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January 26, 2009

State aid for the press?

France is usually thought of as a nation of newspaper readers, a country in which Le Figaro is the indispensable accompaniment to the morning croissant. So it’s with incredulity that most greet the fact that newspaper circulation is only half that of the UK.

Such is the parlous condition of the French press, that President Sarkozy has now pledged €600m in aid to top up the existing €1.5bn of state largesse. Amongst other things, the new funds will offer every 18-year old a year’s free subscription to a title of their choice and provide for an expansion of kiosks. The persistence of this dirigiste tradition has tamed Sarkozy’s original promise of a “rupture” with the past. Like his Gaullist predecessors, he has found the rhetorical appeal of such a doctrine too heady to resist. In times of recession some nations are swept by an atavistic desire to return to the soil, in France they long to return to the state.

In the UK the last recession claimed three papers; Rupert Murdoch’s Today, the News on Sunday and the Sunday Correspondent. As recent start-ups at the time they can’t be easily compared to current titles but the obstacles facing the industry today are without precedent.

A combination of rising production costs, the flight to the web and falling advertising revenue has left papers running to stand still. Besides the tabloid Daily Star and the Sunday People, the Independent titles are terribly vulnerable having haemorrhaged readers after a price hike to £1. For those who can fall back on paternalistic owners such as Murdoch, non-profit trusts (the Guardian) or billionaire sugar daddies, hazards remain.

Much of the most valuable work, such as foreign reportage and investigative journalism, is also the most expensive and something parasitic bloggers cannot hope to emulate. Investigative journalism by definition requires time, resources and patience; one can’t find a scoop without first investing all of these. It also requires support from proprietors willing to cough up defence fees for libel suits, too often the last refuge of the powerful. The risk is that newspapers, straining to keep up with the internet and rolling news channels, will lack the time and the will to perform adequately in either of these areas. As is now well known, comment is free but facts are expensive.

It’s in this regard that quality newspapers should be seen as an essential component of a healthy public realm. The young readers who will determine the future of newspapers have grown up viewing the internet and freesheets not as additions to papers but as replacements. UK newspapers should explore Sarkozy’s latest intervention with more than mere curiosity.

October 06, 2008

Mandelson's Return: Brownites against Brown?

Amid the forest of pages dedicated to Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson’s rapprochement few have asked exactly how cordial relations will be between Mandelson and Brown’s hitmen.

Charlie Whelan, Brown’s pugnacious former press spokesman, has recently been flexing his muscles again as political director of super-union Unite. Immediately after Brown’s conference speech, Whelan could be found swaggering around telling anyone within earshot that the Prime Minister’s ‘novice’ line was aimed directly at David Miliband. Prior to this, it’s widely thought that Whelan ordered Derek Simpson’s blast against the “smug” and “arrogant” Miliband. Whelan’s stock has risen once more as Labour has become ever more reliant on the funds of trade unions in general, and on those of Unite’s two million members in particular.

It’s worth recalling therefore that it was an incredulous Whelan who in 2004, writing on Mandelson in the New Statesman, declared, “Can you believe, then, that some hacks are suggesting the twice-disgraced ex-minister will make a third comeback?”

Well, now he has, and it’s likely Whelan is infuriated by the return of a figure he perennially dubbed ‘Trousers’, at the hands of the man whose cause he has championed for over fifteen years. Nor is Whelan’s the only Brownite nose put out of joint by Mandelson’s appointment.

Kevin Maguire, political columnist for the vociferously loyal Daily Mirror and the man who Brown unsuccessfully headhunted as his Communications chief, “called the appointment a “grave error” and wrote that “Bringing the Prince of Darkness over from Brussels makes him look weak.”

Meanwhile, rumours abound that Mandelson is set to usurp Douglas Alexander as Labour’s general election coordinator. Alexander, one of those who Mandelson undoubtedly had in mind when he testified that Brown “wasn’t surrounded by the easiest people either”, may still be raw from taking the rap for the aborted election, and Brown is now risking further alienation. Labour put out a press release earlier today confirming that Alexander remained election coordinator, an act which perhaps brings to mind the late journalist Claud Cockburn’s adage that one should “never believe anything until it is officially denied.”

Ed Balls, another implacable Brownite, put it very mildly when he declared that Mandelson’s return was a “risk”, and after years of combat with him throughout the nineties it’s no surprise to learn that he pleaded with the big man to think again.

The key to all of this is that Brown has put himself on the other side of a key political decision to his chief union fixer, his main press supporter and his two most historically loyal cabinet members. It’ll probably take more than pragmatic assertions that you should “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” (Michael Corleone) or that “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” (LBJ), to placate these figures.

In the past Brown would often hit Mandelson by proxy, the stories are best documented in Tom Bower’s damning biography of the PM, and so inevitably many of the sharpest exchanges took place at this level.

It’s for this reason that Mandelson felt it important to stress in his Observer interview that he “could work-not just with him (Brown), but with those closest to him, with whom I’ve had a difficult relationship in the past as well.”

This has a whiff of the Panglossian to me and now Mandelson’s occasional forays from Europe have been replaced by a full-time residency in the cauldron of Westminster I don’t think it’ll be long before the screaming matches start again.

August 02, 2008

Labour must sharpen its attack on the Tories

David Miliband’s Guardian article has been hailed by some as exactly the sort of robust critique of the Tories that Labour has so conspicuously lacked recently. In truth, the piece marks an improvement on the lukewarm efforts of much of the cabinet while also confirming some of the persistent flaws of Labour’s lines of attack.

To date, Labour’s offensive against Cameron has focused on two arguments. The first seeks to portray Cameron as an unreconstructed Thatcherite who would slash and burn public services. Yet labelling Cameron a ‘Thatcherite’ doesn’t chime with people’s experience of a politician who has unequivocally embraced civil partnerships, repudiated Thatcher’s appalling description of Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’ and who now tentatively supports the concept of relative poverty. On deregulation and the state Cameron’s views may well best be described as Thatcherite but this remains a more sophisticated form of conservatism, as demonstrated by the recurring maxim ‘there is such a thing as society-it’s just not the same as the state.’, and one that demands a more sophisticated rebuke. To most, ‘Thatcherite’ is an epithet redolent of the old battles of the poll tax and the miners’ strike, and one which doesn’t hold water in these ideologically hazy times.

The second damns Cameron and his party as essentially vacuous; opportunistic chancers who’ll say anything to get their mitts on those red boxes. In his response to Miliband’s piece, Denis MacShane regurgitated this line when he spoke of the “utter vacuity of current Tory policies and people.” That many of those who echo this claim simultaneously present Cameron as a Thatcherite ideologue is a feat of doublethink i had not thought possible. Let it never again be said that the Tories ‘don’t have any policies’, they do have policies, plenty of them, pernicious and reactionary ones at that. The perpetuation of the myth that they have none is a lazy activity in place of a centre-left critique.

The Conservatives now declare that they will promise no upfront tax cuts, the cause of sound money demands as much and in his more sober moments George Obsorne even concedes that taxes may have to go up. Yet it seems an exception could be made for some. Is it not the case that the Tories maintain their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million? A decent Labour party would be hammering away on this point day and night. At a time of economic malaise with those with the least once again likely to suffer the most, why is Tory tax policy focused on lightening the load for a wealthy elite? But instead of mounting a robust defence of inheritance tax based on meritocracy and social justice, Labour’s magpie pre-budget report followed the politically humiliating path of promising to raise the threshold to £600,000. Thus, a potentially profitable line of attack is left on the sidelines by Miliband as by others.

The Tories have also pledged to unilaterally withdraw from the EU social chapter, the document that guarantees workers the right to a paid holiday, to paternity/maternity leave and that ensures part-time workers the same rights as the rest. For what purpose does Cameron propose to return to the days of John Major and pull out? Again, this is a question ministers should be asking day and night but aren’t.

Yet despite these omissions Miliband scores some direct hits where others flail and punch air. In a short burst he takes up the most persuasive criticism of the Tories: “They say they have adopted “progressive ends”- social justice, better public services and fighting climate change — but they insist on traditional Tory means of charity, deregulation and lower spending to deliver them. It doesn’t add up.”

By taking Cameron’s words on poverty and social deprivation sincerely, rather than merely denouncing him as a phoney, Labour can forge a practical critique that argues that while Cameron may will the ends, he must also, but does not, will the means. As the other Miliband, Ed, pointed out in his speech at this year’s Compass conference most of those who actually work in the voluntary sector don’t think they’re suitable for the tasks Cameron would thrust upon them.

