What will the hacking scandal change?

I’m afraid I’ve been swept along by the drama of the hacking scandal, even as the Euro heads for meltdown, the US for financial suicide, and famine ravages the Horn of Africa.  I watched the Murdochs before the Select Committee on Tuesday afternoon, and spend more time than I should reading online articles.  The human drama is compelling, with a steady stream of people coming a cropper.  But as I posted last week I am a lot less sure about longer term consequences for the press and politics in general.

There may be further damage to come for News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch at the hearing said that “this is the humblest day of my life”, and that was his clear intention – to halt the damage at that point.  He was appropriately contrite and respectful.  But he clearly equates his organisation with himself.  He seemed puzzled with the suggestion that he might resign.  He feels betrayed by people he trusted, and that’s it.  The success of his damage limitation depends on what further comes out.  Anything that gives the affair legs in the US could be toxic; he has plenty of enemies there.  In the UK the worst is probably over; there will be prolonged skirmishing over who said what to whom, which will get insiders worked up, but not the public at large.  People already suspect the worst, so the damage is already largely done.  It would help him a lot if similar issues emerged at other newspapers.  If everybody is to blame, nobody is.  The Murdochs quite rightly steered clear making any suggestions that other organisations were just as bad, but it must be on their minds.

The Police, and especially the Met, are the next victims.  But again I think the worst might be over.  People suspect rampant police corruption, with journalists paying for information.  I doubt whether much of this actually went on.  I’m sure it used to, but it really is at odds with modern police culture.  The police have provided lots of information to journalists, but not in exchange for bribes.  The police were much too close to the press, as were Tory and Labour politicians, but it will be difficult to pin this down to what people euphemistically call “wrongdoing” – i.e. actual criminal offences as opposed to the merely  unethical.  One or two individuals may get caught out, but they are likely to be more junior than those already forced to resign.

Next in the firing line is David Cameron.  Ed Milliband has decided that he is vulnerable, and has been banging away endlessly about his employment of Andy Coulson.  His discussions with the Murdoch organisation over the BSkyB bid has opened up a new line of attack.  This may have some way to run, but it doesn’t feel fatal.  The whole Coulson affair has been pretty open; there are no fingerprints on the BSkyB issue, though Mr Cameron’s evasions are not doing him any good.  There’s a good article from Steve Richards in the Independent on this.  Some of the shine is coming off Mr Cameron, but to my mind this was always coming to him.  His performance as PM has been less than assured, notwithstanding his Etonian self-confidence, and I have been amazed that it has taken this long for people to see through it.  There’s no serious alternative to him in the Tory party, and talk of him having to resign is just typical of the silly chatter that can build up.

Mr Milliband, by contrast, has done quite well.  Enough to keep his rivals at bay (and there are serious alternatives in the Labour Party), but not enough to allay wider doubts.  There are some signs of a Lib Dem  recovery – but not because any of their figures are playing a prominent role, despite efforts to boost Vince Cable for being the first to “declare war” on the Murdochs.  In fact it was his foolish loose talk that deprived him of a serious role in the affair.

One change may be long lasting – and that is the influence of the tabloids.  Tony Blair set the trend of very close relationships with them, not least by his employment of Alistair Campbell as his communications adviser.  In his time Mr Campbell was lionised, as being the power behind the throne.  He spent a lot of his energy setting up meetings with tabloid editors and, indeed, owners.  Having set the trend, everybody else followed.  Including the Metropolitan Police and Mr Cameron.  As the light is being shone on this, it doesn’t look so clever.   The cosy relationship has ceased.  Steve Richards has again written very well on this.

The tabloids play a unique role in British politics, in delivering the sort of attack material that in the US is done by television advertising.  I won’t forget the anti-Clegg frenzy unleashed by them in the last weeks of the 2010 General Election.  It’s small wonder that politicians have sought access to this power.  But tabloids are a declining market, with more and more people getting their news from the internet.  Younger media owners, not excluding James Murdoch, are more interested in readership than in throwing their weight around to influence politics. This affair may mark a decisive episode in the decline of the tabloids’ role in politics.

