Thursday 26 December 2013

A tale of two archbishops

George Carey disappoints me. As archbishop he was quite decent. He supported the move to ordain women, and he piloted the church through a  time of global internal division (the incumbent archbishop has had as difficult a job in that respect as the leader of the conservative party in the last twenty years - any attempt to lead in a particular direction would leave half the organisation stubbornly behind). Just recently though, Carey seems to have been pitching for the post of old religious curmudgeon with intemperate outbursts about how put upon Christians in this country are. He was at it again in the Telegraph this week. He may have a point about persecution in other countries (though I would like to see actual figures about numbers of different religions persecuted for their identity), but he spoils it with an overblown reference to Christians in this country feeling the need to keep quiet about their religion. This is a man whose religious identity gives him one of the most privileged positions in the country as a lawmaker for life, on behalf of a religion which sees the country shut down every year for its two major festivals - Easter and Christmas. (The fact that these celebrations have largely been taken over as retail festivals is a separate issue; it does not dilute the privilege that Christianity has in this country compared to all other religions.)

I have said before and I will say again - I do not have the slightest problem about speaking out about or because of my religion when the time is right. The biggest issue I have about being upfront about my religion is other Christians. The obsession with sex, and the concomitant failure to do anything about sex abuse in my church (as well as the Catholics). The constant  attempts by people like Carey to bolster our privilege even further. Having to share my religion with people like Iain Duncan Smith, who makes no secret of his Christianity, but persecutes the poor.

In recent years we have had Anglican archbishops (and now a pope) who are more prepared to speak out about the things Christians should be concerned about rather than bolstering our privilege. Just one incident shows how things are done and should be done. Iain Duncan Smith thinks it is “political” of the Trussell Trust to ask why people are so poor that they have to rely on food banks.  Then he refuses to meet them to discuss their concerns.  Sam Leith, in the Evening Standard nails this one: “It takes a special sort of narcissism, a special sort of persecution complex, to suppose that all this is done for your benefit: that the Trussell Trust’s hundreds of institutions and thousands of volunteers are working flat-out not, as they claim, to feed poor people but to embarrass Iain Duncan Smith.”

Another ex-archbishop, Rowan Williams, has a response to Iain Duncan Smith in the Cambridge Evening News. “Dr Williams, who is the patron of Cambridge City Foodbank, which supported 2,390 people in crisis last year, said the former Conservative leader’s “extraordinary comments” amount to an “attack [on] the motives of hard-pressed volunteers and generous donors”.

“He added the remarks are “disturbing, not least because they poison the wells for those trying to raise and maintain resources”, who are attempting to help people including those “left stranded by the benefit system”.

“He told the News: “It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers - but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

““The real scaremongering is the attempt to deny the seriousness of the situation by – in effect – accusing those seeking to help of dishonesty as to their motivation.”

So one ex-archbishop speaks in defence of privilege and one in defence of truth.

I'm with Rowan, not with George,

Monday 23 December 2013

Iain Duncan Smith - when politics goes bad

Iain Duncan Smith, a man who I used to believe had a shred of decency somewhere about him, has turned out to be a lethal combination of incompetence and vindictiveness. We only need to concentrate on the latest revelations about the continuous car crash of his career. Like a drunk driver, IDS swerves from lamppost to lamppost, wreaking havoc on other people's lives but never his own.

The latest revelations just add more to what we already know. He piles misery on other people.

He apparently needed an armed bodyguard to get him to the Work and Pensions select committee meeting, and a bodyguard in the room with him - was it to throw himself in front of any question that might force IDS to tell the truth?

He denies that anything is going wrong with Universal Credit despite massive write offs of public money for bungled software implementations and deep slippage of the numbers being processed.

The Work Capability Assessment is still causing deep problems and continuing misery to thousands of ordinary, decent, respectable claimants, and even deeper misery for people with mental illness, who - three years after Professor Harrington started making recommendations for improvement, are still very badly served by the system.  Duncan Smith and then junior minister Chris Grayling have consistently claimed that Harrington supported the principle and the roll out, which Harrington now forcefully denies.

His latest wheeze is to go after part time workers. 1.5 million want to work more but there is no work for them to do. IDS plans to blame them for the lack of work and cut what benefits they are getting if they are not deemed to be looking for more work hard enough.

He already blames the unemployed for their unemployment. They are sent on courses where they have to be enthusiastic, change their mood, make themselves believe that they can be employed. (You don't believe me? Read this - written by proper psychologists without an axe to grind.)

The Work Programme and its offshoots are bad enough, but we also hear about duplicity in its management.

He is quite happy to have an arbitrary and vicious regime of sanctions rendering claimants destitute for the slightest misdemeanour, or even perceived misdemeanour. Or, it appears possibly, carefully engineered misdemeanour.

He laughs through a Commons debate about food banks, and the destitution in people's lives that force them to go there, until he leaves the debate well before its end, then refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, and dismisses their concerns as scaremongering.

Why is somebody so incompetent, but above all so vindictive still in office? This is where politics goes bad, because the answer lies in the workings of the political machine. IDS is not all that unpopular in the country at large, primarily because many, many people have swallowed the rhetoric about benefit scroungers. But he is unpopular enough. He is incompetent enough to spoil the Tory brand of being the competent party, and, although he's not the only one, that should lower his stock. It's not just obvious mistakes, like misusing statistics in such a way that he was bound to get criticised, it's the policy mistakes, like the bedroom tax that is set fair to cost far more than it saves.

But a certain number of Tory MPs agree with him whole heartedly, viz the number jeering and laughing through that debate on food banks. And other Tories cover up for him too.    How long will they continue to do so?

The problem is that, in Tory party terms, he is fireproof. He remains popular among enough MPs to give Cameron a real problem if he were to remove him. He can't shunt him sideways because IDS has apparently made it clear that he would resign rather than do any other job. (He really, really likes bullying people. If only it were just bullying people rather than rendering them homeless, hopeless, or even dead.) Not only that but there is the character and the temper of IDS himself. Cameron would rather keep him in office than have him on the back benches spreading his poison among the Tory right wing, and quite probably plotting to oust Cameron in an attempt to redeem his own failures. For that everybody else pays the price, particularly the millions of benefit claimants who suffer IDS's own personal brand of poison. Cameron obviously thinks that is a price worth paying.

