Friday, April 30, 2004

War or terror? - Sure we've never had it so good! 

According to the US State Department global terrorism is at a thirty year low. So why, please, is the US engaged in a paranoid war on terror which is extremely costly in both lives and money? And why does it do things like invade Iraq which have turned a stable and toothless if brutal state into a nursery for terrorism?

America is getting criticised, and rightly so, for its brutal treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. Ann Clwyd, fearless defender of every stupid move the coalition makes in Iraq, was on Radio 4 this morning claiming it couldn't be compared with what went on under Saddam's régime. To an extent this is true - Ba'ath TV didn't show pictures of prisoners being tortured on prime time TV, and the torturers were promoted rather than disciplined. But there's something deeply nauseating about the war's most enthusiastic cheerleaders trying to defend every coalition excess in Iraq.

Although to be fair, I have to give the US a rare plaudit in Iraq for having the moral courage to negotiate a successful deal with its opponents in Fallujah.

We're all going off to sunny Spain... 

...singing Viva Espana! I'm paying my first ever visit to Spain in my life this weekend, visiting an old friend in Valencia. So light blogging I'm afraid, but I will try and post my first impressions of the country.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

The New Waugh-ist movement in Catholicism 

While playing with Google, I found two interesting articles on the Free Republic website (of all things), on the conservative revival within Catholicism. The first looks at the new generation split within the US Catholic clergy, with the older Vatican II generation being considerably more liberal than the theologically neo-Con younger generation. The second looks at the revival of the tridentine rite Mass in England.

While there is no doubt that the more fundamentalist fringes of Catholicism are growing in England, they are doing so from a very small base. As Fr. Bruno Healey notes in the second article, the vast majority of Catholic lay-people have no interest in the tridentine rite Mass. They have also had their numbers swelled by conservative Anglo-Catholics leaving the fold over women priests.

On the generation spilt in clergy attitudes, I always got the impression that the younger clergy in Ireland were significantly more conservative than middle-aged priests. However, there are so few young Catholic priests in Ireland that this is probably more a sign of how mainstream Catholics don't really go in for the priesthood any more. And the way to rectify that is not to make the church even more conservative.

Evelyn Waugh would love it, but I don't think it's going to be a good thing for Catholicism in the long run.

Website of the day 

John Kerry is a Douche Bag but I'm Voting for him Anyway - URL is No further comment given, or possible!

Northern Ireland boundary review - provisional recommendations 

Only 5 months late, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland have produced their provisional recommendations for Parliamentary/Assembly Constituencies in NI. The Commission have gone for a minimum change option, with the biggest problem, that of undersized constituencies in Belfast, being dealth with by another round of expansion into the suburbs. Strangford is the one constituency which sees truly radical surgery, losing Carryduff and Dundonald but gaining lots of voters from rural Mid-Down, making it much less a suburban seat and much more a genuinely rural seat.

There are two truly stupid recommendations which will almost certainly be overturned on review - the Commssion have dealt with North Antrim's surplus electorate by moving the Glens and Ballycastle into a new 'Antrim Coast and Glens' (now there's a snappy title) stretching from Whiteabbey to Rathlin Island. Stupid, stupid, stupid! And even more bizarrely, Newry is to be split between South Down and Newry and Armagh. Or should that be Half of Newry and Armagh.

The net political effect of this will be:As I said earlier, however, I doubt this scheme will be adopted without revision.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Jeffrey John victimised again 

According to the BBC, Jeffrey John is 'under pressure to quit' his post as Dean of St. Alban's. This because the St Albans Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship feels that Jeffrey's appointment was "serious error" of judgement.

Now, given that large sections of the Evangelical movement want to run gays out of the Church of England if they get the chance, this is a bit of a non-story. "Gay person in church not victimised by Conservative Evangelicals" - now that would be real news.

I'm quite sure that both Jeffrey John and Christopher Herbert knew that the lunatic fringe would go ape about this and I trust they're not going to respond to it.

