"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Democracy, elections and the constitution

This title might lead you to expect something more coherent and comprehensive than you're going to get. It's more just a few thoughts prompted by all the speculation over whether Brown will call an early election - and whether he should. Those who argue he shouldn't usually include the point that in our parliamentary system there is no requirement to do so.

While this is constitutionally correct, I don't think a reference to the constitution can settle the matter for two reasons:

1) There is also no constitutional reason why there shouldn't be an election, since calling one lies within the prerogative of the Prime Minister.

2) There is no constitutional requirement for a couple of conventions that have developed since Blair came to power. One is the idea that the legislature should be consulted in the event of Britain going to war. The other is that the electorate should be consulted by plebiscite on political changes that are considered fundamental constitutional changes, such as regional devolution.

It isn't only opponents of the war or devolution that could complain the manner in which both of these 'democratic consultations' were carried out was far from ideal. But the point is that our constitution is flexible enough to accommodate the development of conventions that appear to conform to democratic protocol - and at the same time it doesn't have the rigidity that allows it to be the final word on whether calling an election is appropriate.

Making a rare excursion into domestic electoral politics, Norm argues it wouldn't be - not so much on the basis of constitutional convention but rather on the grounds that there simply is no democratic need to do so. (I'm assuming everyone reading this understands that while the two may and do overlap, they are not the same thing.) And given this is the case, he argues an 'unnecessary' election would be seen as opportunistic by voters:
"The Labour Government has a mandate to govern that extends until the spring of 2010! Under the rules of this parliamentary democracy Gordon Brown needs no personal mandate of his own; the mandate belongs to his party. So the only conceivable reason for calling an election is to gain an electoral advantage - on the basis of polling predictions. This will be transparent to voters. What credible public justification could be offered for so unnecessarily premature a move?

If Brown does go ahead and call an election and it doesn't pay off, then he and his party will look - deservedly - sick. If it pays off, then it pays off. But it will do no credit to Brown, the Labour Party or British parliamentary democracy."
I think most people agree that the idea of governments having a mandate to carry out a raft of policies is a myth that doesn't bear too careful examination. But it shouldn't be dismissed completely, I think, for a couple of reasons.

One is that while it isn't credible to claim that every action a government takes has the wind of the electorate's prior approval behind it, provided it was in the manifesto, I don't think voters perceive themselves as giving parties a 'doctor's mandate' to govern in any manner they see fit. The electorate would see abrupt reversals in major policy areas as something for which they didn't give their approval and could justifiably complain they weren't consulted.

Moreover, even if this were not so - surely a change in the doctor who has the mandate is something they might reasonably expect to be asked their opinion about sooner or later? I'm not sure it's good enough to say that it's the same party in government so the change of personnel at the top doesn't matter, still less that 'people knew it was going to happen anyway'.

Secondly, even if you found all this unconvincing, surely you would have to agree that politicians use the myth of the mandate regularly to justify their own actions, or to undermine the legitimacy of others when they're in opposition? You could argue then that a 'public justification' might be required of them for not holding an election sooner or later, since the logic they've used in the past would suggest they should. I seem to remember, for example, some opposition MPs claiming that Major had no 'mandate from the people'.

So I can't agree with Norm that the "only conceivable reason for calling an election is to gain an electoral advantage" but in any event, surely every government that has the scope to do so calls elections at a time when it is most advantageous to them? So where's the evidence that the electorate punish them for doing this? Whatever the reason, do people really resent being asked who they want to govern them because it's 'too early'? "How dare you ask us this - the mandate we gave you hasn't expired yet." Come off it. They didn't punish Margaret Thatcher for this; would they perceive a November election as more calculating of advantage than 1983?

Conclusion: why not have an election? I don't find any of the arguments against it very convincing. It's all academic anyway because the only one Brown and his crew will have been taking seriously is the "because you might not win it" one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

For secular schooling

Those fond of claiming minority rights in the interests of maintaining state-sponsored religious schools often give the impression of being unaware that technically there are no non-religious schools, either in the Scottish system or in England and Wales. This is a legal reality that leaves the majority of us feeling rather uncatered for - uncared for, even - in this warm age of 'personal' public services, as Dr Paul Kelley, head of Monkseaton High School in Tyneside found out recently:
"He...wanted to change the way that religious education was taught, introducing tuition about a number of world views, some that involved faith and some that did not. He intended to follow a 'third way' that neither banished religion from the classroom completely nor had children attending daily worship.

