Hobson’s Choice

August 30, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Posted in Conservative Party | 3 Comments

Or ‘In Which I Defend Conservatives from Theo Hobson‘:

On Any Questions recently, someone asked the panellists whether they intended to cut down on their meat consumption, for environmental reasons. There were a couple of hesitant, nondescript answers and then Ken Clarke calmly guffawed at the whole idea. Like I’m going to cut down on my merry feasting, he basically said. And the audience found his cavalier confidence sort of reassuring, and laughed. Here, it struck me, is the very nub of the Tory soul: it enjoys showing its lack of angst. And such confidence impresses people. Let us be ruled by these Nietzschean strong souls, we cravenly feel, who are too busy living well to entertain cowardly moral scruples.

Y’know, misrepresenting the motivations of your opponents might not be one of the worst characteristics of an ever-corroding political debate, but it is one of the more grating. Whilst I’m sure the liberalism Theo Hobson subscribes to is suitably right-on and resplendent in its idealism, it still pales when compared to the bold (and apparently naive) ideal of treating people on the other side of the debate like human beings.

The distinction Hobson draws here – between the environmentally-aware, socially just and eternally earnest liberal and the arrogant, self-interested Tory with no regard for anyone but himself – is so crude as to be unworkable, even as political rhetoric. All we would have to do for Hobson’s dichotomy to fall apart would be to locate just one Tory who agrees with him on an issue he holds dear. In fact, he need only ask the aforementioned Ken Clarke, whose preference for European integration and prison reform is ground upon which a Tory and a Bleeding Heart can share.

Nor is it at all accurate to insinuate that Tories possess such a serene sense of calm that they’re exercised by nothing other than their own tax rate. Of course there’s such a thing as Tory Guilt, it’s just that those fears are differently located from our own, and we have far more pejorative descriptions for it: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, Catholicism, climate denial and milk snatching.

There will be occasions when some of those descriptions are true and occasions when they’re not, but as irritating as it might be to have my rational, well-grounded arguments for Nice Things dismissed as ‘liberal guilt’, I’d do well to admit that I get off pretty lightly.

Plus, it’s not like the types of topics Tories worry about is any kind of secret; just open up the feverishly anxious Daily Mail on a given day and you’ll find plenty of proof. They worry about family, and think the breakup of the nuclear ‘ideal’ will have troubling consequences for society. They worry about education; they long to see a return to discipline, selection & more traditional subjects. They worry about the state; they believe states should be small, that tax burdens should be low and that encroachments into the public’s private life should be avoided. They worry about immigration, and fret about what increasing numbers of foreign men & women will do to the cohesiveness of society.

Obviously, I share few of these concerns. I think some are overblown, some unfounded entirely, some based in reasoning or faith which I don’t share. Nonetheless, they are fears which are often as genuine and deeply-felt as our own, and simply believing them to be wrong doesn’t make them vanish. Nor will simply mocking those concerns make anyone more susceptible to your point of view – tempting though that often is.

In the long run, of course, we’re all dead, but if we want to go out of this world with a little deeper an understanding of humans than we currently possess, if we want to gain a broader understanding of the beliefs and principles that guide the people around us, if we want to edge just a few inches closer to the better societies we profess to want, it would be useful for us to take the time to understand our opponents rather than ascribing unfairly miserly, misanthropic attributes to them. That goes for the left and the right.

Update: Also read this.

The ‘Social’ in Social Housing

August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Social Policy | 6 Comments

There are plenty of reasons why people who could afford to leave social housing opt not to do so.

The most obvious, of course, is cost; even if you did have the resources to find yourself private accommodation, you might prefer living in social housing if it leaves you with a little extra money for food, clothes, transport, a night out and the odd holiday.

The second is the security that social housing can offer. Not every private landlord is as scrupulous as a local housing association, and the further down the price scale you go, the less security you’re likely to have. Social housing can offer considerably more peace of mind for tenants.

Another reason is community. People might just prefer the part of the world they’re staying in: they’re on good terms with the neighbours; their parents live up the road; their kids go to the local school; they’re used to seeing and socialising with the same faces; they belong. Why would they want to leave those social networks – that familiarity – behind?

Although the first two reasons will be most commonly cited by those concerned about David Cameron’s social housing announcement, I think the third reason is potentially the most significant.

Functionalist sociologists – more often linked with the political right than the left – often talk about a thing called social solidarity. They believe that social harmony is best achieved by members of a community all sharing similar norms, values, lifestyles, histories and traditions. They’re the things that bind us together, that give us common ground and foster neighbourliness and a public spirit.

Now, that theory might have holes in it, but a glance at our nation’s past suggests there’s at least some truth there. When you look at our post-war history, many episodes of social unrest on the British mainland have had high population turnover as a contributing factor. Long-time residents saw their communities changing before their eyes and didn’t who their neighbours were; newcomers would be sent to areas they didn’t know, alongside people whose culture and language they didn’t always share.

Whilst most communities were (and still are) open-minded enough to adapt the changes around them (no thanks to you know who), those areas with acute social exclusion and economic inactivity would regard their new neighbours as competitors for resources that were already – are already – in short supply. Even then, bonds were (and still are) built over time: the ‘newcomers’ stick around, form relationships and embrace the community around them; the long-time residents begin to work and socialise and relate to the people they might once have treated with mistrust. Solidarity grows.

None of this is meant to diminish the problems afflicting some of Britain’s housing estates; rather, it’s meant suggest that the introduction of arbitrary fixed-term leases could make matters worse. If we know that a high turnover of population can erode the bonds which hold communities together, it is not far-fetched to conclude that a policy which leads to residents constantly moving on could erode those bonds further. If that happens, we should expect greater mistrust, dysfunction and social unrest in deprived communities. Like they need that right now.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who brings out the ‘Big Society’ as a ‘gotcha’ to thrash the coalition with each time they announce questionable policy. But a ‘Big Society’ is no substitute for an understanding of how society actually works.

