Monthly Archives: April 2009

One pig flu over the cuckoo’s nest

We are officially now in the grip of a new panic. Quite how justified all this screaming and shouting about swine influenza is remains to be seen, but there is certainly a lot of secondary nonsense starting to form.

My favourite thus far is the Israel government’s insistence that it should be renamed “Mexican flu” on the basis that pigs are not kosher. Are we to infer from that that eating Mexicans is Okay?

I’ve written about this strange mutation of Jewish (and Islamic) dietary law into a perverted list of “animals which must not be mentioned” before. A couple of years ago there was the bizarre attempt to replace the Three Little Pigs with dogs in a school play (the council apparently “stepped in” and insisted the heroes were porcine). My favourite remains the finger wagging Labour got in 2005 for portraying Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as “flying pigs” by, erm, the Ham and High (the local paper for a sizeable proportion of North London jews). None of this seems to have anything to do with religion and everything to do with people (either religious people themselves or silly people claiming to speak on their behalf) going out of their way to find offence in nothing. And it seems to be getting worse. I am quite certain that if Leon the Pig Farmer were made today, a combination of the media and a small bunch of hopping idiots would have lead to it being branded as anti-semitic. The idea that religious people have an inalienable right to not be offended is still only believed by a minority of people, but that minority seems to be growing, getting louder and become increasingly irrational.

There is absolutely no connection between pigs and Judaism (they aren’t actually mentioned in the Torah) except in the mind of someone who can’t get over the fact that the latter don’t eat the former despite the deliciousness that is bacon. It is no more offensive to Jews to talk about pigs as it would be to talk about rabbits or elephants (or indeed pretty much any animal which Jews can’t eat – i.e. most of them). Yet strangely, people like Yakov Litzman seem to now be making the connection themselves. Ultimately, the only thing that all this hypersensitivity seems to achieve is to give true anti-semites another stick to beat Jews with.

Go back a hundred years ago, and the images of choice for anti-semites were spiders and octopi. We were meant to associate Jews with alien, many tentacled creatures spinning webs of deceit. Portraying them as cute, wuddly piggy-wiggies – at least as far as I am aware – simply didn’t come into it. Yet start shouting foul every time a pig appears in popular culture, and you can bet the BNP et al will leap at every opportunity to goad.

Why on Earth would you want to arm your true enemies like that? And why on Earth would you want to muddy the water between your true enemies and your friends in this way? It is a perverse form of madness.

Addendum: I have to admit to being entertained by this related web page which I came across (I was going to make a gag about man flu, but the Mexican joke was better), for two reasons. Firstly, it seems unaware of the commandment against murder, which one would have thought prohibits most opportunities for cannibalism straight away. Secondly, Leviticus does in fact prohibit man from eating any animal from eating any animal which doesn’t have cloven hooves or chew cud but pointing that out would mean admitting that humans are animals and that most Christians ignore the Bible when it comes to dietary laws in the first place. And I love the conclusion that cannibalism is okay so long as there’s nothing else on the menu. Who writes these things?

Addendum 2: I’m a little uncomfortable, by the way, at this talk of equating references to usury with disguised anti-semitism. Usury has a lot to answer for – and is explicitly prohibited by the Torah. The only reason we historically find jews specialising in banking is that is one of the few professions Europeans allowed them to perform back in the day when the church actually enforced those particular laws. I don’t doubt that the BNP do use it in a coded way, but I hope that won’t be used as an excuse to stifle debate about economic reform.

Balls, dirty tricks and candidate selection

The revelations in the Sunday Times this weekend about Ed Balls being the secret puppetmaster behind “smeargate” seem a little thin to me, but they do remind me of an incident a few years ago.

Long time readers may recall my ill-fated campaign to get Ed Balls a sex change operation so that he could stand in an all-women-shortlist having had his seat abolished by the Boundary Commission. In the event, he didn’t need one after Colin Challen decided to stand down and leave the newly created constituency of Morley and Outwood open for Balls to take (conveniently enough, no all woman shortlist was imposed of course).

What I reported at the time, from a good source close to Challen, was that he had jumped after a dirty tricks campaign had been launched to discredit him. The most high profile example of that campaign was the secret briefing that had gone on to make a bicycle accident he had been involved in look like an attention-seeking exercise.

