America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner

Political memoirs should probably always be approached with a healthy scepticism. This one was written by a man in prison for drug-trafficking, so I approached it with a lot of uncertainty; especially since I don’t know enough about the politics of Central America in the 80s.

The book does provide some help in the form of Peter Eisner, the American journalist who ghost-wrote the main text, based on interviews with Noriega, and added an introduction, footnotes and endnotes which (as agreed in advance) Noriega did not have any say over. So that provides some useful context.

nori1

Noriega’s version of events is that he was nothing but a patriot, working for the good of the people of Panama, trying to avoid getting caught up in the shitshow of Nicaragua and Honduras, and trying to keep on the good side of both the Americans and the Cubans. He also says that the US invasion of Panama was based on nothing but political expediency, that the drug charges against him were trumped up, and that the Americans were up to their eyeballs in every nasty, dirty, shady thing that happened in Central America, including drug-running.

Now a lot of his accusations are clearly true; but of course that doesn’t mean it’s all true. So, for example, given the stuff we know the CIA and the DoD were getting up to in Central America — most famously, but not only, Iran-Contra — pretty much any accusation against them starts sounding plausible. And of course the invasion was political: the fact that they ousted an uncooperative government 12 days before the Canal Zone was due to be handed over to Panamanian control doesn’t seem like a coincidence. And the idea that they did it because Noriega was a Bad Man? Well, given the kinds of regimes the US propped up in Latin America, they clearly had a very high tolerance for brutal dictatorships when it was convenient. But then you can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia and Iraq: support for the Saudis undermines any claim to a foreign policy designed to spread democracy, freedom and human rights; but whatever the real motivations for invading Iraq, that doesn’t alter the fact that Saddam Hussein was a genuinely terrible figure.

For what it’s worth, Eisner’s conclusion is that Noriega was clearly guilty of a lot of things — like rigging elections and intimidating the opposition — but that Panama was still comparatively stable and peaceful compared to most of its neighbours. And that if Noriega was running drugs, the trial did a poor job of proving it; it relied on testimony from informants within the US prison system who were rewarded for their testimony with reduced sentences, and potentially damning evidence about American government involvement was ruled either secret or inadmissible.

Who knows. I mean, somebody probably does, and if I did the research I might have a clearer idea; but I found the book interesting, even without knowing what to make of it. The tangled politics of the region, and the extent to which the US government was caught up in it, is fascinating. Presumably, now we’ve moved on from the Cold War to the War on Terror, the CIA is less involved in Central America than it used to be, but who knows what they’re now getting up to in, say, Yemen. Or Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey…

[Oh, yeah, I forgot to say: this is my book from Panama for the Read The World challenge.]

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.

King_Yeongjo

So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.

My Country, Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionaria by Andrée Blouin

I read this for the Read The World challenge as my book from the Central African Republic, which is where Andrée Blouin was born — although she didn’t actually live there for very long.

Her father, Pierre Gerbillat, was a French businessman with a transport company in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He saw Andrée’s mother, Josephine Wouassimba, dancing in a local village and decided he wanted to marry her. Although she was already promised to somebody else, he offered such a large dowry that her parents were persuaded.

He was forty; she was thirteen. And although they were married according to local custom, they were not actually married under French law — not only that, he was already engaged to a Belgian woman, who he married very soon. And after briefly juggling two wives, he left Josephine and sent Andrée to an orphanage for mixed-race children run by nuns in Brazzaville. She was at the orphanage from the age of three until she was seventeen, when she managed to escape, literally by climbing over the wall.

Then she worked as a dressmaker, and had a sequence of relationships with white men, before getting involved in the campaign for independence, first in Guinea and then the Belgian Congo, where she was Chief of Protocol for the newly independent Republic of the Congo for the very brief period before Mobutu overthrew the government and she had to flee the country, and move to France.

So she’s an interesting subject. Although the stuff which is most obviously notable about her — the politics — was not actually the most engaging part of the book, for me. The most powerful section is about severity of the orphanage, and the sheer cruelty of the nuns; and throughout the book the racial dynamics are particularly thought-provoking.

She was a mixed-race child at a time when they were so rare that they were shipped of to special orphanages and coerced to marry each other, to reduce their disruptive impact on society. And it made her even more of an outsider that she was cut off from normal African society for her entire childhood.

Then as an adult, she was a beautiful mixed-race woman who, despite having suffered at the hands of white institutions and individuals, was apparently only drawn to relationships with white men; one of whom she lived with, and had a child with, even though he was so racist that he would not allow her mother into their house.

And I don’t think she makes any comment herself about whether her partial whiteness made it easier or harder for her to be a woman taking a prominent role in the politics of independence, but it must have been relevant one way or another.

So there’s plenty of interesting material here. And it’s well written, for which the credit may go to Jean McKellar, who is credited as a ‘collaborator’; I don’t know exactly what that means in this case. It’s also out of print, though, and unless it sounds like it’s particularly relevant to your interests, I don’t think it’s so amazing that you need to seek it out.

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek

A Woman in the Crossfire is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings in Syria; or at least the first few months of them.

