29 March 2007

Welcome to the UK Department of Homeland Security

Big news of the day was that John Reid's plan to split the Home Office into a Department of Justice and a Department of Department of Security is "a goer" and will be happening in the next six weeks.

Reid, of course, gets the Security portfolio, and this is just the chance he's been waiting for to indulge his authoritarian instincts. The BBC have even found a Vulcan neck pinch photo of him that's a bit like the one of Tony Blair they occasionally dredge up. (Apologies for the small size but it was a bit small and I've had to blow it up - whoops, I'm a terrorist...)

The cover story behind the split is that the Home Office is too big to run as a single department. But Charles Clarke, Reid's predecessor, says that's total bollocks, and that the split will make things a lot worse, as the new Justice department - which combines the old Department of Constitutional Affairs with prison management, sentencing and probation - won't know what the Security Department - which will also cover policing, as well as counter-terrorism - is doing. Given the usual standard of interdepartmental communications, that's not an unreasonable criticism for Clarke to make. But I think the truth is more sinister than that. The real motive is to move counter-terrorism outside the criminal justice system - to create an agency operating 'outside the law' to take extreme measures to suppress terrorist threats both real and imagined, as well as any other undesirable civil insurrections which the government wants to get rid of. It's no surprise that the police has been assigned to the Security Department, as this separation is effectively one more step on the road to a police state. And the similarity to the US Department of Homeland Security is more than incidental.

Or I could be assigning far too much intelligence and competence to anyone involved with this whole caper, and it could just be another example of a Home Office f*** up. Either way it's bad news...

28 March 2007

"The Trap"... falling into itself?

This is becoming a bit like a TV criticism blog... I'll have to post on something else soon. I was tempted to ask Hal to do a post on Steve MacLaren, but as usual when attempting to write about football from the sports desk, he will merely deliver an incoherent melange of the last 7 days' tabloid headlines. So we'll leave it at the obvious conclusion that McLaren is crap, and move to the business of the day.

Or at least 2 days ago, which was the final episode of The Trap... which was pretty good, but, I feel, offered significantly less coherence than the first two instalments. In attempting to formulate a Grand Theory of The Course of Global Politics Since the 1950s (my words, not his), Adam Curtis overextended himself, which is hardly surprising; I don't think any social theorist has ever managed not to when the subject area gets that large, even the real greats (Marx etc.) The episode started promisingly with a very clear statement of Isiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" Thesis (about negative freedon - the libertarian concept of freedom as the absence of constraints on behaviour, and positive freedom - the concept of 'freedom TO do something', which Berlin argued collapses into totalitarianism as the state increasingly prescribes people's behaviour to conform to the leadership's idea of how free citizens should behave).

But then the programme got a bit bogged down in the idea that the pursuit of negative freedom by ideologues in the West, the developing world (via the neoliberal Washington Consensus policies of the IMF and World Bank) and then, after 1990, in the post-Communist transition countries, actually mutated into positive freedom (trying to force the populations of these countries into behaving like textbook rational agents and utility maximisers even if they couldn't, or didn't want to. This, in turn, Curtis argues, precipitated a revival of ideologies directly opposed to negative freedom (e.g. fundamentalist Islam.) The latest attempt to impose fundamentalist neo-liberal capitalist rules in the development of an economy (the post-war reconstruction of Iraq) merely resulted in a huge transfer of natural resource wealth and infrastructure into the hands of US and multinational corporations and the impoverishment of the Iraqi people.

My run-through of the argument here barely does justice to it, and I may need to set up a more traditional website to write some longer pieces of critical commentary on programmes such as this, as a blog entry hardly seems adequate. But anyway, I think Adam Curtis tried to pack too much in to this last part of his story. His wider critique of 'the trap' into which we've all been led over the last 30 years - the extinction of any wider meaning to our lives, resulting from the imposition of a world view in which we have been reduced to nothing more than selfish, calculating machines, told how to think, act and feel 'good' by an alliance of governments, academic experts and the corporate sector - only really came into focus in the last 5 minutes of the programme. (Sounds very Pink Floydesque put like that... 'Welcome to the Machine' etc. Maybe Roger Waters was there first.) And only in the last 30 seconds did he provide any critique of Berlin's original idea - that negative liberty was the only worthwhile concept of liberty. I think he should have spun this critique out into another episode - he could have made it much, much clearer just what the problem with 'The Trap' was, and more importantly, how on earth we escape from it. Offering hope for the future is important. Many viewers will have watched the end of The Trap with a profound sense of depression, not hope. But maybe the restoration of hope is Curtis's next project. Anyway, despite my misgivings about the final episode, a fine series.