I found the failure of the mainstream media (and, it has to be said, Guido), to join the dots and ask pretty basic questions about all this remarkable at the time. If it had been challenged, Balls could have had to struggle to find another safe seat (especially one so close to his wife’s). With Damian McBride now exposed, this is a possible avenue that journalists might want to explore further.

Candidate selection seems to be a particularly murky business in the Labour Party. The Guardian carried a very anti-Georgina Gould story yesterday, alleging that Margaret McDonough’s PR agency bbm communications helped run her selection campaign and co-ordinated a dodgy postal vote strategy. But the other side of the story – specifically that Charlie Whelan was running Rachael Maskell’s campaign in a similar manner – seems equally unsavoury. And as Alice Mahon has been keen to emphasise, this is not an isolated incident.

The overall picture is of a party utterly dominated by a self-serving elite (or, more precisely, a number of interconnected self-serving elites and dynastic families). I suspect it will require at least a couple of Parliaments in opposition for them to start to sort themselves out and become something resembling a proper party again.

Why Clegg needs to kick the donor habit

Despite the Observer’s best efforts, it is hard to see what the Lib Dems have actually done wrong here. Indeed, given how high minded the “serious” press are being about smears at the moment, it is surprising to see an article so riddled with innuendo. So let’s clear a few points up.

Firstly, there is no issue here of a donor buying policy; quite the opposite. There is an argument that the party should not accept further donations from Sudhir Choudhrie unless he is cleared of any wrong doing, but that is another matter.

Secondly £95,000 is not, in party funding terms, that much money. Rajeev Syal and Oliver Laughland implicitly acknowledge this by trying to attract your attention with the much bigger £475,000 figure donated by “relatives’ companies” but we aren’t talking about his wife here but companies his son and nephew run. The former, Alpha Healthcare, has been donating to the party far longer (and is the subject of some other news reports). There is no suggestion that this money has in any way come from Sudhir Choudhrie himself. And if you’re going to bring nephews into it, where do you stop? Third cousins?

But there is a lesson here for Clegg that he would do well to heed. Politics and money are a toxic mix. Even when nobody can be said to have done anything wrong, too often it leads to the wrong sort of headlines. And one thing the Lib Dems can’t afford to be seen as, as they creep up the polls (and I have to admit I’m relatively optimistic about how we might do in the next general election), is just another part of the shameless political class.

Clegg has done himself a lot of good in coming out for stringent reform of MPs’ expenses (it happens that I disgree with him on some of the detail, but it is far reaching nonetheless). He has also made great play out of demanding a cap on donations of £25,000 (half the Tories half-hearted call for £50,000 which they failed to follow up with actual votes when the Political Parties and Elections Bill went through the Commons earlier this year). With the economic climate and public mood such as it is, I think now is the perfect time for him to go one step further. He should impose a cap on the party, regardless of what the law says, and call on the other parties to do the same.

At what point that cap should be should be considered. In an ideal world, he might consider self-imposing his own £25,000-per-year cap, but given the other parties are unlikely to play ball, at least in the short term, that might be going a little too far. But what about £25,000-per-quarter? It would be simpler to administer than an annual cap and would go some way to matching the rhetoric with action while not leaving the party at a massive competitive disadvantage.

And how would it affect the party in real terms? Well, for the most part, even our large donations are in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands (and even millions). In 2008, only two companies donated more than £100,000 – the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd. and Marcus Evans Ltd. (a non-cash donation). So in reality we would lose very little.

What we would gain is some degree of immunisation from this sort of story – and complete immunisation from things like the Michael Brown scandal. We would also be seen to be practicing what we preach – something we aren’t seen to be doing nearly often enough. In the longer term, I suspect that will be worth far more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

Nichola Fisher and the Max Clifford sausage factory

Unlike my distinctly unesteemed Assembly Member Brian Coleman, I am not in the business of claiming that a defenceless woman can somehow be in any way responsible for getting whacked round the legs by an armed policeman, and I can understand why Nichola Fisher may have felt the need to hire a publicist. But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable having watched her interview on BBC News.

