Category Archives: Bit of politics

Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

I’m not going to do a hand-wringing riots piece. We’ve seen a million of them, whether from a cartoonish ‘make them less poor’ point of view, an authoritarian ‘hell in a handbasket, we’re doomed’ point of view, or a bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ point of view. It’s dull.

However, following on from Jamie’s post about how the riots went down in Manchester, and a question on Tim’s blog about Liverpool and Manchester cops making more arrests more rapidly than London cops, I do have a few thoughts on police tactics.

First up, the police did an excellent job at preventing loss of life and serious injury. Obviously, the deaths in Birmingham are terribly sad – and if the initial eyewitness statements prove to be correct, about as cowardly and evil as it gets. But the fact that in London, nobody was killed and few bystanders were seriously hurt is amazing, and not what anyone would have expected from news footage on Sunday/Monday. “People not being killed” is more important than “Currys not being robbed”.

But while the police did well on that basic front, the disorder in London lasted longer than the public could reasonably be expected to tolerate – hence the myriad of calls throughout the week to send in the Army, and/or to use water-cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas. The problem is that none of these would actually have helped. In short, policing in London on Sunday/Monday didn’t fail due to lack of force, or due to political correctness preventing officers from beating thugs up (plenty of beating up of thugs was done). Rather, it was due to a lack of understanding of what was going on – and, to some extent, a lack of absolute manpower.

The looters this time round flashmobbed. Digressionally, this is why BlackBerry Messaging is important to how the riots worked, not just an irrelevant detail like Twitter and Facebook. For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random. Throughout London, mobs turned up at a co-ordinated time, looted, ran away, and regrouped. That isn’t how riots have historically happened: normally, the mob is trying to claim a specific territory, and the authorities are trying to stop them. Like a traditional war, with a front line.

These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.

In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.

Politically speaking, the wider mob of angry non-looting citizenry needs to be placated – so completely useless draconian measures seem likely to be introduced. If they are, they’re certain to be used when more-or-less peaceful demonstrations like UKuncut get rowdy, because those are the crowd dynamics in which CS gas and water cannons ‘work’ (if you class quelling the violent thugs slightly more rapidly, while also injuring far more non-violent protestors than would otherwise be the case, as ‘working’). So that’s a bit depressing for those of us who support the right to political protests.

But the good news (at least, for people who don’t like their house being on fire) is that the things the authorities have clearly learned over the last few days make it unlikely that the perceived total breakdown of law and order seen in London will be repeated. At least, not until the next new kind of rioting strategy emerges…

Tesco Academy

I went to a state primary school; admittedly, one in a fairly posh part of the world (Christchurch School in Ware, Hertfordshire, for the morbidly curious). It was the 1980s; education was OKish; there were about 30 people in my class, and the ones who properly dribbled on themselves were removed for maths and English lessons.

I discovered Sue Townsend when I was about 10 and therefore managed to get the entire class of Year 6es singing anti-Thatcher songs loudly in assembly, until the deputy head told me that if I didn’t stop doing that they’d tell my nan on me.

I was in the choir. I know that’s a remarkable concept for those who know me these days, but I somehow lost my ability to sing whenever my voice broke. Oh well, it probably saved me some abuse or other. We were a good choir. We went to Cambridge to enter the Best Year 6 Primary School Choir Competition. We lost. It was probably because I couldn’t sing. Also, our song was bloody lame.

But the other thing we did as a choir – and I’m still in awe this happened in 1989 – was to sponsor Tesco’s. There was a walking-running challenge from Newcastle to London sponsored by Tesco, and alongside their computers (or, possibly in those days, typewriters) for schools vouchers, some of my classmates’ mums, aunties and sisters were participating in this challenge. So we were nominated, as a Leading Choir, to record the theme for the Tesco North To South Run Song. What we sang was, to the tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In”:

Tesco is here!
Tesco is here!
So can we have a great big cheer!

…the rest of that verse is sadly lost, apart from the soul of Tesco’s then ad agency and then marketing director, where it’s permanently etched in the blood of innocent children.

