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Election night — my predictions and preferences

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2010 at 12:35 am

David Weber

Election 2010

Ok, so maybe the Liberal Democrats aren’t going to do so well after all. I’m cheating somewhat, blogging this after the exit polls came out. Unlike Stephen, who was principled and made a genuine prediction, this will be odds-on, I reckon. That said, I suspect the Exit polls might not be as good as they were back in 2005, as this election is closer.

It’s a pity, as it suggests that many people who declared support for the Lib Dems in the polls prior to the election were jumping on a popularity bandwagon. Still, there’s always the chance that the Lib Dems will lose seats whilst increasing their vote, which would support their views on the voting system.

My preferences? I disagree strongly with Stephen that a coalition with the nationalists would be a good idea, particularly one which kept the Labour party in power. I see no reason why the SNP would become more moderate through having a greater voice in UK government, particularly considering their behaviour the last time this happened. They are also more anti-Labour than that time around. I also dislike the idea of Labour gaining a fourth term in government after their actions in the third one, particularly their assault on civil liberties, and their callous disregard for voters not important to them — often the poor.

This said, I voted for the Liberal Democrats, and if Labour did gain a greater share of the votes and seats than the Conservatives I would be happy to see them form a government with the support of this party. I don’t think this is likely, however, but furthermore, I don’t think it is desirable.

Therefore there are only two further options. The first is a Tory-Liberal coalition. I think this is unlikely; firstly, the Tories are unlikely to give way over electoral reform, secondly, they have pitched their campaign too far from the Liberal Democrats’, making compromise very difficult to find. The second is a minority Tory government with Liberal scrutiny. This is not the nightmare scenario many imagine; it could be remarkably similar to the way the SNP have governed in Scotland for the last few years. Furthermore, it would be simpler, with less accusations of back-room deals, and with a Liberal Democrat party able to veto the more ridiculous parts of the Tory programme (such as the Inheritance tax cut).

I am also reluctant to see the Liberal Democrats in government, mainly because of the outside chance that they might get education. This would, ironically, be the most serious threat to religious liberty that the election could provide. Their policies on the curriculum are a big blind-spot, which mistake prescription of views for liberalism, and are about teaching people what to think rather than how to think. Therefore my preference would be, incredibly reluctantly, for a Tory minority government held rigorously to account by a Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition.

The Liberal Democrats deserve electoral reform. Even AV, which would retain the two-party grip, would be fairer to them, and even make it marginally possible for them to overtake Labour in seats as well as the vote. Their policies in many areas, such as civil liberties, Education funding, Local government and parliamentary reform are the best of any party’s. But the party, though very much improved and responsible, is still a big risk in certain areas, and does not deserve to be trusted with single-party power. Therefore my incredibly reluctant, not to mention marginally decided preference would be for a minority Conservative government, which has made it very difficult to decide who to vote for. However, with an eye on the polls, and on the safeness of my seat (which the MP is in some ways taking for granted), I gave my support to the Liberal Democrats. If by an outside chance they still end up in government, it won’t be disastrous for the country. It could even be the best result. I’m not dogmatic about this (I hope!)

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Henry Porter’s “Civil Liberties Postcard”

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Election 2010

David Weber

I like Henry Porter’s idea, in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, of a ‘Civil Liberties postcard’ to run past all election candidates. That isn’t to say I agree with him on every question, because I’m sad to say I probably don’t. But it’s a fantastic idea, centred around an issue which really needs to be highlighted this election, even if I might have chosen slightly different questions personally.

Civil Liberties are, unfortunately, probable to take a back seat this election. This is because every election in the past decade (and more) has been dominated by the economy, crime, and education (2005 was, admittedly, also defined somewhat by Iraq, but impotently so, as both of the major parties had supported the invasion). This is a pity, because politicians’ ability to influence the former is marginal at best; the middle is victim to a persistent misrepresentation by the media (and not just the tabloids), which is probably itself a big influence on the erosion of civil liberties. Only with education has seen any fresh thinking recently, with both opposition parties coming out with some interesting ideas for reform, even if they do dodge the crucial bullet of how to improve education for the poorest in society. All in all, this stranglehold on election politics unwittingly conspires to restrict any meaningful choice to the very marginal, and casts far more important issues, which politicians have far more influence over, into the shadows.

Civil Liberties is one incredibly important, and far-reaching area. I am not wholly blaming the media for its marginalisation as a cause, as campaigners themselves bear a portion of the blame in their persistent placing of CCTV cameras far above more important issues, as well as other less easily condemnable issues such as the DNA database. This is where I probably most strongly disagree with Porter, not just in principle but from pragmatism — I do not see a widespread loathing of Public Surveillance and police databases, and many indeed probably strongly link them with the fight against crime. Abusive laws, travesties of justice and erosion of basic legal rights, however, tend to stir even the most apathetic of us.

So the fact that the economy is drowning out much needed debate on laws which castigate people as morally guilty until proven innocent, laws which create modern debtor’s imprisonment, and the removal of the right to trial by jury when the State sees it as inconvenient; is truly tragic. The latter only managed to prompt lukewarm criticism in the media after the trial had concluded, rather than when it was first instigated, a horrible reflection on a media which increasingly regards suspects as guilty until proven innocent.