Miliband is also right to argue that Cameron can’t pursue both an environmental and a Eurosceptic agenda. Nor with regards to Europe generally will this be any ordinary Tory government. It will stand as one of the ironies of political history that the party now the most viscerally Eurosceptic was also the party that first initiated and later confirmed our membership of the European project. Despite her bluster Thatcher signed the Single European Act and Major prevailed over ‘the bastards’ to sign Maastricht into law. One of the great political myths of our time is that the Tory party is constantly on the edge of collapsing into division and rancour over Europe. In reality, the party is now more united on the issue than at any time in the last fifty years. The Europhile Conservative is an increasingly endangered species and the passionate advocacy of Lord Hesletine and Ken Clarke (who may well soon trade his hush puppies in for slippers) only serves to remind us what a rare breed this is.

While there is generally little mileage in pro-Europeanism in British politics, there is a vague sense amongst the electorate that if we’re going to be ‘in’ the EU then we should be in a strong position to exercise influence. If Labour can argue that a Cameron government would alienate key allies and regress to the ignominy and isolation of the Major era then it just might be able to outfox the Tories on Europe.

For now Labour should swing out confidently against the Tories, ditching pantomime toff-bashing and homing in on the practical flaws of Conservative policy. Attack must be the best form of defence, for while Labour might not now be able to win the election, the Tories could still lose it.

June 29, 2008

Intellectuals and Politics

Importance of Not Being Intellectual

Graham Laidler’s series of cartoons on ‘The British Character’, drawn for Punch in the 1930s under the pen name Pont, includes one particularly pungent work titled ‘Importance of Not Being Intellectual’. A bedraggled gentleman in a rather unflattering corduroy suit is shown increasingly isolated in the centre of the room as the great and the good flee in shame, giving all the appearance of having just had a nasty taste of his smell. As a succinct representation of what many take to be the scepticism, and even outright hostility, of British society towards intellectuals it is unmatched.

The British it is thought, frown upon intellectuals as ‘too clever by half’, swiftly prescribing them a good dose of ‘common sense’. In part this supposition reflects the influence of a particularly English, Burkean strain of conservatism and its accompanying scepticism of human nature. When Burke howled that the “age of chivalry” had been replaced by the “age of economists, sophists and calculators” and revelled in the scarcity of Britain’s “political men of letters”, he prefigured generations of conservative anti-intellectualism. The remnants of this culture still turn up in surprising places. Punch ‘intellectuals’ into Amazon and the first result is conservative historian Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, in which he harangues such figures for their peccadilloes and misdemeanours, judging them wholly unfit to influence public affairs. Yet if this conservative tendency was a persistent one it was also always an unstable one. Thatcherites treated the intelligentsia with disdain, but Thatcher herself brazenly revealed her intellectual debt when during a party meeting she thumped Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table and bellowed “This is what we believe in.”. As ever, one must speak of intellectual anti-intellectualism.

The rarely acknowledged truth is that British intellectual culture, and public appreciation of it, is, if not in rude health, certainly in fighting shape. Richard Dawkins’s and Christopher Hitchens’s best-selling atheist polemics have reignited interest in the oldest intellectual argument of them all, spawning a whole literature of rebuttal and counter-rebuttal. Tickets for the debates organised by Intelligence Squared sell out faster than those for small music festivals. Literary festivals grow in prominence each year, with the jamboree at Hay now exported to Cartagena and Segovia. Newspaper sales may remain stagnant or in decline, but political magazines bask in an Indian summer, with the latest, Standpoint, launched last month. One of them, Prospect, announces the results of its second poll on the world’s ‘top 100 public intellectuals’ this week, with Dawkins and Hitchens likely to feature in the top five once again.

Yet Westminster remains conspicuously untouched by this resurgence, a trend all the stranger given that for the first time since Arthur Balfour, Britain has a prime minister who can reasonably lay claim to the title ‘public intellectual’. For an apt demonstration, read Brown’s speech on liberty last year or his delivery of the Hugo Young memorial lecture in 2005, the latter in particular is an intellectual tour de force, a panoramic sweep through Locke, Smith, Voltaire, Darwin and Orwell. Nor can this merely be dismissed as name-dropping; Brown remains a voracious reader and where time restricts he orders his staff to digest and summarise key works. After a meeting with Brown on terrorism, an incredulous Paddy Ashdown remarked, “He had already read all the books I had read. He was already ahead of me.” At least in this regard, Brown remains the antithesis of the famously light reading Blair.

But beyond such set-piece speeches Brown has failed to harness his intellect to recast Labour, with the result that the party’s political strategy remains that of triangulation, its default ideology that of the ‘Third Way’. Both are neither intellectually nor politically sustainable, embodying old solutions for old problems. By trading so heavily on their apparent novelty, The Third Way, and its British incarnation New Labour, ensured the rapid onset of diminishing returns. Most have recognised that Labour is suffering a political crisis, few have recognised that it is also suffering an intellectual one.

Both the liberal financier George Soros and Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, argue that the economic shocks of the past year have been unmatched since the Great Depression. The left would do well to remember that it was Keynesianism and social democracy that made the intellectual running in the aftermath of the latter. One of the few bodies attempting to carve out the space for modern equivalents to gestate is the left-wing pressure group Compass. At one point during their conference last week an audience member proposed that each member of the cabinet should be given a copy of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. The derisory laughter that followed was swiftly transformed into thoughtful murmuring as Helena Kennedy brilliantly itemised the essentials of the ‘veil of ignorance’. It those who argue that such ideas have no place in political discourse who are adopting the ahistorical and elitist position here.

The history of politics is more often than not the history of the progression of ideas from dusty seminar rooms to the world. Karl Marx scribbled in isolation in the British library, and only eleven people were at his funeral, but less than a century later governments influenced by his ideas covered a third of the world’s population. At times during the social democratic heights of the 1950s and 60s it must have seemed to Milton Friedman and Hayek as if all the true free-marketeers could have fitted into one stagecoach. Yet it was in such solitude that the embryos of the Thatcher/Reagan revolution were formed.

The tragedy of what is likely the denouement of the Labour government is that if it wished to it could draw on an intellectual arsenal, from Keynes to Rawls to Galbraith, more potent than any available to the Conservatives. However many sweet cooings David Cameron makes about ‘fraternity’ or now even ‘social justice’, the language of equality is not in the Conservatives ideological DNA; it is a con trick that flatters the very concepts Labour bizarrely shies away from. In his speech to the Compass conference Ed Miliband, one of the more cerebral members of the cabinet, spoke of a growing ‘idealism of the mainstream’. If Labour is to recover it must forge an intellectualism of the mainstream too.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 24/07/08

June 12, 2008

42 Day Detention: A Tawdry Victory and a Moral Defeat

Gordon Brown’s government has won the most tawdry of legislative victories at the cost of the most resounding of moral defeats. Credit to the 36 Labour rebels (for it is the government that is the real rebel here, rebelling against liberty and the best traditions of their party) who rejected the policy of detaining suspects for up to 42 days, and withstood the gross of bribes shamelessly hawked around by the Labour whips. A “grubby bazaar”, as the redoubtable Diane Abbott put it, was erected at Westminster yesterday.

Particularly pernicious therefore, is the line spun by ministers that it is opposition parties who have been ‘playing politics’ with national security. I know irony is something of an endangered species in the present cabinet but i thought at least natural shame would provoke some restraint. The narrow victory yesterday reeks of the smoke-filled rooms that Gordon Brown pledged to banish.

The coming weeks, perhaps as early as Gordon Brown’s Northern Ireland visit on Monday, will reveal to what extent the DUP’s turnaround rested on the government meeting their demands on water charges, asset sales and abortion. What we can be sure of is that a whole host of issues usually dismissed by the government as just too expensive, too inconvenient or too divisive, suddenly acquired an urgency out of all proportion to their prior standing. Such is their disparate nature, from ending EU sanctions on Cuba to financial compensation for arthritic miners, that one almost has the image of someone (perhaps Margaret Hodge, the Gambling Minister) flicking through a rolodex at the cabinet table and deciding that having landed on ‘C’ and ‘M’, it was the Cuban and Miners lobbies lucky day. For some of us these issues are as important as ever, and further shame is added by the fact it took a political crisis to stun the government into lending their advocates an ear.

Had such debased pork barrel politics been put at the service of a worthy cause then nagging considerations about ends justifying means would soon have entered one’s mind. To the contrary, it was employed to prop up a wholly unjustified attack on liberty which has little prospect of increasing security, and indeed may do much to imperil it. Thanks to research by Anthony Barnett we now know that of the six terrorist suspects held up to 28 days, three were released without any charge. There can be little doubt that the new possibility of holding innocent suspects for up to six weeks will fuel the very resentment and embitterment we desperately need to dampen.