The enduring legacy of paganism

Tennis stars Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray  throw their (sweat-soaked) wrist-bands into the crowd after winning a match at Wimbledon.  To me this is rather bizarre.  What on earth would I do if one of them landed in my lap?  But the Romans would have understood, and I would not be surprised if victorious gladiators did something quite similar.  The latest exhibition at the British Museum looks at another variation of this behaviour, on a massive scale, that overtook Christianity for over 1,000 years, up to the Reformation in the 1500s.  This was the collection of relics associated with saints (usually body parts) and with Jesus Christ (pieces of the cross, thorns from the crown of thorns, etc.).

This is the Treasures of Heaven exhibition.  At one level it is a showcase for many wonderful artefacts of exquisite craftsmanship.  But the exhibition also explains the practices of this aspect of medieval faith, and gives us an opportunity to reflect on it.  There are three aspects in particular that are interesting.  First is the obsession with relics – seeing, possessing, touching physical objects that have been associated with somebody holy, in the belief that some of the holiness will be passed on.  Second, the importance of saints acting as intermediaries between the faithful and God after their death.  Third, the dismemberment of saints’ bodies for use as relics.

The general idea of relics does have a strong resonance in our culture, which persist still – witness the tennis stars’ wrist bands, the obsession with original artworks over copies, and so on.  The interest is in their use in this religious context, as that is much less common.  It wasn’t part of the Jewish faith from which Christianity grew.  This looks like a pagan inheritance from the Romans.  An obsession with sacred places, to which pilgrimages are made, was also an important part of medieval devotion, but this is unremarkable by comparison; pretty much all faiths have something similar.

The practice of worshipping saints looks like an inheritance from pagan polytheism.  The jump to monotheism from animism and polytheism is a huge one.  In the Jewish faith this seems to have taken quite a long period of time; in the Far East it doesn’t seem to have happened at all, with polytheism evolving directly in atheistic faiths such as Buddhism.  Worshipping saints looks like an intermediate step; a similar thing seems to be the case in Shia Islam.

The dismemberment of bodies really is strange though.  According to the British Museum, this doesn’t seem to have pagan roots.  There is a strong human instinct that bodies should be kept whole.  Perhaps it started because so often martyrs’ bodies where dismembered in early Roman persecution.

Once the cult of relics got going, it is very difficult not to be cynical.  Most of the relics were clearly forgeries.  The practice suited clerical and secular authorities and was exploited by them.  Eventually there was a backlash, started by Martin Luther and flowing on through the Reformation.  Many relics were destroyed, including virtually all those in Britain.  A number have ended up in museums, and so to this exhibition.  The Catholic church persists with the practice, but somehow I think most of the power has gone.  Saints are seen as examples, and sainthood a sort of posthumous honour – and not as active intermediaries.  Relics might be seen as objects for meditation, and not much more.

Meanwhile in popular culture, we have reverted to the idea that dead bodies should be kept whole.  A huge fuss was created when a hospital was found to have retained some children’s body parts for research.  We expend a lot of effort trying to find bodies after a catastrophe, to act as a focus for memorial and “closure”.  As people in Britain drift away from Christianity, they drift back into to a pagan, pre-Christian outlook.  Sports and entertainment stars take up the role of deities; people collect and worship their possessions and even sweat; they conduct pilgrimages to their holy sites.  But we don’t dismember their bodies after death.

The wonderful world of Scilly

I have recently returned from a holiday in the Isles of Scilly (note for pedants: “Scilly” for short, not “the Scillies”).  I have been going there every two years or so for over 20 years, and it’s still one of my favourite places.

Some of the attractions are obvious.  White, sandy beaches (though the water is still cold); beautiful rocks (pictured in the title to this blog); a kind climate, notably better than the mainland; the ever-fascinating and ever-present sea.  But it is also a wonderful, miniature world apart.  Everything is smaller: roads, cars, shops , castles.  Each island has its own post office, even though in many cases the number of inhabitants is less than a single London street (well not quite true; the post office on Bryher, the smallest island has closd down – but a new one is being built to replace it!).  It’s very English too; relations with the mainland may be a bit strained sometimes, but you hear nothing of Cornish nationalism.