26 March 2007

...or is it?

Well, I watched the Peter Hitchens Dispatches programme on "Tory Toff" Cameron last night, and it wasn't as bad as I thought. So sorry, Peter, for writing you off as a low-grade moron last week before I'd actually watched it. (I'll also give you the benefit of the doubt that this troll blog isn't really you. Thanks for that, Van Patten!)

Hitchens's thesis is basically that Dave Cameron is an opportunist, a fraud. An opportunist because he has 'divorced his party from all forms of traditional Conservatism' in the belief that the Tories have to move to a 'centre ground' identified by PR people, focus groups and trendy journalists. A fraud for two reasons: first, because he doesn't believe any of this stuff - as is shown by his early policy pronouncements before becoming leader, which were decidedly right-wing. And second, because he portrays himself as a "man of the people" (via Webcameron, etc.) whilst in fact he is a 'Tory Toff' - an old Etonian who has more in common with Harold MacMillan than Margaret Thatcher or John Major.

Hitchens doesn't like this, partly because Cameron has betrayed small 'c' conservatism, but also because the lurch to the centre (or should we say the pile-up in the centre, given that the other major parties are in very similar political territory at the moment) is denying choice to the British electorate and means that huge swathes of the voters to the left, to the right, or in other ways outside the 'soggy centre' of politics are disenfranchised.

The "denial of choice" argument (which George Monbiot also appeared on the programme to support, from a very different part of the political spectrum) is certainly a worry. It's not a new observation - people used to complain about 'Butskellism' in the 1950s, for example, and the 'median voter' theory in political science suggests that the pile-up in the centre is an equilibrium feature of liberal democracies (because all parties pitch their policies at the 'median' or 'swing' voter). Peter Oborne made the same point in the 2005 documentary Why Politicians Can't Tell the Truth. But Hitchens is right: if anything the parties have become even more identical in their policy platforms since Cameron's ascendancy to the leadership. Hitchens doesn't offer much in the way of solutions to this political crisis, but maybe that's fair enough, given that this was a programme about Dave Cameron, not the crisis in British politics.

But the rest of the argument doesn't ring as true. So Cameron is an 'opportunist'. But can you really blame him, given the morale of the Tory party after 3 consecutive election defeats? Neither William Hague nor Michael Howard managed to forge an electoral breakthrough despite their commitment to a more right-of-centre approach. And the Tory party had every opportunity to elect David Davis, who did promise a more hardline strategy, in autumn 2005 but went with Cameron instead. In the same way that Labour MPs and party members have to accept some reponsibility for Tony Blair, the same is true for the Tories and Cameron. What is Hitchens's 'alternative strategy' for a Conservative victory? It's not made at all clear.

Equally, I'm not totally sure Cameron is a fraud - not now. It's entirely possible that he was toeing the party line with his previous pronouncements before he became leader, just to get into a position in which he could change things (Michael Gove made this point in the documentary). Or, he might have changed his views over time, as has Michael Portillo, for example. Or he might only have started thinking in the issues in earnest when he actually got to the leadership. That would mean he's an idiot but not necessarily a fraud.

And how much does it matter that Cameron is from Eton? There was some interesting stuff on the "A-List" for Tory candidate selection - Hitchens basically suggested that it was a front to get Cameron sympathisers selected for parliamentary constituencies. If true, that's pretty shocking. But on the other hand I never saw Cameron as trying to be some working class hero. This isn't William Hague with the baseball cap or John Major at the Happy Eater. It's well-structured politics, in the same way that Deal or No Deal is, arguably, well-structured television. You wouldn't want to watch Noel Edmonds for longer than it takes to change channels, and you probably wouldn't want to vote for Dave, but the whole thing is nicely put together and won't offend. It's for people like my wife's nan who says "That Tony Blair, he's a nice man." Still.

In any case, I think Hitchens represents the nasty cigarette butt of Tory politics. It's the grizzly Norman Tebbit knife-you-in-the-subway faction. A huge swathe of the Tory party was always in the soggy centre; Harold MacMillan, for example, would have slotted in to the right wing of the Labour party with no problems (as would Cameron.) Heath, post-1972, was similar. And, at a stretch, John Major (notwithstanding the rail privatisation disaster.) Maybe the Thatcherites are the hijackers and David Cameron is restoring the 'real' Tory party? Now there's a thought. And I think the Cameron revolution in the Tory party is fundamentally different from the Blair revolution in the Labour party, which really was about throwing away almost everything that was good about the party just to get elected.

