Interested in the Public Interest

A letter in The Independent, from one Sam Butler who hails from my home town of Fleet:

Sir: Pundits have been analysing the factors that the Prime Minister might take into account when deciding whether to go for an early general election. Predictably they focus on his party’s electability: poll findings, the opinions of MPs in marginal constituencies, public perceptions of his financial record and so on. It is a pity that the question of when it would be in the public interest to hold an election seems to figure so far down the list.

Well, yes, but I hardly think we can blame the politicians for this. If someone has pretensions to run the country, then it is not unusual for them to hold the belief that they are the best person to do so. Speaking in realpolitik terms, one might say that it is a prerequisite for the job. Certainly, if a Leader or Leader-in-waiting claimed otherwise, they would come in for some severe criticism from both sides of the political divide. This is why the Tories say they are happy to fight an election whenever Gordon is ready.

So, when making the decision of whether or not to go to the polls, Sam Butler’s question is a moot point. The Prime Minister (whoever he or she may be) already assumes that “in the public interest” is synonymous with “in the interests of my career”. This is certainly true of the current and previous incumbents of the post, and I assume for Margaret Thatcher too. I don’t know whether John Major always thought that he was the best person to run the country. Sometimes it seemed that this wasn’t the case. After all, he waited for as long as was constitutionally possible before calling an election in 1997. Perhaps his apparent lack of self-belief was one reason why he lost support of the public that year.

Having confidence that you are the Best Thing To Happen to the Country might be a little irritating, and not a little alienating to the rest of us. But it is not necessarily a bad trait that we should wish away. Nor is it the same thing as faking confidence that you will get any votes, which is the saddest kind of spin.

As to the question itself: The current administration has spent much of its short life responding to crises, and with Parliament in recess. It feels a little like an interregnum, or a phoney-war, before the real business of governing begins. A new, strong, full term mandate for Gordon Brown will bring a degree of stability to the country, which is surely good for the economy, and for the efficent implementation of policy. Alternatively, a Labour government with a smaller majority, or a coalition government led by either Labour or the Conservatives, would farm uncertainty. And the current speculation-without-confirmation is surely a distraction for everyone. So, even those who reject the Labour ideology might agree that, in the practical sense, the country’s interests are indeed linked to that of the Prime Minister.

Brown on Blue

I meant to post this image yesterday. A few people commented on the (in)appropriateness of the Prime Minister giving his speech set against a lush Tory blue.

Gordon Brown at the Labour Conference

The choice of blue is unwise not only because of the political symbolism, but because of the technological implications too. The even blue is the perfect colour for CGI work. Anyone with the most basic CGI software can take an excellent ‘key’ from that blue, and will be able to add Gordon to any number of amusing or satirical locations – the most obvious being the Tory party conference. In this, the age of the ‘mash up’, I do not doubt several such projects are already underway, in upstairs bedrooms in cul-de-sacs up and down the land.

The Zidane footage from the World Cup last year had similar benefits. The assault was filmed against the green grass of a football pitch, and easy to replace with whatever the comedians wished.

The satirical mash-up, perfectly given a platform due to the wonders of YouTube and its ilk, will only become more common as time passes, and more and more people become more and more savvy with software that is less expensive.


Compare the pictyure above, with this one from later in the week.

Citizen juries

I have ranted about these new citizen juries before. Last December, I argued that MPs already have a ready-made focus group – their constituents – and there was no need for an intermediate cross-section to represent the views of everyone else.

Listening on the radio to the thoughts of some of those who participated, the verdict from Gordon Brown’s first session seems positive. The caveat, however, was that the citizens would “wait and see if we;ve been listened to” before making a judgement as to their success.

There is an interesting section in the Fabian pamphlet Facing Out that deals with the subject of being ‘listened’ to:

As Paul Webb observes, the failure to understand that politics cannot always give you what you want can give rise to a related perception: that just because you do not get what you want, you have not been listened to. Yet if getting what you want is the benchmark for being listened to, then we have a problem since democratic politics can never deliver this – no matter how much listening is done – unless all citizens happen, magically, to agree.

The idea of Citizens’ Juries raises some interesting questions about the nature of political participation and leadership. A reliance on focus groups is seen as a sign of indecision and lack of conviction. And yet a Prime Minister or party leader who does not take into account the wishes of their constituents, and the public at large, is deemed dictatorial and aloof. Clearly, a fine balance must be struck, but I doubt that Citizen Juries are a part of that balance. However the government responds, it will be percieved to have ‘not listened’ to the the people, and the cynics will score a victory.


