Tag Archives: politics

Diane Abbott: what’s race got to do with it?

NB Sent by phone. I will add links later.

The nowtrage over Diane Abbott’s twitter comment that “White people love playing ‘divide & rule'” has been entirely predictable and lamentable, with people on both sides guilty of exaggerating their positions to the point of absurdity.

I’m not remotely offended by Abbott’s comment; it is simply too absurd a generalisation to take seriously. I find the rush by people to exclaim offence and outrage at the comments frankly embarrassing; especially since, as a rule, they have been quite transparently politically motivated. It is simply too soon after the sentencing of Norris and Dobson to play that game.

Equally however, Abbott’s initial defence that the comment had been taken out of context was weak, because there is simply no context in which bringing race into the point she was trying to make could be acceptable. Many of her defenders have leapt on this, claiming that divide and rule was a feature of white colonialism, but the simple fact is that most white people were not colonialists.

Irish potato farmers were not responsible for the oppression of Africa and India any more than Mancunian clothmakers or Italian winemakers. African monarchs who sold their own people into slavery were. There isn’t much evidence to support claims that ‘white’ empires such as the British and Romans were any more oppressive than the Persians or Mongolians.

To cut to the chase, surely racialising what is, in essence, a matter of the functions of the political-economy throughout history, is far more of an act of ‘divide and rule’ than, to return to the original discussion, questioning the legitimacy of so-called black community leaders?

Diane Abbott’s comments were in response to Bim Adewunmi raising concerns about talk of a single ‘black community’ and the people who purport to lead them. Abbott’s point was that ethnic minority groups who are more united than blacks tend to do better. This is a valid observation, but so too were Adewunmi’s objections to having people speak for her who are often out of touch.

And while Abbott is also correct to suggest that ‘divide and rule’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so is the co-option by leaders, of whatever race or background, of the groups they claim to represent.

That’s true of colonial powers, and it is true of people who enjoy the trappings associated with being a ‘community leader’ in a local authority, as anyone who has ever been involved in local politics must surely have observed. And it is true of party leaders working against their parties interests and of trade union leaders making power plays which ultimately work against the workers but which consolidate their own control and influence.

In short, strip race out of it, and there is a very important debate to be had about the nature of power, control and democracy. It suits politicians like Diane Abbott for that debate to be sidetracked by red herrings such as skin colour just as much as her loudest detractors.

Does Simon Cowell have the political X-Factor?

No, is the basic conclusion of my article on Comment is Free today:

In reality, the X Factor could only dream of having as many voters as we take for granted in UK elections. Ten million votes may sound like a lot, but it is only two-thirds the number of people who voted in the European parliament elections this year and a third the number of people who voted in the 2005 general election. The campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to deny Joe McElderry the Christmas No 1 also suggests that the X Factor can alienate the public as much as any MPs’ expenses scandal.

Read the full article here.

Quaequam Blog! in 2008

2008 was a thoroughly bemusing year for me. I found very little to inspire me politically and I think this blog has suffered as a result. If I began the year with an excess of optimism, the opposite seems to be the case by the end of the year.

It was a year where the political class seemed to lurch from one crisis to the next, learning nothing in the process. The Derek Conway debacle has lead to, well, pretty much nothing. The Lisbon Treaty debacle lead to the Lib Dems engaging in stunt politics for almost entirely the wrong reasons. The London Mayoral Election brought personality politics in the UK to unprecedented levels. The government’s entire constitutional renewal programme stumbled around achieving almost nothing. “42 days” was defeated, only for both the government and their Tory opponents to announce plans for even greater surveillence. The economy fell apart while the main parties argued pointlessly about public borrowing and tax cuts, almost entirely missing the point. And there has been a palpable sense of green agenda retreating. In the latter two cases, at least, I can point to the Lib Dems as providing a meaningful alternative.

The ten “top” Quaequam Blog! posts in 2008* were, in date order:

Like many, I enter 2009 in a pretty pessimistic mood about the future. Here’s hoping it will confound my expectations at least as much as 2008 did!

* According to the most poll ratings, highest poll ratings, most readers and my personal favourites – all of which are equally problematic.

And the award for most patronising bollocks aimed those plucky ladies goes to…

Women in Public Life Awards '09Well done to Scottish Widows and Dods for coming up with what is possibly the most ridiculously patronising design for a website aimed at women in public life I’ve ever come across (and as one of the organisers of the Campaign for Gender Balance Awards last year I speak from experience). It isn’t just the sheer pinkness of it all, it’s the flower design and the sheer flowiness of it all. As one of my colleagues suggested, it looks like a tampon advert or possibly some kind of pregnancy test.

