Friday, 28 August 2009

The Showdown Of The Cynics

Mark Reckons goes from strength to strength.

His reasoned and reasonable commentary continues to see him praised by opponents while challenging the established consensus opinion, so it's not much of a surprise that he is making waves in the blogosphere.

He'd just better watch out because one misstep while walking the tightrope could see him fall from a great height - just how long will it be before the sensible wing of the tory party tries to lure him with tempting promises?

Anyway, less of the speculation and back to the meat of the latest story.


Mark reports on how tory heart-thob Dan Hannan identified Enoch Powell as an influence on him and how no less a figure than Labour's 'how-many-jobs-this-week' Peter Mandelson rose to take the bait.

It came after a long campaign of Hannan grabbing the airwaves in a blaze of egotistical publicity, including deliberately stirring controversy by using his ability to speak eloquently, channelling some of the more anti-statist sentiment swirling about the country.

This campaign is interesting for how it has been designed in advance to generate increasing levels of attention for himself (and consequently his party) with a succession of deliberately calculated attacks on the sacred calves of the left followed by deliberately calculated praise for the standard-bearers of the right.

It simply couldn't be more cynical if a public relations company had dreamt up the scheme!

So when opponents of Hannan (ie Mandelson) descend to accusations of dog-whistling and attempt to smear him by association with a man known for supporting a widely derrided anti-immigrantion policy of repatriation they are walking into a trap. Not only are we able to learn that Hannan was born in 'darkest' Peru (of all the possible exotic places), but through the wonders of backlinks we can show how he can also use the more nuanced defence of differentiation between the man and his words.

For, as Sunder Katwala of the Fabians points out, Powell was a 'cultural essentialist' who argued that national separation - not racial segregation - was vital to maintaining an ordered society. For Katwala, Powell was fearful of the speed of integration and dubious about it's potential success.

However, the most accurate description of Powell which I've heard was that he was perhaps the most powerful political mind of his generation who was ruthlessly logical too. His only flaw was to start from a misplaced and inaccurate premise. Which turned out to be a major drawback, as history proved Enoch was an overblown prophet of doom.

So perhaps Powell was merely a man of his time viewing society through the lens of his own lifetime and experience - Tony Blair certainly gave him more than due credit when he offered an effusive eulogy to him.

All of which means we must be more careful when disentangling the snatched puffery of Fleet Street interviews.

Hannan had previously forewarned us he knew that to raise up the spectre of Enoch Powell would be a lightening rod to criticism from the left, so why does anyone remain surprised when he did?

More importantly, however, how can people who wish to avoid giving the oxygen of publicity to Conservatives pre-empt Hannan's next attempt to steal the ground from under their feet?

The limelight can only be maintained by holding a firm grasp on the public arena, but where the the silly season at the end of summer was once was filled with apprentice journalists earning their stripes as they learnt the pitfalls of their job, this drab period as now been taken over by politicians with an opportunistic eye and just enough knowledge and profile to be able to manipulate a compliant media.

With an active blogosphere now capable of endlessly churning over the smallest snippet of comment to keep it alive Hannan is a new type of public figure who has learnt that he no longer need bother spin his own messages - we are capable of doing it for him.

So the fact that Hannan has finally been challenged by the old master of these dark arts suggests we are now at a tipping point where the most successful method of capturing the public consciousness is changing - a new breed of cynical politician is emerging from the primeval swamp of politics to supplant the old dinosaurs.

This duel of the generations will have only one winner, I only wonder how many losers there will be.
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Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Psychology Of Swearing

"It says more about you" is almost a cliche, but it remains true.

In those moments of weakness we reveal our innermost insecurities that refer to and reflect our character traits.

So it was with interest that I watched top local dog Sir John Madejski expose himself in these subtle ways on TV last night.

As an illegitimate child born during the war and adopted by his true mother and stepfather (from who he took his surname), he has obviously struggled with identity and commitment issues.

This has partly manifested itself in the desire for acceptance and recognition which has resulted in leaving his imprint (Madejski Stadium, Academy, the plaza at the V&A, the fine art rooms at the Royal Academy etc) and possibly added to his attraction to celebrity.