Two of my favourite blogger-journalists are in the cynics camp on this one. Both Dave Hill and Chris Dillow think that Gordon has already nobbled the Citizens Jury. Chris also makes a similar point about the Catch-22 of the “listening” rhetoric.

Bring your own MP

More on ‘We Can’t Turn Them Away’:

Lack of speed is killing.  One ex-Royal Engineer told me on the phone last night about a man he recruited in 2003 who hoped to build a new Iraq, then fled the country, and then was murdered at some point in the last few weeks.

Dan Hardie is organising an event in Westminster to further highlight this issue. He is calling it Bring your own MP and it is on 9th October.

Shoot for the Moon

Here are two responses to the Apollo moon landings. First, Richard Nixon’s famous address on the optimism that the moon landings inspired:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.

The moon landings are probably the foremost example of what can be achieved when humans endeavour to co-operate. It is a story that has everything: from the insights of Gallileo and Newton; the imagination of Jules Verne; to the Leadership of Kennedy; to the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins; to the scholarship at MIT that built the computer guidance systems on the Apollo craft; to quick thinking of Jack Garman and Steve Bales, who made a correct, key decision regarding some obscure computer error codes, as Neil Armstrong’s Eagle hovered over the moon’s surface.

However, the poet Gil Scott-Heron was not impressed. He penned this indignant plea to spend the money on something different:

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

While it is surely worth a few billion dollars to bring mankind together as one, it is a lofty and imprecise ideal. Scott-Heron’s words ring in the ears, and anyone who is eager to journey back to the moon in our lifetime, or perhaps even to Mars, will have to justify the expense.

As I have said before, I begin with the idea that if one is going to design and build rockets, it would be more satisfying if we were to put astronauts in them, rather than nuclear warheads. It would also be more exciting, and (I think) more healthy for the collective human psyche. Spending several billions on “an ego trip” (as Bob Marley sang it), is a reprehensible thing when compared to the need for schools, a health system here in the UK, or AIDS medicines and mosquito nets in Africa. But compared to Trident, which is designed for the singular purpose of destruction, it is easier to argue that it would be money well spent.

Cancelling Trident and creating a bona fide British Space Programme would surely be an easy task, since the skills required for one project are easily transferred to the other. There is a place for rocket scientists and computer guidance systems engineers. And surely submariners would make perfect astronauts, accustomed as they are to spending long periods of time sealed in claustrophobic capsules?

Supporters of the nuclear deterrent remind us that for Britain to maintain an influence on the international arena, we need to be members of the nuclear ‘club’. Much of the argument is over what strategic advantage the submarines give us (if any), and whether it is relevant when our arsenal is dwarfed by that of the United States. Clearly if we were to cancel Trident in favour of a space programme, that programme would fare better politically and economically if it had some strategic importance too. Indeed, although the American’s cited the noble causes of ‘discovery’ and ‘wonder’ as the justification for their Apollo Programmes, the scientific and military imperatives were just as strong – As were the propaganda benefits.

One strategic project could be a replacement for the Galileo Project, the European satellite-navigation system that intended to rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellites. The Galileo Project is in crisis, and it needs to be either replaced or reinvigorated. OK, so it is not quite an Apollo Mission… but the creation of a strategic technology that can be used in peace-time as well as war, seems to be a more imaginative side-step for a country like Britain, and certainly a better use of our rocket fuel. Once we’ve succeeded in that arena, we can set our sights higher, to the stars.

Earthrise, as seen by Apollo 15

The Digital Vigilante

Jeremy Vine tells a story about watching someone get beaten up on a tube train:

I chose to sit there and watch. And I’ve replayed it many many times. I’m very unhappy that I did that, and I now have sort of resolved that if I see a similar kind of situation where I see someone being attacked like that, I will intervene with unmitigated ferocity.

A few months ago I experience a “lite” version of the incident Vine described. Two young whippersnappers were refusing to pay for their journey, or get off the train, causing a rather loud argument with the ticket inspector. It was initially just a verbal affair, until the guard threatened to call the police. They made a quick exit, and shoved him as they disembarked (the cowards). I never thought about getting involved physically, or indeed joining the argument, but I do remember being irritated that my mobile phone had run out of batteries. Rather than resolving to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, I instead resolved to be quick to film any further incidents I might happen upon.

