Category Archives: Bit of politics

A quick note on free speech

As far as I can make out, “the right to free speech” means something like “the state will not take action against you for voicing your opinions, no matter how vile, and people who commit illegal acts against you for voicing your opinions will not avoid prosecution just because your opinions are deemed vile”.

If “the right to free speech” meant “the right to be on TV”, or “the right to write a column in the Daily Mail”, then I’m not sure many people would be in favour of it.

For example, I’m distressed that I don’t get to write a column in the Daily Mail, as I’d love to watch the number of breakfast-time heart attacks across Middle England soar whilst I advocated free immigration, heroin on the NHS and legalised bestiality [*]. A six-figure salary would be nice, too.

But I’m not sure that I’d agree with someone who suggested that my right to free speech was being infringed by Paul Dacre’s bizarre refusal to grant me that position. Indeed, given the number of passable writers who’d love a columnist position on the Daily Mail (hell, even if you only include the ones who’re actually right-wing rather than trolling), I’d question that person’s sanity.

And this is why Matthew Parris’s latest column is complete nonsense: he thinks that if the BBC had refused to invite Nick Griffin on Question Time, and if the Daily Mail had refused to publish Jan Moir’s mean-spirited rant about Stephen Gately, it would have been an assault on free speech.

But obviously, it wouldn’t.

Nick Griffin has the right to tell anyone that he’s mates with an “almost-non-violent chapter of a (not the, of course) KKK”; Jan Moir has the right to tell anyone that “those gays are always with the drugs and the suspicious deaths”. But neither of them has the right to expect anyone to listen to them, and they certainly don’t have the right to expect anyone to publish or broadcast their opinions.

(there’s an argument that, because some semi-evolved chimps support the BNP and also pay the TV licence fee, the BBC ought to reflect their views. That isn’t a completely stupid position, but it’s not about freedom of speech.)

The usually-sensible-on-these-kind-of-issues libertarian Mr Eugenides gets this wrong too:

Even if so – even if I agreed [that it’s wrong to give scumbags a platform] – who is to decide who are the scumbags, and who are not? The Electoral Commission? The controller of BBC1? David Dimbleby? The editors of Liberal Conspiracy?

But in this case, the editors of Question Time did make a decision: that Nick Griffin was a man who should be on Question Time. The same week, they decided that me, Mr Parris and Mr Eugenides were all not people who should be on Question Time. Editorial decisions here are essential, not optional…

[*] subject to animal cruelty laws, obviously.

Must… not… like… pretend… buffoon

In the last couple of weeks, Boris Johnson has done three good things that I can remember:

* Allegedly had a row with David Cameron about Crossrail, taking London’s side
* Endorsed cycling home after a couple of beers
* Supported restarting tours of London’s disused Tube stations

Meanwhile, I can’t think of anything bad he’s suggested over the same time. And yes, I know the whole point about the probably-manufactured Crossrail row is to do a ‘moderate’ act, and I know the latter two points are irrelevant identity statements with no serious policy implications, and this kind of thing still isn’t going to make me vote for him.

And yet… and yet the latter two are identity statements that I approve of. The public admission that having a few drinks isn’t a problem, and doesn’t impair your functionality to the extent that you can’t ride a bleedin’ bike [*], is both entirely true and against the mood of these curmudgeonly times. And tours of disused Tube stations will make existing geeks happy and help recruit new ones – and were done without any problems until 2000, so clearly could be restarted without causing any major harm. Indeed, both are the kinds of things that humourless pseudo-experts rail against, whilst not causing any major harm. They’re the opposite of the showcasing, ‘let’s ban stuff that doesn’t do any major harm but that we don’t like to send a message’ side that makes the current government so loathsome [**].

And yes, I know that Boris’s tube-booze ban is the ultimate example of a spurious ban, second only to the Tory plans to turn back the licensing laws to the absurd WWI-dictated situation that prevailed previously [***].

So, can we have someone on the left who’s prepared to stick up for Fun Stuff over Spurious Bans? Hell, someone on any official side would do. Then again, since the target audience at this election apparently consists of middle-aged nurses who’re afraid of everything, probably not.

[*] Car comparisons are spurious. We allow kids to ride bikes, fercrissakes.

[**] I might, through extremely gritted teeth, vote for them this time round as discussed. But my God, they are.

[***] The licensing laws are an excellent example of lobbying from big business creating an unalloyed improvement that neither party dared to or wanted to bring about in their own right. Since the public mood at the moment still seems rather puritan, I’m thanking all deities for the fact that the booze industry has deep pockets and political influence.

Yes nucular, no Tridentular

Supporters of nuclear weapons systems like Trident generally justify the cash by saying things like ‘dangerous world, Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad very bad men, we can’t just disarm’. Or, more cynically, ‘place on world table, we can’t just disarm’.