What is most amazing, however, is the blatant way in which trial by jury was infringed back in 2003. Normally when laws are brought in modifying civil liberties, politicians are quick to stress safeguards that accompany them. When addressing the problems of jury-tampering, however, politicians did not explore ways in which to transform courts to make this less of an issue (for example, drawing from Greece policy, composing a panel comprising more judges and fewer jurors, working together to determine guilt in complex cases). They simply removed the jury altogether, as if it were an optional extra, a comfort only necessary when it was cheap enough to provide, a moral luxury. Such thinking in a modern liberal democracy is shameful.

But my own additional concerns aside, where do I stand on the Civil Liberties postcard?

1. Do you support the introduction of ID cards?

A: No. Interestingly, a few years back I argued strongly for the introduction of a continental ID card system (as opposed to Labour’s excessive vision), but couldn’t even work up the enthusiasm to support this for long. It strikes me as fundamentally unhelpful to introduce a law criminalising people who do not want to carry means of identification.

I don’t necessarily see it as the worst attack on civil liberties in modern times. I see many benefits to having a comprehensive system of identification, but at principle is the sort of society we have. It should be one which is not excessively punitive upon those without easy means of establishing identity, and ours has arguably gone too far down that road already (as experience of relatives at their bank has proven). I do not want to go further down this road. So consider me pragmatically as well as ideologically opposed.

2. Do you think Police are abusing stop and search powers?

A: Loaded Question. Of course, I think some police will be abusing stop and search powers, and some authorities will possibly even have an abusive policies. However, I do not feel the force as a whole is likely to be sponsering widespread abuse. I may, of course, be wrong, but it’s a point on which I have to be persuaded, not take on faith.

On the other hand… I do think that simply scrapping the S&S form, as the Tories have proposed, is hopelessly naive. The form was brought in for a reason, and social inequalities are such that scrapping it could cause damage to communities who feel they are unfairly targeted. And the means to improve the process already exist, through technology — IE issuing police with hand-held recorders, enabling them to speed up the form process. Consider this a typical politician’s answer if you like.

3. Do you agree with the European Court of Human Rights which has criticised the retention of innocent peoples’ DNA on a national database?

A: Tricky. In principle, possibly, but in practice, I don’t think I would go this far. I think the police should certainly be allowed to keep the DNA of suspects of the most serious crimes for a time. It’s not fair, no, nor is it equal treatment, and there are possible perverse consequences to this (IE leading to a bias against former suspects that acts against efficient investigation), but I suspect the pros might outweigh the cons. By the way, isn’t it the record that is kept of the DNA, rather than an actual sample? I’ve never been clear on this point, and would welcome clarification.

4. Do you support calls for greater regulation of surveillence powers, including the number and use of CCTV cameras?

A: Yes. Although I’m not convinced that the number we have is necessarily a bad thing. However, they could certainly be safeguarded more thoroughly, including possibly taking them out of the direct control of the police.

5. Do you oppose government powers to track and store communications data from emails, texts and calls?

A: Yes.

6. Do you support the Human Rights Act in its current form?

A: YES! Make no mistake: you have to support it, for the sake of a unified system of justice. EU law is superior to British law in this area, so if the HRA is amended, then all it will do is create a two-tier system of justice, where the richer can afford to go to the ECHR for superior rights, and the poorer can’t.

7. Do you think the right to peaceful protest is being curtailed by heavy-handed policing?

A: Partly. I have a feeling Stephen Wan might be able to offer a more informed perspective than I. I definitely think that policing methods have been partially responsible for curtailing protest rights, and I think kettling tactics were definitely over (and mis) used last year. On the other hand, I think a lot more of the erosions to protest rights occurred through legislative and executive decisions.

8. Are you in favour of a public enquiry into allegations of British involvement in torture?

A: Yes.

9. Do you think everyone should have a right to hear the evidence against them before being subject to a control order?

A: Yes. Control orders have long been a sickening loophole around justice, far worse than the most draconian detention without trial proposals.

10. Do you support a review of Labour’s legislative programme in order to identify and then repeal those laws which have curtailed individual liberty?

A: Yes and no. A badly worded question which ilicits a vague answer. I support a review of more than just Labour’s legislation, but the legislation which most frequently causes travesties against liberty. However, I don’t automatically support the repeal of all laws which have curtailed individual liberty (an argument with a libertarian will show you that virtually all laws, at some point or another, qualify as such), and I think the assault against individual liberty begun a long time prior to New Labour.

The Liberal Democrats are the most interesting of the big three by a mile. So why are they doing their best to disguise it?

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm

David Weber

Well, why are they? Over the last decade, the Liberal Democrats have built up their reputation for unique policies. During the early boom years, they were the only party to support a 50% tax on the rich. Along with this, they are the only party to have previously committed to policies as radical as a negative income tax (only cosmetically different to the Greens’ infamous “Citizen’s wage”), the only party to argue for a complete overhaul of council tax, the only party to argue for real devolution of policy in health and education, and the only party to commit to a huge rise in the income tax allowance. They’re the only party to (wrongly!) commit to abolishing tuition fees, too.

