Monday 6 September 2010

The Pope is coming to Britain: two dilemmas.

The Pope is coming to Britain, which causes me two dilemmas. I doubt he cares. I don't figure on his radar. But he does figure on mine.

I don't think he should have been invited. I don't think he should be invited to anywhere in the world until he has put the hierarchy of the Catholic Church completely to rights over the issue of sexual abuse. For the record, I don't the church has done anything more than it has been forced to do by publicity and the horror of the outside world. I don't think they have changed their basic view that the reputation of the church (reputation - ha!) must be preserved by all means, and if that means ignoring law breaking and the most disgusting and immoral behaviour then so be it. I still think they see this as a PR exercise, not a moral one, and I find that just as disgusting as the original crimes.

Recently evidence has been put forward in defence of the current Pope that in more junior days he tried to do something about one priest in particular, but was thwarted by higher authorities in the church. That doesn't cut it for me. Faced with gross abuse like this, "obeying orders" is not a defence. He let them stop him doing anything. The deliberate and persistent covering up of these crimes over a long period of time still haunts the church, and will continue to do so as long as they remain so secretive. A good deal more transparency is necessary.

The church has now said that such crimes, if committed nowadays, should be reported to the police. But it has not met with universal agreement. Apparently bishop Grings of Brazil responded by saying that he thought it should still be a matter for internal church discipline. And that has received no reaction from the Pope. The reaction should have been swift and loud: "If you ever fail to report a case of child abuse to the police, you will no longer be a bishop". But no, we have had nothing.

You can't actually stop people abusing children. I have had my own brush with the issue. When I was a social worker in Cambridge, I sent children regularly to an assessment centre, the head of which was given a twenty year jail sentence in 1997 for having abused the children in his care. (As far as I can ascertain, none of the children I sent there were abused.) It took a while for suspicions to harden into action, but the County Council eventually did something about it. The Catholic Church on the other hand has had to be pushed all the way. And it's still pushing back.

Taking an opportunity to put the whole affair behind him, the Pope managed to make it clear just how archaic the thinking of the church hierarchy is. It speeded up the process for investigating priests accused of child abuse, but, crucially, did not make it obligatory to report such crimes to the police. Which century do they think they're in?

And it is notable that they did not give the issue of child abuse by priests its own declaration, which it surely deserved, but included it as part of a decree in which among other things,they upgraded the sinfulness of trying to ordain a woman to a "more grave delict", a tastily ancient phrase for saying it's one of the most horrible things you can do. And putting that in the same document is a slap in the face to every choirboy that's ever been felt up by a randy Catholic priest, not to mention the pain given to the female half of the world's population by the Vatican's misogyny.

So it's pretty clear where I stand. The Pope should be given a raspberry wherever he goes, till he does something that says the church is taking this as seriously as it deserves. But that brings me to my two dilemmas.

The first is that I want to protest when he gets here. I want to go somewhere where my presence tells him that his presence here is contemptible. But the only organised protests that I can find are those beholden to the National Secular Society, and others', alternative agenda. I'm a Christian and I do not want to be associated with those who would tar all religious with the same brush. But the response of religious bodies who disagree fundamentally with the Pope's actions seem to be too wishy washy by half. They have criticised the secular protests for being too confrontational (I agree) but they do not appear to have organised an alternative. Can anybody tell me different?

And my second dilemma is with regard to my Catholic friends. I have several, all good people. I have debated the issue with them before. I have always been absolutely clear that I have no problem with Catholic people as such, but I do have a problem with the structure of the church and the vindictively patriarchal nature of some of its hierarchy. But with most of them I find it very difficult to get this distinction across. They do not see a distinction at all; an attack on any part of the church is taken as deeply wounding to them personally. They're all nice people and I do not see how to take this forward, because I cannot in all honesty think of the Pope and some of his underlings as anything but contemptible.

Lewes Cycle Challenge

I'm taking part in the Lewes Cycle Challenge. Organisations take part, and the idea is for them to get their employees on to bikes, if only for ten minutes during the period of the challenge, which is 10th to 26th September. I was going to upload a picture of me holding a cupcake, but my image button has gone awol. Not sure what the cupcake has to do with it, but it tasted very nice.

We're going to be making our major effort on Septenber 20th, which is the day after International Talk like A Pirate Day, so we're pirate theming it. Look out for photos, if that button has come back by then.

Friday 3 September 2010

Inglorious and a bit fishy; and a question

Inglorious refers to media (both social and commercial) treatment of William Hague over the last few days. What has been done is not only inglorious but shameful and unhelpful. The story has concentrated on the salacious details of sexuality which has served to hide a more pertinent question. The more pertinent question is now being expressed but largely overlooked in the wave of reaction that follows his personal statement.

There are three features to the story - sexuality, privacy and judgement. Homosexuality should not be news, but it is, largely because it sells millions of newspapers to the mentally challenged half of our country. I don't give a stuff whether Hague is straight, gay or a bit of both. I also don't care if he has cheated on his wife: that's an issue for them, not for the rest of us. He says he hasn't. Fine, let it be.

It is shameful that Hague has now been driven to making a statement that reveals his and his wife's private - I emphasise that word, private - grief. I know that there are a lot of people who have put them in that position who unfortunately won't feel the slightest remorse. Politicians lives will always be public, but somewhere there is a limit and we have strayed beyond it here.

But underneath all that froth, and the somewhat sanctimonious response when the true details of the Hagues' situation came out, there is a genuine and serious question. It may not be a big question, but it is a question. Is Hague's judgement as good as we thought it was? At the time of the hotel incident he was shadow Foreign Secretary. He is now Foreign Secretary. He is an important enough person for us to ask small questions about.

He admits now that it was an error of judgement to share a hotel room, because he did not think through how it would look. That's a minor issue. As has been said, if you really are having a secret affair, the last thing you do is share a hotel room. It's how it *looks* that escaped Hague's notice. To me that incident is a cause of puzzlement more than anything. It seems to be generally accepted that sharing a hotel room is a normal thing to do. In some classes and for some purposes that will be true. People share at conference time, for instance, because of the lack of affordable hotel space. But you can bet your life Hague won't be sharing at conference, and never has since he's been an MP. It was a campaign trip, I understand, so it wasn't a hair shirt issue about saving public money, which some people have suggested it was. Hague is one of the Conservatives' biggest guns; he spearheads their election campaigns because he is so popular. They look after him. They plan his trips really carefully. He was also, if I remember rightly, one of the best funded opposition politicians of the last government. So why on earth did they not book enough rooms to go round? Maybe somebody will tell me that this is normal for high status, high value politicians. I don't see it, though. Which leaves a question mark over how on earth did it happen that Hague ended up sharing a room. That is, in the end though, probably more likely to be in the "of interest to the public" category than the "in the public interest" category.