Come to think of it, maybe the Hitchens programme wasn't that good after all.

19 March 2007

...and this probably ISN'T

Hilarious... just watched a trailer for next week's Dispatches documentary on Channel 4. The trajectory of Dispatches over the years mirrors Channel 4's fall from being the essential channel on British TV in the 80s and early 90s, through to being a shock-jock parody of the cutting-edge now, engaged in a desperate attempt to grab audience share (or not so desperate in the case of Big Brother.

Whilst Dispatches doesn't usually plumb the depths of deliberately misleading, disinformative nonsense like The Great Global Warming Swindle (which I will do a post on once I've re-watched it, if I can face it, sometime next week), it's rarely a classic. To a large extent this is because it seems to be a programme which is regularly up for hire by any political commentator who can think of a wacky idea for a programme, or even a title. Sometimes this format can pay off - for example Peter Oborne's documentary Why Politicians Can't Tell the Truth during the 2005 election was a work of genius - but, in the hands of a lesser talent (which most of the people approached to do Dispatches sadly are) it's pants. And Peter Hitchens, who is doing a show next week attacking David Cameron as a "Tory Toff", is pretty much the least talented of the talentless. Just from the trailer, this looked like the crappiest programme ever: to whom, exactly, is the exposure of Dave as a "Toff" gonna be news? Who on earth (apart from Sion Simon) has EVER bought the fiction that Dave is "one of the lads"? You'd have to be brain dead, or Peter Hitchens (the same thing?) to buy this shit.

There are many ways to make a probing, critical programme which would analyse what Dave Cameron is really up to with the 'New' Tory party, and whether he would make a good Prime Minister. But this programme (next Monday at 8pm) won't be one of them. And none of those probing, critical programmes will ever be made by Peter Hitchens. Ever.

"The Trap": THIS is what documentary TV should be like

Just finished watching part 2 of The Trap, the three-part documentary on BBC2 which has been asking the question: 'what happened to our dream of freedom'? The documentary maker, Adam Curtis, previously produced The Power of Nightmares, another 3-part documentary shown by the BBC a few years back which argued that the enemy in the 'war on terror', as it is construed by George Bush, Tony Blair and the US neoconservatives, is a carefully constructed illusion constructed to keep the population obedient and ensure social cohesion through fear. It was a very powerful piece of work which I hope the BBC will reshow at some point.

In contrast to eThe Power of Nightmares, which was largely about foreign policy, The Trap focuses largely on domestic policy. Curtis's main idea is that the rise of game theory in economics from the 1950s onwards, which was originally used to analyse the logic behind nuclear deterrence in the Cold War, led to an exponential increase in the popularity of the idea of human beings as rational, self-interested calculating machines. This model of human behaviour, originally used by people like John Nash (one of the founders of game theory) as a convenient simplification t a time when technology was unable to model anything more complex, was then elevated to the status of an ideal which humanity should aspire to. From the late 1970s onwards there was a movement towards a view that markets were the ideal form of human organisation as they allowed these game-theoretical humans to best express their preferences through the market. These ideas also affected political science through 'public choice' theory which argued that politicians and civil servants were as ruthlessly self-interested as investment bankers, out to maximise their own welfare at other people's expense. It was interesting to see James Buchanan, one of the key architects of public choice theory and as important a figure in right-wing academia as Friedman or Hayek, given some screen time. He seemed intelligent, but off-the-wall; when asked by Curtis what role idealism might play in politics, he literally couldn't understand the question.

There is much more to Curtis's thesis than just a critique of game theory and the neoclassical economists' "rational economic man", but I'm headed for a very long post if I'm not careful, so I'll probably break there and review the rest once I've seen the third part this coming Sunday. But, based on the first two parts, this is largely superb stuff well worth seeing if you haven't already and I hope the BBC will reshow it on BBC4 (together with The Power of Nightmares) pretty soon so that anyone who didn't get the chance to see it, can do. That, or the file-sharing sites will have to do their job... and I'm sure they'll do it admirably.

Some amusement just to finish off: The Trap was also the title of an early 1990s book on the follies of modern global economic policy, by everyone's favourite businessman-turned-politician, the late James Goldsmith, a.k.a. "the unacceptable face of capitalism", and the man who founded the Referendum Party. I know one of the people who voted for those guys in the 1997 election, but I haven't found the other one yet.

