Thursday, 31 December 2009

Structural flaws and the crunch

The credit crunch is now widely accepted to be a direct consequence of regulatory reforms introduced by Gordon Brown when he was at the Exchequer.

The aim was to create "a 'world-class' regulatory system," balancing the roles and functions of the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority.

In theory the clarification of responsibilies meant each were able to fulfil their specialist roles more effectively and this was credited with the eviable period of sustained growth in the economy.

However, the smooth functioning of such a 'tri-partite' regulatory system depended entirely on collective adherence to rigorous maintenance of liasion procedures and trust that each would adhere to the communication processes laid out.

But with no clear system of disincentive for each organisation to avoid subverting that trust in the event of any errors coming to light under their watch, cover-ups began to become inevitable as each started to protect their own interests and the system allowed the toxic situation to spread like wildfire until it threatened to unravel completely. The breakdown in shared individual responsibility lead to a breakdown in the very communication which could have identified the problems, isolated them and prevented them from spreading.

Just as with the musketeers, the solidarity of 'all for one' falls apart when each fails to soften his selfish vices.

So although collective responsibility sounds like a good idea it was essentially also a way for the all-powerful Chancellor to maintain control while keeping blame at arms length.

In the end it was almost logical that perversity should be the way to deal with a perverse system - as Anatole Kaletsky argued, for his role BoE chairman Sir Mervyn King should be (as he was) rewarded with another four-year term, just as Gordon Brown had been promoted from Number 11 to Number 10 Downing Street (though he'd always been in residence anyway).

Similarly I could almost rationalise that the British public will take the view Gordon Brown is the right man to sort out the economy even now. Or at least it should be his responsibility to sort out the mess he created, under stricter supervision. Though it will remain up for debate until the outcome of the general election whether the British public is actually that perverse. And I do not underestimate our capacity for it.

Anyway, all this is old news and thoroughly chewed over elsewhere.

But it does make for a dramatic comparison with the similar structural flaws coming to light which led to the chaos on the streets when my local area was hit with a blizzard recently.

The local borough council has out-sourced the management of the winter traffic maintenance and the gritting contract to different organisations, while still retaining some powers of direct oversight in extreme situations, as was the case last week.

Consequently the difficulties in sending trucks to the right places became hampered not just by conditions, but by the labyrinthine nature of communication channels required to agree an action plan, and as one thing started to heap on top of another everything began to snowball out of control.

Maybe you could argue that it was a lack of experience under testing conditions and that Berkshire will be better able to deal with a severe blizzard at rush-hour in future, but there was a strong warning about the weaknesses in local contingency planning for serious winter weather as recently as February 2009, so this is more about the principle of the thing.

I personally don't see why any politician should encourage experimenting on the public as a means to train high-level administrators and I don't think anyone will be happy to face similar trials every time it happens when all we really want to do is get home quickly and safely - just as I don't think anyone will ever be happy at the prospect of facing a major financial crisis (or major war etc) once every generation.

To put it simply, to demonstrate an inability to learn from mistakes while in office is to provide a direct disqualification for the job. Not to be open about any mistakes and any difficulties had in learning from them is to sap all confidence that you will ever be qualified.

I could draw comparisons with similar scandals, such as the expenses affair in which MPs such as the moat-cleaning Douglas Hogg (among others) argued what they did was entirely within the rules and had been cleared with the fees office in advance, despite the fact that MPs set the rules and decided on who was employed within the fees office.

Or maybe you could argue it was just bad luck that events hit in exactly the right combination to cause almost the worst possible outcome in each of these scenarios.

But politics is not about luck. Politics is about choices.

Responsible politicians recognise that the very real social consequences the rest of us face are always the product of earlier choices made by someone in authority; corruption and vice spreads invidiously in the wake of politicians who make or provide irresponsible choices.

In politics you simply cannot have your cake and eat it - there is a choice to either take other people's decisions for them or to maintain control of policy direction. There is a choice to manage situations by stumbling from crisis to crisis, or, to stand up and lead.

It is a choice of accountability. If you cannot accept the potential for chaos then it is up to you to do something about it.

And that goes for members of the public as much as any member of parliament.

Watching so many people stumble about in celebration I wonder how many who fall over will do the same again next year, and the year after... I'm just glad that most of the ice has melted.

'Tis the season of giving - Blood!

I feel I need to write a post on the issue of blood donation.

Tim Trent generously gave me a guest post out of an email exchange I had, so I'll summarise a few of the points here.

Health is a policy area which impacts every single one of us, so it is an issue of equality. Simply put, health is a human rights issue.

I understand the National Blood Service estimates it requires 9,000 units of blood to be donated every day to keep up with UK demand (7,000 in England) as stocks must be used within one month of donation.

However, over holiday periods supply typically drops by 10% and becomes stretched as emergency demand increases (largely from rises in road traffic accidents associated with drink-driving). Similarly bad weather can take its' toll as the elasticity of both supply and demand becomes apparent.

It is "an integral and essential part of our health care system," but only 4% of the population are regular donors - primarily because there are restrictions on who may give blood.

Some of these restrictions are natural enough, but others reflect the state of our politics - in particular the blanket ban on all gay men.

This strikes me as particularly ridiculous and self-defeating.

Earlier this year (Summer 2009) there was a review of the public policy by government. It concluded that there should be no change to the policy prohibiting any man who has had any homosexual contact (ie including safe and non-penetrative sex) since 1977 from being automatically excluded as a potential donor.

According to the Terence Higgins Trust the blanket ban is "more workable, more cost-effective and more efficient than opt-out exclusions" [1].

In the FAQs on the THT site they mount a resolute defence of this policy position, arguing that the initial appearance of a discriminatory attitude is safer because government cannot commit to an adequately funded blood screening programme, stating that it is merely 'unfortunate' and 'reasonable' that generalisations must be made in the statistical models which go into policy formation.

In essence the THT supports the status quo (discrimination) on cost grounds.

I wonder would that have reached the same position if there were a Conservative government or no financial crisis? Clearly the THT is playing party politics rather than sticking up for principles.

In mitigation they do also state that new developments in epidemiology and testing technologies may enable authorities to 'maximise guidance', but surely this then demands funding for these areas be instigated to demonstrate commitment to the cause.

They also push for continual review of the evidence, alongside a "need to review and improve the quality of their communication with members of the public".

Of course this is a delicate area relating to highly personal matters, but it is simply not good enough to justify automatic exclusions (and such a lengthy list of them too) by arguing in favour of inspecific reviews as the primary means to placate popular opinion when lives are at stake.

Perhaps more importantly, without an adequate screening programme the service puts itself at risk of disease transmission from people who lie or are simply ignorant of the issues.

This has been highlighted by a recent case of an organ donor passing on a rare amoebic pathogen (Balamuthia mandrillaris) because standard tests were not sufficient to pick up the parasite which attacks the auto-immune system, which has lead to calls for greater restrictions on who qualifies for donation as improvements in surgery allow more donations to be made and infection rates increase.

It is also particularly relevant considering the proposed change from opt-in to opt-out systems of presumed consent for organ donation in the UK and the increasing demand for platelets due to longer life-spans and the increasing incidence of cancer.

As Scott Hensley says, it is a matter of balancing exclusions with better testing facilities.

So if the different parties want to be trusted on where they stand with regard to the NHS they need to be clearer about whether they are prepared to make the required funding commitments.


