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February 21, 2007

Road Pricing and Government Debate

Along with one and a half million other people, I received a very polite e-mail from Tony Blair today explaining why my views on road pricing are wrong. Ignoring my actual views on road pricing (broadly against with a sympathy for limited toll introduction e.g. on motorways unless the public transport system is massively overhauled), I find the tone of the response quite annoying. The approach is common across government and also evident in the ID cards issue, which Mr. Blair commented on last week.

Typically, having reassured us that the government is open-minded and welcoming to broad debate, they re-iterate their arguments as simply and clearly as they can. Rather like stereotypical English tourists they speak LOUDLY and SLOWLY because we clearly haven’t understood what they have been – perfectly reasonably – trying to tell us. Having restated for us their rational, the argument ends and we are expected to be won over. I don’t think I am alone in having read government publications, Ministerial interviews and newspaper comments in order to understand the issue before signing the petition. (Incidentally, he may be regretting it now but I love Mr. Blair’s online petitions – it allows one to research a subject before signing rather than being approached on the street in ignorance). I really would rather that the government engaged directly with criticisms and counter arguments and responded to them – had a real debate – rather than assuming that we had an imperfect understanding of their case (not that I have a perfect understanding but… y’know). I can understand why they can’t do this with the public at large but even Parliament fails in this regard; it is so focussed on political point scoring that I can barely detect debate there either (“Would the Minster..?” “Since 1997 we have…” “Yes, but could you answer?” “Given the last Tory administration…” etc ad infinitum).

Mr Blair’s e-mail is actually rather more conciliatory than I’ve allowed for but does come in the face of several weeks of staunch defence from Transport Ministers who have outright rejected the petition (an anonymous Minister called the author a ‘prat’) and said that it will not affect the proposals. They obviously hadn’t received the memo at that point as the message has softened considerably since the PM became personally involved – he doesn’t enjoy aggravating the electorate. Mr. Blair calls this a ‘difficult choice’ (even to a degree writing off the impact of his transport policy) but doesn’t engage with issues such as the inequality of the tax, the expense of some public transport and its variability across regions (Chiltern or Virgin, anyone?), the poor rural services, and the movement of essential shops and services out of communities due to supermarkets/post office closures. He fails to acknowledge that successive governments have not only encouraged but forced extended mobility and failed to provide a public transport system to keep up.

The problem is that “difficult choice” is a New Labour euphemism for “unpopular action”. Some of these are perfectly reasonable and driven by political/social dogma – I may disagree with a government’s opinion but if they have always been clear about their stance on it and their intention to legislate then they have the democratic right to do so (e.g. fox hunting). Often, however, a “difficult decision” is merely one that the government is taking against broad public opinion (Iraq comes to mind). Where the public understand the rational they are usually forgiving but where the decision seems to be punitive, reactionary or designed to paper over failures elsewhere in the system (such as the diabolical public transport system outside of London), as this one seems, then resentment builds. Margaret Thatcher found this with the Poll Tax and I’m sure that the Labour administration will too. Unfortunately, I doubt that issue will be road pricing but the fact that c.1.8m (almost 3% of the population! Yes, I’m sure some of them were called Mickey Mouse too…) felt sufficiently strong to find the website, register and confirm their signature gives the impression that the time isn’t too far off.

Rant over.

January 22, 2007

Opera names

I went to see The Magic Flute last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it got me thinking; this production was in English and, corrospondingly, was billed as ‘The Magic Flute’ rather than ‘Die Zauberflote’. Other opera’s tend to retain their original language names regardless of the production language e.g. Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni (although, I suppose the latter is a name and The Honourable John is a bit of a mouthful). Broadening the pool away from Mozart and we get Die Fledermaus, La bohéme, Turandot etc.

Has this practice developed due to convenience or is it the tip of a far reaching conspiratorial iceburg amongst the beret sporting, Sanderson’s quaffing, musical brigade?

October 26, 2006

Socialism Rampant

A quick insight into the New Labour regime. That very same government that has given us massive taxation whilst splashing out on wars, failed IT systems, little change in public services, the Millennium Dome and wants to spend yet more on curtailing our freedom (as we are no longer capable taking responsibility for our own rational risks). According to my BOTFP calculation, MPs salaries have increased by almost 35% since 1997, whilst the average national salary has only gone up by 26% against an inflation growth in the same period of circa 20%.

We really need a ‘none of the above’ box on the ballot paper.

