Thursday, December 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hot air

Is the internet hastening the decline of a niche performance art? This article suggests it is. Throughout the centuries, from Roland the Farter to Mr Methane, professional flatulence has been a winner, but now appears to be a declining income earner with endless free repetition on YouTube.

It's an ancient art:
St. Augustine of Hippo, writing City of God in the 5th century, noted people who could “produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region”. 
And how about this scurrilous verse from the age of Shakespeare:
The Censure of the Parliament Fart (1607) 
Never was bestowed such an art
Upon the tuning of a fart.
Downe came grave auntient Sir John Cooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry'd Noe.
Up starts one fuller of devotion
The Eloquence; and said a very ill motion
Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin
The Motion was good; but for the stincking
Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke
To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique
Indeed I confesse quoth Sir Edward Grevill
The matter of it selfe was somewhat uncivill
Thanke God quoth Sir Edward Hungerford
That this Fart proved not a Turdd
Maybe it's the Christmas sprouts that brought this to mind, but the fart gag is as much a manifestation of humanity as reason and consciousness, perhaps more so.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Oranges and lemons

With a ginger cat

And one that looks like Hitler

I am in Greece and the brain is in abeyance. Sunny days, cold nights, and roaring fires. Sometimes it's good to hide from the world.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Star Wars

I've never seen Star Wars. Must get around to watching it some day. Maybe, this version:

Sunday, December 06, 2015


I am bewildered.

The United Nations Security Council has authorised countries to take action to fight and defeat ISIS, or whatever you want to call them. The U.K. Parliament, after a long and intelligent debate, has voted to support this call by extending their current campaign in Iraq to bombing selected strategic targets in Syria, currently the oil fields that ISIS control that provide them with part of their finance. And the response?

People on social media are calling people like me, who, despite having some misgivings, made the close (and inexpert) call to support that decision, any number of things. Here are some examples - child killers, bloodthirsty warmongers, racists, scum, traitors, etc. They gather under the banner of 'not in our name' and other slogans to disassociate themselves from a decision to try and end a genocide. Their violent anger is directed at the West, Britain, Labour MPs, Hilary Benn, and, I suppose, me. Nice, well meaning people are full of hate and fury, which they are spitting at people like me for wanting to destroy an unambiguous evil, rather than aiming their anger at the evil itself. I find it distressing.

Why this vehemence, this overwhelming sense of self-righteousness? Why this certainty? I am full of anxieties about the wisdom of the strategy and the possibility of success. They seem to have no doubts at all as to its wickedness. Of course, they don't describe it as bombing the forces and facilities of ISIS in the parts of Syria they have occupied and used to mount a campaign of conquest and genocide. They talk about 'bombing Syria', an undifferentiated and innocent victim. It is a misrepresentation.

So what are the alternatives?

1. Non-intervention. Ignore it and let it the war take its bloody course. To me, it is immoral to stand aside if it is possible to intervene with a reasonable prospect of even limited success. The cost in human life will be immense.

2. Appeasement. Negotiate with ISIS. How? With whom? There's no chance. But more importantly, negotiation means offering concessions. What will we offer? Are we to offer undisputed control of limited territory? Pakistan tried this with the Taliban in Swat. It was a disaster.

3. Non-military intervention. Cutting off ISIS' funding is one of the main demands. Again the question is how? Or, more accurately, how in ways that are not being done already? And the supplementary is how possible will it be, given the complexity of international relations and dodgy deals, and the fact that most of their income comes from the territory they control? Why will attempting to unravel the illegal oil deals be more effective than bombing the refineries under their control to put them out of action? And how many more people will be murdered in the time it will take?

4. Containment. Put simply it means 'thus far and no more'. The problem is that this accepts the legitimacy of their conquest and abandons the populations of the areas they have siezed to their uncontested and brutal oppression.

5. Military intervention. The risks are obvious; any failure to protect Syrians from the brutality of Assad could undermine the whole venture, it could end up helping Assad. The necessary plans for a comprehensive post-war settlement are not apparent, an air war clearly won't defeat ISIS on its own, and the politics of the Syrian civil war are horrendous. But the other alternatives will let the killing carry on unimpeded at a time when it is possible for us to help and that help is wanted by the victims. There are national security issues, but they pale into insignificance compared to the need to rescue people from barbarity.

And so, despite the risks, military intervention seems to be the best way of saving lives, and probably the only way to defeat something so terrible. I support any attempt to liberate the innocent from an exceptionally cruel oppression. The only possible argument to oppose the decision is the one of the risk outweighing any possible benefits. But this is not what most of the anti-war activists are saying.

ISIS have an army that has occupied large tranches of two countries, it has ambitions to invade and expand into as much territory as it can. It is an imperialist force, trying to create a global empire. It wishes to destroy democracy. It harbours genocidal anti-Semitism. Its methods include the genocide of all religious minorities, the reintroduction of slavery, a systematic policy of mass rape, the killing of all they deem to be opponents, the public execution of prisoners of war by burning them alive in iron cages, the arbitrary beheading of foreigners, the killing of homosexual men by throwing them from the tops of tall buildings, stoning women to death for any sexual infringement of their repressive codes, the practice of wholesale torture, funding themselves through the extortion of their captive population, organising massacres of civilians in Beirut, Paris, Tunisia and elsewhere, killing Shi'ia Muslims as apostates, enforced misogyny, blowing up mosques and shrines, destroying ancient monuments and murdering their guardians, bringing back crucifixion as a form of public execution, and I have probably missed out many of their other atrocities as well.

I have one question to ask those angry and abusive opponents. If it is wrong to fight now, when will it ever be right to fight fascism?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Two speeches

With live in curious times.

The leader of the opposition opened the debate on Syria, opposing the Tories with a rambling speech that set out a traditional conservative foreign policy.

The shadow foreign secretary closed the debate on Syria, supporting the Tories with a more impressive speech demolishing traditional conservative foreign policy and replacing it with socialist internationalism and anti-fascism.

The first came from the left of the party, the second from the right.

Of course the references to the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War were rhetorical devices and not wholly analogous, but, seeing as these inappropriate historical analogies are all the rage, I can't help thinking that the first could have been written by Neville Chamberlain, the second by Michael Foot.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Decision day

Here is the argument that I am not hearing from some close to the Labour leadership or from many on the left.

Labour stands for international solidarity. Labour believes that fascism should be confronted and defeated. Labour opposes genocide, misogyny and murderous homophobia. Labour believes that Britain has a duty not to stand by if it has the means to help.

The only debate, the only one, is about the means and strategy to be employed.

And there is a real debate to be had. One over the ending of the Syrian civil war, the status of the Assad regime and the rebuilding of Syria. There is a debate as to the risks, and over Kurdish nationalism and Turkish actions. And then there is the huge problem of the role and intentions of Russia. There are doubts and choices about how to achieve our aims.

Instead, I am hearing a chorus of 'not in my name', 'it will never work', 'everything we have done in the past has failed', 'innocents will die', 'it was our fault in the first place', and, more insidiously, 'we will become a target'.

Then there are those who say we must negotiate with ISIS, come to terms with them, despite ISIS having no intention of negotiating and without recognising that negotiation means giving concessions, legitimising them and giving them a small victory.

While in the shadows, there is whispered talk of dark conspiracies, of oil discoveries, and, inevitably, the machinations of Zionists, Rothschilds, and Jews. This is the opposition of the deluded.