'We wanted a fundamental change in the relationship with the school and the established religion of the country,' said Kelley, talking about the proposals he put forward towards the end of Tony Blair's premiership. 'They accepted it would be popular but said it was politically impossible.'"
Such imprecision in the use of these terms; I blame their teachers. Since, as the DofE admit, it would be popular, I would have thought such a change to religious education in our schools would, in a democracy, be politically highly feasible. What at present it would be is illegal, as this case demonstrates. Something those currently finding themselves 'oppressed' by the rise of 'militant atheism' might want to bear in mind the next time they have a spare mo' to get reacquainted with reality.

Via: Norm

Prog rock and representative democracy

I fear folk purist Chris Dillow's disdain for managerialism and representative democracy has taken him too far this time, for he compares party politics with prog rock:
"Both are pompous self-referential masturbatory activities undertaken by mostly middle-class white boys, which are meaningless and irrelevant to most people.

Though its fans and practitioners believe what they're doing is important and look down upon those who fail to appreciate this, the truth is that anyone with genuine intellect or taste is wholly alienated from the process."
Now, this is all very amusing - but it strikes me as being a little unfair. To our politicians, that is. For those mercifully too young to remember 'prog rock', here's Yes:



And here's Genesis:



Some pretty deep evil going on there, I think you'll agree. But there's rather more wrong with Chris's analogy than he cares to admit.

For one thing - if you don't like something, it's always difficult to distinguish between people who offer it. But it doesn't follow that your judgment is correct. I find a lot of folk music difficult to distinguish, for example. These warbling folkies with their goddam woolly jumpers, their fake traditions, and their 'acoustic' guitars that they always have wired up, nonetheless; can't tell them apart, me. But this is probably just prejudice against folk music fans and the phoney sense of authenticity they exude, rather than anything to do with the music itself.

But there's something more fundamental. The reality is that traditional party politics is popular with more people, in a more enduring way, than prog rock. A couple of points flow from this:

The benefit of having big differences between the parties is over-rated. Whenever you get some fringe outfit offering a 'real alternative', the 'customers' tends to deliver a fairly brutal verdict at the ballot box. Some of our Marxist friends are still inclined to attribute this to some form of 'false consciousness' - but could it be the more mundane, and for them uncomfortable, truth is that the parties are so similar largely because that's the way many people like it?

Focusing on the lack of choice shouldn't distract you from the benefit of having a choice in the first place. States where this happens are always more liberal and usually more equal than those where it doesn't. Chris's analogy can be used accurately to illustrate this point: prog rock is shit but states that ban prog rock in favour of traditional music are immeasurably less liberal than states that do not. The same's true of political parties.



Genesis: unquestionably a down-side of the Open Society

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Management wasting my goddam time

In response to this half-assed study on the productivity lost by workers wasting time farting about on Facebook and other 'networking sites', Chris Dillow commented:
"And what's so special about wasting time on networking sites? How much time gets wasted in pointless meetings, or because the IT is crap, or because the air-conditioning doesn't work, or because people get delayed by lousy transport etc etc? Bad management is surely a vaster source of wasted time that Facebook."
Indeed - how could anyone who isn't management working today disagree? Seems there's no escape: everyone, as well as actually doing the goddam job they're paid to do, has to spend further pointless hours filling in bloody forms saying what they're going to do, and then recording what they've actually done. Then you get a 'professional review' where the reviewer reviews these pointless forms and duly records this fact on other forms. Then they get reviewed...

Then there's the training days, at the end of which there are other goddam forms to fill in. "What did you learn?" Fuck knows - that talking complete shite is a surefire path to promotion into some non-job that has 'development' and/or 'co-ordinator' in the title?

Anyway, Glasgow City Council - time and money-wasters par excellence - have decided in their infinite wisdom to put all Typepad and Blogger sites behind a firewall.

I am most displeased.

This has the disadvantage that as well as not being able to read my own waste of space, I can't even peruse my favourite blogs during the day. (Perhaps they could be persuaded to switch to Wordpress? GCC haven't spotted that one.)

But it does have the advantage that I can now say exactly what I think about the stupid killjoy bastards. Harsh? Well, how else would you describe a council that allows access to every moonbat jihadi site you can think of but screens historical sites about the rise of Hitler under the category 'racism/hate' and who won't even give you a sachet of salt to put on the insipid food they serve in their evil canteens because of some vaunted concern for the nation's health?