What Reform and their allies don't seem to realise is, that in this deeply secularised country, most people think they are nuts no matter how slick their press strategy. And in the Church, they destroyed whatever sympathy they had from the moderate mainstream by their sheer vindictiveness and triumphalism over Jeffrey John's appointment and withdrawal from the episcopacy.

If you look at what Reform say themselves, they claim their objection isn't on the basis of Jeffrey being gay, but on the basis of his theological views on homosexuality. This runs about as far from the diverse, albeit fractious, tradition of Anglicansim as it is possible to, and pursued to its logical conclusion would result in the defrocking of most of the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Finally, I have to say fair play to Christopher Herbert - I wouldn't have thought he was the type to stick his neck out over something like this but thank God we still have men like him in the Anglican Church. He always gave me the impression of being very bright but born a bit after his time - well, a bit like me really! ;-) But you know what I mean - I always thought he was too establishment to do something like this and I'm very pleased to be proven wrong!

Subsidies for Eton? 

I know better than to take Bruce Anderson too seriously. It's an axiom of British political life that one only has too hear a prediction from Bruce Anderson to know that the exact opposite will come to pass. But his article in the Spectator on education vouchers (free registration required) deserves some comment.

The Tories, as Bruce acknowledges, have never been quite trusted on education. Even in the '80s, when Labour adamantly in favour of some of the most unpopular parts of progressivist ideology (mixed-ability teaching, discovery rather than didacticism, etc.), and local Tories and Liberals across the country were winning control of traditionally Labour Councils because of education issues, the national Tories only briefly established a lead over Labour in public confidence on schools. Anderson points out that because few senior Tories send their children to state schools, the parents of the 93% of children educated in the state system have never quite believe them when they say how committed they are to better state schools. (Though where that leaves the current cabinet is beyond me!)

While I'm not convinced that school vouchers help improve standards, I'm not convinced that they are the spawn of all evil either. While they would undoubtedly help middle-class parents queue jump to better state schools, let's be honest, this happens anyway in a very back door sort of fashion.

On the other hand, we already have competition for places at the best (or most middle-class) comprehensive schools, and those perceived as being weaker are shunned by parents and left the most vulnerable children. Vouchers won't make a great difference to the current situation, which is, as Anderson himself notes, caused by the demand for good schools exceeding their supply. Vouchers will simply be a different mechanism for rationing places in the best state schools, rather than a means of creating a better supply of them.

The current government's focus on pushing up standards in the weakest schools, and taking over those with a history of poor teaching and management, while not without problems, seems a more sure way of tackling poor performance.

I do have an enormous problem, however, with Anderson's idea that parents can top-up their voucher. For the majority of parents in the country, private education is beyond their means, with or without a voucher system. The children being most likely to fail at present are those who will never, never, never, attend a private school - can you see Westminster School taking in many kids from the nearby estates of Rochester Row or Waterloo even if their voucher is worth more than Tunisia's annual GDP?

On the other hand, the children of middle-middle class parents who would be able to use a voucher to obtain private education generally do very well in the state system already. The best of the English education system - whether private or state - is very good indeed (see international comparisons thanks to the OECD's PISA study). We need a relentless focus on standard's at the bottom of English education, not subsidies for comparatively well off parents.

But most important, the issue highlights the perception gap for the Tories - not how they are perceived, but how they perceive the rest of the world. We all tend to think that we're really quite average people. I grew up in a very poor family. I thought I was average. I now have a very comfortable haute-bourgeois existence. And I still think I'm average. The average Tory MP thinks they're, well maybe not being quite average, but just a little above average. In the world the Tories inhabit, the world is full, but not full enough, of Barchester Cathedral Schools disbursing scholarships to deserving children from 'humble' backgrounds. But when the Tories mean humble, they mean people who are actually quite well off like, well, teachers in private schools.

In the real world, no Barchester Cathedral Schools give scholarships to children from Barchester council estates with parents on the dole, older brothers in the nick and accents you couldn't cut with a knife even if they have an IQ of 190; I know lots of good committed people working in private schools, but that just isn't the sort of thing they do.

