Musical interlude

January 31, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I got myself a new job yesterday. To celebrate, I’ve decided to plug that huge gap in the market known as “bloggers who write about politics but occasionally, and for no apparent reason, embed music by blue collar rock bands from Alabama”. These are the Drive-By Truckers:

Domestic violence: whose problem is it?

January 31, 2009 at 9:25 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment

In a previous post, which suggested a few measures government could take to reduce domestic violence (or at the very least improve care for its victims), I mentioned the necessity for greater provision of refuges where women could seek shelter from their tormentors. Conveniently, this survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission details the extent of the current provision – or lack thereof – and produces some quite troubling figures.

The commission found that one in four local authorities in Britain has no specialised support services whatsoever, that a quarter of the rape crisis centres which do exist fear closure or cuts in funding, and that ethnic minority women – whose circumstances can be slightly different due to the intersection of culture, relgion and misogyny – are particularly poorly-served by current provision. In short, we’re just not doing enough to care for victims.

To put this right, the EHRC has decided to write to those local authorities which don’t provide a specialised service and warned that the commission may take them to court for breaching the 2006 Equality Act, which requires them to promote gender equality. They argue that “because violence against women is such a major cause of women’s inequality, public bodies should ensure adequate support for women in such circumstances.”

Even if the commission did take these councils to court, it’s not a foregone conclusion that they’d prove why their interpretation of the act is correct, and I’ll leave that question in the hands of those more well-versed in British law. But just assuming the commission isn’t able to force councils into action through the courts, is there a case for legally mandating councils to provide shelter for victims of domestic violence?

It’s certainly possible to construct a compelling case for why they should. A quarter of all women and 15% of men will be victims of abuse at some stage of their lives, two women a week are killed by current or former partners and an incident of abuse is reported to the police every minute. On top of the misery & pain it causes, domestic violence also costs public services an estimated £3bn a year, and costs the wider economy an estimated (and eye-watering) £23bn. If shelters/crisis centres could contribute just a little to reducing the costs to the state and the wider economy, they would prove not just morally essential, but fiscally sensible.

Equally, though, one could argue that the burden for providing such centres shouldn’t be placed on already-overstretched local authorities. Whilst it’s unacceptable for victims to have to make 120-mile round trips just to receive counselling, it’s also true that the demand for these services is going to be slightly less pronounced in areas like Teesdale (population 25,000) than in Kirklees (population 400,000). When you have councils which vary dramatically in size, resources and demographics, it’s slightly absurd to expect them to all provide the same level of support for victims, irrespective of whether that effectively meets demand.

All of which might suggest that the buck should stop with central government. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that through smart planning, a government which was committed to increasing the number of crisis centres could target them effectively to where they’re most needed. Whilst this might mean that there isn’t a shelter in each local authority, it could at least ensure they’d have less far to travel, and that the centres themselves don’t live under constant threat of financial failure.

Either way, we’re failing to support the victims of domestic violence as well as we could. In 1984, there were 64 rape crisis centres. In 2008, there were just 36, and those that remain are fighting for their survival. If this government – apparently so concerned with helping the victims of crime that they’ve appointed their own chief victim – means what it says, it could redouble its commitment to reducing domestic violence by ensuring that all its victims have a safe place to stay, recover and rebuild their lives.

I read the news today, oh boy…

January 29, 2009 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The new ration falls below what is considered the survival ration. They will be sending their children to hunt for wild fruits or selling the possessions they haven’t already sold to buy food,” he said. “People will be more vulnerable, they will be more malnourished and they will be more susceptible to disease.”

By the way, 2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the Blair doctrine, in which our beloved ex-Prime Minister announced his brave new foreign policy:

We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.

Perhaps now that Zimbabweans are forced to ‘live’ on 600 calories a month, it might be a good idea to re-examine whether this doctrine was really worth the paper it was printed on.

“British jobs for British workers”

January 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, Chris Dillow warned of some of the nasty social side-effects of the recession. He noted that  “the main effect of recession is not to cause poverty, but insecurity. And when people are insecure and anxious, they care less for others.” In short, fear makes us all more selfish.