David Cameron famously admitted that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. He was right on both counts. But if his coalition continues to act as if State and Society are two entirely separate entities, he will never ‘unbreak’ the Britain he inherited.

Michael Gove’s awful month

July 30, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Education | 3 Comments

The surprising thing about Michael Gove’s short tenure as Education Secretary is how quickly an appointment which began with such hype and bluster has descended into one of hubris and error. The controversies Gove has been embroiled in since May have been entirely unforced errors; it is not beyond a Secretary of State to publish an accurate list of which schools will/will not see their building projects completed, nor is it beyond his ability to give a realistic estimate of how many would take advantage of his invitation to become academies.

The truth, as we now know , is that most schools in England & Wales didn’t await the Academies Bill with the same breathlessness Gove had when he rushed it through Parliament. Whilst it’s still probable that eligible schools will become academies at some point, the implication that over 1,000 would do so before September always seemed rather staggering.

But the relatively small number of actual applications for Academy status is something the DoE could and should have predicted. It can take some schools months just to change something as superficial as a school uniform. With a matter as significant as a long-term change in a school’s structure, funding & accountability mechanisms, those thinking about applying will have needed to be meticulous in their preparation. They would have had to consult not just with governors but with teachers, parents, pupils and, yes, those maligned local authorites they’re meant to be desperate to escape. They most certainly couldn’t have proceeded with the same haste as the Education Secretary might’ve wanted.

Moreover, the rewards for schools to become Academies by September weren’t nearly as great as Gove might’ve imagined. By the time he made his invitations, many schools had already set their budgets for the next academic year: they already knew their resources, class sizes, staffing levels, the subjects they would offer and the targets for their own improvement. In this context, the additional freedoms & resources offered by Academy status would’ve made little difference, so why rush into an arrangement which would have enormous consequences for pupils, parents & teachers?

Gove’s mistakes thus far haven’t been errors of policy, but of process. Of course parents want increased standards across the school system; they want it to be easy to get their kids into a good school close to where they live, and they’re willing to accept reform if it might make that wish a reality. But parents also value some measure of stability, certainty and reliability; they don’t want to be confronted with erroneous, ever-changing lists of scrapped school building programmes and they don’t want to hear wild overestimates about how many schools which will convert into academies.

It normally takes a good few years for the full effect of education reforms to be accurately measured & evaluated. If he carries on at this rate, Michael Gove will have lost the public’s trust before he’s even lost the political argument.

Hollobone’s ‘burka ban’

July 14, 2010 at 8:22 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 12 Comments

JR-hollobone4 1378941c

Update: photo courtesy of http://www.jr-photos.com/ Also, see the comments section to see me getting a well-deserved upbraiding.

Whilst the success of a measure to ban Islamic veils in France should rightly be looked upon as a troubling victory for bull-headed illiberalism, we shouldn’t allow our disgust with the French parliament to distract us from those in Britain who would do the same thing.

Take Tory backbencher Phllip Hollobone, who took to the BBC the other day to shill for his euphemistically titled ‘Face Coverings Regulation Bill’.

The grounds that Hollobone seeks his ban range from frivolous to feeble to flagrant scaremongering: he claims that Emmeline Pankhurst would not have approved, that deaf people find it harder to lip read, that the burka must be awfully uncomfortable to wear on hot, sunny days and, if that wasn’t enough, that the women wearing them may pose a threat to national security.

You see, it’s not enough to argue that Muslim women must dress to suit the presumed wishes of some long-dead historical figure, nor is it enough to suggest they do their bit for old fashioned civility by flashing smiles at passing strangers. No, for Hollobone’s argument to have any weight at all, he must also argue that we should fear the burka, and the ‘women’ (if indeed they are women!) who wear it as a symbol of the horrors wreaked upon us by mad men.

Let’s face it, without having the terrorism card to waft in our faces, Hollobone’s featherweight arguments wouldn’t have even found their way in front of a TV camera. None of his ill-made justifications are adequate reasons to legislate in this or any other Parliament, and aside from some superficial doff of the hat to the matriarch of women’s suffrage, he doesn’t even bother to engage with the valid concerns that people have about what such a dress symbolises.

What’s more, does anyone really imagine that we can have an honest & revealing debate about the burka, its symbolism and the position of Muslim women in society by banning the religion’s most contentious items of clothing? Does anyone really believe that reactionary legislation designed to force integration will achieve its desired end? I thought it was just the left who did ‘social engineering’?

The sign of a ‘big society’ isn’t in the legislation we pass to try to pull people into line; it’s in the civic discourse between people from vastly different backgrounds who can communicate openly and freely, unimpeded by the senseless threat of legal sanction. We don’t need to like the face veil, we don’t even need to tolerate it, but Parliament certainly has no place banning it.

In praise of Alan Duncan

January 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | 7 Comments

I have no idea yet whether Alan Duncan is an asset or a liability to the cause of penal reform, but he certainly appears to be an ally, and is the author of two cracking soundbites:

Ms Crook wrote: ‘Alan Duncan said that the slogan “prison works” was repulsively simplistic. Anyone in politics should work to improve society and there was no more useful target than offenders.’

[...]

Ms Crook added: ‘He said, “Lock ’em up is Key Stage 1 politics.”’ Key Stage 1 is the first part of the primary-school curriculum studied by children as young as five.

To which the Mail has helpfully editorialised:

Suggesting that an old-style tough Tory approach to crime is worthy of a five-year-old will infuriate the party’s grassroots activists.