In the '80s, the Tories brilliantly captured working-class votes with council house sales. So far, a similarly Disraelian policy for the new century has eluded them.

Interesting Saudi blog 

The Religious Policeman is an interesting and very funny blog from a liberal Saudi perspective. Alhamedi, if you're ever in London, I live in Bayswater (aka Little Arabia) and would love to meet up.

Please note the other additions to the blogroll and enjoy!

Death in Damascus 

I suppose somebody forgot to tell Al-Qa'eda and its franchises that Syria is actually part of the axis of evil! Although last night's attacks seemed to be aimed primarily at foreigners, and the UK, Canada or Iran could all have been credible targets, upscale Mazze is a favourite haunt of senior Ba'ath Party officials. And Bashar al-Assad's régime (led by a 'heretical' Alawite, staunchly pro-Christian and Druze) is hardly of the type Al-Qa'eda favour. This spread of Islamic fundamentalism into one of the Middle East's most secular and religiously tolerant countries is worrying. Perhaps this might encourage the Americans to end their silly policy of ignoring Syria, although given the USA's depth of support for Israel that's probably unlikely.

However, expect this to to help continue the thaw relations between Damascus and Ankara after decades of diplomatic deep freeze. Syria responded quickly to Turkish requests for assistance after November's Istanbul bombings, and Ankara will almost certainly return the favour now.

There are interesting 'reader comments' from people on the ground in Damascus in the BBC report linked to above.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Big thunderstorm 

We've had a thunderstorm over Central London for the past hour and a half with a pitch black sky (2 hours before sunset!) and torrential rain. I'm trapped in work! Very unusual for these temperate latitudes in April.

Cyprus: bah humbug! 

If you read one analysis piece from the mainstream press on Cyprus, the Economist (no subs required for this one) is as so often the most incisive and in depth.

I am, needless to say, extremely disappointed that the Greek-Cypriots have rejected the Annan Plan, and it has taken me a few days to give some sort of rational response. Essentially, the Turkish-Cypriots were over a barrel and had no choice other than to accept this deal - and a good thing too - while the Greek-Cypriots were told my certain of their political leaders, notably President Pappadapoulos, that they could reject the offer without any negative consequences and come back and negotiate a new one. While the tangible penalties for Southern Cyprus are limited, as the third smallest member state of the EU they will find their diplomatic bargaining power curtailed and they have lost the moral high ground they have held for the past thirty years. All credit to the centre-right DISY Party of Glavkos Clerides for having the guts to explain that to the electorate. It is a pity that the Communist AKEL Party took this moment of all moments to abandon a long and pround history of moral courage on the question of bi-communalism.

At the end of the day, this is a depressing time for all people who believe in the principles of tolerance and co-existence. If the Christian and Islamic worlds cannot agree a way of living among one another in heavily secularised and well educated Cyprus, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The one ray of hope is that AKEL seem to think they can sell the package at a later date - however, how this can be done without any substantive change to the plan which would render the North Cypriot vote void is beyond me. Perhaps there's room for some tightening up of verification procedures, while the AKEL-led government in the South could further normalise the Green Line. The EU and USA should end the blockade of the North. Ankara and Athens could accelerate the process of demilitarisation in the Aegean.

However UN Special Envoy do Soto has packed up and gone home, while the Turks are saying they made their best offer and were knocked back.

A Fistful of Euros has an interesting debate on the subject. Uğur at Turkish Torque has, as always, informed views on the referendum from a mainland Turkish perspective while Talos at Histologion does the same from a left-wing mainland Greek perspective. (both in English)

Attack of the killer retired diplomats 

52 retired British diplomats have attacked the UK government's Middle East policy, and in particular the fact that Tony Blair rewrote nearly 60 years of British policy in the Middle East last week because his boss, George Bush, asked him to. Of course, Mike O'Brien denies that there has been a radical change in government policy in another example of the amazing doublethink that progressives in the Labour Party must indulge in regularly these days.