It is clear that Clifford has decided to process her through his sausage factory, inside of which all his clients get a makeover so that the unaccountably all end up looking and speaking in exactly the same way. A pretty dress; hair tied back neatly; lip gloss that only seems to serve the purpose exposing her rather ragged teeth. She has been transformed from barbarian at the gates to English Rose. I think I understand the logic behind this rebranding exercise, but I surely can’t be the only one who questions whether presenting her as something she surely is not is either honest or particularly effective.

And then there is what she says. In the interview she presents herself as a total innocent. “If he had wanted me to move on, he could have asked politely” she says at one point. I’m sorry, but bollocks. She was at a protest and the film quite clearly shows her effing and blinding. I’m not for a second going to claim that she deserved getting punched and batoned to the floor, but it is quite clear she was there to cause a stink and to give the police a hard time.

Let’s not mount the victims of police violence on a pedestal. Ian Tomlinson was quite clearly not a living saint. And far from the dainty, shrinking wallflower she is currently presenting herself as, Fisher clearly knows how to look after herself. Presenting them in an idealised way is ultimately counter-productive and entirely plays to the prejudices of no marks like Letters from a Tory: specifically, that you can only be a victim of police violence if you live an entirely blameless life, dress neatly, go to bed early and behave like a model citizen (and ideally vote Conservative). Fisher doesn’t need to wash her hair to elicit my sympathy and I don’t like the implication that anyone who isn’t willing to play this media game somehow deserves what they get.

For an anti-globalisation protestor to so happily accept the services of spin in this way (regardless of whether she is making any money out of the deal or not), seems to betray a certain lack of awareness. Surely this sort of blatant media manipulation is the sort of thing she was protesting against?

In The Loop Review (spoilers)

This is magnificent — and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true! What magic art is this?
Robin Goodfellow in Sandman #19 by Neil Gaiman

In The Loop was generally what I expected and hoped it would be – a hilarious, somewhat unsettling satire on how we managed to stumble into the Iraq War. But I also got a little bit more, partly due to accident and partly due to the film’s reception itself.

It’s always weird to watch a film when recent events give it a disturbing extra resonance. I saw a preview of the first Austin Powers on the day Princess Diana died. The joke in it about forcing Prince Charles to have a divorce was greeted with total, uncomfortable silence. Then later, watching the news reports, the friend I saw it with and I were grimly amused by the lack of information about the bodyguard who had been involved in the crash and the film’s ironic refrain of “no-one thinks about the henchmen.”

In The Loop had a sort of opposite effect. On the one hand, the joke about hotel porn got an extra yelp of laughter from the audience due to the proclivities of Jacqui Smith’s husband. On the other, it seemed that little bit more chilling in light of Damogate.

The revelations about Damian McBride and the growing awareness that he is part of a wider, endemic culture within Downing Street and the Labour Party went some way to dampening the criticisms of the film’s most damning critic, Alastair Campbell. It would be tempting to respond to Campbell by paraphrasing Carly Simon (“you’re so vain, I bet you think this film is about you”) but in fairness to him, the theory that Malcolm Tucker = Alastair Campbell has done the rounds for quite some time. Iannucci himself has repeatedly stated that Tucker is not an essay of Campbell himself. McBride this week, and the appearance in the film of another, equally odious press office, makes it clear that what Iannucci is doing is reflecting on a much wider phenomenon.

What I find most fascinating about Campbell’s criticisms though however are, ironically enough, how they parallel a crucial part of the film itself. Because ultimately the film is a study of Tucker and ultimately at what a wretched, pathetic character he is.

Tucker starts the film at the height of his powers, striding into 10 Downing Street and very quickly swooping down on International Development Minister Simon Foster for a gaffe in a radio interview. He bullies, cajoles and manipulates Foster and his staff throughout the film but at one pivotal moment it is revealed that he is ultimately as emasculated as all the other characters in the film. Having been put in his place by John Bolton-alike Linton, for a brief moment we are given a glimpse behind Tucker’s mask and get to see his fear and panic (it only lasts for a couple of seconds but here Peter Capaldi demonstrates what a great actor he is as well as a terrific ranter – I still always think of him as the blue eyed boy in Local Hero).

