Thursday, February 28, 2013 

The desperate hours.

Not really much point in speculating about the Eastleigh result tonight, although anything other than a Lib Dem win would now be a major surprise.  What is worth discussing though is the reaction of many in the town to the siege laid by both the political parties and the media, who bizarrely have started believing their own hype about this being the most important by-election for 30 years.  Even if the Tories are pushed into third place by UKIP, it's not even close to being an indication of how things will play out in 2 years time; mid-term governing parties are always unpopular, and they haven't helped themselves by picking a candidate liable to go off-piste at any moment.  The popularity of the Lib Dems locally (they hold every council seat in the town) has more or less ensured they haven't suffered the same fate.

The over-the-top campaign has definitely confirmed one thing: that the marginals are going to be the focus more than ever.  My seat is nominally marginal, and yet some wards are obviously considered such rotten boroughs (Tory, in my case) that I have not once seen anyone canvassing here, let alone had the door knocked.  Those in the top target seats might want to start preparing now: May 2015 might be a deeply unpleasant month.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013 

The great giving and taking offence stakes.

Over the last couple of months, it's been difficult not to notice a rise in the number of people either taking great offence at a perceived slur (see the ridiculous claims of transphobia against Suzanne Moore, followed by the genuine transphobia of Julie Burchill), those pretending to be outraged about something someone wrote 15 years ago (David Cameron and various Tories attacking John O'Farrell over his memoir, in which he described how as a callow young activist he'd wished Margaret Thatcher had died in the Brighton bombing), or, most seriously, representatives of a state actively trying to silence criticism through accusations of racism (the Israeli ambassador denouncing Gerald Scarfe's depiction of Benjamin Netanyahu). This culture of condemning and taking offence on behalf of others may well be as old as village gossips, yet in the last few years it seems to have been supercharged by the social networks and 24-hour news, where something that happened an hour ago is already regarded as old hat. It's also not always relatively harmless: those who've admittedly overstepped the line in their comments online, such as Azhar Ahmed or Matthew Woods, haven't just been convicted of sending "grossly offensive" messages, they've been threatened with violence and worse.

Last week we had the passing frenzy over Hilary Mantel's supposedly "venomous" remarks about the People's Kate, for which she was taken to task by both leaders of our main political parties, neither of whom could possibly have read her speech.  Mantel was big enough to ignore the entire silliness, leaving it to her agent to suggest her almost 6,000 word speech should be read in context rather than as a headline on the front of the Daily Wail.  This week we've had twins, so to speak, both gestated thanks to the Oscars. First there's Seth MacFarlane's entire performance as host, and then we also had the sheer horror of a tweet from The Onion, which read "[E]veryone else seems afraid to say it but that Quvenzhan Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?"

Dealing with the latter first, the main objection seems to be that anyone would ever refer to a 9-year-old girl as a cunt, even as a joke or satirical point.   Apparently "cunt" in American is even more offensive than it is in English, as while we often use it as term of endearment or in every other sentence when it comes to discussing football players, there it "has a particularly sexualised intent that makes it even more horrific when applied to a child", according to Sarah Ditum.  Fair enough, but can I suggest the usually excellent Ditum was perhaps a little slow on the uptake in this instance, it taking her a while to realise the Onion was mocking the modern tendency of some on social networks to criticise famous people in the most brutal terms, not just the snarkiest of gossip hacks. It also seems to be a dig at how child stars are often treated as not just precocious but simply smaller versions of their older contemporaries, regardless of the reality.  That the Onion decided to apologise is a shame, not least because as the Thick of It showed, inadvertently calling children cunts is really funny.

As for Seth MacFarlane, you really do wonder what people were expecting him to do as host.  Family Guy hasn't been funny in years (some would say ever), and while American Dad can be great, it's enjoyable precisely because it doesn't go off on the tangents Family Guy does, as well as having characters that may have started off as stereotypes but have since grown beyond that.  Singing about seeing the boobs of female nominees might be crass, and as has been pointed out, when the actors in question were portraying rape victims it was in even more dubious taste, but it's not misogyny.  The same goes for the gags about Jews and Wallis being too young even for George Clooney; they might not have been funny but getting worked up about them is just daft.  Far more questionable in my view was having Michelle Obama present the Best Picture award, which not only falls straight into the right-wing trap of Hollywood being Democrat to the core, it's that Argo, a film with a grip on reality almost as slight as that of Zero Dark Thirty was the winner, something seemingly designed to cause consternation in Iran.

My own view as to why there seems to have been so much of this nonsense of late isn't just that it's all down to Twitter or tabloid newspapers ever more desperate to stir the pot, it's that we also seem to be ever more intolerant of opinions different to our own, whether you're broadly on the left or the right. Any advantage that can be seized on will be, regardless of whether it can be ultimately stood up or not. There are some ideas, values or institutions which some regard as so sacrosanct that they can never be questioned, whether it be the monarchy, the military or the NHS.

When it comes to where comedy fits into this, with complaints recently about Jack Whitehall, and two new BBC Three alleged sitcoms, the real issue is that so much of it over the past few years has been ghastly, and not just on TV. The problem isn't that Ricky Gervais thinks there's some point to be made by playing someone who's simple, it's that he keeps getting away with writing the same show over and over, and where he is always the main character even if he doesn't play him. The Office was brilliant, but it's been downhill ever since.  On the big screen, the way Movie 43 has flopped despite its stellar cast hopefully suggests we've moved past the point at which a film gets a pass simply because it is so supposedly outrageous that it has to be seen to be believed.  South Park worked for so long (it has sadly declined markedly in recent years) because it had plenty of pathos to go along with the more outré material.  If nothing else, the Liberal Democrats wouldn't be in so much trouble now if Lord Rennard had heeded Sexual Harassment Panda's advice (allegedly).

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013 

Osborne must go.

Once, it was fashionable to compare and contrast Blair and Brown with Cameron and Osborne.  While there isn't a story behind the latter's relationship to rival that of the deal/non-deal between TB-GB at Granita, Brown did eventually manage to become prime minister. His ambition may have been greater than his ability to do the job, but he got there, thanks in part to a parliamentary grouping incredibly short on other talent.  Once, there was talk of the pattern repeating, the chancellor replacing the prime minister.  No one thinks it's going to happen now.

This isn't just because as chancellor Osborne has been shown up as out of his depth, unwilling to listen to reason or to change tack as the economy continues to stagnate, although it is part of the story.  It's more that Osborne is a one-note politician. His default and only setting is pomposity, mixed with more than a dash of smarm. His voice is the always the one tone, not quite nasal but far too close to it for anyone to regard it as anything other than an annoyance. Nothing is ever his fault or responsibility, or too big to be swept under the carpet: we've heard hundreds of times how the deficit has fell by a quarter since the forming of the coalition, yet Osborne didn't think the double-dip recession was important enough to mention in his conference speech last year. His greatest achievement, the pledge of an inheritance tax cut that frit Gordon Brown into calling off his planned snap election, has now been abandoned to help pay for care for the elderly.  Rather than sharing the proceeds of growth, he continues to share out the blame for his failures without ever taking any for himself.