October 17, 2006

I… respect(!?!)... Tony?

May all who are are holy have mercy on my soul. Today, I find myself commiting an act so contrary to my nature that I have to question my sanity. I am going against almost a decade of doctrine and every natural, base, bestial and transcendental nature in my body. I agree with Tony Blair. Yes – that Tony Blair.

Tony (I feel we are now close enough to converse on such personal terms) has made a statement on the issue of the Muslim veil. Naturally, he has been condemned by certain groups for prejudicing the court case against the teaching assistant who refued to remove her veil in class and for inflaming the argument regarding Islam. I don’t want to discuss my personal views on the veil (yet) as they are currently pretty poorly thought out and require some real attention. However, I absolutely believe that as it is a subject that has entered the public conciousness, it should be properly debated and not swept under the rug of political expediancy as some argue.

Tony has taken a position (unlike some of his more toadying peers) and as such has expressed a point of principal. Too often politicians attempt to avoid points of principal because they run contrary to the practicality of administration. (I think this is why Oppositions are usually more attractive than Governments and the Liberal Democrats are still with us). Tony at least has popped a flag in the sand – for the first time since he invade Iraq but lets not get on to that. He may withdraw his comments later (or more likely have an anonymous Downing Street Spokesman clarify his comments) but for now he has my respect. I want politicians to have opinions and to be honest about them and I don’t think I’m alone. Take Boris (the Johnson not the Boar) who is beloved by half the population and hated by the other half; to have a 50% approval rating is probably 20% higher than any other MP even though most of them elicit a sturdy “Who!?!” when mentioned to the electorate.

Ever since New Labour have come to power, conviction politics has fallen out of favour (actually probably Marg. Thatcher’s fault for being such a visible advocate) and I’m glad it’s back. The role of government is to represent the will of society and that will is often contradictory. If such arguments are hidden from view, then of course society will begin to view politicians with contempt. As long as there is one maveric for every populist politician then all is healthy.

Now all we need is a robust opposition…

October 16, 2006

Beer photographs go big!

Being a connoisseur of the finer things in life, I enjoy the odd drop of ale. Obviously, I prefer to enjoy my beer in the most sympathetic of surroundings, the pub, however I have been known to partake of the bottled variety at home. Given my other half’s intolerance of the smoke and noise of our local hostelries (in other words; the good bits) the phenomenon of domestic imbibing is becoming more common. To this end, I had a snifter on Friday nights and, being a sort who like to catalogue things, I kept a record of my adventures in beerland on flickr via phone-camera shots of the bottle labels. To date Coniston Bluebird Ale has been viewed nine times: which can be contrasted with pictures of very pretty girls that are on flicker and have only been viewed twice. What I don’t understand is why Bluebird a fine ale but featuring a rather dull and uninteresting label has been the veritable blockbuster of the digitally imaged beer-bottle world whilst the far more intriguing Dorothy Goodbody Golden Ale, Black Sheep Riggwelter and Black Wych Stout have received nary a look.

The Goodbody in particular deserves a glance for it’s ultra-masculine combination of ale and pin-up beauty. A real victory for the marketing men. I just love the thought process on this one; can you imagine the meetings with the brand consultants?
“Right chaps, we have a brand that’s going nowhere. It’s a golden ale; Dorothy Goodbody.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Dorothy Goodbody.”
“And what do you have on the label?”
“Oh, you know… kegs… hops… that kind of thing.”
“Put a half naked blonde on there. That’ll be twenty thousand pounds please. Plus expenses.”

October 13, 2006

General Sir Richard Dannatt

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6046822.stm

I’m not really surprised that General Sir Richard Dannatt spoke out about the policy of deploying British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In fact, I was rather expecting to hear something earlier (although, I admit, I thought it would come from a more junior officer). When Des Brown was sent by his masters to deliver the good news of the Government’s benefaction to soldiers last week, the first question that most intelligent interviewers asked was, ‘Is this because moral amongst troops is enormously low?’.
‘Oh no!’, replied our brave and charismatic hero, ‘Morale in the field has never been higher!’.
‘In fact,’ he continued, ‘our brave boys, the thin red line, those courageous few… they enjoy being deployed in unpopular wars and thinly stretched across multiple hostile theatres. One might say they relish the opprobrium of an unsympathetic public and much of the international community.’
Alright, he didn’t say that last bit but the first part was pretty accurate. Unfortunately, from what I can tell (admittedly from limited sources), whilst the forces remain hugely professional, morale has been declining for a while. For the government to try and claim the opposite can only suggest one of three things;
- because morale is high!
- the government genuinely believes that morale is high because it fundamentally does not understand the military or does not have strong communication lines into the army.
- the government is so completely certain of its spin machine that it thought it could convince us that black is white despite the fact that the British army is c.150k strong (i.e. 0.25% of the population) therefore have very strong links into the public at every level.
I applaud the General’s response. His responsibility is to his troops and whilst the Government are happy to detach themselves morally and emotionally from wars that they incited, I am cheered that the upper ranks of the army are not.