I’m not totally sold on this argument – after all, the US will continue to have nuclear weapons for as long as it has a military-industrial complex [*] – and anyone who we can’t defeat with our conventional forces is realistically also going to be a strategic threat to the Yanks, no matter how annoyed they might be with our lack of military spending. And ‘place on world table’ is awesome for a few hundred diplomats and politicians whilst making c.sod all difference to anyone else.

But let’s say it’s true: we need nuclear weapons to deal with global security threats and enhance our prestige. Fine – but I don’t think I’ve seen any coherent argument for why we need to spend £60-80bn on Trident, rather than achieving all the ‘potential for revenge’ and ‘woo, we’re a nucular state’ through a lower-tech programme like India’s – which would cost somewhere between 10% and 25% as much.

That would still give us ballistic and cruise missiles capable of obliterating anyone except for the US and Russia – who we wouldn’t be able to obliterate with Trident either, even if we wanted to (not least because most operational aspects of Trident are controlled by the US). Which ought to be enough, oughtn’t it?

Anything I’m missing…?

[*] which we don’t to quite the same extent.

Obvious ‘Madoff with the money’ gag

Over at Bystander’s, some sanctimonious caants are talking a load of sanctimonious cant about one of the financial services community’s finer comedians, Bernie Madoff, and why he’s a Very Bad Man Indeed.

They pointed me to this document, which is absolutely superb – the self-pitying ramblings of people who, having grown used to receiving copious quantities of pretend money-for-nothing, now believe their lives are ruined because they have to live off their employee pensions.

My comment there was:

Some people who were super-rich are now rich; some people who were rich are now on the same level as everyone else. And all of them were *utterly, unimaginably stupid* to entrust their money to someone like Madoff. Their whiny sense of entitlement doesn’t exactly contribute to one’s sympathy for them, either. “Oh noes, I’m no longer a gazillionaire, instead I just have to live on my pension like every other bloody pensioner…”

For those who’re wondering ‘what happened to the money’, there never was any – he paid out the $60bn that he received as fake profits to his investors. In other words, he took $60bn from gullible shmucks, and paid it out mostly to the same gullible shmucks. That’s why ‘harmless redistribution’ above – the scheme’s only impact was to reward early investors at the expense of latecomers, like all Ponzi schemes.

…and if I were a US taxpayer, I’d be marching in the streets against the greedy morons getting a penny of my money in compo.

…and I stand by every word. I simply don’t understand tough sentencing for financial crimes, given that money simply doesn’t matter that much, and nearly everyone who loses out in a financial scam thoroughly deserves to do so.

Isn’t this just obvious to everyone?

Clive has a good piece up on CiF on the way that internationally, David Cameron is going to be perceived as the UK’s George W Bush, both for his buffoonery and his disdain for international agreements.

Being a CiF thread, the comments spiralled into Europhobic lunacy. However, responding to a silly-ish question there did give me the opportunity to articulate both my support for the EU in principle, and my opposition to an English parliament, more coherently than I’ve managed before:

In practice, some things work better at the level of 500m people, some things work better at the level of 50m people, some better at the level of 5m people, some at the level of 500k people, and so on down the chain.

Hence, there’s a role for the EU, the UK, the UK regions, district councils, and parish councils. At the moment, outside of Wales, NI and Scotland, everything is far too centralised at the second level (which is why an English parliament would be a waste of time – what we need are seven English parliaments, each with the power of the Welsh Assembly at least, representing a manageable number of people), with too little power delegated to regions, districts and parishes.

I’m struggling to see how anyone could sensibly disagree with that. Yes, “the EU is corrupt so we shouldn’t be in it” is a valid argument for all I disagree, but isn’t the claim the UKIP/English Democrat types are making – that the optimal area of government for us happens to correlate directly with the outcomes of a few battles between 1000 and 300 years ago – just utterly insane?

The uniforms were also pretty

Quote of the day:

I’m not sure I can vote UKIP: rather like voting for Hitler because you like his re-armament policies and hope that the bit about the Jews was mostly for show..

Starting a single-issue party that’s obsessively dedicated to ending a flawed-but-democratically-elected transnational institution’s influence over what happens in your country by no means proves or entails that you’re a xenophobe. And the fact that there’s smoke pouring out of your dashboard by no means proves or entails that your car’s on fire.

Oh, and out of fairness and accuracy I should also point out that Green healthcare policy is mental-bordering-on-evil. I can see the point of voting for either party if you’ve given up on everyone else on the right/left, but do so while being very aware that if either were elected now, they’d be significantly worse than any of the big games in town.

Longer Fraser Nelson

What the ignorant paranoiac says:

The threat [of Terribly Bad Things if the Tories don’t abolish all public services, taxes, etc] is abstract, but needs to be made real.

What this means:

There isn’t actually a disastrous crisis that means we’ll need to abolish all public services, taxes, etc, but if we lie that there is one then we might get away with doing so anyway.