At some point the political calculus may change, and if it does (I pray it does soon) the crash is likely to be hard and loud. But until then we continue to suffer the consequences of politics gone bad. The internal workings of the Tory party continue to foist on the rest of us the most poisonous minister I have ever seen in office (and I'm aware there is much competition for that epithet).

Friday 6 December 2013

RIP Nelson Mandela

He was one of the family.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."


South Africa The Good News / [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 27 November 2013

A government minister prepared to talk sensibly about drug policy

Truly times are a'changing. And we are getting full value for money from Norman Baker.

"The new Liberal Democrat minister responsible for drugs policy, Norman Baker, has refused to rule out a policy of legalising cannabis but said that it is not his prime objective in the job.

""I think it needs to be considered along with everything else. It is not my prime objective and I am not advocating it at the moment. We should be prepared to follow the evidence and see where it takes us," he said."

It goes on to say, "He is currently completing a year-long Home Office comparison of international drug policies and is due to visit the Czech republic and Switzerland next week as part of his research."  I was in Switzerland this weekend; missed an opportunity there, obviously....

Wednesday 20 November 2013

"After a long battle with cancer"

I have been first irritated, then increasingly dismayed, over a long period by announcements on the news about cancer deaths. When somebody dies, it is inevitably described as “after a long battle with cancer”. It is as if the word processor sees “died of cancer” or “died from cancer” and autocorrects implacably to “died-after-a-long-battle-with-cancer”. While some people do fight the disease with all the might at their disposal, it is not the only way of reacting. Some people take it philosophically, some ignore it, some have fun while they still can, some take it administratively, using the time they have left to organise their affairs. And there are many other ways of doing it. To have these many, many ways of dealing with the end of life reduced to one single trope and one single understanding cheapens the humanity of us all. I was heartened last month to see Wilko Johnson explaining why he turned down the offer of chemotherapy, and I bookmarked it to remind me to check how the news of his passing is announced when it finally happens.

And yesterday, in a lovely, and insightful, column on the BBC website, Andrew Graystone discussed his own reaction to cancer, and the trope of “battle”. I could have done without the headline to be honest “Viewpoint: Did Richard Nixon change the way people describe cancer?” but that does not detract from a sensitive discussion of the illness and human reaction to it. News editors, take note, please. It is not right that so many individual, passionate, poignant human stories should be reduced to the news editing equivalent of autopilot.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Where will our food come from in twenty years?

Ringmer LibDems held a debate, open to all, on where our food is going to come from in twenty years time. The material used to introduce the topic is available on Slideshare:

We looked at several issues:
- population: the population of both the Uk and the world, and the potential demand for food (and water)
- what kinds of food are produced and their relative use of land
- forms of production: industrial, organic, personal etc
- the ways differnt foodstuffs are created: natural means, hybrids, GM etc
- food waste: in our small scale survey of local residents
- food ethics
- and finally what would you change to ensure food security in twenty years time.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Martin Luther King today

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most inspiring pieces of rhetoric ever.

Injustice - what we more often call inequality these days - still withers. You can see it in communities throughout the country, where rich are separated from poor, and the poor lose all their aspiration, all their hope and all the possibility that their lives held when they were born. Inequality begets a lack of freedom which should concern every Liberal Democrat.

Rhetoric does not do well nowadays. There are two reasons for that. The first is that rhetoric itself withers in the age of the sound bite. Politicians are deeply and carefully controlled to stay on message because one word out of place could be misinterpreted. Risk aversity and the news cycle have conquered language. Everything has to fit into the news cycle and everything has to be tailored to a story structure that allows no more than a few seconds for each vapid comment. Set piece political speeches commit linguistic torture on English speech, written in sound bites, printed on the page one verbless sound bite. per paragraph in case the reader mixes them up.  The one thing Boris Johnson is good for is showing that the English language can still be used in meaningful, flowing sentences. If only others would follow his suit.

The second is that our society is less unequal than it used to be (though much more unequal than we like to think). Many would say that the great battles have been fought and won. People are no longer barred from voting because of their skin colour, people are no longer routinely lynched because of their skin colour, freedom is something that most of us can taste, though far more of us cannot than we are led to believe. There appears to be no need for rhetoric because we are persuaded that there is nothing wrong with the system we live in. But there is still plenty wrong, plenty wrong.

The need is still there, though it is shrouded over by the media trope of covering issues with stories about individual people. We are presented daily with a country in which whatever poverty, misery, destitution people have fallen into is seen as being their own fault, for being lazy or addicted. Every time we mention poverty, the right wing show a picture of children eating fast food in front of a 40” TV. Every time we mention hopelessness, they show a picture of a drug dealer. They never bother to go looking for the other side, the deep misery that we keep so many people in. They never go looking for the poison that Iain Duncan Smith is instilling in our benefit system; they never go looking for the places where the CAB issues printed instructions on what to do if you have no food and no cash; they never go looking in the hospital beds where disabled people are recovering from being beaten up for the horrible crime of being disabled; they never go looking on our streets for the daily casual sexism that sees women treated like objects (and it is still far too often the case that if she is raped she is believed to have asked for it). Such inattention seeps into every part of our lives. We slaughter over a thousand people on our roads every year. Every single one of those deaths is avoidable, most are associated with excessive speed, yet we still defend our right to break speeding laws. See the comments here.

But I suggest it is not the fault of the media; it is the fault of us as comfortable and hence not curious citizens. We don't press the media hard enough to tell us the real story. We condemn the various tabloids for their various excesses, and we go on buying them.

I saw the film Downfall when it was first released in this country. It centres on the character of Traudle Junge who was Hitler's secretary in the last two years of his life. There is a stroke of cinematic genius at the end. We have just had three unrelenting hours of blood, murder, destruction, gore, viciousness and fascism. The screen goes black, the soundtrack falls silent and we see a few simple words (I forget the exact phrase) “Germany surrendered on 8th May 1945”. The exhausted audience are picking up their coats, checking for their keys, looking at their neighbour and saying “Wow”. Then suddenly the screen picks up again, and we see the real Traudle Junge, as she was interviewed in a documentary near the end of her life. Like many, she was categorised after the war as a “young follower”, in other words not really a Nazi, just too young to understand the difference. That was a convenient way of getting Germany back on to its feet so that it could join in the next war, against Communism. She says (again I do not remember the exact words), “Afterwards we found out about the concentration camps, and the terrible things that were done. I was able to persuade myself that it wasn't my fault, that I did not know and there was nothing I could have done. But one day I was walking down (a street) and I came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl (Sophie Scholl was executed by the Nazis on 22 Feb 1943 for distributing dissident literature). I saw that she was executed in the year that I began working for Hitler. And I saw that she was born in the same year I was. Then I realised that being young was no excuse, that I could have tried to find out.”  Nothing else is said. The film ends. That last sentence hits you right between the eyes and is left to linger in your mind as the credits roll.