They’re setting forth right in the North
Collecting money all the way
[repeat first bit]

We were eventually rejected, presumably because one of the choirs on the route from Newcastle to London kicked our arses. Which is probably, again, my fault. Or, reflecting on the scenario 21 years later, the fault of the satanic bastards who set the challenge up in the first place.

This weird occurrence is something I’ve been meaning to blog for ages, mostly in the sense of “marketing to kids is more insidious than when I were a lad? Fuck off”, and also just in the sense of “that happened. No, that actually happened. A choir of kids sang ‘Tesco is here, so can we have a great big cheer’. That happened.”

So yeah. Now that my mates are parents, and angry about marketing, I still can’t think of anything more insanely blatant than that one. If Tesco did it today, they’d be keelhauled, and possibly hanged at the yard-arm.

A defence of royalty

My lack of interest in the forthcoming Royal nuptials is about as total as it gets. However, people will keep writing about it, and I don’t always look away from their articles in time…

So Johann Hari has written a fairly boilerplate piece about the monarchy, and why the UK shouldn’t have one. He sensibly and rapidly deals with the fatuous points that monarchists make about tourism and ‘defenders of democracy’.

But there’s also this:

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?

Not pride exactly, no: but I prefer the honesty of the UK’s system. In order to be President of the USA, you have to be immensely wealthy, successful and lucky. In order to be immensely wealthy and successful in the USA, you pretty much have to be born to a wealthy and successful family. President Obama is no exception: his parents both had postgraduate degrees, and his maternal grandmother was Vice President of a bank. Obama’s mum did technically live on food stamps while finishing her PhD, but he was living with his banker grandma at the time. His is not a rags-to-riches American Dream story.

The pretence of meritocracy in the US, based on the belief that anyone can become President, breeds a society in which people who end up poor are treated incredibly badly, because they are perceived as having failed. I’d far rather a system that’s honest, under which we accept that someone who’s born in a slum will never have the same chances in life as someone born with a silver spoon, but try and narrow the inequalities in outcome that this creates as much as we possibly can.

Despite the Thatcherites’ and post-Thatcherites’ best efforts, the UK is far better than the US at doing this. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) also tend to be monarchies. The monarch is a permanent symbol that life is unfair, and that if you take credit for your own success – rather than accepting that it’s primarily down to luck and that you owe a duty of care to the less fortunate in society – then you’re an arrogant prick.

Facebook discussions with an old socialist

My dad’s friend Martin is an old-school Labour man. I’m his friend on Facebook. It’s nice being in touch with such people. Whilst they’re not always right, sometimes they are.

[Martin R]: The poor are dangerous.

Some people: “this is patronising”. Me:

The poor *are* dangerous. This is clear from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Western liberal-ish states were built on understanding that, understanding that Marx wasn’t wrong, and transferring enough of the money to the working class to stop the poor being actively dangerous. Note the extent to which governments started serious wealth-transfer schemes after WWI, once the USSR had emerged as a serious threat.

Enough Republicanism/Conservatism, and the poor will become dangerous again. There’s only so far things can go before revolutions start happening.

Other chap, who’s not wrong:

The poor can also be wrong. They are most dangerous when they resort to fascist ideologies


…and they’re most likely to resort to fascist ideologies when living in deeply unequal and unfair societies, where fascists lie that they’re poor because of [Jews/Blacks/Muslims] and that’s the reason why they’re poor. And most likely to be engaged with society when the benefits of economic growth are shared with everyone across the income scale.


Arguments about fairness are different. And I don’t suggest that people are right because they are poor. But poor people have little to lose. They can rise up if pushed hard enough. They may not vote, or participate in the political process, but guarding against the possibility of revolt is and undercurrent in every political system. This government seems to have forgotten it.

Sometimes, I think that those of us on the liberal/libertarian side of things forget this. Liberal politics is fundamentally borne out of the desire of both the upper class and the wealthier classes to not have our heads cut off. Yes, if you’re a computer programmer, or an accountant, or any kind of middle-class private sector job that’s going, you pay some tax, and people who are poorer than you don’t, and many people who are poorer than you even get paid benefits from the tax that you pay – but do bear in mind that as a result, they aren’t marching through the town with your head on a spike.

Which, if you take the sheer “fittest will survive, others will fail” creed of right-libertarianism at its word, is what will happen.

