Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Home Secretary: an unacceptable risk?

I can’t help but feel that this statement reveals all too much about the mental state of our beloved Home Secretary:

Speaking during Home Office questions in the House of Commons, Ms Smith said: “I’ve spoken to him this morning about his comments. I’ve told him that I was surprised and profoundly disappointed by the article reported.”

She added: “I’m sure most people would simply not accept the link that he makes up in his article between horse riding and illegal drug taking.

“For me that makes light of a serious problem, trivialises the dangers of drugs, shows insensitivity to the families of victims of ecstasy and sends the wrong message to young people about the dangers of drugs.”

Ms Smith also said: “I made clear to Professor Nutt that I felt his comments went beyond the scientific advice that I expect of him as the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

“He apologised to me for his comments and I’ve asked him to apologise to the families of the victims of ecstasy.”

No-one is questioning the validity of Professor Nutt’s statistics; indeed they are a matter of public record. However, simply mentioning them in the same paragraph is enough to get an “independent” advisor publicly excoriated. Talk about inconvenient truths.

If nothing else sums up madness raging within the Home Office and other government departments then this does the job. Faced with the choice between a hard headed risk assessment and an unquantifiable dread, Jacqui Smith goes for the fear and loathing every time. It reminded me of her petulant whinging at the end of the 42 days debate (which she lost). At least with our war on terror (which of course officially isn’t a war any more), they can hide behind that amorphous thing called “national security”. With the war on drugs (still officially a war as far as I know), she has no such safeguard.

Yet the fact is that you are more likely to die of ecstacy, however low those odds may be, than be killed by a terrorist. Think of all the billions of pounds, all those liberties compromised, all that unneccessary fear aroused, for something that remains an extremely low risk. A something that is intended to spread fear and dread and thus fulfils its objective if governments react in this way.

People die on the roads, fall off horses and die of preventable diseases every day. Smith accuses Prof Nutt of “trivialising” the deaths of ecstacy users, but since when were those deaths more significant than all the others? Ignoring the real risks of drug use (and terrorism) is to fetishise it. If anyone is in the business of trivialising deaths, it is Smith.

A final word on Carol Thatcher

I haven’t been able to avoid this story in the way that I would have wished. One thing that I’ve been wondering about this whole debacle is: why didn’t the BBC insist on Thatcher doing race sensitivity training?

It’s a serious question. It is now clear that she was referring to a black man and not Andy Murray and that being the case, there is no question whatsoever that it was a racist and unacceptable remark. That is not the same thing however as saying that Thatcher herself is racist. Meral Ece, herself justifiably rather intolerant of the special pleading brigade, makes the following point which I think is crucial:

What may have been acceptable 40 years ago, is not anymore. As the ‘Paki-gate, and Sooty-gate’ episodes, and now this, demonstrate that some sections of the privileged classes in British society seem to be living in the era of the Black & White Minstrel Show – hugely popular in its time.

Taking no action whatsoever would have been clearly unacceptable, but I remain unconvinced that simply sacking her was the answer. The resultant row hasn’t changed a single mind about racism and it has degenerated into a partisan spat. The only tangible effect has been to bring back a term that I for one hadn’t heard for years – and you can bet it is now doing the rounds on the school playgrounds. What has burning the witch actually achieved?

By contrast, forcing her to go on a course – possibly at her own expense (or rather, taken out of her own pay) – would have been far more difficult a prospect for those who rushed to Thatcher’s defence to object to. She might well have learned something. And if she had refused to go on the course, she’d have looked very silly indeed. Wouldn’t it have been a more proportionate, and ultimately productive, response?

Finally, let me give the last word to Iain Dale. I try not to make a habit of being nice about Iain, but Derek Draper’s hounding of him over the past few days verged on the bullying, and he makes an extremely astute point here:

Draper’s crowd should be proud of themselves. They rail against imagined racism, yet introduce laws which allow muslim women to be traduced like this.

Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.

That Thatchgate, names-for-tennis-players scandal

This week, Charlie Brooker gave the world the New Media Dictionary. For me, the most memorable term described in this list is this:

nowtrage (nowt-rage) n. Lame and unconvincing tabloid outrage designed to create a self-perpetuating storm of controversy. Also, nowtrageous (adj); eg: “This Jonathan Ross pensioner sex-joke story in the News of the World is embarrassingly nowtrageous.”