The same is true for us today. We seem to need rhetoric of the calibre of Martin Luther King's to open our eyes and ears, to remind us of these truths, and our lives are the poorer without it. We live in the sixth largest economy in the world, one big enough to ensure that nobody goes in want of the material things they need to buttress their freedom, but it is an economy that is so unequal that many of our fellow citizens are not free. Most of us will do just fine without opening our eyes to the truth around us. But it is not enough to be comfortable, we must always seek the truth behind the newspaper headlines and the sound bite politics.

Friday 23 August 2013

England v Australia women's ODIs

I was very surprised at how small the crowd was for the England Australia women's one day game at Hove. Five pounds a ticket for a day's really good cricket. For anyone who is free on Sunday I suggest it will be a very good investment.

All these empty seats are people missing a treat today. Excellent cricket all round and an England win, which added spice to it. The series is level now, so all to play for.

England batting solidly, ending on 256. The highest score was Charlotte Edwards 53. Several batters made decent scores but none pushed on to a really big one, and I wondered if that would come back to bite us.

Seagull time as England put the stranglers on Australia. I think a lot of people would not have "got" the afternoon session, with all the emphasis on big hitting nowadays bang bang bang. But watching the England attack slowly squeeze the life out of the Australian innings was fascinating, a really good example of how to sustain pressure and work on the batters' nerves till they get themselves out by overreaching.

 It's a very different atmosphere to the men's game. Quite interesting seeing apple shaped women carrying several pints of beer rather than apple shaped men carrying several pints of beer. Then trying the dodgy burgers and dying a horrible death on the way back to their seats. They don't have the pathogen resistant intestines the apple shaped men have developed over decades of eating fast food. But ignore all that - it was an excellent day's cricket.

Sunday 11 August 2013


A friend recently posted a Facebook update, as she often does, about what she was cooking. It was moussaka and it included potatoes. I replied firmly that a moussaka cannot have potatoes in it. She replied with the BBC recipe from which she got it. I was not prepared to take the BBC as authoritative (on more or less any topic these days), so I held my ground and we had a bit of an exchange about it. Various other people weighed in, including one who made the point that recipes do develop over time. Which I knew to be true. And, to be honest, it has always been a slight surprise to me that what I regard as authentic moussaka has rice with it. Not chips, although they serve that now in most Greek resort centres. Ugh.

Anyway, I decided to research it, and rapidly discovered, to my surprise, that moussaka is a relatively modern invention. And an actual invention. I found several sources for this, but the best in my view is this feature in The Atlantic. It revolves around Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef of the early twentieth century, who had considerable international experience. He thought that Greek cooking had become too Turkish during the long period of Turkish occupation, and he set out to de-Ottomanise it. The moussaka that we know today was part of his response. He took out a lot of the spiciness, and incorporated a certain amount of French influence (though not garlic, which he apparently despised). His cookbook, published in the 1920s, contained recipes from many places, and those he considered to be the important Greek ones. He has a whole chapter on moussaka, and includes a number of variants, including moussaka cooked with courgettes or artichokes or..... potatoes (the horror, the horror).

So I sit corrected on the topic of potatoes in moussaka. And as was said in the Facebook conversation, cooking does develop, in this case quite deliberately. I know that: I'm English. Our national dish (apart from curry and pizza - enough said) is fish and chips. Chips from America; battered fish brought here by Jewish refugees in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. And the moussaka that we know today is a multicultural, though primarily European, melange. So I will accept that moussaka can be made with potatoes.

The next issue is the rice, which to me always felt a bit Middle Eastern, rather than Balkan. Again, I'm wrong in terms of cultivation and usage. Rice has been cultivated in Greece since at least classical times. Definitely pre-Ottoman.

Despite my discoveries I will stick to my idea of what a proper moussaka is, for primarily personal reasons. When I thought about it after discovering Tselementes, I realised that for me moussaka is not a recipe but an experience. In my secondary years and at university I studied classics. I learned Greek. I enjoyed Greek stuff. I enjoyed particularly the discovery of the Kebab Cellar in Cambridge (sadly no longer there). And I enjoyed going to Greece, allegedly to study the monuments. Moussaka for me is about being warm and carefree, and to get that feeling it can't have potatoes in it.

It has to have a Greek salad with it. (Greek salad is any veg you like, as long as it has olives and feta cheese in it.)

It also has to have retsina with it.

Baklava afterwards is OK, but I'm not too bothered about that - I'm usually too full and too drunk by then.

And for preference to be preceded by taramasalata and pitta bread. Not hummus. (Taramasalata seems to be Greek in origin by most accounts, but the tarama... bit derives from Turkish...)

Thursday 8 August 2013

What being liberal is for

Like all activists (I suppose I can claim to be semi active), I sometimes ask myself what it is all for. You stuff envelopes, you deliver leaflets (and every time you do, you think “There must be a better design of letter box”), you talk on doorsteps, you get buckets of abuse from people who know that all disabled people are faking it and all foreigners are living in million pound mansions at our expense, and all LibDems are liars (that one's really good, coming from some of the people who say it....).

You get fed up to the back teeth trying to talk in nuances to people whose lives are constructed of binary certainties made up for them by the Daily Mail. Britain good EU bad. White good immigrant bad. Hard working families good claimants bad. (Have you noticed how there seems to be no such thing as a hard working single person?)

You get conference papers and the motions have been earnestly constructed by Rubik's cube experts on speed. You keep doing it while people's jobs, hopes, lives remain miserable. Progress is very incremental, very gradual, sometimes we seem to be taking several steps back for each one forward, and then somebody else comes along and says we ought to be going sideways....