Well, if they’re going to act like five-year-olds…

Regardless of the bruised feelings the ‘lock ‘em up’ brigade will have today, Duncan is entirely correct. What’s more, it is reassuring to see that there are figures inside the Tory hierarchy who are prepared to defend their policy on prisons from the punative populism apparently favoured by David Cameron’s inner circle.

The spat within the front bench over the ‘prison ships’ proposal gives further evidence of something I’ve mentioned before. For quite some time now, it’s been apparent that there exists a real tension & contradiction in Tory justice policy, and one which will need to be resolved if the party takes power.

On the one hand there is the thoughtless, tabloid-fawning opportunism practiced by the likes of Chris Grayling. Under this ‘Key Stage 1 politics’, there is no sentence too punative, no cure but incarceration, and the only area where the conservatives would envisage more state spending is in the building of more prisons.

These are contradicted by a policy for prison reform which is, by and large, excellent. Their ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the purpose of the prison system should be reformation rather than revenge.

These conflicting instincts in Tory policy cannot coexist with each other in government because being progressive on prison reform will require restraint on sentencing which the would-be Home Secretary seems incapable of practicing. Even if he did, he would have to restrain not just his own instincts, but the reflexive vengefulness of the Tory tabloids and grassroots.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that this conflict will be settled on the side of reform, but I may always be proved wrong. Until I am, Alan Duncan deserves praise for standing on the right side of an unpopular and perpetually losing battle.

Goldsmith forgets to think

January 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | Leave a comment

If you thought the Tories’ ‘broken society’ meme was bit dystopic, this will really have you reaching for the bottle. According to Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate for Richmond Park and everyone’s favourite uber-green non-dom, we’re no longer living in a civilised country. Can’t wait to see that on his election posters.

In a post which implicitly supports euthanasia, Goldsmith contrasts the seemingly lenient sentence given to a convicted paedophile with a seemingly harsh sentence for a woman who ended the life of her beloved but brain damaged son.

The problem, you see, is those pesky “sanctimonious liberal commentators” who “will argue that the mark of a civilised society is its willingness to apply justice in the face of public opinion. For them, this mother is a law-breaker, just like Sweeney, and she should be punished as such.

Now, if I was going to write about how two court cases reveal what an uncivilised country we are, I’d probably think twice before accusing anyone else of sanctimony. I think I’d also take the time to ponder what a liberal commentator’s reaction to these two stories would actually be.

You see, liberals are found of liberalising things, and last time I checked, the criminal justice system hasn’t seen all that much liberalising in the past few decades. Indeed, there are quite a few ‘sanctimonious liberals’ who would go so far as to say that there shouldn’t be a custodial sentence for mercy killings, providing certain conditions are met. So under a more liberal system, the mercy killing escapes jail and the paedophile is still banged up. Am I missing something here, or is that not exactly what Zac Goldsmith is angling for?!

Seriously, I can understand why some folks have a reflexive urge to bash their opponents at any opportunity; it’s just a shame that this one couldn’t engage his brain before doing so.

Snow, Society and Conservatism

January 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 7 Comments

383564341 7acb80c0fbI know there’s a recession, freezing temperatures, and we’re at the start of what looks to be an unpleasant election campaign, but there are still times when you can smile and think “y’know what, we’re a bloody brilliant little country, aren’t we?”

As much as the bad weather has caused everything from irritation to havoc, there’s still much to enjoy in reading about the ways people coped, and plenty to admire in the many acts of kindness and heroism.

People like the employees from a building company who downed tools to help a charity deliver meals to the vulnerable, or the residents of a West Sussex village whose community spirit & soup kitchen helped them survive a power failure. People like this Doncaster park ranger who battled through five hours of thick snow to rescue two trapped women, or the chap who drives his 20 year old tractor through Gloucestershire, clearing snow. People like Barry and Sid, who drove through 30 miles of snow saving trapped motorists, or folks in the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who helped dig out an ambulance which had got stuck. People like the public sector workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, the passing driver who saved an injured cyclist’s life or the two teenagers who risked their own lives trying to save men from drowning.

These stories are inspiring & heart-warming, but they are also so frequent as to seem mundane. These people are ordinary and they are everywhere.

I mention this because snow is, for some reason, a political issue. On his blog, Dan Hannan described how he’d been ‘public spirited’ enough to clear snow for his neighbours, and wondered:

If everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Hannan’s argument here is that ‘big government’ discourages us from exhibiting the same public spirited behaviour as himself. Because there is a big, unweildy state delivering public services, we choose not to show kindness or consideration for others because we expect the government to do everything for us.

It’s a view which is also shared by the Leader of the Opposition. Here’s what David Cameron said when he gave his Hugo Young Lecture:

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

What Cameron is essentially arguing is that the state is a social evil, for it subverts all our better instincts. If this were true, then these examples of kindness and heroism would be outliers; unrepresentatuve of the country as a whole and made all the more extraordinary in light of the state’s discouragement of public-minded behaviour. According to this speech, to show human kindness, generosity and imagination is to go against the grain.

Am I the only one who thinks this an awfully pessimistic view of the country David Cameron wants to govern? There are many different arguments for slashing spending or reducing the size of the state, but to actually go to the country and say something which is just a more polite form of “we need a new government because Labour’s turned you into a bunch of bastards”, seems a little over the top.

This pessimism is something Alex Massie’s noted in the past. Cameron started out by promising to ‘let sunshine win the day’, but the closer he’s got to Downing Street, the more dystopic his depictions. As Massie puts it: “Frankly, if you were to take Tory rhetoric at face value the only sensible course, for those with the means to take it, would be emigration.”