Taken together, it is a call to inaction, extolling the virtue of doing nothing. And they call this peace.

Gandhi again, "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence".

Yes, Gandhi.


Oh look, someone did make it.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Unheard voices

So much talk about national security, loads of column inches given over to the latest cock up by the Labour Leadership, earnest discussions of diplomatic relations, Ken Livingstone being a tosser, all are in the headlines. In case we forget, this is about Syria. And where are the Syrians in the debate? Because if you listen to them, they are all saying the same thing. The problem is Assad. Here is one local example.
The only way to defeat ISIL is by stopping the Assad regime’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, including areas controlled by moderate rebel groups. Once this happens, Syrians will be freed up to drive out ISIL themselves, as they have proved themselves capable of doing.
And yet the talk trickles in of Assad 'having a role to play.' Surely we are not going to sell the people out again? We will if we fail to listen.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The 18th Brumaire of Jeremy Corbyn

Just who thought it was a good idea to quote Mao? Which demented spin doctor approved the waving of 'the little red book'? Who? Dear god, who?

I still think my comparison in the post below is valid, but it needs to be qualified with that old quote about history repeating itself, "the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Old Labour - a futile defence

In the dim distant past, Tony Blair made a self-pitying speech about having scars on his back from trying to change the public sector and complained about being held back by the "forces of conservatism." I guess he meant me. I remember life under New Labour as a constant struggle against stupid policies introduced with either macho posturing about tough choices or hand-wringing whining about how we must compete with China. The idea that my opposition was conservative rankled. Certainly in my field of adult education, I was a vociferous advocate of reform; it was the government's specific changes that I opposed.

Years passed, and, when I expressed alarm at the prospect of Corbyn leading the Labour Party, I was shocked when someone called me 'red Tory scum.' It wasn't so much the scum I objected to, but Tory? Now, anyone who is against Corbyn's leadership gets a far worse insult, the most objectionable name in the Corbynista demonology – 'Blairite.'

Reflecting on it all in a state of existential despair, I suddenly thought, 'that's odd, they're doing the same thing.' And it became clear that though doctrinally different, the Corbyn and Blair factions had something in common.

Blairites were convinced that they held the secret to electoral victory. It's a formula they had worked out and bottled that they think can be applied whatever the circumstances. As true meritocrats (in the original satirical sense of the term as coined by Michael Young) they see their election victories solely as a result of their superior efforts. They don't think of themselves as the beneficiaries of a specific time in history. The cards fell right for them as the Conservative Party self-destructed. They played their hand well, but it was a good one.

Their method was to say that they were not the Labour Party. They ran against themselves and became New Labour. The Blairites seemed to dislike their own party. They talked about 'big tent' politics, which meant including voters and parties to the right of Labour alone. Traditional voters could be safely ignored, as they had 'nowhere else to go'. (They did, as it turns out, they went home. Turnout crashed).

Three election victories, each more unconvincing than the last, gave them confidence. They clung to a post hoc rationalisation that the reason that they won so big in 1997 was because of the policies that they adopted after they won. They forgot that some of what they promised before the election was different. And this blinded them to their subsequent electoral decline that left them vulnerable to a Tory revival. They were lucky again. The Tory Party extended the franchise for their leadership contests to all members and elected a new leader with a whopping 60% of the vote. They chose Ian Duncan Smith. Which brings me round to Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn has nothing like as good a hand electorally, but that is not his priority anyway. He too has run against his party. He also doesn't like them. Instead of offering victory by compromising principles, he offers principles by compromising victory. But what are his principles? Are they Labour principles? Well, on foreign policy, certainly not. But again there is a parallel. Blair schmoozed to corporations and made friends with Rupert Murdoch. Corbyn cuddled up to any anti-Western regime, however grim, and allied with theocratic fascists. Both sided with Labour's natural enemies, though it has to be said that Putin and Hamas make Murdoch look like Father Christmas.

Ultimately, both Blairites and Corbynistas opposed 'actually existing' Labour and wanted to reform it in their own image. Both claimed novelty - New Labour or a 'new, kinder, gentler politics' (the practice seems somewhat different). Both saw themselves as the sole repository of political virtue. Both actively disliked the bulk of the party that they led. This had consequences. Blairite control freakery reduced the role of activists and it became a shell party, an organisation for sustaining the leadership. This opened up the possibility of change if a surge of new members could be recruited to support it, something Labour enabled through its new method of electing the leader. And that is why Corbyn won. His new activists, organised through groups like Momentum, are also trying to restructure the membership to make it the party of a different type of loyalist.

This self-loathing strikes me as odd. So what is it they dislike (apart from anyone having the temerity to disagree with them)?  I think that the answer lies in Labour's history. Labour was always a coalition. It was formed in 1900 as a coalition of trade unions with the three socialist parties. But even those parties were very different. The largest, the Independent Labour Party, was non-doctrinaire, The Social Democratic Federation was Marxist, while The Fabian Society was technocratic. There is no coherent ideology that is authentically Labour. We have seen Labour cabinets that have included Cripps and Bevan with Bevin and Dalton, and later, Foot and Benn with Jenkins and Healey. Coalition has always been the nature of the beast.

Coalitions are not nice, cosy arrangements that produce a sensible consensus. They are pits of rivalry, hatred, and mutual recrimination, punctuated by periods of power struggle. Policy emerges through dialectic rather than reasoned agreement. The Labour Party has never been an easy place and has always been fractious. Problems emerge when one faction is dominant to the complete exclusion of the others. Then party loyalty becomes factional loyalty. This isn't a straight right/left split. One of New Labour's most ferocious early critics was the former deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, a figure from the right. Within New Labour, the Brown/Blair split poisoned relations. Under Corbyn, around 90% of the Parliamentary Party are dissidents, including many on the left. This is factional politics.

New Labour was at least recognisable as part of the mainstream, the Corbyn faction is a tiny fringe group. Blair also had the advantage of being able to offer electoral success, Corbyn is facing almost certain electoral oblivion. Blair was more secure and could win support from those outside his immediate circle, though some of the centre left was uneasy. Corbyn's support lies mainly outside Parliament, but, given the change in voting rules, he looks to be unremovable in the short term.

There are differences between the two. An established faction is more secure than an insurgent one. As a result, it can be more tolerant of difference, more inclusive, and make for more congenial, if condescending, company in disagreement. While Blairites were established and experienced insiders, Corbynistas are part of an insurgency. They have a more conspiratorial mindset, are distrustful and hostile. Michael White's judgement that "Jeremy Corbyn is a very nice man, nice but naive. Some of those around him are neither," applies in spades to his supporters. I know some who are lovely people, good friends even, but others can be abusive brutes. It all reminds me of a section of Jonathan Rose's wonderful book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, where he discusses the Communist Party's failure to win working class support.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers generally found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary. ... British working people judged Marxism by Marxists they knew, and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
They are making Labour another 'nasty party' and it will have the same result. The parallel with Ian Duncan Smith does not look far fetched. Neither were credible prime ministerial candidates. Both were symbols of membership revolt against 'the establishment.' Neither could win. IDS was removed, opening the way for Cameron and a slow Tory revival. Corbyn's fate, in the far more loyal Labour Party, is unclear.