What is in the public interest though is how Chris Myers got his job as a special adviser. He became Hague's third when everybody else was limited to two. Being driver to the shadow Foreign Secretary is one thing. Being special adviser to the actual UK Foreign Secretary makes you one of the most powerful people in British politics. To get that job, and to get it specially created for you means that you should be somebody really special. But Myers' qualifications, while not as poor as some have suggested, don't appear to be stellar. So it is legitimate to ask Hague to justify his judgement. It is legitimate to ask how he arrived at the conclusion that Myers was the person best suited to the job, and how he got dispensation to create the post needed for the appointment. Because our Foreign Secretary has a tricky and demanding job to do and we need to know that he has the judgement for it. But that has been buried, and is likely to stay buried among the slop that the media, including the social media, have poured over the episode.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Cavity wall insulation - a cautionary tale

I see the government is giving more priority to home insulation, and in fact diverting money from other forms of saving to boost insulation. We had cavity wall insulation done a few months ago in the depth of winter. The insulation is fine, I would recommend it. It makes a noticeable difference in some parts of the house. But the experience of the installation was not, and my experience of that leads me to say, if you have cavity wall insulation done, don't use Mark Group. There are plenty of alternatives around: here's a place where you can find loads, if you don't want to take up offers from your energy suppliers.

The reason why is as follows. When the salesman from Mark Group came to visit us, he told us that it would be necessary to install a vent in the living room as we have a fireplace which is still in use. We were concerned about this and asked for more information. He gave us two specific reassurances. The first was that the vent operated mechanically in such a way that it was shut to the outside cold unless it was needed when the fireplace was in use. The second was that the vent was covered with a mesh fine enough to prevent slugs from getting in.

We only discovered once the vent was installed that neither of these things is true. The installers told us in fact that the vent is legally required to be left open, and to be without a fine mesh so as not to interrupt airflow. The result is a constant flow of cold air into the room. But they confirmed that the vent was a legal requirement if insulation was added to a room with a fireplace in use.

The effect on our living room was dramatic. It did not help that this happened during one of the cold snaps last February. The living was the warmest room in the house and it became the coldest. Ours is a small semi-detached house. Downstairs we have a kitchen and a living room. We live in the living room. If the salesman had been truthful about the nature of the vent, we would in all probability not have gone ahead with the purchase. As it is, our living room has been made completely unsuitable to its purpose at some times of the year due to the misinformation clearly and deliberately given to us by the salesman.

I wrote to Mark Group to complain, and got a visit from a technical expert who confirmed that the vent had been properly installed. I mad it clear that that was not the problem. The problem was the mis-selling. So he went away and said he'd talk to somebody else.

It took a couple of phone calls to remind them that somebody else was supposed to be doing something. eventually I spoke to the next person, and we had a decent conversation. I was already clear in my mind that there was nothing practical they could do. The only way the vent could be legally removed would be to block up the fireplace, and thus lose one of the major amenities of the house, or to suck all the insulation out of the walls again, neither of which was appealing. So the only obvious route was for them to offer us a reasonable amount of compensation. The main thing was for me to be convinced that they had taken my complaint seriously. They did admit in writing to what they called a training issue with the salesman, which was OK. But I gradually came to think that they were not taking me seriously, as each stage in the process had to be kicked off by me reminding them with a phone call that I hadn't heard from them for a while. I began to think that in fact they might be deliberately taking things lowly in the hope that I would get fed up and forget about the complaint.

In the end they offered me £50 compensation. This is for making my living room not fit to live in for a portion of the year. In a second letter they made it clear that £50 was their final offer. I rejected it.

I don't mind about the money. I do mind that a company can employ a salesman who quite deliberately and wilfully misrepresents the product they're offering, they can understand that that action has foisted on me and my family an insoluble problem, and then they still think that the best way to deal with the resulting mess is to take a long time and then offer the least they think they can get away with.

So, do get insulation if you want. Just don't use Mark Group.

Mind you, my experience with them is nothing compared to this couple's. Note the same technique, a final offer of a derisory sum by way of compensation.

Sunday 4 July 2010

Is it possible to change the way people do things

Not when it comes to driving apparently.

The BBC reported last week on Britain's most dangerous roads, as enumerated by the Road Safety Foundation. As one might expect, half of Britain's fatal accidents happen on one tenth of our roads. The answer to this, according the Foundation, is to spend money making the roads safer. It never occurs to them to make the drivers safer. A particularly telling point is that "most crashes happened at weekends during the summer in dry, daylight conditions" which kind of suggests that the roads themselves are not at fault. They may be twisty, they may be narrow, they may be bumpy, but there is nothing dangerous about them if the drivers on them would just............. slow down a bit. And keep their eyes open. So many of us seem to think that there is no need to concentrate on the road while driving as fast as we can possibly go; the radio, the mobile - even if handsfree, the conversation of passengers and, for heaven's sake, looking at the scenery all rank more important than actually looking at what is happening on the road in front of them.

I have two suggestions, which would be a lot cheaper than the improvements suggested by the Road Safety Foundation. The first is to erect large signs all the way along the dangerous roads: "If you drive here the way you usually do, you are twenty times more likely to have an accident".

That of course relies on drivers being sensible, which is unlikely. So my second suggestion is signs that say: "If you drive here the way you usually do, you are twenty times more likely to find your insurance going up."

Neither is likely to do the job. It would be nice if one of them did though.

The Road Safety Foundation also responds to what I am tempted to call "Parsons' law of monetisation", which states that the more widespread any phenomenon is, the more likely its financial cost is to be reported, and the less likely its human cost. There is no mention on the Eurorap report page of twisted bodies, mangled limbs, orphaned children. But there are several mentions of the cost of the suggested changes and the potential savings to the Exchequer.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to the RSF. It does report its purpose as being to reduce road casualties by acting on all three components of the system - roads, vehicles and behaviour. But there's no mention of behaviour in this report. Shouldn't there be?

Sunday 30 May 2010

Nuclear power - thanks but no thanks

Interesting that Chris Huhne makes it clear that he is not ideological on nuclear power. I have always been not ideological on nuclear power. I think the balance of effort needs to be much further toward the renewable end of the spectrum than it has been. And I also think we need to do the unthinkable =- actually change our lifestyles rather than continue to produce more and more power to feed it. But politicians aren't allowed to say that kind of thing.

I feel more comfortable with the idea of nuclear power stations being built with no subsidy. But I can't get my head around how it might work. Let's take an example.

My company, (greenpower inc, or some such name) decides to build a power station. Sets up a new company to do the job (ourfuture inc, or something like that), floats it on the stockmarket with lots of shares, gets in loads of cash, borrows from the banks at silly rates because the government is telling banks to up their lending.

I open my power station with plaudits from the Prime Minister of the day whoever that is, but it will be male, white and not quite middle aged, with good hair and teeth.

I make lots of power and even more money. (I donate some to various political parties.)

I become a Lord, (Lord Green of Much Unwitting or something like that).

I make lots more power and lots more money. ourfuture inc shares do well. I reschedule the debt, share prices rise even further and I am hailed as a business genius. I am probably brought in to head a government task force on waste or something like that.