In sum, the government has further restricted our liberty and endangered our security, whilst employing some of the most populist and demagogic tactics to do so. Another fine day’s work in the decline of the party that i still, though with more anger than ever, call my own.

June 07, 2008

Christopher Hitchens and Wounded Pumas

The US election has proved a fine opportunity for Christopher Hitchens to once again demonstrate his prescience. He was first off the mark in calling Obama on his sinister, sectarian (and now thankfully, former) church As for Clinton, a few months ago in the video below, amidst a flurry of staccato insults, he described her as a ‘wounded puma’, ready to fight to the end. It was, i thought, a rather resonant remark though still somewhat esoteric. But in the wake of defeat the Clintonoids have dusted themselves down and regrouped as, well, Pumas

Now claimed to stand for “People United Means Action”, the acronym actually derives from Party Unity, My Ass! Hitchens is fond of pointing out that many terms, such as ‘suffragette’, ‘intellectual’, ‘Tory’ and ‘impressionist’, originated as insults before being reclaimed by their targets as terms of pride and honour. It would seem that he can now add ‘puma’ to that list.

May 15, 2008

Labour's shameful Crewe populism

(Labour activists campaign dressed as ‘toffs’)

Excellent piece by John Harris in the Guardian on Labour’s shameful campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection.

It’s wearying enough to see Labour activists trawling round Crewe dressed as ‘toffs’, but the nadir was reached with one particularly sinister campaign leaflet

titled “Tory candidate application form”, replete with questions and ticked boxes. Number one is, “Do you live in a big mansion house?” Question two is – and, really, the sense of humour on display is quite something – “Do you think that regeneration is adding a new wing to your mansion?” The third reads: “Have you and your Tory mates on the council been soft on yobs and failed to make our streets safer?” But the best is saved for question four, at which point pantomimic class hatred is suspended and we get something altogether more sinister. “Do you,” it asks, “oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?”

It’s disturbing to see Labour attack the Conservatives from the right but no longer surprising.

I was reminded of one of the closing passages of Tony Blair’s final speech to the party conference:

David Cameron’s Tories? My advice: get after them. His foreign policy. Pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from America … His immigration policy. Says he’ll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes Identity Cards, the one thing essential to do it … He wants a Bill of Rights for Britain drafted by a Committee of Lawyers. Have you ever tried drafting anything with a Committee of Lawyers? And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug.

Far from being rejected, such right-wing populism has been entrenched.

As for the byelection leaflet, such toff-bashing (a shame Labour would have been deprieved of the public-school educated Clement Attlee by that standard) is no substitute for principled egalitarianism and social democracy. Just as we judge Attlee and Tony Benn by their principles, not their class, so we should attack Edward Timpson for his ideology, not on his (actually quite complex) background.

The greatest irony though, is that many of those posturing in Crewe no doubt support the very neoliberal policies (minimal taxation of the super-rich, tax breaks for private schools) that have further entrenched class division in British society.

I’d also wager that they’re not too troubled by the persistence of our unelected, hereditary monarchy. Show you are and join the excellent Republic

P.S. Also see William Davies’s ‘The irrelevance of toff-bashing’ over at Prospect’s blog.

March 12, 2008

Warwick's heart beats on the left

‘Red Warwick’ is increasingly spoken of in the hallowed tones usually reserved for the theological. Well, after all it did have its own Bible (Warwick University Ltd.), it had its prophets (E.P.Thompson, Germaine Greer), it certainly had its devil (the Vice-Chancellor). And there doesn’t seem much chance of a second coming either. But the recent success of the Go Green and Palestine Solidarity weeks suggests that Warwick’s political heart still beats on the left. As does the emergence of the admirably plural Dissident Warwick, a journal mercifully free from the apologetics for Islamist terror offered by some quarters of the left. In this regard, the decline of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Respect has been just as gratifying.

One hopes that it marks an end to the most shameful period in the history of Warwick’s left, a period which saw George Galloway held up as a figure of socialist principle. Admittedly, taking Galloway apart is like harpooning a very large whale in a very small barrel, but since there remain those on campus that honour this man, it becomes not just a necessary duty, but a pleasurable one. I take no issue with the 2006 appearance of Galloway at a Stop the War event, a group dominated by the SWP and Respect, but rather with the fact that this invitation was designed to place him in a favourable light. A permatanned, creationist, carpetbagger, Galloway has many faults, but he will never better telling Saddam Hussein in 1994, ‘I thought the President would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the year, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam’. He should have been greeted with, to annex Martin Amis’s description of the appropriate response to jihadist attacks, ‘an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust.’

It also remains more than perplexing that some of the most hysterical defenders of the No Platform policy lionise a man notorious for his ‘solidarity’ with the misogynistic and homophobic Hizbullah, currently listed as a banned racist and fascist group. But the most shaming moment for this pseudo-leftist nexus came when they handed out protest posters in advance of the death of the 100th British soldier in Iraq. What they didn’t tell students is that the SWP and Respect support the use of ‘all means necessary’ to attack British soldiers. The argument that all forms of ‘resistance’ are justified against the occupation has led these parties to fail to condemn, and by implication support, the use of children as decoys for chlorine bombs and most recently the strapping of explosives to Down’s syndrome sufferers unable to resist.

One can of course draw distinctions between student societies and national parties. But as one Respect member once put it in the Boar, ‘Don’t join a party unless you’re aware of all their ideologies, policies, and beliefs. You have to know that you will defend those ideas’. Well, quite.

If the Warwick left is to continue its recent progress it will need a greater reckoning with these past disgraces. Those who continue to apologise for them should be declared persona non grata in all progressive circles.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 04/03/08

February 20, 2008

On the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law: We need less religious privilege not more

The Church of England is commonly regarded as one of the most mild-mannered and innocuous of modern religious institutions. But its representatives seem to be making something of a habit of betraying this reputation. The latest wave of absurdity began with the Bishop of Carlisle, who following last summer’s floods explained that, “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” Elaborating further, the bishop cited the recent ban on businesses discriminating against homosexuals. If so, one rather wonders why the divine being aimed the deluge at gruff Yorkshire. Why not fabulous Brighton? Why not mincing Soho?

But it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who ultimately severed the Church’s already tenuous relationship with liberalism and reason. The incorporation of aspects of sharia law into British law was, he declared last week, “unavoidable”. Dispelling the possibility that this might have been a slip of the tongue, he declared that the idea that “there’s one law for everybody” was dangerous. Inevitably, Williams balked at “the kind of inhumanity” that sees women and homosexuals stoned in theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia. But effectively he maintained that Muslims, and implicitly other religious groups, should be privileged with separate laws in areas such as financial and family matters. It was the fatalistic tone as much as the content that grated, and the short shrift that the major parties have given to Williams’ proposal reminds us that separate laws are by all means avoidable. Wrong in principle and unworkable in practice, this proposal deserves to be greeted with contempt.

The social cohesion that Williams apparently aspires to would be best served not by segregated laws but by a fully secular state. He is right to point out that English law allows individuals to reach their own settlement in front of an agreed third party, as existing sharia and Jewish rabbinical courts do, but he is wrong to argue that any formalisation of this is either possible or desirable. Islamic scholarship contains no fewer than five major interpretations of sharia law. Which is to be adopted? And on whose authority? Williams conspicuously ducked this issue. A secular state, which privileges no religion and protects all, is the most reliable means to integration. Believers who wish to change the law should democratically campaign to do so, as all free citizens can.

Secularists have long dreaded the persecution and bloodletting that the religious have historically inflicted on each other. But juxtaposed with this is a lingering fear that the faithful, notably those who regard Abraham as a common father, will eventually pool their resources in a common front against the secular. It is in this context that the Archbishop’s favourable attitude to what is, after all, a rival faith must be understood. One is reminded of Prince Charles, who upon his mother’s death will become Supreme Governor of the Church, and his professed wish once King to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ not ‘Defender of the Faith’. Watch as House of Lords reform comes round once more and the Church, desperate to hold on to its coterie of unelected bishops, proposes that each faith should be awarded a quota of ‘representatives’.