This year our visit coincided with a daytrip by the Queen – and we did catch a glimpse of her.  It was real shock to see so many policemen, though, including ones armed with machine guns.  The islands are nearly crimeless.  One of our guests accidentally dropped his wallet on the morning of his departure.  A passing chambermaid from one of the local hotels, picked it up, took it to the receptionist, who managed to locate us before we even knew it was gone.

We’ll be going back.

Service break

I am on holiday for a couple of weeks, and won’t be attempting to post while away.  I’ll be back later.  Last week has been busy, so I’ve not posted much – but I’ve got lots of ideas…

The intellectual cowardice of Spiked

I really try to like the online magazine Spiked.  They are liberals that challenge the paternalism of the bulk of those who think of themselves as liberal.  They try to make common cause with the attitude ordinary people, outside the ruling and media elites.  But then I read things like this:

Nuclear energy: clean, reliable and powerful.  Physicist Wade Allison expertly demolishes fears about radiation. If only he was equally as sceptical about the fear-fuelled climate-change panic.

It links to a book review by deputy editor Rob LyonsSpiked is trying to resist the scare stories around nuclear power and, separately, climate change.  But its writers seem incapable of engaging in a sensible debate.   They are happy to agree Wade Allison about the threat from radiation, but can’t engage with his arguments about climate change.  Spiked’s writers form a view, cheer anybody that agrees with them, and boo anybody that disagrees.  And this case cheer and boo both at once.  No weighing of the arguments on either side is attempted.

I have a similar issue with their attitude to AV.  Fair enough to challenge the public arguments made by the Yes camp, a lot which are quite shallow, and call for a better standard of debate.  But they don’t bother much with the even weaker (and downright fraudulent) arguments made by the Nos.  And the arguments they offer themselves are just as shallow as the arguments they reject.  Apparently AV will make our politicians even more insipid.  As I have argued elsewhere, because AV makes it easier to field spoiler candidates, there is good reason to think the opposite.  They only have to look at the Australian experience to see.

Spiked simply doesn’t have the courage to take the higher ground when it is offered them.  They won’t engage in real debate because they are too afraid that it will expose their prejudices.  What a shame.

Poverty Over campaign: why Christian Aid is not serious about eradicating poverty

I am a regular donor to Christian Aid, with a history of support that goes right back to when I was a boy.  It has outlasted my attachment to the Church itself because the charity does not go in for proselytising, and they are dealing with some pretty gritty and important issues.  So I get their supporters’ magazine.  The latest publicises their Poverty Over campaign (which in the publicity is written as POVERTY).  The aim is to “deal with the root causes of poverty”; the publicity highlights eight issues: climate change, conflict, corruption, disasters, food and agriculture, health, inequality, and tax.  All of these issues are closely related to poverty.  But, like “Make Poverty History” before it, the title suggests that its aim is to end poverty, rather than to merely alleviate it.  And here it has almost nothing to say.  Perhaps because the answer is too uncomfortable for most of the charity’s supporters, and perhaps even its staff, to accept.

There has been rather a lot of progress in eradicating poverty in the last couple of centuries.  According to the map that accompanies the article, in 1821 pretty much the whole world was in poverty (Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands were the exceptions according to this, though the inclusion of Ireland is surely a bit shaky).  Now according to the map alongside it only a minority of countries are in poverty, across the central part of Africa, and a few Asian outliers like Afghanistan and Burma.  That picture seems a bit too bright, but we need to acknowledge the progress made by countries such as South Korea and China in the last 40 or so years.  It is worth asking how such rapid progress has been made.