Although he is an a approachable man often to be seen on the streets of town and is well-grounded in many ways (I've said hello to him a couple of times, and even met him in a social situation), it struck me when he for once let down his guard and got angry as his car stalled - he called it a 'bastard'.

The depreciatory term is uttered because it is a response to personal emotional triggers and therefore reflects back on the subject's own psychological insecurities. From this we can do more than guess about the possible personal experience and make-up of people who use various terms of offence (such as 'mother-fucker', 'wanker', 'shit' or 'cunt') to diminish the object of their ire.

The documentary wasn't the most artful I've seen, but it nevertheless did target its subject magnificently, gently teasing him open by undermining the cynicism which enables people to hold others at a distance - there was a telling sequence when the noble Lord expressed his regret for the surpressed emotional life during the period he grew up in and the conservatism this engendered. So it's almost perverse that he is a major donor to the local Conservative Party - unless, that is, he is subconsiously trying to subvert the well-spring of his own unhappiness.

The main theme was one of loneliness, illustrated by his emminent batchelorhood and his admiration for untouchable icons of feminitity. There were his bronze sculptures - one a bronzed 'sunbather' by Jeff Koons; the famous 'petit danseuse' (prostitute ballerina) by Degas, and of course his friendship with entertainer Cilla Black.

Intriguing though all this was, a narrative about emptiness is rather undramatic and untimately unfulfilling, so if his success is a signal of the culture of this age, then his narcissistic traits need to be traced back to the sense of betrayal which is wrapped in his origins - which may in the end have some correspondence with the problems of our alienated and introspective technology-obsessed society of today (he blogs, with no apparent trace of irony!).

Of course we can't revert or regress backwards, but it helps explain why society has developed in the direction it has and perhaps gives an indication of some of the issues which need to be resolved whilst we also try to avoid the pitfalls of current political choices.


David Cameron recently provided an example of a politician dropping the facade and descending into indiscipline when he gave a 'jokey, blokey interview' and was forced to apologise after he uttered the phrase "too many twits make a twat" and said that "the public are... pissed-off".

Maybe so, but he also recognised his mistake in exposing his own pschological weaknesses in this way when he explained: "Politicians do have to think about what they say."

There is an obvious link between Cameron's obsession with appearances and the workings of visible genitalia, his background in Public Relations and his lack of substantial policy proposals, but by giving us a flash of it he also managed to express his insecurity about his ability to preserve those appearances.

He probably will become Prime Minister when the time comes, but as Political Betting suggests, the size of his majority will inevitably create the conditions for his own destabilisation.

If he gains a landslide victory there will be a sizeable backbench constituency he will have to be careful not to alienate, yet the smaller it is the more he will have to placate it. And as the recent hoo-hah surrounding Dan Hannan's ideological attack on the NHS showed the jockeying for position has already created a tension between the grassroots and the leadership which could easily spill over into a major rift. Clearly he is walking a tightrope.

So, yes, openness and honesty is noble and liberating, but it won't help you if that's not what you're trying to achieve. Therefore Cameron will have to be more disciplined in future performances if his grip on fate is not to unravel.

Monday, 17 August 2009

That was quick!

Ok, so there was only one man who was going to win it...

But while I was stunned by the time, I wasn't so impressed by the performance. He pushed all the way unlike in Beijing last year, but he still wasn't at his max: I can understand his confidence that he thinks he can go under 9.5 seconds. And the sport science specialists suggest Bolts' physical mechanics support this belief.

The thing which struck me was how Tyson Gay was underwhelmed with second place in 9.71 secs. It reminded me of the old phrase about how, for Americans, winning is everything and second is nowhere.

I mean, come on!

Cut away to Dwaine Chambers who was almost banned from participating and you'll see him not only just glad to be there, but feeling the privilege that he is capable of being one of only seven other men who lined up beside the lightening Bolt on this special occasion.

Without those other 7 men trying their damnedest to push him as hard as they could it wouldn't have been the occasion it turned out to be. Anyone can be a champion in their own bedroom, but a true champion proves themself by competing against the best of the rest - without the participation of thousands of so-called losers there would be no victory worth the name.