You may not agree with these. I certainly don’t agree with the detail of many of them. But you can’t deny that they show genuine differences, and far more consistently so than the policies of the big two. When the Tories talk about localism, they hedge their bets, paying lip-service to it one moment (helped on by Caroline Spelman’s lovely belief that it’s ok to trust councils now, because “We control over three times as many councils as our rivals put together”), and talking of freezing council taxes the next. The Tories talk about freeing education in one breath, by adopting Swedish policies, and talk about cutting funding for all teacher trainees with thirds. In an age characterised increasingly by (sometimes erroneous) claims that politicians are “all the same”, and “elections don’t change anything”, the Liberal Democrats have done their fair best to buck the (media invented) trend in recent years. So why has no-one noticed?

It could be demonstrated, rather aptly, by their election slogan, released today. It could be used as a textbook slogan in the future of How Not to do These Things:

“Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain”

Let’s start with the full stop. Bad idea. The Tories election poster was derided for featuring a comma inbetween the first half, which had the word “cut” and the second, which had the word “NHS”, the idea being that people wouldn’t bother to read past the comma and would only notice “NHS” out of the second half. But at least they didn’t use a full stop. The full stop transforms what should be a snappy slogan into what appears as two separate and distinct pieces of information — a chunky slogan, to say the least.

So now let’s go further, and look at the two pieces of information contained therein. The first is: “Change that works for you.” What does this remind you of? It reminds me very strongly of two things. The first is Barak Obama: “Change we can believe in”. Which was all very well for him, but a) he was running in America, rather than the UK, and b) He might as well have been running here given how much his slogan was heard. Both of which count against the already dubious notion of it’s having a second round of success. I am sure that before long people will be utterly sick of the word “change”.

…given how much the Conservative have been using it. “Vote for Change”, “Year for change”, “Now for change”, have all punctuated headlines with the Conservatives in. In picking a slogan only cosmetically different to those used by David Cameron and Barak Obama, Clegg is almost asking to become invisible. The only way he could make it worse is by adopting — sorry, adapting — Labour’s slogan for the second half of his slogan…

“Building a fairer Britain”. Sound familiar? That’s because it is: “A Future Fair for all” was Labour’s recently released slogan. But at least that had the benefit of palendromic alliteration (I was dying to say that). I’m also pretty certain that “Building Britain’s Future” was a slogan coined by Labour for some initiative or other a year ago. Clegg can certainly earn big brownie points for being green here, as the amount of recycling is impressive.

But the Liberal Democrats really will not gain from this type of nonsense. I remember my History teacher talking about the party some years back; he argued that all it did was to sit in the House of Commons lambasting either side without offering anything new. Views like his are probably more commonplace than the party would care to admit, so why are they doing their level best to encourage them? If the Lib Dems want to be seen as credible king-makers, they need to convince people they are a real alternative, rather than simply more of the same.

Clegg may have been told this slogan would strike a chord by convincing the public that he offered a perfected version of the imperfect promises made by both parties. If so, his PR advice must count as slightly worse than David Cameron’s adman.

Without cold-hearted pragmatists to improve bad laws, we would be in a far worse place.

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 7:25 pm

David Weber

The House of Lords is no place for Grandstanding. Neither is it a good place for a party to boycott if it wishes to have any legislative impact, being the only chamber to have anything approaching a proportionate balance of members, and no party with overall control, and more importantly, doing the bulk of important legislative revision.

It is the House of Lords where the fight for the moderation of the government’s alarmingly ill-defined and thus illiberal anti-hatred legislation has met with most success, inserting key amendments to protect freedom of speech, both in the earlier Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill 2006, and the later Coroners and Justice Bill 2009. Given that there have been cases of frivolous interpretation of the existing legislation, even with the Amendements forced by the house of Lords, at cost of money and of time to the police; I do not think this is a trivial concern. A functioning revising chamber is of interest to us all, no matter how tedious the issues may seem.

Indeed, the fact that the House of Lords is not representative in the conventional sense (with members not holding responsibility towards constituents) strikes me as a good thing here, as the public indisputably does not always prioritise issues where necessary. The Digital Britain bill is – stay tuned for more discussion on this topic – a niche interest, which probably only a minority of people are even aware of, and fewer still have a detailed understanding of it. I must confess my own understanding to be woefully inadequate. But it is one of the most important legislative matters before Parliament.

Yet James Graham not only appears to suggest, in his latest column in the Guardian, that the Liberal Democrats should not contribute Peers to the House of Lords at all, but also that the amendment to Digital Britain jointly sponsored by the Liberal Democrats and Tories was pointless, for attempting that deeply ignoble aim of making “bad less awful”. He concludes that “forcing us to choose between judges and lawyers having to interpret a bad law and ministers making it up as they go along is no choice at all.”

