Monday, 29 November 2010

Wild scenes as man of his lifetime dies

Leslie Neilsen has died. He was 84. It was pneumonia. In Florida.

Amidst all the weepingly funny moments provided by the man of no mirth I haven't yet seen a fully appropriate tribute to the comic career made from unflinchingly inappropriate reactions to disaster.

The son of welsh-danish immigrants to Sasketchawan who later in life fulfilled his all-Canadian dream of becoming a Mountie (at least on-screen in Due North), he came from an unlikely family, but one which was destined for bigger things.

While his elder brother, Erik, became deputy PM in Canada during the 1980s, his uncle, Jean Hersholt, became the president of burgeoning Academy of Motion Pictures during its post-WW2 propagandist heyday (1945-49), and it was this which undoubtedly spurred his course into the acting firmament.

While studying at a radio college in Toronto he recieved a scholarship to New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse where he gained a foothold in aspiring acting circles, studying alongside names like Charlton Heston.

This was the world of serious dramaticians where new media forms of television and reporting were taking their first baby steps. Henry Miller and Marlon Brando etched a scar into every word they composed or delivered, but the reading populace was hooked on sci-fi comics and true crime, each in their own way reflecting the political threats of the looming cold war and the baby-boomer generation.

It was a world epitomised by Alexander MacKendrick's 'Sweet Smell of Success', where the unethical and unscrupulous compete in a demi-monde of tyrrants just to survive. Such a backdrop of self-interest and self-promotion inevitably descends into the corruption of ideals, but grows more vital for all that.

But stage-work held less appeal for his rugged middle-class Scandinavian good-looks. In 1950 alone Leslie Nielsen appeared in over 50 live TV dramas. He made it as the pulp actor.

Nielsen then went from live action television to 'B' movie respectability with notable performances such as in 'Forbidden Planet' (which is attributed as the inspiration for Star Trek, perhaps directly enabled by Hersholt's cultivation of Gene Roddenberry as a writer). He continued to ply his trade until he failed to brace himself for the tidal wave which would hit him after accepting the role as captain of the doomed ship in 'The Poseidon Adventure'.

This mid-70s establishment schlockbuster was a staple of church homilies for decades (until it was replaced by Dan Brown's epic credulity-stretcher), but Nielsen's ability to play a serious character equally oblivious and complicit in his fate caught the attention of tentative spoof-artists and paved the way for his latter comedic triumph.

In between, Nielsen was regularly on the fringes of mainstream success with try-outs for everything from Ben-Hur to Hawaii Five-O... parodies which would have written themselves, how different our popular consciousness could have been!


News announcers have attempted to pin him as a master of the dead-pan one-liner, but if anything their narrow focus and short memory is their loss.

Leslie Nielsen was the master at maintaining a running accumulation of absurdity.

Quelle d'hommage

Outside his screen persona the ability to deliver classic links unbeknownst by simply 'acting natural' just began to fall into his lap, and he developed this character art into a dedicated brand as unique and profound as other comedy greats.

Homme de l'age

It wasn't so much that he could carry-off the ridiculous with equanimity, rather it was how his stock character highlighted the ridiculousness of any given situation and our attitudes towards it.

In his transition from doomed commander of space ships and cruise ships to the hapless huckster who somehow wins out through incompetent toil Leslie Nielsen mirrored the change in public appreciation of high-level politics from one of deference to one of scepticism.

And it all happened in one inoccuous line delivered as the supporting lead half-way through a derivative rehash.

He was serious, and luckily for us we saw the moment he turned!

But for a final word I'll leave you with some suitable words from suitable people, the Kings of the Ring, with whom he gave Frank Drebin one last drubbing and closed the case of 'The Undertaker'.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Insensitive, offensive and just plain wrong - Lord Young proves he's an old codger

In an interview with the true-blue Telegraph Tory peer Lord Young said "the vast majority of people in the country today... have never had it so good," but the choice of words by this particular individual couldn't have been worse if he'd tried.

As an unpaid advisor to the coalition Government he obviously has sufficient private means to insulate himself from the government cuts. He is also in a position to be able to watch from the comfortable inside of Whitehall as large numbers of paid workers dependant on state employment are sent into the insecurity of the outside world.