So the taking part is more important than the winning.

And the same goes for politics too.

Even if you're proved wrong, and even if you lose and are criticised heavily in the process you can be proud that you stood up to be counted. Winning is not an egotistic pursuit - nobody wins when it is at the expense of somebody else.
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1000 Butterflies

It's everywhere and it's great!

Monday, 10 August 2009

A Charter of Accountability

Jock Coats has taken me up on the challenge of arguing about 'the social contract'.

More specifically he disagrees with my conclusion that "to deny the social contract is to pave the way for tyrants" and proposes instead that "to create a territorial monopoly of arbitration and force, a state, paves the way for tyrants."

Let me return to my local example. The historical context of the period before the Charter of Liberties was adopted in 1100 is significant as it gives us an actual case to study and from which to draw conclusions.

When William famously conquered England in 1066 it marked a break with the past, as all the earlier traditions and practices of government which had held up the conditions of the country were overturned - all the local lordlings and arbitrators lost their titles as these reverted to the new King who apportioned them afresh according to his will. There was massive turmoil and a massive struggle for wealth and power ensued as the new aristocratic class of Normans began to impose themselves by seeking the favour of the man at the top. Intrigue and treachery was rife, of which the assassination of the monarch was only the culmination. Nobody was immune.

So Henry forged a new compact with his barons which essentially promised 'if you promise not to kill me, then I won't kill you'. He also agree to rebuild the old institutional structures which were known and trusted to work, but had been swept away in the conquest.

This had the effect of enabling him to consolidate enough strength to face-off a multitude of internal and external threats and negated a general state of terror. Henry I was definitely a strong leader, but I'm not so sure he deserves to be called a tyrant.

- So what is the objection to 'territorial monopoly of arbitration and force'?

It is the same principle by which parliamentary sovereignty ensures supreme, independent authority over the land and which has underpinned the ability to retain state coherence in the face of all sorts of attack - when there has been confusion over which body or institution takes precedence in law-making and enforcement then petty disputes quickly spiral into a constitutional crisis.

The 'investiture controversy' was one. It arose out of Carolingian promises to grant Gregorian Church reformers certain rights in exchange for supporting their claims to the crown. The Normans followed their example by similarly exploiting any opportunity to split temporal power and spiritual authority. This battle dogged the whole period until the Peasant's War and the Reformation when Henry VIII famously rejected papal advice over his divorce and the state gradually transformed into a secular entity, though it reached a peak in the years preceding 1100 in England when bishops and abbots were appointed from within the royal clique.

Some of the Norman nobles were certainly less scrupulous than others, but a more tricky problem was the lack of consistency and coordination between different landlords. Soon it became clear that looting, plunder and pillage could be got away with if the gaps between responsible authorities was effectively exploited.

Without an effective chain of command through to the overlord anyone with a grievance could easily be sidetracked into a bureaucratic cul-de-sac, where buck-passing, blame shifting and a general lack of clarity caused confidence in a system to evaporate and extraordinary measures to be taken. It's no surprise that the vigilante justice of Robin Hood proved so popular when accountability was subsequently lost.

So in three ways Henry's charter resolved conflict and established order as it was demonstrated the principle of legitimacy based on accountability could only be ensured with a 'territorial monopoly of arbitration and force', or at least a heirarchy through which procedures could coordinate an effective response to issues that arose - it was no good that peasants and freemen existed under different rules and enforcement policies from manor to manor and estate to estate: if there was to be a country there needed to be an organised and legitimate state which could defend it and those within it.

The Charter of Liberties provided the necessary contract between the ruler and the people.

- And what of today's 'social contract'?

A mixed system had existed for nearly 100 years until the Local Government Act 1972, when it was decided that a uniform two-tiered system should be imposed over the whole country to prevent the proliferation of smaller councils (such as Rutland) who were often beyond the reach of central government and incapable of keeping up with changes in the law.

The rise in left-wing militancy during the following period was partly enabled by these new power bases (such as the GLC), so it was inevitable that they would become a target for new Thatcherite reforms as local democracy was attacked and increasingly neutered.