October 05, 2006

A bit of a rant about Auntie

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/5406498.stm

The above BBC article suggests that people use technology but don’t understand the terms. Fine; but why present it in such an odd way? Use of terms like geekspeak and baffles are strangely pejorative. There has been a trend recently on the BBC website to try and present interesting articles in an exciting way that often misrepresents the fundamental character of what they are reporting on. It’s all a little bit too much like the filter that the tabloids put news stories through.

Take the article above. Something new is invented/developed then it needs a name! To be honest most of the names created – like RSS or podcasting or bluetooth – are very user friendly compared to truly technical terms like IEEE802.15.1. The core story, to be fair, is pretty interesting but the journalistic wrapper text seems to be creating a sense of outrage whilst searching for someone to rally against.

I like broadsheet newspapers because they at least make an effort to draw a line between reporting the news and editorial opinion. They don’t always succeed but at least they try (strangely enough, IMO the most partisan popular papers, the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph are most succesful at this). Part of the fun of tabloids is that they just take a partisan position on everything and actually muck in. Given the BBC’s unique position, I just want them to report the news and then let their commentators take the offiensive one way or another. I don’t need to be told how to think by the context in which an article is presented.

It’s harder on electronic media to do this because pure news is given a much more prominent place than the op-ed columns (which tend to be blogs). If I want news I know where to look on the BBC website – if I want opinion it tends to be more hit and miss as links are moved around or only advertised when they deal with a major subject. I know next to nothing about jounalism (hey – see my blog entries! :-) ) but I guess every journalist wants to write ‘think’ pieces, however, in the old days didn’t they just have to report before they were allowed to give opinion? Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

I know this seems like an over reaction to a minor thing but it ties into some other thoughts I’ve been having about how politics is presented by the media (particularly the BBC). I want to let these idea rattle around my head a bit more before writing about them properly.

October 03, 2006

Drugs worse than drink say Tories

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5402008.stm

Gosh. Well I’m glad that’s been settled once and for all.

October 02, 2006

Male Models

Writing about web page http://www.marksandspencer.com/IWCatSectionView.process?IWAction=Load&Merchant_Id=1&Section_Id=8012&Page_Count=1&RestartFlow=t

I was looking through the Sunday Times Style supplement and found a double page spread advertising M&S’s Autograph Range. I think I am right to be afraid of how much Bryan Ferry looks like Peter Mandelson.

On the up side, at least Bryan Ferry looks like a human being compared to the other male models in the magazine. Prada, Jaeger, Ferragamo, Pringle; every one looks like the morning after American Psycho was shown at the Psychiatric Ward movie night.