…why? is my instinctive reaction? Why, yet again, do those in a position to actually do something rather than merely grandstand, get lambasted for doing so? Preferably, of course, one should do both; and of course there are occasionally times when it is better to deliberately shun engagement to make a point. This is not one of them. Not only would boycotting the legislative process be an utterly impotent stand, as the constitutional system in the United Kingdom currently makes any chance of the Lib Dems achieving anything through forcing a binary choice between the status quo and full change, but the Lib Dems would actually be boycotting the one place where they arguably have very real influence on the legislative process. Moreover, the Digital Britain bill, as James Graham points out, can be over-exaggerated. Though a very dodgy piece of legislation which is almost certainly a step in the wrong direction, it is no longer a full enabling bill. It is no longer a watershed moment in the civil liberties fight. And this is perhaps, to give credit where it’s due, because of the actions of hard-working, cold-blooded pragmatists in the House of Lords, many of which reside on the Lib Dem benches. This is no “No choice”, this is a very real and important choice at all.

Contrast this to the alternative of no engagement, “no reform”: the argument of revolutionaries everywhere, that we need to confront more pain in order to bring about the necessary radical change. Hardly, I would have thought, the most liberal argument, and definitely not one which will work over an issue which currently inspires pathetically little widspread public feeling.

And at the end of the day, I simply don’t see this being the sort of issue James Graham thinks it to be. He mentions the prevaricating of the Liberal Democrats in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and I have seen him mention that before on his blog. But I have only ever come across it there. Though I do not doubt the truth of it, it is necessary to put it into context: the most that most people will be able to tell you about the Liberal Democrats’ stance on the Iraq War is that they opposed it. Hardly anyone, if anyone, outside of the party will be able to give you the minutae of their internal debate in the build-up to that decision.

So I say hats off to the cold-hearted Liberal Democrat peers that reside within the House of Lords. It takes boldness to grandstand, but it takes real fire to swallow your principles and do a deal with the Tories in order to stave off the forces of hell.

My apologies to all Tories. I don’t really hate you.

Who would want to be a “Career politician”?

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2010 at 1:29 am

By David Weber

In today’s climate, it seems a question worth asking. In fact, forget that: in the climate of the last decade, or even longer, it seems like a question very much worth asking – not least because the press inundates is with stories of the inexorable rise of the “career politician”.

This is tied, inexplicably, with the fall in the power of the politician in reality. It really began with the economics crises of the 70s and 80s, when the shift of successful economies (yes, even Scandinavian welfare economies, despite their reputation among some as left-wing havens) towards a model of lower taxation and regulation. Global capitalism became increasingly to be seen as sensitive to fiscal policy, of greater importance than a government’s ideal social and economic outcomes.

Whether this is still the case is of course now fiercely debated, although I personally think that global capitalism is as likely to be dead as I am, at the time of writing this article (for the sake of clarity, I am — at least feel — in excellent condition). It is certain that the crash has challenged some of the stricter notions of neo-liberal economists, and fired the blood of closet Keynsians, but the general response of governments to the near-collapse of Banks strengthens the theory that there has been a trend of power away from national governments to international business.

Indeed, despite claims that Brown has run a high-tax economy over the last decade, he was careful to tailor income tax rates at least to the European average (if towards the higher side towards the end of New Labour’s decade and a bit in power) as an active policy. Neoliberalism had by this time become so entrenched in government that raising income tax on the lower paid was seen as a more acceptable adjustment than raising it on the higher-paid in 2007 (thankfully, with disastrous political consequences).

But if politicians have lost de facto power over tax rates, this is nothing compared to the extent to which they have lost power over persuasion, and promoting their own agenda. The rise of 24-hour media (which certainly has been inexorable), and the ever-improving science of electioneering, which I talked about in my previous article, have vastly squeezed the ability of politicians to act on their own conscience, far more than they improved their ability to win elections. In a recent article in the Times, Daniel Finkelstein backed up the view of my previous article that the Tories have a lot further to slide before they lose, whilst showing how devastating the effect of political science on elections really is. In 2005 — the election, incidentally, that the Tories lost — painstaking methods narrowed down an entire electorate to the 2000 voters who were judged as most crucial, who were then love-bombed — sent handwritten letters and a steady stream of propaganda. What room is there for genuine representation in a system where the crucial players are as few as these? More to the point, what room is there for genuine power? No minor politican would want to challenge the rules of the game in such a way, which means that “career politicians” are fighting an impossibly high-stakes game, with only a handful of positions where one could forsee actually setting an agenda — and that’s a generous estimate. And then, of course, upon having climbed to the top of the greasy pole, they would probably find what they suspected all along — that, in the words of Jim Hacker: “I was told I’d have power, and I find that all I have is influence!”*

Diss politicians all you like. Moan about how they waste your money, how they cheat on their (and your) principles and how they’re all the same. But just stop and think, before you deliver the ultimate judgement and condemn them all as money-grabbing, power-crazed cowards: who would actually be in it for money? Who would be in it for power? Only a deluded, uneducated fool**. Only those with no experience of reality. Only a tourist could possibly make the mistake of wanting to be a career politician. For it’d be a high-stress, no-gain career.

*Quote not guaranteed to be accurate
**I anticipate the snark before it comes. No, I don’t believe this applies to Gordon Brown, or any other politician you care to name. Sadly, I think the average understanding of reality is likely to be higher among politicians — at least, from glancing at the Tabloids from time to time.

Be Wary of Expecting a Hung Parliament

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm

By David Weber

With the Polls down to as little as a 6% gap between Labour and Conservatives, the narrative of a hung parliament is becoming ever-more-popular. There are reasons to be wary of such an argument, however.