Regardless of what you think about Cameron, and I remain as bewildered as ever about his status as the Conservative party's main electoral asset (I could at least understand why Blair was so popular for so long, even if that was precisely why I so disliked him), he has a range. He can do righteous anger and unrighteous anger, he can be conciliatory, he can make sincere apologies for things he wasn't responsible for and he can fawn over royalty and autocrats with the very finest of the upper middle classes. He isn't as eloquent or as convincing as Tony Blair at his best, or come anywhere near to competing with the majesty of Bill Clinton and his uncanny ability to home in on an audience's collective erogenous zone, but on his day he's not bad.

Osborne by contrast always speaks in public as though he's delivering the budget, a strange thing to do when he doesn't have Tory backbenchers ready to cheer when required.  You get the feeling that if he were ever to address a room of orphans he'd tell them in the familiar style that their lack of parents was down to the last Labour government and that their only idea to replace them is to increase borrowing.  Just as his failure to engineer growth is blamed on the wider state of the world economy, the continuing recession in the Eurozone and the wrong kind of diamond jubilee, so yesterday saw him put the responsibility for the credit rating downgrade on everything other than the coalition's policies.  It didn't matter that the very first benchmark in the Tory manifesto at the last election by which his government could be judged was the keeping of the triple A rating, or that he had said before then that it would be a "humiliation" if we lost it, now we have it's irrelevant as gilts are at 10-year-lows and interest rates are still at 0.5%.  That interest rates are so low is a sign of the lack of growth is irrelevant.  All this was delivered as though it was a triumph, and nothing whatsoever to be embarrassed about.

It's true, as Chris says, that this is a failure that doesn't really matter.  The obvious point though is that you can't make such a fetish out of a policy as Osborne has and then pretend that it was meaningless all along, or indeed completely misrepresent Moody's main reason for the downgrade, that of the "continuing weakness in the UK's medium-term growth outlook".  All but needless to say, Osborne didn't so much as mention the need to go for growth in his statement to the Commons, but there were plenty of Tories ready to stand up and read the lines given to them by the whips blaming the last government for everything, the very same thing Osborne accused opposition MPs of doing.

(Incidentally it's worth noting that just one Lib Dem bothered to take part in the debate, and he had the gall to accuse Ed Balls of politically motivated antics, obviously forgetting last year's unhappy incident when Osborne accused Balls of allowing the banks to rig Libor, for which he failed to produce any evidence.)

Whatever Osborne's positive qualities once were, and supposedly his analytic mind was once highly valued, his utter lack of humility and inability to be anything other than a one-dimensional chancellor with one debunked idea is slowly but surely ensuring Conservative defeat come 2015.  David Cameron doesn't have either of the problems that Blair had each time he considered moving Brown from the Treasury; he's not succeeding and he doesn't have anything like the following in the party that Brown had and would have set out to sabotage everything from then on.  The only question ought to be who to replace Osborne with, and William Hague doesn't exactly strike as the best option.

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The line of beauty.

I won't pretend to know anything about fashion, but this is bollocks squared:
This was Jennifer Lawrence's night. She won the Oscar, and she won the red carpet too, in Christian Dior. The formula for a successful Oscar dress is similar to that for a successful Oscar film: you want plenty of drama but not too many complications. This dress does that perfectly.

I'm not sure whether wearing a dress so ridiculously overblown that you trip over it on the way to pick up your Oscar in front of millions of people is either a drama or a complication, but it surely deserves mentioning.

Oh, and Skyfall is still fucking terrible.

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Monday, February 25, 2013 

Notes on a scandal.

There's a highly wearying trend in political journalism where the mere sniff of a scandal is treated as though it's a Watergate in waiting.  The phone hacking scandal was many things, but it hasn't (yet) brought down the prime minister.  To then see the BBC's Norman Smith on the news at 1 pounding his fist and talking of what did he know and when he did he know it in relation to Nick Clegg and the claims of sexual harassment being made against the Lib Dems' former chief executive Lord Rennard was ever so slightly surreal.  It doesn't reflect very well on the party, but to use the language of that unique event? Please.

As Craig Murray writes, this seems a usual case of the political class being well aware of the allegations but for whatever reason they didn't emerge at the time.  Indeed, the Telegraph has today published a letter it sent back in 2010 to Clegg's chief of staff detailing the claims, which are almost identical to those set out by Channel 4 News last Thursday.  Despite the way the right-wing press in particular have jumped on the issue yesterday and today, there really isn't much of a story here.  Nick Clegg does seem to have stretched the truth in claiming he knew only of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about Lord Rennard, but if anything this seems to have been due to how Rennard himself continues to deny any impropriety.

What is fairly clear is that as so often, Rennard's resignation due to "health and family reasons" was nothing of the kind.  Encouraged, if not told to stand aside, the party presumably felt the issue was closed.  Which brings us to why the allegations have emerged now, and while it's far too glib to say it's all to do with the Eastleigh by-election, especially when it was C4 News which broke the story, it's obviously going to be worked to the advantage of the other parties.  It's also not apparent what Alison Smith and Bridget Harris want to happen now beyond the inquiries set-up by the party (beyond ensuring Rennard isn't left alone with women, as they fear he still is); it could well make the party rethink their policy on positive discrimination, but all-women shortlists haven't gone down well at the Labour grassroots, and the Lib Dem emphasis on incumbency also stands in the way.  Whatever happens, Watergate it ain't.

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Friday, February 22, 2013 

Partz 1&2.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013 

Eastleigh? Beastly, more like.

It's a miserable, bitterly cold half-term week in February.  There's almost no hard news, except for the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, which is in the usual style enabling those who know nothing about anything to definitively claim he's either guilty/innocent (although it is great to see that once again the British justice system has convicted three men of conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks when their plans to make explosives out of ammonium nitrate extracted from sports injury cold packs were impossible when said substance had been removed from the ingredients, and they also didn't have anyone other than themselves prepared to be suicide bombers), so it's hardly surprising that the likes of the Graun are trying to make something out of the Eastleigh by-electionMartin Kettle writes of Crosby and Greenwich, while a previous leader mentions the more recent Brent East and Crewe and Nantwich, somehow forgetting that by far the most surprising recent by-election win was George Galloway's in Bradford West, which only the paper's own Helen Pidd predicted.