I’m quite happy to have a well-paid job and pay a sizeable amount of tax. Not only for the sheer, base point that in Somalia, I’d be unlikely to have an internet connection and sell anyone business advice [*] but also for the extra “non-scary” points that living in a Western country buys you.

I respect the US position of taxing you on your global income (minus taxes already levied in non-hostile countries) on the grounds that it’s the difference between “fair tax” and “danger money cos we’re gonna get you out when you’re in trouble”. The way I’d modify that, were I in charge of taxation for anywhere, is “tax is on your global income ignoring anywhere you’re a citizen of”, given that anywhere you’re a citizen of, you don’t get any help defending you from.

So in Libya – we had a bunch of people with British passports out of there. Awesome; skills. They were being paid US$100k+ tax-free, meanwhile, the average UK taxpayer earns less than GBP25k per year. Should we have left them to die? Hell, no. Is it reasonable that the operation was subsidised by the average UK taxpayer and they paid nothing towards it? Hmm.

This piece is a giant ramble; I’m aware of that. But I have a blog and that’s what Having A Blog is for. And whatever the state may be for, I’m pretty convinced it’s not about ensuring that people who mostly don’t believe in The State can go to foreign places, dodge tax, and then be rescued by gunships at The State’s expense.

[*] I live in Australia, but the taxation regime is very similar to the UK’s and I spent the previous 10 years paying a fair amount of UK tax, and will happily defend any points based on difference to the death.

Alcohol-related stupidity

Alcohol is famous for its ability to cause stupidity. As with most other drugs, this property doesn’t solely apply to chronic abusers – it also applies to policymakers and opinion writers, even the sober ones. Drugs and alcohol are second only to immigration as a leading cause of utterly stupid articles.

Now, I’ve written plenty on this blog in the past about how nannyist fools lie about the levels of drink-related violence and disease, and adopt completely the wrong policies for cutting alcohol consumption even if it were a good idea to do so.

So, in the interests of balance, today I’m looking at a piece from Harry’s Place that opposes a minimum price for alcohol. Now, there’s nothing wrong with opposing a minimum price for alcohol, mostly because it’s an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. But the piece in question manages to seize upon all the stupidest grounds for doing so that it possibly could.

Its starting point is that alcohol is price-inelastic:

Certain products – the classic example being alcohol – do not respond in the typical way to price changes in the market. A price increase does not lead to a significant drop in demand. People simply grin and bear the price increase.

There’s only one small problem: this is bollocks. According to actual evidence (Table 7), the price elasticity for alcohol is around -1; in other words, a 1% rise in price leads to a 1% fall in consumption. While the various studies vary in terms of total magnitude, all show that price elasticity is significant. A rise in the price of alcohol does, empirically, lead to a cut in alcohol consumption.

Impressively, the article goes on to get worse:

Far from reducing alchol-related social ills, arguably, it may even have the opposite effect. It will make social drinking at pubs even more expensive relative to wholesale drinking. People will end up drinking more at home, quaffing back the artificially inflated (but still cheaper) supermarket booze in the environment most likely to encourage them to destroy their livers, beat up their spouses and neglect their children, and to cause accidents at work even more than before.

The problem here is that alcohol minimum pricing proposals that have been made for the UK by even vaguely serious organisations have been talking about a minimum price to the consumer.

Let’s assume the minimum price at retail is set at 50p a unit. If I’m a manufacturer of gin, I don’t have to worry whether Tesco are paying me 50p a unit when they buy a truckload of gin from me to sell in their shops, and I don’t have to worry whether Mitchells & Butlers are paying me 50p a unit when they buy a truckload of gin from me to sell in their pubs. Rather, it’s Tesco’s responsibility not to sell you a bottle of gin for less than GBP14, and it’s M&B’s responsibility not to sell you a shot of gin for less than 50p.

Now, at the moment you can buy a bottle of gin for way under GBP14 in any supermarket, but you certainly can’t get a shot of gin for under 50p in any pub. The same would apply to beer as well: a 50p/unit minimum price would ban pubs from charging less than GBP1.25 for a pint of Kronenbourg, which none of them currently do, while banning supermarkets from charging less than GBP1 for a tin of Kronenbourg, which all of them currently do.