I'm not exactly surprised at this. My club is full of retired diplomats – mostly old toff Socialists supporters who cast their vote for Atlee while at Cambridge - and most of them are absolutely horrified at how Britain's Middle East policy has been destroyed in the past few years. And rightly so.

What amazes me is that Sharon's plan is being hailed not just by the usual suspects but by people like The Economist (subs required) as being a bold step towards peace. At the end of the day one might say that right of return for Palestinian refugees and Israel returning to its 1967 frontiers is unrealistic, but at the end of the day the return of a few particularly scrappy settlements in Gaza hardly makes up for Palestinians being stripped of their two biggest bargaining chips. At is, at the poker game of indirect negotiation, as if the United States had slipped an Ace of Spades from its sleeve and flipped it to its Israeli friends. And what makes it more disgusting is that an allegedly progressive British government cheered them on from the sidelines.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Comments field update! 

I've finally given up on enetation (very annoying as I actually paid them some money - OK, only a tenner, but still) and installed haloscan as my comment server. All feedback appreciated. Expect minor changes to the appearance of the comment links and boxes over the next week or so.

Friday, April 23, 2004

No, I'm not sexist daaaahling 

Tonight, I'm going to the English National Opera to see Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. I was therefore shocked to see that the ENO have banned their staff from calling each other 'darling' as the term could be construed as sexist. Of course one could counter that forbidding people from calling each other darling is homophobic.

Although the document setting out the ENO's harrassment policy is called 'Dignity at Work' the real reason for this amazing piece of thought policing has nothing to do with workers' dignity and everything to do with the threat of malicious litigation, as the ENO's spokesperson more or less admitted:
"This is simply guidance for employees — we are protecting ourselves and them," said spokesman Anthony McNeill. "We live in a litigious society."
Now remember this is an opera company, based in the heart of Theatreland, just across the road from Soho banning the use of slightly arch terms between its staff. Sorry, but as far as I knew we had freedom of speech in this country, ambulance-chasing lawyers or not. And London WC2 was supposed the world's last bastion of camping it all up a bit.

Apart from making the working environment of staff at the ENO a little more regulated and less colourful, there are wider issues raised by this ban, given that the ENO is hardly the only employer with similar policies (mercifully my own only requires us to 'treat one another with respect' - well, and so say all of us). Firstly, I think it's a good thing that certain words are not really acceptable in polite society - certain words beginning with n that Ron Atkinson must rue having said on TV, for example. But when employers get down to this level of regulation of what their staff can say at work then we are giving employers too much power in their employee's lives, and lawyers far too much power in determining the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable in polite society.

We need better guidelines supporting our equality laws, and arguably even amendments to the laws themselves, which rigidly maintain the principles of freedom from discrimination and harassment while also maintaining the equally important principle of freedom of speech, and protect employers from needless lawsuits brought by greedy lawyers. The danger is that once political correctness descends to this level of silliness, you start creating a backlash with wipes out the important gains that have been made in treating people equally.

Finally, this opens up a whole new area for lawyers to restrict civil liberties in the name of 'taking on big business' to boot. The problem with this is that the net effect of over-litigation tends to be a transfer of wealth from people on low to average incomes (look at the rocketing insurance premiums here in the UK, for example) to a certain group of people with high incomes (lawyers).

So, when I got to the ENO in three hours time, I'll make sure to address all the staff, male and female alike, as darling. Just to make the point.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Why I hate PETA 

Have you ever had the misfortune to run across People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals? If not have a look at their insane website - these people are seriously self-hating humans! I mean, if you're convinced the human race has such a negative impact on the rest of the biosphere, why don't you just, like, kill yourself?

The other hilarious thing is the way they impute all sorts of anthropocentric properties to animals which they don't actually possess. They seem to be completely oblivious of the fact that animals in the wild kill and eat other animals. And urban animals love fast food - if you live where I live you get to see the wonderful sight of foxes getting at kebab shop bins after closing time every night. The only way to give animals the same sort of 'quality of life' as humans is to completely domesticate them - and even then they aren't free and die a lot younger than we do. And in the wild they usually have nasty, brutish, short lives, just as we did until technology gave us a chance to live longer and happier lives.