So here I am, a Labour member, on-and-off, for decades who was disillusioned by Blair, but who is now homeless and unwelcome under Corbyn. So what's the solution?

Labour faces big problems. Scotland is gone, dominated by the SNP. The Blairite tactic of targeting swing voters in marginal constituencies, trying to win back supporters from the Tories is absolutely necessary. Power cannot be won without it, but is it enough? Corbyn's strategy of concentrating on the core vote, young voters and increasing the turnout amongst the working class electorate, even if it worked, could not win a general election on its own. It could only give Labour larger majorities in seats they already hold. Labour needs to be able to do both, and that suggests that the mainstream Labour coalition doesn't look such a bad idea after all. What Labour must not do under any circumstances is to confuse the views of the members with that of the voters. Many in the Corbyn camp think that the leader's popularity with party members reflects support in the electorate as a whole. They are wrong. The Tories are opening up a big lead in the polls. This is a mistake that the Blairites did not make, as they over-obsessed about focus groups and market testing.

My hope is that a revival of the old Labour coalition would be possible, making someone like me on the old left feel happy about paying my membership dues. And maybe, just maybe, the Labour Party will stop reacting to every defeat with factional power grabs. But to do this requires a change in the leadership as soon as is practicable and hope for the return of uneasy party unity and toleration of diversity. Some are beginning to advocate a formal split, abandoning Labour to the Corbynista faction and forming a new party. It strikes me as suicidal. The British electoral system punishes splits. New Labour may come to regret abandoning their flirtation with proportional representation before 1997. But then carrying on and making the best of it is equally suicidal. If there is no change and Labour blunders on, then the future looks bleak for a long time ahead.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Capability Corbyn

One of my reservations about Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party is not over policy, but competence. His reaction to the Paris atrocity has not put my mind at rest. The latest sense of alarm came from his answer to a question about a shoot-to-kill policing policy. He has good reason to oppose it as an automatic policy after Northern Ireland and the death of de Menezes in the aftermath of 7/7. But that wasn't what he was asked.

I have listened to the interviews and it couldn't have been clearer. In one, he had manoeuvred, not very convincingly, through some awkward questions on his attitude to ISIS. Then the interviewer gave him what Americans call a softball question, one that is easy to answer. He was asked if he would order the police or army to shoot dead a gunman who was killing innocent people. He waffled about being opposed to a shoot-to-kill policy in general. That wasn't the question. So the interviewer clarified it to make it clear she was referring to a single specific incident and not a general policy. He repeated the mantra, with his usual tone of irritation when questioned, and added something about not bringing war to the streets. The answer he should have given is simple. He should have said yes.

First of all, it would be perfectly legal as an act of self-defence. Secondly, he wouldn't have to order it anyway as it would fall under the normal rules of engagement. And if he was worried about the principle, here's Gandhi - yes, Gandhi - writing in 1926:
Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing any one that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded a benevolent man.
(Young India, 4-11-'26, pp. 384-85)
It was a straightforward opportunity to reassure the public and sound responsible in the wake of a shocking attack in France that showed that there is also a clear threat to the people of this country. Instead he equivocated. In effect, he was saying to the voters that if they were attacked he would rather they were killed than kill the gunman. I don't think that's a vote-winner.

Politicians say stupid things, but leadership is a team. So what were his media advisers doing? Rather than instantly clarifying his position and coaching him in what to say instead, they let him repeat it and then repeat it again to a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. What is more, it was a meeting that included one of his biggest critics whose niece had been caught up in the Paris massacre, thankfully without being harmed. He had a personal stake in this. The meeting did not go well. If this is anything like an accurate account, it sounds a disaster. This is the price of appointing a posh ex-Stalinist from the Guardian as your media adviser, rather than a tabloid-savvy fixer.

Everything has been pulled back today. Hilary Benn has restated a more credible policy and Corbyn's position has been duly refined, but the damage has already been done. 

It's ironic. I have talked to people about Corbyn who have been concerned by his foreign policy but thought that domestically a move to the left was necessary and welcome. They felt that domestic politics was far more important. Yet, the first major test of his leadership turns out to be a profoundly serious crisis in foreign affairs. I totally disagree with his views, but I would hope that at least he would be able to state his position at a time of crisis with a modicum of competence.  

I hate to say it, but this is horribly reminiscent of my years in education on the occasions we have made an unsuitable appointment as a principal. I have been to those meetings. I have helped in the Hilary Benn style rescue operations. Politics and political ideas are an area of dispute, but the ability to do the job should be a given. I hope he and his team learn, but I don't think this one is going away.

Monday, November 16, 2015


The atrocity in Paris was so awful and the stories so heartbreaking that you would have thought there might be a pause for thought, for some deeper reflection and for the evidence to emerge before embarking on the latest round of speculative bollocks. But no. First out of the blocks were the anti-Muslim fantasists and the anti-immigration right. They were followed rapidly by the self-hating left, beautifully satirised by Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar here:
“Nope. We created you. We installed a social and economic system that alienates and disenfranchises you, and that’s why you did this. We’re sorry.”

“What? Why are you apologizing? We just slaughtered you mercilessly in the streets. We targeted unwitting civilians – disenfranchisement doesn’t even enter into it!”

“Listen, it’s our fault. We don’t blame you for feeling unwelcome and lashing out.”

“Seriously, stop taking credit for this! We worked really hard to pull this off, and we’re not going to let you take it away from us.”

“No, we nourished your extremism. We accept full blame.”

“OMG, how many people do we have to kill around here to finally get our message across?”
But what I dislike most are the cynics. They sneer at people changing their Facebook profile pictures or posting statements expressing their sympathy. Yet this is all most people can do. It is a moral act; an act that is both individual and collective. It says, 'we are with you, the victims, and against the terrorists. The action was evil and we have to find some way of saying it.' It is a fine gesture, even if a small one, from people remote from the event and unable to influence it. And it is that same impulse that transforms others, who had the misfortune to be there, into heroes. If you want to understand more about humanity, look beyond the crime itself and what you will see is an ocean of kindness responding to a sea of barbarism. This survivor's account has gone viral and in it she too pays tribute to that human impulse.
But being a survivor of this horror lets me able to shed light on the heroes. To the man who reassured me and put his life on line to try and cover my brain whilst i whimpered, to the couple whose last words of love kept me believing the good in the world, to the police who succeded in rescuing hundreds of people, to the complete strangers who picked me up from the road and consoled me during the 45 minutes I truly believed the boy i loved was dead, to the injured man who i had mistaken for him and then on my recognition that he was not Amaury, held me and told me everything was going to be fine despite being all alone and scared himself, to the woman who opened her doors to the survivors, to the friend who offered me shelter and went out to buy new clothes so i wouldnt have to wear this blood stained top, to all of you who have sent caring messages of support - you make me believe this world has the potential to be better. to never let this happen again. but most of this is to the 80 people who were murdered inside that venue, who weren't as lucky, who didnt get to wake up today and to all the pain that their friends and families are going through. I am so sorry. There's nothing that will fix the pain.
So fuck your sneering, fuck your irony. This is not the time for cynicism.