Berkshire has a particular place in the history of the reforms of the nineties, as it became the only county to be fully divided into unitary boroughs until it was joined by Bedfordshire and Cheshire earlier in 2009 (Cornwall has gone the other way and coalesced). When Berkshire was finally abolished in 1998 the Banham Review recommendations were extensively criticised for the appearance of gerrymandering.

Not only had Berkshire been divided into six (instead of the originally proposed four, then five) unitary authorities, but the increase meant the precise delineation of the boundaries created a host of peculiarities such as Calcot (which was placed in West Berkshire despite remaining a functioning suburb of Reading, within the M4 boundary).

While these changes were designed to help control service delivery it did so by increasing accountability to parliament at the expense of locally elected council politicians. Today, local government finance is strictly controlled by the Treasury (in 2009/10 25% will come from council tax, 28% from formula grants and 46% from specific grants which are ring-fenced out of a total £125.6bn, up 3% [ref]).

Boards of experts with little local knowledge calculate their sums without appreciation for any facts on the ground, and as local needs are increasingly determined from the top-down councils are increasingly treated as a means to implement the central agenda. The restricted space to manoeuvre (council tax rises are capped at 5%, central target-setting and assessment etc) is only matched by the lack of practical accountability in the structure of the services. The fact remains that most individual councils simply aren't capable of fulfilling their responsibilities alone and even where they are wider issues require cross-border cooperation.

The 'social contract' has effectively been rewritten so that legitimacy no longer rests on direct accountability, but on their power of enforcement. The cumulative effects of changes in sub-national government undertaken by successive Labour and Conservative regimes have undermined local government and clear divisions in territorial authority have been broken up as power was absorbed by the centre and a new monopoly seeks to impose itself.

- Some local examples

Housing developments are a particular bone of contention in Berkshire (as in many other places). The Local Development Framework was agreed by the bureaucrats according to the guidelines set out for them and they have undertaken their statutory requirement to consult the public on it. But more engagement is seen with individual planning applications (around 1,000 for the Pincent's Hill, only a couple of hundred county-wide for the LDF). The consequence has been that West Berks and Wokingham concrete over greenbelt without investment in physical or social infrastructure, because they are happy to be a parasite on their neighbours. These communities are left with many problems, such as particular crime profiles and other consequences of commuter-belt isolation which take generations before they start to be mitigated effectively.

Recently Wokingham and Reading were criticised over the state of their childrens care (lack of effective management controls and communication among other things). The conclusion was that the only effective way to prevent each authority's different failings in different areas was to club together and integrate the Local Safeguarding Children's Boards for Wokingham, Reading and West Berkshire to create an umbrella authority, despite the fact that this put it beyond democratic accountability.

The massive timescale and investment for effective waste service management has also seen a coalition of councils club together. This time Reading, Bracknell Forest and Wokingham are spending £610m on a 25-year plan after having taken ten years to redevelop two waste disposal facilities.

Another ongoing issue is the question of a third Thames bridge which requires not only a cross-border consensus, but also a cross-river agreement.

On the other side of the coin the lack of accountability in the board of the county Fire Authority (comprising a 'politically-balanced' selection of 25 appointed councillors from across the six unitaries) has been allowed to drift from our attention for so long that Windsor Fire Station is being closed to pay for an increase in their expenses!

And as if to demonstrate the powerlessness of local councils there is the 2M group which is representing the almost universal local opposition to building the third runway at Heathrow.

As far as Jock's example of local communities independently hiring service providers (a group in Southampton are funding private security in their area because they think the Police are failing), I am concerned it is part of the trend of stopgaps. It strikes me as being being an extraordinary measure (along with gated communities) which could be allowed to slide and become the norm.

Independence may initially seem like a good thing, and it is up to a point, but in the wider scheme of things we all live in an interconnected world where we are mutually dependent with mutual shared interests. The plain fact is that although we can create our own rules for social interaction which have there consequences, we also live in the real world where nature and the laws of physics will not be overthrown any time soon.