Update: Nick Clegg deserves top marks on equality

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Some thoughts on hunting

Hunting has been a contentious issue ever since I can remember watching the absolutely shocking Alan Whicker documentary showing a pack of hounds ripping an animal to shreds between them.

Of course this was horrific, as it was meant to be, and it left a lasting impression.

And of course bloodsports are horrific, as the reality of existence is confronted in all its terrible glory.

But where I grew up in the country an annual hunt passed right outside my front door and I remember watching in fascination at the resplendant procession which brought the village to a standstill for the hour or so it took for the beasts and riders to pass through.

So in response to the debate on hunting which motivates activists on both sides of the pro/anti-hunt divide I thought I should add my two cents.

There are a number of conflicting issues which have got mixed up in the debate over hunting, and until they are untangled and understood the passions will continue to be enflamed unnecessarily.

First off, there is a politicised view of what the moral purpose of the law is.

On one side it is seen as a fair method to restrict bad behaviour, while on the other it is seen as a justifiable method to restrict or enable necessary behaviour, but the complaints that hunting is 'cruel' or 'necessary' are both non-sequiturs.

In general I take neither of those views, instead I prefer to view law as the collective means to contain societal dispute and prevent real consequences from causing harm: protest and campaign all you wish, but violence should never be encouraged.

It is perverse then that the reason why hunting with dogs was banned is not because of any change of official reasoning, but as a judgement in reaction to the violence and rioting against the cruelty of the hunters.

I disagree with both conservative and socialist theory because they have both twisted the issues: social inequality is not a state of natural justice, nor is social inequality a cause of social injustice.

Equality is not the cause, but the product; justice is not the product, but the cause.

Secondly, the socio-economic problems in rural communities is not properly understood by the current government which is overwhelmingly filled with members from urban seats.

Hunts are a massive social occasion which enable large numbers of people to gather together, and there is a whole social scene attached to them which performs a highly important function - every year couples would meet at the ball under the eyes of family and get married in the spring at the local churches.

Without similar occasions the possibility for villagers to get hitched to other people who are committed to the country declines. It is easy to see how the transient nature of urban cosmopolitan life is reflected in levels of promiscuity and divorce, which has consequences for family stability and the ability of individuals to interact effectively in social situations.

For example, as a boy, carrying a knife when walking through the woods was a perfectly normal and accepted thing - you never knew when it would come in handy to pick some mushrooms or cut away some brambles. But carry a knife in the mean streets of a town and it is a vengeful weapon which causes preemptive escalation and confrontational situations.

Hunting is necessary to the community life of the county set in the same way as Royal Mail's USP is necessary to rural businesses.

But it is not just about morals and socio-economics. There is also the pragmatic and symbolic considerations to be taken into account.

Hunting, it is argued, is an important means of pest control.

Oh those poor cunning, bushy-tailed foxes ain't quite so cuddly as you might think! They carry disease. Well, maybe that is true, but why aren't we equally worried about the explosion in the population of urban foxes?

Similarly they worry farmers livestock and are particularly fond of eating more than a chicken or two... if you want free-range you better accept security against predators.

So the issue cannot be simplified down to a one-size fits all pro- or anti- policy.

Ultimately where my mind is made up is on how the spectacle of the hunt, with the red-jackets and horns and rum-drinking, is a metaphor for the practice of a particular form of social code.

It is almost as though there is a sense of superiority that there is an arbitrary right to impose a narrow view of a social order based on the whim of absolutist judgement: for one side there is an imperative to stick to traditional calendars and fulfil the contrived ritual by doing as was done before just for the sake of it, whereas the opposing side feels just as adament that these strictures can only be broken if they are consigned forever to history.

Well if that's the case people will continue to be fighting on the heath with each other until beyond my day and aggravation will continue to plague us all by turn.

As a simple principle, if something is necessary, important or good, then there is always a way to reach agreement on how to do it.

If the fox population is having an overly detrimental effect on the countryside then do chicken houses need better security, or are there other ways to monitor and prevent any negative impact? Is the local pub or school under threat because the local demographics are changing?

There are a whole range of related issues which are failed by the imposition of hard and fast rules, so they need continuous discussion among the representatives of political interests.

Violent confrontation on the streets or over the fields is a direct and inevitable consequence of the choice to stop talking. The desire to dominate political debate and prove some kind of superiority is self-contradictory and always doomed to fail.

For me, as a bit of a political animal, wherever I see intractable conflict I see an opportunity to resolve it by trying to approach the situation in a new way - it's no good holding out of the debates and waiting for each side to argue themselves to a standstill because you'll be waiting forever!

Cultures of Change

I agree with the claim that former chief editor of BBC Sport Mihir Bose is an astute political commentator within his field, but I still don't think he tells the whole story.

For example, here he muses that multiculturalism is a necessary reaction to the failure of monoculturalism to provide world-class education.

But this isn't an argument against having an attachment to historic roots and traditions within itself - it is an argument against the tendency within a culture that is overly attached to traditions for traditions sake to become more attached to the ritual than the process it represents.

In other words conservatism as a political philosophy isn't opposed to education, but the emphasis it places is tipped against expanding knowledge and learning from mistakes.

So when it comes to reforming the political system I find myself agreeing with Nick Clegg that both Labour and Conservatives 'parrot the language of change' as a means to desperately cling on to power in ways which are damaging to the culture and economiy of the nation.

Returning to the football context, it is no good for the manager to simply mouth the right words or bring in a different face because whatever you call the philosophy you take onto the pitch the game is still about getting results.

For political parties to measure their relative success in terms of winning seats and elections is a miserable distraction from the real issues which interest ordinary people - it's akin to the chairman counting his profits while staring at an empty trophy case!

Now I know tories argue that the means are more important than the motives, but unless you are clear about explaining your motives in full you will lose any means you may have had.


Cultures of change

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Angry post about the weather

Sorry folks, need to let off some steam.

Usually I love a chill winter, being a winter's child and all, but the last few days have been frigging manic.

It's not so much the conditions that've got me, or the way people have a black sense of humour in the face of the worst. What gets me is the miserable failure of three inch thick sheet ice across all the pavements and no blimming peep from anyone taking responsibility for dealing with it.

Walking down the hill earlier it was simply easier to give up and slide down on my backside (yes, the hill is that steep and no, it wouldn't be on a priority list for gritting any time this century).

I've seen numerous comic and massively scary moments when crowds of people skated along and cars nearly slid off the road in front of me, but I'm completely fed up with it.

I know the war on terror tried to get us all to bunker in our cellars through fear, but being free to step outside our front doors is a very basic human necessity for life and I really don't think it is healthy to allow fear of weather to become a reason to barricade the doors and repeat meaninglees chores for hours on end.

I know the thaw will come eventually, but I can't wait for that and accept a grinding halt to overcome everything and I don't think it is reasonable to risk broken bones with every step - all because stupid authorities can't manage budgets properly.

I know I mention my personal gripe - but this isn't just me or the dancing drunks at the end of the street who couldn't stand up anyway. This isn't just some lone wierdo freaking out and nursing bruises in soggy clothes.

It is the state of precarious balance of a whole society treading on thin ice hoping it cracks before our nerve does and we all just admit defeat. Angry is much more productive.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Heroes needed in the drugs debate -- part2

Continued from part 1

An interesting stat to add to the drugs debate - apparently there were 47 heroin addicts in the UK in 1955 (ie approx. 1-in-a-million).