September 04, 2006

On Democracy and Moral Absolutes

I was reading this thread (http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/mtcharemza/entry/a_better_type/) and it occurred to me that everyone treats democracy as being basically a good thing. The assumption of most posters is that the democratic form of government is a moral absolute – and thus other forms of government are poorer. Alongside this consensus view, a large number of posters have pointed out some pretty fundamental flaws in democratic forms of government;
– democracy is only currently viable when limited to representative democracy (you can’t take a referendum on every issue)
– the most able don’t necessarily get elected
– the infrequency of elections and the vicissitudes of the party system can conspire to protect the less able
– party systems tend to enforce party will (and the leaders’ wills) rather than the electorates’
There are counter arguments against all of these points, of course, but it does undercut the suggestion that democracy is A Good Thing™ in every circumstance. Almost every western cultural force (US, UK, France, UN, associated newspapers etc) argues that universal suffrage is the great objective and perhaps this is one of the major issues that puts the west at loggerheads with parallel cultures elsewhere? There are parts of the world (central Africa and central Asia come to mind) where democracy has failed in almost every incarnation to date, due to disparate indigenous populations, corrupt leadership etc. Within these regions, there are also states which have maintained a stable government – against all odds – based on monarchies/dictatorships . Many of these have abysmal human rights records but have not collapsed into the horrific civil wars that have occupied their neighbours.
It hasn’t always been the case that democracy has been viewed as a positive force in the west. Renaissance arguments that focussed on ideal forms of government swung from virtuous dictatorship (Machiavelli) to limited democracy (Machiavelli again) via the mixed aristocratic/monarchical/democratic (the Myth of Venice). The latter is essentially the basis of British constitutional monarchy (see my rant further down the blog). I’m pretty sure that it was the war against fascism and thereafter communism that enshrined democracy as being the ultimate goal of progressive society, replacing, I would argue, the common weal, which had occupied that role. Is it time, in light of the mess in the Middle East, parts of South East Asia and African that we revisit this belief in democracy and place it into some kind of continuum that recognises that in some places, democracy just doesn’t work (yet? ever?) and the focus of western pressure should be on ensuring values, which could be perceived as a greater priority such as tolerance and humane treatment. Many people say that they would fight to protect democracy but, given that many of us live in very stable democracies (my thoughts on current regime aside…), do we have the right to impose those battles on others who did not necessarily ask for it.

I understand that I am opening a can of worms with this discussion but it interests me as an historical question. For the record I believe in universal suffrage and representative democracy (although I do have concerns about trying to enforce democracy on unstable states in order to ‘exit our troops’).

August 24, 2006

Comics, popular culture and the internet

Writing about web page http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2319460.html

Two factors led me to write about this topic. Firstly, I was reading a piece by Umberto Eco about comics the other day and it got me thinking about the place of comics/graphic novels within popular culture. I don't claim to have the insight of an internationally renowned linguistics Professor and novelist but I do quite like comics. The second factor I will explain later.

I find it interesting that comics, on the whole, have been such a minor presence within popular culture and largely looked down upon outside of a certain niche constituency. This is surprising since people tend to be more easily stimulated by visual stimuli than cerebral (compare the popularity of television to reading; how many of us haven't slumped in front of the telly because we're too tired to do anything else?). Yet most children are exposed to comics throughout their youth, most adults enjoy newspaper strips and cartoons, the church saw pictorial narrative as the primary mechanism of reinforcing the gospels to an illiterate, Medieval population and some of the earliest forms of writing were basically figurative pictures.

However, this is a peculiarly Anglo–Saxon issue. On the continent and in Japan, comics were a hugely popular adult medium through the latter half of the last century; not on the scale of television or cinema, but on a level, perhaps, with something like jazz. A myriad of genres continue to flourish (particularly in Japan) and there is little of the monoculture exemplified by the American fetish for super heroes and the UK's (now almost forgotten) love for war and sci–fi, both of which were targeted largely at children or a very niche audience. Outside of the UK and US, comics were (and are) cheap and disposable and, unlike newspapers, pure escapism for commuters.

In recent years, however, something has happened to the role of comics within Anglo–Saxon popular culture. Comics are moving up the food chain and increasingly targeting an intelligent, adult market rather than the adolescents of the past. Not only is Umberto talking about the medium but comic books are entering the popular press as news items (see link and link). Alan Moore - perhaps the most renowned contemporary creator (even if you haven't seen a comic since one was thrust into your grubby, seven year old mitt, you may have heard of 'Watchmen', 'V for Vendetta' or 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen') - has kicked up a storm of controversy by releasing an unashamedly adult and literary piece, Lost Girls (see link). I won't go into the controversy here but it has been widely reported and can be read across the net (see link and link). At the same time you have works like Neil Gaiman's Sandman being released in 65 hardback volumes (link) that are clearly not aimed at the fifteen year old goths who may have driven its popularity when released in its 'singles' form (I use Warren Ellis' terminology). I'm not saying that graphic novels haven't crossed over into the mainstream before (Maus comes to mind) but this is the first time that there has been the consistent and sustained flow of products indicative of an industry changing and a flow of professionals from the respectable medias in to comics (Jos Whedon, Ian Rankin et al). The change may have begun in the late 80s but only now is it going to reach critical mass.

£3) which are sold in specialised shops miles from the high street. Works like Sandman and, to a lesser extent, Lost Girls prove both media interest and the market but they are too expensive and too inaccessible to most readers.