In late June, Edinburgh’s Pilrig Park hosted the Pride Scotia event. Marquees were erected on the field a few days before. Walking through the park one evening, I spotted a group of hooligans in a pitched battle with some security guards. Remembering my earlier vow, I whipped out my Nokia and began filming the incident for the police and posterity. We can’t be having that sort of homophobia in Edinburgh, not on my patch, no way.

The responses of the young tear-aways was varied and noteworthy. Some of them immediately realised the implications of being caught doing naughtiness on low-resolution video. They covered their faces and made a prompt exit, as illustrated below:

Homophobic Hooligans on Pilrig Park

Ah, digital technology! The citizen’s non-intrusive weapon against Anti-Social Behaviour…

Meanwhile, one fool became rather irritated with my brazen filming. His anger became directed at me, throwing a bottle and a punch in my direction (as illustrated below).

Hooligan throws a juice bottle
The fact that he stayed behind to throw stuff at me proved his undoing of course, because the police arrived shortly after.

“They’re making it all up!” said the kid, when asked to account for the multiple assaults of which he stood accused.

“Well, we do actually have you on film, assaulting people…” replied the officer. The accused kept quiet after that.

Meanwhile, I was getting an earful from my girlfriend, who had not appreciated me provoking the scallywag to further violence with my rampant phone-filming. I could have been seriously hurt. She also accused me of only capturing the footage only so that I could put it into some kind of blog post afterwards. I assured her that this was not my intention, and that I could hardly stand by while bullies made threats. She pointed out that I had, effectively, filmed my own Happy-Slapping, and there was nothing brave or noble about that.

At the time, I was perfectly sure of my actions, but now the correct course is much less clear. I think the problem lies in the act of making a ‘resolution’ to act, in advance of an incident actually occurring. I pulled out my camera-phone without thinking, and my proximity to the action made things worse. Perhaps I should have found a safe vantage point, and got ready to run away if someone approached me. Jeremy Vine resolves to respond with “unmitigated ferocity”, but that might not be the most appropriate action during the next tube-based assault he witnesses. He may end up making a fight worse, and end up beign assaulted himself. Worse, he may end up doing so much damage to the assailant, that he himself becomes culpable, and others have to intervene to stop him.

Each call to violence should be judged on its own merits, at the time. No two conflicts are alike, and intervention in one instance should not endorse similar actions at some other time. If you resolve in advance to go to war, or to get into a fight on a train, then the best outcome is unlikely to emerge.

What's the Arabic for..?

The campaign grows to grant asylum for all those Iraqis who have worked for the British Armed Forces in Iraq. Bloggerheads publishes a list of bloggers who support the campaign, while Chicken Yoghurt and Pickled Politics have been keeping track of MPs who have responded to the letter writing campaign.

Over at The Ministry of Truth, Unity has produced some blog banners that you can add to your own site, linking to an appropriate explanatory article such as the one published by Dan. My favourite is this one:

What is the Arabic for We'll stand by you?

What’s the Arabic for “We’ll stand by you?” – We can’t turn them away

Continue reading “What's the Arabic for..?”

Alcoholic Elephant in the Smoking Room

When the news came that Cannabis was to be reclassified as a class B drug, I had expected there to be something of a reaction from the British Blogosphere, which has a healthy Libertarian bias. Back in the office after a week without proper internet, I found precious little online writing on the subject. I reasoned that this might have had something to do with the Lancet Report (and podcast) into the effects of cannabis use, and the associated risk of psychosis.

However, I had reckoned without Tim Worstal and his excellent statistics.

So, does 0.2% of users being harmed pass our test? 0.05%? 0.01%? Even at that higher number it’s still vastly lower as a percentage than the numbers harmed by either tobacco or alcohol: and yet they are both legal. I’d wager very long odds that it’s lower than the STD infection rate on one night stands: which are also legal. I’d even take an evens bet on whether it’s less dangerous than playing golf in a thunderstorm which while stupid is also legal.

Just another example of bansturbation I’m afraid, this time it’s the social authoritarians in the Tory Party getting their rocks off over the matter. Heaven forfend that the citizenry should actually be free to go to hell in their own preferred manner.

I think the comparison with alchohol is important here, because it highlights an essential contradiction at the heart of the debate. Both alcohol and smoking are legal, despite being harmful. Why not cannabis too?