With experience as a former Trade and Industry minister during Margaret Thatcher's tenure in Downing Street he is of a select vintage harking back to a period in history which political folklore has memorialised in thousands of urban regeneration projects up and down the country to compensate for the damage caused. And His Dotage clearly recalls Harold Macmillan's era-defining comment when post-war stability allied to the burgeoning welfare state certainly did make it appear all was well with the world.

But now is not then and neither has the future decided whether the current economic circumstances are merely a blip on the chart of history or a tipping point at which a slide into catastrophe became inevitable.

That Bank of England interest rates are at historic lows certainly does mean mortgage repayments are well below where they might have been given different reactions by decision-makers - 0.5% is a long way off 15% - yet with the home-owning democracy of his former bosses now underpinning the credit ratings of millions and the freedom of mobility enabled by a continuous upwards trend in house prices under threat the general sense of security and well-being is nowhere near where he imagines for the 'vast majority' he spoke of.


It's difficult to guess whether the appearance of such a dinosaur trotting out on the stage with this selection of stereotypical lines will help or hinder the coalition in the longer term, but the damage limitation exercise by Number Ten's PR department will hope the swift retraction and full apology proves sufficient.

LibDems ministers on the other hand must be seething that they may be tarred by this blue brush (especially with their first public test of the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election getting nearer by the day), and they could be tempted to insist that an example is made of him. Such a move would certainly demonstrate a difference in tone between the parties and show they are still an independent force, although an orchestrated move by backbenchers would cause some friction with colleagues in the cabinet.

So new LibDem President Tim Farron has an immediate opportunity to flex his freshly-mandated muscles as the spokesman for the membership and he would make a definite impression in his own progress towards a future leadership contest against Danny Alexander.

The episode provides ample grounds for restating the long-standing LibDem position that although the country has consistently made tangible gains these have been unequally distributed across different sectors of society.

As the furore of definitions of 'fairness' brought to light, the burden of the cuts does have a proportionately larger effect on those at the bottom of the ladder, but significantly the ONS measures also show there is a growing underclass of people who were getting left behind as inequality has continued to rise throughout periods of cuts as well as during phases when growth in government spending has dominated.

So while Labour and Conservatives direct their political messages at business and the aspirant middle-classes of professional and subsistence workers there is a still-untapped constituency of outsiders who LibDems have traditional attempted to appeal to and for.

This messy underclass of NEETs and others remain largely beyond the scope of government intervention. Despite all the efforts and money directed at them these are people who are disillusioned and disenfranchised by the state.

These are the neglected and unrecognised groups who prefer to avoid means tests and the stench of pencil-pushing bueaucrats. They may be non-voters, they may have mental illness or depression, they may be drug-users, probationers or homeless or simply people who see the media construction of state and other people as irrelevant to their own enclosed lives.

They are people who drift in and out of formal society or who've dropped-out completely and live a casual meandering existence. You won't find them if you're looking for them because their art is in avoiding you.

They live on the fringes of political consciousness because they won't ask for help and would refuse it if offered: the state isn't providing solutions for this underclass and I don't think it can provide any direct solutions - instead the state must be reformed.

And this is where only the LibDem belief in freedom can be transformative.

They need to be able to say that their way doesn't have to be the same as your way, and that this is OK if you are prepared to accept the consequences.

For starters it would help if they said Lord Young should be sent on his way.

Over to you, Mr Farron.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Songs of the Day

Boom, Boom, Boom.

Bombs go boom.

It's been a week in which news headlines have been dominated by bombs.

Apparently the printer bomb sent by cargo plane from Yemen and destined never to reach their intended recipients at Jewish institutions in Chicago was defused with only 17 minutes to spare and the implications for the air freight industry has got(ten) the international media wound up with excitement.

In such circumstances intelligence - and especially the calmness to use it when under pressure - comes at a premium and a balance must be struck between the twin imperatives of security and liberty to continue business as usual.

However industry body IATA has warned that this will have a major impact which they won't be able to compress alone.

Unsurprisingly questions have been raised about efficacy of scanning machines - none more eloquently than by the delightfully-if-unfortunately-appropriately-named Geneva airport spokesman, Bertrand Stämpfli, who said without any trace of world-weariness, "Every time there is a crisis we get an incredible number of calls from lobby groups all trying to sell the best possible detection machine," although I'm less confident of his assertion that "Everyone is suspicious of 'the magic detection machine'."