As the power station nears the end of its useful life, rumours emerge about the financial health of ourfuture inc. Shareholders take their profits and the price dips.

My pension fund is doing nicely.

When the time comes, I pull the plug on the power station and send the staff off to the next one I'm building (under a different company).

On the day I send in the new set of decommissioning staff, I discover, to my shock and horror, that there is no money left in ourfuture inc. I regretfully and with much protestation of innocence, have the company put into administration. I am punctilious in informing the government of what needs to be done to make the plant safe, and hand over all the blue prints.

I give up my lordship, convert my tax status to non-dom, and swan off to some Caribbean island, leaving the government to find upwards of £30 billion for the decommissioning and making safe.

What else would any sensible business person do?

David Laws, Lord Laidlaw and newspapers

David Laws' resignation is a cause for deep regret. I did not want him to resign. I am dismayed that he felt the need for secrecy over his sexuality, and I am equally dismayed at the newspaper treatment of it, which demonstrates that his felt need for secrecy was well founded, despite what other gay people may say. I think it would have been possible for him to carry on. There are certainly suggestions that David Cameron thought so. Nevertheless I feel proud that Laws has done what would in a less febrile atmosphere be called the right thing. I am also sure that he will return when the dust has settled, and that that will be the right thing too. The price of politics is high. I am sure that Laws knew that already, but it has now been reaffirmed for him. He is a tough man though, I have no doubt of that, and our politics will be better run when he returns to office.

Many are saying that the coalition has been weakened. I do not believe this is so. The coalition has been wounded, but I think it will emerge from this episode the stronger. The media narrative has already formed around Laws being pivotal to the growing understanding between Conservatives and Libdems with the implication that it will all start to unravel “coalition in turmoil” is a headline in the Observer today. I doubt that. The unexpected is the stuff of politics. “Coalition takes first blow, flesh wound, no stitches required, will survive” is more like the truth, but that doesn't sell newspapers. Laws is an unusual talent, but there is plenty of other talent on both sides, as well as willingness to do the job. And in any case, I am sure that Laws will still be there in the background providing support and advice as far as he can.

Meanwhile another item of news is far more important for the long term future of British politics. Lord Laidlaw, substantial donor to the Conservative Party, has resigned as a lord in order to maintain his status as a non-dom. Well, good riddance. This is the man who made a specific written promise in 2003 that if made a lord, he would become a UK taxpayer. He welshed on the promise, and, it has to be said, the Tories let him. Every day he continued as a Lord, living a lie, was another day in which the old politics could still outshine the new. There is plenty of old politics still around, as this headline shows, (I note there is no suggestion of Conservative party misdoing here) and much still needs to be done to sort out party funding. But at least we have one liar less in the Lords. Laws will be back, Laidlaw, I very much hope, will not.

The manner of publication of Laidlaw's decision says a lot about our press. The Times headlined the article: (read it now before it goes behind the paywall) "Sex addict peer gives up seat to save non-dom status". I don't give a stuff about Laidlaw's sexuality, and neither should anyone else. It says a lot that the Times leads with the "sex addict" bit, when this is possibly a fundamental moment in the move to change the way in which British politics is done, far more important in the long run, I think, than the question of David Laws' resignation. And I thought the Times was interested in politics.

Perhaps the Times is vying with the Telegraph for cheapest broadsheet headline of the year. The Telegraph headlined their article about David Laws expenses (I apologise here and now to David Laws for bringing this up again, but my purpose is to outline the cheapness of the Telegraph's editorial stance): "MPs' Expenses: Treasury chief David Laws, his secret lover and a £40,000 claim". No doubt "MPs' Expenses: Treasury chief David Laws, his £40,000 claim" would not have sold enough copies. This is the paper that brought us: "MPs' expenses: Jo Swinson submitted receipts for tooth flosser and eyeliner", for which a true headline would have read: "Young woman spends own money on inexpensive makeup, shock, horror". Perhaps the Telegraph wants to be the first broadsheet to join the Daily Mail in the gutter of British journalism. It's got a long way to go to get that low, to be honest, but it's heading there fast.

Saturday 8 May 2010

The current scene

I've just sent most of this to balancedparliament at

To my surprise I find I'm less bothered about facilitating a Tory government than I thought I would be. I worked through the 80s and 90s when almost every day brought more examples of Tory viciousness and Tory sleaze, and we still see evidence day to day that many of the party grassroots haven't changed a bit. I still think that if they get into power the right wing will come out of hiding and try to blast Cameron into submission to their way of thinking. For what it's worth,. I don't think Cameron himself has a political anchor. He doesn't really believe much of what he's been selling to the British public over the last couple of years. But also I don't think he's actually as right wing as the 2005 manifesto that he wrote. He is a supreme salesman. If he believes in anything, he believes in privilege. But his political position has no weight, and he is therefore vulnerable to being knocked rightwards by the blasts that will come at him from the Tory roots.

But we strive to be democratic, and as somebody said grown up politics involves sometimes having to work with your enemies. I think we have already put ourselves into a good position by being consistent – the party with the mandate to govern should govern. The Tories have that is both votes and seats, so they get their chance.

Yes, we could prop up Brown, and his offer on electoral reform is probably more soundly based than anything we'd get from the Tories, because he knows it's his last chance. And, OK, many of us are instinctively closer to Labour than to the Tories. But I don't think the voters will forgive us in the end for keeping Gordon alive. And after all he has form – 13 years in power, not one step on electoral reform till he's on his political deathbed. Grown up politics sometimes means not working with your friends, when your friends have turned out not to be real friends.

At the same time we have to be clear about how much power we have, or rather don't have. We can do what we can, but it's limited in the face of a Tory party that hold most of the cards.

I don't think we should ally with them. It's a political calculation of costs and benefits. I do not believe we will get any great benefit – electoral reform in particular will be manoeuvred out of the way. Even if Cameron was half inclined to deliver it, any move in that direction would cause his troops to march him behind the bike sheds for a mock execution. Followed by a real one if he went any further.

So to my mind the resource and supply idea is probably our best bet. The key thing is for us to both act and present ourselves as acting for the good of the country and for the good of democracy. We must strive not to be saddled with responsibility for Tory actions that we really disagree with, and we must strive to present our arguments in favour of those actions that we do agree with. It will call on our Parliamentarians to be extremely well organised and extremely nimble to keep on top of all the political and procedural manoeuvrings that will take place. My MP is Norman Baker, and I know of nobody who works harder than he does, but he and all our other MPs will have to work even harder. All our new MPs will need to learn very quickly when to act and when not to act, and they will need immense support from our seasoned campaigners.

Along with that, we will need to take a good long look at all the party's resources, and rearrange them if need be to provide the best support we can to our MPs and our spokespeople over the next few months. Making sure that they get the support they need to make the right decisions, and making sure that the message gets out about how and why we are doing what we are doing is more important now than ever, so at some point soon, the powers that be in Cowley St and the regions need to have a good hard look at how our administrators and support staff can be best utilised. That is also part of the stuff of politics.