Firstly, one has to remember the question of momentum. Despite some tentative recovering steps in the last month, and an opposition that has seen a remarkable stalling in their previously admirable PR machine, the government still remains on a knife-edge where unity is concerned. Only on Friday the announcement of James Purnell that he would step down as an MP nearly translated into another huge backlash in the media against the governing party’s unity. Although there is the question of whether the media truly does play a role in shaping public opinion with its reporting of minor upsets like this, or rather follows it, it is not a call I would imagine any party would wish to make. History is against them when it comes to the role of unity during an election campaign, as well. In 1997, the Tories called an unusually long campaign, of  6 weeks, prior to the election, and rather than this being an asset, it turned into a disaster, as party disunity accumulated even more strongly than it might otherwise have done.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the media’s narrative so far as the electoral map is concerned is very, very simplistic. It appears to have decided on an easy to understand line that 9% is the required lead for Cameron and Co. to secure a majority, but as with most simple statements in politics, it is far from the truth. The actual truth depends very much on the electoral geography; where Cameron gains votes just as much as how many.

Stephen Wan talks in his latest article, in reply to James Langford, of the co-incidence of a more serious decline in turnout with the rise of New Labour. I hope that I am not betraying a partisan flavour when I argue that I do not view this to be entirely fair. He is certainly right to point out the correlation — unusually, the landslide change in government in 1997 took place on a significantly reduced turnout (c. 77%>71%), compared to the previous two changes in government, which had occured on an increased turnout. However, I feel very strongly that it is unfair to translate this correlation into causation, or to blame New Labour for using what methods were open to it.

The fact is that to say that spin and PR are to blame is not likely to be true. Spin and PR have been with us throughout the ages, and a natural human trait. It is far more likely to be science and technology, rather than the arts of deceit, that have progressed in the last couple of decades, leading to an alienation of the increasing number of voters who simply Do Not Matter. And indeed, one thing that was notable about the 1992 election was how many people got it wrong — the media, the polling organisations, even the parties. Though it is not likely that either party expected Labour to win, at least some Conservatives were surprised at just how many seats were lost on a net -0.3% shift in their vote, and conversely many were surprised at the extend of the “Shy Tory” factor in the polls.

Fast forward to the last decade of politics, and there is a very different picture. No polling upset, to my knowledge, has been as great since, and the last three elections have seen, according to reports, a significant advancement in the science of electoral dynamics, with people like Philip Gould and Lynton Crosby proving a huge asset to the Labour and Conservative parties respectively. Inside reports from the Conservative party have talked of the “love-bombing” of marginal voters in marginal constituencies during the 2005 general election, and if more recent polling is anything to go by, Labour have little to celebrate. A recent article in the Guardian by Andrew Sparrow reported that the Conservative lead has been consistently higher in the Marginal seats, enough to potentially translate to 20-30 extra seats — a significant number, enough to spell the difference between a minority and majority government.

It would be ironic if Cameron won, not on a huge majority of national votes, and not on an increased turnout, but simply due to an ever-more effective science of electoral geography. I sincerely hope this is not the case — not least because some of the alternatives, such as the Conservatives gaining less seats for more votes, could possibly prove a catalyst for real electoral reform — whereas more of the same, with a party winning on ever less votes, will simply lead to stagnation.

Addendum: At the time of writing, I incorrectly referred to Andrew Sparrow as ‘Anthony Sparrow’. This has now been corrected.

Investigating the Mentality of Climate Change Sceptics

In Uncategorized on February 3, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Climate change scepticism seems to be enjoying more time in the sun recently. First the recession rather got in the way of the generosity of many that was wonderfully fashionable during the good times; secondly came the hopelessly named ‘Climategate’ scandal over leaked emails from the University of East Anglia, showing that, astonishingly, not all scientists might have thoroughly neutral opinions on this subject.

The message behind this recent surge in scepticism tediously predictable: it’s easy to think of others when the going is easy, and it’s useful to have a scapegoat when the going is tough. None of this has actually led to anything remotely resembling logical thinking among ‘sceptics’, however.

The idea among Climate change sceptics appears to be that of obfuscation rather than actual refutation. Increasing emissions, let alone existing levels, do not matter, we are told, for other things cause climate change. Sunspots. Volcanoes. Population increase. Whatever the new, trendy thing to emerge as a possible influential factor in climate change, it is far more responsible than we could ever be, we are told. Or, alternately, ‘Global Warming is good for us’.  I even saw one who went so far as to claim that the more carbon we emitted, the better off the environment would be; the only response I could think of being “that’s convenient”.

I have to wonder whether anyone has considered that it is unlikely that environmental science was ever so narrow as to only accommodate study of a single factor. I have to admit that my area of study is not in Climateology, Geophysics or indeed any science that might cover this topic, but I’m willing to guess (I never bet) that students of these do not spend day one till the end of their courses plotting graphs of human emissions against temperature rises and sending partisan emails off to one another. I do imagine that a large degree of consideration of all influential factors is involved — and I think it’s rather insulting to imagine otherwise.

But rather than dwell on this, I’d like to focus on the three assumptions that lie at the heart of Sceptic obfuscation, if I may, and demonstrate why it is utterly inadequate as refutation.