Which brings me on to the second factor prompting me to write about this. I noticed that someone on Warwick Blogs was writing a web comic. It was okay and critically, it appeared to be written by someone not exposed to the geekier side of the industry I've outlined above. It led me to search google for Web comics and I found 127,000,000 hits (including a useful directory at www.thewebcomiclist.com). It seems to me that comics and the web go perfectly together. The web is the ultimate democratisation of information and comics are the perfect, democratic artistic medium; you don't need the skill or talent of a musician, the money and facilities of a film maker or the stamina of an author. Furthermore, I would argue that the web browsing public will find comics more palatable than film (the quality of which is years away from broadcast parity)and pure text because you need to commit so much time to read a sizeable enough chunk to realise what you reading is dross. On the other hand the quality judgement on comics can be made very quickly based on the art alone (or a very quickly read sample). Finally, unlike music (and film to a lesser extent) people write web comics in the same way people write blogs; to put an opinion out there or just to be creative.
So, will comics remain a nerdy, niche medium or will it complete its maturation via the web and become a viable top tier medium? Thoughts?

August 23, 2006

Does the UK need a written constitution? (Or a Minister for Fitness!?!)

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/5277350.stm

The news today that the government has appointed a Minister for Fitness (why not John Prescott, I hear you scream) has got me thinking about the never ending knee–jerk, headline grabbing policies proposed by the current government that, for at least the last four years, have appeared with no apparent integration nor strategy. Not that I'm saying that the opposition are any better, but then, it's always been something of a fallacy that oppositions should have policies; the clue is in the title, they're their to oppose. You could say that the current administration have simply run out of ideas, are losing momentum or have lost all of their competent spin doctors. I think all three are probably true but what interested me was that these policies seem to be designed to draw attention from the most political crisis of the current era. One that none of the parties appear to be engaging at all with what I think has been exacerbated by successive regimes; the collapse of faith in politicians and the apparent breakdown of the traditional constitutional operation of government.

I think the breakdown of trust and the perversion of the political system are intertwined problems. Politicians are so intent on being elected that they must occupy the middle ground therefore ideology goes out of the window. Saying what you know you must say and not what you believe is lying, which with the addition of spin, press intrusion into private lives and the village mentality of Westminster leads to endemic lying. I agree that this is a simplification but this is a blog not an essay. My point is that in trying to control the message the parties have had to centralise as much power into the hands of the executive as possible. Initially, this simply meant a more robust whip system and the appointment of central candidates with little real world experience but lots of party kudos. Once this had been accomplished (New Labour being the flag carrier) this centralisation of power has spread into every other area of politic; reform of the House of Lords and appointments, party discipline (love him or hate him, Ken Livingstone was treated abominably), civil liberties (ID cards, stop and search etc.), the war on terror and all the abuses implicit in that (dodgy dossiers, camp x–ray, extraordinary rendition)... Almost all of these things have been condemned by the public but there appears to be no accountability other than at the general election and the executive appear free to act as they please without constraint or real, robust interrogation from the Commons, no limitations from a real second chamber and, crucially, no central moral core. Charles Clarke (a good Minister) was thrown to the dogs for something that was not his fault and relatively minor compared to the things that Tony's wormed his way out of and every other Ministerial resignation has been due to a largely non political press witch hunt. The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook.

The United Kingdom has, we are told, historically operated on the basis of an 'unwritten constitution' based on tradition, institutions and the common weal. It's fairly clear that this had a lot to do in the past with class relationships and everyone knowing their place. Without getting into partisan politics, it's pretty clear that since WWII (and possibly the original Parliament Act before WWI) that balanced system has come unstuck. Some of this is good, some bad (and as a caveat, I think much of what has appeared bad in the last decade has merely been made transparent by a far more aggressive press rather than being new phenomena). Nevertheless, I think I would vote for a party who promised to seriously engage with these issues and produce some kind of written constitution that we, the people, could hold the government to task on and that would allow politicians to stand by their convictions and not just try to appeal to the middle ground. The US obviously has huge failings, but at least the Bush administration has been constrained at times (as now with the phone tapping issue) by the US Constitution and I can see air between the stances of the Republicans and Democrats; Tony and David could be interchangeable as party leaders.

If the UK had a constitution, what should it look like? Should it be a straightforward Bill of Rights (like the US one – short and easy to understand, studied in school) that sets out the very clear rights and responsibilities of every member of our society or should it be a rule book on the operation of the state i.e. defining the powers of the PM and the relationship with Parliament (I think the French have something like this – could someone who knows more clarify?).

Does anyone else have views on this?