I have a couple of other minor observations about the current political situation. Firstly, there has been some talk of us being able to manoeuvre George Osborne out of the way and get Cameron to replace him with Ken Clarke. Much better idea for the country. But we have to get real about the amount of power we have. See the execution scenario above. The idea of a pro European in charge at the treasury is even less to the liking of the Tory grassroots than PR. So we're stuck with Sixth Form.

And secondly one of my biggest fears about a Tory majority was the social repression that might follow in its wake – votes on the hunting ban, and an all out assault on our abortion legislation, in particular. Those now seem much less likely with the Tories in a minority. I haven't looked at the balance of the new Parliament on those issues in detail and I have no idea how the numbers stack up. There will definitely be some people calling loud and long for them, but they will not get their way nearly so easily.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Stroud vs Stroud

Philippa Stroud has hit some headlines, though notably not those of the Murdochracy, or of the BBC, which is apparently too frightened of the Murdochracy to run it. The nub of the issue is her practice of praying for homosexual people to be released from the demons which so obviously infect them.

The response so far has been fourfold:

a) a denial from Ms Stroud that she believes homosexuality is an illness. Which is an accusation nobody has put to her.

b) silence from her on the issue of whether homosexual people are possessed by demons.

c) a rapid disappearance of Philippa from Twitter and Facebook, presumably in case people press her on these issues. Wonder what she's got to hide then.

d) a concerted defence from various Tories, including, bless him, Iain Dale, that this is old news, something she did ten years ago. With the carefully not spelt out implication that things might be different now.

There has been little coverage of whether she is still a member of the church she founded, which holds among other relics of tub thumping patriarchy, that the man is the head of the woman and she must submit to his authority.

Now we find that Mr Stroud, said authoritative husband of the above mentioned, has signed a declaration intended to put the views of socially conservative Christians, the Westminster Declaration, so he's still around and still very right wing. (Update: it's been fisked by Ekklesia, thank goodness.) So this is a live story, not a ten year old one. Given that she's standing for Parliament, and given that this is still a democracy, her potential constituents have a right to know:

a) does she still hold to the tenets of the church that she founded?

b) in which case does she still believe that homosexuals are possessed by demons?

c) does she hold that she is subject to the authority of her husband?

d) in which case whose conscience will decide her votes if she gets into Parliament and exercises that vote on behalf of her constituents - hers or her husband's?

PS as a Christian I resent the presentation of the Westminster Declaration "Declaration of Christian conscience" as if it speaks for all Christians. They speak only for those who very selectively quote bits of both Old and New testaments to assert that dinosaurs never existed, except for those who still believe that they have a right to control everything their womenfolk say and do. They most certainly do not speak for me, but they try to claim that theirs is the only truth. They should meet the Pope when he comes over; they'll find they have a lot in common.

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Signs of a coalition?

Could these signs mean something???

Actually the most significant thing about this picture is that by no means all of the fields round here are voting Conservative. That may reflect the mood of only a few people, but in terms of the change in thinking necessary for it to happen, it's seismic.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Nick Clegg and privilege

I think Nick Clegg (and the rest of us Liberal Democrats) are letting the media, and the other parties, get away with stabs at his privileged background. You're just the same as Cameron, they say, privileged background, posh school. And they get a defensive and faintly embarrassed response.

But that's not the point. You don't get to choose your parents. You don't get to choose where you're born or (rarely at least) where you go to school. What matters is how you react to that when you get to the age and stage where you do make choices. And there the difference is clear. Cameron has chosen privilege. He believes in it; it oozes from every pore. He thinks he is part of the elite who he thinks deserve to run the country. Clegg has chosen the British liberal way, to regard every citizen as being of equal merit. Cameron has chosen the elite, Clegg has chosen everybody. He should say so.

Peter Oborne never spoke a truer word

From the Mail today: "Voters scored him [Cameron] very low indeed for cherished assets such as honesty and charisma - and alarmingly high for slickness and poshness." The rest of the article is the usual tosh.

Sunday 18 April 2010

The honest truth

This is a series of musings brought on by quick flicks through the ash cloud of coverage we've had of the leaders' debate and the subsequent polls. Somewhere in it, I think there is a coherent narrative, which is about how much easier it is to tell the truth - hence the title.

Let's start with David Cameron's stories. They've been thoroughly covered (taken apart) in many places, such as in the Guardian. Now, using stories, including fictional ones, as a communication technique has a long and honourable history. Reagan and Ted Kennedy in particular were masters of it. One of Reagan's favourites - you can tell it was a favourite because he repeated it so often, was "One for the gipper" where a crewman in a stricken warplane told his mates "One for the gipper" as the plane crashed and they all died. Self evidently a fiction because of its ending, and strangely amorphous in its purpose (something to do with heroism for the cause) yet very effective at rousing the campaigners and voters. Cameron's mistake was to get details wrong, which resulted in a thorough media wide fisking. Even though the incidents are true, in that they happened, he manages to get the details dreadfully wrong because he is trying to use them inauthentically.

Jane Merrick and Brian Brady in the Independent point out that Clegg used stories too. But presumably he got the details right. I haven't checked any of them, but I have no doubt that some of the fresh faced youth in the Tories' rebuttal team have been working feverishly on them, and are currently biting their knuckles because of their inability to find anything to critique. (If they had found something it would undoubtedly already be in the Mail and the Telegraph.)

That, in my view, is the main difference between Clegg and the Terrible Twins. His performance looked effortless and natural, because he basks in the luxury that we have for years fought, worked and campaigned ceaselessly for. He is telling the truth. When he says we're different from them, it's true. When he says that our tax and spend plans are fully audited, it's true. I loved the bit in Matthew Ancona's piece in the Telegraph where he reports George Osborne saying that our policies will come under the scrutiny that we've been avoiding for so long. Pray, George, when exactly have we been avoiding scrutiny? Nick went straight on to the Paxman show for a Paxo grilling on his policies, unlike Cameron, who, like Brown, has had to be dragged there because they now know they can't avoid it. For years we've been begging the media for more time, more time, more time. It's not us who've been avoiding it, George, it's your friends in the newspapers and the TV stations who haven't had the gumption to look at us properly.

There's another thing I like about Matthew Ancona's piece. It's the complete disjunction between the narrative Ancona attempts to put across with the facts that he actually uses. Ancona's piece is entitled "David Cameron must sweep aside the impostor who stole his act". He wants to position Clegg as the impostor. The trouble is that nothing in the piece he then writes lends any credence whatsoever to that narrative - it's all about Clegg winning because he's telling the truth, and Cameron having to find ways to adjust because his dodgy "honest, guv" strategy is failing badly. Cameron himself has always been an impostor, and he's being found out.

Ancona's blindness to the realities of life is evident in his belief that Clegg stole Cameron's act as the "insurgent". That he can genuinely believe that Cameron, who oozes privilege and his belief in it from every pore, can be an insurgent, suggests that he is on a prolonged course of happy pills, and shows no sign of coming off them in the immediate future.

