Friday, February 20, 2009
(Thanks to the Grauniad for the cartoon).
I have been pursuing the BBC's arcane complaints procedure to express my disgust at their refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal for Gaza. First, I received a response that simply re-iterated their original statement without answering my points. I replied to this as required and after two weeks received a response to my response to their response to my original complaint. This told me off for not using their webform and said that as the Director-General had made the decision, they couldn't consider any further complaint but I could complain to the BBC Trust.
As I had read their detailed procedure, I wasn't entitled to appeal to the trust until I had exhausted the BBC's own internal procedure. Meanwhile others had complained straight to the trust. Despite the fact that the trust had already received an appeal and reached a decision, the BBC's letter to me made no reference to it.
Turning to the substance of the trust's decision, they have acted like a court hearing a judicial review or an ombudsman receiving a complaint. In each case, the reviewing body (trust, court, ombudsman) does not attempt to substitute its own judgement of the issue for the judgement of the initial body (BBC in this case) but only to review whether the initial body arrived at its decision in a proper way. This is usually expressed as they took into account all relevant arguments, did not take into account any irrelevant arguments and their decision was not so unreasonable that no reasonable body could have taken it. In other words, there is no appeal on the substance rather than the process. As long as he jumps through the right procedural hoops, the BBC Director-General is no longer under anyone's control as he was when there was a Board of Governors. Isn't it comforting to know that the trust claims "As representatives of the licence fee payers, we take complaints about the BBC very seriously" ? Like so many of New Labour's reforms, the replacement of the governors by the trust has weakened the voice of the citizen.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
With the founding of the Social Liberal Forum the debate between Social Liberalism and Classical Liberalism has started up again and prompted me to repost yet another article. You don't have to read it, but if you do I'd be glad of any comments.
Thoughts on going to market
I love maps. Particularly, I like maps of mountains like the Coolins of Skye. They are so much easier to climb than the real thing. Apostles of "the Market" both within and without the Liberal Democrats need to remember that the map is not the territory, the theory is not the reality. In texts from Adam Smith to David Laws there is "the Market"; in the world there are only markets. Let us therefore explore the reality and not only the map and build Liberal policy on what exists as well as what we would like there to be.
In the Platonic world of the Market, everyone has equal information, supply always responds to demand and competition is utterly free. In the world of Emron, Berlusconi and even Gordon Brown, information is shared very unequally, supply is controlled by the few and the demands of the many are often shaped by them too. In the real world of soap powder, beer, buses, railways and newspapers, producers seek to dominate markets and restrict competition. The evangelist of the Market will of course condemn these departures from theory, but we should take the advice of Sherlock Holmes and make our theories explain the facts and not the facts fit our theories.
The Market is as much an intellectual construct as was "the State" in socialist theory. For much of the twentieth century, political discourse was pre-occupied with "the State" (sometimes called the people, the nation etc). When people wanted the government to do something (and especially when people in government wanted to do something), they did not say, "Let's give this minister (commissioner, gauleiter, prefect etc.) more power". No, they talked of the interests of the State (people, nation etc.). This kind of talk shouldn`t work any more. The people (real existing people) don't buy it. However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century and in our own brave new era, there is a new god, "the Market". These words conceal a slide in meaning, which I call the idealistic fallacy. The Market is an idea, a slovenly abbreviation for "the free market" whereas real markets are not an idea and not very free.
Of course, as Liberals we should prefer free-er markets to less free ones, competition to monopoly, choice to compulsion. But we should also abandon the old theology of the Market versus the State, which is about as fantastic and as little use as Alien vs. Predator. Both are false gods. Real markets need real states. Actors in real markets need a framework of law and a guarantee of value. Contract law means you can rely upon bargains made with strangers; property law defines what can be owned and by whom (Can you sell your genes, your ideas or even your cat ? Can anyone else ?). A stable currency requires legitimate authority not just a cabal of gold miners. Modern enterprises involving capital from many pockets need company law and banking law.