Two days later and we are in the grip of “Thatchgate” – yet another example of the collective nervous breakdown that is currently going on inside Auntie Beeb.

My first reaction to this story was “ooh, doesn’t Mark Stephens’ hair make him look like a…” (one of the things that bugs me the most about this story is that people are now running around using the offending word as if there was no tomorrow, just as the Prince Harry incident a few weeks ago suddenly made it okay to mention the word “Paki” every thirty seconds). In fact, I nearly blogged to this effect last night. I have since learned that even having that casual thought, let alone blogging about it, is enough to render me an unforgiveable racist, even though it doesn’t involve holding any view about any black people at all. Merely having seen a jar of marmalade in my youth is enough. Bring on the scarlet letter.

This morning Iain Dale made a perfectly valid defence of Carole Thatcher on the Today programme. At the heart of his argument was that she was referring to Andy Murray’s hair. It turns out that was not the case, which is clearly a problem for him. Yet for even attempting to defend her, LabourList has branded him “racist” and declared that “it is up to him to clear his name.” Thoughtcrime is not enough – now we are in the territory of presumed guilt until proven innocent.

I’m not in the business of defending Thatcher or denouncing the BBC. To do that would involve researching this story in a lot more detail than I consider to be sane. I am a little concerned however that the only meaningful contribution Derek Draper seems to want to add to public political discourse is to import the lowliest of gutter journalist values into the blogosphere. And it was pretty near the bottom to start with.

The problem is, I get the impression that he loves it. My first encounter of him was back in 1997. At the height of his glories as a Mandelson staffer and before “Drapergate” he came to address the Manchester Student Labour Club (I seem to recall him having a book out at the time). His single most wistful anecdote that he recalled of his student days was being dangled out of a second storey window by a bunch of Socialist Worker types, having enraged them to such an extent that they were willing to contemplate actual murder. I got the impression then that those were the moments he lives for. Twelve years later and I suspect I was right.

People like that are bad news for politics, whichever side of the fence you are sitting. The sad thing is that a lot of relatively respectable Labour people seem to have thrown their lot in with him with this LabourList adventure – the exact sort of people who like to whinge endlessly about how awful Mandelson and Ali Campbell were (but did nothing about it then).

If this sort of thing is really what it takes for Labour to win a fourth term then on no account should they be permitted to do so. My suspicion though is that it will backfire spectacularly before the election is called.

Those of you currently on LabourList might want to consider jumping ship before the captain decides to play chicken with an iceberg. Feel free to ignore me.

Animal charities at it like cats and dogs

This is one of the most dispiriting things I have read in a long time. I don’t begrudge animal charities, but neither do I deem them worthy of my hard-earned cash. The decision of the Scottish SPCA to launch this broadside suggests a complete lack of perspective. Is it really the case that people only give money to an animal charity in the clear understanding that the money will only be spent in a specific country? I’m having visions of the Chief Executive of the SSPCA pissing along Hadrian’s Wall to mark out his territory.

If the RSPCA have indeed been launching raiding parties over the border, then tut tut. Surely they are capable of resolving this cordially without engaging in megaphone diplomacy? All this highlights is that dubious value of having two seperate charities in the first place.

Fundamentally, if the animal charities can’t behave themselves, might I suggest you gift your money to something more deserving?

UPDATE: It would appear that the SSPCA have had run ins with other charities before.

The House of Canards (Comment is Free)

Busy, busy, busy… but I did find the time to write a piece on Lords reform over on Comment is Free last night.

I had originally written a totally different article, but in researching it I got increasingly annoyed by the same old canards against elections coming up again and again. Get with the program people: the House of Lords is not full of sober, independent individuals who eschew their party whips – they are more slavishly loyal than MPs. This is a fact. Get over it. Sheesh!

What bugs me about the whole debate on Lords reform is that it never seems to move on and the same nonsense arises again and again. It has probably been this way for 100 years. Maybe the only answer is to put some basic facts up on the side of a fleet of buses. Anyone got a spare £100,000?