We usually think of poverty in terms of low consumption – insufficient food, poor shelter, a few clothes and practically nothing else.  It is more helpful to look at the other side of the coin: low production, or low productivity.  Beating poverty is about boosting the productivity of countries that are poor.  It’s not about dumping surplus production from the rich onto poor societies, the only other way it can theoretically be broken

And yet raising production involves wrenching change.  And one change above all: moving people from the countryside to towns.  In poor societies agriculture is ludicrously inefficient, and this drags the whole economy down.  In towns it is much easier to mobilise people into more productive activities in manufacturing and services.  What is more, it is much more efficient to deliver basic services such as education, health services, power and water to people living in towns.  Pretty much every breakout from poverty, from our own in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, to China now, has invovled the emptying of the countryside and the growth of massive cities.  Only when society is much more wealthy, and infrastructure much better, do we see some reversal.  Now where’s that in Christian Aid’s eight issues?

The problem is that we in our comfortable developed societies don’t like the idea of imposing such drastic change on the poor.  The change is painful.  Families are torn apart; initially poverty at both ends (in the country and town) is extreme.  Our attitudes to the country are tinged with a folk memory of a lost rural idyll.  There’s another uncomfortable truth.  Such changes sit uneasily with democracy.  Some of the most successful changes have been carried out by benevolent dictatorships  (consider China, the early days of South Korea, Singapore).  The record of democracies may be better than that of kleptocratic dictatorships, but it is flawed.  India has advanced phenomenally, but, compared to China, it has left huge swathes of the population behind in dire poverty without much hope of escape.  Poverty Over implies turning a blind eye to progressive dictatorships.

So what should we be doing if we truly want to end poverty?  Well the first point is that we can’t impose progress from outside.  Ending poverty is painful, and not an automatic choice; things may have to get worse before they get better; this has to be led by the locals.  We have to back off a bit.  The second point is that most aid should focus on urban poverty.  Rural poverty may be cuddlier and more instinctively appealing (remember the Christmas campaigns about buying people goats?) but it carries the risk of perpetuating poverty rather than ending it.  Rural aid should concentrate on making it easier for people to migrate: so improving literacy and education is an obvious one.  But even then you get more bang for your buck in the towns.  Thirdly we should promote the role of competition and businesses in the developing world, if we can.  Too often local elites leach off local businesses, or create excessive regulation as a source of soft jobs and bribes.  That prevents more productive employment opportunities from being created.   Fourthly, promote constructive multinationals.  Multinationals inject a dose modern productivity and efficiency into countries, and helps raise levels of trade.  They are perhaps the best way of channelling our excess wealth into the developing world.  Of course there are badly behaved multinationals, complicit in corruption and taking more than they give – but when they work well they are a better, more sustainable channel of help than any other.

Urbanisation; helping businesses; supporting the right sort of multinationals.  Apart from a tangential reference in dealing with corruption, none of this gets a look in in Poverty Over.  Not even education does.  Instead of ideas that would really help eradicate poverty, we get a ragbag of politically correct issues that suit the tastes of western do-gooders.  Christian Aid is not beginning to tackle the root causes of poverty.  Perhaps it shouldn’t try.  Good knows that just alleviating its symptoms needs doing.  That’s why I will continue to support them.

Is victim culture to blame for post combat stress disorder?

There’s a long and interesting article in today’s Independent, highlighting the remarkable finding that US soldiers are much more likely than British ones to suffer post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – by a massive 30% to 4%.  The article’s American author, Ethan Watters, suggests that the difference is cultural.  His analysis turns out to be more of a critique of US ways in ignorance of British ones – but the core idea, that mental illness can be driven by society’s attitudes is an interesting and disturbing one.  Disturbing because it suggests that the modern fashion for exploring victimhood is making suffering worse than it needs to be.

Mr Watters says that the original diagnosis of PTSD was developed by anti-war professionals in the Vietnam era, and motivated by the wish to show the harmfulness of violence and war.  Because people increasingly expected to suffer illness after experiencing trauma, like combat experience, they duly did.   PTSD was pretty much unknown before Vietnam (and it’s not the same as shell-shock and other manifestations of mental illness resulting from combat experience noted in earlier wars).  Of course there is not much evidence of PTSD in earlier wars because nobody was looking for it.  Also, I might add, survival rates are much higher these days.  Mr Watters then goes on to develop the idea that illness is exacerbated by the emptiness of modern culture, which deprives victims of moral support.