Above all, making markets free-er requires competition law. Who can doubt that there is a free-er market today in the countries of the European Union because of legislation, not in spite of it ? Well unfortunately, many people, but they should consider what the markets of Europe would be like if each country had been adopting its own legislation on the subject for the last fifty years. With each government lobbied by its own interest groups, there would still be a protectionist plethora of tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade. Yet there are people who believe that you can have a functioning Free Trade Area without a democratic legislature to agree the rules. If you do doubt that markets need states and you think that freeing markets means less law and a weak state, take a good long look at Russia. The paradox is that law and freedom march together.
All political theories have an ethical root, explicit or implicit. They assume what human beings are like, how they behave and especially how they relate to each other. For Marx, your role as producer defines you; for the marketeers, it is more often your role as consumer. Feudal societies were made of subjects, nation-states of citizens. Liberals must build their ideas on the real complexity and diversity of people. Yes, we are all both producers and consumers but our roles in society are not exhausted by what we buy and sell. Yes, we are citizens but not everything in our lives, not even the most important, is covered by our public roles. As John Stuart Mill proclaimed, there is also the private sphere. Our freedom depends upon not expecting the state to solve all problems. It also depends upon not expecting the Market to solve them.
Ruskin lampooned the theories of economists by comparing them with theories of exercise - calisthenics. He said it was as if you based your theory of exercise on human bodies having no bones. From this premise you could prove logically that people could roll into balls or cylinders. Your logic would be impeccable but your premise absurd. This criticism still applies to modern economists who expect all behaviour in the Market to be based upon the rational expectations of people whose only motive is to maximise their wealth. In real markets people have other desires and motives such as to maximise their free time or the time spent or not spent in one person's company. In real markets people don't always recognise the course of action which will achieve their desires. In real markets their desires and their expectations are partly shaped by suppliers. Above all, in real markets people do not always have the means to convert their desires into effective demand.
It has become fashionable to justify state action today in terms of "market failure". I dislike the term because it implies an assumption that the Market should have produced a rational allocation of scarce resources in the first place, to provide enough teachers or doctors or houses or whatever the writer wants. We should not even hint at such an assumption but understand ab initio that real markets are good for many things but not all things. Perhaps then we should expect real markets not to deliver social justice or human happiness in general but simply to deliver strictly economic objectives (assuming there are such things). Unfortunately real markets cannot always manage that either. As John Maynard Keynes so compellingly argued, markets will inevitably bring about a balance between demand and supply but the balance will not necessarily be at the level where all resources are used or all people employed.
As a young economics student I heard another unfashionable economist, Kenneth Galbraith, propose the motion that "This house considers that the market is a snare and a delusion". I spoke against him. Now I believe that talk of the Market is a snare and a delusion but that real existing markets are powerful tools of mankind to achieve its purposes. They cannot do everything. Liberals must be wary of state action. There is always a price as well as a benefit for interfering with a market. When it comes to the Market and the State, there is not one god and we should eschew the blandishments of those who say there is.
In November 2007 our great leader, Gordon Brown proclaimed:
"The climate change crisis is the product of many generations, but overcoming it must be the great project of this generation. And this project will have to involve not just America and Europe, as in 1945, but the entire community of nations. So once again leaders will have to show vision and determination"
As we know, Gordon's latest contribution to the "vision and determination" required is to approve the plans for a new runway at Heathrow. God help us all if he didn't have vision and determination !
If you want to stop this ludicrous idea from taking off (sorry !), have a look at Greenpeace's website on Heathrow and become one of thousands of beneficial owners of a plot of land at Sipson near Heathrow, the village Gordon wants to destroy.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
At university there was this man called Rosenstiel who forever popped up at general meetings moving amendments making the Cambridge Union Society's constitution longer than the United States'. When I joined the Liberals back in the Neolithic Era, imagine my delight to find the very same man popping up to do the same job for the party. The mantle has now passed to Duncan Brack and at least he doesn't try to stop ambulances with his bare hands.
