Friday, 29 August 2014

Douglas Carswell, Direct Democracy and the Clacton By-Election.

When Quentin Davis defected to Gordon Brown's Labour party in 2007, Matthew Paris remarked "when a Tory crosses the floor to Labour, the Average IQ of both parties goes up..." which is one of the most deliciously bitchy political insults of all time. Few called for a by-election. You had an opposition struggling for unity, facing a dying administration. The defectors, back-stabbing, politicking and so forth, like in the dying days of Major's administration, is part of the theatre of politics. And vital to its function.

Defecting to another party not in a governing coalition or vice versa is called 'crossing the floor' and is also an important way by which the legislature (parliament and especially the commons) can hold the executive (the Government and its payroll vote) to account. If the executive cannot command a majority for at least 'confidence and supply' in the commons, you MUST call a general election. By leaving the Government over issues like the corn laws, or Europe, or civil liberties, you can prevent the Government enacting its program. You're sending the strongest possible signal to your party's leadership. And if it's well timed, or comes in a large group, you can bring down a Government.

Or in Quentin Davis' case, you can leap aboard a burning ship right at the moment a torpedo slams into the magazine, to the sound of Guffaws of "good riddance, you silly prat" from one's former colleagues.

Which brings me to Carswell. If he had decided to stay in the commons, he would be able to support the Government in bringing the law calling for a 2017 EU referendum through parliament. He could have continued to support the government in rolling back some of the civil liberties that were taken by the Labour party in its 13 years of goose-stepping intolerance. He would have been able to do this as a UKIP member with a confidence and supply agreement with the coalition from the opposition benches. Much like the Ulster Unionists in 1995-7.

Instead he's decided to take the Manor of Northstead (MPs can't actually resign, they have to be sacked and the means by which this happens is to take a paid office of the crown incompatible with a sitting MP), and so trigger a by-election. This seems likely to set a precedent, and everyone's applauding him for it. But if this becomes a convention that crossing the floor triggers a by-election, the executive will be significantly strengthened at the expense of the legislature, and this is not what Carswell claims to want at all.

"But it's Democratic" people will say. "They elected a Tory, and a Tory they should have". But we live in a representative democracy. Carswell is strongly in favour of direct democracy, so be clear, I am not accusing him of hypocrisy, just counter productive stupidity. For when an MP crosses the floor in a safe seat in future, the Governing party will be able to parachute a loyal apparatchik into the seat, and use the party machine to ensure victory. If a a sitting MP in a marginal constituency goes, electoral considerations, rather than the role of holding the Government to account come to the fore when deciding what to do on policy and law-making.

Carswell is strongly in favour of the right of recall too, which suggests a very different conception of the role of an MP to mine. Indeed, it is this issue that caused him to jump ship, not "Europe", as much of the media will have you believe. I think we elect people of character to scrutinise legislation, and if necessary, kick up a stink, while trusting the electorate to judge him in the whole, every 4-5 years or so. Carswell thinks an MPs job is to reflect the brute and unexamined opinions of his electorate, and pander to their prejudices, which is why he voted against gay marriage (Which is also why I suspect this has been long-planned to occur up at a time to cause maximum damage to Cameron and conservative electoral chances). The state shouldn't control our lives, but to the extent it does, it should be more than mob rule, which is why I am only half in favour of more direct democracy. Unfortunately, UKIP is all about mob rule, a bunch of pitchfork-wielding ignoramuses who neither know nor care what makes the world turn, or why.

The Tories will throw the kitchen sink at Clacton, and will probably be able to win (update: I no longer think the Tories will win, thanks to Lord Ashcrofts polling - when the facts change....), as local Tories are highly pissed off, and electorates don't reward turncoats. The Tories will be able to mobilise an Anti-UKIP vote from Liberal and even Labour supporters as they did in Newark. I suspect he'll look at the morons, bigots and buffoons ranting away with the certainty that only the truly mediocre mind can generate, and realise that he's thrown away a seat at the top table and the chance to influence policy and drag the centre ground his way, for what? The leadership of a party which will never amount to anything, and which is the principle obstacle in the way of its own stated main aim. Carswell may just regret yesterday for the rest of his life.

But given UKIP is far more comfortable with the idiot certainties of opposition than in having a genuine platform for government, he may just fit right in.




Thursday, 28 August 2014

On Social Mobility and "Who Runs Britain"?

There's a report from Alan Milburn's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which suggests, amongst other things, companies should publish social mobility audits, revealing how many privately educated employees they have. This offensive, ridiculous, illiberal, and counterproductive proposal undermines the sweetcorn of truth which does exist in the report, from amongst the turd of Alan-Milburn's chippiness. This report fails to illuminate because it's asking the wrong questions.