But just occasionally something happens that reminds you. This is one such thing. It didn't happen here, it happened in the USA, in Minnesota to be exact. But liberalism is global. “75 Unforgettable Moments From Minnesota’s First Day Of Marriage Equality” (hat tip to Jess Brammer). This is what being liberal is for. (I don't mind admitting I started crying around photo 6, and didn't stop till well after the end.)

Thursday 1 August 2013

The discourse of security questions

I had to fill in a whole new set of security thingies for a well known online credit card company. (Why?) Included in it were three security questions from a limited list. I've often felt a slight sense of dis-ease when doing things like this before, and today it suddenly struck me why. I did not have the happiest of childhoods. No abuse, not poor, nothing like that, just not happy, for a variety of reasons. And I prefer to forget the place where I was born, the first pet I had, what my mother's maiden name was. But nearly all the questions available pull me back to that time in such a way that you wonder if the people who choose these questions all had a Walton style upbringing (and are the kind of people who look back on their schooldays as the happiest days of their life, the poor disappointed souls). I wonder how many other people who are forced to choose from these daft questions feel the same. It's  almost worth researching, but I bet there's already a PhD somewhere on the discourses identifiable in security questions. In the end I told the truth:
Q: Place I was born A: I prefer to forget
Q: First teacher's name A: I really couldn't give a stuff
Q: First pet A: what business is it of yours?*

*No, I'm not so stupid as to tell you my real security questions.These are a simulacrum.

Thursday 18 July 2013

On the balance of power between citizens and government

The balance of power between citizens and government is constantly shifting. In recent decades it has shifted by and large in favour of the state. New means of surveillance have made it easier to keep an eye on us, and new mechanisms for maintaining secrecy, primarily privatisation, have enabled them to keep secrets from us.

In both cases the primary factor involved in surveillance has been the enormous increase in the amount of data available. This creates problems as much as solutions. While I am wholly against any extension of powers of surveillance, and certainly not the catch all type that Theresa May seems to be so fond of, I am quite sanguine about the results if she did get those powers. As has been said already (I forget by whom) you don't help the search for the needle by increasing the size of the haystack. I was told recently by a colleague just returned from China that Chinese people use the Chinese social media service Weibo with relative freedom, despite knowing that every transaction is recorded. It processes some 15 billion messages a day, and they reckon even the Chinese state would have trouble systematically processing that lot. That does not mean that I have any interest in letting a politician get their hands on any of that kind of power back here. It wastes time and money; takes the eye of the security and police services off what they should be doing - intelligence led work - and opens the door to a myriad forms of corruption and ways of making mistakes.

From the other side there is just as much of a problem. Governments do a lot more than they used to, and the documentation they produce is much more voluminous and often incomprehensible (sometimes deliberately so). The range of activities is vast, and any kind of scrutiny involves people being very up to date and very expert in their fields. Scrutiny only works of course if what you need to see is actually available to be seen. Much that ought to be visible remains invisible. The government and the public play a game of nerves and patience over use of freedom of information provisions. One of the latest examples, but only one of many is the refusal by the Department of Work and Pensions to release figures of those who have died in the immediate aftermath of a Work Capability Assessment. They don't collect the figures any more, they say, so responding to an FOI request would be too expensive. That's government speak for "The figures are too embarrassing".

A great deal of public sector work is now done by private companies, so when the government's defences against FOI fail, the catch all defence of commercial confidentiality is brought into play very often to vitiate attempts to shed light on what is going on.  And given the scale and extent of private involvement in public sector work, there is a lot that is being kept hidden. At the moment the defence of commercial confidentiality is legal. There is no provision in law to overcome it. But it is not valid. Private companies are not spending the government's money. They are spending mine and yours. As the funders of whatever activity is going on, you and I have the right to know how our money is being spent. That level of transparency would do a great deal to make sure that our money is being properly spent and would help to prevent both corruption and mistakes. G4S's Olympic security fiasco; A4E's serial history of fiddling; systematic overcharging for parole supervision; ATOS's poisonous practices with regard to the disabled people they allegedly assess - all these would be under much greater scrutiny than they are now.

Commercial confidentiality as an excuse is a figleaf. It doesn't hide anything from a company's competitors. They all know broadly, and often in precise detail, what their competitiors charge, what their costs are, and where they make their money. They're in the same business; they work under the same regulations; they work for the same customers. It's called isomorphism. But the point of commercial confidentiality, as used by the government, is simply and only to prevent public oversight of their own doings, and those of the companies who they contract on our behalf.

This should not be the case. This is why I have signed the petition to make private providers of public services subject to the Freedom of Information Act. And I encourage you to sign it too. Current contracts will not be affected. But any future provider will take up government contracts in the knowledge that everything to do with that contract will be subject to public scrutiny. If they prefer to keep their workings secret, then they will not be awarded government contracts, and we, the public, will be free to draw our own conclusions as to the reasons why they choose to stay secret.

I am quite sure that this petition will get nowhere in this Parliament. The Conservatives would not allow it. But I very much hope that it forms part of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto, together with a strengthening of the FOI Act to stop government departments raising the cost bar for seekers of information to excessive levels, and citing their own costs too often as excuses for not providing information.

You really couldn't make this up. Commercial confidentiality now officially allows big companies to get away with crime: "The Serious Organised Crime Agency has refused to disclose the names of blue-chip companies who commissioned corrupt private investigators who broke the law because revealing them would damage the firms’ commercial interests, The Independent has learnt."