On one level, what’s transpired in Immingham over the last few days has been the opposite of that stark prediction. The unofficial walk-out by employees at an oil refinery – protesting their company’s decision to employ foreign labour – was an act of solidarity, not selfishness. Whilst many fear their own jobs are at risk in the future (at the moment, who isn’t afraid of that?), this protest wasn’t  driven by self-interest, but by concern for the skilled workers who could’ve been spared a winter of unemployment if the company had decided to ‘buy British’.

In the current instability, it might’ve been more sensible to keep their heads down and grumble in private, but they felt strongly enough to withdraw their labour, and their actions resonated so much that they were joined by workers from other sites, swelling the number of protesters to over 800. In this sense, the bonds of class solidarity remain as strong as they were at the height of the trade union movement.

But at another, much darker level, what this incident shows is the extent to which the recession is fostering nationalism & division. Whilst Baroness Vadera expressed optimism about the ‘green shoots‘ of recovery, in Immingham and towns right across the country, the only ‘green shoots’ are of a resentment which is increasingly being trained on foreign workers. Outside the refinery, one protester used a mantra uttered by both nationalists and one Labour Prime Minister: “British jobs for British workers”. It’s not as if they were loved in the past, but now is not a good time to be an economic migrant.

With elections around the corner, this climate of anxiety, decay and resentment is the perfect breeding ground for new recruits to the BNP. This time around, their line of attack will be more compelling than ever: “they’ve given all your money to rich bankers, they’ve sold all the jobs to foreigners and what do you get in return? Months stewing in James Purnell’s new Job Centres. Vote for us and we’ll put YOU first”. This time around, those who’re tirelessly trying to stem the BNP’s advance will find it especially tough; when mainstream politics carries such a the stench of failure, just what are we meant to say to them?

So I don’t begrudge Lindsey Oil Refinery for awarding a contract to a foreign company, I don’t begrudge the employees for protesting against the use of foreign labour and I don’t begrudge the Italians for going where the work is. No, right now the only people whose actions I begrude are swanning around some souped-up ski resort in Switzerland. I begrudge the complacency, the colossal mistakes, and the effect that those mistakes are having on the society the rest of us have to live in.

Ultimately, Dillow was right, and I’ve never wished for anyone to be more wrong.

Selected reading

January 26, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Just some stuff I’ve read here or there:

  • The most sinister-sounding headline of the month: “Women’s ‘Liberation’ Through Submission: An Evangelical Anti-Feminism Is Born”
  • Someone thought it’d be a good idea to create a speaker system modelled on a woman’s body. In case you’re wondering, the sound comes out of the breasts. Do people really buy this kind of thing?
  • Natalie Dylan, who has apparently attracted bids of up to $3.7m for her virginity (just think how much she could’ve got if we weren’t mired in the mother of all recessions), writes at The Daily Beast about her motivations and experience.
  • Elizabeth Dickinson waves ‘good riddance‘ to the global gag rule.
  • Erwin James has an absolutely stellar post explaining the importance of good education in the prison system.
  • At Demos, Silvia Guglielmi writes about the importance of aspirations when discussing social mobility.
  • Phil Plait is concerned that our top science guy is basically advocating the use of magic.
  • And it turns out that we are all born with an innate sense of rhythm. Alas, the post doesn’t explain how lots of us then go on to lose it…

Blame game

January 25, 2009 at 11:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So when I read this:


My first thought was: is there anything Nick Cohen hasn’t blamed the left for recently? Let’s face it, if the guy’s taking up more column inches than usual, it’s normally because he’s found an inventive way of trashing his former comrades.

Anyway, aside from decrying the lifestyles of the super-rich and the increased polarisation of wealth in Blair/Brown’s Britain, Cohen’s substantive  argument is that New Labour could’ve moved Britain away from the Thatcherite consensus, been less lavish in its spending and cultivated an economy less reliant on financial services. Cohen posits that New Labour’s legacy will be a self-harming slavishness to lawless, reckless financiers to the expense of us all.