This brings into question Cameron’s view of British life and the character or its people. Is he simply fulfilling the requirement of any opposition leader to note how terrible everything is, or does he really believe it? Were he ever in a position to answer that question honestly, it’d reveal much about his values, and about his perceptions of the people whose state he wants to govern.

Picture via Lawrence OP

Alan Duncan’s new job

September 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Prison Reform | 4 Comments

As demotions go, it could’ve been worse. Whilst Alan Duncan won’t be a member of the cabinet if a Prime Minister Cameron names him Minister for Prisons, the role is still massively important if the Tories are serious about mending their ‘broken society’. With a population of over 80,000, prisons groaning under the weight of over-crowding, and a pathetic rehabilitation rate which means we waste much of the $4bn spent annually, Duncan would oversee an aspect of the criminal justice system in which Labour has been a determined, belligerent, costly failure.

Of course, quite whether he’s up up to the task is a topic for debate; reading some of the assessments from fellow Tories gives the sense that he’s an ineffective, gaffe-prone hack who shouldn’t be trusted to run any department. Granted, as a minister, Mr Duncan would have some supervision (likely Dominic Grieve), but his rather rapid fall from Shadow Secretary of State for Business to a lowly shadow minister doesn’t inspire confidence, and when we have a prison estate which – by the Tories’ own admission – is in a state of crisis, you really want someone competent at the helm.

In the past few years, the Tories have come to resemble Jekyl & Hyde on issues of crime & punishment. It seems all Mr Hyde Chris Grayling has learnt from Labour’s successive Home Secretaries is how well the odd grubby, attention-grabbing gimmick (the ’21st century clip ’round the ear’; getting the state to steal teenagers’ mobile phones) plays in the papers, and I would hope that a presumptive Secretary of State would use his time more productively than coming up with clunky analogies to hip American TV shows.

But what’s gone under-reported is that the Tories’ plans for prison reform aren’t too bad at all; they’re sane, rational and seem focused on achieving long-term goals rather than short-term opportunism. Clearly influenced by the work done by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, many of the proposals laid out in this document [PDF], if implemented well, could take the prison service in a better direction than the one it’s currently heading in.

The Tories claim that reducing the rate of recidivism will be one of the top priorities, and will create financial incentives for prisons which reduce reoffending, make more money available for rehabilitation programmes and make prison governors accountable for the actions of prisoners once they’ve been released. They accept that whilst new prisons will be necessary to end overcrowding, the warehousing of prisoners in ‘titan’ jails isn’t the way to go. Instead, they propose to build smaller, local prisons and sell off some of the crumbling old dead wood. On top of this, more freedom will be given to prison governors, more opportunities will be offered for third sector agencies to work with inmates, and for charities to help with education & drug rehabilitation. The Tories claim that their proposals would rejuvinate prisons as places of “education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.”

Obviously, you can’t just take their word for it; even Tony Blair sounded strong on ‘the causes of crime’ when he was in opposition, and when Labour got into power the prison population soared. Much will depend on budgetary constraints caused by the deficit, whether they can resist the impulse to allow expansion of private sector prisons, and avoid the urge to respond to rising crime with more draconian sentencing. I also don’t think the goals for reducing the prison population are ambitious enough; under the Tories’ plans, the population would still rise to 94,000 by 2020, and whilst that may be an improvement on the projected 100,000 if things stay as they are, it still means locking up around 10,000 more people than we are right now. For me, more needs to be done to find tough alternatives to short (and mostly fruitless) custodial sentences.

That said, this is still much better than anything Labour’s offered recently. If they do what they promise – and if Mr Duncan can’t find new & innovative ways of screwing up – there’s always a chance that it might lead to better outcomes for some prisoners, and slightly safer communities for the rest of us.

Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Flickr user phil.d (Creative Commons)

Hague’s vision for British foreign policy

July 28, 2009 at 10:45 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, International | 6 Comments

On paper at least, William Hague seems like he could be a qualified & competent Foreign Secretary. Ideological differences aside, the former Tory leader is regarded as one of the smartest men in his party, is a keen debater and someone who apparently possesses a strong interest in, and grasp of, British history. These qualities (particularly the last) are all important in a top diplomat, and I think it’s safe to say they have not been present in every one of Labour’s foreign ministers.

Likewise, the vision Hague recently articulated for the future of British foreign policy is – again, on paper – a positive start, and one which does well to reflect both the global economic realities of the present and the breadth of challenges our government will face in the future. You should read Chekov’s excellent post for a summary of what was said, but the tone & themes of Hague’s speech seemed to suggest a return to a Realism or Liberal Realism which would be a welcome break from a Blair doctrine we cannot afford – either financially or diplomatically.

By embracing a more realist approach, Hague can reconcile the traditional Tory emphasis on the sovereignty of the nation state and aversion to grand global designs with a promotion of British values by means of diplomacy, trade and cultural dialogue. Using these means, the Tories would hope to restore those relationships which have corroded in recent years, whether with superpowers such as Russia or the smaller, fractious states in the Middle East where we used to have considerably more influence and respect than we currently possess. As Chekov notes, the worth of any new policy can only ever be judged by how it’s implemented but, if his vision is realised, we should at least avoid the kinds of interventionist escapades which have blighted the past decade.

But there are still some significant omissions from this speech, and problems with other statements the Tories have made in opposition. The first omission regards how his government will approach the arms trade, which has snared previous Conservative governments in scandal. As much as the Tories see free trade as a means to healthier diplomatic relations, the kinds of regimes our manufacturers sell arms to does reflect on our country’s reputation. For that reason, it’s to be hoped that – recession or no – David Cameron will make good on the commitment he made over three years ago to be tough on British manufacturers who provide arms for the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

Whilst Hague promised a comprehensive review of defence spending, he was frustratingly tight-lipped on what vision the Tories have for the future of the armed forces. Given the budget crisis and his more modest appraisal of Britain’s place in the international community, it would be nice to have received an indication that we should therefore be funding a different kind of military. In particular, beginning a shift away from funding a force built for conventional warfare, and towards combating unconventional, terrorist & economic threats (as suggested by this IPPR report) would be welcome. There is still, to my mind, no strategic loss if we failed to renew Trident.