Thursday 27 June 2013

Sophocles and Iain Duncan Smith

What links one of the world's great dramatists to Britain's playground bully? What could link Greek tragedy to the government's biggest hypocrite? Shortly before the end of his long life Sophocles wrote “Philoctetes”, about the Greek hero who took part in the war against Troy. Philoctetes is the inheritor of Heracles' bow and he sets out with the other Greeks to secure the return of Helen, who has been spirited off to Troy by Paris. En route he is bitten in the foot by a serpent. The wound turns septic and the smell and Philoctetes' cries are so hard to bear that the Greeks leave him on a forsaken island, Lemnos, and travel on to Troy without him. After nearly ten years, it is revealed to the Greeks that they will not take Troy without Heracles'  bow. The unscrupulous Odysseus goes to Lemnos with Neoptolemos, the honourable son of the now dead Achilles, to lure Philoctetes to Troy. Odysseus persuades Neoptolemos that only subterfuge will work, and that Neoptolemos must be the one to carry it out, as Odysseus is sure that Philoctetes will hate Odysseus. Neoptolemos is persuaded - a little too easily, and partly because of his own ambition - to go along with Odysseus' plan. He convinces Philoctetes, who is still racked by pain, that he has fallen out with the Greeks, and Odysseus particularly, because when Achilles died, Odysseus took his armour. He is going home and promises to take Philoctetes with him. Eventually Philoctetes gives him his bow. Odysseus reveals himself and Philoctetes realises he has been tricked. Neoptolemos then considers his own actions and decides that honour compels him to return the bow to Philoctetes. The two most significant lines of the play follow:

Odysseus: That is not clever
Neoptolemos: No, but it is just, which is better.

(There then follows a not very satisfactory conclusion. Heracles appears in a vision and tells Philoctetes he must go to Troy where he will be healed and will help in the reduction of Troy. Greek plotting was never terribly good, I think largely because they always had the deus ex machina escape clause.)

The play is mutlivalent. It is about honour, loyalty, will and duty, the clash of personality. It also raises fundamental questions about how we treat our sick and disabled. Philoctetes is marooned because he becomes a distraction to the Greeks, and a liability. He is cast aside. When he suddenly becomes useful again, he must be brought back into the fold, but he cannot be brought back honourably - it has to be by subterfuge. Neoptolemos is the focus of the ethical debate, and in the end his honour will not let him.

The obvious parallel to the deceitful and manipulative Odysseus is Iain Duncan Smith, a man who blusters about how proud he is to be reducing the number of disabled people dependent on the state - which he is achieving primarily by making them destitute, or indeed by hounding them till they die, like Linda Wootton. The DWP is refusing to release current figures of the number of people who die within a short time of being assessed by ATOS. It is a question they don't want answered. Duncan Smith and his department also regularly misreport government statistics, to the extent that they have been reprimanded by the official watchdog. DPAC has listed 35 separate occasions on which they have slanted the truth to suit their agenda. In addition to this, the way in which ATOS continues to hound claimants such as, with the blessing of ministers, goes beyond civilised or Christian behaviour. I mention “Christian” because Duncan Smith uses his faith as justification for his actions. How many deaths does it take before it's no longer just the odd mistake? And how long will we go on getting the “it's better than it was” excuse? It is mendacious, vicious bullying of unemployed people and particularly disabled people, and Iain Duncan Smith has no shame over it. Perhaps he's not really Odysseus; Odysseus was capable of shame, and he was never this cheap.

But who will be our Neoptolemos. Who, in this government, is going to stand up and say, “Enough is enough. We have bullied the most vulnerable people in the country for far too long. We have made the poorest pay the price, in misery and death, for the mistakes made by the richest, and we are still doing that.” Who will be just rather than clever? None, I fear. Which, as a Liberal Democrat, makes me ashamed of my party.

Monday 24 June 2013

How to wreck the UK's HE sector, and the UK economy into the bargain

Details have been revealed of government plans to sell off the student loan book, as part of the Conservative desire to privatise anything that isn't nailed down. The old chestnut that private is inherently better still holds sway (G4S, ATOS, A4E shining examples of success and probity in the workplace). But if the loan book is to be made fit for private profit making, it will have to be fattened up. (If private is so much better at running a lean ship than all these allegedly bloated and uneconomic government departments, you wonder why they can't just take it on as it is, but there we are.) And in order to fatten it up, one of the solutions being mooted is to change retrospectively the way loan repayments are calculated.

As the Guardian suggests there is a big difference between short term debt and long term liability. One of the reasons the long term loan book is looking a little forbidding is that graduate salaries are not rising as fast as expected. Those in charge should talk to Mr Osborne about that - apart from the 1%, nobody's salary is rising, in fact many people's are retreating, all as a direct result of his austerity measures. And of course they should talk to Iain Duncan Smith, whose poisonous policies are destroying jobs and ensuring poor terms and conditions for those lucky enough to hang on to them.

Leaving aside the doctrinaire economic short termism, there seems to be no awareness of what such a policy would do to future prospects for the HE sector. For any scheme like this to work - in which people pay back over a long period of time, and potentially large sums - there has to be confidence. A government that is prepared to change conditions retrospectively once, can do so again. They've already done one change this year without blinking an eye, changing the law retrospectively on benefit rules to avoid payouts to people badly informed about their benefit conditions, so it is clear that there is no clue about the principle that changing laws retrospectively is a really bad idea. Anyone unsure about their prospects after university is going to think long and hard about whether to take that risk. So we will have fewer people going to university, which will damage the long term prospects of the sector. Even discussing the possibility will have a chilling effect on many people currently considering going to university. Yes, take up of student loans is bigger than expected at the moment: that won't last.

And with that it will damage the UK's economic prospects. Osborne and Duncan Smith appear to be happy to push the UK towards a low wage, low condition economy, with even greater inequality built into it than there is now. But that is no way to compete in the world. We cannot compete on price with the emerging economies. It doesn't matter how far down we can push wages and employers' costs, they will never reach as low as China, India and Brazil. Should wages in those countries rise to match ours, there will be another wave of economies with low wage but well trained workforces emerging - Mexico maybe, South Africa maybe, Vietnam maybe. There will always plenty of places on the planet where skilled people work for less than we do. So to compete, we need ideas, brains, intellectual property, things that we can do better despite the extra costs of having decent living standards. And where do we get those things: at universities. And if the universities are not there, our comparative advantage in applying brain matter to the problems of the world will wither. To keep us prosperous, and, heaven forfend, to have some surplus to share around, we need a genuinely, strong, vibrant, keen, competitive higher education sector to which the brightest and best will be attracted, without a minefield of potential payment problems to tiptoe through first.

We weren't surprised working with the Conservatives to discover that they were still quite nasty, despite David Cameron's best efforts to present a kinder, gentler sharp toothed jungle animal. But we really didn't expect them to be this stupid.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Middle lane driving

I use the middle lane of motorways a lot. I do not consider myself a hog. I have rational reasons for using the middle lane. The government wants to bring in penalties for people hogging the middle lane, but middle lane use has to be considered in the context of overall road use. Some others consider me a hog, usually those intent on breaking the speed limit. If I am travelling at 70 mph, I cannot legally be in anybody's way. If somebody comes up behind me, flashing their lights to get me out of their way when the outside lane is clear, they can move over. If they want my co-operation with their intention of breaking the law, they're not going to get it.