About a decade ago now I came across a statistic that there were an estimated 150-200 heroin addicts in the Reading area (ie 0.1% of the population), classified as regular users (more than once a month) whose habit was fed by the black market - I remember this because the report also said the number of home pharmacists were negligible, but impossible to quantify. At first I was surprised that people could make smack at home, but then I'd seen students make whisky in a washing machine...

It is easy, too easy, to argue that the single difference between now and then is the change in the legal status of the drug whereby it was criminalised. To say this solitary change is the root cause of all the problems and that simply reversing the law change will reverse the scale of the problem (if not overnight then in the medium-term) scores a fail of epic proportions. While the law does set the tone in the first instance, it is the social architecture, both formal and underground, which has been built up around the law since introduction that creates the state of everyday life in communities across the country - so if you want to change the social effects it is necessary to change the social architecture and address the foundations they are built on.

On the overground side this does eventually mean the law, but where the law was the first step in criminalisation, to institute a policy reversal the law will necessarily be the final step in the chain of decriminalisation - not the first.

Because formal society is a reflection of informal society the first step in addressing the problems of addiction must be to understand the cultural problems which lead ordinary people to decide to take the choice to self-medicate harmful substances.

The classic stereotype of a junkie is of a person who is alienated from themself and their life. They may have had family problems and sought solace in their drug buddies over a shared chemical romance, or they may be simply seeking escape from daily routine and were caught unawares when casual weekend experimentation escalated.

In many ways this kind of disengagement and escapist tendency is a sign of society's failure, which makes drug addicts a form of excluded oppositional constituency. More figuratively drug dependence may be described as a physical manifestation and consequence of society's conservatism: the glazed-over look of apathy submitting to pre-decided choices made for them by cynics profiteering from the misery of others for which they deny any shared responsibility.

But of course the range and type of addictive behaviours is far wider than the stereotype. Every drug culture has its own behavioural rituals and traits (think beer culture, ecstasy, or the smoker's corner) - it is society which builds a consensus on the acceptability of those patterns.

At a rough estimate (using my own eyes, ears and occasionally nose on the street) where 0.1% of the local population may be intravenous drug users (though judging from the increasing numbers of discarded needles I've seen scattered around almost every park bench I'd say this number has grown significantly in recent years, a quick scout suggests heroin use is now at 0.8% and crack is at 0.5% but this obviously includes smokers etc), I'd be completely shocked if the total proportion of regular illegal drug users for recreational purposes was less than 10% and surprised if it weren't nudging 20% or higher.

So as far as I'm concerned the problem of drug use is primarily a cultural one. We face a choice about society's own hypocrisy if we wish to simply sweep such a prevalent behaviour under the carpet.

If there is to be a law it must be enforced consistently, which raises the second problem of practicalities and funding - what do we say about what people do behind closed doors? Do we station a policeman in every house in the nation?

And then thirdly, educational support must be provided to reinforce the lessons - which means better parenting, more responsive schooling and stronger communities.

Ultimately this comes down to politicians presenting a clear choice at the ballot box so that the public can see that we have made a decision and that this is what will be upheld.

It is no good for successive Labour and Conservative governments to tinker at the edges in reaction to a periodic media outcry because that just undermines state authority and loses popular support for the policy-making process in general. What is required is some political leadership which will set down a marker and gain a real mandate by telling us that our voices do matter.

So what would I do about the heroin addicts on the streets in my town?

As a voter I demand a choice - for this I require that there be a change to our politics and as a consequence I would advocate voting against the incumbent MP.

As a politician I would encourage clearer debate on the issue - for only this will inform voters about the choices we face.

But as a policy maker I would tend towards greater tolerance, and argue that we must look to ourselves and take greater active responsibility for preventing problems arising.

The interaction between the state and wider society has become increasingly incoherent as more policy responsibilities have been assumed by government and it is this which is leading individuals to fall between the gaps.

The welfare state is more of a safety blanket for the state than a safety net for the public, as things like tax credits are often an expensive administrative burden which often become a restrictive trap. Target driven performance in schools fails to meet many individual needs and can force the downgrading of pastoral responsibilities. And where state structures in health, education, employment, housing and the like fail to raise people out of their social poverty and into respectability then they are at increasing risk of falling into derivation and depravity.

It is exactly this underclass which the majoritarian political class structure is disincetivised from representing from where the social problems spring from, so until this disincentive is removed they will persist. It's not principally a wealth thing, it's principally a matter of social engagement.

So to say what I would do if I were King for a day is to fail: for me to declare that I would impose my singular vision on what should and therefore must be may win some support among those who've already made their own minds up and see that I am in agreement with them. But that is only to instigate a new vicious cycle of disagreement and dispute and opposition among those who don't.

In other words to react to problems can have the perverse effect and make them more strongly ingrained than ever.

If you want to change society you must challenge society - you cannot play to pre-existing audiences - it is necessary to find a way to reconcile those who disagree.

The habit of drug addicts to seek a quick fix is mirrored by the desire of politicians to satisfy the vocal urgings of the public with a quick fix of their own, but just as the junkie will sink to the gutter dragging those around him (and as often as not, her) into the gutter, so too will the politician's obsessive hunt for a pure ideological truth undermine the vision they seek.

Where we are now will take years if not decades of concerted social regeneration to repair, so I'm sorry to tell Gideon that the best thing to do about any heroin addicts you find in the stairwell of your flats is to give them a steely stare of your own in return and know they are there because of they way those in high office behave who are there because we put them there.

You may be able to protect yourself in the immediate event with locks or bars or walls, but the barbarians will continue clamouring at the gates until people build community networks which are deep enough and resistant enough to pick up on the smallest indication of dissent or dissatisfaction and act on it.

Individuals need the tools to express themselves openly, honestly and we must have the confidence to use them productively in creative ways which fulfill our potential. For this we need a theory of power that enthuses everyone to step up and be counted!

Ok, this post has turned into an endless polemic, so I'll pull back and draw a simple correlation between the number of people who vote in elections and the number of dropped out drug addicts on our streets.

It's not about what I would do about them, it's about getting the 'them' to understand how their actions have an impact on the whole. Currently politicians and drug addicts are comparable in that neither have consciously considered the full consequences of theirs as a whole.

The drugs debate is only one tangible part of a much greater subject about privacy and state intrusion or intervention, and I'm sorry to be a pessimist, but I don't think it is going to be wrapped up any time soon.

The first thing must be to restore faith in democratic society so that we can give addicts the confidence that their problems will be dealt with properly.

So in the first instance selfish and corrupt politicians must come forward voluntarily to set an example which can be followed - or they must expect to be arrested and charged for their conduct.

People at the very highest level of society like Tony Blair or Andrew MacKay cannot wriggle out of the responsibility for being honest and acting within the spirit of the rules because it suits their personal ambitions - to do so suggests they weaseled their way into positions of responsibility for personal advantage and private gain: to know they can get away with lying and cheating legitimises it for everyone else and says it is Ok for us to deceive ourselves about the acceptability of the worst of our own behaviour, whatever that may be (and I know I make excuses for myself).

Monday, 21 December 2009

Song of the day

A sweet birthday present to you all.

Sometimes answers aren't nearly as interesting as the questions that are raised by them.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Heroes needed in the drugs debate - part1

Gideon Mack has asked me on my other blog what I think should be done about the heroin addicts in West Reading.

Well, much as I enjoy direct questions, I don't think this one can be answered as easily as all that. A simple soundbite is insufficient to deal with all the angles which the question raises, nor do I think a straightforward statement on what action can be taken gets to the heart of the matter.