In other words, there’d be a significant impact on supermarket prices, but no impact on pub prices. So there’d be a significant decline in home consumption, but no decline in pub consumption. Which, if you believe that there’s a binge drinking problem with evil effects that are made worse by drinking at home (not, of course, that any evidence is produced for this one either), would be a good outcome.

Rather depressingly, Tim cites the HP piece as an example of lefties understanding economics. Which I suppose is true, in that it’s using the cargo-cult sense of economics that glibertoonians often base their arguments on – relying solely on half-remembered theory from the sixth form, missing obvious theoretical points out (whether because they’re inconvenient or because you’re slapdash, who can say?), not testing your theory against empirical data because you can’t be bothered, not doing sums because they’re hard, and coming up with clownish bullshit that even a GCSE economics teacher would grade as “F minus, see me”. In that sense, it’s absolutely spot on.

There’s still no (update: a case, but a weird one) against Julian Assange

I woke up this morning ready to issue an apology, on reading the headline that a UK court had remanded Julian Assange in custody on rape charges.

I assumed that the Swedish prosecutors had actually produced some evidence (to be clear, victim testimony would absolutely count as evidence) that he’d either had sex with someone without her consent, or that he’d continued to have sex with someone after her consent was withdrawn. Because, y’know, when you’re dealing with responsible adults, that’s what rape is.

What the Swedish prosecutors have actually dug up is:

1) “using his body weight to hold Miss A down in a sexual manner” (note: outside of the imaginary world the Swedish prosecutor lives in, this doesn’t actually mean anything).

UPDATE: Crikey’s Guy Rundle, the only journalist who’s actually managed to report coherently on this case (and who was in court yesterday), says:

The first [count] is one of rape — that Assange used his body weight to lie on her, pushed her legs open and forced sex.

In light of this clarification, I’ve rewritten the conclusion to this post to avoid being misleading or unfair.

2) “sexually molesting” Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” one should be used (note: there is no suggestion here that Miss A told him to stop).

3) “deliberately molesting” Miss A on 18 August “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. UPDATE: Rundle clarifies that this relates to pressing his erection into her back when they were sharing a bed. If you think that should be illegal, then I’ve got a one-way ticket to Afghanistan and a Taliban membership card, just for you.

4) having sex with a second woman, Miss W, without a condom while she was asleep (note: the context is that they’d had sex earlier that night and he’d stayed over in her bed. Again, there is no suggestion that Miss W told him to stop – rather, she woke up, understandably, and consented to sex)

UPDATE: To clarify on 4, it is completely unclear from anyone’s statements whether Miss W was awake or not at the time of penetration, but it is clear from both sides’ statements that once she was awake, the sex was consensual. If Assange penetrated Miss W before she woke up, and Miss W had then not consented on waking up, Assange could possibly be considered guilty of rape even if he had stopped immediately on being told to stop. But that isn’t the claim being made: rather, the claim is that Miss W did consent on waking up, whether that was before or after penetration – and then objected afterwards on the grounds that Assange hadn’t been wearing a condom.

[everything below has been updated]

Now, the events that were disclosed in the media (both by the prosecution and by Assange’s lawyers) prior to the trial solely concerned charges 2-4. When I published my original piece, it was substantially correct on the facts as disclosed (which was the ground being argued on). As far as those charges, which have been discussed and documented elsewhere go, he is a cad, but not a rapist, and wouldn’t be prosecuted for them anywhere other than Sweden

The first charge, introduced yesterday having never previously been mentioned, is different. Unless the prosecution is simply making it up, which is possible given the farcical nature of the rest of their case to date but not probable, we need to assume that Miss A has testified that Assange raped her (under the definition of rape held in English law). This also means that – unless Assange’s lawyers can somehow demonstrate pre-trial that Miss A’s testimony is so compromised that there is no realistic prospect of conviction – Assange should face a trial to determine whether or not these claims are true.

None of this farce does anything to dispel the massive stench of politics-over-justice and rampant incompetence that surrounds the Wikileaks case. But now that Rundle has clarified the first charge, it seems that the English judge was correct not to drop the charges against Assange (I’m not convinced the remand in custody is justified).