Eastleigh is clearly not a Crosby, a Bermondsey, or even close to a Bradford.  There is no indication whatsoever that UKIP are in the running, and Labour's share of the vote in the constituency has been declining ever since 1997, John O'Farrell's candidacy seeming unlikely to change that.  The only real lines of interest are that it's the first straight by-election fight between the two coalition parties, and that the Tory candidate has a long record of putting her foot in it. Considering that a vote for either the Lib Dems or the Tories is effectively one in support of the continuation of the coalition, that Labour or UKIP aren't doing better is the real surprise.

Nonetheless, there are a few things to be drawn from how the contest has played out so far and seems likely to.  First, it suggests that the predictions of a Lib Dem wipeout come 2015 are way off. If ever there was going to be a contest where the incumbent party should lose, this ought to be it. Chris Huhne didn't just keep up a lie for 10 years, he's almost certainly going to prison as a result.  Rather than take advantage of this and do the sensible thing by choosing a moderate candidate more likely to appeal to former Huhne supporters, the Tories have stuck with Maria Hutchings, who seems to regard Nadine Dorries' career trajectory as something to aspire towards. Quite apart from her past remarks on asylum seekers and abortion, claiming that state schools aren't good enough for her 5-year-old cardio-respiratory surgeon son in waiting is just incredibly stupid, even if she wasn't talking about local schools as she claims.

Whether due to Hutchings or by design, the Tories are running a distinctly right-wing campaign, which seems more than a little misguided in Eastleigh.  Pretty much all they wanted to talk about the first week was immigration, implying that the Lynton Crosby strategy that worked so well for Michael Howard in 2005 is back in full effect. Never mind that such a gambit is only liable to work when you're not the ones currently failing to meet your pledge to reduce the numbers to tens of thousands, and that scaremongering about Bulgarians and Romanians only brings more attention to the lack of control over freedom of movement within the EU, the party seemed to think it was a potential winner.  While you shouldn't make sweeping national conclusions from by-elections, should the strategy fail in Eastleigh it might just make the party think twice before making it a major part of their campaign come 2015.

The campaign up to now also reinforces the fact that the Lib Dems' main worry in their marginals with the Tories is not voters going to the right, but how many are likely to defect to Labour or won't be able to bring themselves to vote tactically next time round.  With the by-election unlikely to affect the national picture, this isn't that big a concern right now, but it will be in just over two years' time. The ability of the party to convince waverers to stay with them is what will ultimately decide their and almost certainly Nick Clegg's fate.  Eastleigh won't on either score.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013 

A fairy story (or, bludgenoning home a truism).

Once upon a time, there was a farmer called George.  George was a bright man, but he had a problem.  Despite all of his initiatives and plans, his farm was failing.  His main problem was that he kept losing chickens to a wily fox called Ed.  Ed was taking so many that George had to keep buying chickens from the local market to replace them.  Since taking over the farm from a dour Scotsman named Gordon, George had insisted that he would bring down the number of chickens he bought within five years.

3 years on, and George's accountants noticed that rather than reducing the number of chickens he was buying, he was in fact purchasing more than ever.  "Ah", said George, "but these new chickens I've been buying are in fact premium, leaner birds. They will lay more often, leaving enough eggs to replenish the brood at the same time as I sell more in the farm shop."  This seemed such a cunning business plan that it succeeded not only in convincing the accountants, it also flummoxed Ed, who failed to snatch a single chicken from George for over a month.

Sadly for George, his devious scheme did not go as expected.  His new hens did indeed lay more eggs, but not at the rate that the creditors had pencilled in.  Ed also regained his confidence, and once again started snatching birds from under George's nose.  All told, George's chickens laid 2,300 more eggs, 1,200 less than expected, meaning he would indeed have to keep buying more hens to replace the ones Ed was stealing. 

Luckily for Albion Farm, George now has a new plan.  It involves selling off other parts of the estate, starting with the stables.  Findus have already expressed an interest.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013 

A plastic newspaper, edited to mislead.

When it comes to taking comments out of context, or to be accurate, deliberately misconstruing them, the hatchet job being performed on Hilary Mantel comes second only to the monstering Jeremy Clarkson received in late 2011 when his joke on the One Show was misunderstood by nincompoops.  "Venomous", says the Daily Mail's front page, Mantel savaged for daring to suggest the People's Kate is perhaps a little dull, as though she was "machine-made" for her role as duchess and (eventual) queen.  "Completely wrong and misguided", says David Cameron, taking a break from selling weapons to foreign johnnies to talk to the media, and what's more, she's "a fantastic ambassador for Britain".

A comment which says pretty much everything about how politics now sees the royal family.  Almost 80 years ago the then prime minister tried but ultimately failed to persuade Edward the VIII not to abdicate; now their usefulness extends only to how they influence Brand Britain.  As for how the rest of us view a family on welfare that is most certainly exempt from the bedroom tax, much of it comes from a media that doesn't really know what to do with them, post-Diana.  Once the likes of the Mirror urged royal princesses to make their mind up on whether to marry or not; now the closest they get is pondering as to whether they should publish incredibly grainy shots of Kate in a bikini.  The Sun might print Harry buck naked, covering his crown jewels with his hands, or indeed put a model wearing just a bikini and a pout on its front page the day after her violent death, but to publish snatched shots of a pregnant princess is now beyond the pale.

The end result of this decision as to which members of the royal family should be protected or venerated and which should be mocked or held in contempt is, as always, the most cynical humbug and hypocrisy.  While none of the papers would touch the shots of Kate on holiday with a barge pole, they will of course describe her as "putting her bump on parade" when she does venture out into the glare of the cameras.  Harry, meanwhile, used as a propaganda prop by the MoD, was treated even worse, his "comments" about killing Taliban which were in fact nothing of the sort becoming the story in part because of his open disgust for the media as made clear in the interview.  No one can say anything even slightly detrimental about Brenda herself, while it's all but permanent open season on Charles and her other two sons.

Even the most cursory glance at Mantel's speech makes clear that she is not saying unequivocally that Kate is an automaton, without character or personality or any of the other things that the Mail and other papers have got up in arms about, but rather that this is how the media and indeed the royals themselves have constructed her image.  Mantel writes in her very first paragraph that she "saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung", not that she is, or was.  Mantel sees her like this because this is how either the royals or the media want her to be seen, and in her view, it's as far from the image of Diana, as she was presented and later presented herself as it's possible to imagine.  The worst that can be said about Mantel's depiction of Kate is as the Heresiarch says, it comes across occasionally as "gratuitously mean", even if it also seems to be all but confirmed by the responses from Cameron and the boss of her charity.