The old issue of Europe still looms large over the party, and whilst the long-term consequences of Cameron’s decision to withdraw his MEPs from the centre-right EPP are still unknown, those voices (even within his own party) who warned that Cameron was making the biggest mistake of his leadership have so far not been proved wrong, judging by the ‘interesting’ company they now keep. Meanwhile, the Tories’ admirable (and slightly surprising) commitment to maintaining our foreign aid contributions has been spoiled by proposed reforms which appear to privilege Whitehall bureacracy over on-the-ground local planning, and feature a bizarre and slightly degrading internet democracy component

Another concern I have is the role a Prime Minister Cameron will play in setting Britain’s foreign policy. Over the past year or so, Cameron has shown a tendency to overreact to world events: his intervention in Georgia last year was anything but the kind of nuanced diplomacy promised in Hague’s speech, and his naive approach to the uprising in Iran would’ve been disastrous had he been Prime Minister – lending a scrap of legitimacy to Tehran’s paranoid ramblings about foreign agents trying to influence the country’s affairs. For a man who three years ago wanted to see a return to ‘humility & patience’ in Britain’s foreign policy, it’s yet to be seen whether Cameron possesses the temperament to see that through.

So whilst Hague’s words about the path the Tories will take on international relations will hardly fill even the Conservatives’ sharpest critics with dread, there are still many outstanding questions to be answered and many unknown tests that his government will have to face. They might not repeat the mistakes of the Blair era, but that’s not to say they won’t make a whole load of mistakes of their own.

The ‘Broken Society’ vs ‘Back to Basics’

July 21, 2009 at 8:56 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party | 3 Comments

I suspect I wouldn’t agree with CentreRight’s allonymous blogger Melanchthon on very much at all, but ever since ConHome gave him a platform for his unique brand of 16th century theology , he’s at least made for a consistently provocative read. Over the weekend, Melanchthon produced a right-wing critique of the Conservative Party’s ‘Broken Society’ rhetoric, arguing that the angle team Cameron has taken on social dysfunction is far too narrow and too focused on playing to the public’s perceived self-interest:

We often talk as if the problem about divorce, drunkenness, drug addiction, the incredible proportions of children from care going on to be criminals, and so on were problems because they cause harm to the rest of us. I understand the reason IDS and others frame the matter that way. They want to be seen to have escaped from moralising and to appeal to people’s self-interest because the moralising route seems to have failed.[...]

We must not think that the proper reason for addressing the needs of the Broken Society is only that, unaddressed, it might interfere, for a moment, with our decadent, empty and meaningless thrill-seeking. The wickedness of our Broken Society is only our own wickedness (yes, mine as well) drawn in vivid colours on a canvass large enough for all to see. It should not be that we address the needs of the Broken Society only because to do so suits our own selfish and nihilistic purposes. We must do so as part of trying to change ourselves. We must condemn the Broken Society because to do so is right and loving and good.

So by seeking to describe the ‘Broken Society’ only in terms of those ‘social evils’ which intrude upon the law-abiding majority, Melanchon essentially argues that Cameron has ripped the morality out of his crusade, creating a campaign which is more transactional than it is rooted in the values of religious conservatism. For him, the party isn’t calling for social change because it is moral and good; merely because it will save the state money & make us a little safer.

It’s a fascinating critique, and one which should remind those with a more liberal outloook of the subtle but important differences between this and the abortive ‘Back to Basics’ campaign that it superficially resembles. It is, in fact, a much cleverer creation, and one which has already resonated far more widely with the public than you saw in 1993.

Looking back, I think one of the problems with Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ speech was that it was too heavy on maudlin generalities to really capture the public’s imagination. The following passage, for example, is positively drenched in a sense of ennui, & nostalgia for some imagined golden age.

I think that many people, particularly those of you who are older, see things around you in the streets and on your television screens which are profoundly disturbing. We live in a world that sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort. Old certainties crumbling. Traditional values falling away. People are bewildered. Week after week, month after month, they see a tax on the very pillars of our society – the Church, the law, even the Monarchy, as if 41 years of dedicated service was not enough. And people ask, “Where’s it going? Why has it happened?”. And above all, “How can we stop it?”.

Now compare that with these remarks David Cameron made in a speech last year:

“Whether it is knife crime or any other symptom of our broken society, we will repair the damage by treating not just the symptoms but the causes too. I want the strength of our commitment to inspire faith; faith that our present social breakdown is not inevitable; that this is not a one-way street, faith to replace the disbelief we feel as it dawns on us that we are living in a country where being stabbed is no longer the dark make-believe of crime fiction but the dreadful reality of our children’s daily lives.

“And there is a thread that links it all together. The knife crime. The worklessness. The ill health. Above all, the wasted lives: “A sixteen year-old boy stabbed in north London; a sixty year-old man sitting around in Easterhouse who’s never had a job. A twenty-eight year-old woman stabbed in south London; a forty-eight year old woman dying from heart disease in Gallowgate.

“The thread that links it all together passes, yes, through family breakdown, welfare dependency, debt, drugs, poverty, poor policing, inadequate housing, and failing schools but it is a thread that goes deeper, as we see a society that is in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and, yes, even public morality.