Do designers really have to use such cliche when designing websites aimed at women? Personally speaking, if I do anything political aimed (directly or indirectly) at women, I eschew pink for purple and green as it has rather more resonance, but I accept that even that is cliched. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a website aimed at women by women that looks like this. Even Politics And The City, at the rather extreme end of the spectrum, goes for “fabulousness” rather than “Timotei.”

Fundamentally, doesn’t it all come across as rather weak? Is that the message they want to convey about women in public life? Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t call it Women In Management and Public Life (WIMPL) and be done with it.

Is groupthink really the correct response to financial meltdown?

David Cameron has announced his party will work with the government to tackle the continuing financial turbulence, whatever that means. Nick Clegg has apparently said much the same.

But is this really the correct response? There are certain instances – for example when the country is physically under threat at a time of war – when suspending party politics may be a good idea. But outside of such extreme cases, when has cross-party co-operation ever lead to good policy?

In the immediate aftermath of 7/7 and 9/11, opposition parties agreed to “work with the government” – the result has been a massive curtailment of civil liberties which continues unabated. Even though the opposition parties quickly regained their senses and resumed scrutiny of legislation relatively quickly, the agenda of detention without charge, identity cards and even internment was set. 2005’s “compromise” of setting detention without charge at 28 days was in many ways a tactical defeat on the part of civil libertarians.

Rolling further back, we have legislation such as the Dangerous Dogs Act – initiated due to a nation-wide panic. This is widely cited as a brilliant example of how badly Parliament can get things wrong, yet isn’t the ground being laid for similar poor groupthink?

It strikes me there is a massive ideological debate to be having at the moment. Outside of Parliament, the Keynsians are having a resurgence. But with all three parties signed up to a monetarist agenda and the drawbridge being self-consciously drawn up, will they even be heard? Regardless of the rights and wrongs of this or that economic society, surely at a time of FAIL we should be encouraging debate in an open society not battening down the hatches? It’s also pretty meaningless with Labour holding a majority in the Commons. Sure, the other parties have some influence in the Lords but it is distinctly limited.

So I’m afraid to say I’m quite, quite wary of this latest development. It is time for a massive ideological punch up in the Houses of Parliament not a group hug. The fact that this is the automatic reaction to every reaction suggests that our political system itself is broken in a way that isn’t the case even in the US.

Come on Nick, this is your big chance: don’t throw it away because of a desire to be establishment!

Inward looking? Moi?

Oy, what a hectic few weeks I’ve been having. As such, I’ve only just got around to reading Lynne Featherstone’s thoughtful article on Lib Dem blogging and Andy Mayer’s excellent response.

Is the Lib Dem blogosphere too inward looking? Frankly, yes it is and I’m well aware of being a guilty culprit. Jennie Rigg is absolutely correct, at least in my case, to say that too many Lib Dem bloggers use LibDemBlogs as their blog roll. The best I can do by way of a defence is point out that at least we aren’t as bad as the Labour blogosphere, but that isn’t saying very much at all.

Why is this? When I started blogging back in 2003 (ah, Blogger! How I miss thee. Not.), it wasn’t like that at all. In scenes rather reminiscent to the “Dawn of Man” sequence at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lib Dem bloggers would mount dawn raids upon Tory bloggers, Tories would do the same to Labour bloggers, and vice versa. Sometimes we’d even get into conversations with normal people as well. Hubs – or to labour my 2001 analogy still further should I say monoliths? – like LibDemBlogs and ConservativeHome seem to have made us all more insular. Even the Tories lack their crusaders. Iain Dale, Tory blogger par excellence is a commentator not a campaigner.

In this respect, and thankfully in so many other ways, Laurence Boyce is mistaken. Staying on LibDemVoice and firing salvos from there is an exercise in futility – it will ultimately only attract the interest of fellow members and other political obsessives.

I read an article a few years ago talking about the 2004 presidential election, I forget where, which summarised the Democrats’ failure and the Republican’s success as lying in the fact that the Democrats tended to organise in hives (as in bees) like the Daily Kos while the Republicans run in packs (as in wolves). It’s an evocative image that has stayed with me – I even nicked it for an article I wrote a couple of years ago. Talking to Jerome Armstrong a few weeks ago (namecheck, namecheck…) he agreed that was a problem for the Democrats, albeit one which is rectifying itself now. We need to do a bit of dismantling ourselves I feel.