16 March 2007

Cameron: "the parting on the right is now a parting on the left"

...not quite a Who lyric, but pretty close.

It must have been a very thin news week this week as one of the most viewed stories on the BBC site tonight is 'Cameron hair - the barber did it'. What did the barber do? He moved Dave Cameron's parting from the right to the left. Like parting, like party? But steady on, people. Dave voted to waste £20 billion on a replacement for Trident for no particular reason rather than we like to look like a nation that has enough money to throw around on this kind of bling, rather than kitting out the troops properly in Iraq & Afghanistan (they shouldn't be there in the first place of course, but if they are, let's at least give the poor bastards proper equipment).

As Neal Lawson of Compass pointed out most astutely in his latest post on the site, Britain is now being governed by a New Labour/ New Conservative coalition. Which means that, come the next election, the most accurate lyric from 'Won't Get Fooled Again' could be: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Just in case you were expecting any different (You weren't obviously because you're more intelligent than that.) Now then, who's up for the centre parting?

13 March 2007

Getting back to George Bush and Iraq (incorporating blog review #18)

I haven't done as many reviews of other blogs this year as last year and that's largely because the new version of blogger has removed the 'recently edited blogs' list from the bottom right hand corner. This means that I have to use the 'next blog' flag at the top of any blog to go from one blog to the next randomly, and as it is a sad fact that most blogs are not even worth reviewing, it can take ages to get anything useful.

I was lucky today, though, when I happened on Random Comment first time round. In some ways this is like a US version of giroscope... it's a collection of comments on various interesting stuff that's in the news from a sound political perspective. The guy (Aldous Bukowski - that must be a made up name, right?) also throws in a couple of film reviews once in a while.

His post on the State of the Union address from 24th January reminded me about George Bush and after I'd finished vomiting I realised that it's been a very long time since I said anything about Iraq on this blog and I wanted to put that right, so here goes. My last post on Iraq was back in October when I argued that "adaptation means withdrawal" (I just got a googlewhack on this when I was searching for the post - bloody great. I can't remember getting one before. If only I'd had Dave Gorman's idea before he did...) In other words, Bush's announcement that 'military tactics in Iraq will keep changing to deal with insurgents' was, I believed back then, an attempt to start a withdrawal without losing face. When the Democrats won both houses in the US mid-terms in November on a 'George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have f***ed up the occupation in Iraq' ticket, that strengthened my belief that phased withdrawal, along the lines of Vietnam, was only weeks away.

Instead we find that Dubya has increased the troop numbers by 21,500 and there may be an attempt to get a few thousand more on top of that. This seems the most idiotic policy possible. How will a marginal increase in total troop numbers (about 15%) turn a dire situation, with civil war in many parts of the country, around? All this will do is drag the US slightly deeper into a quagmire which is pretty much unresolvable. The Democrats opposed the troops increase but lack the balls necessary to stop the whole operation in its tracks, which is within their power; military spending has to be authorised by the US Congress and they could pull the plug on funding for the war. This would of course be a radical option, but with public approval for Bush's handling of the war running at about 25%, and 60% of Americans wanting troops out within a year, maybe it's time to push the boat out a bit. Sometimes in politics your only enemy is spinelessness rather than witlessness.

The extension of the Iraq policy proves that Bush, while a more than adequate slugger in the heat of an election campaign, is a moron on foreign policy (and indeed domestic policy) who knows he will probably be remembered as one of the worst US presidents of all time and has decided to deliver a big "F*** YOU" to the US electorate, to Congressional Republicans who will have to run for office in the wake of this debacle in 2008, and finally to anyone, in the world, with a brain. Of which there are still a few dozen of us left. Let me know if you're one of them and I'll invite you round for some beers.

10 March 2007

Who actually PLAYS TV quiz shows?