There’s an element of truth to this; I’m sure all of us, if we knew then what we know now, would’ve made different decisions, and governments are no different. Perhaps we should also have been more prudent in our expenditure, though we should also remember just how badly Britain’s public services needed investment when Labour came to power – it wasn’t like Blair had inherited the Sistene Chapel.

But what’s ignored in Cohen’s analysis is the extent to which those figures whose avarice and greed he blames for creating this crisis were also partly responsible for facilitating Labour’s ascent to power in the first place. As the conventional wisdom tells us, New Labour was only taken seriously once it had reassured the city, and it only reassured the city when it promised to leave them alone. If Blair had promised in ’97 to radically reconfigure the British economy in such a way that we would’ve been insulated from the sub-prime fallout, would he have enjoyed the same kind of electoral success? Would he have been able to secure the sustained & necessary public service investment?

To that, I’m not sure we can offer an answer which doesn’t rely on wild hypothesising, and that’s why Cohen’s hindsight-filled fuming falls a little flat.

More accents, please

January 25, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Media | 1 Comment

When I was a bairn, my mother worried that I sounded a bit ‘common’. Granted, worrying is mum’s default function, but it’s probably true that my accent & dialect was stronger than either of my parents. I pronounced ‘water’ so that it rhymed with ‘batter’, said ‘reight’ instead of ‘right’ and ‘thery’ instead of ‘very’. I’d say ‘ey up’, ‘gi oer’ and (occasionally) ‘blummin’ ummer’. Because she wanted her son to have the best start in life, and didn’t see how that could be achieved by having an accent like the Arctic Monkeys (if only she’d known), she bundled me off to elocution lessons until I learned how to speak properly.

About a decade later and I’m traipsing around Cambridge, discovering that whilst those lessons had satisfied mum that I wasn’t ‘too northern’, the southerners I met confirmed that there was still no mistaking my accent. “Shouldn’t you be studying at the University of Bradford?” I was once asked by some dismissive, drunken cretin. But what he and others like him heard when I spoke was vastly different to what other people heard; when I came home during the holidays, the people I worked with and customers I served all thought I was ‘dead posh’.

Now that English is such a global language that there are infinite ways of speaking or using it, you’d think people wouldn’t be quite so hung up on the peculiarities of regional dialects. I mean, you wouldn’t mock a Chinese, Spanish or Polish person for the way they speak our language, so why are Geordies, Brummies and Scousers all considered fair game? Aren’t they all equaly valid and diverse interpretations of the same basic values? Don’t they all reveal a rich tradition and culture?

Certainly not, according to Beryl Bainbridge, whose fabulous belch of snobbery centers around the claim that the English spoken in her native Liverpool is ‘the most hideous accent of all’. Beryl insists that Scousers sounded better in the old days, despairs at their ‘whingeing tones & dreadful vowels’ and ventures that it makes them sound ‘uneducated’. She concludes that we need to return to the golden age of TV when old white men with dulcet tones spoke ‘proper’ English.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more dull. For a start, I’d bet good money that the people who presented programming in the so-called ‘golden age’ of television spoke nothing like the rest of the population, but had the privilege of speaking to the nation because their accents mirrored those of the ruling class, and therefore seemed authoritative. I think it’s also true that by having one homogenous accent on TV, you risk rendering anything which doesn’t conform to that as strange, alien and inferior. If Received Pronounciation is glorified as connoting wisdom, class and intelligence, then any other accent or dialect is going to be seen as inferior. So all Bainbridge is actually proposing is a way of perpetuating the regional snobbery she practices herself.

No, what we really need are more regional voices, more dialects, more accents. Our news programming in particular needs opening up to reflect the nation’s diversity, and put an end to the unintended impression that only by speaking in a certain way are you intelligent, authoritative or trustworthy. That, as a scouser might say, would be sound as a pound…

The key to a successful marriage is… fisting??