More intriguing though is quite how far Mantel appears to fall for the cult of Diana.  This entire paragraph, taken from mid-way through the speech is almost certainly a shoe-in for the next Pseuds Corner:

In the next stage of her story, she passed through trials, through ordeals at the world’s hands. For a time the public refrained from demanding her blood so she shed it herself, cutting her arms and legs. Her death still makes me shudder because although I know it was an accident, it wasn’t just an accident. It was fate showing her hand, fate with her twisted grin. Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman: to move on, from the City of Light to the place beyond black. She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.

A sticky stain on the newspaper, perhaps?  Quite why Diana continues to inspire this kind of almost idolatry is unclear: Mantel describes her as both receptive and passive, but she was also manipulative and more than capable of playing the media at their own game.  Her Panorama interview with Martin Bashir is the ultimate example of the underdog turning the tables on her accusers, and while she may have been uninformed by history as Mantel writes, she succeeded in writing her own.  Charles undoubtedly deserves all he gets and more, yet the idea that there were three people in the marriage is to completely forget about Diana's lovers, as indeed she wanted the public to.

That slight diversion into pretension aside, Mantel's speech is beautifully written, and if nothing else its seizure by the Mail means that many more will read and hear it than otherwise would have done.  I haven't read any of her novels so can't comment on how they ultimately play out, but her speech portrays the monarchy as a centuries long tragedy, and brings out the loneliness and futility of being a part of it, whether it be the guests at Buckingham Palace avoiding speaking to Brenda or the detritus of the event Charles was attending which he must notice everywhere he goes.  Where I part company with the Heresiarch is when he says "Kate herself is an entirely blameless woman, doing her best to make sense of her bizarre role in national life".  The second part is certainly true, and she may well be blameless, but she most definitely did have a choice as to whether or not to join the entire rotten institution.  She may not be able to control the way she has since been projected, or how her sister (or just a part of her anatomy) has been made into a sex object in her stead, but she didn't have to go along with the pantomime.  And ultimately, that's why she has to put up with the occasional jibe thrown her way, misconstrued in repetition or otherwise.

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Monday, February 18, 2013 

Going soft? If only.

Chris asks, rhetorically, whether or not the Tories are going soft due to the move by George Osborne on tax avoidance and Tim Montgomerie's support for a mansion tax. They quite obviously aren't, not least for the reason Chris mentions, but also because they still seem to have it in their heads that portraying themselves as against immigration without actually stopping it will win them support.  You do almost suspect that all the recent scaremongering about the Bulgarians and Romanians flooding over here in a year's time is not because they are going to move here en masse, but precisely because they're not going to, with the coalition then taking the credit when they don't turn up.

This whole talking tough and then not actually doing anything process is one of those things that does undermine faith in politics.  Theresa May has no intention whatsoever of further legislating over Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, and the best that can be said for her intervention beyond the very slight impact it may have on the Eastleigh by-election is that it'll probably make judges even more determined to decide deportations on merit rather than attempt to appease the government.  Iain Duncan Smith for his part, beyond his decision to continue denigrating Cait Reilly, which says nothing whatsoever about her and absolutely everything about him, is similarly unlikely to get anywhere on "limiting" benefits to migrants, and they are most certainly not the ones putting pressure on the welfare system in the first place.

Soft simply isn't the right word for much of what government does, and this applies across the board and not just to the run by one party.  Under Labour for instance refugees from Iran who applied for asylum because they were gay were rejected as they were told they would be fine back home as long as they acted "discreetly"; since then things have moved on, with now the main reason for refusal being that the refugees aren't really gay at all, pushing some to such lengths that they've filmed themselves to demonstrate they are.  As for Sri Lanka, where some of those we've deported back to the country have since managed to return and been granted asylum after proving they were tortured on their return, today we have news of how we've sold them £2m worth of weaponry over the past year.  Meanwhile, in Libya, where it seems all the weapons we gave them to fight Gaddafi have since gone missing, we've decided we have to join in the re-arming race, and so a boat laden with the finest British defence equipment will be travelling to the country in April as a floating mini DSEI.

At least during Robin Cook's tenure as foreign secretary we pretended that we had an "ethical" foreign policy.  We didn't of course, as we carried on selling weapons to tyrannies and flogging radar systems to countries which couldn't afford them, but it was something.  Under the coalition our prime minister acts as arms dealer in chief, we urge the rich to come here while doing everything in our power to persuade the poor not to, and run ridiculous campaigns saying how great the country is regardless of the contradiction considering the former.  The best that can be said is that we haven't involved ourselves in Syria, beyond recognising the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition grouping that no one actually in Syria recognises.  And that isn't really going to figure on a list of great achievements.

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Friday, February 15, 2013 


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The tabloids: publishing death porn since the advent of the printing press.

Much comment, understandably, on the Sun's decision to run a front page splash (and in this instance it really does seem the right word) on the death of Reeva Steenkamp, illustrated with a full page photo of the model and presenter appearing to undo her bikini top.  It's certainly tasteless, and as Marina Hyde notes, just happens to come the day after the One Billion Rising protests, the campaign intended to bring more attention to violence against women.

It's hardly the most egregious recent case of tabloid death porn though, and one which at the time barely caused a ripple of complaint as far as I can remember.  Back in 2008, the Daily Star splashed on the latest evidence heard at the trial of Mark Dixie, who was subsequently found guilty of the murder of Sally Anne Bowman.  "MY SEX WITH SALLY ANNE'S DEAD BODY", the front page screamed, alongside the ubiquitous shot of Bowman from her modelling catalogue, hands in the top of her jeans.

As for the motivation behind using such photographs to illustrate crime cases, Dixie's trial more than provided a clue.  Found on Dixie's digital camera was a video of a man masturbating over a copy of the Daily Mail, the front page of which featured a photograph of Bowman.  The police also found said copy of the Mail in Dixie's possesion, and noted the cover was dashed with a "sticky substance".  The Mail, all but needless to say, merely reported that the police had found a video of Dixie "performing a lewd sex act on the six-month anniversary of the model's death".  Not, you understand, which publication and what material had further energised his "lewd sex act".

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Thursday, February 14, 2013 

Time to put flesh on the bones.

2013 so far hasn't exactly been an auspicious one so far for the Conservative party.  All their gambits, and there have been more than a couple in the past six weeks, seem to have come to naught.  The attempt to portray Labour as hopelessly out of touch by jumping on their voting against the 1% uprating in benefits has had no discernible impact on the polls.  By the same token, the promise of an in/out referendum on the EU come 2017 caused a slight ripple, which has since disappeared.  Lastly, the vote on gay marriage showed how deeply split the Tory party remains between what the modernisers believe will help them win the election, and what the err, conservatives believe is likely to hinder them.  Any goodwill which the announcement of the referendum generated was just as quickly snuffed out.