Firstly: That because of natural trends, an increased human carbon footprint does not matter.

I think that this is trendy (ha, ha) at the moment largely because of a slight recent so-called “period of cooling” (starting, helpfully, from one of the hottest years on record). If the planet is cooling, we are told, it is a good thing that we emit more carbon, not a bad thing.

I think what this shows climate sceptics (of this variety) to be is actually geo-engineering advocates. Since this is normally associated with tackling climate change, and one arm of the Green party, I find this rather amusing. Doubtless, if there was irrefutable evidence that the last ten years had shown consistent temperature growth, Climate sceptics would be just as happy to advocate cutting carbon emissions.

But this hypocrisy aside, I think it unlikely to be a sound assumption. Climate sceptics (of a slightly different variety) always hark on about natural trends, but for some reason never seem to consider the dangerous implications of tampering with them. It is ironic that climate scepticism often goes hand in hand with the political side of the spectrum that always argues tampering with the free market to a Very Dangerous Thing. Simply because the planet goes through cycles of cooling and warming does not mean that our contribution has no net effect. Even if the projected model of Global Warming is incorrect, it does not automatically follow that our impact on the planet is a good one.

This leads me on to the second assumption at the heard of climate scepticism. This is, believe it or not, even more absurd, and far simpler to state, that “waste that results in growth never has consequences we’re unable to deal with”.

I would ask whether history is on the side of climate sceptics:

Even the most advanced student of climate scepticism can hardly deny the damaging effects of waste throughout history. When we burnt coal on an industrial scale, it caused smogs. When we dump toxic waste, a la Trafigura, it causes illness, and yes, death too. When we dump ordinary, household rubbish, it often poisons the landscape and any who are unfortunate to live in it. Yet for some reason, carbon emissions are magic, able to evade the normal consequences that come with the emission of excessive waste, and having no bad consequences whatsoever.

Imagine for a moment that this is not the case. Do we really want to take the risk? Do we really want to happily wait for another disaster, on a far greater level than the smogs, or the consequences of localised waste, to hit us? Yet it seems that to CCSs (Climate Change Sceptics, not Carbon Capture and Storage) until disaster is actually present in the full, then it is not waste, but rather a necessary by-product of economic growth. This leads me on to the third, and most dangerous, assumption at the heart of climate scepticism ,that consumption is only ever a good thing.

This is rather damaged by the arguments against the preceding assumption, but this is the more dangerous, because it appears more logical to our economy, and holds greater weight with people, particularly in a time of recession. However, it does not make the slightest bit of sense on an ecological level. If you over-consume a natural resource, it will have, and always has had, a hugely damaging impact later down the line. If we hunt an animal too much, it will lead to shortages further down the line, as there are insufficient numbers to reproduce to the same level as before. When we over-farm the soil, it becomes unusable. If we use a fuel faster than it is naturally produced, then we set up a future crisis. It is amazing that we still have not learnt this lesson, given that it is one of the oldest ones around.

But at the end of the day, it is not surprising that these assumptions are still present. They all share one common motivating factor: greed. It is not just denial that is addictive, but greed. Denial is simply a phenomenon which is fueled by greed, and cast aside once it is of no more use. Bremner, Bird and Fortune pointed out that the tipping point for the recent economic crash was “when there was more fear than greed, as opposed to more greed than fear”. A similar tipping point will approach for climate change — the trouble is that by this stage, it is often too late to reverse much of the damage caused.

Education policy in 2010

In Uncategorized on January 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm

TDS notice: We apologise to our (at maximum 20-0dd) regular readers for the lack of content lately. As you know, many of us are University students, and therefore have other demands on our time. It could be worse: we could have jobs.

By David Weber

This was going to be titled “My views on private education”, but I’m a sucker for expanding notes, as you probably know. Give how much the original note covered policy, I thought it was prime material for analysis of education policy in the upcoming election.

Firstly, I should make it clear that I regard the suggestion of banning private education, as occasionally advanced by the hard left, as an unwelcome distraction, as I do most suggestions that involve dictating to someone how they should spend their money. Invariably, banning something does not simply lead to its disappearance. (This unfortunately renders an old argument, recently resurfaced, of my politics teacher, moot. That is, “as we ban drugs for being bad for society, we have a perfectly valid reason for banning private education.” Which would be a wonderful argument, of course, if there was any evidence that prohibition of drugs actually worked.) Therefore there need to be strong additional reasons beyond simple discouragement to justify banning something, such as the when it threatens the strong moral founding principles of a society (the reason that not all things are ‘pragmatic’, a la Ankh-Morpork).

Having myself escaped a school which was failing me (not the same as a failing school) through the independent sector — and regarding the impulse of a parent to do what they can to help their children as an entirely natural and justifiable one — I do not regard the idea of banning private education at all rational.

To ban private supply of education would firstly not work, as private supply of education is inevitable somewhere down the line, whether through private tutors, extra-curricular material, or simple parental involvement. (Indeed, if we wanted to increase the extent to which certain professions stay within families or elites, banning private education would be a good first step.) And secondly, I feel it distracts attention from the far more important questions of the ways in which State provision of education can practically help society best, which are far more wide-ranging than people tend to realise.