January 25, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment

Via Pandagon and one extremely lewd friend, Fox indulges in some rather X-rated speculation on what makes the Obama’s marriage work:

I swear Fox News doesn’t even hire experts anymore, but improv comedians…

Farce of the day

January 24, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education | 1 Comment

File this one under ‘Colossal Mismanagement’:

One of Labour’s flagship academy schools – the first to be headed by someone without classroom experience – was branded a disaster yesterday, four months after it opened.

Inspectors paid an emergency visit to the Richard Rose Central academy, in Carlisle, where pupils were reported to be fighting in corridors and vandalising school buses.

The inspectors are expected to write a damning report, placing its future in doubt.

Teachers have threatened to strike over the school’s “weak” management and pupils are refusing to wear uniform today in protest at how the school is being run.

Now, the existence of one unmitigated disaster doesn’t necessarily prove that Blair’s famous education reforms are a complete failure – there are some which have been fairly successful. But it’s certainly a cautionary tale which proves that conscientious oversight is important. This next part has by far the most damning details:

The schools minister, Jim Knight, visited the academy yesterday, promising to do all he could to turn it around. This could include replacing its governors.

He admitted that the closure of two local schools – St Aidan’s and North Cumbria Technology college – to create the academy had “not gone well”.

Teachers’ leaders say civil servants were urged to delay the opening of the school because pupils at the two schools did not get on.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “These were totally different schools and these pupils were engaged in an underground war against each other. People had to work quite hard to keep the two sets of pupils apart.”

So in other words… they closed two schools whose pupils hated each other and grouped them in one shiny new super-academy under the leadership of someone with absolutely zero education experience.

You wouldn’t need a crystal ball to figure out what was going to happen next…

Greenstock, Hamas and why it’s good to talk

January 24, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

Last week, as the bombs were still falling on Gaza, former UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock argued that any negotiations towards a peace settlement must include Hamas. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the usual suspects clattered their keyboards in disgust: David Toube accused Greenstock of being an ‘Ambassador‘ for Hamas and believing the group to be ‘fluffy’ and harmless, whilst Melanie Phillips accused him of being a propagandist for a group hell-bent on Jihad.

It’s certainly true that Greenstock’s argument was poorly-made; it was one-sided, didn’t touch upon the group’s calculated doublespeak or its crimes both inside and outside of Gaza, and would’ve done little to change the minds of those already entrenched in their opposition to negotiations.

But I don’t think it was the weaknesses in Greenstock’s rhetoric, nor his inacuracies & omissions, which most troubled Toube or Phillips. No, I think what was implicit in both writers’ denunciations was an attempt to repudiate Greenstock’s core argument without substantively addressing it.

The genius of the ‘fluffy Hamas’ line is the inference that Greenstock – and others like him – underestimates Hamas’ threat, understates its death-wish ideology and ignores its vow to eliminate Israel. Because he’s supposedly so cavalier in his assessment of Israel’s security, his views on how to secure peace are therefore irrelevant.

But whilst this is a brilliant attempt to marginalise the voices for dialogue, it obscures a very inconvenient reality: those voices are far from marginal.

For one, that number has included a large majority of Israelis. Back in February of last year, Haaretz found – even as rockets rained down on Sderot – that 63% of Israelis favoured direct talks with Hamas towards securing a cease-fire and the release of Gilad Shalit. Interestingly, polls have also shows that most Palestinians believe Hamas should recognise Israel’s right to exist – a sign, perhaps, that both parties are more extreme than their publics.

What’s more, some of the most credible advocates for dialogue with Hamas are those who’re intimately acquainted with Israel’s security concerns. One of them is Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, who advocates continuous and “indirect proximity talks” using third parties. Another is David Kimche, former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, who has insisted that Israel has ‘no choice but to talk‘ to its enemies. Other advocates include former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Seymour D. Reich of the Israel Policy Forum and the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

In each of these cases, the argument for negotiating with Hamas is not because they believe them to be nice or ‘fluffy’, but because the strategy of non-negotiation failed and it’s in the interests of Israel’s security to pursue a different course.

Whatever flaws there were to Greenstock’s argument, his key point is not only shared by many others who care deeply about Israel’s future, but is slowly becoming the foreign policy consensus, with the Obama administration likely to engage in indirect communication with Hamas in the future. We should all hope that this change in strategy will bring benefits to both sides and put an end to the era when a man’s integrity can be questioned just for encouraging two warring parties to talk.