If I do move into the inside lane, I will frequently come up behind traffic moving more slowly than me. I signal and wait for an opportunity to move out into the middle lane to overtake. That opportunity is often denied me for long periods by streams of cars flashing past at illegal speeds, none of whom will move over into the vacant outside lane to let me out.

It I am in the middle lane, with a slow moving vehicle in sight in the inside lane, when another car comes up behind me, I hold my position as I will soon be passing the slower vehicle. It is often the case nowadays that the driver behind decides to overtake on the inside lane instead of the outside, when the outside lane is completely clear. Perhaps they are trying to make a point. But they are actually making life worse for themselves, because the current fashion for overtaking on the inside adds an element of risk to changing into the inside lane as you now have to be aware of cars moving up on both sides.

So if you want me to move habitually into the inside lane, you have to do three things:
a) travel at or below the speed limit
b) exercise the courtesy of letting me out of the inside lane when I need to
c) overtake on the outside lane, not the inside.

But our driving culture is generally so self centred and so speed conscious that pigs will fly before that happens, so I will continue to use the middle lane.

If the government were to introduce penalties for middle lane hogging in the context of enforcing the law on speeding and on inside overtaking, they would have some rationale for it. Doing it on its own, however, is tackling the symptom rather than the problem.

Update 14th August 2014: if you wish to comment on this post, please read this first.

The responses I have had have been very interesting. There are some robust and informative debates below. There are also several assertions that it is all right for people to break speeding laws and laws on overtaking, but they take what they call middle lane hogging to be the ultimate sin. In order to take this stance, they usually have to exaggerate the behaviour that I have outlined in this post, which they then think justifies being rude to me. It does not.

If, after reading this post, you want to reiterate the arguments that your law breaking is OK but mine is not, then I will not publish or respond to them - I've done it often enough already. And if you think that defending your right to drive at any speed you want justifies you being rude to me, then I most certainly will not publish it.

If you have something new to say, and say it courteously, then I will be glad to publish it, and to respond if appropriate.

Friday 5 April 2013

I'm a proud product of the welfare state

I'm not sure who started this. There's a note on Facebook that says Fiona Goffe wrote something along these lines to Sonia Poulton. Anyway, here's my contribution.

I was born in an NHS hospital

My father was ill all his life, including while he was bringing me up, and was looked after throughout by the NHS

I was taught in state funded primary schools, and at a state funded university

I was on the dole once in my life and was helped through it by unemployment benefit, and then family credit. I rebuilt my career with the help of the welfare state, changed my profession and now I'm a high rate taxpayer

I like the fact that my taxes are helping to pay for other people to get through their difficulties, whether short or long term

I have been asthmatic all my life; I have received NHS treatment for it all my life

I still have all my own teeth, courtesy of tax funded dental care

I'm a product of the welfare state and I'm proud of that.

It can't be fair

Iain Duncan Smith's mantra is “It can't be fair”. It can't be fair that people on welfare get more than people in work – a plausible sound bite that hides a wealth of detail and difference. If people in work are earning such low wages that they need them topped up, then maybe we should do something about wages. But of course that wouldn't occur to him.

Come to think of it, is it fair that a man who earns four times the national average wage at the public's expense (Cabinet minister), then gets his booze on the cheap, at even more expense to the public. But we don't talk about that. Small beer anyway, only a few million quid. Then he claims £39 for a single breakfast while claiming to be able to live on £53 a week.

But here is something that really is unfair. I want to contrast two people. One is Peter Cummings, head of corporate banking at HBOS from 2001 to 2008 when the bank collapsed. We learn today that in November last year he was fined half a million pounds for his role in the bank's crash. Half a million is a lot of money, but I doubt it is his entire fortune. So it took more than four years to get from a point where he was, according to the FSA, instrumental in wrecking a bank, the rescue of which has cost us taxpayers billions, to a point where he is fined what for him will be a comfortable sum.

The other person is Clive Baulch, made redundant in April 2012. “By October, he was desperate to find work, out of savings and reliant on £71 a week jobseeker's allowance. On 15 November, he went to sign on as usual. The Friday before, he had been on a day-long job trial, but otherwise it had been a quiet week. "My adviser took one look at my booklet and said she was sanctioning me, 'for not looking for work diligently enough'.” Sanctions for jobseekers are instant and brutal. No negotiation, no due process of law, no delay to enable him to get his affairs in order. Let me remind you, it was more than four years before action was taken against Mr Cummings.

Oh, and by the way, we are told that Peter Cummings has been suffering from ill health. He has my sympathy for that, but if that is a cause for being gentle with him, why are we not being gentle with the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people whose livelihood is being wrenched from under them by Iain Duncan Smith's cuts?

Meanwhile bankers continue on their very merry way. The people who more than anyone caused the crash are still paying themselves million pound bonuses without a shred of proof that they have earned them.

Where's that fairness in that, Mr Duncan Smith? Can you answer that, please, while you eat your subsidised House of Commons lunch and drink your subsidised wine?

Saturday 30 March 2013

Church of England demonstrates how not to do statistics

While I'm complaining about my church - see post below - I do take exception to the church behaving like the BBC or the Daily Telegraph when it comes to writing a story*. This headline Four out of five believe in the power of prayer has nothing to do with the story. The question that was asked, on which the responses were based, was "Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?"  That little word "if" is a dead giveaway. The press release has been taken apart by Thinking Anglicans (there are some) among others. I am merely adding my two pennyworth for the delectation of my sociology students, who I am always trying to teach how to use statistics wisely.

*I was compiling a list of articles where the headline did not reflect the truth as outlined in the story. But the list got too long. The BBC and the DT are both serial offenders in this regard, though by no means the only ones.

Am I persecuted? Am I heck.

George Carey, ex-archbishop for somewhere in outer space, has been at  it again. He claims that Christians are being and feel persecuted. Speaking as an Anglican, I would like to reassure all of my friends, religious and non-religious, that I do not feel persecuted in any way. Occasionally, I have to mind my manners. Gosh, what a burden that is.