One of the most irritating themes is the one that keeps mentioning how the same attention was not given to other outrages, such as the Beirut bomb. The posts usually start with some line that the 'mainstream media' (another sneer) won't tell you this. Of course this isn't true, the authors just haven't bothered to look at the multitude of reports everywhere. This happens a lot. However, they are right about one thing. It won't get as much coverage here as Paris will. But because of this, they insinuate that the grief is insincere, inauthentic, and implicitly racist. By mourning Paris and not Beirut you are a heartless imperialist. European lives are worth more to you. What this is designed to do is not to include the horror in Lebanon, but to invalidate the grief and anger over France. It is about neutralising the response. It's political, obviously, but it's also dishonest. Let me explain.

I live in Eccles. This is the home town of Alan Henning, the taxi driver and volunteer aid worker murdered by ISIS in Syria. Even today there are impeccably maintained memorials to him all over the town. Yellow ribbons are still tied to houses and railings, replaced regularly when spoiled by the rain, and each bearing a personal message. Does this mean that because Henning alone is commemorated Eccles is a town of heartless bastards who are uninterested in the appalling deaths of the other hostages? No. Henning was a neighbour, one of us, and so the mourning is more intense and personal, even amongst those who were not his among his friends and family. It is a universal phenomenon, what touches you most is what is close to you. How can it be otherwise? Everyone knows it. The people of Lebanon will be more concerned with their own victims than they will be about the dead in France. There is no harm in that.

George Szirtes summed it up perfectly in a Facebook post. I hope he will not mind me quoting him here.
Grief is not politics. One does not choose between griefs and cast one's vote for this grief over that. It is not competitive and it is low politics to compare griefs. Grief and shock are feelings that one may or may not feel. Grief is not a zero sum game. You cannot say to people: if you feel more grief for one thing than another you are not allowed to feel either.
The endless theorising without evidence, the shoehorning of a monstrous crime into a preordained ideological framework, the denigration of popular sentiment, all make me so angry. Part of the reason why I react so strongly is more personal. Much of my anger is aimed at my younger self, who, decades ago, would have fallen for some of this guff and repeated it earnestly. That was before I learnt to think and to have respect for a popular, if sentimental, morality that instinctively understands what is best in humanity.

À nous la liberté 

Saturday, November 14, 2015


It's fascism. Not foreign policy, or refugees, or any such stupidity. It's fascism. Solidarity with its opponents at all times and wherever.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Having a laugh

When I was a student I remember turning up to seminar wearing a badge saying, "Je suis Marxiste tendance Groucho."
My tutor looked at me and said, "Some Marxists would find that offensive."
I replied, "I can't be doing with anyone without a sense of humour."
He then launched into a mini-lecture on the importance of humour as a method of transcendence in existentialist philosophy. Serious stuff this comedy.

I was reminded of this when I read this piece by the novelist, Jonathan Coe. Though he hangs it on Martin Amis' snooty attack on Jeremy Corbyn, his essay has little to do with the Corbyn leadership. Instead it is a cautionary tale of where humourless politics can take us.
 … 2015 might well go down in history as the year in which humanity lost its sense of humour, and became more stupid as a result. It was the year that began with French humorists being gunned down for drawing cartoons, continued with the bizarre spectacle of distinguished American writers declining to express solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, and encompassed, along the way, the curious case of the Nobel-prizewinning scientist whose ill-advised joke cost him his academic post and his reputation. 
Coe's main observation is that most humour has "some sort of incongruity at ... heart." And that "it is this ability to recognise the juxtaposition of disparate concepts, and to draw meaning from the juxtaposition, that we seem to be losing." In other words political discourse is becoming horribly literal. Take away the ambiguity of humour and you feed a voracious appetite for offence. This isn't to defend someone like Bernard Manning. Humour can be offensive and when it is, it fails to be funny. Manning's humour was cruelty disguised.

No, humour does something else. Sometimes it can be "the only possible response to a situation," however bleak, "the last defence of humanity when it has had everything else stolen from it." At other times it is a marvellous way of engaging the intellect. I used humour throughout my teaching. My theory was: if they laugh, they learn. It is thoughtful and intelligent. But if the heart of humour is finding incongruity funny, it becomes a wonderful political tool for puncturing pomposity and pretence. Here are some favourite examples. Dr Strangelove made us laugh at a nuclear apocalypse. It did so by showing that even the most fool-proof system can still be undone by the limitless foolishness of individual human beings. Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a deliberate parody that transcended propaganda. But for me the most subversive take on power has to be the portrayal of Rufus T Firefly in the film Duck Soup. You see; I am still a Groucho Marxist at heart.

A Manichaean world-view that can admit no ambiguity is one that can be highly destructive, humour based on "laughing at the misfortunes of others" can be a source of persecution, but finding the world funny is different. Laughing at human fallibility and absurdity can be liberating. Black humour can takes us into darkness and barbarity in a way that is impossible to dismiss. It rescues humanity from horror. But most importantly, if, however vehement our opinions and righteous our anger, we can stop and laugh then we are capable of creating a humane politics in a way that the humourless cannot.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cause and effect

The appointment of Seumas Milne as Labour's director of strategy and communications has certainly stirred things up, pitching some Labour people into despair. They have a point. But this isn't why I am posting. Instead, I am interested in the way extracts from an article on the murder of Lee Rigby have been used. Milne's critics all quote this line.
Rigby was a British soldier who had taken part in multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. So the attack wasn't terrorism in the normal sense of an indiscriminate attack on civilians.
At this point, in pour in his defenders, including Owen Jones on Twitter. They point out that Milne followed this up by writing,
The killing of an unarmed man far from the conflict, however, by self-appointed individuals with non-violent political alternatives, isn't condoned by any significant political or religious tradition.
 And so the criticism is deemed to be unfair. Milne is not defending the crime.

The problem is that both sides, in trying to score partisan points, are missing the point of the article. Of course Milne condemns the murder. The worse the crime, the stronger his argument is. He was not defending it as being justified, instead he was arguing about what caused it.

These articles are all the same. They are written to a formula and are utterly tedious. You know exactly what they are going to say. There is always a disclaimer - 'this act was horrible, terrible, unconscionable, can't be condoned etc, etc.' This is then followed by an explanation of why this horrible act is really the fault of anyone other than the people who committed it or the ideas that animated them. In this case it is all the result of the wars waged by the West "in the Muslim world." 
To say these attacks are about "foreign policy" prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others ... 
And then off we go into a furious rant directed against the political elites, while the barbaric nature of the murder is taken to show how evil our governments must be to have provoked it. 

This is what you find in all articles of this type. They aren't always about blaming the victims, they are about making the perpetrators into victims. It is the playground excuse, 'they made me do it.' And of course that means ignoring a fascistic, theocratic ideology whose adherents inflict horrible death on their opponents. After all, look at the grim casualty statistics during the period known as the war on terror. The vast majority of civilians who have been killed or maimed have met their fate at the hands of these far right Islamist movements, and most have been Muslims.