I mean, if they're so concerned about my health, I have a few suggestions about how they might take steps to stop deliberately raising my blood-pressure.

Whoever was responsible for the invention and proliferation of the expression 'journey to excellence' could be taken out and shot, for example.

This would make me feel much better.

And if re-branding janitors as 'facilities management co-ordinators' was designed to cheer them up, I have to say there's precious little evidence of it having worked.

But it's made me more depressed.

As does the fact that Glasgow City Council apparently employs an 'acronym tsar' to put stupid signs up in corridors throughout the city's schools.

Ok, they don't really.

Oh and by the way: if you really want the kids to eat school dinners, have you ever considered making them nicer? This would involve not using sawdust and old socks as your key ingredients. Just a thought.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Car annoyances



My girlfriend unkindly - but accurately - describes vehicles of this type as 'wank-mobiles'. If you drive one of these, you are indeed a complete wank. The reasons for this are four-fold:

1) Your aesthetic sense - where is it? What's wrong with you?

2) You screech about in residential areas, pull over, play your goddam stereo at an unfeasible volume whilst other wanks gather on the pavement to admire your wank-mobile. What's going on there? Read a book or something, for fuck sake.

3) You've bought a convertible. And you live in Glasgow. It takes a special kind of asshole to do that.

4) Concerns about the environment: now nobody likes you.

Update: Actually, there's more: there's the small matter of the way you drive the things, for example. The street's too narrow, so I pull over to let you past. Would it kill you to acknowledge this with a wee wave? Or has excessive Onanism deprived you of the use of your hands?

Chip and pin annoyances

Like when the machines in the supermarket don't accept your card. You temporarily freak out, thinking you've went and maxed out your account. Then they swipe it, as they did in the olden days, it works, you sign it - and they've got the cheek to examine your freakin' signature.

Now listen cashier-boy: if I was going to commit credit card fraud, don't you think I'd do it for something more substantial than a box of Shreddies, a pint of milk, and some goddam Bic razors? Anyway, while I'm sure Morrison's training programme has left you with many useful skills, I somehow doubt that an expertise in handwriting analysis is amongst them.

What stupid teachers with way too much time on their hands do

Well, as you already know, they blog sometimes. On other occasions they've apparently got time to waste on this kind of shit. Background: the MoD has produced a lesson plan about Iraq entitled "Promoting peace and security in Iraq", which says ":
"Invasion was also necessary...to allow the opportunity to remove Saddam Hussein, an oppressive dictator, from power, and to bring democracy to Iraq." Our troops "continue to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq, training Iraqi security forces, rehabilitating schools and hospitals, and initiating immunisation programmes".
Now boys and girls, regardless of the position you took on the invasion of Iraq - or the conduct of the occupation - what would you say to a teacher that used a lesson plan from the MoD uncritically and without making amendments? I think what you should say is something like, "You're something of a lazy arsehole, are you not?"

Not Nick Grant, National Union of Teachers branch secretary in Ealing, though. He thinks the lesson breaks the 1996 Education Act, which bans "the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school" and is, one is to take it, pursuing legal action to get it banned from schools.

Now, this depends on what you mean by 'partisan'. It doesn't push the cause of a particular party but I suppose he'll argue it one-sidedly represents a cause or an idea. It's biased, in other words. Thing is if Mr Grant is to take issue with all teaching materials that are 'partisan' in this sense, while he obviously has way too much time on his hands already, he'll need a whole lot more. This is because teachers, text-books, and curriculae are unbiased in the way the BBC is unbiased - which is to say, not very.

Here's a better idea: why not teach students to do their own thinking and allow teachers to exercise their professional judgment as to what materials they use for this? But that would defeat the purpose of a posturing exercise like this, wouldn't it?

Via: Norm

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What's wrong with the liberal-left?

The latest person to ask the question is Anthony Andrew, and his answer has prompted much battering of the keyboards. Being of a Eustonian disposition, I agree with much of the analysis offered by people like Norm, Oliver Kamm and others - but there's a couple of other reasons that I think are worth considering too.