Carey speaks from a position of enormous privilege. He is a member of the House of Lords, and speaks there on behalf of all those Christians who he says feel persecuted - no other religion has that privilege. If he wants to think about persecution, he might reflect on the fact that he, as a man, gets to wear a dress without being insulted or assaulted for it.

He speaks from the delusion that this country is a majority Christian country. The BBC,  reporting David Cameron's Easter message, has a statistic that 72% of the country self-identify as Christian. The BBC, as well as the ex-archbishop, really need to learn that using Christian as a cultural label is a very different thing from being a Christian. Tomorrow is Easter Day, the biggest feast in the Christian year. That means that around 4% of the population will go to church, instead of the usual 3%. For the rest of the 72%, Easter means a roast dinner, time with the family, and chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Easter, for the 68 or 69% who aren't in church, is a retail festival, a festival of consumption, precisely the opposite of what the Bible is about. Don't get me wrong, real Christians are not going round with long faces looking for the sackcloth and ashes on Easter Day. We are celebrating good and proper. But we do it without adding to the waistline, and without adding to the mountain of refuse left over after all the eggs have been opened.

Perhaps church going as such is a bad descriptor of real Christianity.many people practise the Christian virtues without going to church regularly or at all. But to be a Christian does mean to have some kind of relationship with Jesus. There are many good people about who do not have that relationship. They are no less good for it. They are probably better than me. But they do not count as Christians. Jesus calls us to do something. I can't help thinking that if Carey were being a proper Christian, he would stop trying to retain privilege for the privileged, and would start doing something about these people, or these people, or  this man, or this man, or these people. Plenty to choose from, as you can see. And I think Jesus might actually approve.

There is a curious issue about Carey's evidence. He cites a Comres poll carried out apparently for the Coalition for Marriage, which purports to show that two thirds of Christians think they are part of a persecuted minority. There is no trace of this poll on either the Comres site, or Coalition for Marriage. If it appears, I shall update. In the meantime, I wonder if he is slightly confused and has mistaken it for a survey, also carried out by Comres, which suggested that two thirds of Christians think the church needs a new image. We could do without Carey's  unique brand of publicising for a start.

As Paul Walter has pointed out, the survey is available on the Comres site. Having had a look through it, it strikes me as one of the less convincing and rigorous surveys I have ever read. The sample of 535 people is heavily weighted towards older people and towards Conservative voters. The questions are also the kind that effectively tell the respondent what to think. Most of them are about Christianity as such, not about religions in general. One of the questions, for instance, is to agree or disagree with the statement "I feel the Government gives sufficient protection to the rights of Christians to exercise their freedom of religious expression". There is an implicit invitation to compare the position of Christians with other religions, rather than asking the question "I feel the Government gives sufficient protection to the rights of religious people to exercise their freedom of religious expression".

And there is a question about feeling like a persecuted minority. It is this - to agree or disagree with the statement "I sometimes or often feel a member of a persecuted minority because of the constraints on religious expression in this country". It is inviting the answer yes. if this was a level one student's attempt at writing a survey, it would fail. I have no doubt that there are 359 people who feel like that. I doubt that you can safely extrapolate that figure to the entire country. I also pray to God to open their eyes to the real truth of their power vis a vis other religions.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Reform Club

Not many serving government ministers get to release their own rock album.

Norman Baker and The Reform Club

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Roger Mahoney

Cardinal Roger Mahoney is at the moment in Rome helping to choose the new Pope. His diocese today has come to a settlement worth nearly £10 million with victims of a priest who abused them. The priest, Michael Baker, was shielded by Mahoney, and permitted to abuse again after his first offences came to light. Documentary evidence has made clear that Mahoney shielded many people and covered up many instances of child abuse during his 25 years as archbishop.

The Catholic church claims to be repentant, claims to feel genuine remorse over the misery suffered by victims of the many priests who have abused them. The fact that Mahoney is still a cardinal is proof enough that those claims are hollow. The fact that he is in Rome, among those choosing the new Pope is unforgiveable.

The church is hiding behind the fact that their rules require him to be there. If they were really serious, really repentant about what they have allowed to happen, they would have changed the rules to ensure that he, and others like him, had no part in this transition. His presence there convicts the Catholic authorities of hypocrisy, and of a meanness of spirit that shows that there is no soul left at the top of the Catholic church.

Friday 1 March 2013

Lessons from Eastleigh: nothing we didn't know already

The by-election at Eastleigh provides a much needed fillip to the LibDems in general and to Nick Clegg in particular after a nasty few weeks. But it tells us nothing new about the state of politics in the UK.

We know that where we work we win. We have worked ceaselessly in Eastleigh over the last couple of decades and built an excellent local party that has delivered when it mattered. We also worked tirelessly during the campaign itself. We are very good at ground wars, and this was a particular case of a good ground war. It was not a surprise that we won.

It would also not have been a surprise if the Conservatives had won. Reasons they did not – they chose a candidate who they needed to keep out of the media spotlight, and their choice backfired on them. It was also clear that they let slip their attack dogs, and some very unpleasant things were said about the Liberal Democrats during the campaign. When people vote for the current Tory party, they know they are voting for a nasty party. A lot of them did, and a lot of them will do in a general election, but not enough will. The lesson for the Tories, if they will heed it, is that slipping to the right does not help their vote. But we knew that already.

UKIP did very well indeed. But a significant proportion of their vote was not a vote for UKIP, it was a “none of the above” vote. (The LibDems won despite no longer getting the “none of the above” vote. That may be a surprise to some people, but LibDems already knew that for some time people have been voting for us not against somebody else.) UKIP's fortunes in this by-election were tied to Labour's. The Labour vote collapsed partly because their choice of candidate backfired but mostly because people still don't have a reason to vote Labour. They do not look like a party ready to form a government. It's only two years to the next general election so they need to move soon. They need to say sooner rather than later, “We made a lot of mistakes, especially near the end of our time in office. We will not make those mistakes again. But the Tories, despite the lessons of our time in office, are continuing to make those mistakes”. But they are still too terrified of the right wing press to make that move. If they don't make it soon, they will not win the next election. In the absence of that move, people who are not loyal Labour voters have no reason to vote for them.