If all this isn't enough to wet the Liberal appetite, there's always tea at Betty's, although their website warns: "Our Veranda and Spindler Cafés at Bettys in Harrogate will be closed temporarily. From 5th January until Easter. Why not try our elegant Imperial Room? Or for our full café menu please visit Bettys at RHS Gardens Harlow Carr."
Comments from contemporaries on Camden Council suggests she may not be the sharpest tool in the box. For myself, I first took notice of her when she attempted to ban the Stop the War march from using Hyde Park to protest against the Iraq War, because the demonstrators would damage the grass ! Of course the hordes who swarmed to Hyde Park (like myself) for the Last Night of the Proms or (unlike myself) various corporate entertainment events would just float over the grass. The difference was that the latter would provide money (something she seems inordinately fond of) whereas the former were there to protest against the illegal war she and her colleagues voted for and which damaged slightly more than grass. Here are some of her other votes.
- Voted for introducing a smoking ban.
- Voted for introducing ID cards.
- Voted for introducing foundation hospitals.
- Voted for introducing student top-up fees.
- Voted for Labour's anti-terrorism laws.
- Voted for the Iraq war.
- Voted against investigating the Iraq war.
- Voted for replacing Trident.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Actually I don't think Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson did kiss on the platform at Carnforth Station, but they couldn't do it at Warrington today where they have erected no kissing signs. Are the people of Warrington really so passionate that they need this restraint ? Perhaps they are trying to win back the world simultaneous kissing record for Britain. Until Valentine's Day this year, the record was held by Britain with 32,648 people, but now Mexico City has taken it with 39,987 participants. How on earth do they count it ?
Incidentally Brief Encounter was banned in Ireland for its sympathetic betrayal of adultery. The censors obviously didn't watch the whole film.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Linda Jack says, "Two or three days before it sunk the Titanic was warned it was approaching an ice field, ignorance, arrogance or indifference meant it ignored the warnings. Vince Cable has been a clear and lone voice about the banks and personal debt for many years. No one listened." Here he is whispering words of doom in Kate Winslet's ear as they begin the Tango.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The England-Wales match today and, judging by last week's performance, the only sight that England will enjoy today is Kathryn Jenkins. Still, a welcome change from Tom Jones.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Oh dear, oh dear ! The Today programme could not find a minister to defend the government's stupid decision to ban Geert Wilders from entering Britain, so they found Chris Huhne to do it for them. Chris began by saying "Freedom of speech is absolutely crucial" and then showed that he doesn't know the meaning of absolute by trying to draw a dividing line we should not cross, a principle for exceptions to freedom of speech. First he argued we should not allow "incitement to hatred or incitement to violence". John Humphries pointed out that these are two different things. Chris tried again. We shouldn't allow speech which is "creating the conditions for violence". We should have "freedom up to the point where there is potential for harm". Talk about stop digging when you're in a hole. Chris had not thought through the principles he was trying to enunciate. Freedom of speech is not absolute but it is bloody important.
The home secretary has the power to stop people entering the UK if she believes there is a threat to national security, public order or the safety of UK citizens, but she cannot exclude people simply because of their views. Wilders says the government's reason for not allowing him to enter is because his opinions "threaten community security and therefore public security" . The Home Office website gives no information on the point. No minister appeared on the Today programme.
Chris is wrong and Jacqui Smith is wrong, wrong in principle and wrong in practice. They are wrong in principle because what they object to is Wilders' opinions (and they are objectionable) but his views do no not themselves incite violence, they upset and offend many people, some of whom may become violent in reaction. His film if anything condemns violence. The film combines extracts from the Koran which encourage violence with clips of actual violence by Islamists (NB. This is the general term not for Muslims but for what the press calls Islamic extremists). I'm sure a similar film could be made with extracts from the Bible and clips of Christian violence or from the Torah with Jewish violence. The offence lies in not distinguishing between Muslims and Islamists. Wilders may be ghastly and his views dreadful but we should not prevent the expression of views which create "the conditions for violence" or "where there is the potential for harm". A literal interpretation of these tests would prevent the expression of any opinion which could possibly upset or offend anyone prepared to resort to violence when upset or offended. Nor should we allow the Home Secretary or even a judge to decide on a non-literal interpretation. The link between such words and actual violence is not sufficiently proximate. Offending the violent is NOT inciting violence. If you think it is, you are handing over power to the bigot.