The latest setback for the Tories, the 12% percent lead for Labour in this month's Graun/ICM poll, does look slightly ominous.  Yes, there's sampling errors and the fact that all the other polls suggest Labour's lead remains about the 10 point margin, but ICM usually shows lower leads due to their reallocation of some don't know answers to the party they last voted for.  With the Lib Dems having voted against the boundary changes that would have given the Tories an advantage in around 30 or so constituencies, the chances of Cameron improving on his party's showing in 2010 become ever more slim.

Not that any of these problems for the natural party of government have been due to Labour being anything other than a generally efficient opposition.  Ed Miliband continues to put in solid performances at PMQs, often besting Cameron, yet you can hardly say that he's been the most visible of leaders since the new year.  Presumably some of that time was well spent preparing for today's speech, which is almost certainly his best since he became leader, his last two conference speeches being the only others of real note.

This isn't though down to the announcement of the twinned policies of reintroducing the 10p top rate of tax and paying for it through a mansion tax.  Whether the sums add up certainly isn't clear, as the band at which the 10p rate would be set depends on the amount raised through the tax.  It would arguably make more sense to do a wholesale revaluation of the council tax bands, as indeed the Institute for Fiscal Studies has since suggested, although such a policy would doubtless be vigorously opposed by those who have spent the last 20 years caring more about how much their house is worth than actually enjoying living in it.  As the IFS has also pointed out, reintroducing the 10p rate would just further complicate matters, especially when the government has been raising the personal allowance, which regardless of the downsides of the policy is a move everyone understands.  Their suggestion as to what could be done instead from the proceeds of the tax is either increasing tax credits, a policy Labour seem to be moving away from, or increasing the threshold at which employee national insurance contributions are paid, which would be the obvious step to take in line with the rise in the personal threshold.

No, the real reason why it's notable is that for the first time in years a party is making the case for running the economy differently. As Miliband said, it may well be true that we're in a race with the likes of India and China, but that doesn't mean our response should be to dump hard won rights, as the Tories want as part of their EU treaty renegotiation and Osborne has already introduced through his ludicrous shares for rights scheme. Emphasising how the 1% have taken 24 pence in every pound over the last 30 years and connecting it with how the Tories believe they still deserve a tax cut is exactly the sort of message Labour needs to keep making.

It doesn't therefore matter that New Labour did obeisance at the feet of the bankers, what matters now is that Miliband brings foward policies that make concrete his pledge to break with the era of the trickle down theory. It's fine saying Labour would break the stranglehold of the big six energy companies and stop the train companies ripping customers off on the most used routes, it's how they're going to go about doing so.  Welcome as proposals such as the introduction of a technical baccalaureate are, they're just small parts of what needs to be a far wider vision of what a "one nation" Britain would look like.

The polls suggest that for now at least this lack of detail doesn't matter, as silly as it seems to be saying that while the 10p rate and mansion tax are policies Labour would implement now if in government, they won't necessarily be in the manifesto come the election.  Much as this makes sense when for all we know the depression could yet extend to 2015 with all that would entail for government spending or rather the lack of it, the time is fast approaching when we need to know exactly what policies Labour will pledge to implement should they win.  Miliband has made a good start, and his repudiation of the worst of New Labour is now all but complete; it's what comes next that will decide whether or not David Cameron will helm a one term government.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013 

The conspiring of outside interests.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad reports on the on-going tragedy in Syria (via B&T):

We reached a point in the fighting, in spring 2012, when we needed proper support. We needed heavy machine guns, real weapons. Money was never an issue: how much do you want? Fifty million dollars, a hundred million dollars – not a problem. But heavy weapons were becoming hard to find: the Turks – and without them this revolution wouldn’t have started – wanted the Americans to give them the green light before they would allow us to ship the weapons. We had to persuade Saad al-Hariri, Rafic Hariri’s son and a former prime minister, to go to put pressure on the Saudis, to tell them: “You abandoned the Sunnis of Iraq and you lost a country to Iran. If you do the same thing again you won’t only lose Syria, but Lebanon with it.”’ The idea was that the Saudis in turn would pressure the Americans to give the Turks the green light to allow proper weapons into the country.

Now suddenly, while on the ground the revolution was still in the hands of small bands of rebels and activists, a set of outside interests started conspiring to direct events in ways amenable to them. There were the Saudis, who never liked Bashar but were wary of more chaos in the Middle East. The Qataris, who were positioning themselves at the forefront of the revolutions of the Arab Spring, using their formidable TV networks to mobilise support and their vast wealth to fund illicit weapons shipments to the Libyans. And of course there were the French and the Americans.

What's happened since is that the supposedly unifying bodies set-up to to represent the myriad of different battalions and groups fighting Assad's forces in fact speak for next to no one on the ground.  The first attempt, the Syrian National Council, was such a success it's been superseded by the second, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, (just trips off the tongue, doesn't it?) which isn't faring much better.  Whether it's because the Americans know full well that the rebels are united in name only, or as the rebels themselves suspect, the Americans have got cold feet due to the continuing rise of the al-Nusra Front, a mixture of Islamists, Salafis and jihadi veterans (whether or not they are truly connected with the Islamic State of Iraq, let alone al-Qaida central is uncertain), the weapons the rebels thought they were promised still haven't materialised.

Not that it's clear whether anything less than the latest anti-aircraft and heavy ground weaponry would tip the balance in the rebels' favour.  Jonathan Steele isn't always wholly reliable, yet his report from Homs suggests that an area which was last year at the very heart of the uprising is no longer in ferment, even if the resentment for the regime is barely masked.  It's always dangerous to suggest that a stalemate's been reached, as the quick victory for the rebels in Libya showed, but despite all the claims that the collapse of the regime is imminent or weeks away, there's little sign of it, collapsing economy or not.

By the same token, it's equally apparent that despite the noises being made about Moaz al-Khatib (head of the NCSROF) offering to hold talks with the regime, if not Assad, there isn't the first chance of any deal being accepted by those who have lost so much already.  As Abdul-Ahad's report makes clear, setting up a "battalion" is the easy part.  Getting weapons if you're not a jihadi or prepared to record everything, including the deaths of your own friends, is far more difficult.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013 

Not quite the "blowing of a big hole".

Before everyone celebrates the "blowing of a big hole" in the government's workfare schemes, it's worth noting that today's victory for Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson at the Royal Courts of Justice was on a rather narrow point of law.  It wasn't that the schemes themselves were unlawful, as that original challenge was thrown out last year.  Rather, the three-judge panel found that the rules for sanctioning those who refused to take part in or failed to finish their placements had not been properly defined in law (PDF).  While this is potentially good news for those who have either had their benefit reduced or temporarily stopped as a result of not complying with the rules as they stood, as they could be in line for a rebate, the government is to appeal and so it's likely to be months before any more is known. 