First off, I think it is necessary to uncover what the underlying issue is.

Do we want fewer addicts, or do we want to reduce the negative social impact caused by addiction?

The popular refrain of oppositionists is that a change in the law striking from the statute books the criminalisation of various categories of substances will be a massive improvement, but I'm not sure that a policy of legalisation followed by taxation shows sufficient understanding of how society works.

This is because the law creates an implicit moral framework - all people are equal under the law (or are supposed to be), but the law itself is not neutral.

So when the state directs that something is not (or is no longer) to be controlled, behind this is an assumption that it is acceptable to promote the behaviour (albeit under certain conditions, such as age limits). Additionally, while taxation may be an economic hinderance to members of the public it creates a perverse incentive for Treasury beancounters to maximise the income from this area in order to fund unhypothecated expenditure and may - again, perversely - increase the number of users and addicts.

Although the eradication of the criminal market in illegal drugs would have highly significant benefits across the board and I think these are well enough established not to have to go into them in this post, this alone is insufficient to justify a change in the legal status of drugs.

While liberal politics harks back to the 'harm principle' first expressed by JS Mill and I think this is admirable, I also think it is not the final word.

Ask Mr Mill if he thinks anybody should be free to choose their own course of action, I completely think he would and would agree with him. But ask him again how he'd feel were any of his children to commit themselves to a lifetime of slavery and withering physical dependance and I guarantee you he'd say that would signify his own failure.

As individuals we may shug our shoulders at the behaviour of those we pass by in the streets and never meet for long enough except to discoveer they want our charity, but as a politician it is the mark of hideous failure not to accept responsibility for the reasons why any single constituent who does not meet their potential and do everything within their power to empower individuals.

And this is the problem: there is not enough information to conclude reliably that simple legalisation would have the desired effects of reducing the overall negative impact of addiction.

Secondly, we need to ask is it worth
completely reversing a standing policy for only a marginal improvement?

For all the number of people who are attracted to drugs of all sorts because illegality is 'sexy' or 'cool' and would be discouraged by a change in the law, just how many are currently put off because they recognise the actual dangers and real waste and expense of illegal drugs and might be encouraged?

The legal trade in alcohol functions fairly well because there is a pre-existing infrastructure of pubs and off-licenses integrated into their host communities through a well-establish licensing framework which has the active support of organised residents who attend and participate in public meetings. Unless and until there are indications that a similar situation can be created in the drug community it is completely unrealistic to hope a change in the law will not be abused and lead to wider social problems.

So while legalisation of drugs is theoretically progressive, it cannot succeed unless the intellectual debate is conclusively won, the economic infrastructure built and every practical concern dealt with.

And currently there is just too little trust between the public and authorities for enough local people to come forward and voluntarily offer help to show there is enough will to push for change.

But ultimately it does come down to the 'trust' word.

If people don't trust their government is doing the best by them and don't see that society is getting better in the areas which the state institutions have direct control over (such as the economy) then this only encourages more people to go against official advice (such as on illegal substances) while simultaneously discouraging a majority from seeking change.

So what would I do?

For that you'll have to be patient and wait until part2 - life comes before blogging I'm afraid!


Here's part2

Friday, 18 December 2009

Open competition is the only real competition

Hmm, so rugby commentators want to improve the spectacle of the game by integrating the English and Celtic leagues.

Well, yeah, I can see that working for about five seconds before they get bored again and say it would be better if the southern hemisphere teams played week-in, week-out against the northern hemisphere.

This is where I stop supporting lesser games like cricket and rugby. There is a completely undemocratic spirit in wanting to watch only the very best all the time.

It completely suffocates the development of the game, and depending on the authoritarian dictates and prescriptions of an approved coach or board of selectors creates an unsafe burden of responsibility on individual ability and subjective judgement which cannot be relied upon.

Like how does anyone judge anyway?

For example Martin Johnson had no previous coaching experience before he was appointed to lead the national rugby XV. He may be an inspirational figure of resolution and determination, but he has never shown any indications of being a creative player or imaginative thinker. And the teams he has put on the field play exactly into his personal mould - physically solid and muscular, but a bit wooden and lacking in tries. It is inconcievable he will lead the team to triumph.

Exactly what standards of expectation were placed on the applicants for the job? What were the qualifications? Frankly the board who appointed Johnno are either a bunch of amateurs or worse.

But this isn't about one man or even on group of people. This is about how jealous narrow-minded mentalities lead directly to insurmountable failure.

When I watch sport I want to know that each side is playing on their relative merits so that any division lines drawn up in the fixture list are not completely arbitrary.

I can be sure cup finals are worth watching because the teams are composed of players who've won in through previous rounds - and in the spirit of open competition we can be sure standards of quality are maintained.

So when Rugby or Cricket goes through their regular cycles of trying to draw more focus of attention away from Football they will consistently fail, just as they have consistently failed to do so for longer than it takes for the novelty value to wear off.

'Fixture congestion' is a popular refrain in professional sport, but the discussions which surround how the calendar is compiled are subtly different.

International cricket and rugby is largely a closed shop with the same teams and countries playing each other over and over again. Ashes series may be the pinnacle of an Englishman's career, but there's no guarantee the quality is the zenith of the sport so cheering the side on is more an expression of passive reaction than one of active connection.

But when you look at the performance of Barcelona in taking on Atlante in the Club World Cup, the quality of play (particularly the team play which lead to Messi's goal) is on another level and it is impossible to argue with the quality - it's on full display on the field, not just on the teamsheet...

and don't the crowds know it!

Remember - this is two teams from completely different continents playing in a packed stadium with little heritage for the game which is capable of raising everybody off their seats in a simultaneous gesture of admiration and awe.

Rugby and Cricket need to lead from the football's example, not cast envious eyes over their riches.

Football's success is in broadening the game by being being democratic and meritocratic - enabling more people to participate in meaningful competition and use the results as the objective measure of qualification for more prestigious tournaments.

Qualification to play in football's highest competitions is by an extensive, lengthy and highly rigorous process which is the focus of intense scrutiny and contention.

Qualification to play in the Ashes is by birth (though exceptions can easily be made if your face fits and you're good enough, as Pietersen, Trott and Strauss have found to their benefit).

I don't need to argue which is a better system - just look at any comparative measure.

It shouldn't really be much of a surprise that Rugby and Cricket continues to struggle to gain attention when the administrators are all linked by their old school ties and the institutions remain so strongly infused with conservative ideals and racked by tribal interests - it seems the tendency of the 'old farts' who resisted professionalism in pre-New Labour days has simply regrouped with a new generation to the fore.

My big worry is about a future when old-Etonians are back in charge of decision-making, like they've ever proved themselves on a level playing field.

Revenge of the proles

Is it a libertarian fantasy? Is it an authoritarian nightmare? Is it an inevitable vision of the future?

You watch. You decide.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Tiger, Tiger, on the back-burner

Further to my earlier post about how celebrity gossip is more about us than it is about them, it is becoming clear that there is a gap opening up between different groups of people in the reasoning for their interest.

So sure, on an instinctive level we are all have a prurient fascination with the sex lives of the rich and famous (apparently one Tigers ten mistresses, Mindy Lawton, says he is "a selfish, heartless man" - which is manifested in his preference for rough sex, but then you have to question what this makes the 34-yr-old floridean waitress who was happy to service the billionaire during his wife's pregnancy).