This is my book from Syria for the Read The World challenge. Because of the rules I’ve set myself, that the books should be written by people from the countries in question, I often find it frustratingly difficult to find books which are up to date, and which engage with life in those countries as it is now: usually if a book is only twenty years old I’m doing quite well.

This book is certainly up to date. Or at least, as a piece of journalism I suppose it’s already slightly out of date; it covers the period from March to July last year, and the situation in Syria has moved on since then. But it still feels very fresh and raw.

Like A Poet and Bin Laden, this is journalism (in a broad sense) written by a novelist. And although it is much less ‘literary’ in form — it’s written in a pretty straightforward diary form, plus interviews she did with other Syrians — there are certainly bits that don’t quite read like standard journalism. Most obvious is the amount of emphasis on her own emotional and psychological experience. It rubs against the normal assumption of journalism that keeping the journalist out of the story is evidence of objectivity.

But actually, the psychological pressures on a dissident living in a police state which is cracking down violently on protests is a fascinating subject in its own right. The sleeplessness, the panic and uncertainty, the fear that the regime will take revenge, not just on her but on her daughter: this is an important part of the story of what it means to live in a dictatorship. And it makes it all the more admirable that she kept on putting herself in danger by going out to observe protests and conduct interviews; and completely unsurprising that after a few months she chose to leave the country, taking her daughter with her.

At times it starts to feel a bit repetitive because, well, events were repetitive: there are an awful lot of protests and massacres. Generally, though, the quality of the writing is enough to keep up the interest. The book does a particularly good job of providing a sense of life as it happened; it’s not just the facts, it’s the texture of experience.

» The photo Banyas Demos – / Syria سورية مظاهرات /صور بانياس, from 6th May 2011, is © Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom and used under a CC attribution licence.

Drugs Without The Hot Air by David Nutt

David Nutt became somewhat famous in the UK when he was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs [ACMD], the statutory body which is responsible for advising the government on drug policy, and specifically on the appropriate legal classification of different drugs.

He was criticised and eventually fired for being rather too vocal about the fact that the government consistently ignored the advice of the ACMD and allowed political considerations to trump politics, and for pointing out some inconvenient truths about relative harms; that alcohol and tobacco are both more dangerous than many illegal drugs, and that horse-riding is considerably more dangerous than taking ecstasy.

This became a bit of a cause celèbre in the geekosphere. Because we all know that  politicians will ignore the evidence if it’s politically inconvenient, but it’s rarely quite so blatant as firing someone for saying what the evidence is.

This book covers various aspects of drug use: how drugs work, how harmful they are, what addiction is, what treatments are available and so on. It covers alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs as well as the illegal ones.

It’s interesting to read because it simultaneously seems radical and rather obvious. Radical because if all the evidence in the book was taken seriously it would involve a top-to-bottom rewriting of UK drug laws; and obvious because actually not much of this stuff should come as a surprise.

For example, however much politicians may splutter about the comparison, can anyone who lives in this country seriously doubt that alcohol causes far more social harm than ecstasy or cannabis? Or that, purely pragmatically, treating addiction as a medical problem is likely to be more successful than treating it as a moral failing? And even if you think cannabis should be illegal, surely it makes intuitive sense that it is counterproductive to imprison users: both because being in prison is in itself more damaging to the individual’s future prospects than the actual drug use, and because it is very expensive to lock people up.

It’s interesting though, and very readable. It helps that, although the book takes a ‘liberal’ stance compared to the current law, it’s not derived from a naive libertarianism. Nutt is not arguing for loosening the drug laws on the basis of increased personal liberty; he wants the law to be better at managing harms and risks. So he supports the ban on smoking in public places and would tighten some of the rules on alcohol sales. And although treating addiction to heroin and cocaine as a primarily medical problem could be seen as ‘soft on drugs’, he’s arguing for it on the basis that it is the best way to minimise harm.

A few random interesting points from the book: he points out that coca leaves, cocaine and crack are all pharmacologically the same substance, and that the method of delivery makes a huge difference not just to the experience but also the addictiveness. I was startled to learn that about 500 people a year die of heroin overdoses after coming out of prison because, having stopped or reduced their use while inside, they have lost the tolerance they used to have.

And I was struck by his suggestion that the duty on alcoholic drinks should be proportional to actual alcohol content, rather than by category with one rate for beer and one for wine and so on. That would be a direct incentive for drinkers to switch to weaker drinks and for manufacturers to reverse the trend of beers and wines getting stronger. Which seems sensible. There a general argument for making alcohol more expensive anyway, but it seems like a good start to make Special Brew considerably more expensive than lagers with less than half the alcohol.

» The Pink Elephants on Parade LSD blotter is from the Blotter Art website. The bottle of Papine is from Wellcome Images and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

The weird existence of tax havens

Tax avoidance/evasion is in the news again, and once again I find my mind drifting back to that book Treasure Islands, which I read a year ago and stuck with me since. Because a lot of these issues of tax policy are inevitably messy and complicated, both ethically and as a matter of pragmatic policy; but there is one particular point I keep returning to.