Nevertheless I completely agree with Swiss aviation expert Sepp Moser's comment, "There is no absolute security and it can never be achieved."

Meanwhile 14 parcel bombs have been sent to various embassies and political offices across Europe this week - there's nothing like priming a pump to make sure your story detonates with sufficient resonance.

Well, Al-Jazeera is equally right to show balance by pointing out that Europe is under constant threat of internal terrorism in order to show that the phenomena can't simply be written off as the fundamentalist extremism of outsiders - the West does have some very real problems which won't just go away if we ignore them... the rest of the world can't ignore them - just like any powerful expansion the vacuum it grows to fill is only relative.

Anyway in this excursion into the explosive world of medialand I found this fantastic article by Nicola Simpson in which she details how the establishment of 'a successful equilibrium' comes from recognising that one side simply cannot exist without the other as it is in fact defined by the other.

Ms Simpson quotes Franklin's inalienable 'essential liberty' and remarks on Montesquieu's argument that the general political reality has a marked influence on specific individual conceptions of where the balance will be struck.

She suggests complacency about security "will inevitably mean a seismic shift in our attitudes concerning what liberty or liberties we might consider essential."

The big modern example cited is 9/11. And clearly this event informs both the Yemeni ink-jet bomber and Al-Jazeera's giving weight to a campaign of anti-establishment anarchists sending bombs through the post to Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Merkel.

But more interestingly she notes another notorious instance where an unbalanced media enabled the political swing to be pushed: The Reichstag fire in 1933.

It occurred only 4 weeks after the new Chancellor took office and was used as an example of exactly the sort of threat which government should intervene to prevent.

It is easy to compare the conspiracy theories which grew into the information gap in both 1933 and 2001 as examples of apparent coincidence mounted up, but to do so would require a final judgement on the precise details of the full events and this is something we should refrain from as history has a habit of letting the facts speak for themself.

For me at least the lesson is that we can't neglect the potential for distortions in hindsight even when we assume we have 20/20 vision, and the only reliable method to maintain as close an approximation is to seek the widest balance possible.

Although I reject the accusation that I'm a conspiracy theorist I do find it an ironic coincidence to recall the first weeks of the previous Prime Minister's tenure, when a pathetically incompetent series of bombers lined up to undermine the new regime - first there was the Tiger, Tiger incident and then there was a gas bomb attack on Glasgow Airport which resulted in fingers being pointed at an active cell linked to Al-Qaeda.

Bombs are tediously predictable if you've ever seen one explode. They are designed with a single purpose in mind. To cause sufficient impact to make a breakthrough.

All the way back to the original fireworks night when Guido Fawkes (no, not that one) attempted to blow up the pomposity of parliament (yes, the very same one) the results are the same: bombs do not and never have changed the underlying requirement to ensure the essence of liberty is maintained through regularised parameters of behaviour. Bombs are beyond the bounds. They are evidence of an argument backed by force at the expense of right.

So ignore the convenience of a shocking bombing campaign launched during Halloween week and forget who could be trying to manipulate the agenda.

Oh, did I mention 28-day control orders are under consideration?

As Bagehot wraps up, it's an issue which unites LibDems - a curate's egg at the best of times, least of all while being scapegoated for sweetening the economic medicine in straightened times.

But as Andrew Rawnsley points out in his usual muscular editorial voice, this partisan unity is not only a glue which keeps the internal coalition locked within the government coalition, but it is also the charge which is driving the government forwards.

Boom, boom, pow.


more music

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The IFS, the buts and the maybes - questions of fairness and the CSR

This is a cross-posting. It was originally published on 27th October here and was based on my previous couple of posts here and here.

I'll offer some thoughts on the discussion it raised (50 comments) below.


Last week Nick Clegg and the Institute of Fiscal studies squared up over the issue of whether the cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review are fair.

It is a debate which strikes at the heart of Lib Dems in the coalition government and it will determine the shape of politics in this country for next decade.

For the first time ever the Treasury included an impact analysis of the announced changes within the CSR, the effect of pressure from Lib Dems. These were calculated according to the sections of society that will bear the burden of the changes (ie how ‘progressive’ it is).