They are wrong in practice. Jacqui Smith's decision (which she would not defend in public but Chris did) has given more publicity and support to the wretched Wilders that letting him in to the UK would ever have done. Polls on the Daily Mail and Guardian websites both show an overwhelming majority of voters opposing the ban. Newly elected Presidents of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats traditionally receive a copy of the Milton's Areopagitica which contains the phrase,
"...who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter ?". I commend it to Chris. The right response to Wilders and anyone like him is to hear them, to argue with them and show that they are wrong.
There is another worrying implication here. Wilders is a European citizen and parliamentarian. He was invited by a European citizen (Lord Pearson of UKIP may not like this description) and parliamentarian. Wilders' attendance at the meeting in the House of Lords was prevented by Jacqui Smith, a member of the Executive. The prevention of discussion among parliamentarians by the Executive is characteristic of fascist government. Of course I do not say that our government is fascist but they do need to consider more carefully the implication of their decisions.
Finally, on the subject of offending people, have a listen to Marcus Brigstocke on religion on YouTube. Perhaps Jacqui Smith will prosecute him.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
An American writer, Tom Perrotta, has suggested
two new holidays, "Grievance Day" and "Apology Day". On Grievance Day, you could approach someone and complain that you've suffered at their hands. After three months, on Apology Day that person can apologise or respond. What interested me were some of the comments on the idea.
"That would be the worst idea ever. Some people don't take kindly to being told they have done something wrong, there would be fights left right and centre". Where did this comment come from ? Northern Ireland. It's such a pity when your worst prejudices are confirmed.
I preferred this comment from Grantham. Bless. "I spend half my life saying I'm sorry, a whole day dedicated to it will save me a lot of time." As they say in Lincolnshire, "Now then."
Charlotte Gore's question prompts me to republish an old Liberator article.
Why I am still a Liberal
I met a lesbian on a train to Brussels. I met her because she sat right opposite me and started reading Paddy Ashdown's diaries. I took pity and rescued her and we had a conversation. She had, she told me, been a Euro-Communist as a student but having met lots of Liberals, she had now become a Liberal. This was not easy, she confessed. It had actually been harder to come out as a Liberal than as a lesbian.
I came out as a Liberal in 1974. I came out of the Labour Party, because of Europe, because of incomes policy, because of the environment, because the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party (David Steel) attended late-night Young Liberal caucuses whereas the Chief Whip of the Labour Party (Bob Mellish) only mentioned the Young Socialists when he wanted to swear. It was Brighton - the Liberal Assembly of 1974 – heady days (and nights).
I joined the Liberal Party but if I am honest, I wasn't a Liberal. I was, although I didn't know it at the time, a Social Democrat. In those pre-Thatcher days we all had much higher hopes of the role of the state. Seven years later a Social Democrat Party was created but by that time I had become a Liberal. I voted for the Alliance but after another seven years, I voted against the merger. To the many who have discovered the Liberal Democrat Party since then, this is all archaeology and my views have "gotta be mediaeval". Just stop digging, you might say. But I'm sorry, I can't pretend that two different things are actually one and the same nor that some magical Hegelian synthesis has produced a third thing, which is better than either. I am stuck with Alan Beith's formula when he stood for the leadership, "I am a Liberal, I am a member of the [Social and]Liberal Democrats".
To my slightly political friends, I give the soundbite: A Liberal is an anarchist who has compromised with reality, a Social Democrat is a socialist who has compromised with reality. But you, dear Liberator reader, deserve more. Liberals begin with the freedom of the individual and, when they have compromised with reality a bit, they should end with it too. It is not a question of balancing liberty and equality. If you are serious about freedom, yes you will require the state to do something to help all individuals to have the chance of a greater freedom than Carlyle's freedom to sleep under a bridge. (But you will also allow that freedom. On a recent visit to Scandinavia, home of social democracy, I heard the case of some alcoholics living squalidly in an isolated hut. The social workers arrived :
"We've come to help you"
"It's all right. We don't need any help."