How to fight loneliness

January 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Kerry Howley interviews John Cacioppo on the science of loneliness

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Appeal for Gaza

January 22, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

22 Jan: Aid agencies launch joint appeal to relieve Gaza humanitarian crisis

Leading UK aid agencies are today (Thursday, 22 January) appealing to the public for urgently needed funds to help ease the desperate plight of people affected by the conflict in Gaza.

Launching the Disasters Emergency Committee Gaza Crisis Appeal, chief executive Brendan Gormley said that the devastation wrought in the Gazan territory was so huge that British aid agencies were compelled to act.

Over 1,300 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, and many thousands have been injured, overwhelming local hospitals. The destruction has left people without homes and many children without schooling; power, food and water supplies are insufficient to cover the population’s needs.

Mr Gormley said: “DEC agencies have a humanitarian mandate. We are not proposing to attempt to rebuild Gaza – that is not our role. But with the public’s support we can help relieve short-term needs. Agencies are already providing food, drugs and blankets as well as delivering clean water.

“But we will soon reach the limit of what we can do, without more money. For Gazans struggling to survive, receiving urgent humanitarian aid will help them take the first step to recovery.”

Mr Gormley stressed that DEC aid agencies were non-political. “We work on the basis of humanitarian need and there is an urgent need in Gaza today. Political solutions are for others to resolve, but what is of major concern to us all is that many innocent people have been affected by the situation – and it is them that we seek to help.”

Donate online.

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.

Shorter Christian Voice:

January 22, 2009 at 9:51 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

‘The Advertising Standards Authority only dismissed our complaint about the ‘the atheist bus adverts’ because it’s run by a bunch of poofs.’

‘On ‘taste and decency’, the ASA have simply taken a subjective decision to dismiss the complaints of offensiveness. On planet ASA, complaints from people of faith are not given the same weight as those from secularists. But what do you expect when the ASA Council is appointed and run by a campaigning homosexual, Chris, Lord, Smith of Finsbury?

By the way, that example of ‘homosexual campaigning’ they refer to was when Smith ‘came out’ at a protest meeting against Rugby town council’s plans to ban gays from the workplace. That was nearly 25 years ago!

Anyway, the ASA’s decision to allow atheists to advertise their hopeless, sinful creed is clearly a dark day for civilisation:

‘We always knew the ASA was just another tool of the politically-correct secularist establishment, but here’s the proof. Their ruling is just another example of how the deck is stacked against Christians today, and the Church needs to wake up to the anti-Christian agenda right now. If Christian don’t start standing up soon, we shall see religious liberties trampled on, and the secularists will take us further down the road to their hell on earth.’ (emphasis mine)

It’s true. In fact, we even have our own an secularist anthem. I pray that Stephen Green isn’t a Chris Rea fan:

Murder in Moscow

January 21, 2009 at 11:06 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Via The Free Speech Blog, this story about the premeditated murder of two brave, troublesome activists is routinely chilling:

On 19 January in the centre of Moscow Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta, and the lawyer Stanislav Markelov were shot dead. The killer stood behind them and aimed at the back of the head. He had no reason to fear. Not one such public political assassination has yet led to a trial or conviction.

Stanislav Markelov was an exceptional lawyer.

He took on hopeless and dangerous cases. A Moscow attorney, he was constantly in Chechnya, representing the interests of the victims of extra-judicial punishment and torture. He also dealt with cases elsewhere of those who had been attacked by Russia’s fascist groups.

Stanislav defended those who were killed or humiliated by the state. He was a friend to our newspaper and its legal advisor. He was responsible for the civil cases of Anna Politkovskaya, defending those she wrote about. He represented our journalists in court. Stanislav was attorney for the family of Igor Domnikov, an editor with Novaya Gazeta who was murdered in 2000, and tried to force the authorities to open criminal proceedings against those who were behind that killing and who remain, to this day, at liberty.

More here.

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