Which is this: when you think about it, it’s a bit weird that tax havens are allowed to exist. Because all those ‘companies’ which are just a pigeonhole in a lawyer’s office in the Cayman Islands? The only reason they exist is for the explicit purpose of escaping the laws and regulations of another country.

That’s not intended to be a rhetorical flourish; it is, as far as I can tell, a simple statement of fact.

If a company does its business in the UK but has part of its corporate structure registered in the Cayman Islands*: they are trying to avoid laws passed by a legitimate democratic government. To get pompous for a moment, they are rejecting the democratically expressed will of the British people.

They might be doing it to avoid tax, they might be looking for lax financial regulation, they might be trying to disguise corporate fraud or launder the proceeds of organised crime. All you know for certain is that they intend  to avoid the law.

So why do we put up with this crap? The Caymans, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Jersey, Bermuda, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg: it’s not a list of great global powers that we need to tread carefully around because of their terrifying military and economic influence.

The EU and the US could simply† refuse to recognise the legal validity of companies and trusts registered in these countries. No doubt clever accountants and lawyers would still find ways to avoid paying tax, and to launder money, including of course the most direct way of avoiding tax: lobbying politicians to change the tax code in your favour. But I don’t see why we should make it any easier for them than necessary.

* or a trust in the Turks and Caicos, or Guernsey, or whatever it might be.

† Well, OK, it might not actually be ‘simple’. But I’m sure we could come up with something.

Voting system geekery: London mayoral edition

I’ve just been along to vote in the elections for mayor of London.

It’s a kind of alternative vote system; you can pick a first and second choice (but not a third and so on), and after the first round of counting, if no candidate has 50% of the votes, they eliminate all but the top two candidates and reassign votes according to people’s second preferences.

I think that’s clearly an improvement on a straight first-past-the-post system [FPTP], but I can’t see that it makes sense to fix it at only two rounds of counting — rather than, to take the simplest alternative, eliminating the candidates with the least votes one at a time, reassigning the votes, and doing it as many times as you need to.

Electing a mayor is a somewhat different situation to a general election; some of the problems that general election reform would attempt to fix simply don’t apply.

So for example, there’s the question of proportionality: the number of MPs each party has in the  Commons is often wildly different to the percentage of votes they won nationwide. But there’s only one mayor, so that’s irrelevant to a mayoral election.

Also, since the whole of London is one big constituency, everyone’s votes count exactly the same; there are no safe seats where the voters can have little influence, or marginal constituencies that attract wildly disproportionate attention from politicians.

So some of the specific issues don’t apply. But the overall problem with FPTP is that it deals very badly with anything other than a two party system, and tends to entrench a two party system by default.

Having an alternative voting system solves part of the problem. It reduces the potential of spoiler candidates; what could be called the Ross Perot problem, of a minority candidate having a disproportionate impact because they attract just enough votes to swing the election. And it removes some of the bias against minor parties and new parties, since if you know you have a second choice, you can at least vote for a minor party without feeling that your vote is wasted. If you feel that the Green manifesto actually represents your opinions most accurately, but you’d rather have Labour than Conservative, you can vote Green without feeling that you are mainly helping the Conservatives.

However, cutting straight to two parties for the second round of voting still helps entrench the two party system. You can feel free to vote for a minor party for your first choice, but the tactical element just comes back in for the second choice, since there’s a strong incentive to try and guess which two parties are going to make the cut and vote for one of them, so that your vote counts for something. If ‘everyone says’ that Labour and Conservative are the two favourites, and your preference is, say:

Green > Lib Dem > Labour > Conservative > UKIP > BNP

then there’s a strong incentive to vote 1) Green 2) Labour.

That doesn’t seem ideal, but I don’t actually think it’s a major problem as long as there are two clear front runners. Being pragmatic with your second choice isn’t an outrageous compromise. But if the votes are reasonably closely split between three or more main candidates, then the whole thing breaks down again. Let’s say the minor parties have 10% of the vote between them, and Tory, Lib Dem and Labour are running in the polls at about 30% each: well, a tiny swing between any two of those will decide who gets through to the second round of voting, so we’re back to a tactical voting situation again.

Our hypothetical voter now has a strong incentive to vote 1) Lib Dem 2) Labour, and now they are compromising on their first choice.

And if there were four strong candidates, then the outcome would become even more random and the cut off of the top two for the second round of voting would be even more arbitrary.

It’s one of those things which is annoying because it’s so unnecessary. Why go straight down to two candidates? Why not have as many rounds of counting as it takes?

Christian values: what are they?

Genuine question.

A little background: there has been a little storm in a teacup today over a particularly silly article in the Telegraph outing Richard Dawkins as having ancestors who were slave owners in Jamaica. If you’re really interested, you can read Dawkins’s comments about it here.

But what what got my attention was something from a different blog post on the subject:

when abolition of slavery in the colonies was finally put to Parliament in 1833, the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords voted against the bill.

Which struck me as a good fact to bear in mind next time someone argues that Britain is a Christian country built on Christian values.