Where Major’s rhetoric was fogged-over by vague moralising about returning to the ‘neighbourliness, decency & courtesy’ of the past, Cameron is more precise, identifying the specific symptoms of the ‘Broken Society’ and arguing that only by reducing them can we have a happier, more equitable future. Significantly, all of the social evils he lists (however indirectly) either costs the state money or causes harm to law-abiding people, and he is not asking for anything more from the British people than those things most of us already do.

Just as Major & Cameron’s ideas are framed very differently, I suspect the consequences of the two speeches will also be very different. Thanks to the fuzziness with which ‘Back to Basics’ was sold, Major unwittingly committed the Conservatives to leading the country to a kind of moral reformation. Unfortunately for him, by doing so it became fair game to scrutinise the character of his cabinet, and when a number of those ministers failed to stand up to that scrutiny, it fatally undermined the project he was trying to sell.

I think Cameron is avoiding this trap because he’s already been a lot more clear about what his ‘Broken Society’ is. He’s not asking for piety or even for the vast majority of us to change our ways of living; he’s not going to chide us for discourtesy, committing infidelity or being neglectful neighbours, since his real broken society is in the actions of the teenage mother, the drug addict and the ASBO youth. To that end, some newspaper discovering that a member of his cabinet had once smoked a spliff or comitted an affair wouldn’t undermine the project, for their actions never fell under his description of the ‘Broken Society’ in the first place. Whether it was intended or not, that’s a very clever way of avoiding the ‘hypocrisy trap’.

By suggesting that the Conservatives’ rhetoric should be based on moralism rather than the public’s perceived self-interest, I think Melanchthon’s approach is much closer to the Major approach, and is therefore at risk of suffering the same fate. Whilst the partisan in me has no problem with the Tories overplaying their hand in this way, I suspect that genuine Conservatives won’t want Cameron to change his winning strategy one bit.

Manufactured outrage

May 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | 4 Comments

You’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for Labour’s online activists. Although they were already behind the other parties in terms of reach & organisation, many Labourites were doing quiet, conscientious campaigning until some motormouthed celebrity spouse singlehandedly turned the words ‘Labour blogger’ into something pejorative.

Now the skunk’s slunk off to his psychotherapy & left LabourList trying to shake off the stink, much of Labour’s online activism is being driven by John Prescott’s Go Fourth site. The people behind Go Fourth clearly understand online politics far better than Derek Draper did (though, frankly, so does my goldfish), and the strategy of launching single issue campaigns on social networking sites is a smart way of expanding their audience.

But if you’re going to base an online movement around single-issue campaigns, you have to choose your battles wisely, and it’s here where the netizens of Labourland may have a little growing up to do.

minimum wage copy

Back in February, Tory backbencher Christopher Chope introduced a 10 minute rule bill which would – among other things – allow companies to pay employees below the minimum wage if those employees consented. John Prescott seized on this as evidence that the Conservatives would tear up Labour’s record on worker rights and swiftly launched the website Wage Concern, which wants the bill defeated when it comes back for a second reading on Friday. To stress what’s at stake, the website carries a helpful banner reminding you how many days are left to ‘save’ the minimum wage from oblivion.

The trouble is, this banner and most the overheated rhetoric which accompanies it is a fabrication. As others have noted, the bill was doomed to failure long before Prescott summoned his cadre of keyboard-clunking comrades and it’s unlikely that even the Tory leadership will give it their official seal of approval. Rather than being on the verge of elimination, the minimum wage is set to increase, and no amount of dishonest doomsaying will prove otherwise.

So what about the substance of the bill? Well, I’m neither an economist nor an expert on industrial relations, so I’m not going to dive into a field where I’d quickly be exposed as a dilettante. All I will say is that I’ve personally benefited from the minimum wage, that now is the worst time to start having a race to the bottom for workers’ wages and that I’d vote against it if I were unfortunate enough to become an MP. That said, Chope does have a point when he explains that even a 15% decrease in a worker’s wages wouldn’t be a decrease in real terms, because they’d fall out of the tax bracket. He’s also right to point out that there are already around a million people working below the minimum wage in the ‘black economy’, and that those people are deprived of all the other rights & safeguards afforded to them in the ‘real economy’.

But what irritates me the most about this campaign is the way it chooses to savage the author, his supporters and his proposals, but completely ignores the bill’s saving grace. I’ll let the member for Christchurch take things from here:

The first group that would be helped would be refugees who have sought refuge in this country by reason of persecution and are waiting for the Home Office to determine their applications for asylum. Why should those people not have the right to take employment opportunities that have not been taken up by British citizens and thereby enjoy the dignity of having a job? Although it might cause some raised eyebrows among colleagues to hear this, I am pleased to report that the Trades Union Congress is of the same view.

Under the party of Labour, asylum seekers cannot work, leaving many destitute and dependent on hand-outs from churches & charities. For those of us who’ve cast a despairing glance over the state of our asylum system, Labour’s failure to rectify this is nothing short of shameful. Even if Mr Chope gets nothing else right in this bill, his proposal to empower the most powerless deserves to be saluted.

I understand, of course, that this fight is extremely useful for those doing the campaigning; the minimum wage is a consolation prize used to reassure disaffected supporters that Labour really is ‘on your side’ and by raising the specter of its abolition, they might bring a few more stray lambs back to the flock. I’ve no problem with supporters spending their energy campaigning against something which is already a lost cause, but by using such highly-strung language whilst conveniently ignoring a proposal which is actually more progressive than the government, it comes across as emotional manipulation. That might not be on the same level as personally smearing your opponents, but it’s still something we can do without.

The politics of Pulp

April 28, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 3 Comments

Jarvis 10

In the world of popular music, being called a Tory remains as hurtful as having your band compared to Ocean Colour Scene. Just leaving aside the number of songs strummed against Thatcher or pop’s role in movements against war and racism, the word ‘conservative’ isn’t just laden with assumptions about your politics, but about the music you make. For decades now, the word’s been used to infer that the art you produce is corporate, pro-establishment, staid, formulaic and conformist. In short, if you’re a Tory, you definitely don’t rock.