This is all very well as a narrative, and I think there is something in it.  But I don’t think this explains why so many fewer British veterans suffer PTSD.  Mr Watters suggests that the British are much more sceptical about PTSD , and have a stronger belief in natural resilience. That does not sound like the modern Britain that I know and love, where victim culture appears rampant and, I suspect, more politically accepted than in the US.  And besides, we are much less religious than Americans, so surely the desolation of modern culture should be much more prevalent? The difference between the two countries is much more likely to be around the way their respective armies work.  British veterans are more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse or depression, incidentally.

But the idea remains that a focus on victimhood and traumatization, which can verge on celebration sometimes, is very unhelpful.  We should celebrate resilience.  Most people have it within their own resources to recover from trauma, and many can be strengthened by it; we need to acknowledge this, rather than undermine the confidence of those do not, in fact, need outside support.

AV: why I am voting Yes to a beautiful British compromise

Referendum Day approaches and the polls are tightening.  The public at large has yet to show much interest, but the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) is an important event in our political history.  Yet nobody can be surprised that the quality of public debate is abysmal.  If the arguments put forward by the Yes campaign, desperate not to lose people in technical detail, look a little weak, those of the No campaign seem like a calculated assault on our intelligence.  The campaign is being fought on emotions: natural British conservatism pitted against the feeling that our current system is part of a stitch-up perpetrated by the political establishment on the people.  I hope this post lifts the level of debate a fraction.

Not that I want to deny the importance of emotions in making decisions like this.  I will start with mine.  My views about proportional representation (PR) have fluctuated a bit over time; but my views on AV, from the beginning political consciousness in the 1970s, have always been in favour.  First past the post (FPTP) is an outrage; a primitive system that belongs to the age of rotten boroughs and not a modern democracy.  AV is an elegant answer to its most egregious features, and the one that is most appropriate to the British culture.

We start with the system of single member constituencies.  This is embedded deeply into the British political culture, though I do not regard it as sacred.  This carries with it the idea that an MP represents her whole constituency, not just the party and voters that put her there.  This is indeed what most MPs claim to think.  But if the election is contested by more than two candidates with broad appeal then the process rapidly degenerates into farce and the winner can be elected on quite a small minority of votes.  You need a degree in game theory to make your you are voting for the right candidate.  This is so obviously wrong that in most elections for an executive office, where you choose one candidate from a diverse field, the system has been abandoned, if it was ever used – from small societies up to presidents of countries, and even Mayoral elections in the UK.  The job of an MP is a serious job, and surely exactly the same logic applies to them as to the London Mayor or the Leader of the Conservative Party.

And that should be enough.  But the consequential results of the system don’t make it any better.  As this video using animals explains, the system soon resolves into a two party system.  Any candidate who wants to challenge the party machine and stand against the official candidate usually fails, and worse, lets in the candidate from the opposing party.  So a lot of the process of democratic choice is handled by two party machines which do not have a strong incentive to be democratic themselves, for example in the way they select candidates.  Of course, if you are a party machine politician you are inclined to think that this is a wonderful political system, but it is fundamentally undemocratic.  It is quite clear from the declining combined vote share of the Labour and Conservative parties that the British are losing confidence in the two party system.

So what is the solution?  PR is popular, but brings with it plenty of problems of its own which are not directly relevant to the debate.  If you support PR the risk of voting No is that a No result is likely to kill the question of electoral reform for generations.  The Americans have developed a system of primary elections, which have the effect of undermining the party machines and making them more democratic.  It has the major virtue of making all safe seats competitive.  The odd Tory proposes it for the UK.  A second alternative is to stage run-off elections in seats where there is no overall winner – the French system.  Both these systems require a second full-scale public election.  They both have the advantage of simplicity: electors make a single choice at each election – the most attractive aspect of FPTP.  But two elections mean doubling up the cost, and campaigning costs in the US system are astronomical, giving rich candidates a big advantage.  And they both seem un-British.  They require a more prolonged period political campaigning.  The British like the drama of a competitive General Election (such as last year), but quickly tire of the electoral process.  And anyway, neither system is being offered to us in the referendum.