That in turn had me wondering how the Lords Spiritual voted on other important social issues over the centuries: Catholic emancipation, women’s suffrage, a free press, workers’ rights and so on. Because while it would obviously be unfair to use the upper echelons of the Church of England as a proxy for all Christianity, it would at least be a record of the ‘Christian values’ of the central Christian institution in British public life.

I’m not [just] trying to play Gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. History being what it is, I imagine they’d come out well on some issues and badly on others. But Google has failed me. Annoyingly. I’ll have another go later, but in the meantime, if anyone happens to know a source for detailed voting breakdowns from the House of Lords prior to 1997, let me know.

Ooh, apparently I’m being militant again

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the past few days, since a court ruled that it was unlawful for Bideford town council to have prayers as a minuted part of its council meetings. The Daily Mail had a big front page headline CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK; for once the Times managed to outdo the Mail for melodramatic language with Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer. Eric Pickles, the Communities minister, came out strongly against the decision, insisting that the UK is ‘a Christian country’, something I’ve complained about before. George Carey, the Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury came out with this wonderfully understated reaction for the Daily Mail:

These legal rulings may also mean Army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished. This is a truly terrifying prospect.

Truly terrifying.

All of which seems ludicrously out of proportion when you actually look at the legal judgement, which had nothing to do with the separation of church and state: no such principle exists in British law. Moreover, the judge specifically ruled against the idea that this was a human rights issue, saying that just because non-Christian councillors were inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the prayers, that did not amount to unlawful religious discrimination.

In fact, the ruling was based on a technical question: whether by holding the prayers, the council was going beyond the powers specifically allowed to them by the 1972 Local Government Act. Not only is this a narrow legal point with little relevance for the wider debate about the place of religion in public life; it’s not even relevant any more, because the 1972 Local Government Act has just been superseded by the new Localism Act which grants wider powers to councils. So prayers before council meetings are almost certainly legal again, although the point has yet to be tested in court.

And more importantly, all the other ways in which religion is entwined into our political system are still firmly in place. The Queen is still both head of state and head of the church; we still have 26 bishops sitting in the upper house of our legislature; bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; Parliament officially opens every day with prayers lead by the Speaker; schools are supposed to hold daily acts of collective worships which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

So why do these occasional conflicts provoke such a hysterical reaction from the religious? Why do those of us who argue that religion and politics are best kept separate get described as ‘militant’ and compared to totalitarian governments?

Well, a clue lies in new survey results released by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (1, 2). Yeah, I know, Richard Dawkins is not an unbiassed source; but the survey was performed by a respectable polling organisation and the questions look fair. The survey was intended to investigate religious attitudes among people who identified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

Some of the details are interesting but ultimately irrelevant, like the fact that only 35% could pick the first book of the New Testament out of Matthew, Genesis, Acts and Psalms; I mean, it’s the kind of thing you would expect a practising Christian to know, but it’s not a test of the sincerity or depth of someone’s belief.

And it’s not a surprise that many people tick the Christian box on the Census despite not going to church, or praying, or reading the Bible, or believing that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was resurrected, or even believing in God at all. The survey results are messy and contradictory, but it seems like about half of Census Christians are what you might call conventional Christians, people who go to church occasionally and believe some of the central tenets of the faith.

But the really startling result is the proportion of people identifying as Christian at all. For the 2001 Census, that figure was 72%; the new survey suggests the figure may have dropped to 54% in 2011. If that number holds up when the official census data is released, it represents a remarkable cultural shift in ten years.

I’ve complained before about people who say that the UK is a Christian country. I’ve argued on historical/philosophical grounds, that there’s nothing particularly Christian about our most important values — democracy, the rule of law, free speech, tolerance, humour — and I’ve argued on political grounds, that to call this a Christian country is exclusionary, because it suggests that those of us who are not Christians are therefore less British.

But if only 54% of the population identify as Christian in even the loosest sense, then it’s barely even statistically true that the UK is a Christian country.

And that, I think, is the reason for all the hyperbolic stuff about ‘militant secularism’. It’s not that they believe that Richard Dawkins or the National Secular Society have profound political influence, that all it’s going to take is one strongly worded opinion piece in the Guardian for the whole edifice to come tumbling down.

No, the fear is that this is already a secular country, and that it’s only a matter of time before the politics catches up with reality. The fear is that Dawkins is pushing on an open door.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Full title: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. I’ve had this book since February and was finally spurred to pick it out of the pile by the death of Kim Jong-il.

It’s based on interviews with refugees from North Korea which were conducted over several years by Barbara Demick, an American journalist. She interweaves their stories into a chronological narrative to create a picture of everyday life in North Korea over the past few decades.

Obviously there are limitations created by her almost complete lack of access to the country itself, but she focussed on people from a particular city, Chongjin, near the Chinese border, and did her best to cross-check as many details as possible. The result is a very solid and convincing picture. It’s a fascinating and horribly grim picture of a personality cult, rigid bureaucratic social control, and constant fear that saying the wrong thing could get you sent to the gulags… and then the famine kicks in and it gets even worse.

