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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 13, 2006

General Sir Richard Dannatt

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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.

September 04, 2006

On Democracy and Moral Absolutes

I was reading this thread ( 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 23, 2006

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

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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?

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