In the absence of a real alternative in Labour, voters went to UKIP. I don't believe it was because they liked UKIP's policies. Those policies are superficially popular. When they come to be properly tested in the heat of a general election, or indeed a (unnecessary) referendum, support will melt. The support went to UKIP as a protest vote. Perhaps by the time of the 2015 general election, Farage will have achieved the momentum of the other comedian Beppo Grillo. It is likely that the internal tensions between sensible Conservatives and their right wing will get worse. It is possible that the Tories will spend more energy fighting each other than fighting the other parties, and it is possible that UKIP will profit from that.

Much of the future is unpredictable – there is a balancing act involving Labour's ability to look as if it is capable of governing, the internal tensions of the Conservative party, and UKIP's ability to continue to mobilise a none of the above vote, and not to implode in its own personal and political contradictions.

But we knew all that before the Eastleigh by-election.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Everything that is wrong with banking

Is encapsulated by Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, who thinks that Stephen Hester should still get his bonus, despite presiding over the criminal activity involved in Libor fixing. Stephen Hester thinks so too. He should be thinking he is lucky he is still in a job. But, despite the RBS being one of the banks that put us in the economic position we are now, despite it having to be rescued by the taxpayer - that's you and me - despite it still, four years on, being 81% owned by the taxpayer, bankers haven't changed a bit. The culture is still the same: salaries as big as possible, bonuses as big as possible, responsibility as little as possible, screw the customers, the taxpayer will pick up the bill.

Hester's justification is that his performance should be looked at in the round - his success at making RBS stable over the last four years. And Hampton says Hester's basic salary is modest by comparison with others in the banking sector. (All that says is that other bankers are even more brazen than Hester.) For a start, I don't accept that logic. When something as massive as Libor fixing happens, it doesn't matter how good the boss is. Either the boss knew nothing, in which case he is singularly stupid, or he knew something, in which case  he must pay the price. But the banking world still does not work by the same logic as the rest of the world. Hester must be paid. Apparently because of the job he has done to keep RBS afloat. I suggest that his performance over the last four years has been nothing out of the ordinary. RBS is, and was, a decent bank. It had all the structures and the expertise in place, it had a very good customer base, and it was and is working in a market that is not all that competitive for big banks. All he had to do was simple things - readjust the balance sheet, make sure people didn't take such stupid risks, fire people who had done wrong (failed on that one). It does not take a genius to do these things. Any competent manager could have done that. Some of the management students I am teaching at the moment could have done that. Judged by that standard, Hester would struggle to justify his £1.2 million salary, let alone his bonus. But Hester is not judged by that standard. That is what is wrong with banking.

Everything that is wrong with privatisation

You remember the G4S Olympics shambles. Private company contracted to do security, fails to understand the scale of the job required, fails to budget sufficiently, fails to find enough staff with the minimum qualifications to meet even their own minimal standards, has to be rescued by the army at public expense. That one.

A deal is done today whereby G4S can walk away having "reduced" the cost to the taxpayer. No wonder Nick Buckles is pleased. He is G4S's boss, remember. He was boss at the time of the cock up, and he is still the boss. He shouldn't be the boss, but he still is because G4S have been able to come out of this still standing. When a private firm cocks up, it should pay the price, the full price. Instead of which it is allowed to walk away with a "reduced" cost to the taxpayer. I don't want to see a reduced cost, I want to see zero cost to the customer for G4S's shambles. I want to see the entire cost borne by the shareholders and the managers, not by me, and people poorer than me. And a lot poorer than Nick Buckles's reported £800,000 salary (that's before bonuses).

Friday 1 February 2013

A good week for Norman Baker

Norman Baker has had a good week. Two announcements about one of his first loves – sustainable transport. Technically, the one about trains wasn't his to make, but he supported the announcement by Simon Burns with his own enthusiasm. (There are respectable criticisms of the whole HS2 project from the sustainability point of view. In my view the whole idea became much better once it became clear that the line would run beyond Birmingham. And one of the most promoted ideas - that you can get bodies from London to Birmingham quicker - is, in my view, one of the weaker arguments in its favour, but that's for another post.) And then there was the announcement about funding to promote cycling - £62 million investment bringing the total announced over the last twelve months to £107 million. These are two of the most noticeable achievements of a steadily successful time at the Dept of Transport. I have to declare an interest – see below – but I believe that Norman can take quiet satisfaction from his time in office, putting Liberal Democrat principles and his personal priorities into action. These include improving local transport; expanding and improving the rail network; making transport more accessible; managing, improving and investing in the road network; and reducing greenhouse gases and other emissions from transport.

Promotion to office in government has deprived Parliament of one of its most effective practitioners at holding government to account. Labour has many fine performers but none, in my view, have the forensic tenacity that Norman displayed while in opposition. Arguably Parliament is the poorer for that. The compensation is a minister who is doing a good job at the complex art of governing.

My interest: I live in Norman's constituency, campaign for him and update his website. I do, however, continuously and forcefully make clear to him my dismay at the government's repugnant treatment of disabled people on benefits (see elsewhere in this blog), to the extent that the sight of an email from me sends a tremor down his spine. Not many people have that effect on him.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

What people read

I have two blogs.

On Really Useful Knowledge I blog about educational things – pedagogy, philosophy of teaching and learning, stuff like that. On this blog one post is the runaway winner in terms of all time views. It could be about why we learn the humanities, the politics of education, the connections between history and geography, the place of elearning, the difference between deep and surface learning, media power, different tutorial techniques and their effects. It could be about any of these things, but it is not. It's about sodding word count.

On A Comfortable Place I blog about politics, disability, religion, civil liberties, driving, film, the NHS, Tottenham Hotspur and a whole variety of other things. I've done several posts lately on how Iain Duncan Smith's poisonous policies are hurting the most vulnerable people in our society. I am liberal, politically committed, religious, thoughtful, and I like to think my blog reflects this. So which is the most read post of all time on this blog? Well, for a while, it was “Spartacus – what next?” about how to handle the afore mentioned hypocrite and his policies. I was quite pleased about that – not about the policies, which I am very sad that my party supports, but about having made some sort of meaningful contribution to the debate. But it has been overtaken by the slow steady march of a consumerist rant about cavity wall insulation, my experiences when a certain company came to do mine, and my exhortation to my readers not to use that company. O tempora.