I’d like to start by outlining a basic contradiction that is often at the heart of the debate in this country. People on the left often point out, quite logically in my view, that private education is naturally divisive. It creates a tiered system, which divides people according to their wealth, and grants the ‘monopoly of choice’ (a favoured term of Tony Blair’s) to those with the greatest ability to pay. The result is not only a situation where the best jobs are disproportionately likely to go to the most privileged, but also one of cultural segregation.

However — if you were to suggest in response, that perhaps we should therefore have a system where one can opt out of the State sector, I am willing to bet that the reaction would be even more negative. For whatever the flaws of Private schools, it is undeniable that it indirectly funds State education, as people who go private effectively pay for education twice.

The Voucher system is a favourite alternative of the libertarian right, both in the US, and in Britain. It was favoured by Margaret Thatcher, as recounted in her diaries, as a potential reform to the British education system, but was regarded as politically unachievable. The reasons should be clear: though the system possibly allows for more efficient provision of education through taking the State entirely out of provision, it would only benefit those with the greatest amount of cash, or in other words, simply entrench social privilege further. It relates back to the “private education funds public education” point I made earlier; through abolishing this, the poor would simply remain condemned to the cheapest education available, whereas the rich would retain the monopoly of choice at a discount.

Effectively, the voucher scheme is a tax cut for the richest in society unless the value of the voucher is very, very large. This in itself would be likely to lead to both higher taxes on the rich, and their education fees shooting up, which in turn could lead to a wealth drain on the economy, and the education system becoming less and less fundable. Clearly, a voucher system is either affordable and discriminatory, or unaffordable and unsustainable. Therefore it is not an alternative which would be better.

Talk of a voucher system brings me on to the second model I wish to talk about, which is being half-heartedly appropriated by the Tories in this country, who manage to breathtakingly combine talk of “progressive ideas” inspired by Sweden, and a voucher system. In truth, what Sweden has is nothing like a conventional voucher system whatsoever, and neither is what the Conservatives are proposing, which is significantly less revolutionary than the Swedish system.

The Swedish system is arguably right to market itself as a “world leader in free market education”, but the system is characterised by emulating all of the advantages of a market, such as greater choice and funding that follows the pupil, and removing all of the disadvantages. This is achieved through forbidding the charging of top-up fees, or other admissions criteria, to schools participating in the scheme, with pupil funding being the same regardless of whether it is controlled by the State or independently. The effect of this has been significant, increasing the number of children educated by the independent sector to over 10%, and changing its reputation into a radical alternative for education, rather than a conservative alternative for a privileged elite.

The Tories wish to emulate this model (which would far better be called a single-payer system rather than a voucher system), albeit with limitations, both in the application of the policy and in its scope for reform. Firstly, the Tories do not wish to allow the British freeschools to be for-profit. This immediately restricts the scope of the reform, as it would exclude most conventional private schools in the country, which are very much for-profit. Only charitable arms would be allowed to operate within the State sector. I actually feel this is unnecessary, and misses out what has made the Swedish system as successful as it is in breaking down the barriers between public and private education, and making access far more equal.

Secondly, Britain comes from a far more different place. Prior to the introduction of this scheme in Sweden, there were hardly any private schools. Whereas there are many private schools in Britain, and more to the point, they charge on average 2-3 times the fees that State schools receive per pupil. This would make a widespread signing up to the scheme from these institutions unlikely, even if the Tories did decide to allow for-profit alternatives after all.

A direct comparison is made yet more difficult due to a lack of clear information I have regarding whether or not the Swedish government even allows private schools to charge fees to the parent to begin with. I have seen conflicting information on this, and until I find something more definite, I will remain unclear on this point. But at the end of the day, it appears unlikely that transplanting their system onto Britain’s will lead to a similarly radical transformation, though it could be a positive step.

The third possibility for structural reform is that which the Liberal Democrats favour; a pupil premium. This seems like a fairly simple idea: to increase funding for each pupil from the poorest families dramatically; yet the effect it has could depend very much on a number of factors. For the sake of brevity, I’ll try and structure this by looking at objections, both from the right and left.

An interesting objection that I have seen from the writers at Though Cowards Flinch is that it would lead to further uncertainty from schools over their budgets on a year by year basis. Now, this could theoretically be solved by allowing schools greater freedom over admissions, allowing them to positively discriminate in order to meet their preferred quota of “premium” pupils. This would outrage the middle-class right, for obvious reasons, but it does spark up an old debate about the purpose of the comprehensive system:

Peter Hyman, in 1 out of 10 (well worth a read, if you see it around your local bookshop) points out that the idea behind comprehensives wasn’t only that people would be taught according to the same curriculum, but that there would be a comprehensive social ‘melting pot’ benefiting in learning through their exposure to one another. While the first aim has definitely been more or less achieved, the 2nd is in far greater question, given the fact that the demographic make up of schools’ pupils varies widly, making the job of some schools far different than that of others.

A pupil premium, even if schools were not allowed to have more flexibility over admissions, would at least be a way of clumsily compensating for such demographic discrepencies. But what interests me is what the effect of such a policy would be if you extended it to private schools, as an incentive for them to offer more opportunities to those unable to afford the fees. The Right and left alike might be reconciled to such an idea: it’s like a limited voucher system that avoids the subsidy of privilege, but increases choice.