Quote of the day

From the comments here:

Starting an illegal war and allowing the banks to ruin the economy, neither of those is sufficiently serious to bring down a government. But a couple of free dinners…

The original piece is interesting as well – the Telegraph smearing a couple of Lib Dem MPs, one for letting his daughter stay at his London flat (while neglecting to mention that he paid 1/3 of the flat’s cost to reflect the fact he was making personal use of it), and one for travelling around his enormous, 10%-of-Scotland constituency. The horror!

Incidentally, if I had to work on a permanent basis in two different locations hundreds of miles apart, damn right I’d expect my employer to pay for a second flat, and damn right I’d expect them to pay for decent furniture, a telly, and suchlike. Obviously that isn’t the case if the second site is only 15 miles away, and the deal shouldn’t be structured in a way that allows me to make money from property speculation – but there’s some serious baby-bathwater stuff going on with the MP expenses scandal.

In the same vein, see D-Notice’s plans to prevent anyone with kids from becoming an MP, by cutting base pay to gbp30,000 and not paying any expenses at all. I also like his plan to make all government departments junk Microsoft and move to the execrable OpenOffice: this is either a man who has not done anything serious with spreadsheets ever, or a man who’s trying to destroy the system from within…

A thing of beauty

Charlie Brooker sums up Britishness with t3h excellence:

I was born in the 70s and grew up in a tiny rural village. There was, I think, only one black kid in my primary school. One day, someone pushed him over and called him “blackjack”. The headmaster called an impromptu assembly. It involved the entire school, and took place outdoors. No doubt: this was unusual.

We stood in military rows in the playground. I must have been about six, so I can’t remember the words he used, but the substance stuck. He spoke with eerie, measured anger. He’d fought in the second world war, he told us. Our village had a memorial commemorating friends of his who had died. Many were relatives of ours. These villagers gave their lives fighting a regime that looked down on anyone “different”, that tried to blame others for any problem they could find; a bullying, racist regime called “the Nazis”. Millions of people had died thanks to their bigotry and prejudice. And he told us that anyone who picked on anyone else because they were “different’ wasn’t merely insulting the object of their derision, but insulting the headmaster himself, and his dead friends, and our dead relatives, the ones on the war memorial. And if he heard of anyone – anyone – using racist language again, they’d immediately get the slipper.

Corporal punishment was still alive and well, see. The slipper was his nuclear bomb.

It was the first time I was explicitly told that racism was unpleasant and it was a lesson served with a side order of patriot fries. Or rather, chips. Our headmaster had fought for his country, and for tolerance, all at once. That’s what I understood it meant to be truly “British”: to be polite, and civil and fair of mind. (And to occasionally wallop schoolkids with slippers, admittedly, but we’ll overlook that, OK? We’ve moved on.)

Hating furriners, wanting to kick out furriners, being jealous of furriners – all of that nonsense is as foreign, un-British and generally despicable as it gets.

Evidence-based policymaking

The shouty left are far more likeable than the New Labour ‘left’ or the Tory right in general, and their opinions on the things that really matter – murdering foreign civilians, locking people up without charge, banning freedom of speech, and such like – are generally spot on.

However, one way in which they drive me mad is their refusal to accept actual evidence as a factor in decisionmaking and policymaking, in areas where the goal isn’t contentious but the ways to achieve it are.

This is best exemplified by anyone who calls for water utilities to be taken back into public ownership, as the public sector authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland provide a poorer service than the private sector English water companies at about the same cost.

But another good example, spotted by Rick at FCFT, relates to the different policies adopted toward the NHS by the English, Welsh and Scottish governments (FT article, registration may be required).

The introduction of targets for NHS waits in England, followed by more choice, competition and greater use of the private sector, has been highly controversial. While the impact of choice and competition in England is not yet clear, “the terror of targets” worked, according to Carol Propper, a professor of health economics at Imperial College London.

After rises in NHS funding, “waits are down in all three countries”, she said. “But they have come down much faster in England.”

The English NHS is hitting a maximum 18-week wait for treatment that Scotland will not achieve until 2011.

Waits are worse in Wales, and a few years ago a Welsh Audit Office report noted that the poorer overall health of the Welsh population did not explain the performance. Northern parts of England, it noted, had similar health status “but have consistently delivered more healthcare at lower cost”.

In other words, the much-reviled NHS internal market and targets, as one might expect given that markets and targets do have an impact in pretty much every other area of life, has worked better at delivering improved outcomes in England than the traditional centralised NHS model has at delivering improved outcomes in Wales and Scotland.

Like the water example, this is unlikely to change the Shouty Left’s minds. Shame there isn’t some kind of Evidence-Based Party to support – just right-wing ideologues who happen to be right in the cases listed above, and left-wing ideologues who happen to be right on other things.