The party’s campaign-themed blogs like Corruption is a Crime, Home Office Watch and Forces Focus are a step in the right direction but as they are written by already busy MPs and their staff they tend to get updated sporadically and tend to be very on message. Neither of these factors do much to invite return traffic or even search engine traffic. What we need is the next step on from that – independent blogs maintained by individuals with a passion for the subject, with occasional contributions from the centre to help it along.

I have to admit my own attempt at doing this a couple of years ago, a blog focusing on intergenerational equity (remember Hands Off Our Future? no? I’m not surprised really), ended up a crashing failure simply because I didn’t have the time to dedicate to it. Yet I’m convinced that a blog on this theme would serve a valuable purpose, both in promoting the issue and helping the party to reach out to people who wouldn’t normally come anywhere near a Lib Dem blog. A quick glance at sites such as HousePriceCrash suggests that there are lots of people out there who feel very strongly about the issue – if only I had managed to maintain my blog given the developments of the last nine months.

It is niches like this that the party ought to be actively seeking out. Finding the activists who are willing to then take a lead on the topic is another story however. As the last few weeks have demonstrated, work pressures often force me underground at the very point at which political campaigning is most needed. During election periods I have to be relatively diplomatic (I said relatively) at a period when I’m sure the party would quite like me to go into rottweiller mode. I’m sure others face the same dilemma.

Fundamentally, the only way to square this circle is for putative campaigner-bloggers to have some degree of self-sufficiency and be in a position where they can afford to take risks. Iain Dale’s popularity came about largely because he spent six months after the Tory leadership election in 2005 doing precious little else. Iain had the contacts and was at a point in his life where that was possible (this isn’t a criticism – quite the opposite – and I hope it doesn’t come off that way). But unless someone starts handing out grants to bloggers, it isn’t something we are all going to be in a position to start doing any time soon.

Is Quaequam Blog! going to become more outward looking and campaign focused? No – this is my home for self-indulgent waffle and for letting of steam after a hard day’s work. It was however the original idea behind The Liberati (hence the silly URI). So many plans, so little time…

Can science find a cure for conservativism?

Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

Iolanthe, W. S. Gilbert

There was an interesting article in New Scientist last week about research suggesting a genetic basis for political opinion (You can’t read the full article? You mean you don’t subscribe? Tsk!).

I have to be honest and admit that beyond the most banal level of accepting that certain genes no doubt contribute to an individuals’ personality to some extent, I’m not convinced. There are several problems with this article. The most fundamental one is that it doesn’t seem to be clear about what a “liberal” and a “conservative” is. For example, they approached the American Enterprise Institute for comment from the “conservative” end of the spectrum. They came up trumps:

David Frum says that he is “flattered by the evidence that conservatives are more honest and dutiful than liberals”. But given the huge number of variables that affect the outcome of an election, it would be a foolhardy researcher who would draw generalisations from Jost’s work, he says.

The AEI supports “limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate” – that sounds pretty classically liberal to me and about a million miles away from a fruitloop like Mike Huckabee. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the sort of “drawbridge up” conservativism cited in the rest of the article. Overall, it’s a bit of a mess.

But it, and another article about autism, got me thinking. It cites one piece of research purporting to have found a link between a gene which regulates serotonin levels in the brain and propensity to vote. What appears to be happening here is that people who can better regulate their brain chemistry tend to be more sociable. In principle therefore, it would be hypothetically possible to come up with a pill that would make people more pro-social, which in turn would probably do a lot to improve election turnout.

What, in essence, is the moral difference between such a pill and encouraging pro-social values at school? Since there is clearly a link between diet and behaviour, how is it fundamentally different from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners? If we can justify mass medication for things like tooth decay, can’t we justify this? We already treat depression in such a way (or at least we attempt to).

Could we cure other anti-social attitudes as well? Xenophobia? Misogyny? Violence? We’re not talking about major surgery here or anything even vaguely resembling a lobotomy, just the slight changes in the chemical balance in the brain which leads to certain basic instincts behaving differently. Wouldn’t that be better than locking people up or wasting time attempting to reason with people who science informs us cannot be reasoned with?

(These are genuine questions by the way, not rhetorical ones.)

At the same time, we have reviewed and are in the process of reviewing a whole range of things which were at one point viewed as mental disorders and are now coming to conclude are merely personality traits. Homosexuality was regarded as a disease 50 years ago. Increasingly autistics are fighting a battle which at least superficially has many similarities to the gay rights movement.