But it is a question subsequent events show it has singularly failed to settle.

It came after years of urging from left-wing think-tanks (such as the Fabian Society) that the Office of National Statistics annual evaluation of the effects of taxes and benefits on household income [pdf report June2010] was insufficient.

The controversy begs two questions:
1) why didn’t Labour force the Treasury to include an impact assessment in 13 years of government under Brown or Blair?
2) if the established measures didn’t enjoy support, why wasn’t a review of the impact analysis methodology introduced earlier?

After the election the IFS attempted to do just that with a report timed to coincide with the coalition’s post-election emergency budget. The IFS argued that “assessing the impact of government activity on the distribution of household living standards is essential to the evaluation of public service provision,” but offered the warning that this “raises challenging conceptual issues” and cited sources claiming that the then current methodology provided by the ONS was too simplistic [pdf report July2010].

The IFS were then charged with developing new criteria to determine a more accurate impact analysis. Their new calculations informed the basis of Chancellor George Osbourne’s speeches to the House of Commons on the spending cuts which the Government could recommend on the basis that the cuts were indeed ‘progressive’.

Following the Chancellor’s speeches on the Budget and CSR, the IFS gave their widely reported counter-briefings arguing a diametrically opposed conclusion [pdf press release August2010, pdf opening remarks October2010].

This is the corresponding graph presented by the IFS:

Can you spot the difference?

The former shows a representation of the impact measured as a percentage of net income by decile. The latter includes a representation measured as a percentage of net expenditure, using projections from two years later to exaggerate the effect. The former explains that the cuts are generally progressive, but the latter that the cuts are massively regressive.

So when Nick Clegg intervened to denounce the IFS briefing as ‘distorted nonsense’, besides the attack the more astute reader would notice that this supported the July review of the need for more accurate assessment of fairness, as written by none other than the IFS.

Clegg stated that he “fundamentally disagreed” with this month’s IFS analysis of the biggest losers in the welfare spending cuts, arguing for a more accurate analysis including welfare spending inputs from services such as childcare and social care which are targetted and taken up by more the most vulnerable lower-income groups and families with children, but who the IFS said would be hit hardest in cash-only terms by the changes to tax and benefits.

As it was the IFS had effectively rewitten the sums devised by the ONS without challenging the ‘conceptual issues’ they had identified – and the standard bearers of the left (Labour, Trade Unions, Fabian Society et al) have swallowed their conclusions whole!

So why the turnaround by the IFS on the issue of fairness?

At last December’s pre-budget report the IFS recommended 13% cuts to departmental budgets to deal with the budget deficit problems, a view which was subsequently taken up as Labour policy on the grounds that deeper cuts risked a double-dip recession. This which was followed by 25% cuts proposed in the budget and angrily rejected by the IFS.

Advocates of a smaller-state might argue that a respected, impartial and independent think-tank actively tendering for projects formerly undertaken by a government quango is a good example of encouragement the private sector needs to make the desired productivity gains and fill the gap left by government cuts.

A sceptic, however, might point out that the IFS report was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which is staffed by appointments made under the previous government, is itself dealing with cuts and agreed to ‘strongly communicate’ the implications of any changes to its financial allocation which it recieves from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Consequently ESRC board members decided it would “quickly respond to questions raised by rapid changes of events” and this may have mitigated against deeper investigation into measures of fairness, possibly causing the IFS to rely too heavily on the previous sums devised by the ONS and which critics had deemed ‘insufficient’.

The coalition has now revised the cuts to departmental budgets down by a quarter to 19%. It has done this by making additional savings elsewhere, such as by postponing capital spending, and it has done it in order to reach its stated aim of reaching budget stability by bringing nominal growth in budget growth back into line with longer trends in 4-5 years. Yet the vehemence of the IFS opposition is undiminished and appears to be growing as they get drawn into the political arena.

It should be no surprise that this timescale coincides precisely with the period Nick Clegg and David Cameron have promised to remain in coalition before going to the country for the next general election.