On a more practical level the episode is actual bread and butter for many in the PR and advertising industries. According to Brian Goff the knock-on of the saga could create a $1/2bn in the US economy alone as personal endorsements (like Gillette) dry up, so it's no wonder everyone is scrabbling for their cut of the pie now.

But beyond all that is a more spiritual level which provides an insight into the effects of power in society. Of course he is personally touched by his wife taking his children away and his happiness is more important to him than continuing his remarkable career, so it is obvious he would step back as he reassessed his priorities.

Nevertheless as a modern-day icon he does provide an example for the more mortal among us, and in order for him to maintain this position in the public consciousness he must be very self-conscious about the choices he makes - clearly his sexual dalliances express a psychological desire to lose that self-control and allow himself to be natural.

Psychological pressure can come from anywhere and it becomes most visible when the most highly-valued rewards are at stake. The cracks in Tiger's game have been evident for sometime, so any well-atuned observer should have been able to pick up that something was wrong.

The more ruthless competitor may have wished to exploit the flaws and we'll never know just what went on in the background - there are always all sorts of creatures who put up hurdles or create distractions to lure you away from the righteous path, so it's possible that a cynical plan was hatched to plot his downfall by placing available women in his path with the intention that they'd sell their stories to help pay the rent or otherwise climb the greasy pole by seducing him literally and metaphorically.

But still, playing the sucker and succumbing to temptation is not part of the narrative we envisage for our sporting gods, so I think there is a lot of mileage left in this story.

At only 33 Tiger Woods can legitimately take several complete years away from golf and public life and still break all the records going. The financial investment made by his business supporters has been more then matched by the emotional investment made by followers of the Tiger cult, and given that golf is a game where age is far less of a factor a comeback will be greeted with wails of anticipation as the dividend is repaid (I can already hear the stage managements being prepared). Unless a comparable talent emerges to suddenly announce themself on the world stage (which is unlikely given his excessive dominance) I almost fear that the second wave of Tiger-mania will be bigger than the first.

Frankly Tiger Woods could probably take up residence with some real rock stars and develop a major life-threatening hard drug habit and still return to gain redemption - certainly the careers of other professional golfers have survived severe alcoholism, although without necessarily hitting the same heights. His achievements are already legend and his impact has already been felt across society, so he doesn't have anything left to prove except to himself. Therefore any time he needs to liberate himself from the pressure he puts himself under will sharpen his competitive edge if and when he does return.

If my predictive tentacles are anything to go by I'll bet he spends a bit more personal effort on his charitable foundation as a self-imposed penance, which will lead to an increasing political sensibility to his role. While golf is supported by inherently conservative institutions, his role in actively breaking down discriminatory barriers (such as being the first winner at the Augusta National Club in 1997 - where Lee Elder was the first black man to play in 1975, no black members were admitted until 1990 and women are still barred to this day) has him marked down as revolutionary, so I can easily see him being won over to take the stump in support of Barack Obama's re-election campaign ahead of November 2013.

Maybe Tiger has just woken up to the responsibilities he unwittingly assumed. We shall have to wait and watch.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Can't see the trees for the Woods

Well I guess I should finally get round to mentioning it.

Yup, Tiger Woods private life is the topic of discussion all over.

Yeah, the public loves a good sex scandal, even better when it involves a self-made billionaire who broke down all sorts of barriers and his wife enacting symbolic retribution via his tool of choice (by that I mean using his golf club to smash in the window of his flash car and whatever else...) as a proxy for our own disabused sense of forfeited self-entitlement.

Yawn, he's getting away with getting his end away with multiple nubile young groupies who think it makes them special because he feels he needs to prove he's not losing what made him so special in the first place and in the mean time is potentially actively throwing it all away to the circling school of sharks (media, lawyers, anyone who can get a piece of action...).

Life lived in the fast lane is always subject to the sort of pressures which can derail anyone's sense of self, and it provides a dramatic backdrop to the rest of the world's more mundane daily normality to give us all a sense of context for our own choices.

We are all hypocritical gossip-mongers... at least when we get round to pillow talk when we let out our private insecurities without having to deflect attention from ourselves by talking about the lives of the rich and famous.

So once again I have to agree with the fantastic Marty Klein, that this is not about him, it's about us - it's always about us!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Serbia Must Cooperate With ICC To Accelerate EU Integration

In a draft report to be submitted to the UN Security Council this week, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Serge Brammetz has stated: "The Office of the Prosecutor is satisfied with the current level of efforts undertaken by Serbia's authorities in their cooperation," but "insists that Serbia maintain these efforts" in order to continue to progress the Serbian application process to the EU.

Basically the arrest and surrender of the final suspected war criminals from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia remains a major stumbling block on Serbia's full integration into the international community.

From what I can glean there are only two major suspects still in hiding - including Ratko Mladic, the most wanted man on the Hague Tribunal's list.

The Netherlands placed an objection to continuing the process, but while cross-border travel will be allowed from 19 December a free trade agreement will not be put in place until the conditions are met.

The story is of interest because the issue is one of several which marks the accession of Catherine Ashton as the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs. In her first session answering MEPs today she was criticised for being too 'weak' and 'vague'.

Meanwhile the outgoing Javier Solana asserted his belief that it is becoming impossible to have divergent foreign policy aims among the (currently) 27 member states of the EU.

Now I think there is almost universal agreement that Serbia cannot continue to thumb its' nose at the principles of law and order represented by the international community by harbouring fugitives of the stature of Mladic.

But on the other hand I'd argue that less people are convinced of the desirability of the normative effects involved in greater political integration.

In the difference between these two cases I think it is clear to see that many people might agree that there are basic universal standards which must be upheld in all circumstances, but at the same time it is also obvious that very few people are likely to agree on the precise nature of those standards.

For my own part I see the existence of a common forum where the specifics can be hammered out as a necessary instrument - for where we agree to disagree, the least that can be described as civilised behaviour is to agree to continue discussions in an ongoing manner until we reach agreement.


Integrate Or Die!

SNP outlines plans for referendum on Scottish independence

The SNP has formally published a White Paper setting out its' plans which they hope will see Scotland become independent.

Alec Salmond argues this "charts the route to progress for Scotland" and will culminate a decade of devolution.

Symbolically they chose to do so on St Andrew's Day.

More reports here.

Accusations of nationalist flag-waving are, I think, highly justified.

Westminster has already conceded the principle of tax-varying powers so more localised tax-raising cannot be long in coming. But the SNP won't make that argument because it is more about their party's exercise of power than the purpose to which any of that power can be put.

It strikes me as highly perverse that they are sincere in making an argument for 'independence' and dissolution of the United Kingdom whilst hoping to negotiate membership of the European Union.

The basic point is that independence simply doesn't exist in an interdependent world.

The ancient emnity between the English and the Scots derives from a persistent habit of renaging on agreements for temporary advantage, but no secure political future can be based on weakening trust between different sides.

So we either develop the processes by which agreements can be reached and stuck with, or we prepare for a fight.

The debate over British unity has global implications because it is the relationship which underpins the development of a richer and more peaceful world.

Without a united British Isles there would never have been a United States or a European Union - the constituents parts of Britain would have remained introspective in our divisions and we would never have been able to use our skills to trade with the world; we would never have spread the ideas of adaptation and innovation which brought about the industrial and technological revolutions; the world wouldn't have done so much to reduce disease, poverty or ignorance around the world.

It is an issue which everyone has a stake in - from Afghanis, to environmentalists.