Britain is not unique. We are middling in terms of inequality in the EU, but near the top in the extent to which your parents' income predicts ones own, which is being taken as a proxy for social mobility. The report then spends many pages talking about public schools and Oxbridge. Inequality isn't about the 7% at the top, but about the 15% at the bottom, trapped on welfare. Do something for them, and Britain's social mobility and inequality will look a lot better.

Oxford and Cambridge exist to select the very best students, and then give them the very best education. I would be surprised if Oxford and Cambridge universities (and the wider Russell Group, I attended Edinburgh) didn't provide the vast majority of leaders across a number of fields. It is after all what they are there to do. For Milburn to imagine becoming a FTSE 100 CEO is more about who you met than a consistent track record of success in exams, University and Business, is being disingenuous.

Likewise the 7% of people who go to public (mostly boarding) school have many advantages, so it would be surprising if they didn't also form a disproportionate part of the elite, not least in access to Oxford and Cambridge. This is true in all rich-world democracies. My parents weren't rich, but they made enormous sacrifices to send me and my Brother to a boarding school and they did so because the skills and experience I would receive would be worth their sacrifices. It's not just technical or academic, many of these are soft skills.

If you start boarding at 13, you effectively leave home and you're forced to mature faster. You have to go through puberty in the company of peers, with nowhere to hide. You learn to keep private, while being in public. You have to be a diplomat to survive. This generates a robustness of character, but also a certain tolerance. You often share a room, so you need to learn to negotiate with people you may not like much. There is little privacy, so learn how to keep yourself to yourself, even when around others. You talk more, to a wider range of people than people who go home to parents most evenings. Every meal is social. These skills carry through into later life, as the ability to network, be polite, diplomatic, charming and confident.

The additional pastoral care in a public school enables easier focus on extra-curricular activities such as sport or music, developing the whole person. The communal living is in particular an excellent preparation for a military life, so it is unsurprising that Public schoolboys still make up a disproportionate number of the Officer corps of the British army*.

At the top end of the Arts, Sport and Music - remember these are 'tournament' professions: the winner takes it all. And often, the also-rans get next to nothing. Is it surprising that people with rich parents feel more willing to take the risk of chasing a dream of a life on the stage? Is it surprising that schools with extensive and varied sporting facilities (Eton's boating lake was an Olympic venue, for example) produce lots of sportsmen? Is it surprising that schools with extensive music facilities, with access to them late into the evening, and very little else to do, often produces musicians? An aspiring musician in a boarding school will find it a lot easier to recruit bandmates than at a comprehensive where the bandmate might live 5 miles away, rather than down the corridor. Many of the co-incident advantages advantages shared with "middle-class" parents in the state sector: wealth, a home full of books, parents committed enough to put commit their income into education (private school, or after school tutoring), heath and wealth. Imagining this to be discriminatory behaviour by an old-school tie is just fanciful.

Instead of imagining why 7% of the population provide 62% of senior Army officers, ask why 88% of state educated pupils aren't better represented, and what can be done to encourage them to apply for Oxbridge, Sandhurst or RADA. Instead of assuming a discriminatory "old boy's club" ask whether there is anything the state sector can learn from the Public Schools in preparing pupils for excellence. This is the point of the academy and free schools programs: to open the state sector to new ideas, and free them from the dead hand of the Local Authority, (and by extension the dreadful teaching unions and their dogma). Many public schools are opening up academies, and offering scholarships to the brightest and best of their intake.

Instead of imagining talent is evenly distributed, ensure opportunity is. Labour closed many routes of access to an excellent education to poor students, not least the assisted places scheme, which supported access to the best education for bright children of low-income parents. Instead of assuming "elitism" to be a bad thing, revel in the fact that Trinity College, Cambridge has more Nobel Prizes than France, and some of those are tales of social mobility. Elitism works, if the groundwork is there. Why are public schoolboys so confident? What can be done to encourage able state pupils to believe they can make it, rather than succumb to the "soft bigotry of low expectations". Unfortunately, some of the state sector is failing, but Alan Milburn is asking the wrong questions, because he's already decided upon the answer.

*Though it is a marker of the increased professionalism and calibre of the Army these days that privately educated people are joining the ranks in ever greater numbers too.



Monday, 11 August 2014

Why our Leaders are Pygmies.

It's simple: Nothing I've seen of the leadership of the UK suggests the calibre of people is any better or worse than in previous ages. It's just the issues they're dealing with are smaller, and the scrutiny they face is much more immediate, superficial, and lacking the culture of deference from previous ages. In the past, politicians got the benefit of the doubt. Whether the people agreed with them, there was an assumption they were in it for the right reasons. Now the assumption is "they're all in it for themselves". They aren't.