This is old ground. But going back over it again makes me even more concerned that a formulaic writer from the Guardian, responsible for some dreadful and, at times, wilfully ignorant journalism pandering to the prejudices of the liberal middle classes, is the person who has been chosen to reconnect the Labour Party to its grass roots, and to reanimate its electoral support and media profile. I am not hopeful.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bringing home the bacon

There has been a lot of fun poked at the World Health Organisation classifying bacon as carcinogenic. The Daily Mash was quickly in on it:
Following claims that bacon is ‘unhealthy’, angry mobs gathered outside clinics, laboratories and hospitals chanting ‘death to the men in white coats’ and ‘whoever defames the pig should be executed’.
Bill McKay, from Dorchester, said he would rather disembowel himself than live without bacon, the only meat to be approved by the Vegetarian Society.
He added: “We’ve taken a lot of shit from these people over the years. Perhaps the time has come to throw our health experts in jail.”
Rona Cameron, head of bacon sandwiches at the Vegetarian Society, said: “I love pigs, they’re intelligent and sensitive, but these so-called ‘experts’ are deranged, neo-Nazi perverts.”
Wayne Hayes, bacon director at the Bacon Institute, said: “Bacon transforms men into incredibly sensitive and generous lovers and guarantees women the longest and most intense orgasms imaginable.”
That smell of cooking bacon ... one of the most wonderful aromas in the world and something I miss when I'm in Greece. Almost the first thing I have when I get back is a bacon butty. That is why the killer bacon scare has so little traction and lots of ridicule. We certainly don't want it to be unhealthy, but it is more than wishful thinking. Our experience is telling us that there is something wrong with the whole idea. Our instinctive reaction highlights a serious issue, the problems with both the classification of risk and the reporting of research in the media.

This piece explains the classification issues well.
Here’s the thing: These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.
Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.
So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous.
But they’re presented with language that completely obfuscates that distinction.
The reporting follows this. It talks bluntly about a substance causing disease, yet rarely about it merely increasing the risk of that disease. When risk is mentioned it gives a percentage figure for the increase in that risk, but rarely says how great the original number was or what the increase is a percentage of. And for bacon, it is tiny, as Tom Chivers explains.
According to Cancer Research UK, 64 people out of every 100,000 can expect to develop colorectal cancer per year. Taken crudely, the IARC’s report suggests that eating 50g of bacon every day would raise your risk from 64 in 100,000 to 72 in 100,000, or from 0.064% to 0.072%. Over a lifetime, your risk is about 5%, according to the NHS; eating 50g of processed meat a day will raise that to about 6%.
 Smoking and bacon are lumped together, despite radically different health impacts.

There is a bigger problem here too. I remember teaching a third year group in social history and we were looking at health statistics on the home front in the First World War. When I asked the students, none had done statistics at any level, and nobody even knew the difference between causation and correlation. It goes much wider than statistics. Simple logical fallacies were foreign territory to many students, they fell for them all and repeated them with depressing regularity. I used to hammer away at the need to teach analytical thinking, simple logic, basic statistics and the like as an integral part of degrees. Although I taught one module on a degree in Hull that covered this ground, I was mainly ignored.

When I see the utter bollocks that is posted on social media, the distorted misattributed quotations stuck onto viral memes, and the blatant falsehoods that should be obvious to anyone who was aware of simple cognitive biases, I am more convinced than ever that the purpose of education is the one that Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner advocated in an old book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
Try this: in the early 1960’s, an interviewer was trying to get Ernest Hemingway to identify the characteristics required for a person to be a 'great writer'. As the interviewer offered a list of various possibilities, Hemmingway disparaged each in sequence. Finally, frustrated, the interviewer asked, 'Isn't then any one essential ingredient that you can identify?' Hemingway replied, ‘Yes, there is. In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.' 

It seems to us that, in his response, Hemingway identified an essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today's world. One way of looking at the history of the human group is that it has been a continuing struggle against the veneration of 'crap '. Our intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish and suffering of men who tried to help their contemporaries see that some part of their fondest beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions, superstitions and even outright lies. The mileposts along the road of our intellectual development signal those points at which some person developed a new perspective, a new meaning, or a new metaphor. We have in mind a new education that would set out to cultivate just such people - experts at 'crap detecting'.
And those skills have never been needed more.

In the meantime, carry on frying.

Thanks to Anthony for the links

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Depression part two

What can you say about Syria? It's a crime scene: a crime of both commission and neglect.

The commission is by the Assad regime and its gruesome allies. The neglect is by those who should have stood against it, but failed.

There are two positions that have informed this neglect. First, there is the persistent argument of anti-war activists from the 19th century onward that non-intervention is essential for peace and that military action can only exacerbate conflict, not resolve it. This presumption is shared on both the right and left. The second is the old 'realist' perspective that what matters is the interests of nation states. Combine the two, by seeing non-intervention as being in the national interest, and the result is paralysis.

And this is what we have at the present. Non-interventionism is resurgent. Alex Salmond gave a horrible, disingenuous speech in its support at the SNP conference. Labour's leadership is now ideologically committed to non-intervention. Appointing Seumas Milne to be director of communications and strategy compounds this with a heavy dose of apologism as a rationale for doing nothing. At the same time, realists are brushing off their 'Assad as a force for stability' routine, insisting that a murderous dictatorship is a regrettable necessity.

Inaction where action is possible leaves a vacuum. The assumption is that what will fill the gap will be relatively benign. This is not necessarily the case. I always felt that the decision not to take action against Assad after his use of sarin gas on civilians was one of the worst foreign policy mistakes so far this century. It signalled that, even in extreme cases of human rights violations, there was little chance of meaningful opposition. It was a green light. In Britain, it was Miliband that led the flight from action. Corbyn's leadership will only harden the position, though dissent is stirring in Labour's ranks.

Perhaps realists should be brushing off their old notions about world order and the balance of power, because serial abstentions from involvement is changing it, as this superb analysis by John Bew from September argues. And who knows where it is leading us. I am not optimistic, and in the meantime the humanitarian catastrophe gets worse.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Depression part one

The violence in Israel has sparked the usual depressing flood of memes on social media, accompanied by the standard opinion pieces and accusations of media bias. They all are the much the same, whichever side they come from. Either they are totally one-sided, in that they don't mention the actions of the other side at all, or they play a game of justification by saying that one side is solely reacting to the violence of the other. The first is obviously propaganda, whilst the second has the veneer of fair comment it ignores a crucial factor. It is not enough to say that any action is simply a reaction to another. The nature of the reaction is a choice. 

That choice has two dimensions. The moral one is most often commented on, but the other dimension is political. A pattern of co-ordinated violence is never arbitrary. It is not only chosen to intimidate its target, but to impress its own side and consolidate the power of its organisers. Violence is a tactic to counter the narrative of peace, which in this conflict means compromise, acceptance and mutual recognition. It is deliberate. It is the tactic of those who want to fight until they achieve whatever they deem to be a victory, to live in a bloody comfort zone of antagonism and hatred, rather than make the sacrifices and meet the profound challenges of finding an agreement.

I don't want to play these games of blame and recrimination. I want moral clarity and to stand for peace in desperate times.

Season's end

73,000 fans with all the noise and razzmatazz of the Grand Final marked the end of the season for club rugby league last Saturday. It was fitting that a close, dramatic game should end with Leeds completing the domestic treble. There is a test series against New Zealand still to come and I am really looking forward to my first visit to the Olympic Stadium in London for the second test, but it has been a momentous season as it saw the return of promotion and relegation to and from Super League. The result was that nobody was promoted and nobody relegated. That might seem odd, but with it all based on an extended play-off series, promotion from the championship has to be won on the pitch against the bottom Super League sides. The next step is clear. The failure of Championship sides to make it shows the need for strengthening that division and ensuring that any club that comes up has the strength to make a go of it. This will happen and the result will be thrilling and eclipse the dire stagnation of the franchising years. For all its cloth-cap, homespun image, rugby league is one of the most progressive and experimental sports. Let's hope this latest move persists and becomes the success it deserves to be.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cutting justice

This report was on Channel Four News tonight.