At a time when a few courageous individuals have been brave enough to publicly form the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, (the Hadith prescribes death for apostates), Williams has given succour to Islamist patriarchs who may well cherish state legitimation for the right, maintained under all interpretations, to remarry while refusing their first wife a divorce. He has simultaneously pandered to the essentialist doctrine of the nationalist far right, who think British law only fit for white Anglo-Saxons, and that of the Islamist right, who seek outright sharia law. He should be removed from office as a prelude to the removal of his Church from the state.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 12/02/08

February 07, 2008

No to No Platform

It’s now forty years since 1968. It was a year that began with the Tet Offensive pinning down US imperialism in Vietnam, and went on to see the French May shake the Gaullist state and the Prague Spring chip away at the Soviet edifice. The international solidarity of that era marked the zenith of student radicalism. But the deferred victories and outright defeats that ’68 was also witness to, led some to regress to a muddle-headed pseudo-liberalism. The radical demand for absolute free speech on campus mutated into a censorious mentality that cared more for avoiding ‘offence’ than taking up the arguments and winning them. The cowardly No Platform policy, that bans speakers from racist and fascist groups such as the BNP and the National Front from appearing on campus, is a product of this historic shift.

Granting a group freedom of expression does not lead to an obligation to give them a platform. But the absolute restriction on anyone doing so is wrong in principle and counterproductive in practice. Defenders of the policy often begin by reeling off the litany of violent acts committed by racists and fascists. Well, one could hardly have failed to notice that far-right groups contain more than their fair share of ex-cons, small-time gangsters and accredited psychopaths. But the laws against violence and physical intimidation could still be applied without the No Platform policy, that’s not the issue here.

I’ve heard many defenders of the policy condescendingly argue that figures like David Irving and Nick Griffin are just too ‘articulate’ and ‘persuasive’ to be allowed access to a large audience. Yet to leave such figures to just preach unchallenged in dank Dagenham basements is to dispense with one of the most powerful tools in the anti-fascist arsenal. For when given a platform far-right speakers very often expose and embarrass themselves. I remember Nick Griffin’s 4am shaming at the hands of David Dimbleby as one of the rare highlights of the mediocre 2005 election. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier and anti-semite, provided another fitting example of this recently when he appeared at Columbia University. Rather overlooking the long tradition of homoerotic Persian literature, Iran, he claimed, doesn’t have gays. These anecdotes shouldn’t be surprising; those with ridiculous views will make fools of themselves.

‘Know your enemy’ the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wisely encouraged. The failure to follow this became clearer to me at a debate on this subject during Rise Against Racism week. Nick Griffin, one of my opponents claimed, would turn up steaming and baldly declare that white people were better than black people. Come on, I countered, he doesn’t give the game away that easily. The caricature of the slobbering monster is as unhelpful as that of the extraordinarily persuasive debater. Only by challenging fascists and racists as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be, can we hope to shame and refute them.

But it is John Stuart Mill’s imperishable On Liberty that best distils the indispensability of unrestrained argument. It is only in conflict with opposing views, the great liberal argued, that we fully understand and refine what we ourselves believe. It keeps our principles alive and dynamic. Without this open conflict the reasoned views of one generation can ossify into the prejudice and dogma of the next. Anti-racist and anti-fascist views become held not because they have been forged in the heat of dialectical exchange, but merely because they represent the received wisdom of the age. Thus, I need not make the outlandish claim that racists and fascists will be argued out of their views for the purpose of argument to hold. A leftist supporter of the policy does not presumably expect to convert, say, their Thatcherite opponent when they argue and debate with them, but they still do just that.

Throughout human thought from the secular to the sacred, the necessity of free exchange has been recognised. When asked to name his favourite dictum, Karl Marx, a master of the dialectical method, replied ‘Doubt everything’. Even the authoritarian Catholic Church always heard from the devil’s advocate at canonization hearings, an office they are now all the poorer for abolishing. When confronted by racism today far too many liberals lapse into platitude, ‘We’re a tolerant, multicultural society now’, or tautology, ‘Why is racism bad? Because it’s racism.’ Very few can offer clinching rational or scientific arguments against it, because they haven’t have had to make the arguments often enough.

Most of the points for the No Platform policy, the claim that we can never tolerate the intolerant for instance, also apply to wider society. Do the policy’s supporters aspire to the historically disastrous strategy of banning fascist groups outright? We should be told.

The Students’ Union claims to be worried about apathy. In combating it the union might want to begin by revoking this policy; the great protest and scorn that would track any fascists would do much to override apathy. For now, we are hamstrung by an approach that does much to pander to the far-right claim of a ‘liberal conspiracy’. It’s time to replace a policy of bureaucratic motions with one of open argument.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 07/02/08

January 31, 2008

The Future of Capitalism

Addressing Nicolas Sarkozy’s Gaullist rally recently, Tony Blair called time on the notions of left and right. In Blair’s view, politics, an art defined by division and argument, is to be replaced by a dash for the amorphous centre, represented by ‘the future or the past…strength or weakness’. That he had the gall to declare as much in France, the country that invented left and right in 1789, only compounded this original error. Nye Bevan, the great founder of the NHS currently celebrating its 60th birthday, surely had it right when he argued we know what happens to those who stand in the middle of the road. They get run down.

Yet Blair’s remarks were indicative of a profound shift in the scope of political argument. Where once socialists and social democrats heralded texts such as Lenin’s The State and Revolution, or Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which pointed towards the transcendence of capitalism, they are now drawn to those that dramatically detail the destructive power of the boundless free-market. Strikingly modern in their style and stark in their analysis, such works are also characterised by their penchant for neologism, ‘turbo-capitalism’, ‘hyper-capitalism’, ‘disaster-capitalism’, or in the case of Oliver James’s The Selfish Capitalist- Origins of Affluenza, wry pun. Far from tumbling into the early grave that Karl Marx claimed it was digging, capitalism has proven adept at officiating over the successive funerals of its ideological rivals.

The best of the bunch has been Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, the work that originated the aforementioned ‘disaster capitalism’. It centres on the phenomena of societies traumatised by disaster, both natural and man-made, being seized upon by governments and companies to further market ends unachievable under normal circumstances. Her case is most compelling in the cases of post-Katrina New Orleans (privatisation of the education system), post-tsunami Sri Lanka (business’s appropriation of the coastline), and Iraq (15 per cent flat tax and unrestricted free trade). With citizens preoccupied with day-to-day survival, the usual resistant forces are weakened for just long enough. As Klein sardonically remarks, “some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.”

Ambitious to a fault, The Shock Doctrine comes undone when it attempts to integrate post-Tiananmen China, where the market actually entered a prolonged period of hibernation, and post-Falklands Britain, where Thatcher’s appeal to a residual jingoism had little concrete effect on an economic revolution already unleashed. Amid this relentlessly melancholic landscape the final chapter ‘Shock Wears Off: The Rise of People’s Reconstruction’ can’t help but feel tacked on, and one has the sense of both people and author running to stand still. Implicitly, Klein calls for a return to the consensual Keynesianism of the Golden Age, but the route-map there is left to chance.

However, given the durability of the unhinged free market, is powerful critique twinned with improvised and sporadic resistance the best we can hope for? I don’t mean to sound unduly pessimistic; contrary to New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman’s latest, globalisation has not rendered the world flat and governments, as the relatively egalitarian Nordic states have demonstrated, retain extensive room for social-democratic manoeuvre. Persistent talk of a neoliberal ‘race to the bottom’ is designed to grant the right the same aura of inevitability that the left once traded on. Yet too often the centre-left portray any retention or even advance as only achieved in the teeth of all-consuming globalisation. A European social democratic revival could at least begin by acknowledging that globalisation imposes few genuine constraints, thus ending the irrational paranoia that leaves citizens bewildered and the prejudices of the right confirmed. Italy, where the crooked narcissist Silvio Berlusconi now seems likely to return to government, is a desperate example of this failure.

But what of the wider international level that Klein focuses on? With economists now more likely to differ on the severity than the probability of global economic decline, capitalism, warts and all, will be under the spotlight once more. With its inherent tendency to monopoly, to maldistribute wealth and to market failure all in tact, capitalism may have jettisoned its competitors but it has not, and cannot, cast aside these rogue characteristics.

These persistent faults at least provide openings but harnessing them proves a more weighty task. Some hail the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftish Latin American governments as the bright spot in this regard. Governments in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have ensured that the poor majority can no longer be sidelined as passive spectators and have brought about a long overdue reckoning with bloated elites. But restricted by regional circumstance and over-dependent on charismatic individuals and resource populism, they fail to offer a globally transferable model.

Others alight upon China’s Market Leninism as a vital counterbalance to US hegemony. As Pinochet’s Chile demonstrated, democracy is neither a necessary precondition for, nor an inevitable consequence of, capitalist development but the defects that China is visibly tainted by are such that a political implosion cannot be ruled out. The informational difficulties and lack of accountability that flow from the absence of a free media and an independent judiciary are inherently defective and
can prove decisive.