Maggie Thatcher faced down the Soviet Union. David Cameron enjoys no enemy which unites the nation behind him, in part because we won, but also because half the population has decided we're "small" and therefore shouldn't try to intervene, anywhere, ever. The UK remains one of only three countries whose militaries have Global reach, but you wouldn't believe it if you read the comment sections of papers.

The Politicians haven't changed. The people have - and we've become nihilistic, cynical and pessimistic, small-minded, insular, cowardly and prone to seeking information confirming, not challenging our prejudices.

Politicians could help themselves by not pandering to nannying fussbucketry, minimum pricing for alcohol, the font on a packet of fags, and the content of school meals, which are absolutely not the proper function of Government, and which make them look small and petty. "Render unto Caesar..." works both ways. If the politicians were to leave us alone for a bit, they might regain respect.



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Conversation about Drugs with some Policemen.

I had a (social) conversation with some people who worked for Dibble at the weekend. Some were world-weary cynical beat officers, who ultimately agreed with me. The younger warranted officers, and those civilians (I hate it when the filth use that word) working for organisations like the Serious and Organised Crime Agency did not. The question was the war on Drugs, and for a couple of my friends, it is axiomatic that we need to start imprisoning people who take drugs as well as those who sell them - "like Singapore", they said. One said "like Mao". Scratch a policeman, you find a fascist who believes in the state's right to make decisions for you. At least until they reach 40 and realise the futility of this approach in what is still, despite the Police's best efforts, still a free society. My friend who wants to execute heroin addicts, is also a keen proponent of arming the police...

Let's start with an assumption: We want to live in a free society. It would be possible to meaningfully interdict supply of narcotics and to discourage use with draconian law-enforcement, but to do so would be utterly incompatible with that free society.

From that flows the observation that we, as a society are unwilling to interdict supply of narcotics - the cost in lost trade, in law enforcement effort, in disruption to innocent people's privacy and so forth are too high. We cannot therefore meaningfully interdict supply.

The result of this is that the trade in narcotics goes on. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, the profits of which fund organised crime, and which has poor customer service and lousy quality control. Manky, shared syringes and less than sterile smack lead to infections and that cadaverous heroin pallor. Cocaine is often cut with other stimulants, sugars, novocaine and cow-dewormer, which weakens the immune system. The problems stemming from this are due entirely to the illegal supply chain and would be mitigated by legalisation.

Gangs fighting over profits bring violence and death to the streets. This too is a problem of the criminal supply-chain and would be mitigated by legalisation. Acquisitive crime by users to fund their habit would be mitigated by a legal and controlled (and possibly medicalised for genuine addicts) supply chain.

The logic of prohibition stems from the observation that even pure Cocaine and Heroin are really bad for you, habit-forming and have potentially catastrophic effects on people's lives, and should therefore be banned. The logical leap made in this reasoning is undone by the first assumption made in this piece. WE CANNOT MEANINGFULLY INTERDICT SUPPLY IN A FREE SOCIETY. Access to booze is more controlled than is the access to drugs, which are freely available once you have a dealer's number. Dealers don't care whether you're 18, have a real problem controlling your intake, or are otherwise vulnerable, so long as you have the cash, of which, incidentally they care not its source.

People have always used psychopharmacological substances wherever they're found, from Reindeer piss containing extract of Amanatia Muscaria to hemp, tobacco booze psilocybin mushrooms and coca, to get high. Even in the UK, anyone who wants illegal drugs can get them, whenever they want. So it doesn't necessarily follow that there would be more users with a legal supply chain. And those who did use, would be using better, cleaner product with fewer side effects, and not enriching criminals while doing so. Indeed Marijuana, a drug with few social side effects would often be a substitute for alcohol leading to less violence in taxi-ranks at 3-am. So too the "party drugs" would mean less blood and vomit on the streets as the loved-up do less pagga than the pissed-up.

As for Heroin, it seems obvious to me that legalisation would reduce dependence: currently the Smack supply chain is a pyramid scheme - low level dealers do so to fund their supply, and so recruit their mates. No-one sets out to be a junkie, but many fall into it. Fewer would if other drugs were freely available. The explosion of problem heroin users happened AFTER the drug was made illegal. Before, Morphine addiction was known as the Soldiers' disease as most picked up their habit in hospitals.

Ultimately a fully legal recreational pharmacy would probably see heroin and alcohol substituted for marijuana and cocaine. Two chemicals with low lethal doses will be substituted for two substances in the short term at least, it's impossible to overdose to death. And instead of funding an army of Police and customs officials, and wasting scarce military resources on impoverishing Andean and Afghan farmers, we can tax the most profitable trade the world has ever known.

There are simply no sane arguments for continued prohibition of narcotic drugs, something even most police officers eventually work out.



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