It is a horrible case. Their child was taken away because of suspected abuse after the parents took it to hospital, worried about a health problem. It was put up for adoption against their will. A criminal case was brought and they were able to prove that the marks on their baby were symptoms of disease, not abuse, and were cleared. Not only were the couple wrongly accused of a crime, they were accused of a crime that never happened.

The criminal courts had done their job, but they will never get their child back, because the case in the family court had already taken place and their child had been adopted. The obvious question is why was that evidence not presented at the earlier hearing? The answer is money. They could not afford legal representation. They had to represent themselves and were without the resources to investigate the case and bring in expert witnesses. Cuts had swept away their right to legal aid. This is the heart of the tragedy.

This is what the cuts really mean; innocent loving parents losing their child for life - losing their child for no reason at all - losing their child to a simple diagnostic error.

In a report by Louise Tickle on an attempt by a judge to help people forced to represent themselves, the judge noted,
In one three-month period last year, 80% of private family law cases saw at least one party trying to fight their case without any legal representation at all.
 And from a year ago, this piece points out:
The number of family law cases involving children in which neither party has legal representation has nearly doubled in the last year, a report by official auditors has found.
The knock-on effect has been to increase costs to the taxpayer because cases without lawyers can take 50% longer, the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes.
The findings, released on Thursday, come weeks after a senior judge accused the government of washing its hands of the problem it had created by failing to provide legal aid for parents in child custody cases.
Yes, depriving people of proper representation is MORE expensive. There are no savings. Instead we are left with injustice and personal tragedy.

This is not another scandal about child protection. There are plenty of those, whether of ignoring abuse or over-zealously pursuing the innocent. Mistakes are inevitable. What matters is the opportunity people have to rectify them. That cannot happen without professional advice and advocacy.

The heavy cuts to legal aid are not a peripheral issue. They are central to a basic principle of democratic societies, equality before the law. Amongst the anti-lawyer rhetoric employed by the government lies the ruins of justice. And all we can see is the pain of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who have simply been unlucky. What a mean spirited and ungenerous government it is to destroy lives in such a casual way and to remove the opportunity of redress against the state when it is the state that is in error. And for what?

Hands off!

Austerity threatens tsipouro. 
A close relative of the Greek spirit ouzo, tsipouro has become increasingly popular during the recession as an affordable alternative to imported drinks, but is now facing a tax increase under European Union rules that could almost double its price.
Coming on top of a raft of other tax increases the government is planning to pay off debts, the news is a disaster for Tyrnavos, a farming town in central Greece famous for its production of tsipouro (pronounced TSEE-poo-roh).
Please note, all tourists now have a duty to double their consumption of the magic stuff. I will do my best to take the lead. You won't regret it (or remember it either).

Monday, October 05, 2015


I grew up in South London. It is anything but a rugby league area, but as a youngster I used to stay in on Tuesday evenings to watch the BBC2 Floodlight Trophy, a rugby league competition specially created for television. I remember too the second half of league matches shown live on BBC's Grandstand on Saturday afternoons, pitched up against ITV's professional wrestling. It wasn't much more than a curiosity, though my friends and I liked to do what so many young kids still do, bad impressions of TV stars. Frequently, we picked up on the unmistakable voice of the rugby league commentator Eddie Waring, who became a northern parody to the disgust of real fans. The first word of our take-offs in mock-Yorkshire brogue was always, "Swinton." I couldn't guess what was to come.

I moved north in 1976. Though I have always missed some things about London, I gained far more than I lost. I suppose the most surprising gift the north gave me was the chance to adopt rugby league with all the passion of a convert. Living not far away, it seemed natural to start going to Swinton and they were soon my team - for the next thirty years and counting.

It wasn't the easiest of choices, but somehow it felt natural. What followed was serial disappointment lifted by short periods of hope before being pitched back into despair. Yesterday the hope was there again, and this time it feels like the club is finally being run properly and maybe the despair is being put behind us. All we need is a stadium back in Swinton to end our exile since the sale of Station Road.

And what a day yesterday was. I am still breathless. How do you follow the drama of winning the semi final by one point in a breathtaking game? The answer should be obvious. Win the final by one point in an even more dramatic, heart stopping game. It was magnificent entertainment, with thirty years of agony packed into those eighty minutes.

There was an unusual highlight too. It came after the match. In comments on a previous post about the semi final, Simon Pottinger picked up on how our number thirty, Josh Barlow, didn't celebrate immediately, but went over to console the York players. This time, after the final hooter sounded, a middle aged fan ran on to the pitch with a banner. Stewards grabbed him, he struggled and the police moved forward to make an arrest. Josh Barlow ran up, all smiles, put his arm around the fan's shoulders, persuaded the stewards into letting him go and sweet talked the police into taking no action. Barlow then led him back to the stands, took his banner when it was offered to him, and paraded it with the team. And there it is, being held up in front of the ecstatic Swinton fans.

I have always said that my favourite Swinton player of all time is Les Holliday. I think that he will now be joined by Josh Barlow for two moments of pure class on two of the best afternoons I can remember as a Swinton fan. What a player, what a team, what a sport.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Musical interlude

Talk Dirty to Me, played as a traditional Klezmer, complete with the rap translated into Yiddish. There are times the internet is magic.

Via  Postmodern Jukebox

Monday, September 28, 2015

The moment

What a day

It is impossible to write about dramatic sporting events without sounding like an over-enthusiastic fifteen-year-old. Yesterday was the most dramatic of all with Swinton playing a promotion semi final against York. York were leading 17-16 with twelve seconds on the clock before Swinton put over the equalising drop goal to take it to golden point extra time. They played the extra period perfectly, kept York away from their sticks, forced an error and dropped the vital goal to win 18-17. On to the final at Widnes next weekend.

Instead of writing about the game how about this conversation taking place behind me on the terraces? They were talking about Rugby Union.

I heard this voice say,  "I turned over on the TV and that England Wales game was on. Watched a bit of it. What is that all about. Kick, kick, bloody kick. Every time they get it."

His mate replied, "I would rather watch the X Factor than that stuff. And I don't watch the X Factor."

Someone at the front, a York fan turned round, "I haven't watched a second of that World Cup shite so far, and I won't watch any more either."

Ah, the League fans' disdain for Union. It is an ancient tradition.