It seems bizarre that a Stalinist system like this can still survive into the twenty-first century, decades after Communism collapsed elsewhere and even as South Korea and China become rapidly more prosperous. But I guess the really extraordinary thing is that it lasted as long as it did in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

Anyway, it’s a good book, well worth reading.

» The photo Arirang (DPRK) is © Gilad Rom and used under a CC attribution licence.

My Prime Minister went to Europe and all I got was this lousy veto

So, David Cameron went off to Europe, with the continent in desperate need of an agreement that might stave off financial catastrophe. And it was always going to be difficult to come to a deal which was acceptable to all the various countries, which was why the wrangling has been going on for months. But this was, everyone agreed, a moment of crisis, when domestic political concerns had to be weighed against the appalling consequences should the worst happen.

As it turned out, Cameron wasn’t able to sign a deal. His conscience simply wouldn’t let him. And what was his line in the sand? What was the principle that he was willing to alienate the whole of Europe over, and risk economic catastrophe for? It was (drumroll please)… he didn’t want to upset the bankers.

You know, when the whole financial system initially went tits-up, I wasn’t particularly inclined to be angry at the banks. Sure, where there is actual evidence of fraud and deception it’s a different matter. But mostly it doesn’t seem to have been illegality, it was just greed, recklessness and incompetence. And it’s hard to apportion blame when the whole world goes mad together. After all, banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, central bankers, rating agencies, governments and regulators all failed in one way or another.

But when the global economy went off the rails, that was the opportunity for everyone involved to pause, take stock, and think about what they’d done. All the stupid things the banks did to get us into this mess — that didn’t make me angry. Their miserable failure to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, the lack of contrition, the lack of gratitude for the fact that mountains of taxpayers’ money has been shovelled at them to save them from the consequences of their own incompetence — that is teeth-grindingly infuriating.

And these are the people the Prime Minister is bending over backwards to protect. Fucking marvellous.

» The picture is of David Cameron with David Cameron’s eyes.

» Incidentally, I’m not at all convinced that the European treaty is going to do anything to save the Euro anyway, with or without the UK, as it seems to be designed to solve the wrong problem. But I’ve demoted that point to a footnote because it only would have complicated a perfectly good rant.

The next sacrifice on the altar of mammon: British wildlife

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was pretty depressing all round, but there was one particular part of it that seems worth a comment. Which is that they will ‘review the implementation of the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives’. The Chancellor said:

We will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.

You might think that the Conservative party would instinctively see the value of trying to preserve something of our shared natural inheritance, so that there is still something there to hand on to our children and grandchildren. It seems like a good, traditional conservative instinct. But no, for George Osborne the environment is just another kind of red tape that is getting in the way of the only thing that matters: private enterprise.

I’m never quite sure what’s going on with people who place so little value on the environment. The first possibility is that they just don’t care. They’ve never had any interest in wildlife, they couldn’t recognise the most common birds in their own garden, they’d rather see a well-manicured golf course than a scruffy bit of pasture with wild flowers growing on it. They’ve never had an emotional relationship with the natural world, and so the idea of habitats being destroyed and species going extinct simply has no resonance for them. And if you feel that way, then if the choice is between creating jobs or preserving a piece of habitat… well, there’s no conflict to be resolved.

And I’m sure there are those people: people who regard the whole idea of ‘the environment’ as ridiculous sentimental tosh. But I’m not sure they’re the majority. Most people at least like to see butterflies and hear birdsong, they enjoy the bluebells in spring and the leaves changing colour in the autumn. But there is an idea, I think, that environmental concerns are exaggerated. Because if you walk through the British countryside in May, everything is an incredible lush green, the hedges are thick with white hawthorn blossom, the verges are full of cow parsley and oxeye daisies, and there is a bird singing in every bush. Everything seems right with the world.

But actually the British countryside is profoundly ecologically impoverished. Just this week we had the release of new official government figures showing that farmland bird numbers are at their lowest ever, down 50% since 1970. That’s a 50% decline over a period when the environment has been a relatively strong political issue; and 1970 was hardly some kind of pre-industrial idyll anyway. And even that 50% figure doesn’t tell the whole story, because that’s the overall number: when you dig into the details, it turns out that some species have held up relatively well — which means that others have declined catastrophically.

The list of badly-hit birds makes incredibly depressing reading. It includes many of the species that once would have been seen as the most typical species of the British countryside, the birds that we have poems, Christmas carols and nursery rhymes about: cuckoo, skylark, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale. Others are less famous but no less typical: yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit, redpoll. Some of them are generally much less common and harder to find; others have been eliminated from large parts of the country altogether. Many of the species I’ve mentioned are down by 70%; the worst-hit, like the turtle dove and the grey partridge, are down by over 90%.

And it’s not just birds. Take butterflies, for example; many of the less common butterflies in the south of England are downland species: that is, they live on chalk hillsides, preferably grazed by sheep. Well, there’s chalk all the way across the country, and there are still plenty of sheep, but if you want to find those butterflies, you have to go to special sites managed for wildlife by conservation charities. Think about what that means: those species coexisted with agriculture for thousands of years. No-one made any special effort to protect them. Now they only hang on in little scraps of land which have to be specially managed for their benefit.

