what happens in 2015, even if they only win a bare handful of seats.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Oh, about Scotland

While I'm here, there is one thing about the Scottish referendum that has been properly bugging me. Rachel Sylvester's article in the Times today is more or less a perfect illustration of it, while Polly Toynbee gives another cracking example. That thing is the idea that, if Scotland votes Yes to independence on Thursday, this will be all David Cameron's fault. For extra points, Sylvester accuses Cameron of arrogantly ignoring the wisdom of women:
The prime minister’s naive short-termism and arrogant refusal to listen to women will come back to haunt him

This is because he didn't listen to complaints that the No campaign sounds "like a man whose wife is leaving him, but instead of trying to win her back by talking about all the wonderful things they have done together, and telling her how much he loves her, he is shouting about how she won’t get any money or see the children if they get divorced.” Well, here's the thing. David Cameron doesn't run the No campaign. He doesn't run it because it was agreed by all Unionist players that an English Tory Prime Minister wasn't the best choice to persuade a country that returned one Tory MP in 2010 that independence was a bad idea.
Equally, the idea that:
Although Labour must share some of the responsibility, it is the prime minister who should shoulder most of the blame. It was he who caved in to the SNP leader over the date of the referendum, giving the independence cause time to build momentum, and it was he who refused to include a third compromise option on the ballot paper, offering the “devo-max” option that he has now been forced to concede.
Is mostly nonsense too. After the SNP won a majority in 2011, a referendum was inevitable. The timing of it was fairly irrelevant - as demonstrated by the fact that the polls only started to move as the actual date approached. ANd the idea that there ought to have been 3 options on the paper is ridiculous - what would have happened if the results had been 35% Yes, 34% No, and 31% Devo Max? Independence?

And why should the Prime Minister shoulder the blame for the conduct of a campaign led by Labour? The principal faces of the No campaign (Darling, Murphy, Brown) are Labour, the grassroots campaigners were supposed to be recruited by Labour - the party with the most to lose from independence is Labour. Cameron has done his bit (and his speeches are among the few memorable ones from the No camp) but ultimately he has had to take a back seat in this. Blaming him for this now is a smokescreen to hide the real culprits.

This is rubbish too:

Even if there’s a ‘no’ vote, Cameron has ended up giving away the keys to the kingdom on the basis of one opinion poll,” says a senior backbencher. “That is just wrong. The whole attitude has been ‘let’s get through today and worry about the details later’.”
I'm guessing this "senior backbencher" hasn't bothered reading the Strathclyde Commission Report, or realised that the Tories pledged precisely the further devolution that is being decried as last-minute and panicky back in June following the Report's publication. Fiscal devolution is a quintessentially Conservative position, and was already part of manifesto plans.

Christ, but the childish lack of discipline from the Tory back benches annoys me.

Scotland for Aye?

I must admit that I'd assumed from the moment the Independence referendum was announced that No would win, and by a reasonably comfortable margin. Once you got past the emotional appeal of "Freedom!", there just didn't seem to be a convincing enough answer to why Scotland should leave the UK. As the campaign progressed, and the Yes campaign's position became one where, post independence, Scotland would have the Queen as head of state, would use the pound in a full currency union with the UK, would have no border policy, would remain an EU member state, and would have full access to the BBC it seemed increasingly hard to see what the point of independence was.
I then rather assumed that the total and abject failure of the Yes campaign to answer the question over how the currency would work (or at least answer it honestly) would be enough to sink Yes on its own. I am not, as I may have mentioned before, an economist, but even I can work out why a formal currency union isn't on offer - there's literally nothing in it for the UK. If it were to be even vaguely acceptable to UK politicians, the fiscal strings that would be attached would be simply incompatible with independence - Scottish fiscal freedom would actually be curtailed as a result of independence.

And yet this doesn't seem even to have dented the Yes bandwagon - when asked about it, Salmond either ignores the question, or seizes on comments by Alastair Darling that "of course Scotland could use the pound" without mentioning that he followed this up by saying "we could use the ruble, we could use the dollar, we could use the yen. We could use anything we want." The independence referendum has been a fight between naive optimism, and grumpy pessimism; between poetry and prose. I've finally remembered what it reminds me of:
Should we “camp out” or sleep at inns? George and I were for camping out. We said it would be so wild and free, so patriarchal like.
Slowly the golden memory of the dead sun fades from the hearts of the cold, sad clouds. Silent, like sorrowing children, the birds have ceased their song, and only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters, where the dying day breathes out her last.
From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rear-guard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in stillness.
Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years—will sing so many thousand years to come, before its voice grows harsh and old—a song that we, who have learnt to love its changing face, who have so often nestled on its yielding bosom, think, somehow, we understand, though we could not tell you in mere words the story that we listen to.
And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea—till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out—till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak—till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say “Good-night,”and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again—young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart—sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast—ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago.
Harris said: 
“How about when it rained?”
I do hope Harris wins on Thursday.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You're like Hitler!