One final thing I like. Andrew Neil on his BBC blog says "A growing group of influential Tories want "Cameron to be Cameron" in the next debate." Please, please, let it be so, that's all I ask.

Friday 16 April 2010

Sunday 11 April 2010

First Tory leaflet

The first Tory leaflet of the campaign has just been delivered by a little old lady in a hat and dark glasses. Perhaps she didn't want to be recognised.

Same old Tories

So the boy George says the Conservative Party has changed over the last four years (in a Times article, get it while you can, fifteenth paragraph). It's such a pity that the party and its supporters keep reminding us that it hasn't. Today the star turn is Henry Angest, who donates millions to the Conservatives - £7 million in donations and loans in the last nine years, including a £5 million loan last November which helps to bankroll this election fight (not that Dave needs it with all the free flights he gets from his rich mates). Meanwhile Mr Angest also funds UKIP, various climate change denial organisations and fiercely anti-EU groups, among others. He's quite a clever chap, Mr Angest, reportedly worth £45 million, despite all the millions he's given away, so we must presume that he knows what he's doing. Which means that in his view the Tories, UKIP, the climate change deniers, the EU sceptics, all stand for the same thing, and are equally worthy of his patronage. Sorry, George, try pulling the other one.

Saturday 10 April 2010

It's good being a Liberal Democrat

I was at Norman Baker's adoption meeting last night. He was introduced by Lord Oakeshott who told us what we knew already – that Norman has been a fantastic MP both in the constituency and in Parliament, and will continue to be a fantastic MP if he is re-elected. Lord Oakeshott had some words for us about not letting the Tories in on the back of dislike of Brown, replacing one bad lot with another. I particularly liked his line about not wanting to have a Chancellor on work experience (an original Oakeshott line, though one he's used before). To get Norman back in we have to overcome the standard Tory tactics of throwing money at a seat. Despite not having Lord Ashcroft's money, this not counting as a marginal, we are up against a very well funded Tory candidate with over £200,000 raised in the last two years. We compete with enthusiasm, good people, good policies and endless foot slogging.

It feels better than ever to be a Liberal Democrat at the moment. I have a wonderful MP, now candidate, to campaign for. I have an excellent set of policies to sell to voters on the doorstep. I can talk about genuine fairness, I can talk about properly thought through and funded tax proposals, I can talk about decent proposals for schools and hospitals.

I can talk about a great team. Nick Clegg as the leader, Vince Cable for Chancellor, Norman Baker himself on transport with many excellent ideas for getting Britain moving better, Chris Huhne's great common sense in the Home Secretary role, Ed Davey as Foreign Secretary, Simon Hughes on energy and climate change, where do I stop? Nick Clegg doesn't mind which of them gets photographed with him, unlike Gordon Brown who is photographed with his whole cabinet in the hope that he will sink into oblivion among them, and David Cameron who is photographed with none of his in case they remind people what they're really like.

And I can talk about a great record. Our consistency over the last few years is one of our strongest selling points. Consistent opposition to the Iraq War - fully justified by subsequent events ( and one that goes hand in hand with a realistic and hard headed defence policy for the future). Consistent opposition to the whole waste of money on ID cards. The fact that we heralded some of the problems brewing in the recession years before either Labour or Tories had a clue. A record on MPs expenses and other abuses that cannot be touched by Labour or Tories. Norman Baker began his campaign to reveal MPs' expenses with a Freedom of Information request in 2005, and his filibuster was crucial in 2007 in preventing Tories and Labour uniting to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act (reason alone to be proud of him). We proposed rules on lobbying in 2006 which were thrown out by the combined forces of the gravy train, Tory and Labour again.

So I can talk about a history of genuine honesty, fairness, consistency and principle. Yes, it's good to be a Liberal Democrat today.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Michael Caine

Michael Caine appears for the Tories. He says it's non-political and it's on behalf of the forgotten youth of today. Presumably that was part of the "great ignored" theme that the Tories have now apparently ditched. So what's going on there, I wonder.

I think Michael Caine, non-political or not, is a bit of a coup for the Tories. I've seen a few tweets about the Tories getting a 76 or 77 year old tax exile to front a campaign for the "yoof". Born 14 March 1933 according to Wikipedia, so it must be true, which means he is actually 77. The tax exile thing I can see as a good thing for the opposition - another example of the only people who the Tories actually appeal to. But the 77 year old thing is a red herring in my opinion. Chronological age as a determinant of appeal has always been a non starter. I remember Matthew Parris writing a column about this when William Hague became leader, and there was a lot of talk about the Tories electing someone so young to lead such an elderly party. Parris wrote that it made perfect sense. His theory was that people had a natural age, which had nothing to do with their chronological age. Hague's age was around 50, and always had been. That is why his later adoption of the baseball cap was such a failure.

Michael Caine's natural age is about 15, about the same as mine, though he does it much better.

I assume that the Michael Caine thing will simply wither and die, rather like Cameron's idea of a volunteer army will wither and die. The Brits just don't take to being that organised. If he tried it in Switzerland it would go down a storm.

But if Caine doesn't go away, I reckon we can see him off by showing clips of any scene from Secondhand Lions in which he speaks. I love that film actually, for two reasons. One is the ending, which I won't spoil. The other is Caine's attempt at a southern US accent which deserves cult status. It is so cringingly awful that a few renditions will embarrass him into taking a sudden holiday somewhere else.

Monday 5 April 2010

Phone taps and Andy Coulson

Today's Guardian "Police 'ignored News of the World phone hacking evidence'" shows how the police restricted the scope of their investigations into the News of the World phone bugging scandal under Andy Coulson's stewardship. Peter Black has covered this in detail already. I will just consider the figures. Whereas the police have been saying all along that only a handful of people were victims of the NoTW's illegal behaviour, they in fact had, according to the Guardian, "4,332 names or partial names ..., 2,978 numbers or partial numbers for mobile phones and 30 audio tapes which appear to contain an unspecified number of recordings of voicemail messages". The behaviour of the police themselves, exacerbated by their obstructiveness over responding to the FOI requests which finally unearthed these figures, is questionable to say the least. But the most interesting political facet is whether David Cameron's press chief is going to find himself becoming the story just when he is supposed to be running a general election campaign. Andy Coulson has always denied all knowledge of these goings on. But when they get to this scale, his story begins to look rather thin.

Liberal Democrats pledge biggest rail expansion since the Victorians

Norman Baker launched a Liberal Democrat plan for massive rail expansion today. He said, “High speed rail is hugely important, but it is only part of the 21st century rail network Britain needs. Our plans will reopen thousands of miles of track across the country and make our railway great again... The Liberal Democrats will transform the railways with the biggest expansion since the Victorian age."

The plan is to create a Rail Expansion Fund of nearly £3bn from which councils and transport authorities can bid for money to pay for rail improvement and expansion projects. The reaction from the motoring lobby was immediate and predictable: according to the BBC "the RAC Foundation said it would be a waste of taxpayers' money when only 7% of UK journeys were made by train, compared to 90% by car". Maybe more routes and cheaper fares will make a difference to that proportion.