Were the total cuts to be smaller this would take longer and therefore require a new mandate to complete the programme, but for the governing coalition to survive until a point after the next election it would demand some form of electoral pact between LibDems and tories – something activists in both parties see as poison – and especially with the prospect of a positive referendum on proportional votes looming, which should be a given as Ed Miliband has stated his support for AV on the grounds of fairness (what else!) and must back to the hilt the item in the coalition agreement LibDems have described as a ‘deal-breaker’ and a ‘game-changer’.

So Labour strategy to attack LibDems over fairness in cuts is three-fold.

The easy solution for them is to undermine LibDems sufficiently to break the coalition and force an early election before government by coalition is effectively locked in by an AV referendum.

Labour’s second option is to weaken resolution within the coalition in order to delay the point at which it can be dissolved amicably in preparation for an AV election where an electoral pact would paint LibDems as ‘tories in disguise’.

And thirdly it deflects from Labour’s own cuts agenda which it needs to maintain any economic credibility.

Maybe this explains why Labour must stoke an argument over fairness to stand any chance of returning to power within the foreseeable future.

But if anyone is in any doubt about Labour’s commitment to fairness, we only need to consider their track record and how growth in economic inequality under Labour carried over from the 1980s and 90s throughout their 13 years in office, according to the Equalities Office [pdf report Jan2010] (this is particularly important here as continuing growth in inequality suggests any calculation of the impact of tax and welfare changes on income or expenditure by decile becomes less relevant over time as the effect of spending on services increases in relevance).

Maybe we should ask, “where were you in the Labour government, Mr Miliband?”

And therefore maybe we should also question the emphasis given to the opinion of the ‘respected’ IFS regarding the progressiveness of cuts when it is only the most well-known of a range of equally respected bodies producing reports into fairness.

A balanced and pluralist perspective undoubtedly gives a fuller picture than a single independent view, however impartial the people giving it – and surely you can’t say fairer than that!


Regular readers will know how I enjoy occasionally entering into controversial territory, and on a fundamental current debate such as this it was to be expected that my piece would draw the usual selection of opposing views.

I originally hoped this article would simply challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, following the model of media narratives thriving on confrontation to dramatise their subject.

Yet it initially seemed several of the readers refused to get drawn into contemplating the complexity of the issues.

As a consequence it was somewhat inevitable that there were strongly positive and negative reactions - the content was disregarded, supported and generally misunderstood; I was blamed and held responsible for making 'dangerous' and 'odious' implications bordering on a conspiracy theory - all within the first handful of responses!

While it may be obvious that those who can least afford it will suffer most from the cuts in the CSR I think the strength of the responses indicate that I was at least partially successful in opening up some daylight between what is meant by 'progressive' and 'fair'.

Indeed, I don't think they are the same thing at all, even where they overlap.

So the problem, as Ian Sanderson rightly explains, is the lack of an accepted definition for 'fairness'.

But in the course of the discussion my main thread - that there is a political and electoral reality which must be accounted for - all too quickly became smothered.

And this is particularly marked where Anthony Aloysius St says, "It’s entirely the government’s decision how fast the deficit is reduced."

As much as the opposition is seeking to paint it as one single stripe, the fact of coalition has forced all practical economic planning in the CSR to be encompassed within the timeframe of the current parliament.

Equally this has a bearing on my supposed attack on the ESRC, where the reality of an interlinking and fluid state of human relationships and interests quickly becomes misrepresented as supposition of bias.

Anyway, after I entered the comments thread it strikes me that the tone changed and the commenters accepted we each have to have a perspective in order to be able to give an opinion.

I can admit here that I do tend to adopt a somewhat provocative stance, but life would be boring if everyone simply agreed all the time, so it is at this point that the discussion enters more interesting territory as Sen and others consider where they are coming from (thereby tacitly accepting the post had a particular intent, even if it was obscured by my spaghetti-like weaving of ideas).

So you can imagine that I was almost dumbstruck (I know!) with George Kendall's comment:
"I can’t think of another debate on LDV where serious discussion has led me from disagreement to agreement. If only this kind of civilised discussion were more common on the internet!"
And when Chris Riley pops up to enthuse that mature political debate should avoid tribal sniping
because the full picture must involve the contributions of all sides despite the "caricatures and imperfect information" we form our impressions under, I started to feel more confident that my mischief-making had actually drawn some real light onto the matter.

So, if you've already made your mind up about the government, the CSR, or even this humble author, I'll recommend you read through the full contributions.