What the ruling does all but confirm is that the plethora of different schemes seem to be designed to be confusing.  Despite what was thought originally, Reilly was neither on mandatory work activity or the work experience scheme when she was forced on pain of losing her JSA to work at Poundland.  She was in fact on the "sector-based work academy" programme, which is voluntary, or at least is up until the point you decide to go on it.  After that, regardless of whether it turns out not to be what you expected or completely pointless in terms of helping you get a job, if you then don't complete the placement you're liable to be sanctioned.

In Reilly's case, she was misled from the outset: told that if she accepted a place she would get a week's training and then a guaranteed interview, her placement was in fact for six weeks. Told wrongly that it was now mandatory that she took it, her work in Poundland merely involved stacking shelves and washing floors, with no actual training whatsoever. While for some such a placement would be helpful, Reilly already had retail experience and was doing voluntary work at a museum.  Her placement was purely for the benefit of Poundland, not the both of them.

If anything Wilson's proposed placement is even more troubling. Having been on JSA for two years after losing his job as a HGV driver, he was to be put on the community action programme, where he would have worked 30 hours a week for 6 months purely for his JSA. Indeed, although the placement was for 6 months to start with, it was essentially open-ended; it would only end if he found a job or dropped his claim.  That working 30 hours a week on pain of losing his JSA would drastically limit his chances of finding a job or attending interviews seems to be the point rather than a flaw: after 2 years you are essentially being written off, regardless of the reasons behind your failure to find a job.  Either you work for far below the minimum wage indefinitely, or you're deemed worthy of nothing.

The only difference it seems between mandatory work activity and the community action programme is that CAP becomes all but compulsory after two or three years, while you can be placed on MWA at any time and the placements are shorter. Both are equally objectionable, especially when the definition of "work of benefit to the community" is stretched to the limit. Wilson's placement would have involved collecting furniture, renovating it and then distributing it. Very worthy, which begs the question of why the work can't be properly paid, or whether someone placed on the scheme is taking a job which would otherwise be fully paid.

Which is the ultimate objection to the vast majority of the government's workfare schemes.  Some of the firms that were using them to blatantly fill positions which would otherwise have been at least minimum wage jobs have been forced through shame into dropping out. With even the best will in the world, at a certain point training stops being just that and becomes work, which is when it should start being paid. It's not just as we've seen that mandatory work activity doesn't work, it's actively counter-productive.  Doubtless as it is that some placements will have been highly beneficial to some individuals, best practice would see that everyone knows exactly what it is they are agreeing to go on, and that they have an opportunity to pull out if it isn't for them, for whatever reason, without being sanctioned, at least on the first or even second occasion. At best it currently looks as though the government is using JSA claimants as below minimum wage labour to keep the jobless figures down, while at worst it's writing off the long-term unemployed as fit only to work unpaid. What a thoroughly despicable paradox.

Update: See Robin's comment of Lib Con for some clarification on what exactly was found unlawful.

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Monday, February 11, 2013 

Page 3 and pornification.

It really doesn't take much these days to get a news story running. Rupert Murdoch responds positively to a tweet saying "page 3 is so last century", and almost instantly there's about half a dozen reports up on the Graun website debating exactly what it means.

If we really must go into this, first off, I'll believe the end of page 3 when I see it.  Second, it continues to amaze me why some are still so determined to see the end of a daily topless woman on the third page of a daily newspaper.  The main argument in my mind against it has always been that you're either a newspaper or you're not; however you dress it up (ho ho), putting a half-naked woman in your paper unconnected to any story makes your publication just ever so slightly sleazy, which is what the Sun since the Murdoch takeover has always been, and yet has managed to remain respectable.

Third, those against it really can't have it both ways.  Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, editor of the "Vagenda" blog, writes that her problem with page 3 is not the nudity but the commodification and objectification of the female body.  That's fine and is also my secondary objection, yet if the issue isn't the nudity then why are there not such long running campaigns against the Daily Mail's Femail pages, and the "sidebar of shame"?  Page 3 exists because of the cooperation of women, not all of whom are either brainless or in it purely for the money.  By comparison, the tabloids as a whole rely on the paparazzi effectively stalking celebrities and the almost famous to fill their pages where there is no such permission or exchange of money, except between the paper and the photo agency.  If anything these stories are often far more leery than page 3 now is, or indeed, if the celeb is not deemed to be looking their best, far more likely to have an effect on those who worry about their own body image.  True, page 3 is unique in that it has such a cachet in the public imagination, and can be used by giggling adolescents to particularly revolting effect, but let's not go into such ridiculous exaggeration as "lascivious drool", as though some men go into Pavlovian reveries at the mere sight of a printed boob, at least in public at any rate.

If anything, as Karen Mason's original tweet can also be read, page 3 is last century in that really the whole debate about objectification and the pornification of culture has moved on.  A few years back we were worrying about the rise of Nuts and Zoo, and the often disgustingly sexist content of lads' mags, whereas now even that seems old hat when "revenge porn" sites have entered the news.  Where once it was hip-hop videos that had an abundance of flesh on display, now the utterly mainstream likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj perform in costumes which can't really be described in any real sense as clothing.  At the same time, porn might be going through a transition period where it's unclear what its end business model will be, yet the material itself has never been so easily available, with all that entails, the possible effects unknown.

Cosslett is right in saying it's fundamentally "about a demeaning and disrespectful attitude to women", yet the fact is as, she admits, both "men and women ... cynically manipulate young women's bodies for commercial profit".  If page 3 were to disappear tomorrow then its effect would barely be measurable.  The problem modern feminism has to face is that it's women as much as men who are behind the shift in culture, and at the moment it doesn't have a proper answer as to what this means and how it can be fought against.

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Friday, February 08, 2013 


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Thursday, February 07, 2013 

The Gove level has been retired in favour of the Gove CSE.

There is, it seems, a method to Michael Gove's madness.  How you gain support for your reforms to GCSEs is to start off by claiming you're going to bring back O-Levels, and when everyone, including your coalition partner objects to this turning back of the clock, you claim that all you intended to do was introduce something entirely new, even if it shares the name of the English baccalaureate. 

When everyone then says this is equally retrograde, including the Commons education select committee, you then present your rowing back as a mere tweaking of your original plan.  Meanwhile, in the build up to the announcement of the u-turn, you continue to act as though everyone other than you is in wrong, including attributing the most base motives to your opponents. Labour, Gove said, didn't want working class kids to rise above their station, while the unions have long been dismissed as being comfortable with failure.