Which leaves AV.  This is a built-in run-off system, requiring voters to think ahead about how they would vote if there was a run-off.  It loses the simplicity and immediacy of the single decision, but the whole process is decided in a single, easily comprehensible process in a day.  How quickly the British would take to it is less clear (we can guarantee that the political parties’ campaigns will try to confuse the picture rather then help explain it), but they would get used to it eventually.  It has settled down well enough in Australia, a country that has a very similar attitude to politics to Britain, though its effects there are difficult to disentangle from those of compulsory voting.  Incidentally, the suggestion made by David Cameron that polls show that Australians would prefer to move back to FPTP does not stand up to close examination.  What many Australians in fact dislike is being forced to mark a preference against all candidates for their vote to be valid – and we are not proposing that in the UK.  In Australia AV has not undermined the two party system, as it happens, but it has surely made the two main parties more sensitive to the risks of breakaway groups and so more democratic themselves.  Australia’s parliamentarians are a quirky, spiky lot – the sort of people to hold an executive to account, even if it is often not a  pretty sight.  All in all AV is a beautiful British compromise and I will be voting for it.

I will look at other arguments in the AV debate in later posts.  This one is long enough!

The census and religion

Our census questionnaire hit the doormat yesterday.  As usual the census is stirring up a bit of controversy.  Simon Beard is worried about the data being managed by Lockheed Martin, a defence contractor.  I’m not overly bothered by this, but I do find myslelf getting exercised about how to answer question 20, “What is your religion?”

The British Humanist Association has been urging people to tick the box for “No religion” if they are not practising members of a faith, rather than tick “Christian” if they are merely baptised, or write in “Jedi Knight” as a general wind-up.  As I will explain, I agree.  But the main heat arises from the BHA’s advertising campaign; following  a ruling from part of the Advertising Standards Agency that some people might take offence at the ads, and they have been banned from railway stations as a result (although some buses have carried them).  This has generated lots of media coverage, which may have been the original idea, but I still find the whole episode very annoying.  The three ads are posted below.

But first, how to answer the question?  I am an agnostic, as I have already explained on this blog.  I am a confirmed member of the Church of England, but I don’t belong to a church.  I am not an atheist.  But I refuse to call myself a Christian either.  When I was a practising, I did not approve of people who did not commit to the faith, but still called themselves Christians.  I am happy with the label of “no religion” however, and so it won’t be difficult for me to answer the question.  Unlike the NHS job application form, which asks applicants to choose between various faiths and “atheist”; I have to tick “won’t say”, even though I am quite public about my religious status.

So far, so good.  But what does annoy me is that so much of officialdom treats people like me as a lower form of life.  They protect Christians and others from even quite mild offence, but we don’t count.  This is actually quite offensive.  Fine.  There is no liberal principle that people should be protected from being offended, and accordingly I put up with it: the BBC not allowing humanist speakers on Thought for the Day; the Pope implying that I don’t have any moral values because I don’t believe in God; women wearing the niqab because I can’t be trusted to look at their face.  But it  annoys me that we have to mollycoddle people of faith against being similarly offended.

Suddenly ticking the “No religion” box feels like an important assertion of my identity, rather than a simple statement of fact.

Nowquestion 15, “How would you describe your national identity?” is something else.  I think I’m going to write in “European” alongside British and English.

Liberals shouldn’t be scared of Murdoch

Here is a short piece of mine published on Lib Dem Voice.  In it I argue that Murdoch is part of scrap amongst right-wing newspapers which those of a liberal persuasion can observe without taking sides.  It attracted a few comments, but of pretty poor quality.  Mainly it was from people who so loath the Murdoch empire that they automatically oppose anything thing he does.  Somebody launched a rant against the BBC licence fee.

I have a wider concern.  By focusing so much on Mr Murdoch liberals are in danger of losing a bigger and more important argument; they are attacking the messenger rather than the message.  It’s a sort of displacement activity for people uncomfortable with the right-wing press.