There was a time when the normal farmland which makes up the vast bulk of the British countryside was a fairly rich habitat, supporting a wide variety of wild flowers, insects and birds. But with modern farming practices that’s really not true anymore. There are various different reasons — pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are part of it but not the whole story — but the result is that a lot of modern British farmland is biologically pretty sterile.

That BBC News article has a telling quote from Harry Cotterell, the vice president of the Country Land and Business Association:

Finally we might see a time when human beings are treated with about the same importance as bats, newts and dormice.

The thing is, I can entirely see that it can be incredibly frustrating for someone who is trying to run a farm or some other small business, when some government bureaucrat tells them that they can’t drain a pond because it has rare newts living in it. But the idea that human self-interest is being continually thwarted because we as a society are bending over backwards to put wildlife first… it’s just ludicrous.

Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

Steve Jobs and William Morris

In my post about Steve Jobs I quoted William Morris’s famous dictum ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

I just wanted to say: yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a socialist and anti-industrialist in praise of a great capitalist, a titan of industry who sold products by the hundreds of millions, each one assembled by low-paid workers in vast, sterile, soulless factories in China.

But then Morris’s vision of handmade, artisan production was quixotic even when applied to things like furniture and books; he couldn’t uninvent the industrial revolution. It certainly wouldn’t work for smartphones.

And to leave the politics to one side for a moment; aesthetically the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the way that mass production cheapened and coarsened material culture. It was a reaction to all those second-rate industrially produced imitations of traditional craftsmanship. Well, Apple’s best products have also fought against the shoddy and second-rate; but instead of rejecting mass production, Jobs wanted to do it right.

I suppose Morris would argue that was little consolation to those workers in their factory in China.

» The wallpaper is Morris’s ‘Fruit’ pattern. I picked it because it includes some apples.

Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

‘The Miscegenation Hoax’

I was browsing around Project Gutenberg and stumbled on a book with this magnificent title: The Humbugs of the  World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in all Ages. And it’s by none other than P. T. Barnum.

So I thought, that could be interesting. And one of the things that caught my eye from the contents was ‘The Miscegenation Hoax‘. Barnum explains:

the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing of the negro, but desirable as a means of creating a more perfect race of men than any now existing. This pamphlet is a clever political quiz; and was written by three young gentlemen of the “World” newspaper, namely. D. G. Croly, George Wakeman, and E. C. Howell.

The design of “Miscegenation” was exceedingly ambitious, and the machinery employed was probably among the most ingenious and audacious ever put into operation to procure the indorsement of absurd theories, and give the subject the widest notoriety. The object was to so make use of the prevailing ideas of the extremists of the Anti-Slavery party, as to induce them accept doctrines which would be obnoxious to the great mass of the community, and which would, of course, be used in the political canvass which was to ensue. It was equally important that the “Democrats” should be made to believe that the pamphlet in question emanated from a “Republican” source.

This is in 1864, during the Civil War, so of course the Republicans are the abolitionist party. It carries on a bit later:

The first stumbling-block was the name “amalgamation,” by which this fraternizing of the races had been always known. It was evident that a book advocating amalgamation would fall still-born, and hence some new and novel word had to be discovered, with the same meaning, but not so objectionable. Such a word was coined by the combination of the Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race: from these, miscegenation—a mingling of the races. […] Next, it was necessary to give the book an erudite appearance, and arguments from ethnology must form no unimportant part of this matter. Neither of the authors being versed in this science, they were compelled to depend entirely on encyclopedias and books of reference. This obstacle to a New York editor or reporter was not so great as it might seem. The public are often favored in our journals with dissertations upon various abstruse matters by men who are entirely ignorant of what they are writing about. It was said of Cuvier that he could restore the skeleton of an extinct animal if he were only given one of its teeth, and so a competent editor or reporter of a city journal can get up an article of any length on any given subject, if he is only furnished one word or name to start with.

I won’t quote the whole thing, intriguing though it is, but I can’t resist this bit:

Although, of course, the mass of the Republican leaders entirely ignored the book, yet a considerable number of Anti-Slavery men, with more transcendental ideas, were decidedly “sold.” The machinery employed was exceedingly ingenious. Before the book was published, proof-copies were furnished to every prominent abolitionist in the country, and also to prominent spiritual mediums, to ladies known to wear Bloomers, and to all that portion of our population who are supposed to be a little “soft” on the subject of reform.

Apparently spiritual mediums and ladies known to wear bloomers were the 1860s equivalents of latte-drinking tree-hugging Volvo drivers.