"No. Society has let you down. We must help you to lead a normal life."
"Society hasn't let us down."
"Yes it has."
"No, it hasn't. We like living like this. Go away")
There are many problems with pursuing equality but two will do. Firstly, even the harshest Communist dictatorships have never achieved it. It can't be done and, secondly if it could, it would be terrible, because it would destroy all liberty and that great flower of liberty – diversity. You cannot tell if two different things are equal, if the man with a television is equal to the man with a book or with a rugby ball. You cannot do it by monetary value – how do you balance living in Lambeth with living in Durham, or Cornwall, or Skye. If you think this is abstract theorising, look carefully at how the New Labour government runs education, health or local government. The drive to equalise becomes inevitably a drive to homogenise. For a civil servant or a Number 10 wunderkind you can only be equal when you are the same. So we have a national curriculum, performance indicators, best value and the whole theology of targets. And if a school or a hospital or a social services department should deviate from the prescribed parameters of performance, what's the solution ? Bring in a new central government agency or contractor. The drive to sameness replaces any genuine concern for social justice.
To me, the point of freedom is the freedom to be different. Diversity is not just an individual good but the key to a healthy society. The current obsession with nationally imposed standards will impoverish us all. I take the example of Education Authorities. At one time (roughly, pre- Shirley Williams) they had great autonomy. There was a great variety of provision around the country and when one currently fashionable educational theory failed, areas that failed with it could look elsewhere in the country for viable alternatives. But when everyone is (compulsorily) doing the same and the theory fails, everyone fails and there is nowhere to go. It is like the problem of a monoculture in crops. If everyone grows the same variety of wheat, they will all fail when one particular blight comes along. Without variety there can be no selection and no evolution. Choice is not simply a luxury for the rich but a real necessity for society.
A word about experts, by which I mean not the man who can (and does) tell you why one car (computer, voting system) is better than another for your needs, but the man who then says that you must have this because I am the expert, I know what you need and I know better than you. Expertise rather than serving choice so often serves to deny it. When you combine the man who knows best with the man who wants to make things the same for everyone you have, in my view, the heart of social democracy. And guess what ? That man is in charge of Britain today.
Liberalism is often caricatured and misrepresented, both in France where they don't understand it (there was once briefly a French Liberal Party during the Third Republic led by the aptly named Monsieur Bourgeois) and in the United States where it means at least two completely different things. The French have a strong faith in reason, which they associate with René Descartes. They really believe that an intellectual in Paris can define what is right for the whole country. Thus they attempted to set priorities for every road junction in the country according to one guiding principle, priorité à droit. It didn't work and had to be accompanied by many exceptions. Their idea of religious freedom turns out to be forbidding religious symbols at school. The word Liberal is generally used in a derogatory way in France to describe someone who rejects social cohesion and collective action.
The confusion between different kinds of liberal in the United States has led to the description "neo-liberalism" which may be a neologism but is not liberalism. Traditionally, liberal meant Democrats of the Edward Kennedy school (school of thought, not of driving), whose views were close to the British Liberal Party. These people believed that freedom should include freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity and that the state had a role in helping to promote such freedom. The neo-liberals on the other hand have absorbed a little classical (or is it neo-classical ?) economics. Like Margaret Thatcher they do not believe in society. They believe in freedom so strongly that they are prepared to bomb and shoot people to force them to be free. They really believe that you can impose freedom. I don't.
Traditionally people attempt to put political opinions on a single axis from left to right. If you are left, you favour collective action and limit the individual, especially in economic matters. If you are right, you favour individual action and limit the state. I have believed for a long time that this dichotomy between individualism and collectivism is false. The individual and society are not opposites but two aspects of the same thing. The analogy of the word and the sentence illustrates the point. The meaning of a word depends upon its role in the sentence but the meaning of the sentence depends upon the words. Meanings change through usage by the whole language community, not because of a decision of the Academie Française. All societies need collective action and find ways of organising it. In authoritarian societies, the state or the church organises it. In liberal ones, volunteers organise it in a multitude of different ways, some of them commercial but not all.