But these days it is a little more open minded. The original speaker said, "mind you, me mate watches it the whole time, he used to play, he coaches it and his son plays too. He loves it. There must be something in it. God knows what it is though."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Two thoughts on the Greek election

My first thought is that I have always argued that the Greek referendum and now the election were internal power plays, ways in which Tsipras was trying to consolidate his power within his party and in government. This good instant reflection from Cas Mudde agrees:
The only reason that PM Alexis Tsipras called for the September elections was to weed out the (real) radicals from his increasingly misnamed Coalition for the Radical Left (Syriza). Faced with a parliamentary faction of at least one-third 'dissidents,' i.e. MPs opposed to the third bailout and the more moderate course of Tsipras, he by and large called a Greek election to solve a Syriza problem.
The second is a propensity for the media to exaggerate. They love a disaster story and the, often described as "inexorable," rise of Golden Dawn is a goody. Read some journalists and you would think that there are storm troopers on every corner and that the facile comparisons with the Weimar Republic were true. This narrative frustrates people in Greece, especially those that work in some branch of tourism who worry that potential visitors are put off. Mudde nails this exaggeration too:
While it remains disturbing that a political party that has an anti-democratic ideology and has been involved in endemic violence is the third largest party in the country, all the opportunistic and sensationalist warnings of a huge rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have predictably proven wrong. Its modest increase is mostly an effect of the combination of a remarkably loyal support base and a lower turnout (see below). It is clear that roughly 5 percent of the Greek population supports Golden Dawn, accepting that it is a violent neo-Nazi party, and will almost always come out to vote. But this makes Golden Dawn less like the French Front National, a party that has systematically broadened and increased its support base, and more like the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), catering to a devoted but relatively stable subcultural base. 
After three years of the Weimar economic crisis, the Nazis were on 37%, after five years of the Greek one, Golden Dawn are on just under 7%. Greece's problems are far from over, it can be a little strange, but it's a nice place.


This is the headline of the decade from the Independent
Downing Street stays silent over claims David Cameron put genitals in a dead pig's mouth while at Oxford University
 Puerile, but so funny. Will Piggate haunt him?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Attention spans

There is an election today. Had you noticed it? You might not have done. It's an election in a country still gripped by one of the worst financial crises of post-war Europe. Remember now? The country that earlier this year had people salivating over a word that they had been scarcely aware of before, oxi. Oh yes, that country. The one that had left-leaning commentators gushing clichés about cradles of democracy and the like. The one that had neo-Keynesian economists like Krugman and Sachs allying with eurosceptic conservatives such as the Telegraph's Evans-Pritchard, urging actions on macro economic policy whilst dismissing the micro economic conditions that would have undermined them. There was nothing wrong with their critique of austerity, or of its impact on Greece, it is just that they didn't align their prescriptions with the real country. The pro-Euro writer, Yannis Palaiologos, author of some superb reportage in The13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis, is scornful:
I am referring in particular here to high profile U.S. economists, like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, who have led the global anti-austerity campaign and have made my country a cause célèbre in that struggle. They have been right to argue that too much austerity has been imposed on Greece, and that further debt relief is required. But in recent months, as relations between Athens and its creditors have deteriorated, they have served Greece’s cause very poorly indeed... exit from the euro, which Greeks never voted for anyway, either in January or in July, would have been an unmitigated catastrophe, dwarfing the costs even of the bad deal struck on July 13.
And now that Greece did that deal, they and their followers have lost interest. Greeks only mattered to them as the objects of their theories. They would always walk away.

It is the same for many on the left. Think back to the enthusiasm bubbling up from that inspiring insurgent movement, surging from the grass roots to power, with its tie-less leaders and a cool motorbike riding finance minister. The one that failed. It's been abandoned too.

After some badly-chosen anti-German jibes about tanks and collaborators, and a few days of tweeting about coups when Germany had pushed through a new €83 billion funding package for the country, albeit with horribly stringent conditions, the left found a new object of desire. Not only is he often tie-less, but he wears a vest. OK he has hung out with a few fascists and anti-Semites from time to time, but, hey, he was only trying to make peace. And he crowd sources questions. The Tory press are smearing him because they are really scared (not thinking that they can't believe their luck). This is the new politics now. It will change everything. OK, I know he isn't actually elected to government, but he won! Who says he is unelectable when two hundred and fifty thousand activists have just voted for him? (Er, the electorate is forty-five million).

This band of hope, these evangelicals following the latest Messiah, would do well to have a glance back at their previous saviour. Securely in the lead in the polls, Tsipras called an election. But now the polls are level. He may lose to the conservative Nea Dimokratia. Popular Unity, the former Left Platform that split from Syriza, faces a wipeout. Everyone I talked to said the same. There is no enthusiasm, people don't know who to vote for, turnout will be low as disillusionment is high. And if the left doesn't at least try to understand the reasons for this failure, learn from it, and adjust its aims and strategy accordingly, then they will fall to defeat after defeat. The movement will die, leaving children growing up in poverty, families depending on food banks, with no one to speak for them and to defend them. Fantasy politics is self-indulgence, nothing more.

And as for the Greeks, struggling under austerity policies that make Tory Britain look positively munificent, don't they deserve a bit more solidarity than their brief moment in the international limelight as the object of the wet dreams of middle class lefties, before they move on to their next austerity porn star? Or are they just yesterday's craze, mouldering in the bottom of the toy box?

Greece has deep structural problems, but it is also a resilient country. This is a lovely piece from Marcus Walker and Myrto Papadopoulos.
 ... many Greeks have given up waiting for their politicians to find a way out of the country’s long economic crisis. Instead, national recovery and renewal will come about through the sum of ordinary people’s efforts, more and more people say.
Athens-based photographer Myrto Papadopoulos travelled the country in the week before the elections and asked Greeks from widely different walks of life how their country could finally leave its crisis era behind it. What she discovered was a mixture of resignation about Greek politics and belief in the innate creativity and resourcefulness of ordinary Greeks.
The obstacles to change are formidable, and include chronically fractious and unstable politics. Building a more functional Greek economy and polity will take years—perhaps a decade or even a generation, many Greeks say. But they insist they will get there. 
 Let's not forget them as they rebuild.

Syriza won. This time as a pro-Euro, centre left party, defending Greece's interests within the terms of the memorandum, rather than pledged to ending austerity.


Syriza have reformed the coalition with ANEL, the right wing ultra-nationalist party, again raising the question of whether this is a leftist or a nationalist government. Popular Unity, the left wing of Syriza that split away over the deal with the EU, failed to enter the parliament having fallen below the 3% threshold. Turnout was a record low of around 56%. Voting is compulsory in Greece.

And a clarification, the failure I was referring to in the post above, was the failure in their stated aim of ending austerity. They ended up doing a deal that intensified it and now they have to implement it.

A good reflection on the result from Nick Malkoutzis here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Here is a screen grab from a newsreel of Remembrance Day 1948 at the Cenotaph.

The band is playing God Save the King. Clement Attlee is singing loudly, next to him a scowling Winston Churchill remains silent. In 1948 the war was a recent memory, its commemoration deeply personal.

It was dumb politics by Corbyn not to sing the anthem at the Battle of Britain commemoration as it gave the press something to attack, but how puerile the whole debate has become. Remembering the awful cost of the necessary defeat of fascism should be personal, reflective and not a set ritual that leads to abuse if you deviate from the approved routine by wearing the wrong overcoat or failing to mumble the words to the national anthem. It is trivialising something profound.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Bugger politics. Cats, that's what the internet is really for.

This is what I saw when I opened the shutters this morning.

The mother is a feral cat that I've been feeding. I'm going back to the UK in a couple of days time so I feel really sad now.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

So what now?

Atul Hatwal was wrong. As was I. In my case this is not an unusual occurence. Wishful thinking and a failure to account for how much the membership had changed since 2005 gave credence to doubts about the accuracy of the polls. Mind you, it was becoming clearer that this was going to be the case as the election got nearer. Labour insiders knew that it was all over.