If any other minister were admitting they had got it wrong and were now making changes which on the whole look as though they're reasonable rather than motivated by ideology and radical change for the sake of it, it might just have been possible to welcome it rather than snigger.  As it's Gove, who comes a close second to George Osborne in the smarm stakes and has spent his entire time as education secretary acting as though he's infallible, you can't help but bathe fully in the latent schadenfreude.

Moreover, it's doubly enjoyable as the mooted reforms now look with a few major exceptions as though they might just lead to some improvements across the board rather than just at stretching the brightest.  Gove is still clearly obsessed with academic subjects at the expense of vocational training, and would rather the likes of art, music and drama didn't exist, but let's not carp too much yet.  Especially interesting is the apparent intention to do away with foundation and higher papers, whereby currently those entered for the foundation exams can only get a maximum grade of a C.  In theory a good idea as it will ensure those who are between the margins of a D/C/B can get the higher grade, it remains to be seen whether this could also have the effect of further limiting the chances of those expected to get no better than an E.

Definitely a step forward is Gove's proposed refining of league tables, which will no longer simply measure schools by the number of pupils getting 5 "good" GCSEs at C or above and instead focus on English and maths, as well as a "value added" measure, which should see more emphasis put on subjects other than those of Gove's favourites.  Unfortunately, arguably the one redeeming feature of Gove's intention to bring back O-Levels, the plan to have just one exam board setting the papers for each subject has been dropped, supposedly because of EU rules on competition.  Whether that's true or the boards have kicked up a major fuss themselves is unclear, but it does mean there's still the potential for the boards to compete as to who can offer the easiest paper, as seems to have been the case in recent years.  Allegations of dumbing down have undoubtedly been overstated, not least by Gove himself, and such a change would have helped put an end to the chance of it taking place.

As for the rest, it's a very mixed bag.  Gove's new curriculum certainly doesn't inspire confidence that we aren't going backwards.  I don't have a problem with a renewed focus on spelling and grammar, as long as it isn't taken to Lynne Truss levels of pedantry for the sake of it (no one cares whether you get your whos or whoms right unless you have to), it's more the emphasis on being able to name rivers or recite poetry by heart.  Especially on poetry, you either have a love of it or frankly, you don't.  Call me a philistine, but The Wasteland does absolutely nothing for me.  A firm knowledge of Shakespeare, on the other hand, beyond just the Macbeths and Romeo and Juliets etc can be spectacularly beneficial.  On history, one can't help but worry just what a "clear narrative of British progress" means in practice.  At present, you learn next to nothing of the age of British Empire, or indeed much other than the usual Kings and the various revolutions, industrial, French and if you're very lucky, the Russian.  And of course, Nazi Germany.  Heroes and heroines are all very well, but which ones, and to the detriment of whom?

Lastly, also remaining is Gove's bizarre distaste for modular learning.  If his apparent hatred for it is purely down to how you can resit exams repeatedly, then limit the number of resits.  Yes, there is the potential with modules for the knowledge acquired during that course to be replaced when the next one is moved onto, yet surely that's a better system than one where a final exam is likely to pick on just a few of the topics touched on over a 2 year period, meaning teachers will be pushed ever further into trying to discover what's going to be on this year's paper.  If modules are fine for universities, why are they not good enough for schools?

Vastly improved as Gove's plans are, his real legacy for education has already been achieved.  By pushing every school to become an academy, regardless of whether the governors or the parents want to, he's imposed a system that was meant to help the most disadvantaged into one primed to turn schooling into a business.  Free schools meanwhile seem designed to entrench just the inequalities that academies were meant to lessen.  Today's decision to keep GCSEs will be a mere scratch compared to the damage Gove's structural reforms have already wrought.

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"Oh no, not if I have anything to do with it, and I do have something to do with it! Lol."

Reading the IM transcripts between the bankers who conspired to fix the Libor inter-bank rate at RBS, it's difficult to know whether to feel sorry for these children trapped in the bodies of men, or be rather scared that these are the people who can either make or break the economy. You can read far too much into the way people type, it's true, but there's something not quite right about these supposed Masters of the Universe begging each other to commit fraud in text speak.  The messages are of such a piece that when one of the traders writes in something approaching 20th century English it comes as a shock. Was he not feeling quite right that day, or did he consider himself normally somewhat above the juvenile styling of his peers?

Chief executive Stephen Hester for his part blamed precisely this "mateyness" and bar culture among the "junior" traders for the entire episode, rather than say, greed or the fact that there was no supervision whatsoever over the setting of Libor until mid way through 2011. Not that this necessarily would have ensured it either wouldn't have happened or been spotted sooner: as the logs also show, wash trades were used to reward brokers and they sometimes went wrong, yet still the bank failed to notice.  It reminds somewhat of Nick Leeson at Barings, able to keep getting away with taking ever greater risks and making ever larger losses, until he finally brought down the entire bank.

In keeping with the day's other main story, those at the top of RBS won't be losing their jobs.  Indeed, the only person other than the traders themselves to leave will be John Hourican, the now former head of investment at the bank.  According to RBS he had "no involvement in or knowledge of the misconduct", something that could also be said of many at the bank who will be remaining in their posts.  Still, we shouldn't feel too sorry for him: he might not be getting the up to £4m he was entitled to, but he will still receive 12 months' salary, a mere £700,000.  As for the fines levied on the bank, "most" of the £390m imposed by both the FSA and the Americans will be clawed back from bonuses previously paid out, so rather than the taxpayer fining the taxpayer, it's slightly more complicated, although obviously it's still a mostly circular process.

As noted on the Graun live blog, it was rather odd though that the only person named was Hourican, who did the decent thing.  The men who actually rigged the rate remain anonymous, presumably on the grounds that there may be criminal charges brought against them.  Considering that so far no one has been prosecuted for their role in the crash at all, this seems a rather forlorn hope, although you never know.  All we have to identify those responsible is that they like sushi, steak, a free lunch, and one remarked he was up and down like a "whores drawers" (sic).  Well, at least it narrows it down slightly.  How many bankers can there be who have a taste for those things?

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013 

The Conservatives: still a strange beast.

The Conservative party has long, indeed probably always been a strange beast.  As those determined to make a case for the Tories being the true progressives always point out, it was the first party to have a Jewish leader, the first to have a woman as leader, and likely also to be the first to have a gay leader, although the debate continues over whether the Grocer was closeted or asexual (Ruth Davidson, the Tories' leader in Scotland, is also gay).  Those involved in the laughable skulduggery surrounding Adam Afriyie commented that he had the potential to be the first black leader of one of the big three, although far more probable is that Labour will beat them to it in the shape of either Chuka Umunna or David Lammy.
Still, there is no denying that the Tories remain a reasonably broad church.  Just as there has always been a hang 'em and flog 'em and send 'em back wing, so there has also been a socially liberal minority, since suitably expanded.  If anything, those now most threatened with extinction within the party are those with positive views on Europe, such has been the victory for first the Eurosceptic and now the outright Europhobic tendency.  It's all too easily forgotten then that after WW2 and until Thatcher took the helm, the Tories were a solidly one nation party that remained within the social democratic consensus of the time.  Yes, there were the battles with the unions of the 70s, and the slow shift towards neoliberalism, yet the party didn't succeed or for the most part attempt to overturn the liberalising legislation of the 60s that Labour supported and ensured reached the statute book.