It was vital, therefore, that after his shamefully sycophantic visit to the Chinese government, Gordon Brown renewed the UK pledge to campaign for a security council seat for India, the world’s largest liberal democracy and one equipped with an admirably secular system. In the form of the governing Congress party there remains a serviceable, if diminished, centre-left tradition and the outlines of a more sustainable and equitable rise.

In some ways it is symptomatic of the narrowing of economic horizons that the major capitalist power should find itself at war with a jihadist foe that, excepting opportunistic propaganda, has absolutely nothing to say on economics. First hubris and then fear have marked the left’s relationship with capitalism over the last fifty years, a cool dose of scepticism and an affirmation of human agency are the necessary preliminaries to engagement in this tattered arena.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 29/01/08

January 15, 2008

A great President who will never be: John Edwards

One of the most visible indicators of George Bush’s disastrous presidency has been a dramatic rise in global anti-US sentiment. In western Europe, (the east remains more amenable largely owing to memories of the Soviet yoke), French anti-Americanism was once seen as sui generis but over time this view has become less and less tenable. Eight years ago, 83 per cent of British citizens had a favourable view of the US, by last year this had fallen to 51 per cent. Though much of this can be put down to the calamitous invasion of Iraq, it also reflects a view of America as a corporate playground; a land dedicated to vulgar self-gratification while 47 million Americans lack health insurance and Democrat and Republican alike genuflect to big business. Its dismaying therefore, that the one presidential candidate who has said as much has been crowded out by the razzmatazz of Barack Obama and the stoicism (now with added tears) of Hillary Clinton.

“The system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken.” Not the words of a Noam Chomsky op-ed, but those of John Edwards, running mate in 2004 to the lacklustre John Kerry and a challenger for the Democratic nomination. Edwards wasn’t simply playing to the leftist gallery on this occasion. Radicalised by the 2004 defeat, the dysfunctions and social fractures that flow from overweening corporate power have been the defining theme of his campaign. As one Edwards ad put it, “We can say as long as we get Democrats in, everything’s gonna be ok. It’s a lie- do you really believe if we replace a crowd of corporate Republicans with a crowd of corporate Democrats that anything meaningful’s gonna change?”

Nor has Edwards ducked funding issues, promising to break a Democratic taboo-maintained since Walter Mondale’s 1984 run-on raising taxes. His emphasis on tackling inequality has helped bind together a cross-class coalition of progressive liberals, farmers and blue-collar unionised workers. And given that the Democrats have run rather too many Massachusetts liberals in the past, Edwards’ Southern roots are all to the good. After coming home a distant third in New Hampshire, the former North Carolina Senator won’t be elected President but the reasons why do much to affirm his essential message.

With a past as both a robust anti-poverty campaigner and as a well remunerated personal injury lawyer, he has necessarily fallen foul of the right-wing cry of ‘hypocrite!’, with opponents homing in on his $6 million home and his $400 haircut. I think we can all agree that, yes, $400 is rather too much to spend on a rug-rethink, but Edwards wouldn’t begrudge others the same indulgence, nor the appropriate taxation that follows. Where’s the hypocrisy? In any case, under this perverse logic reactionaries like the vile Ann Coulter, who among other things has labelled Edwards a ‘faggot’ and claimed he ‘enjoyed’ the road death of his teenage son, are hypocrites should they ever donate to charity.

Instead, the reality of Edwards’ defeat is that despite getting through more shoe leather than any other candidate, by taking aim at the stranglehold of big money on both parties, he has been left trailing Obama and Clinton in the financial stakes. Despite being just as electable as either, with voters ranking him further ahead of the Republican field when show clips of all candidates, this disparity in resources has proved decisive.

Nor is this just a technical issue; greater freedom from corporate interests has allowed Edwards the space to develop the most progressive policies of any candidate. Moreover, the corollary has held; Obama’s and Clinton’s policies have been visibly tainted by their corporate links.

The failure of Edwards’ campaign to receive the attention it deserves has robbed many of an illuminating vantage point on US politics. As Michael Moore’s Sicko devastatingly documented, the vested interests of the health insurance firms and drug companies, twinned with campaign contributions to this end, have blocked the development of an adequate health system. Clinton has largely matched Edwards’ health care plan, but the suspicion remains that as the second-largest Senate recipient of health-industry contributions, she will be forced to capitulate in practice.

By contrast, Edwards has recognised that euphemism about, or compromise with, corporate forces is neither possible nor desirable. As he wryly notes, “The lesson Senator Clinton seems to have learned from her experience with health care is, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ I learned a very different lesson from decades of fighting powerful interests—you can never join ‘em, you just have to beat ‘em.” Moreover, Edwards’ plan contains an inbuilt reciprocity; if a universal healthcare plan has not been passed by mid 2009, care for the President, Congress and political appointees will be cut off.

Most of all, he has grasped that clearing out the Aegean stables of corporate excess is a necessary preliminary to policy progress on issues from climate change to foreign policy. In 2005 State Department papers thanked ExxonMobil for the company’s “active involvement” in determining climate change policy and briefing papers encouraged acceptable alternatives to Kyoto to be formed in tandem with the company and others. Naomi Klein’s mordant The Shock Doctrine has most recently documented the extent to which corporate force drove the neoliberal order imposed on Iraq under former US viceroy Paul Bremer.

Edwards isn’t without fault; I can’t forgive his rather saccharine piety, “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering”, a defect shared by his Democratic rivals. This is after all a religion that inaugurated the concept of eternal punishment long before Guantanamo Bay, or anything like it, came on the scene. His campaign hasn’t devoted enough attention to the consistent curtailment of civil liberties by the Bush administration, and his vote in favour of the Patriot Act is a stain on his record. But he still offered the Democrats their most progressive opportunity for decades.

The failure of John Edwards says much about the preference of American liberals for the fuzzy bed of identity-politics-a refuge for the sinister and mediocre-rather than principled civic liberalism. Yet Edwards’ failure also holds uncomfortable truths for the European left. The lack of interest in his campaign suggests at least some have become so disillusioned with US politics that they are unable to recognise a candidate who stands against the very roots of this disillusion. This mixture of complacency and fatalism must change-and soon.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 15/01/08

December 17, 2007

The Four Horsemen: Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett together at last

Writing about web page http://richarddawkins.net/

Part 1

Part 2

In a June diary piece for his old parish the New Statesman, Christopher Hitchens explored possible monikers for the recent raft of atheist writers. He noted that as a quartet (Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) they would inevitably attract such hackneyed shorthands as the Gang of Four or the Four Musketeers. Thus, he offered an alternative, the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, now refined into the more succinct Four Horsemen. Shorn of its playful end the title may only further the religious association between atheism and evil, but i’m just relieved that Hitchens and Harris haven’t been conscripted into the sickly sweet Brights favoured by Dawkins and Dennett.

It now emerges that the Four Horsemen were recently gathered at Hitchens’s Washington apartment, with the two-hour discussion on religion that ensued filmed for our enjoyment. Released on DVD on January 2nd, you can view it all now courtesy of Dawkins’s site.

Watching the discussion i was reminded of those collaborative Marvel comic books that crop up occasionally, Spiderman and Superman: United at last!, X-Men and the Fantastic Four join forces! Far more interesting than what the four agree on is what they don’t. The differences, between Hitchens and Dawkins on the Iraq war as a secular project, and betwen Harris and the others on the relationship of atheism to Eastern spiritualism, do much to prove that the ‘new atheists’ are far from a homogeneous block.

The most compelling discussion occurs when Hitchens argues that he’d miss religion in a hypothetical atheist world since then the debate would end; he’d have no one to refine his arguments against, no one to hone his wit in opposition to, no one to face down in swathes of smoke long after the bulk of audience have retired. It proves once more that an admiration for the dialect is one feature that remains from his Trotskyist days. An incredulous Dawkins is baffled by this stance and at a later stage Hitchens, maintaining he’d like to see all the churches empty, concedes its essentially contradictory nature. Which all goes to prove that a meeting of two atheists is still likely to produce three opinions.

December 14, 2007

US Death Penalty: The Garden State Shows The Way

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2227594,00.html

After approval from its state senate and legislature, New Jersey will now become the first state in more than forty years to abolish the death penalty.

In my column below, i highlighted the Supreme Court’s review of lethal injection as an encouraging sign in the campaign against capital punishment. At the least, it would mean no more executions in the US until the review’s conclusion next summer. However, the danger that the review would lead to public focus on the application of the penalty rather than the principle was also clear. The risk remained that the court could satisfy growing public scepticism by demanding a change in the ingredients used in lethal injection. While we should push for this reform, (the chemical mix is now not even used on animals), we must constantly try to shift the debate onto the issue of principle.