Anyway, archive.org has the original pamphlet online: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It’s hard to recapture the sense of shock apparently provoked at the time, although I suppose even now it would be fairly radical to suggest that we should be actively working to eliminate black and white as distinct entities. In fact far from being shocking, a lot of it is frankly boring, especially all the C19th racial pseudoscience; but it has its moments, like this bit of mischief:

THE SECRET OF SOUTHERN SUCCESS

The North is wondering — the world is wondering — at the marvelous success of the Southern people in statesmanship and war. The discretion, endurance, energy, and heroism they have shown in sustaining for so long a time a rebellion supposed to be feeble and short-lived, have elicited the admiration even of their enemies […] The truth may as well be understood, that the superiority of the slaveholding classes of the South arises from their intimate communication, from birth to death, with the colored race. Like Anteus, sent to his mother earth, they have risen reinvigorated. […]

On this point we might quote many pro and anti-slavery authorities, but the extracts would scarcely be fit for general reading. It is a notorious fact, however, that, for three generations back, the wealthy, educated, governing class of the South have mingled their blood with the enslaved race. These illicit unions, though sanctioned neither by law nor conscience, and which, therefore, are degrading morally, have helped to strengthen the vitality and add to the mental force of the Southerner. The emotional power, fervid oratory and intensity which distinguishes all thoroughbred slaveholders, is due to their intimate association with the most charming and intelligent of their slave girls. The local history of New Orleans, since its occupation by the Union army, proves what has often been suspected, that unions between the slaveholders and their slaves have often had, in the eyes of the parties themselves, all the sanctities of marriage. These facts give us an inkling of some of the sources of Southern power.

If you can ignore, just for a moment, the high stakes of the political issue at hand, and the many decades of overwhelming human misery caused by the slavery and segregation which the pamphlet was surreptitiously supporting… well, you almost have to admire bits of it as an example of proper, old fashioned trolling. These guys would feel right at home on the internet.

AN OMEN.

The statue of Liberty which has just crowned the capitol at Washington, stands as a symbol of the future American of this continent. It was meet and proper that while slavery exercised its baneful sway at the seat of Government, that the great dome of the capitol should have been unfinished, and that the figure of Liberty should not have unveiled its awful form upon the topmost summit. The maker of that statue has “builded better than he knew.” In order to insure it against the storms and variable temperature of a Virginia atmosphere, it has been washed with an acid which has caused a slight oxidation, producing a rich and uniform bronze tint, which no rains can discolor and no sun bleach. When the traveler approaches the city of magnificent distances, the seat of what is destined to be the greatest and most beneficent power on earth, the first object that will strike his eye will be the figure of Liberty surmounting the capitol ; not white, symbolising but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole—the Miscegens of the Future.

Anyway, I just thought it was a fascinating little historical detour, not least the origin of the word ‘miscegenation’ as a faux-politically correct euphemism for ‘amalgamation’. It’s striking that ‘miscegenation’ is still a very loaded term, while ‘amalgamation’ has, as far as I know, lost any association with racial mixing at all. And also: isn’t it amazing how much stuff you can find on the internet these days.

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

The madness of commercial fishing

via Ed Yong, an interesting piece in New York magazine: ‘Bycatch 22 — As a twisted consequence of overfishing regulations, commercial fishermen have no choice but to catch sea bass, flounder, monkfish, and tuna—and throw them dead back into the sea.’

Basically the problem is that, since you can’t precisely target a particular species, fishermen end up throwing back a lot of marketable fish which they don’t have the quotas for — so the fish are just as dead, but no one gets to sell them or eat them.

I have sympathy with the fishermen, and throwing back lots of edible fish which are already dead does seem like madness: but the commercial fishing industry hasn’t exactly proved itself a trustworthy steward of marine ecosystems over the years. They continually campaign against the kind of quotas that would actually protect fish stocks, and they campaign against no-fishing zones, and the situation gets worse and worse.

The really interesting experiment would be to ban commercial fishing around the UK altogether for perhaps ten to fifteen years, and see what the seas looked like after having a chance to recover from 150 years of industrial onslaught.

But then I’m increasingly freaked out by the extent of environmental degradation I see around us, and too much of the time we seem to be doing ‘conservation’ — conserving what’s left — which in practice often just means slowing the rate it disappears at, whereas what we really ought to be doing is restoration. Trying to create more space for wildlife, more opportunities for wild things to scrape a living.

» By-Catch at South Beach 2005 is © mmwm and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

The news of the News of the World

It has been an extraordinary run of events at the News of the World over the past week. The analogy that sprang to mind when I was lying in bed last night was, of all things, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that must seem like a ludicrously overblown analogy, particularly to my non-British readers; but it’s that sense of a power structure which has become so entrenched, so calcified, that it comes to seem inevitable and permanent.

Rupert Murdoch’s place at the centre of the British press has made him a power in the land for decades; he has been as much a fixture of the establishment as the Prime Minister, or the Director-General of the BBC, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Except we’ve been through a lot of prime ministers and archbishops in the past 40 years, and there has only been one Rupert.

We haven’t seen the back of him yet, of course. But still: to see News International in such disarray, and the poetic justice of seeing them at the mercy of a news agenda driven by someone else… it is extraordinary, and just raises the possibility that the whole edifice might come a-tumbling down.

But it’s not just Rupert, or the Murdoch empire: it is the whole brutal culture of the British tabloid press. And the relationship between politicians, the press and the police; the incestuous stew of money and power and fear. Because, after all, we have had decades of newspapers behaving badly. It’s certainly not news that they are willing to invade people’s privacy, trample on the vulnerable, display jaw-dropping hypocrisy and just make stuff up if they think they can get away with it. And it’s not really news that they will break the law to do it: anyone who has been paying attention already knew that they hacked phones and bribed the police, and knows that’s just the start of it.