So when Jarvis Cocker gave an interview to GQ magazine where he seemed to say that a Conservative government wasn’t just inevitable but ‘necessary’, it wouldn’t be long before it was followed by a carefully-worded clarification. “In no way am I supporting or suggesting that a Conservative government is a good thing, far from it,” Cocker states. “Rather, what I intended to get across was that, in the absence of any real alternative, a Conservative government at this point unfortunately seems inevitable.” I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t turning into Bryan Ferry.

This is comforting because, as Sunder notes, Cocker’s work with Pulp did much to keep class in the public consciousness at a time when it was being written-out of the rhetoric of New Labour and barely noticed by a Britpop crowd which was getting high off the hype of ‘Cool Britannia’. But what made the band’s records as interesting as they were cherished was that there was much more complexity to their themes than you’d find in the simplistic tubthumping of most political music.

There’s no denying that the social commentary in Pulp’s songs had its share of revolutionary sentiment. On Different Class’ ‘Mis-Shapes’, he conjures the image of a disadvantaged people rising up to claim what they feel is theirs (“Just put your hands up, it’s a raid! We want your homes. We want your lives. We want the things you won’t allow us”). Likewise, in ‘I Spy’ he voices a wronged working class man who seethes with contempt for his bourgeoisie ‘betters’ and plots his revenge (I can’t help it: / I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your Year In Provence / and shove it / up your arse).

But there’s also the strong sense in Cocker’s lyrics that his isn’t a politics which relies on a state bestowing better lives on its people, but where the people sieze the means to achieve change for themselves. This comes across most strongly in This is Hardcore’s “The Day After The Revolution”, where he tramples on the old lie that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” by spitting “The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all / if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” and telling his listeners that “the revolution begins & ends with you”. His belief in the untapped potential of the working class is also striking in the preceding “Glory Days”, where he laments “Oh, we were brought up on the space race / now they expect you to clean toilets / when you’ve seen how big the world is / how can you make do with this?”. If he sometimes comes across as scornful of indolence & sloth (such as on this song and Different Class’ “Monday Morning”) it’s more out of frustration at this potential going to waste.

But if I could pick one song which I think best encapsulates Cocker’s worldview and his weary, remorseful outlook on British politics, it would be found on one of Pulp’s lesser known efforts. The last song the band ever released was a footnote to their Greatest Hits collection called “The Last Day of the Miner’s Strike“. Based on a reminiscence of industrial unrest in the 1980’s, it’s a song which could be read as either an anthem or a lament; a dream of what might’ve been possible “if we just stick together” or the reality of what was lost in the decades since their failure. “The last day of the miner’s strike was the Magna Carta in this part of town”, he sings, hinting that futures are now fixed, that possibilities are narrowed and alternatives reduced. Labour or Tory. Tory or Labour. Switching from one colour to the next without ever really expanding the palette.

No, Jarvis won’t be wearing a blue rosette any time soon, but Labour should still take the time to ponder why he, and many progressives like him, doesn’t feel at home in either party.

Dave’s dilemma

January 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | Leave a comment
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Considering all the prolonged speculation that he was due to return to the shadow cabinet, it’s a bit weird that Kenneth Clarke’s remarks at a conference in Nottingham have only just received wide circulation. Still, his thoughts on how a future Conservative government might balance its fetish for both Atlanticism and Euroscepticism make for an interesting read:

Clarke also spoke of his party’s relationship with the new President of the US, Barack Obama. Calling uncritical support for Bush-Blair interventionism “a disaster”, he said: “A lot will depend on relations with Europe, because Obama doesn’t want his strongest European ally led by a right wing nationalist, he wants them to be a key player inside Europe and he’ll start looking at whoever is in Germany or France if we start being isolationist.”

He added: “I think the need to be working with Obama will influence my party on Europe. It is still firmly Eurosceptic but it’s now moderate, harmless Euroscepticism. It’s a bit silly sometimes like which group do you join in the European parliament but full blooded stuff like renegotiating the treaty of accession is as dead as a dodo. We’ve got lots of ideas on European policy on energy, security, relations with Russia, climate change, all that kind of thing [but] somebody like me is far more relaxed about all that [and if the Tories] get into office the pressure of the American alliance will make them more European.”

It’s worth remembering that Clarke was one of the few Tories to vote against the Iraq war, which gives his criticisms of Blair’s ‘disastrous’ foreign policy more weight than had it been some Johnny-come-lately. He also described a more ‘enlightened’ approach to international security than any of his competitors for the Tory leadership and did so several years before Labour’s current boy king. If the Tories do win the next election, I’d be more at ease with Clarke as Foreign Secretary than seeing him wreak havoc in any other cabinet position – which is probably why it’ll never happen.

Whilst there’s scant evidence to back him up, Clarke’s prediction for how US-UK-EU relations might fare in an age of both Obama and David Cameron is at least plausible. As I’ve noted before, Obama will probably seek to work with Britain as a part of the European community, not as some obstinate little island which can’t get on with its neighbours but has a creepy crush on American power. If Cameron can acknowledge and adapt to this new reality, then Britain can retain some measure of influence in international affairs. Problem is, to do so will inevitably upset his eurosceptic supporters, for whom he withdrew his MEP’s from Europe’s centre-right coalition, played hardball on the EU referendum and promised to pull out of the EU social chapter.

What it boils down to is a question of leadership. Whilst it’s true that Cameron has gone against his party’s worst instincts in order to decontaminate a desperate and disillusioned brand, he’s also given us several examples of reversing policies and caving in to outside pressure. His U-turn on grammar schools, his surrender to colleagues who wanted to work a second job, and his reversal of an earlier pledge not to cut taxes all give the impression that this is a man who’s not yet able to give firm leadership in the face of opposition.