He pulls himself back together of course and over the course of a couple of hours manages to fake the intelligence necessary to persuade the UN to approve the war. But having done so, he goes back to Linton and attempts to publicly humiliate him in the most cutting and hurtful way he can think of. He calls him boring. Yet, while earlier on the film conspires to make you actually admire the savage nastiness of Tucker’s attacks (like all good movie monsters), by now we realise what a broken character he is. Far from cutting, the remark just comes across as sad.

And how does Alastair Campbell describe the film? He calls it boring.

Three more worrying stories about the Metro Police

The Ian Tomlinson story just gets worse and worse. This one is just going to run and run, isn’t it? (Hat Top: Mr Eugenides).

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard are picking up on the worrying trend for police to hide their ID numbers.

And finally, the Guardian has this tale of how not to treat tourists (particularly given the fact that tourism is the only thing actually making money in the UK at the moment).

The Metropolitan Police needs an enema, big time. If it wasn’t obvious after the De Menezes killing, it certainly is now.

Why is LabourList keeping silent about Tomlinson?

For the last week I’ve been critical of the rightwing blogosphere for its silence – up to the point when the Guardian revealed its video footage – about Ian Tomlinson’s death.

But there remains one other blog, which is broadly on the right but get desperately upset if you point that fact out, which has remained silent throughout. Indeed, with the Guardian story now nearly a week old it has continued to stay silent. That blog is LabourList.

What is most intriguing about this is that LabourList staffer Tom Miller has plenty to say about Tomlinson’s death – he just isn’t saying it on LabourList. Why? It isn’t as if he doesn’t contribute regularly – why is this topic off limits? By contrast The Fabians’ Next Left, which superficially you might think is just as insidery, has been commenting on the story at every stage.

Draper has spent most of the last weekend insisting to anyone who will listen that LabourList is independent of the party machine. Yet on this issue it seems to be more concerned about helpfully keeping schtum.

All this talk about ‘independence’ is a nonsense anyway. All that ‘independence’ tends to mean in politics is that it isn’t immediately apparent what one’s agenda is. It is a sign of how degraded our political discourse has become that so many people take ‘independent’ to mean ‘without agenda,’ which is why nonsenses like Jury Team get as far as they do (before self-destructing) every few years.

In the case of LabourList, ‘independent’ seems to mean ‘slavishly loyal, with the odd anti-New Labour rant to keep the proles happy, but not funded by the Labour NEC.’ I have to admit that Lib Dem Voice went through a period when it seemed afraid to be critical, but it has gratifyingly grown out of that stage. But will LabourList? Indeed, wasn’t that the whole point of it in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how long LabourList will keep up its new regimen of “ideas not smears” – thus far it has concentrated far too much on the latter and not enough on the former, as Peter Beckett on LabourList itself has pointed out.

So what is the LabourList analysis of what happened on 1 April? If they are serious about turning a new leaf, this would appear to be a good place to start.

Tory bloggers: they don’t like it up ’em!

I was surprised by the size of the response I got to my post on Tuesday about the police treatment of Ian Tomlinson. The level of traffic to this site brought back memories of when people used to actually read this blog.

In terms of the people who have directly responded, they seem to fit into three categories. A number, including Thunder Dragon and Iain Dale, have unfussily expressed their concerns, and that is fair enough. Mr Eugenides offers a balanced response, rejecting some of my criticisms but accepting others.

It is fair to say that people had not had much of a chance to respond by 11-ish on Tuesday night, but this story has been rumbling on for several days. By last Thursday evening, less than 24 hours after Ian Tomlinson had died, the police’s earlier spin that their only involvement had been to try helping Mr Tomlinson whilst being pelted by bricks and bottles, lay in tatters. Yet this wasn’t picked up by any of the blogs I cited on Tuesday – although many of them were very exercised indeed about the treatment meted out by the police on The Adam Smith One, Eamonn Butler. To quote Dizzy:

I didn’t really care about a bunch of crusty hippies marching about London. I had a job to go too. People should get off their high horses and go fuck themselves.

… which is entirely my point. You do tend to lose any claim to moral authority if you openly admit that the death of a “crusty hippie” isn’t worth caring about (the view looks fine from up here, Dizzy, thanks so much for asking).