What is certain is that this is not what the Liberal Democrats intend. Indeed, Chris Huhne’s stated objective when talking about the policy was to “increase State school funding for poor pupils so it matches the private school average”, something which would an extended premium to private schools would work against. And it’s difficult not to see the pitfalls of such an idea: if private schools receive State funding for poor pupils, then it places State schools at a further competitive disadvantage, and could hypothetically lead to some in the middle losing out either way (it has been argued that previous attempts attempts to get private schools to offer more scholarships have had this effect, by driving up fees to those without scholarships. There are ways this can be avoided, however, an example of which being the Purcell School of Music, Bushey, which tailors the scholarship to parents’ finances.)

The policies could be combined — indeed, I believe I am right in saying that the Netherlands, which is the Liberals’ cited inspiration, first came up with the ‘Swedish system’ that so inspires the Tories. But it is clear what the battle lines are for education in the next election — greater choice for the Tories, smarter redistribution for the Liberal Democrats. Personally, I sympathise with both ideas, and can forsee both of them as incomplete solutions. But it’s good to know that opposition has provided a fertile ground for policy in this area — unlike many other areas of policy.

You may notice that I have left out Labour’s ideas for reform. That might be because I have failed to spot any so far, other than ringfencing funding and imposing yet more targets — I don’t view either of those as reforms, merely a continuation of existing policy. It is for this reason that both the opposition parties have my sympathy far more than Labour as far as education is concerned. Rob Brown may be able to put me right on this subject, however, as I would be the first to admit that my knowledge of Labour party policy is far from extensive.

The rumoured Wooton Basset march, and political theory

In Uncategorized on January 7, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Prologue: As others have pointed out in the intervening two-day period from when I wrote this note; any planned protest would have to go through official police procedure and notify them of the specific time it would take place, in any case, so it’s a little more complicated than the protesters having an unqualified right to march. As such, this note is more a riposte against what I consider knee-jerk liberal arguments in favour of the possible march.

David Weber

I am generally derisory about the practice of citing political theory in an argument, but it doesn’t really matter, as my opponents in this case most likely won’t be. The more ideological people are, the more they generally like political theory. So I’ll call a truce, because I want to strike out against one ideological argument in particular here.

It’s the liberalism for liberalism’s sake argument again. We have seen the argument gain a certain amount of credibility in the wake of the BNPs fairly disastrous appearance on Question Time, and the BBC managing to gain record ratings for Question Time into the bargain. Now we are seeing it renew itself with increased vigour in favour of the Islam4UK march in Wooton Basset. However, I feel there may be one small difference here.

In that the two events are not remotely analogous. This isn’t a media platform, it’s a planned protest, and the two have very different circumstances to consider. Firstly, in order for the argument to hold any weight, one must assume that allowing the protest group to deliberately show maximum insensitivity to mourners is a price worth paying. This contrasts with Question Time, where people had a free choice whether or not to engage with the BNP.

Secondly, one must consider what the effect of such an inflammatory march — far more so than the BNP’s appearance on Question Time, which itself was only a minor change from their previous status, having been on the Andrew Marr show and several other political programmes — is on society. And I don’t think many liberals agree that there can be no restrictions on individual liberty. That is, after all, why the distinction exists between “liberal” and “libertarian”. Liberals are not without common sense, some of the time. They are perfectly willing, often when it suits them, to cite Mill’s “harm principle”.

And the fact is that I can’t think of a more apt analogy here than crying “fire” in a crowded theatre. The march is calculated to pour salt into the fresh wounds of grief that people will be wanting to quietly come to terms with. There is no need for this, and it is not likely to prove of any benefit to Islam4UK’s cause. It seems like an arbitrary attempt to simply stir up bad feelings and social tension. As such, it is a far cry from the ordinary constructive criticism that protests often seek to bring. And therefore it deserves to be treated differently, if indeed it is.

The Soapbox Recommends…

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Ok, I’m not going to waste time trying to pretend that this isn’t some sort of blatant attempt to disguise a lack of activity on our part, and gain traffic through linking to other blogs. But I also genuinely took time searching out what I think to be some very interesting articles written over the Christmas period (or thereabouts), and discovered several blogs new to me, at least two of which are just starting out, like ourselves. Keep a watch out for some new additions to the blogroll. So this could — though unlikely — prove mutually beneficial, as we do seem to have a couple of readers who come back regularly for more…

I’m not sure how regular these will be — probably monthly, possibly fortnightly. It depends on traffic, how much we manage to write ourselves, and how much interesting content we find worth promoting.

And in case any of these featured bloggers come here as a result, and like what they see, reciprocation would greatly appreciated…

Jack of Kent with further thoughts on the Paul Clarke case.

Ben Williams on that unlikely combination of Tories, headlines and opportunism, and the lessons for international relations in China’s execution of Akmal Shaikh.

Observations on the ‘Class War’ debate from ‘Guy the Mac’, Paul Sagar and Neil Robertson.

Stephen Wan on the relationship between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Chris Dillow on the the concept of desert, and redistribution.

Pale Blue View on Climate Change.