I can't then help but be reminded of Peter Mannion in The Thick of It complaining about how he was being regarded as a knuckledragger despite having long been in favour of immigration and not "against gays, most of whom are very well turned out, especially the men."  Cameron's "modernisation" campaign wasn't so much about changing views wholesale within the party as it was altering the public's view of the Tories.  Sure, there are still a few who view the 50s as a halcyon period and everything that's happened since as the country going to hell in a handcart, but it certainly isn't fair to view Cameron's Conservatives as bigoted as a whole.  The nastiness that remains, such as it is, is all to do with their economic policies and determination to portray everyone on benefits as little better than vermin.

All of which only underlines the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of so many of those on the government benches who oppose gay marriage. As David Cameron put it, he supports it because he is a conservative, even if he couldn't be bothered to sit on the front bench as the bill was introduced. As much as anything, it is the ultimate victory for the conservative view of the family: far from monogamous relationships falling out of fashion as was hoped for by some of the first wave of gay rights campaigners, the opposite is now to be recognised by the state. It's instead fallen to the increasingly desperate ResPublica think-tank to suggest that gay marriage should be opposed precisely because difference should be celebrated, to much general amusement.

Most of the other arguments deployed by opponents have been similarly off-kilter, for the precise reason that there are no serious ones against. Religions are protected, much to the annoyance of some within the CoE who'd like to make their own decision as to whether to conduct ceremonies, and the other claims made about a lack of a mandate for the change or the bill being rushed through simply don't stand up.  There was no mandate for the changes to the NHS, and the speed with which the reforms to welfare and schools have been rammed through has worried few Tories up to now.

Clutching at straws still doesn't quite cover some of the other pleas made for why the legislation must not pass. Charles Moore invoked the inability to consummate the marriage and the difficulties this would mean for getting a divorce, then plucked at marriage being about children, ignoring how gay couples have been able to adopt for a decade now.  Nadine Dorries, bless her, brought up adultery, something she has personal knowledge of. Sir Roger Gale suggested one solution was we should do away with civil partnerships and bring in civil unions, allowing brothers and sisters to register their love if they so wished, as that would be "a way forward" while this was not.  That Roger Gale's opinion on the sanctity of marriage as it stands currently didn't stop him divorcing his first, or indeed second wife is clearly irrelevant.  As for Peter Bone, whose hilarious motif is to invoke Mrs Bone at every opportunity, he felt it should go to a referendum at the same time as the vote on Europe, as "[W]hy is my view, or the leader of my party’s, more important than the person in the Dog and Duck?" It's a good question, and presumably Bone will have no objections then to the introduction of a Swiss-style referendum system, with all that entails.

The result of the vote, that more Tory MPs voted against (134) than in favour (126) isn't wholly surprising.  It's been apparent since the rebellion on Europe in 2011 that there are a substantial number of backbench MPs who believe if Cameron wasn't so wet that the party would have won outright in 2010, and the numbers just about reflect that if you strip out those opposed purely on religious grounds.  It also underlines that Cameron's promise of the 2017 referendum has hardly bought off any of his naysayers, who decided not to acquiesce even in the face of making his conference comment on gay marriage look ridiculous.  The tone of the debate may not have been quite as heated or as near the knuckle as it could have been, barring the one or two who simply had to bring polygamy or incest into it, but it shows the party as still riven between outright social conservatism and tentative liberalism.

It also can't be good for inner party relations.  Those who voted against ought to explain to the faces of their colleagues who are gay why it is they think they shouldn't have the same rights they do.  Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, made a very touching speech in which he talked about how he told his parents he was gay, starting the conversation by saying "[Y]ou know, I'm never going to be able to marry".  Should the bill pass through all its hurdles, he soon will.  Those 134 (and those in the other parties who also voted against)  didn't even begin to make the slightest of cases for why he should continue to be denied equality.

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Monday, February 04, 2013 

The hubris and nemesis of Chris Huhne.

The downfall of Chris Huhne is one of those political scandals that has a dash of everything: an affair, a scorned ex-wife, an outraged and disgusted son, and the all but incalcuable hubris of a man who made the wrong decision at every turn.  Not since Jonathan Aitken has an MP lied so consistently to the press, only owning up to their misdemeanours at the very last minute. Just last week Huhne pleaded not guilty to perverting the course of justice; today, realising that he couldn't risk a full trial, he finally admitted the truth.

Huhne's original offence was hardly on the Aitken level, which only underlines how such an otherwise intelligent man could act so stupidly. Losing his driving licence would hardly have been the end of the world, especially for someone with not inconsiderable resources. Why risk being found out by asking your wife to say she was driving? That one foolish decision has eventually led to him losing everything other than his new partner, and Carina Trimingham will be but a cold comfort in Belmarsh.

Much will doubtless be written about the affair, as it has already. More pertinent surely is both the impact on the Liberal Democrats and the enduring low opinion of politicians. As someone who came incredibly close to leading his party and if cleared would have been an obvious candidate to succeed the man he christened Calamity Clegg, it leaves his party further in the mire.  While one would assume Vince Cable is still the obvious figure to take over should (when?) Clegg fall under a bus, Huhne would have been a formidable opponent. Tim Farron and Steve Webb, also likely to stand, seem unlikely as yet to have the broad grassroots support needed to win.  Huhne's resignation also deprives the party of a recognisable figure, as well as one who had preferred a coalition with Labour to the Tories.

For those concerned about the public view of politicians as liars and all the same, you can't imagine this is going to do much to disabuse them of the notion. Huhne didn't just mislead on a small scale; his mendacity went on until it couldn't be sustained any longer.  Any sympathy he might have received due to the general disdain for motoring offences had he come clean straight away is now but a supposition.  Instead, his demise will just serve as further evidence of the political class's contempt, both for the public and the very laws they themselves write and expect everyone else to abide by.

What's more, they would have a point. It's not just that Huhne's web of lies shows politicians as a whole in a poor light, it's that as soon as he'd pleaded guilty the by-election circus was straight into full swing. There was no real enquiry or even hand-wringing, just an immediate plunge into the next election to be fought. It gives the impression that as ever, we have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Probably because we have.

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Friday, February 01, 2013 


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