This brings me onto the third category – bloggers who are very angry at what I wrote but agree with every word. Dizzy is one. Letters From A Tory is another. LFAT’s response has been to explain how the police’s response may well turn out to have been entirely reasonable once we have established all the facts. Why? Because there is something entirely dubious about that Mr Tomlinson fella, and he was probably begging for it.

I paraphrase, but in his Wednesday post, he arguments consist of the following:

1. Tomlinson may not have been “attempting to get home from work” on the basis that he was wearing a football shirt. If he wasn’t “attempting to get home from work” by definition he can’t have been an “innocent bystander”.

2. (My favourite one) “The video said Ian was ‘walking away from them’ – this is outright deceit, in my opinion. Yes, he was physically facing the opposite direction but if you watch the video carefully you will see that he is deliberately antagonising the police by walking slowly right in front of them as the cordon tries to move people down the street.” Yes, that’s right. Walking in an “antagonising” manner is entirely deserving of police assault in LFAT’s tiny mind.

3. He got up again, so what’s the problem?

Now, following the Daily Mail revelations that Tomlinson may have been drunk, a triumphant LFAT has offered us the coup de grace. Apparently we are to believe that these photos are as revelatory as the Guardian video.

It’s almost too easy pointing out the stupidity of LFAT’s position – he’s done all the heavy lifting for me (the sad thing is, he seems to genuinely believe these are intelligent points to make), but let me spell it out:

Whether Tomlinson was a protestor or drunk or not is entirely irrelevant. Whether he was walking in an “antagonising” manner is entirely irrelevant (as a Londoner, I have to put up with people walking in front of me in an antagonising manner every single day). Ultimately, the fact that Tomlinson died of a heart attack is irrelevant in this context (except for the fact that it may make the difference between whether the policeman in question is guilty of manslaughter or common assault). The point is a policeman lashed out at him while his back was turned and his hands were in his pockets. In a civilised society, that is not acceptable under any circumstances. If you don’t actually agree with me on that point, I’m sorry, but you are utterly beneath contempt.

LFAT isn’t representative of the rightwing blogosphere in this respect, but lamentably he is not alone in suggesting that somehow Tomlinson was responsible for being attacked. I offer this fact merely as an observation of what we are up against.

Does the right really value freedom? The acid test.

I’m trying to sum up how I feel having watched the video on the Guardian website of Ian Tomlinson being bit by a policeman with a baton while he had his hands in his pockets and was walking away from them. I’d say anger, but I think the honest answer is: panic.

I watched it about 20 minutes ago and my heart is still racing. More than anything, it frightens me. That could have been me, minding my own business. If I had been tripped over in that way by a mob of coppers, however angry I might have been I would have been shitting myself. I think my heart could have taken it, but I don’t know. I have absolutely no interest of putting it to the test – and absolutely no way of preventing it from happening if I ever get unlucky. This is what it feels like to be afraid of the state.

I never did believe the initial police account, but it just seems to get worse and worse. What is clear from the video is the level of contempt at least some of the police regarded the demonstrators (and in this case, even innocent bystanders). And when it blows up in their faces? They invoke the law of the playground: however much you might be in the wrong, never snitch. Even worse, they use their considerable PR machine to spread lies about the conduct of the protestors. This has happened again and again in the past; we know what they’re like. And yet, with the honourable exception of the Guardian, the silence from most of the media has been deafening.

But parts of the blogosphere has been notably silent as well. I’ve just scanned the rightwing/libertarian blogs I could think of off the top of my head: Iain Dale, Guido, Coffee House, Comment Central, Dizzy Thinks, Conservative Home, Libertarian Party UK, Is there more to life than shoes, Telegraph Blogs, the Adam Smith Institue blog, Douglas Carswell, Nadine Dorries…* The top story on the Freedom Association blog at the moment is about the police handling of the G20 protests, complaining at the ignomious treatment of… the Adam Smith Institute Director who was questioned by police (numerous other of the aforementioned blogs have singled this incident out too – this is the martyr of 1/4 as far as they are concerned).

I’m not for a second suggesting that if you don’t blog about this you don’t care, but taken as a whole this is quite striking. These blogs obsessively complain about every possible infringement of the liberties of the affluent and articulate middle classes, yet when a blameless man in a dirty t-shirt dies not a single one of them has asked a question. Four hours since the Guardian released that video, not a single one has mentioned it. Daniel Finklestein, who chose to single out the Lib Dem MPs who were acting as monitors atthe protests, has been keeping mum.