Liberalism is a hard creed to follow, and I still believe it is a creed or, if you prefer, an ideology. It combines an analysis of society with a set of aims and methods for achieving them. It has something to say about the role of governments and the role of individuals. It does not say, "Look after yourself and don't expect anyone, especially the state, to help" – the guiding theme of Conservatism over the years. It does not say, "Don't worry. The state will look after you" – the inspiration of socialism now transmuted into "Don't worry. The state will tell you what to do and how and when to do it in precisely defined quantities". Liberalism asks each of us to think for ourselves and to work for each other. It accepts the incommensurability of individual desires and the value of diversity to society. It is the practical working out of liberty. I leave you with William Hazlitt: "The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves."
Thursday, February 05, 2009
I was going to express myself on the subject of Carol Thatcher and the BBC but Liberal England has said everything I wanted to say and then some.
I did look up "Golliwog" on Wikipedia, which reveals :
Creedence Clearwater Revival was originally called "The Golliwogs"
Golliwog was World War II British naval slang for a Gauloise cigarette
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
The BBC should have red faces not red noses. On 13th March, Red Nose Day, they will be asking for money "to make a difference to the lives of thousands of people living in abject poverty, or facing terrible injustice, both across Africa and in the UK" but not of course in Gaza, because helping people there would make "a range of people" think that the BBC is not impartial. I complained to the BBC about their refusal to show the DEC appeal. This was there reply:
"We note your disappointment at our decision not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds for Gaza."Thank you for your anonymous response. I have listened with growing frustration and incredulity to the lame excuses presented by Mark Thompson and Caroline Thomson which you have reiterated.
We decided not to broadcast the DEC's public appeal because we wished to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC's impartiality in the context of covering a continuing news story where issues of responsibility for civilian suffering and distress are intrinsic to the story and remain highly contentious. We also could not be confident that the aid resulting from audience donations could reach those it was intended for at a time of a fragile ceasefire and sporadic border access. We will of course continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza."
This was my reply to them:
The BBC's decision has achieved exactly what it claims to avoid. It has compromised public confidence in the BBC's impartiality. It has shown that you care more about the bigotry of those who believe that emergency help for Palestinians is anti-Israeli than you do about the actual plight of Gaza. Shame on you for giving into their bias.
The decision also demonstrates the well-known arrogance of BBC management. How can any of your managers from Mark Thompson downwards believe that they are better placed than the DEC itself to judge whether aid could reach its intended recipients ? Caroline Thompson says that viewers will be confused by seeing the same images of suffering in Gaza on the news and in the appeal. How much contempt for the intelligence of your viewers does this display ?
I had some hope that the BBC would pay attention to the anger and dismay of the general public (not to political pressure, as the other lame excuse goes) but it has become clear that the BBC, like the government, can never admit that it is wrong. Your failure to acknowledge your mistake exposes the BBC to the same contempt that many feel for politicians. I have therefore decide to cancel my television licence direct debit and to transfer the money saved to the DEC's appeal."
I never thought to dream of Colin Rosenstiel and therefore when I heard his name on the Today Programme this morning, I knew I was awake. Colin has been reprimanded by the Standards Board for England for blocking an ambulance with his bicycle. It must be true - it was in the Sun. I am ready to believe it. Cllr. Rosenstiel once argued with a policeman who told him he couldn't ride down Burleigh Street in Cambridge because it was one-way. "No it isn't" said Colin, "It's just no entry at that end and I walked in." Colin went on to dumbfound the poor copper telling him that he (Colin) was on the relevant council committee and he knew about these things. Colin also challenged a police undercover operation when plain-clothes detectives posed as council workman outside a suspected terrorist's house, telling them that his committee had not arranged any such road works. All right, that's not true. It's a scene in Tom Sharpe's Wilt but I bet Tom Sharpe based it on Colin.