New Jersey’s decision is crucial in this regard. Firstly, while it becomes the fourteenth state to have abolished the death penalty, it also significantly becomes the first to have opted for abolition since the Supreme Court’s 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling, which suspended the death penalty until 1976. Secondly, the findings of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission act as a useful reminder that even if the court force changes to lethal injection, continuing a pattern of incremental reform that has seen the penalty outlawed for juvenile and mentally retarded offenders, the practice remains deeply flawed.

The bipartisan panel proved the main influence on New Jersey’s decision, with twelve of the thirteen members recommending abolition. Its findings reaffirmed the absence of any deterrent effect; those who are surprised by this forget that the majority of killers act on pure impulse, not rationality, making the consequences of their acts an irrelevance. Additionally, the risk of executing the innocent, though diminished by DNA testing, still stands against the death penalty. However, it was ultimately an economic argument that proved most persuasive to state legislators. Despite not actually executing anybody since reinstating capital punishment in 1982, New Jersey has spent $256 million just to maintain the execution infrastructure.

Two things now seem clear in the campaign for abolition. Firstly, that the US electorate are most likely to back change if the alternative offered is life sentence without parole. While 64 per cent continue to support the use of the death penalty, a slight majority now favour the alternative of imprisonment without release, adopted by New Jersey. Secondly, that the cumulative effect of detailing the practical defects of the death penalty is what turns many decisively against its use in principle. Thus, while principle should always take precedence over practice, it would seem for now that appeals to the wallet will be more effective than those to the heart.

November 30, 2007

Shutting Down the Death Machine

Albert Camus’s 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine, which along with The Rebel received special notice from the Nobel committee that awarded him that year’s literature prize, opens with an account of his father’s reaction to witnessing an execution for the first time. Despite having previously lamented the mildness of decapitation for a mass-murderer, his father returned white and trembling, and vomited repeatedly. He made no further statement on the practice. This, Camus argued, proves that shock at the barbarity of capital punishment trumps the initial thirst for revenge. Those of us who campaign for the international abolition of what Camus aptly termed “administrative murder”, should be encouraged by recent events.

The first was the result of the Polish election, which saw voters remove the chauvinistic Law and Justice party from office. It was the Polish government that alone blocked plans by EU member states to inaugurate a continent-wide day of protest against capital punishment. The second was the emergence that there may be no more executions in the US until the middle of next year. What began as a Supreme Court review of the legality of lethal injection has now evolved into a de facto moratorium. Since the successful challenge brought by two men on death row in Kentucky, the court has intervened in Texas, Virginia and Mississippi to block executions. State prosecutors have picked up on this pattern, causing the execution rate to fall to 42 this year, the lowest level for a decade. Significantly, of the 37 capital-punishment states, only Nebraska uses the alternative of the electric chair.

For now, the question of the practice of the death penalty is taking precedent over that of principle. Public backing for its use remains robust. The most recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum put support for the death penalty for murder at 64 per cent, a figure that has not dipped below 50 per cent since 1966.

The case against the death penalty is complete on principle; murder does not become legitimate in the shadow of prior murder. The circles of pain and hatred are only widened as the loss to the victim’s family is followed by that to the defendant’s. George Bernard Shaw expressed this point best when he argued, “It is the deed that teaches, not the name we give it. Murder and capital punishment are not opposites that cancel one another, but similars that breed their kind.” In a court review extremely unlikely to end the death penalty itself, we can at best hope that renewed accounts of its sordid operation will lead more to abandon the delusion that the death penalty can in any sense be ‘humanised’.

The lethal injection is the latest in a long line of methods originally conceived as benign alternatives to their brutal predecessors, but which swiftly pass into horrors of their own kind. The drugs of the injection, often resulting in prolonged and sometimes horrific pain, are now not even used on animals. Nor does the involvement of humans ameliorate the hit of the chemicals. To the contrary, since many professional doctors refuse to be involved, the deed is often contracted out to inexperienced correctional officers-with decidedly shaky hands. Yet these final acts by the gurney are not the beginning of a rotten process but rather the culmination.

The rhetoric may be of ‘zero tolerance’ but the reality is profoundly arbitrary. A mere 2 per cent of murders are punished by the death penalty. The chosen few are more often distinguished by their race or class than by the relative severity of their crimes. A defendant who kills a white person is four and a half times more likely to receive the punishment than one who kills a black person. Those too poor to afford adequate legal representation are often decisively disadvantaged. To argue that criminals shouldn’t land themselves in this distorted system in the first place, would be to forget the hundreds who spent decads on death-row before their innocence was found. That the practice mirrors the wider inequalities of society should not come as a surprise. But I still meet conservatives who daily scorn the apparent inefficiencies and abuses of state-run schools and hospitals, and yet also maintain that this same blundering state should hold the power of life and death over its citizens.

We are sure to hear much elevated talk of compromise and reform at the Supreme Court, once again a collision with the resounding point that human dignity demands abolition will be delayed, but it should not be denied.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 22/11/07

November 11, 2007

Film Review: Sicko Dir. Michael Moore

The first appearance health care made in Michael Moore’s films was during Bowling For Columbine. While visiting Canada, contrasting the unlocked doors of one street with the paranoia of US society, Moore also enquired with faux ignorance about free health care. The youths he questioned responded with a mixture of bemusement and slight pride; the principle of universal healthcare was not up for debate. It’s a technique that Moore harnesses to devastating effect in Sicko.

Sicko is a white-hot indictment of a US health system that checks the wallet before the pulse. Unique among western states, the country is still without a free, universal system treating patients on the basis of need. Moore marshals a few basic facts; 50 million Americans are without health insurance, Costa Rica rank above the US for care, and then goes for his target hard. If you’re hoping for a technical, systematic analysis of health care then you’ll leave disappointed, but Moore’s film proves an inspiring reminder of the elementary principles of human solidarity. The opening of the film is a tour of some of the health horrors left neglected by the system. A couple are forced to sell their home after the man suffers three heart attacks and the woman contracts cancer. They end up living with their already overstretched daughter. For millions of citizens the choice is an unpalatable one of working till you die, or dying if you don’t work.

Perverse examples abound. One woman is charged for her ambulance journey after being told it was not “pre-ordered”. A 22-year old who contracts cervical cancer is told that she’s “too young” for her insurance deal to cover it. Such a callous system does not emerge in a vacuum, and Moore succinctly exposes those who have acquired a vested interest in its maintenance.

In a wonderful find, the deadly logic is described on tape by one of Richard Nixon’s aides. Reassuring an initially sceptical Nixon, John Ehrlichman declares, “All the incentives run the right way: the less care they give them, the more money they make.” Thus, those with insurance are then forced through the rigmarole of form filling and claim-sheets, obstacles designed to trip them up at every stage. A woman who failed to discover she had a “pre-existing condition”, in this case a yeast infection, is then denied the insurance claim she had paid out for.

The tentacles of the system have found fertile ground in Congress. With four times as many health lobbyists as members, representatives are handsomely rewarded for their silence and complicity. Most satisfyingly of all, Moore pins down Hillary Clinton. Hailed by some as the great liberal hope for the US, Clinton became strangely muted after receiving the second-largest health-industry campaign donations.

Sicko is Moore’s most necessary film yet and also his most expansive. In the second half of the film he travels to the UK, France and Cuba in search of alternatives. A stirring moment comes in an interview with left-wing veteran Tony Benn. What would happen if anyone tried to abolish the NHS? “There’d be a revolution” replies Benn swiftly, and his words segue into Street Fighting Man. In a film clearly targeted at an American audience, Moore cannily appeals to the consumerist mentality by emphasising what individuals get out of the welfare state. The discovery that French authorities offer a laundry service seems directed at lumbago-ridden Middle American moms. Moore relishes the fact that the only cashier in the NHS is one who reimburses low-income patients for their travel costs. The time that he uses just to reassure Americans that universal health care can work, is testimony to the prejudice against ‘socialised medicine’ inculcated by right-wing propaganda. Witness an early star turn by Ronald Reagan, the second-rate actor who became a third-rate president, warning that free health care is just a paving stone on the road to communism.

It’s only after taking a razor blade to this guff, that Moore finally mentions the thornier issue of what individuals have to put in to the system. He visits a prosperous, telegenic French couple as if to prove that funding the largesse of the state need not reduce you to begging from it. But you don’t need to look at income charts to know that they aren’t exactly average French taxpayers. A failure to adequately wrestle with funding issues is an omission in this film, but Moore’s strategy, to champion free health care to the point where taxes become an afterthought, is an effective one. In the case of a US audience notoriously suspicious of taxation it’s also a necessary one.