The principle at stake is unity. Everything else flows from unity.

But most maddening of all in Mr Salmond's desire to become king of all he surveys is how he perverts the symbols of scottishness - does he even know who St Andrew was?


Integrate Or Die!

World Parliament of Religions Opens In Melbourne

From 3-9 December at over 200 pleniary sessions over 8,000 representatives from more than 200 of the world's religions and major faith groups (including atheists and humanists) are meeting to discuss issues of importance in Melbourne, Australia at the World Parliament of Religions.

Aside from weather determining the time of year and location of the gathering, it is a prescient moment in history as new troops are committed to the conflict in Afghanistan in what could be a defining moment of a generation and the UN Conference On Climate Change opens in Copenhagen.

The topics under discussion will include all the major issues facing humanity.

Of particular focus will be climate change and environmental sustainability, indiginous rights and the eradication of poverty, as well as the burgeoning international diplomatic issue of the interrelationships of the Islamic community on a global scale [1].

For more stories see here.

Standard opinion understand parliaments to be standing institutions which take place almost every day of the working week, almost every week of the year, but this event is compared to the Olympics - indeed, on terms of scale and frequency that is the only adequate comparison.

But parliaments weren't always seen in such a way.

In medeival times parliaments began to be called on the behest of monarchs as they sought to levy new taxes, primarily in order to raise armies for security purposes (and vendettas). Over generations of continuiing strife the restless public grew tired of being run roughshod over and demanded prior approval.

However these parliaments often began to discuss tangential issues relating to the means and manner in which the decisions reached could be found to be politically acceptable - they set the precedents by which the principles of good government were established. These included legitimacy, accountability, transparency and representativeness. As such 'prior approval' gradually lead to 'advise and consent'.

I discussed this in a bit more length here and here.

It's of particular interest to me because Reading Abbey was a major location for the first English parliaments.

One of the massive frustrations I find I get myself into with people who have preconcieved ideas about the way the world works is that they have a very narrow view of what actually happens out there. Admittedly the limitated preoccupations of our media must take it's share of responsibility for not providing adequate or sufficiently balanced information, but our interests reflect on our own political mindset too.

I mean, it is easy to say that someone else says such-and-such, or to categorise the general thoughts of groups of people, but that always falls into the trap of inaccurate extrapolations.

So it's kind of a shame that the big issues considered by the WPoR will not be given similar media coverage as other areas of democratic debate, but that's only to be expected when our media is organised on a national basis.

Now I could stray into arguing about which belief system is right and which is wrong, but such axiomatic debate do more to conceal than reveal. The fact is that different belief systems exist and we must deal with them. We must allow people to represent themselves in order to create dialogue by which agreed positions can be reached - we need a functioning political process.

In contrast to the 'Intelligence Squared' debate held at Wellington College locally (of whose style, tone and format I couldn't be more scathing, whatever anyone may think of the outcome) I am vastly encouraged by the mere existence of the event in Melbourne in that it demonstrates people are capable of coming together in a civilised way to reach agreements concerning the direction of civilisation.

I am quite confident in predicting a future where a series of representative 'world parliaments' takes on a more formalised framework in our consciousness - all that is needed is a more explicit articulation of the way it is already becoming reality.


Integrate Or Die!

LibDems Drop EU Referendum Pledge

Local LibDem bloggers Mark Reckons and Dazmando have come out strongly against indication from LibDem grandee Ming Campbell that the party may be in the process of dropping a pledge to have a referendum on membership of Europe.

The policy was designed to counter claims that we weren't allowing the country to sleepwalk into a superstate by asking the fundamental question which lay behind criticisms of the Lisbon Treaty and the plans for a 'constitution' supposedly embedded in it.

Now the generally pro-European and internationalist aspect of LibDem attitudes is one of the major areas which has attracted to the party, so obviously how we handle the issue is a serious concern for me, but at the same time since the ratification process is all but complete and even the Conservatives have dropped their pledge to hold a referendum it had become almost an empty gesture.


Integrate Or Die!

LibDems are and remain committed to organising a universal framework of common understanding and would campaign for a 'Yes' vote in any event, so when David Cameron took his decision the mainstream political pressure was lifted and it became only a matter of time before the pledge began to look like an empty electioneering gesture. The fact that it is the Conservatives and not the LibDems competing for votes from recalcitrant anti-EU opinion made it even more likely.

However, as the third party the LibDems exist to make gestures because this provides an indication of the balance of public opinion and this helps swing decisions.

So while the decision is understandable, so too is the frustration at what looks like on face value to be a denial of the party raison d'etre.

Series: Integrate Or Die!

NYOOTW gives a clear indication of having stepped a long way off the beaten track and got lost in the figurative jungle, so in keeping with the modern diplomats' desire to have a 'roadmap' on which to chart progress to the desired goal I think I've come up with a plan - to write a series.

International integration is something which has been running through my mind for a while now, and since I had this exchange on SchneiderHome I've felt it's an area which I could focus on more closely.

I've been looking for a particular topic to put this blog to and stop the meandering, so in my own overblown hyperbolic way I've tried to condense my ideas into a form which gives a semblance of what it is I'm trying to say: I'm going to call it 'Integrate Or Die!'


Integrate Or Die!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Seasonal Male

For anyone who has been wondering this year's last posting dates to be delivered before Christmas have been set. They are:

First Class: 21 December
Special Delivery: 23 December

My birthday falls on the first of these dates so it is ingrained on my memory, but while I can agree the winter solstice is a first class day I'm sure my mother would argue about special deliveries coming two days later...

Friday, 27 November 2009

Song of the day

Well not quite (one wasn't enough), but with Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannan involved it is floppy-haired beat and melody heaven and I couldn't wait.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Howard admits gullibility is endemic in the Conservative party

A rather fascinating interview with the perennially shifty Michael Howard.

Sometimes I just don't understand what kind of political brain this man has - does he really think that a bumbling admission of credulousness is the way to gain respect?

But let's not forget this wasn't an isolated incident - Howard has plenty of form (from his 'semantic prestidigitation' and that interview with Paxman) and hardly a week goes by when the Conservatives are cheering the wrong side (whether it is Labour's abolition of the 10p tax band or the sacking of Professor Nutt).

Don't mistake me, some of their members are highly capable, but in their headlong rush to win power they consistently subordinate good sense for common sense and the desire to be seen as popular. And for all Cameron's talk of being a decentralising party their lack of considered policy detail belies a focus on personality and belief in 'strong leadership'.

This is backed up by increasing amounts of polling evidence showing their one true quality is that they aren't Labour.

The dark clouds continue to build on the horizon the Conservatives lack of proposed solutions to the major challenges to be faced in upcoming years fills everyone with dread - so it's no wonder that the possibility of a hung parliament is again coming under closer scrutiny.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Select Committee Watch - Electoral Reform

Even if you only watch the first three minutes of this you'll be far more impressed than the majority of anything you can see in either chamber.

Now I don't agree with John Major on many issues, and I was definitely no fan of the regime he ran for seven years (yeah, count 'em and try to forget it), but he is one of only two or three people who can speak with on-the-job experience and he has clearly also gained a fresh perspective since he stood down (not least he's humanised his speaking voice considerably, although he is still a bit too formal, stilted and artificial for my taste, although I'm encouraged by his choice of tie colour for an occasion he would fully aware is recorded).