To that end, we can’t yet know whether a Cameron government will reluctantly engage with Europe in order to resolve global problems, or whether he’ll – at the slightest hint of back bench rancour – simply retreat into the Tories’ isolationist comfort zone. It will all depend on whether he has the guts.

There is a light that never goes out

January 21, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | Leave a comment

I don’t know of many bloggers – myself included – who’ll have much sympathy to spare for Tony McNulty, but it really is an indictment of the smallness of our politics that something like this counts as a gaffe:

The Conservatives accused the employment minister, Tony McNulty, of being “out of touch” after he said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” shortly after new data showed UK unemployment hurtling towards 2 million.

The jobless total increased by 131,000 in the three months to November to 1.92 million, the highest figure for more than a decade, leaving the UK with a higher unemployment rate – 6.1% – than Slovenia, Romania, Malta, Holland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Austria and Cyprus

[...]

Speaking to BBC News, [McNulty] added: “There is light at the end of the tunnel.

“It is some way off, I think that’s clear, but … all that we are doing in terms of the economy, which is being followed by most other western economies, will mean that we will get through this downturn and this recession.”

Recessions have casualties. They claim jobs, homes, marriages, even lives. They cause poverty and hardships which seem both suffocating and ceaseless. But unless this current crisis goes against the grain of human history, it will one day end. As bland as the metaphor might be, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and whilst that’s scant consolation to those who’ve been worst effected, it is a reminder not to concede defeat.

What McNulty said was a cheap, harmless little platitude; no different to what the unemployed among us have heard a thousand times from sympathetic friends and relatives who’ll tell us to keep our chins up or not let the bastards get us down. McNulty neither promised an immediate upturn nor diminished the darkness that follows. That his words could be attacked by any self-respecting politician – let alone the supposed government-in-waiting – is just pathetic.

Yesterday, President Obama told his country that “the time has come to set aside childish things”. I get the feeling that this is the kind of thing he was talking about.

Cameron gets ‘smart’

January 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 2 Comments

It appears we can no longer doubt David Cameron’s commitment to a low carbon future. With his history of attention-grabbing gimmicks – whether cycling to work, erecting a windmill above his home or galavanting across the Arctic – many of us assumed the Tory leader was only interested in the PR opportunities ‘going green’ provided, and was rather less concerned with making the tough choices needed to meet future challenges.

But a day after bashing the government for its cavalier expansion of Heathrow, Mr Cameron has proposed arguably the best policy of his leadership – a genuine infrastructure project which could help the economy, cut our energy bills and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.

Cameron has committed the Conservatives to a £1bn pound investment in the country’s electricity network, and has promised a ‘smart grid‘ which will finally bring the way we produce, consume and pay for energy into the 21st century. So what is a ‘smart grid’, and why is the idea so good that I’m breaking the habit of a lifetime to praise official Conservative Party policy?

First, some background. The bulk of Britain’s electricity network dates back to the post-war era. In those days, because fuel was cheap and in abundant supply, and because concepts like climate change & energy efficiency were unheard of, it suited us to have a centralised system consisting of a small number of massive power stations guzzling coal and pumping the proceeds across the country – sometimes to towns and villages hundreds of miles away.

But in an age where we need to be more conservative with our use of energy, the current system just isn’t good enough. A massive two thirds of the energy produced in our large, fossil fuel-burning power stations never reaches our homes: they always produce more than is actually needed, waste massive amounts of heat and lose a considerable amount of electricity in transmission from supplier to consumer. In short, our system is the epitome of inefficiency.

To remedy this, the Tories plan to decentralise the national grid. By shredding regulation and offering financial incentives, they hope to encourage small businesses, schools, hospitals and even Joe Public to install their own renewable energy sources, which they can feed back into the electricity network. They hope that a revolution in ‘micro-generation’, in addition to larger, industrial forms of renewable energy, will replace our wasteful, fuel-burning behemoths, slash our carbon emissions and – by increasing the sources of electricity – reduce our energy bills as well.

To compliment this, the Tories want to see each home and business having its own ‘smart meter‘. Smart meters are a more modern and interactive version of the bog-standard electricity meter, and give consumers will have a clearer picture of how much energy they use, how much it costs, and gives them the ability to change suppliers and consumption patterns. It’s not quite the ‘internet for energy’ that Cameron describes it as, but it still transforms the use of electricity from one of passive consumption to something more active and energy-conscious.

Finally, each household will be given the funding of up to £6,500 to introduce energy efficient improvements. Whilst the government has schemes to achieve the same goal (albeity more incrementally), it’s still true that even after their plan is complete, some 14 million homes will still lack the most basic efficiency measures.

There are some criticisms to be made. For one, it remains to be seen whether a scheme of such high ambitions will only cost £1bn, and it’s not entirely certain how this investment coheres with the Tories’ promise to slash the rate of public spending. Second, as George Monbiot notes, the plan overstates the amount of energy which can be produced from micro-generation, particularly in comparison to large off-shore wind farms. You’re not going to meet your energy needs just by putting a solar panel on your roof. It’s also worth remembering that many of these proposals have already been made by the Green Party & Liberal Democrats, who’ve both been leading the way on green energy, even if it gets little attention from the media.

Nonetheless, this plan proves that Cameron’s Conservatives are deadly serious about creating a low carbon economy. We can question whether their policies are good enough, go far enough, or whether his opposition to Heathrow expansion was mere opportunism, but we can’t deny that he’s committed to finding creative ways of solving one of the most intractable problems this country faces. For that, and that alone, he deserves great credit.

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