Moore’s penchant for attention-grabbing stunts has proved a defect in the past. Circling round Congress in a buggy, while bellowing the Patriot Act through a megaphone, was one of the many embarrassments of Fahrenheit 9/11. Leaving a photo of a young gun victim outside Charlton Heston’s house in Bowling for Columbine just seemed trite. This time Moore commanders a boat, fills it with 9/11 rescue workers, all suffering from related illnesses, and heads for Guantanamo Bay. For as he sardonically notes, the naval base provides the ‘enemy combatants’ with free health care unavailable to citizens on the mainland. It’s hard to suppress a wry smile as Moore cries from the boat, “We don’t want any more than what you are giving the evildoers!”

If Moore begins by targeting the consumerist values of the American psyche, he ends by appealing to those of citizenship. It is time for a population that so values its rescue workers to create a health system that does the same. Sicko is an unequivocal return to form and a mordant assault on those who deny these hopes.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

Book Review: More Time For Politics by Tony Benn

More Time For Politics: Diaries 2001-2007
by Tony Benn
Hutchinson, 400pp, £20

A succinct indication of Tony Benn’s remarkable revitalisation as a national figure comes when The Mail on Sunday ask him for an article on Iraq. He points them towards his weekly column in the Morning Star and they like what they see. And so, Benn remarks, “for the first time ever, The Mail on Sunday will reprint an article from a communist newspaper.” These diaries, Benn’s eighth volume, show his political range to be more expansive than ever. His speeches have been set to rap on record, and live to folk. Glastonbury Festival has become as much of an annual event as the Durham Miners’ Gala. Frequently humorous and always thoughtful, Benn’s diaries are a spirited account of an intensely political life adjusting to new forms.

Having left the Commons in 2001, Benn throws himself into campaigning as President of the Stop the War Coalition. The mass of demos, meetings and petitions come with attendant strains. His confession that he only drinks “an eggcup full of tea” before big demos, for fear of needing the toilet later, conjures up the image of Benn desperately dashing from the platform, leaving a cluster of stone-faced Trotskyists to placate the crowd.

Aside from politics, he is sustained by his other great love, family. He relies on the company of his four children and ten grandchildren ever more in the wake of the death of Caroline, his beloved wife of fifty-one years. Particularly in early passages, Benn is wrought with existential angst, “I sobbed and sobbed all the way to Stansgate…I wondered where Caroline was. Had she disappeared into thin air?”

Beyond the usual comrades of the Campaign Group, CND and the trade unions, Benn is buoyed by some surprising friendships. He has far more time for Ted Heath than any equivalent Labour figure, and the two unite in mutual loathing for Bush and Blair. Benn remarks on the frequency of presidential assassinations in the US, only for Heath to shoot back, “not frequently enough as far as the present one is concerned”. As for his social outings with the actress Saffron Burrows and the BBC’s Natasha Kaplinsky- they are sure to attract the envy of readers a good deal younger than Benn.

Harold Wilson once acidly remarked of Benn, “He immatures with age”. Benn himself argues he moves to the left with age. There is little sign of the former. A teetotaller and a vegetarian, he maintains a disciplined lifestyle, swiftly flooding any white space in his diary with meetings, articles and broadcasts. Nor is there all that much sign of the latter. His politics are more complex than the doctrinaire socialism some would presume, remaining an eclectic combination of Fabian gradualism, Christian ethics and anti-capitalism. He visits Highgate Cemetery to commemorate Marx, but also hails “Jesus the prophet, and not Christ the king”, and cites the Bible and Das Kapital as his favourite books. After the collapse of the fraudulent WorldCom, Benn argues, “it is actually the very nature of capitalism”. Yet he remains convinced that there is no alternative to progressive reform through the Labour Party.

His critique of the Iraq war, which dominates the political sections of the book, has proved prescient. Amid the hubris that accompanied Saddam’s fall, Benn emphasises the dangerous precedent of uncontrolled looting. The much-criticised interview with Saddam was done out of pure motives. But his usual eye for irony and hypocrisy was absent on this occasion. In any other situation Benn would surely see the absurdity of asking the man who invaded Iran, Kuwait and massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if he could advance the cause of the peace movement.

His famous distinction between personalities and policies throws up some unexpected encounters. Alistair Campbell, a bête noire of the left, is depicted in charming terms and despite Benn’s support for Sinn Fein, he cheerfully attends Ian Paisley’s birthday party. This distinction is soon pushed to its limits with his relentless excoriation of Blair. Blair is “fundamentally undemocratic” and speaks like an “imperial president.” At one point Benn fantasises about putting cushions in front of the teleprompters, to “destroy the speech.” Such persistent focus is to the neglect of some of the wider social forces at work.

The only respite comes when Blair promotes Hilary Benn. Indeed, some of the most revealing sections arise when family and politics collide. Benn curses those MPs voting through New Labour legislation, but of Hilary’s strong support for the Iraq war, he remarks matter-of-factly, “Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.” One is reminded at such points of Albert Camus’s assertion that, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Following Benn’s professed desire to return to Parliament one looks for signs in the diary, but the extracts are ambiguous. Having been granted the Freedom of the House he exists in a halfway state, sometimes walking out in disgust at PMQs, but longing to be back on the floor during the height of debate on the war.

Yet it would be unwise to bet against Benn’s return; as these diaries show, the man once shunned by the mainstream left as a sectarian, and demonised by the right as a dangerous radical, has become our national socialist.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

October 22, 2007

Taxing Times

It is a truism of British politics that New Labour changed the terms of debate on tax-and-spend. Where once John Smith’s tax-raising budget hamstrung Labour in the 1992 election, the last three elections have seen the party convince the electorate to opt for increased spending over Conservative tax cuts.

After last week’s pre-budget report one can no longer assert this with the same confidence. Alistair Darling’s transparent act of political cross-dressing muddies the divide. Labour could have mounted a robust defence of inheritance tax based on equality and meritocracy. Instead they pandered to the same populism that infused George Osborne’s original proposal. Now Labour has entered this sweepstake, there is every chance that floating voters will opt for the opposition and that extra £300,000 on the inheritance tax threshold.

And yet there remain reasons to be hopeful. It is dispiriting that it took the Tory party, of all groups, to bounce Labour into action on non-domicile residents, but welcome all the same. With the tax debate in such a febrile state, now is the time to push harder than ever for Gordon Brown to grasp the nettle on inequality and tax. For Blair progressive taxation was an Old Labour shibboleth, firmly lodged in the dustbin of history. By contrast, privately, Brown is yet to rule out eventually raising the top rate of income tax. A slight hope this remains, but hope all the same.

While the government has succeeded in lifting over 500,000 children out of poverty-although Darling’s report showed no sign of hitting the target of halving child poverty by 2010- and in enacting modest redistribution, it has also presided over an ever-rising inequality between the richest and the poorest. The top 10 per cent now hold 54 per cent of national wealth, up from 47 per cent. Yet no sector of society can shield itself from the ramifications of inequality. Inequality corrodes social cohesion, saps social mobility, rouses crime and breeds economic inefficiency.

The tax system only compounds this problem. The popular focus on income tax masks the fact that the wider system is regressive. While the top fifth pay 35.6 per cent of their income in tax, the bottom fifth actually pay 36.4 per cent. A genuinely progressive tax system, with a new top rate of 50 per cent kicking in at earnings over £100,000, is not a sufficient reform but it is a necessary one.

Against this proposal four arguments are commonly raised. Firstly, that it damages the economy by weakening work-incentives. Yet the Nordic countries, where taxes are both higher and progressive, have long been more economically competitive than the UK. There is staggeringly little empirical evidence linking taxation to economic performance.

In the second case, others point to the phenomenon of globalisation and the risk of ‘tax-flight’ at any increase. This apparent ‘risk’ grossly overestimates the actual opportunities abroad for British business, and forgets that the more motivated, productive workforce linked to equality is just as important.

Thirdly, while conceding the desirability of reform, some argue that in practice the backlash would be too great. In fact, the most recent Social Attitudes survey found that when offered a range of tax-and-spend packages, 89 per cent preferred the redistributive options. An apt reflection of individual’s intuitive sense of a fair society, in spite of the failure of Labour to make the political case.

The final argument, that all this is motivated by ‘envy’ of the rich, is matched only in its commonality by its desperation. Never mind that most of those who hurl this charge also claim that the left is dominated by the rich; the real envy is of flourishing, egalitarian societies, the emulation of which would benefit all, including the wealthiest.