Some of the plans include, again from the BBC, "the electrification of lines from Manchester to Liverpool, Leeds and Preston; from Birmingham to Bristol and Basingstoke; and between Leeds and York. New or reopened stations could be funded in Ilkeston, Kidlington, Wantage, Corsham, Tavistock, Middlewich, Ashington, Blyth, Washington and Skelmersdale. New lines could link Southport with Preston, Bournemouth with Ringwood and the Midlands main line with the Birmingham-Derby route. And track could be reopened between Exeter and Okehampton; Tavistock and Plymouth; Penrith and Keswick; and Galashiels and Carlisle."

No sign of the Lewes to Uckfield line in there, but maybe, maybe...

Update 6th April
The plan does include reopening the Lewes Uckfield railway. Norman says: "The reopening of the Lewes - Uckfield line is something I have campaigned for locally for over twenty years. It is vitally needed, not just to link the two towns again, but also as a key building block in providing an alternative to the heavily congested Brighton main line."

Sunday 4 April 2010

Not such a great story for Easter Day

For some time now I have felt very sorry for my various Catholic friends at the way they have been let down by the hierarchy of the Catholic church over the issue of child abuse. It's not the fact of abuse, it's the way the church has reacted, and continues to react. They continue to keep secrets and to say anything they can that will get them off the hook without them recognising that things really have to change.

They reached the pits, I think, with the Pope's preacher saying that the abuse the Pope had received over this was akin to the collective violence suffered by the Jews. He obviously doesn't do much arguing, or he would know that the first rule of arguments is that whoever compares the other side to Nazis has by definition lost the argument. But, that aside, it indicates just how far the hierarchy of the Catholic church has strayed from the message of Christ.

I am myself a staunch Anglican, and yesterday I was happy for a few hours when I read of Rowan Williams' words to the Catholics. He said the church in Ireland "has lost "all credibility" because of its poor handling of the scandal of paedophile priests [and] the child sex abuse scandal that has engulfed the Catholic church had been a "colossal trauma" for Ireland in particular."

I thought briefly maybe we have the best archbishop I have known in my lifetime, one who is prepared to speak the truth in love. He was prepared to say to his peers in the Catholic church that they need to travel miles and they have hardly been prepared to budge an inch. And heaven knows they're not listening to anybody else. Every step they have taken has been forced out of them by public opinion.

And then he went and apologised. And blew all that good work out of the window. And the Catholic church hierarchy go on in the same old way. They are not going to be "swayed by 'petty gossip' about child sex-abuse allegations". Only a Catholic cardinal could call well founded questions about the role the Pope himself played in covering up these scandals "petty gossip".

And the good old Anglican church is back to faith, hope and niceness, and the greatest of these is niceness. Jesus must be weeping.

A great story for Easter Day

From the UK Department for International Development's website - women clearing land mines in Sri Lanka:

"The work is hard, but I don’t mind as I’m helping my family. I don’t get scared. I just want my children to be able to go to school and live in peace."

Sunday 21 March 2010

Girl with the dragon tattoo

I got to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo this week at a cinema in Chichester - the nearest to me that was showing it. It was worth the journey. Nice cinema apart from not having the sound properly calibrated, so the environmental sound and sometimes the music came from some very odd places some of the time.

I've read the books, and enjoyed them greatly. If you haven't read the books, you will want to know that the film thoroughly deserves its 18 rating. It has a rape scene, a torture scene, several assaults and several sets of crime scene photos that would make CSI blush.

It was a thoroughly professional production. It had three good things going for it. The first was Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Nobody else should be allowed to play Salander now. Especially anybody in the inevitable American reproduction. She gets the look, the attitude and the motorbike dead right.

Second is the scenery. The cameraman really enjoyed himself filming this. The locations are stunning and the film makes the most of them - luscious forest, water and snow. Even the three minute segment set in Australia manages to find sensational and not typically Australian scenery.

And thirdly, and most impressively, the screenplay. The writers knew what they were doing. They remained faithful to the novel, but they concentrated on the main story. In the novel there is a lot of backfilling, giving us backgrounds to the main characters that Larsson obviously felt necessary for the story and for his intended purposes in subsequent parts of the trilogy. There are also several subplots, mostly involving Blomquist's active sex life. For the film the writers have stripped out all the subplots and nearly all the back story, and left just the lean stripped down story of the investigation. And it works beautifully.

Can't wait for the next one. (In Swedish.)

Monday 1 March 2010

Is that what it's all about, then?

So Lord Ashcroft finally admits to being a non-dom for tax paying purposes. Now we have left, right and others slagging each other off about you've got more non-doms than us. For me whether or not he is an non-dom is a non-issue. It's legal. Get over it. It may be that it's undesirable, but it's only just come to seem so in the wake of the whole expenses scandal. Is that what all the fuss was about? Well, not really - I'll come to that in a minute.

The most immediate impact of this saga is on the Conservative Party's competence and reputation. All they needed to do at any stage in this whole process is admit the less than shameful truth that Ashcroft is a non-dom. Instead of doing so they seem to have gone out of their way to make themselves look shifty when questioned about it. Their nadir, I think, was William Hague managing to look spectacularly shifty by repeatedly squirming out of answering Andrew Marr's questions. They have raised for themselves the question: if this is what they're like now, is this what they'll be like in government? Judging from Boris Johnson's repeated, continuing and mounting attempts to avoid any kind of scrutiny so far as mayor of London (see Boriswatch, passim) the answer seems to be yes. So much for transparency and reforming politics. Whenever Cameron talks about that over the next three months there should be a sound track of hollow laughter.

Not only do they look shifty, they look as if they have no idea about political judgement. They have not been able to see that the image of shiftiness they have given themselves was more trouble than the secrecy was worth. Now, negative qualities are not necessarily bad things for politicians to have. Bullygate seems - I emphasise "seems" because we need to see more polling over the next few days - to have done Gordon Brown some good. In 1968 the USA elected Richard Nixon as president not just in spite of but because of his reputation for skullduggery. They wanted a streetfighter to take on the Russians, and they got one. But they did not elect a man who did not know when to fight and when to run away, when to dissemble and when to be honest. The Conservatives are demonstrating, almost daily, that they do not have that judgement, that competence, which is the first requisite of those who would govern us.

But all that stuff about Ashcroft being a non-dom is not what it's about. The real issue is the promise made by the Conservative party when they lobbied for Ashcroft to become a peer. We now have his version of that promise, that he promised by the end of the year to become a resident for tax purposes, and that he clarified that that meant becoming a long term resident, which apparently means that he can still live in Belize (where the heart is, apparently) as long as he spends a few days a year in Britain. Leaving aside the supine stance of the honours office (as far as I'm concerned, if he wanted to be a peer, he should, like the other Conservative foreign funder and recusant Lord Laidlaw, bloody well have become a resident first), that whole thing also leaves the Conservative party looking shifty. They look shifty because they *are* shifty. They could have been open and honest about the promises made right from the start, instead of which they have obfuscated and prevaricated. So much for transparency, Dave.