Interesting story that's been rumbling for a few days now about TV quiz shows. The initial story, in fact, was about phone-ins on shows like X Factor and Big Brother; the ones where they charge you £1, or whatever, for phoning in to vote one idiot off the show (or keep one idiot on) in preference to the others. There have been a number of scams and rip-offs, documented by this BBC Q&A:

  • ITV admitted overcharging X Factor voters by £200,000, although given that its total revenue from premium phone lines in 2006 was £100m, that's fairly small beer.
  • the BBC asked viewers to phone into a "live" broadcast of Saturday Kitchen despite the fact it is a recorded show.
  • Most sinister of all, for my money, was five's admission that it has been inventing fictional winners for its Brainteaser show.
The five scam in particular is reminiscent of the National Lottery in George Orwell's 1984 where all the big winners are fictitious. Similarities between current and near future UK life and Orwell's nightmare vision have been pointed out before on giroscope, and this will continue to be a fruitful line of enquiry. For one thing, it may be no coincidence that Orwell's real surname was Blair. George understood all too well the capacity of the overbearing state, operating in concert with private industry, to reduce a huge proportion of the population to being passive recipients of whatever craptainment the system chooses to chuck at us. And when you can't even win the prize for the awful cheapo game show that you've been inflicting on your eyeballs for the last hour, redialling to the engaged tone 237 times before your credit card payment is finally accepted, perhaps it's time for even the most brain dead of us to say... enough is enough.

I have yet to meet anyone who actually plays TV quiz shows... go on, someone, surprise me.

06 March 2007

No, Blair!

Just finished reading Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Yo, Blair! It didn't take long - 2 train journeys of around 45 minutes each, in fact, at about 150 small pages of rather large type.

The basic thesis of Yo, Blair! (title comes from Dubya Bush's rather Nathan Barley- like greeting to Tony accidentally broadcast on an open mike at a G8 summit) is that Tony Blair is Not A Very Nice Person. In fact, he is a unique combination of the Antichrist and Frank Spencer. (Well, almost unique - Alistair Campbell comes in for some very meaty criticism as well.)

Now, me reviewing a book saying Tony Blair is a bastard is a bit like Mohammed al Fayed reviewing David Icke's The Biggest Secret (at least, the final chapter where he says Di and Dodi were bumped off.) Geoffrey Wheatcroft doesn't need to convince me. I have probably a lower opinion of Tony Blair than any human being living in the UK, or Essex at least (note that on that species criterion I've excluded most Daily Mail readers who would otherwise be tempted to object.) So why do I feel distinctly underwhelmed by Yo, Blair!?

Basically because it's the literary equivalent of a hungry man ordering a couple of cheeseburgers at the Liverpool Street McDonalds when the delights of Brick Lane were only a ten minute walk away. Yo, Blair! is the cheapest of cheap shots. It can be read in 90 minutes and feels like it was written in about 6 hours non-stop - really, it's an extended Sunday newspaper article. Which is perhaps no surprise as Wheatcroft is primarily a journalist. But it's no excuse, as plenty of journalists manage to write much better books than this.

Wheatcroft's critique of Blair is basically four-fold:

(a) he has created the biggest foreign policy disaster for decades in Iraq, and has been completely subservient to a reactionary US administration in doing so;

(b) he has presided over an unprecedented collapse in British voters' trust of, and confidence in, their democratic institutions;

(c) his government is packed with cronies, crooks, and spineless cretins;

(d) he has no coherent ideology to speak of, which has led to an appalling mess on domestic policy.

(a) is correct but hardly new or insightful. (b) is true but cries out for a deeper analysis of the detail of what has caused the decline in trust, and how - if at all - it can be reversed. (c) is true (and good fun to read) but the line of argument degenerates here into personal attack on Blair and chums rather than hardheaded analysis. And as for (d), I think Wheatcroft is wrong. Blair does have a strong ideology - and it's wrongheaded, rooted firmly in a post-Thatcherite vision of a corporatised 'free' market economy coupled to an authoritarian state with appalling consequences for civil liberties. This is overlaid with more than a dash of Harold Wilson-style technocracy and aloofness and a messianic foreign policy vision borrowed from the US neo-conservatives. That's a mish-mash, but it's not "no ideology". Other avenues of attack on Blair, such as the mess that his long-running feud with Gordon Brown has left the government in, and his frantic layering of initiative on initiative to almost no positive effect in areas like public service reform, are pretty much ignored, despite being very important explanations of Blair's failure.

On balance the book feels lazy and opportunist, as if the author wanted to cash in on Blair's current troubles before he leaves office and he's rapidly forgotten about (just like Wilson, Thatcher, et al). The failure of Yo, Blair! to hit one of the easiest targets in history with any real power beyond Wheatcroft's frothy bile is a real shame, because done well, this could have been a book that absolutely crucified Tony Blair and cemented his legacy as probably the worst prime minister of the 20th or 21st centuries. As it is, many readers will be left wondering what all the fuss is about.