But in the past it just never seemed to matter what they did: they always basically got away with it. It was easier for everyone to let sleeping dogs lie. The surprise really is that they managed to find something to do which was so repulsive that it still had the power to shock. But for now, at least, they have captured the attention of the British public. And they are running scared.

It’s early days, of course. In a few years, we may be looking back and realising that nothing really changed. A couple of years ago, when the world economic system almost collapsed, it looked like we might finally claw back the dangerous excesses of the financial industry… but the moment came and went.

But we can hope.  Perhaps the collapse of a 168-year-old newspaper and a few editors going to prison will be enough to scare Fleet Street straight. For a while. The real fun, though, would be for the investigation to spread to other papers. Apparently the police raided the offices of the Daily Star today, which is a start; but the real prizes are the Mirror, the Sun, and above all the Daily fucking Mail. This is not just about the News of the World, it’s about a journalistic culture which has poisoned British life for decades. We need big, serious changes, and this is a very rare opportunity to make them happen.

A thought on AV

I’m sure the whole world is on the edge of its seat on the eve of the UK’s referendum to change its voting system. I don’t particularly want to go over the arguments about voting reform again [previous posts for the truly interested], but I’m interested by the psychology of the supporters of first past the post. It is, after all, a truly terrible voting system for any election with more than two candidates.

There are two obvious reasons why people might support the status quo, one more cynical than the other. The cynical one is simple self-interest: FPTP tends to entrench a two-party system and creates a structural advantage for the two major parties. The other obvious reason is small-c conservatism. We’ve always done it this way, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, if it was good enough for Winston Churchill it’s good enough for me, blah blah blah.

But some politicians seem to have a visceral dislike of it, and I wonder if part of that is the psychology of party politics. You don’t generally end up as an MP, and certainly not a government minister, without a deep tribal attachment to a particular party. The kind of people who go into student politics, who get jobs as researchers for MPs, who go door to door with leaflets: these are people who always know who they’re going to vote for, who always have a dog in the race. If their man doesn’t win, that counts as a loss. People who are active in party politics are like sports fans — Chelsea till I die! — and their experience of elections is completely different to that of the mass of the public.

Perhaps that’s why they seem to regard the use of second preferences as somehow cheating. They can’t relate to people who are ambivalent about all the parties, who often feel they are voting for the least bad choice, or who feel unrepresented by the system.

I think AV is a better system than FPTP because it eliminates spoiler candidates and tactical voting. But I think it also appeals to me personally because it is a better reflection of the way I feel about the parties. I don’t go into the voting booth with one clear automatic first choice; I go in weighing up a mix of different priorities. I don’t agree with any of the parties wholeheartedly, and I don’t like them very much, but some are preferable to others.

I might go in to vote feeling that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens would all be acceptable, with Conservative a distant fourth but still clearly preferable to the BNP, UKIP, the Christian Party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, or Respect; well, AV allows me to express that.

Depressingly it looks very much like the referendum is going to fail, so we are going to continue with a voting system that is designed for people with the absolute political certainty and strong partisan instincts, rather than wishy-washy people like me. Ho hum.

Royal wedding weirdness

Interesting to see that the crown Prince of Bahrain has said he won’t be coming to the Will&Kate wedstravaganza because he doesn’t want the political situation in Bahrain to be a ‘distraction’ from the wedding. Because news stories about the arrest, beating and torture of political dissidents might be an unnecessary turd of realism in the candy-floss.

Perhaps he came to this decision spontaneously; it seems likely that there was some diplomatic pressure being exerted behind the scenes by the British government. Still, the Saudis are coming, so the government clearly doesn’t feel there’s a fundamental conflict between fairytale weddings and brutal human rights abuses; it’s not a question of morality so much as timing.

The guest list actually makes rather interesting reading. A lot of it is very predictable — friends and family, some British political bigwigs, various religious representatives. Where I think it gets interesting is the foreign guests, who basically fall into two categories: royals and the Commonwealth.

Prince William will one day be head of the Commonwealth, so it makes a quirky kind of sense that St Lucia gets an invitation ahead of, for example, the US or France.

But the royals category does make me just slightly queasy. All royals, from whatever country, seem to automatically get an invitation because, what, royals should stick together? Is that really what we think? Do we really think that it’s more important to extend this courtesy to the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, a man whose family have not been heads of state since 1945, and whose country doesn’t even exist anymore, than to, say, the President of France? or Ireland? or Germany?

As I’ve said before, I’m a sort of pragmatic royalist by inclination. That is, I know that the monarchy is anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic and anachronistic, but I think it’s mostly harmless; and given the political melodrama that would involved in getting rid of it, on balance I’m inclined to let well enough alone. But there’s nothing like a royal wedding to bring out the republicanism simmering under the surface. It’s the symbolism of it, the idea that a title inherited through blood is somehow more special than one which is given via the democratic will of the people.

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