It's not over yet, of course. We have yet to see the material that is to be made public soon by the Cabinet Office. Then we can judge exactly how shifty the Tories have been.

Train ticketing troubles

I rarely book train tickets. For all I know what follows may be a normal experience, but for me it was more than a bit over the top.

I wanted to book tickets for a trip in the early summer. One from Lewes to Alnmouth, returning a few days later, and one for Kings Cross to Alnmouth for the same days and times. I spent a couple of hours on various websites yesterday checking different options and prices, and seeing if I could book seats to travel together. It might have been possible for a more intrepid traveller, but I, being definitely trepid, decided to go to the station and get them to make the bookings on my behalf. It seemed like a sensible idea at the time.

I spent an hour - you heard it - an hour at Lewes station while the ticket clerk valiantly tried to get me the trains I wanted. Getting to Alnmouth was not a problem, though even that took ten minutes and various tries before the programme condescended to do what the clerk wanted. I noticed that she was working on single ticket prices all the time, not even bothering to try a return ticket. I saw yesterday that the return prices were in every case a lot more than twice a single. If someone could explain the logic of that one to me, I would be grateful.

Anyway she found the train I wanted for the return journey, and spent a while printing out the details. Then she tried to book seats and that where we really came unravelled. After a few tries the programme told her that there was only one bookable seat left on an 11 a.m. midweek train from Alnmouth to Kings Cross. I find that hard to believe, but it wouldn't budge. So the clerk tried alternative trains but the programme refused to find two tickets for the same train (and we hadn't even got to the seat booking stage at that point). The best it could do after several tries was one ticket going via York and one going via Wakefield.

I really didn't want a later train as that would dump the passengers back in London just in time for the rush hour. But there didn't seem to be an alternative. So she found a train an hour later, and found two places on it. The price for the ticket back to Kings Cross was cut by half. The price for the ticket through to Lewes stayed the same. Logic: by this time I expected none.

Now for seat booking. We are given strong advice to book seats, so I tried. Of course, being together, the two passengers would like to sit together. When I looked on websites yesterday it seemed possible to stipulate various types of seat - window, aisle, facing forward, facing backward, in a quiet carriage, etc. But when it comes to actually booking seats it seemed the options weren't available, and seats were randomly chucked out on the Kings Cross to Newcastle, and then the Newcastle to Alnmouth stretches. Several different tries produced no better results. For one stretch the seats are in the same carriage and might possibly be in the same block. for the other, and for the return journey, they're three carriages apart (assuming the alphabet works).

One of the justifications we're given for privatising things is that the private sector is so much more efficient than the public sector. If this is an efficient private sector operation, I'd hate to see an inefficient one.

Monday 15 February 2010

"Britain's teens dropping babies EVERYWHERE"

After the thorough dismantling of the Tories' "broken Britain" claims by the Economist (and I can do no better than quote ChieferMadness here: "Trotskyist rag The Economist perverts fact of BROKEN BRITAIN with 'analysis' and 'statistics'"), you'd think that the Tories would be a bit more careful with the figures they publish. But no they go and plonk both feet in it with a stratospheric claim about teenage pregnancy. From the Guardian: "It claimed – three times – that women under 18 are "three times more likely to fall pregnant in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. In the most deprived areas 54% are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18, compared to just 19% in the least deprived areas.""

Derision has focussed rightly on the idiocy of the Tories' 54% claim. OK, it was a typographical mistake but nobody anywhere in CCHQ had the nous to think "Hang on a minute, that looks a bit high, even for the kind of sink estate I'd never let little Jolyon have a friend from"....

But there must be another dodgy stat in there as well. Overall, the figure was supposed to be 5.4%, more like one in twenty than one in two. But they quote the figure for the least deprived area as being 19%. Now you might, possibly, if you were feeling very charitable indeed, forgive them for not knowing what's going on in the parts of Britain that they never visit, but if they don't know what's going on in Notting Hill, they are truly clueless. Either that, or the people who live where Dave does are breeding like rabbits. I think we deserve to be told.

Sunday 14 February 2010

The difference between Lord Ashcroft and Lord Paul

Lately the Conservative Party have been defending their position on Lord Ashcroft's tax status by claiming that it is a private matter, and that there is no difference between him and the Labour donor Lord Paul.

But there is, in terms of the way in which they were made peers. When Lord Ashcroft was made a peer, it was on the basis of a promise from the Conservative Party that Ashcroft would become a UK tax payer. The issue is not his actual tax status so much as the fact that a promise was made which the Conservative Party is refusing to make good on. They cannot claim that it is a private matter, because they need to demonstrate that their promise has been kept. No such promise was made about Lord Paul, so far as I am aware.

There is another Conservative lord and promise dodger, Lord Laidlaw, who gave a specific written undertaking to become resident in the UK when he became a lord, and now some seven years later still resides in Monaco. Also, coincidentally, he is a substantial donor to the Conservative Party.

Cameron's been saying lately that governing is about character. These episodes demonstrate the character of the Conservative Party - people who make all sorts of promises in order to get what they want with the firm intention of weaselling out of them. I wonder how much of their manifesto we will be able to believe.

Friday 5 February 2010

MP expenses: Conservative Party has such a short memory

PoliticsHome reports the resignation of Lord Hanningfield from the Tory front bench. A Conservative Party spokesman says: "The Conservative Party has led the way in dealing with the MPs' expenses scandal". And to be fair they did their bit once the scandal broke. Quicker off the mark than the Labour Party certainly.

Of course, if the spokesman's memory had gone back a bit further, he would remember the disgraceful attempt by David Maclean (a Conservative MP) to exempt MPs from the FOI Act with the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill. If that bill had succeeded the whole scandal of MPs' expenses might never have come to light. And the bill was supported by a large majority of Conservative MPs, as well as Labour, but not by Liberal Democrats. It was Norman Baker (a Liberal Democrat MP) who talked the bill out on its first presentation, to hoots of derision from those Conservatives. And when a way was finagled to reintroduce the bill and get it through the Commons, the Lords showed their worth when not one could be found who was willing to sponsor it in that House. Pity the Conservatives have such a short memory.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

How seriously should we take Avatar?

"Avatar" is on my list of all time favourite films. I don't think it's the greatest film ever made, and to be honest I wasn't very taken with the 3D effects. But you don't need 3D to be immersive.There's been a lot of stuff around in education recently about immersive worlds and what they can or can't do for education. The less reflective writing tends to assume that places like Second Life are unproblematically immersive and other environments are equally unproblematically not immersive. But SL isn't immersive if it doesn't engage you. You can be there, and your avatar can be stunning and you can be talking to and interacting with other people, but you can still be aware of the world outside the computer, and you can still be bored, and you can still be checking when the tutorial is going to end, and it is not being immersive in the slightest. By the same token a plain bog standard class in a plain bog standard classroom can be totally immersive if the teacher gets it right. People seem to forget that.