Nevertheless the campaign for electoral reform has found a significant advocate in him and I agree that all normal people would caution against the "freakish government majorities" the current system throws up - maybe this is a coded warning to and against a potential Cameron government too!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Story time

I've got to say thanks to Elizabeth for inspiring me to write a short piece of creative prose in her comments.

It's something I do a lot less of these days and while it gives me great satisfaction to write a rounded composition, maybe my critical function has recently been taken over by editing and this is casing a block.

Anyway I looked back at this and thought it is worth reprinting for posterity on my own blog...

A Broken Silver Chain
I wrote to a Mlle Bovary once upon a time.

We quickly became pen-friends, exchanging letters for several years until the intimacy had grown that we had to make the effort to meet.

We arranged to meet at Biarritz when I was on one of my trans-continental journeys.

I stayed in a nondescript hotel, and the night beforehand I could hardly sleep for dreaming. We met before the Atlantic waves under a glacial autumn sky.

She had acquired the use of the holiday home of a family friend nearby where we stayed for the week until our desire for one another was temporarily quelled and it was time to part again - back to our lives in the suburbs.

Our passionate scribblings maintained their steady flow back and forth, always promising to break away from the suffocating ties we were bound in.

But after a year the letters suddenly stopped. Maybe she had grown tired of the waiting. Had I noticed a trace of doubt that the pledges we had made to one another were anything less than complete? Or maybe it was a growing realisation that some flowers bloom just once in their lifetime.

As time allowed my memory to fade I grew accustomed to the routine of daily expectations and I grew more settled and comfortable. But this calm was broken when I received a package one day.

Inside was a delicate silver chain - her ankle bracelet. The clasp was broken and with it was an envelope containing a short newspaper report of a car accident, and the letter she'd had with her that day. 

Monday, 9 November 2009

Tear Down These Walls

Today is the 20th anniversary of the symbolic end of the 'Cold War'.

Everybody remembers the drama which unfolded over that summer:

But fewer people remember the bureaucratic shrug which ultimately brought it down:

The Wall was a constant theme when I was younger and I remember being particularly inspired by Ronald Reagan's declaration of his liberalism overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.

In many regards I've always thought about how walls are the physical manifestation of the barriers society places between people, and in this sense they are the symbol of everything I find objectionable.

I can understand there can be a pressing need for them in certain circumstances, but that only goes to highlight the failings of the leaders who didn't avert the situation in the first place.

Anyway, here's some photos of famous walls from history:

Hadrain's Wall
The Great Wall of China
The Berlin Wall

And here's some which are still tolerated for 'political' reasons:

US-Mexican border:
Melilla (Spain/Morocco border):


Each are symbols of larger social conflicts.

When these conflicts are resolved, these walls will fall and be consigned to history too.


Update: LV publishes an African persepctive on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In contrast Slavoj Zizek notes the 'recent resurrection of anti-Communism' and says this is part of a process of redefinition according to western realistic philosophy, which equates the conditions of state-socialism to those of naziism.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Song of the day

Oblique reference disclaimer: this is somehow appropriate.

Don't expect me to explain how.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

It's the poppies, stupid!

Everywhere you go at this time of year the humble poppy can be seen on people's lapels as ordinary people show their silent solidarity with the couragous soldiers who put their lives on the line in the name of what politicians call our security interests.

The poppy appeal is particularly relevant at the moment because of the current deployment in Afghanistan and the latest news that 5 servicemen were killed in a shocking attack by a gunman who was being trained to keep the peace.

The case comes as a huge blow to British strategy and raises big questions about our presence in the country and our ability to 'win hearts and minds'.

The Chair of the Intelligence and Security committee, Labour MP Dr Kim Howells, has broken ranks with the government to argue in a strongly worded Guardian article that current policy if deeply flawed and is proving counter-productive.

He says that "Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan have succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country, but have not... succeeded in eliminating... the Taliban" and that the insufficient resources being expended could be better deployed on the streets of Britain.

Not only would this better address the consequences of the terror threat, but it would remove one of the main aggravating causes of any attacks.

Such a 'shift in focus' would require renegotiation of international treaties, but it would also switch attention from the symptons of the disease to its' underlying causes.

At its' heart is a difference of opinion over the primary motivational factor behind the violence in global societies.

The western powers blame a fundamental lack of engagement in democratic political processes and the undermining of elections in Afghanistan, criticising the controllers of the illegal drugs trade and accusing them of corruption. They concentrate on an extremist cultural trend unwilling to work within international norms and statutes.

Yet the international consensus on numerous policies are precisely what they see is killing their kinsfolk, denying their economic potential and undermining their cultural heritage!

Lest we forget, the production of opium poppies is the main economic engine in an area which has been ravaged by war for almost as long as anyone can remember: the opium trade provides a large portion of the wealth which feeds the people, and it feeds the ability of local tribes to provide for their people in a wider sense too.

Poppy cultivation continues because the economic alternatives simply don't exist. The afghani economy remains dominated by the agricultural sector, despite only 12% of land being suitable for arable purposes. The industrial and service sectors are massively undeveloped and it is estimated that as many as 40% of the adult male population are without regular employment, while 53% of the population live under the poverty line (according to the CIA world factbook).

These are exactly the conditions for popular revolt against the state forces in any country, let alone one which has been at the ends of the earth since classical antiquity. It simply doesn't matter who those forces are percieved to be.

Equality and democracy are being subverted while military power is used to impose the will of outsiders, so whatever our leaders say they are standing up for it is not that. There are no two ways about it, the ideals of the western powers are failing the majority of Afghanis.

The fact is that the western powers are prosecuting an elitist, authoritarian view of morality and legality. The threat of terrorism is mirrored by our own insecurities. The war against drugs reflects our own inability to grasp the reality that lying to young people about the real risks alienates them, builds a sense of distrust and disillusion with the law and legislators and creates widespread disengagement from society.

As we have seen only this week the government policy on drugs has been under fire from world-leading experts who disagree with the official position that increasingly punitive action is likely to reduce the harm levels caused by criminalised behaviour.

Heroin is clearly a much more serious proposition than Cannabis, and recreational usage should not be encouraged, but there is a global shortage of medicinal morphine products at the same time as fields of poppies are being destroyed in Afghanistan because the illegal trade peddled to addicts is being used to fund Taleban-backed resistance.

In other words the deaths and injuries suffered by ordinary soldiers in the line of duty are the manifest costs of a misplaced moral code and a distorted sense of legislative priority - we would not need to be in Afghanistan if our government didn't think punishment excused their failure to communicate effectively and honestly.

The conflict in Afghanistan is a consequence of our bad laws at home and the waste of lives and money being expended there are harming our ability to resolve the situation through increased education and resourcing for border controls in this country.

The two sides of the issue are intimately intertwined, and Gordon Brown has got it wrong on both counts.

As a student of history he must recognise how the loose confederation of tribal resistance forces were used by the west to defeat the might of the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s by combining into the mujahideen, so he should know that aggression against the Taliban will have the same inevitable result unless he commits wholesale genocide.

So when you see anyone wearing a poppy in rememberance of the massacres of the past, it should also work as a reminder that it doesn't give the wearer immunity from making the same mistakes as were perpetrated then.

What will be the topics of discussion at BBC Question Time in Reading tonight?

David Dimbleby and panel come to Reading tonight for the latest edition of the BBC's flagship political discussion programme.

QT has been the cause of controversy in recent weeks with the first appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin, and some heated debate is always on the cards, so it's worth asking what people think is likely to come up.