- Conclusions

Where it's argued that the 'social contract' is an authoritarian means of creating compulsion, I am more than slightly cautious. The libertarian position against compulsion may be a valid criticism but it does not make a coherent argument when faced with confusion in general day-to-day business. Compulsion is not an end in itself, but is used as a means to an end.

The chaos and disorder which exists where there is no social contract (or a distorted understanding of one without consequent accountability) creates the unrestrained conditions where arbitrary rule allows the strong free reign to act according to their whim. That's freedom for an individual, not freedom for the individual.

Where a pluralist or democrat can be weak and ensure policy is enacted by agreement, a monopolist must certainly be a 'strong leader' to ensure resolutions are enforced by will. The tyrant is either a weak leader who creates dissent because he fails to reach agreement or a strong leader who stimulates opposition by abusing the power of office.

Either way accountability can only be ensured by a so-called 'social contract' between rulers and ruled which enfranchises both sides into participating in the politically process on an equal basis.

Liberalism has a strong history on constitutionality, which is largely based on the principles of legitimacy and accountability enshrined in and proven by the Charter of Liberties. We should not forget it.

Does this mean elected councils should correlate with service authorities to ensure the politicians who stand in elections can be brought to book by their employers (us, the electorate), or does it mean we should give up with democracy altogether?


Incidentally I see James Graham has argued that the lack of accountability engendered by central control creates the postcode lotteries for local services which is so often the cause of complaint.
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Who Wants To Answer This?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Social Contract

This is a good debate and I want in on it.

My own personal take is to look at a bit of locally relevant history, namely HenryI, who happens to be buried in Reading Abbey (or at least part of him is).

Henry came to power in dubious circumstances (William II had been killed in a 'hunting accident' while the second-in-line was on a crusade) and was by all accounts a stern king, but by the standards of the time he introduced a fantastic precedent with his legal defence of his usurpation of the throne.

With his proclamation of his 'Charter of Liberties' Henry returned the ancient freedoms enjoyed by the English before the invasion of Willian 'The Conqueror' less than half a century before. In the meantime the nation had been ravaged as the population was brutally repressed in what some have considered a 'genocide', with at least ten percent of the population starving when their fields were sown with salt, while other whole settlements were butchered wholesale. The population was seething and Henry decided to take his chance by giving everyone what they wanted.

With this single act he ensured the legitimacy of the rule of law was bound by accountability to popular consent, and he subsequently set about reintroducing a form of democracy into the land.

His definition of 'good government' resulted in his popular nickname of 'Beauclerc' (though this is sometimes considered a reflection of his scholarliness, I don't think there is much dissonance between the two).

The Charter of Liberties enacted in 1100 was referenced by anyone with a grievance and became the blueprint for the Magna Carta in 1215 after being updated three times in the intervening century.

From thereon in the history of a 'social contract' between governor and governed has been a form of exchange entailing mutual rights and expectations, with specified means of recourse where breaches occur.

Government can use compulsion against individuals where it has been agreed to through the correct channels, but it should be ensured that any use of it should be minimal. Equally it has become incumbent on the party in power to seek reconfirmation at reasonably regular intervals to ensure any mandate is maintained.

This last point is particularly important at the current time because Gordon Brown was not elected as leader of his party and has not won a general election as leader, so he is in a tenuous position even on the least controversial matters. So when it comes to unilateral impositions which fundamentally affect the relationship between the individual and the state, such as ID Cards, he oversteps the mark by a long way.

The tenor of discussion has been almost unambiguously critical of the way the 'social contract' has been defined by Labour, and I agree with much of it, though I prefer to emphasise the caveats. Yes, consent cannot be assumed in perpetuity. Yes, you cannot agree to something which you cannot actually read. And, yes, any written statement is only valid insofar as it is a statement of reality.

But my contention with those who disagree with the idea of a 'social contract' is slightly more nuanced. It's not that the social contract is 'wrong' or 'non-existent', or that you can 'just leave' if you don't like what your government is doing, but that the social contract also includes within it a legal justification for the overthrow of a tyrranical leader if they break it's conditions.

So to deny the social contract is to pave the way for tyrrants.
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