It wasn't even close. Corbyn won convincingly in the first round. The only section in which he didn't have an overall majority and thus would have brought second preferences into play was the members's section, but then his lead was so big there it would have been hard to overturn. His victory amongst the £3 registered voters and Trade Union affiliates was overwhelming. The party has also seen all women candidates defeated. That may be significant to its appeal.

I was never New Labour. I thought the contributions of the Blairites to the campaign were grisly and counter productive. My god we needed an alternative to their anodyne politics and economic orthodoxy. What I was hoping for was a new, intelligent left; egalitarian, modern, inclusive. One that would build a credible alternative model of political economy, enhance economic security, embrace principled internationalism and cherish individual liberty. Instead we have the Guardian comments pages. Yes, a new leadership in the spirit of Seumas Milne.

Well, it won't be boring. There is a lot that can happen before 2020, but I don't think that it will end well. I am sixty-three in a few days time. I'm worried that I may not see another Labour government in my lifetime.

Janan Ganesh is right:
The enemy of sound political judgment is the desire for distinctiveness. Commentators sometimes parse straightforward events for surprising nuances or daring new angles because it makes for good copy. But it is better to be right than original. No, a Corbynite Labour party will not cause trouble for the Tories. Mr Cameron will not find him a confounding adversary across the parliamentary dispatch box. Demonstrations will not shake the government. They will not even shake the streets they are held on. Politics will not be reinvented. Mr Corbyn is not “on to something” with his critique of capitalism and western foreign policy. This is a passing commotion whose principal victims are the millions of low-paid Britons who need a serious party of the centre-left.
And it is the last sentence that matters.

Friday, September 11, 2015

On the eve

This isn't a particularly original 'Corbyn-can't-win-a-general-election' piece in The Economist, though it's probably right enough. It was my historian's take on this section that interested me:
According to Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist who has devised a means of quantifying such things, Britain is the most individualistic country in Europe; a place of “rampant consumerism” where “the route to happiness is through personal fulfilment” rather than collective endeavour. Polling by Ipsos MORI supports his claim, showing that each successive generation is more sceptical of organised religion, the welfare state and government in general. 
Why I was interested is that I have seen the same thing written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about working class attitudes and political beliefs. More recent social historians have also picked up on this observation too. Is this a constant feature of British political culture? And, if so, how can an electoral party of the left respond?

This tendency is usually understood as an explanation as to why the British left was anomalous to the general European experience. Whilst mass socialist political parties were taking off in continental Europe, British socialism only produced relatively marginal organisations. The result was the formation of the Labour Party. It was a compromise from the beginning. Trade Unions provided the mass membership, socialist parties the political energy. The result was that Labour has never been a socialist party; instead it is a party that contains socialists.

If it is a given that we have always been a private, materialist, and individualist nation, what is the role of a left political party? When faced with this wall of indifference, political activists have polarised between being the Jehovah's Witnesses on the doorstep - evangelicals seeking to bring us back to the true path, convinced that we have been deliberately duped by a satanic media - and the cynics - who think that all they have to do is to gives us bread and circuses and please us by being nasty to foreigners and the poor. Both are minorities within minorities, and both miss the point.

British individualism is not amoral. It can recognise the collective benefits and self-interest of institutions like the NHS, whilst it can also embody a sense of justice and is prone to outbursts of collective morality – like the current one caused by a dead child on a Mediterranean beach, which Cameron so misread. And this is the space the democratic left can and should occupy. Balancing a defence of collective goods and a sense of justice with individual well being, not some specious 'centre ground.' This is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in his classic essay from the late 1970s, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, at a time of another Labour Party nervous breakdown.

The appeal of the evangelist is always limited, but is given strength by the cynics. People, on the whole, spot a phoney easily and resent being patronised. However, that doesn't mean that they are in the market for unmitigated authenticity. And in this long, eloquent piece, Taylor Parkes, a committed leftist explains his doubts over the faction Corbyn represents. I particularly liked this:
What's more, there are certain... issues with Corbyn and the company he keeps. He doesn't just have skeletons in his closet, he hangs up his shirts in an ossuary. This is not a trivial matter. Those who underestimate the problems this will cause are fooling themselves (and in some cases, losing sight of their own moral compass).  
Don't get me wrong. My desire for a Left or leftish alternative to permanent austerity is so strong that I could weigh all these things up and still decide that yes, a Corbyn government is something I could vote for – albeit with my mouth in the shape of a wavy line and a hand to my brow. But let's not fantasise. Most British voters will respond to Corbyn much as they'd respond to a man weighing five stone five, with blood trickling out of his left ear, asking for a loan. The very phrase “a Corbyn government” has a whiff of pixie dust about it, something chimerical. This doesn't worry the Corbyn faithful. 
The prospect opening up is of a new Tory hegemony arising out of an unconvincing electoral victory. They can't believe their luck. The Lib Dems were easy meat, the SNP destroyed Labour's power base in Scotland, and now Labour may be about to go mad. As Parkes puts it,
Yet again the Left is in a corner, driven there not just by slick manoeuvring from the Right, but by its own persistent stupidity.
We will have to see what emerges from this ill conceived, badly timed and incompetently run leadership election. Tomorrow's result will be significant, whichever way it goes.  

Monday, September 07, 2015

Seeking refuge

This is a nice, myth-busting piece on the refugee emergency from Channel 4's Lindsey Hilsum. Her conclusion puts events into perspective.
If we didn’t have empathy we’d have died out long ago. The story of humanity is a story of movement, migration, birth and adaptation. This is just a tiny chapter.
She's right. But let's not underestimate the severity of the problems, especially here in Greece, where the refugee and financial crises converge.

There is one thing that we should be emphasising though. This is not simply a Syrian refugee crisis, but a Syrian crisis. And though horribly late, there is one consistent demand from Syrians hoping to salvage some hope from the catastrophe - a no fly zone. It would be a limited intervention to stop the bombing, killing, starving and gassing of ordinary people. It is a proposal which has been resolutely opposed by the British anti-war movement. So much so that Syria Solidarity protested at the Stop the War Coalition's conference this summer.

As is often the case, the voices who would complicate the simple narratives are missing. So here are links to the non-violent opposition, supporters of the Syrian revolution. And what do these peaceniks call for?
Extremism breeds from injustice - the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today is the 'barrel bomb'. These are often old oil barrels filled with explosive and scrap metal and rolled out of government helicopters and planes miles up in the air onto hospitals, schools and homes. 
The UN Security Council unanimously banned them a year ago. Nothing has changed since then - nearly 2,000 children have been killed since UN Resolution 2139 was signed on February 22, 2014.

Many of us were against foreign military intervention in Syria. But in September 2014 the US-led coalition started bombing Isis in our country. Now there is a deep hypocrisy to letting the Assad regime fly in the same airspace and kill civilians. Many more than are killed by Isis.
The international community must follow through on its demands and stop the regime’s barrel bombs and air attacks - even if that means with a 'no fly zone'.
TO THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL: "Barrel bombs - sometimes filled with chlorine - are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 22,693 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand made last year to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a 'no-fly zone' if necessary." - Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.
By all means applaud the ones who got out, welcome them, support them, but remember those millions trapped behind who have no hope of reaching the European paradise. They need help too. And even if we still end up with some dystopian settlement in a fragmented failed state, the only hope is to stop the bombs and give a chance for a recovery of Syrian civil society that still clings to life amongst the rubble. And please, listen to their voices.