By the same token I found Avatar a totally immersive experience, and that was without the 3D specs on most of the time (because I found them uncomfortable). I thoroughly enjoyed it. I forgot the passing of time. I identified with the characters. I didn't want it to end, and I felt slightly bereft when it did, just like I always used to feel as a kid when I walked out of a cinema.

This is partly about fit between film and viewer. As a viewer, I am very happy to be entertained. I don't need to be thought-provoked in order to enjoy a film. I don't need a deep message. My ever shifting and ever expanding top one hundred contains a lot of films that would make other people wince. They're not in my top one hundred because I think they're great films, but because I like them. I think there are two reasons why I like Avatar. The first is the special effects. Everything works beautifully. Interestingly, the world of Pandora and the Na'vi works better than the rude mechanicals - the diggers, helicopters and firepower - which you might think would be easer to model. And the second reason is the story. Stories don't have to be big and complex in order to succeed In fact very often the simpler the better. And here we have two very simple stories interwoven - boy meets girl and culture clash. Boy meets girl is the simplest of all. Boy meets girl, boy conquers obstacles in the way, boy wins girl. Culture clash is marginally more complex but not much. Boy meets alien culture, boy is attracted by good side of alien culture, boy confronts bad side of own culture, boy and aliens unite to defeat bad side. And that's all there is to Avatar. The green message is there but it's part of the conflict that's there to make the story work, not because James Cameron had a message. So for me it's great entertainment and the right people win.

The question arises of how seriously to take the film. I have to say I don't take it very seriously, though in some circumstances people are right to take it more seriously (see below). James Cameron himself is quoted in the Telegraph: "It's about how "greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment," he said in a recent interview. "It's a way of looking back on ourselves from this other world."" But this should not necessarily be taken at face value. It is a press interview with a man who knows all about putting bums on seats. I don't believe he really takes the politics of the film all that seriously. And neither do I. It has a "green" message, but the message is there for plot functionality and because it resonates with the market demographic.

I'm now finding other people's reactions to the film very interesting, and wondering whether I need to re-evaluate simply because of the number of people it has upset. The first upset is, I think, badly founded, and based on a misinterpretation of what happens. Progressives are upset at the racist subtext that shows a "primitive" tribe needing a white man to save them. You could read it that way if you wanted to, but I don't see it. What I see is our hero Jake growing through his contact with the Na'vi in such a way that he becomes a different creature. The hero who returns to lead the Na'vi is a synthesis of the best of Jake with Na'vi beliefs and ways. So it's not about western capitalist superiority at all. If anything it's about its limitations. I had a similar dispute once with someone over Tootsie. It's surprising what a ding dong we got into over such a slight film. (It's not in my top one hundred; it would probably be in my top three or four hundred.) The story is difficult and currently out of work actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) dresses up as a woman to land a short part in a soap, is surprisingly successful, so they extend his contract, leading to the dilemma of how to get out of it, which is eventually resolved. My friend thought it was deeply sexist because it showed a man being more successful as a woman than women could be. I thought it showed that becoming a woman made him learn about the female viewpoint, confront his own masculinity and anger, and emerge a better and stronger person. Hence again it was not "being a man" that made the difference. It was "learning about the opposite". So, although, quite a lot of people have picked up on this idea of Avatar being racist, i don't buy it.

I'm more impressed by the fact that Avatar has upset the American right, the Chinese Communist party, and the Vatican. Any film that can upset those three must have something going for it.

The American right don't like it because of fairly overt references to both the Vietnam and Iraq wars in the context of asking the audience "to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism-kind of" - John Podoretz, in the ABC News link above. OK, but if you're going to get upset about it, try being a little less imperialist when you do go to war in places like Iraq.

The Chinese don't like it because the theme of forced migration is too close to home for a regime that regularly shifts people off places it wants to dam up or build on. I don't know if the film has actually sparked protests, or just that they have moved pre-emptively to ban it. They've been quite clever though, taking it out of 2D cinemas while allowing it to remain in 3D. That way they can say they haven't actually banned it, just that it wasn't doing well in the 2D cinemas. I assume that there aren't that many 3D cinemas and they are located away from potential trouble spots. It's a very good illustration of the dance of power that the Communist party in China is constantly engaged in with its own people. While remaining quintessentially authoritarian, in fact downright repressive in outlook, it is realistic enough to know that it can't upset too many Chinese too often.

And finally the dear old Vatican. Some headlines say the Vatican hates Avatar. Here is what Osservatore Romano actually said: "It has a great deal of enchanting, stunning technology, but few genuine or human emotions.... Its significance is in its visual impact rather than in the story, and in its messages, despite the fact that they are hardly new... The plot descends into sentimentality... and "a rather facile anti-imperialist and antimilitarist parable which doesn't have the same bite as other more serious films." But it ended by saying the spectacle was worth the price of a cinema ticket. All that from the Telegraph. There's not much there that I would disagree with, apart from thinking myself that there's nothing wrong with going to see a film just in order to be entertained. At least they haven't ordered the flock to boycott the film with missionary zeal as they try to turn the world back the way they think it should be - medieval. So basically the Vatican isn't being as reactionary about Avatar as it is about many things.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Conservative competence?

One strength that the Conservative party prides itself on is that it knows how to do things, how to govern. If you don't like their policies, you at least get competent government, they say. But that kind of competence seems to be in worryingly short supply nowadays. The airbrushed David Cameron posters, for instance, were an own goal waiting to happen. And it looks as if they could be a long term millstone round his neck. I particularly like "Tough on jobs. Tough on the causes of jobs."

But the inspiration for this post today is Boris Johnson. He is stepping aside as chair of the London Police Authority. It was always a bad idea for political and managerial reasons, although we never expected such issues to cut much ice with BoJo. But the reason he is giving up is, the BBC say, because "he was finding it difficult to devote enough time to the job." Should we not expect a greater level of competence than this? The country's most senior elected Conservative is incapable of figuring out beforehand that the demands of that job and the mayoralty will be too much. Was he too incompetent to notice that they are two very demanding jobs, which each require the utmost attention? Yes, he was. Londoners are beginning to find out what kind of fool they elected.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Nothing to fear, nothing to hide

Government mantra as we know. So, if the government has nothing to hide, why is keeping secret the post mortem details on David Kelly for seventy years? Norman Baker's assertion that it cannot have been suicide is looking more likely with every new turn the case takes.

Land raise

A lot more detail about East Sussex's proposal to dump land raise sites around Ringmer and the Weald can be found at:

No To Land Raise
and the No To Land Raise blog.

The blog includes a report of the meeting held at Hailsham on January 23rd.

And an illuminating post about zero waste alternatives. The answer is no, they've just stuck us with an incinerator and the possibility of artificial hills all around, slowly subsiding as they release methane and who knows what into the atmosphere.