Having a look back at the past few days it seems obvious that the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan, the sacking of government Chief Scientific Advisor Prof David Nutt over drug policy and the Conservative backtracking over a promise for a referendum on the EU Lisbon Treaty will be considered.

But what other subjects do you think deserve coverage?

Monday, 2 November 2009

A political purge

So Prof Nutt has been 'asked to resign' and two colleagues (Dr Les King and Marion Walker) inhaled deeply and have walked out in sympathy.

It was inevitable (as I mentioned earlier), and it only highlights the shambles of the policy-making process of this Labour government.

Alan Johnson accused his scientific advisor of stepping outside his area of competence and interfering in the political debate. He is clearly in meltdown phase as this was to effectively admit that he stepped outside of his area of competence and is willing to interfered in the scientific debate.

But before anyone shrugs their shoulders and says this is just tit-for-tat mudslinging, it must be pointed out that while the role of 'Chief Scientific Advisor' required high academic qualifications, the job of Home Secretary simply requires membership of the order of the Brown-nose!

As a matter of fact Johnson stated he lost confidence in Prof Nutt's ability to give impartial advice, which rather belies the evidence that Mr Johnson simply disagreed with the advice.

So, as Alan Smithson notes, this is the end of any ambitions Johnson had of becoming PM. Mark Reckons agrees - and that interview merely provides the icing on the cake.

But I'd go further and say that the episode actually signals the end of Johnson's career as a frontline politician (which appears to be a position supported by the British Medical Journal). Maybe the former postie could sort out the counterproductive militancy behind the CWU strike instead... don't hold your breath!

The policy of reclassifying cannabis was not, however, one determined by the Home Secretary - it was a top-down doctrine imposed by Gordon Brown himself.

So, yes, Johnson needs to go because he has shown professional incompetence, but he also needs to go because he has shown political incompetence for allowing himself to be set up as a patsy by his boss, who regarded him as a threat.

But neither does Brown emerge unscathed by the affair.

The internal manoeuvering at the heart of the Labour party is clearly to the detriment of law-making, and for this Brown is to blame and should be held accountable.

Meanwhile the Crust of the Grouch explains how Labour has got itself into this mess because they are afraid of losing power.

Policy based on electoral calculations exemplifies the depths of cynicism Labour has now sunk to.

It is just one more example of how Labour started digging itself into a hole when it failed to take advantage of the landslide majorities it gained in Blair's first two terms: Labour's problems stem directly from their failure to deliver the promised reforms which would give a more proportionally representative democratic system.

But the final word has to go to Chris Huhne, who is straightforward and scathing. He says,
"If ministers care so little for independent scientific advice, they should save public money by sacking the entire group of experts and instead appointing a committee of tabloid editors."
In other words he is saying the sacking of the scientific advisors over political differences is tantamount to the government admitting they have already abdicated their responsibilities and handed over the reigns of control to a shadowy cabal.

Friday, 30 October 2009

To err, or not to err

There's a clear split in opinion over the classifaction of drugs, as highlighted in all the papers and discussion programmes.

Basically the government has decided to ignore the advice of its' chief expert Prof David Nutt, who has been outspoken in criticising the government.

Either the government should sack him, or they should accept his arguments - he is appointed by them, after all. To do neither shows they are weak, divided and lack principles.

But I think the debate has been distorted by simple primary school level of confusion over the 'soft' drug, cannabis.

On one side it is the perception of cannabis as a 'soft' - and therefore harmless - drug which is causing confusion. And on the other it is the blatant ignorance of basic information which is yet more causing confusion.

This graph (from the Lancet) provides the best visual representation I can find for helping understand the difference between different drug types and how we should classify them (note alcohol is in the mid-range ie technically a class-B drug).

Cannabis is not a 'drug' in the sense that it is a pharmaceutical - it is only a 'drug' in the sense that it is an organic herb containing various active chemicals.

Whereas Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) or Heroin (diacetyl morphine) are trade names for refined chemical products on the criminal black market, Cannabis refers to a general name for a genus of flowering plants (which includes cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis).

The different origins of the vernacular names is an interesting linguistic question, which black-marketeers couldn't care less about, politicians simply don't have the general level of education to distinguish between and most news reporters simply brush over - even when they do know better. It underpins the separation of fact and opinion and has huge implications for public policy in the matter.

So, while 'Ecstasy' or 'Heroin' refer to single chemical agents which have measurable effects, 'Cannabis' refers to a set of unique chemicals in various combinations of multiple chemical agents, each of which have different properties and each combination of which has different effects.

The unique group of chemical agents in Cannabis are described as cannabidols (hence the name). The most commonly occurring are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and the pater familias CBD (Cannabidiol).

The first of these is considered to have psychoactive properties (which has associations with triggering schizophrenia), while the second of these as anti-psychotic properties (associated with treating schizophrenia).

While it is not just the strength of the drug which should be considered when classifying cannabis, it is also the relative proportions between the numerous various different agents in each individual batch.

Mark Easton gives a typically excellent summary of some of the issues. He provids details of the governments' own survey that showed more 43% in favour of no change, while roughly equal numbers in favour of reclassification and legalisation (19% each). So there's clearly more at stake than the government claims...

...yet the government has subjected us to a constant barrage of ill-informed scare stories about how super-powerful strains of 'skunk' are flooding the streets of the nation in a bid to retain control of the situation. The head of the Forensic Science Service's drugs unit, Dean Ames, provided evidence of the new 'deadly' variety (2-3 times stronger) which had started to dominate the market and that this higher quality product justified a change in the law to change the way the market operates. Except the change in the law didn't change the function of the market, only the conditions in which it operates.

The political problem is that the public is now so far ahead of the establishment politicians that the law has become irrelevant in helping inform public behaviour: only this week I was walking behind a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds who were smoking something they'd purchased illegally, but they were complaining that it was 'bad shit' and they should go back and beat up the guy who dealt it to them. Way to drive kids underground!

As Professor Nutt said:
"If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you're probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth."
It didn't smell like nothing to me, and they obviously knew about the differences between different products. They also clearly knew that the knowledge of their own experience is far more reliable than the guilt trip some morally repugnant fusty old biddy like Jacqui Smith wants to send them on as an excuse for her to absolve her own youthful indiscretions. Prosecuting her own insecurities by persecuting those who are in a similar position now as she was then is no penitance and does not resolve any wider situation.

Frankly speaking I'd court the disapproval of public fugures who are such blatant frauds as Ms Smith and I can understand why anyone else would too.

Unless and until the lectures from the authoritarian pulpit can demand our attention in such ways as through automatic transmission into every mobile phone and PDA (and I'm not sure this isn't the dream of the aspirant omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent force in an irreligious time), then it must be accepted that there are simply millions of people who are just not listening and will not listen to whatever the latest innaccurate, ineffectual and irrelevant outbursts of 'initiative' the PM and his self-absorbed colleagues in Parliament choose to congratulate themselves with as a means to justify their reelection crusade.

The establishment habit of trying to make individual decisions on our behalf while distorting the information they give us - when they choose to provide it - goes to the heart of why the public distrusts the current political system. It suits their purposes, but it doesn't fulfil our needs or our aspirations.

The fact that certain political figues actively choose to go against considered expert advice and their better instincts says all you need to know about them. You've also got to wonder how the rest of the public will respond to their advice if that is the example they set!

So I'd prefer it if we erred on the side of reality, if we must err at all.

And if the government were serious about banning dangerous plants then they should start by eradicating poison ivy from all our churchyards.