One of the sections that sums up their madness best is the section promoting vegetarianism to children, with wonderful comments such as:

Chickens should be friends, not food! Chickens are friendly, curious little birds who value their lives just as much as you value yours. Did you know that chicken moms talk to their chicks even while they're still in the shell? When the chicks are born, their mom watches over them carefully, takes them under her wing to keep them safe, and teaches them all about life.

But chickens on factory farms never get to be loved by their moms. These birds' lives are awful and scary even before they are killed and cut up for food.

Personally, I'm not that impressed with factory farming either, but chicken 'moms' 'talk' to their little babies in their shells? Enough to make you boke!

Dihydrogen Monoxide – the invisible killer 

Please take some time to learn about dihydrogen monoxide - which despite being potentially lethal, is probably the most widely used industrial solvent in the world today. I'm a bit torn on this issue – there are real commercial benefits from the current laissez faire approach to DHMO regulation, and I'm a firm believer in the health benefits of moderate DHMO use. However, inappropriate use of DHMO causes real problems. What do you think? Let me know.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Big Blunkett Charges the Wrongfully Convicted for Board 

Just when you thought David Blunkett, our horrible toad of a Home Secretary and relentless assailant of civil liberties, couldn't sink any lower, comes the news that he now charges wrongfully convicted prisoners for their food and board while they were in prison.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

I am a God! 

Grammar God!
You are a GRAMMAR GOD!

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Thanks to Jade Farrington for the link.

...apparently, I am a grammar god, despite the evidence you see on this page! And, yes, in that context god should be spelt with a small 'g'.

War is Peace! Freedom is Tyranny! Ignorance is Strength! 

Students for Orwell are working to ensure that the principles of IngSoc are maintained here in Oceania. Not quite so funny when you realise that the Junior Anti-Sex League is alive and kicking in the USA.

Of course, the Onion takes a lighter view of the abstinence movement.

French Euro-Referendum? 

As Tony Blair announces that Britain is to hold a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution, A Fistful of Euros looks at the possibility of France also joining in the referendum fun.

If Blair has any wit he'll delay any poll in the UK until after France votes. Why? I'll explain...

The problem for pro-Europeans is that while there's no doubt that the EU needs a proper constitution, and needs to overhaul its decision making procedures in the light of expansion , this Constitution isn't actually very good. I could never vote No in a Euro-referendum in the UK - the thought of the company I'd keep is frightening enough, but a No vote in the UK means a rejection of the European idea, not a particular document. However, this clumsy, confusing and élitist constitution, incomprehensible to laypeople, is everything the Constitutional Convention was supposed to avoid. It demonstrates perfectly why the Brussels establishment needs a large fire lit under its arse.

However, it would look really bad if Britain, or the other usual rejectionist, Denmark, voted no. It would be too easy to put that down to typical Northern scepticism. Also if one of the smaller countries - Ireland, or one of the Meditteranean or Eastern European countries voted No it would probably be brushed aside. But if there's a Referendum on the proposed Constitution in France, I'd be very surprised if it didn't produce a No vote.

Back in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty only passed by 51%-49%, and if anything Eurosceptic sentiment has strengthened in France since then. A plethora of small, Eurosceptic, parties polled well in the 1999 Euroelections and the creation of the UMP has also shifted the French right in a marginally more sceptical direction. Le Pen, while mercifully past his peak of a few years ago, remains a factor. Most crucially, EU Expanison is desperately unpopular in France.

Not all of this I agree with - needless to say I detest Le Penism and have little time for the arrogance and anti-Eastern prejudice displayed by sections of the French - and British - media and élite. However, the disconnect between a Federalist intellectual élite of which, I have no hesitation in saying, I'm part, and a more sceptical European public isn't sustainable in the long-term. Further integration needs to be built from the bottom up, not the top down, and to get there from where we are now needs a major, major, shock to the European political system. A No vote in the intellectual heart of federalism would do that - and I'm almost certain that No vote is coming.

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