Throughout, it has been noted that the skunk on the streets is far more powerful and harmful than the milder forms that our cabinet smoked as students. Aside from looking like a convenient get-out clause for those who have admitted to a toke or two twenty years ago, it also ignores the fact that there are many different types of cannabis in circulation.

In any case, is the undoubted potency of modern skunk an argument for legalisation and regulation, or further crimminalisation and marginalisation? The recent orthodoxy claims the latter, and says that because cannabis is so harmful, it should be banned. But that is analagous to saying that alcohol should be banned because Moonshine is so toxic! Just as there is a world of difference between the causual, weekend wine-drinker, and the serious alcoholic with his Vodka or (worse) bottle of Meths… so there is a difference between a weekend spliff in the garden, and a heavy skunk-user putting himself at risk of psychosis. It would be nice if someone stated that either drug, in moderation, does make the parties and the conversations a little more interesting (to the partakers, at least)… but that consumption to excess can lead to a lack of productivity, and then serious damage to one’s health. The absolutist, binary debate on this issue is unhelpful and unlikely to wash with the young people who need to be so well informed.

I think a more compelling argument against casual drug use, is that it provides financial support to gangsters. The usual mitigation for cannabis use is that it is a victimless crime. At present, however, there is no way of knowing if this is actually true. Illegal drugs do not come with a ‘Fair Trade’ certificate to reassure you that no human-traffickers, Russian Mafioso or Jamaican Yardies have profited (or indeed, been murdered) during its production and bagging. When politicians admit to trying cannabis at university, they are always asked whether they ‘inhaled’, but never if they knew where the drugs came from. This latter question would, I believe, be more pertinent. That few politicians would be able to answer it is probably the main reason why this particular argument is sidelined in the debate.

Surely a more sensible approach to the issue would be to legalise cannabis, and then regulate it and tax it in the same manner as alchohol and tobacco. This is the only sure way to reduce the potency of the drugs being consumed. Better information about the strength and origin of their cannabis will help people to make a more informed choice about how much to consume, and lead to a reduction in associated health problems.

We can’t turn them away

This time, I am behind the blog cycle, rather than the mainstream news cycle! Many others have already linked to Dan Hardie’s campaign to ensure that all Iraqis who have worked for British forces are given asylum if they ask for it.

There is now considerable evidence that their lives, and the lives of their families, are at risk: some former workers for the British have been murdered, and many others have fled to neighbouring countries or gone into hiding in Basra. The British Government, for whom they were ultimately working, has not offered them the right of asylum in the UK. This is morally unacceptable.

The most detailed recent report, by Jonathan Miller of Channel Four news, notes the murder of 17 translators in one single incident in Basra.

Dan suggests we write to our MPs, and even provides some handy text that you can paste into a letter or e-mail.

I recall that the plight of Iraqis was one of the first arguments against Tony Blair’s account of the war. When the WMDs failed to appear, the reasons for war quickly shifted to the brutality of the Saddam regime. While this might have been a convincing argument for many, it was certainly not a convincing reason for the government, who had denied many asylum applications from Iraqi before the war. It was therefore misleading and duplicitous for Blair to cite this as a reason post hoc.

However, the current British policy towards foreign nationals who help the armed services is unsurprising. The Ghurka regiment has for many years been mistreated by the government, with former soldiers denied citizenship, or even a pension on equal terms with other British servicemen.

Interestingly, the recent successful campaign to allow one former ghurka (a holder of the Victoria Cross, no less) to be given UK citizenship was also propagated online. The VC Hero site was set up by Tul Bahadur Pun’s solicitors, and a online campaign added political pressure. So Dan Hardie’s initiative stands a good chance of success.

Thuggery in Sedgefield

Well well. I’m watching the by-election results on TV. The BNP saw fit to heckle and slow-hand clap the Labour Candidate Phil Wilson as he gave his by-election victory speech in Sedgefield.

One of the usually decent things about the democratic process is the (short) period of politeness and respect that follows an election result. In the immediate aftermath of an election, it is unseemly to criticise and abuse a candidate, especially one who has just been elected as an MP with a large majority. To do so is to insult and abuse that majority of citizens who have made their choice. By making a racket as Wilson spoke, the BNP expose themselves as arrogant thugs.

They even boo’ed when the Tory candidate gave his best wishes to Wilson’s family. Ugly.