The reason I’m pondering all this is not because I want to create a “cure for conservativism” but because I’m becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that science and our notions about free will are increasingly coming into conflict. On one level that tension does not, and never will be particularly meaningful. Science is unlikely to ever become so adept at understanding our genes, brains, bodies and environment to such an extent that it can predict exactly what anyone is likely to do at any given moment. But on another level, it is likely to throw up all sorts of inconvenient truths such as levels of intelligence and modes of behaviour which have fundamentally chemical bases and can thus be altered in a similar way. We’ve created distinctions between “disorders” and personality traits which are looking increasingly unsustainable. Surely there needs to be some kind of distinction between a negative thing that we should seek to cure or otherwise discourage, and a neutral thing that we should tolerate in a pluralistic society? But that line seems to be becoming increasingly blurred and just as we are having to seriously consider reclassifying some things from the former to the latter, so we may have to consider others going the other way. Or is it to be anything goes?

I wonder to what extent we are ready for this debate. There is a real reason why we need to be. If we aren’t, the interests of pharmaceutical companies are likely to dominate it, at least in the short term.

Or is this all merely paranoid delusional fantasy?

Derek Conway and the passions of Iain Dale

A few points…

Roger Gale describes the Conway incident as a “witch hunt“. One has to wonder why the Standards and Privileges Committee would do such a thing if that were the case, since if Gale is to believed surely all MPs would be liable for the same treatment. Surely mutual interest would prevent such a witch hunt from ever happening? MPs don’t look like they are in the mood to make something out of nothing at the moment, particularly given the daily grind of “sleaze” churning out of the tabloid press on a daily basis. Plus, if Conway is being persecuted, why the apology? Why doesn’t he stand his ground?

Guido is somewhat more on the money by implying that Cameron is dithering here. We’ve had the admission of guilt from Conway; why does he still have the Tory whip?

Over at Iain Dale’s Diary, Iain makes the perfectly valid point that he is not about to rat on a friend. I sympathise – really I do. But given that Iain has always been very quick to point the finger on funding scandals himself – he not only wrote the book on Labour sleaze, he’s published two editions of it – I hope he will accept some responsibility for his friend’s downfall. The reason the outcry has been so great is that unlike most of the current crop of Labour sleaze stories (but like the Abrahams and cash for peerages incidents), this is a genuine scandal. By over emphasising these, Conway’s fate to some extent has been sealed. You can’t brag about your growing influence with one hand (which I don’t question), while denying you helped create the political weather for this with the other, Iain.

Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve no doubt occasionally crossed the line, I try my best on this blog not to get carried away by ‘sleaze’ – not least of all because I happen to think the general Lib Dem attitude to our own recent funding scandal is a mite complacent. We should be wary of enjoying these too much because we end up creating impossible standards that no-one can live by. People like Wendy Alexander, Alan Johnson and yes, possibly even Peter Hain (haven’t made my mind up fully on that one – as cock ups go, this was a pretty extreme case), ought to be able to pay a fine and move on. The idea that ministerial careers should be destroyed for the misreporting of a few hundred quid is absurd.

The malevolent domination of Simon Hoggart

Reading this sketch (ho, and indeed, hum) on the BBC website by Susan Hulme, I was struck by this thought: “why do so many bad sketch writers think that the way to do it is to impersonate Simon Hoggart’s personal writing style?”

It’s all there: the short sentences, the lame gags about individual’s physical characteristics, the “dear reader” asides. Is this what passes for a genre?

If I’m honest, I don’t even know if it stems from Hoggart himself originally – it’s just that I read his sketches more than anyone else’s. Certainly Simon Carrs are different. But then, Simon Carrs’ are rarely funny. Or about anything other than Simon Carr.

We should be asking this question: does the smug, self-satisfied political sketch still have a place in modern political discourse, or should it go the same way as those rude poems you read in old issues of punch?

What do you think dear reader?

Common Purpose – the new Bilderberg?

Over the past few months I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that a lot of conspiracy theories these days seem to revolve around an organisation called Common Purpose. Not a secret organisation, Common Purpose aims to “give leaders the skills, the connections and the vision they need to lead more effectively”.

It’s a training organisation. But it’s also a networking organisation and that’s where the wilder theories come in. My old friends EU truth seem to be doing a lot of the running here (their site is certainly the second Google hit, which suggests that David “EU plant” Cameron’s mates at Google UK aren’t doing their jobs properly). They have a pdf you can download and some stuff on YouTube. It all, um, seems a bit vague:

So my question to you dear reader is this: where’s the beef? If you have some strong evidence to prove that Common Purpose is indeed a “criminal organisation” let’s have it. I’m fascinated.

(The thing I realised from reading Them by Jon Ronson a couple of years ago is that the truth is often not what the loons think it is but is fascinating nonetheless).