This may come as a bit of a shock, but I don't agree with Owen Jones. Recovered? Right. He's written an article about David Cameron's reported (but private) remarks to an EU Summit on the growing crisis in Ukraine.
"We run the risk of repeating the mistakes made in Munich in '38. We cannot know what will happen next," Cameron was reported as saying. "This time we cannot meet Putin's demands. He has already taken Crimea and we cannot allow him to take the whole country."
Jones sees this as nothing more or less than inflammatory rhetoric:
Let’s resist the Hitler comparisons, which intend simply to shut down any reasoned discussion, to demonise all those who are not hawks, and to ratchet up tension.
But here's the thing: the comparison between Putin's foreign policy and Hitler's up to 1938 is a perfectly good one. In fact, the central rhetorical underpinning of Putin's expansionism is almost uncannily reminiscent of pre-war Hitlerite Germany. In both cases, they exploit non-existent outrages and humiliations visited against minority ethnic groups (German or Russian) within multi-ethnic border states, and demand initially that regions within those countries be 'returned' to the father/motherland.

This was the modus operandi in the Sudetenland in 1938, where local ethnic Germans acted as proxies for the true guiding force in Berlin. Hitler created an international incident over the treatment of the Sud-Deutsch that led to the partial annexation of Czechoslovakia as a precursor to a full-blown invasion the following year.

Hitler also employed this technique against Poland, with the treatment of ethnic Germans in the Danzig corridor being central to the propaganda build-up to the invasion of Poland. Agents provocateurs were used, and local proxies staged acts of terrorism in support of Nazi foreign policy.

Now look at how Putin has managed his regional expansionism: he has concentrated on the "abuses" suffered by ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine; he cited the same issue as a reason for the invasion of Georgia in 2008; he has raised the same concern in Estonia. Hitler and Putin are unambiguously playing the same card.

They're playing it, essentially, for the same reasons too: the absorbtion of neighbouring states into a greater German Reich, or a reborn Soviet Union. It's an accurate comparison, and a fairly enlightening one as well.

Should it be made though? Isn't Hitler so uniquely evil that he defies comparison? As a side note, isn't especially unfair to compare a Russian leader to Hitler "after all, the Soviet Union was absolutely instrumental in the defeat of Nazism, suffering well over 20 million fatalities. In the case of Russia, comparisons to Hitler could hardly be more insulting." Taking this latter point first, no it isn't. Not only were there fairly obvious points of comparison between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, but they began the Second World War as allies, and invaded Poland together, shaking hands over the ruins.

More broadly, there is a reasonable argument to be made that Hitler makes a poor comparitor: the evil of his regime overpowers more or less any comparison you could make. It's also often a thinly veiled attack on the propriety of whatever is being compared: "you know who else...". When, however, the comparison is being made with a short autocrat who manipulated the democratic process to get into power, and then abused it to stay there; and who is cynically manipulating ethnic tensions in neighbouring states in order to foment sufficient unrest to justify an invasion: then I think the comparison is just fair enough.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

From bad to worse

Richard Dawkins, when not talking about evolutionary biology, is a bit of a tit. The particular tittish thing he has just done is write the following tweet:
Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.
He was doing this, apparently, to illustrate logical thinking. Which was pretty straightforwardly dumb of him for a start: if you want an argument about the application of cool reason, don't illustrate it with rape analogies. Equally, for the love of God, don't start calling some types of rape 'mild' because that really is both insensitive and ignorant.

Tom Chivers writes a fairly good piece here on why the example should never have been used. But he also makes the claim that it's impossible to determine whether one rape is 'worse' than another unless you have yourself been raped:

...those of us who have never been raped telling those who have which ones are worse, with no reference to anything other than our own assumptions, is insensitive at best and utterly crass and devoid of empathy at worst.
I'm not sure that I'm a fan of that approach. Tom wrote an excellent piece on Ebola the day before. But who is he who has never had Ebola to tell people who have how bad it is, with no reference to anything but his own assumptions, so to speak? Well, he's someone who's researched the topic, presumably read survivors' testimony, has awareness of the general topic of illness etc. In other words, he's an educated observer. If people can't make value judgements without having physically experienced the subject then the scope of discourse gets pretty limited.

In any event, when discussing the relative severity of criminal actions, we actually do have a fairly objective assistant: the law. All rapes are serious. Some have aggravating factors that make them more serious. Some have mitigating factors that make them less serious (although the only specified mitigating factor is that the "Victim engaged in consensual sexual activity with the offender on the same occasion and immediately before the offence" - which reads to me as being more about the perpetrator's belief in consent than anything else). But that again is almost what Dawkins was saying - the fact that some offences are more serious than others does not make those others trivial.

Where he went wrong, of course, was in talking about "mild date rapes", because there really are no such things. But then that's because he's a tit.