This hackneyed ‘envy’ trope is often bookended with the claim that we’re returning to the days of ‘taxing the rich till the pips squeak’. Those who imagine they’ve just quoted Denis Healey are wrong; the words never left his lips. However, he did declare at the 1973 party conference, “I warn you that there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75 per cent on their last slice of earnings.” Yet a new top rate of 50 per cent is far from the eventual rate of 83 per cent under Jim Callaghan. Even Margaret Thatcher managed to live with a top rate of 60 per cent for nine years.

In a conversation last year with Ed Miliband, the man charged with drawing up the next Labour manifesto, I put the case for progressive taxation. Miliband replied that firm political foundations had to be laid down before this; the problem was when ultra-Blairites like Stephen Byers dragged the debate to the right. Faced now with similar difficulties, Labour must act before debate is entrenched on the right.

Nye Bevan’s dictum held that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. A decent tax system should embody the priority of social justice. Without remembering this, the sea change in the polls will leave Labour marooned.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 18/10/07

October 16, 2007

Bombing Iran Would Bring More Conflict and More Repression

The medium of popular song has thankfully been relatively untroubled by US politicians since John Ashcroft’s saccharine rendition of “Let The Eagle Soar”. John McCain, however, proved a recent exception to this rule. When asked for an “airmail message” to send to Iran, the presidential hopeful subverted the Beach Boys’ hitherto innocuous “Barbara Ann”, singing to its tune, “Bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran”.

The amusement that followed McCain’s ditty has no doubt dissipated as the threat of a US strike on Iran continues to march down the path from ‘possible’ to ‘likely’. One expects such cries from neoconservative outriders such as former UN ambassador John Bolton, who recently told a Tory fringe meeting that there was no alternative but to bomb. But more crucially, in recent weeks influence has shifted away from more conciliatory figures such as defence secretary Robert Gates and towards the hawks coalescing around Dick Cheney.

The whispers that the recent Israeli air raid on Syria was preparing the ground for an attack against Iran, remind us that Israel can go it alone if required, as it did in a 1981 strike on an Iraqi reactor. Adding to a deadly cocktail of woes, the apparent nonchalance of President Ahmadinejad and the mullahs in the face of the growing threat, means they are more likely to stumble into a conflict.

An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities could act as the spark for a regional conflagration. An Iranian retaliation would probably target Israel as well as US forces in Iraq and in the Persian Gulf. Expect last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah to resurface in a more potent form. Moreover, any strike would deliver an adrenaline shot to the most reactionary and theocratic forces within Iran. The Iranian government, which many who favour a strike claim to oppose so strongly, could indulge in bouts of national grandstanding with the demagogic Ahmadinejad rallying the masses to the state’s defence. It would also heighten the brutal crackdown on dissidents; the threat of external aggression remains the surest pretext for internal repression.

The increased intimidation, which has seen reformist newspapers and websites shut down and 64 executions since July, has particularly targeted the heroic student opposition. Significant numbers of Amirkabir University students have now been expelled or suspended, and in several cases violently assaulted and tortured. When he visited the university last December, Ahmadinejad was confronted with cries of ‘Death to the Dictator’ and burning portraits of himself. His later response that, “Everyone knows the real dictator is America and its servants”, was telling. Few in Iran doubt that the danger of a US attack provides the political context for the acceleration of abuse, and this remains the primary reason why the principal dissident groups oppose any US action.

Those who argue from this that forcible regime change should accompany a military strike, would do well to remember that the best hopes for change continue to lie within Iran rather than outside it. Unlike its partners in the original ‘axis of evil’, Ba’athist Iraq and the Stalinist rump of North Korea, Iran’s more eclectic system retains some democratic space for manoeuvre. Ahmadinejad’s allies were rebuffed in the first key city council elections under his leadership, which also saw a shift towards born-again reformist Hashemi Rafsanjani. With Ahmadinejad currently undermined by rampant inflation, we must hope for a return to the incremental progress under his predecessor Mohammad Khatami.

The US can speak with little moral legitimacy when it lambasts Iran’s nuclear programme with one hand, while supporting the nuclear weapons of Israel and India, neither of whom have ever signed the non-proliferation treaty, with the other. There is still understandable suspicion and justifiable grievance against the US in Iran. The US, along with much of the west, armed and financed Saddam’s Iraq, as the ‘lesser evil’, during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88. Before that, in 1953 the Eisenhower administration orchestrated a CIA coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq. A military strike would entrench grievance for a new generation, hindering the chances of future reform.

For Iran to join the shameful roll call of nuclear-armed states would do no good. The danger of regional proliferation, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would follow. Yet as Libya has shown, states can be persuaded to relent on weapons programmes. Certainly a prolonged period of diplomacy remains the least worst option.

That we have been in the dog days of the Bush administration for some time only adds to the risk. War and bombing has often been the recourse of the unpopular or exposed leader. As Benjamin Disraeli once sardonically remarked, you can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. With little to lose and a desire to avoid accusations of ‘unfinished business’, there is every risk of the Bush administration plunging the region into a disastrous conflict.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 09/10/07

October 05, 2007

The Tories' Dance of Death

NB: This piece was originally written last weekend and was due to be published in the Boar last Tuesday. However, due to difficulties with our new printers the issue actually didn’t appear till Thursday. For form’s sake i don’t publish any Boar articles on my blog till they’ve appeared in print. Given the febrile state of British politics it has dated quickly but parts of it still apply.

Listening to David Cameron at last year’s Conservative conference, I was reminded of what was once said of the speeches of dud US President Warren Harding, “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea”. This week at Blackpool, after a blitz of policy reports, Cameron is left with a mass of ideas in search of a manifesto.

As for the threat of an early election, dangling like the sword of Damocles, for all the ‘bring it on’ posturing we’ll see, privately the Tories are not just rattled, but terrified. Their hopes that Brown would turn to the left or flounder in a crisis have been shown up as empty. He has deftly managed the balancing act of cancelling out the negatives of the Blair era, without discrediting the governments he served in.

For now Cameron must avoid making things worse. The charge of a lurch to the right has gained ground after a summer that saw the unholy trinity of Europe, tax cuts and immigration creeping back. The party may describe this more modestly as a “rebalancing” but they have still taken leave of the insights that first elevated Cameron.

When George Osborne asserts that the conference will focus on the core issues of marriage, tax and crime, he does more than just remind the electorate of Tory past. He panders to the hope amongst the right, and the fear amongst others, that Cameron’s early reforms were born of superficial electoral consideration, rather than principled choice.

In a key passage on tax in last year’s speech, Cameron asserted, “I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back. Well they’re not coming back. We’re not going back.” This pledge was undermined by the pollution of John Redwood’s report, which even the greenery of Zac Goldsmith’s could not offset. Moreover, following Osborne’s opening shots, it is now clear that the contradictions thrown up by the raft of reviews- Goldsmith’s called for a moratorium on airport expansion, Redwood’s hailed their growth- will be resolved in the right’s favour.

The mantra that economic stability comes before tax cuts increasingly appears a fig leaf. Why allow an unreconstructed Thatcherite like Redwood off the leash? The answer seems clear; while Cameron may force his party to eat the meat of economic competence, he has now winked at the pudding of tax cuts further down the menu.Where once he declared that the measure of future policy would be how it aided, “the disadvantaged in society, not the rich”, he now flirts with rolling back inheritance tax- paid by only 6 per cent of estates.

The belief that core issues can be welcomed back as old friends, as long as they are paired up with new ground on public services and the environment, overestimates the degree to which brand Tory has been cleansed. Even when polling opinion ran in Cameron’s favour, those polled still maintained that his party hadn’t changed. They weren’t wrong.

A much-overlooked Populus survey reveals the chasm that continues to separate Tory MPs from others on social affairs. Less than half would create something like the NHS if designing a health service from scratch. While 94 per cent of Labour MPs agree that greater tolerance of different cultures would improve Britain, only 67 per cent of Conservatives concur. Where 83 per cent of Labour MPs and 92 per cent of Lib Dems, believe that that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexuals, just 46 per cent of Tories do. And so, like a necrophiliac cult Tory MPs continue to lust after dead policies.

Cameron’s contortions are symptomatic of the wider difficulty of defining what it means to be a conservative in the twenty-first century. He is yet to find a coherent narrative. His dystopian “broken society” rhetoric, sits uneasily with his previous cry to “let sunshine win the day”.

It is ironic that Osborne should now position the party as “successors of the Thatcher inheritance.” It was her market forces which unleashed the atomising trends that undercut Burke’s “little platoons”, and dampened the bonds of church, queen and country. Thatcher’s legacy was a wasteland for British conservatism.

Cameron surely still has enough nous to prepare a far more centrist manifesto than the last three leaders. Yet he cannot twin these moves with oxygen masks for the decrepit right. The old tunes only lead the Tory party to its own danse macabre.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 02/10/07