One is that the liberal-left is a victim of its own success. It's hardly an original observation but I was reminded of this when I came across Michael Ancram's insipid alternative manifesto (pdf) for the Conservative party. Consider the context: Ancram's complaining about Cameron supposedly 'trashing Thatcher's legacy' and calling for a return to conservative fundamentals. But these 'conservative fundamentals' turn out to be rather liberal ones, if the language of rights, freedom, limited government and promotion by merit is to be taken seriously in Michael Ancram's hands.

It's a disagreement, in other words, between two different liberal visions of the Tory party. Think of the way conservatives routinely justify inequality in terms of a price worth paying for liberty; hardly any conservative these days is prepared to argue against both liberty and equality in a Scrutonesque fashion.

This isn't a new development: British conservatives since Burke have absorbed much of the liberal tradition in a way that their continental counterparts never did. Neither is there anything new about the left retreating from the primacy of liberal and democratic principles in favour of what they perceive to be the cause of equality. Leftists didn't begin making excuses for authoritarianism and outright tyranny in the 1990s: the division between those who think the causes of liberty and democracy sometimes collide with the goal of greater equality and those who insist on the primacy of the former has been in evidence on the left at least since the Bolshevik revolution.

Perhaps it's just something that just has to be replayed for each generation, following the pattern of that old cliche: those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat its mistakes. Here's a few of them that we've seen before:

1) It was the liberal left that originally made the case for limited government and democracy in the face of opposition from those who preferred the preservation of rank, patronage and deference. Having won the argument, it seems absurd for the left to retreat from these and dismiss them as 'bougeois' simply because the right launched a fallacious, but apparently successful, attempt to claim these as their own.

2) The Soviet model doesn't work, end of. So why do some leftists continue to effectively support it, as the Chavez groupies clearly do? I suppose if you lived in the 1930s and were either ignorant of, or chose to ignore, Stalin's tyranny you could just about make the argument that central planning would prove to be more efficient than the then creaking capitalist model. But the idea that this case can be made, still is being made, post-1989 in face of all the contrary evidence beggars belief. Central planning and the problem of knowledge: Hayek was right - get over it.

3) This point serves as an answer to the previous one. The reason why people make preposterous ahistorical defences of the USSR and the caves in this world where its shadow can still be seen can only do because they think any opposition to capitalism is worth supporting. And they can, surely, only think this is worth doing because capitalism is the worst thing in the world. The problem is, in terms of the material standard of living that capitalist states deliver, this has been rather difficult to do for some time - something Dave Osler has talked about here. Certainly in terms of the 'immiseration' of the worker, the Soviet model has to be dismissed as an alternative. And it has to be dismissed with regards to liberty too, which brings us to the final point:

4) No-one could suggest that the American worker was less free than the Soviet worker and expect to be taken seriously. And although I've come across a number of people prepared to put themselves through mental contortions to argue the opposite, most on the left chose to focus on something else instead: foreign policy. This focus is a perennial problem for the left. Consider the way that morality is understood as a function of the position one takes on big geo-political issues - the accusations and condemnations that are made, the anathemas that are dispensed. It is because it is felt by many on the left that it is in this areas that the struggles of the age are played out in primary colours. For the self-styled 'anti-imperialist' left it is in the capricious realpolitik of the Western powers that the iniquity of the 'system' is made flesh.

I believe this is a function of the fact that they are still trying, against all the evidence, to insist that liberal capitalism is the worst thing on earth. That's their problem. But I'm thinking, and not for the first time, that it's our problem too because whilst engaging with it, we're speaking the same language of primary colours. And it's an odd thing to do, if you think about it, because where else but in the area of states and their foreign policies can the human stain be more clearly seen?

You might respond, how can anyone who supports fanatical and homicidal religious movements consider themselves part of the left? Of course I agree. But then again, how can anyone who does this consider themselves humane or even sane - never mind placing themselves somewhere pleasing to their own self-image on the political spectrum? I mean this sort of thing: Conor Foley, arguing against the Anthony Andrews case linked above, attempts to show that the left has not shifted from its core values in 25 years. I think it's indicative of the problem that in doing so, he talks exclusively about foreign policy and has nothing much to say about liberty and equality.

All of which brings me back to the original point: what's wrong with the liberal left? It might have something to do with the fact that we keep allowing the Right to nick our best ideas, partly because we've been too busy having a conversation with ourselves. A conversation, moreover, that is of little interest to the sane majority who are fortunate enough not to have been afflicted with what Eric Hobsbawm called the political disease.
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