When they’ve shouted about Damien Green or David Davis, I have tended to their side, and not been afraid to argue with lefties who can be eye-wateringly tribalist. Damien Green’s treatment was unacceptable. David Davis’ stance was honourable. But it is clearer than ever now that I could never expect an ounce of solidarity in return. Over the last few days, I’ve been given a salient demonstration of quite what the right really thinks about freedom in this country.

* In the interests of fairness, it should be pointed out that LabourList has been resolutely silent on this topic as well, but it is very much not representative of the left in that respect (indeed in any respects – can it even legitimately be defined as leftwing?).

The dreaded spectre of the straw Fabian

Liberator has marked the launch of the Social Liberal Forum with two articles which they have kindly allowed us to republish – one by SLF Director Matthew Sowemimo and the other by Federal Policy Committee member and writer David Boyle.

David is a different kind of critic from someone like Charlotte Gore. Very much “one of us,” he wrote a chapter in Reinventing the State and I’ve worked with him on a number of projects over the years, including a motion on participatory democracy that was debated at Autum Conference last year. So the fact that he is a sceptic is a real disappointment. Having said that, I do think he could have picked a better argument.

His problem with the SLF stems not from anything on our website, or anything Matthew or Richard Grayson have written (I seem to have been written out of the equation, being a mere flunky), but from a presentation made by a staffer of the Institute for Fiscal Studies at the Reinventing the State breakout session at the party’s LSE conference on social mobility in January before the SLF had launched. I didn’t attend that session as I was at a parallel one at the time, but David’s concern stems from the IFS chap’s definition of equality. This then moves into an all out assault on Fabianism.

He is right to warn against defining equality too narrowly or adopting technocratic solutions, but I’m not clear how either are really concerns about the SLF as opposed to the debate within the left more broadly. It is a bit of a leap, from the personal views of a guest speaker at an event before the organisation is launched to Beatrice Webb to concluding that the SLF is in danger of endorsing state socialism. By not reflecting on anything the SLF has actually done or put out thus far it does feel as if a number of straw men are being laid at our door.

The biggest straw man is the one that vaguely resembles Quintus Fabius Maximus. Fabian-bashing is a time honoured liberal pastime and one which I indulge in myself from time to time. And why wouldn’t you, when people like Beatrice Webb offer us such a wealth of infamous quotes to cite? Even Labour apparatchik Philip Collins tried this line of attack in Prospect last year. But if you think that new Labour state socialism stems from the modern Fabian Society, you are dead wrong. Indeed, the modern Fabian Society’s favourite Lib Dem-bashing tactic at the moment is to denounce us for not supporting asset-based welfare (the specific criticism that we plan reallocate resources away from Labour’s tokenistic Child Trust Fund is rather fatuous but more generally, I think they have a point more generally). I am pretty certain that Sunder Katwala being the Fabian Society’s General Secretary is a fact that has both the Webbs spinning in their graves.

And finally, while I would agree that income-inequality – and even consumption-inequality – should never be the only measure, David risks understating its importance. He is right to say that we won’t ever solve the underlying problems of inequality with charts and targets. David wrote a fantastic book in 2001 called The Tyranny of Numbers which forecast the failure of the New Labour project before most people were getting their heads around it, but the conclusion I took from it wasn’t that we must never count things – merely that we understand the limitations of statistics. Indeed, David’s own think tank, the New Economics Foundation (of which I am also a supporter), is continually coming up with new ways to measure social progress. It is an odd charge to suggest the SLF is enamoured by “the fantasies of Fabianism” while not applying the same standard to NEF.

While I think SLF has already avoided two of David’s potential pitfalls – centralisation and education – I will readily admit that the other two – snobbery and passivity – are tougher nuts to crack. But they are for everyone. How do you ensure universal entitlement without creating an inflexible, impersonal system? How do you ensure a flexible, personalised service without giving the articulate middle-classes an advantage over less well off? Unlike state socialists or libertarians, the social liberal doesn’t have the luxury of picking a side in this debate. But please don’t assume that acknowledging the need for one doesn’t automatically assume a dismissal of the other.