Twitter Wars: The Tribal Politics of Unmentionable Racial Issues

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Yesterday I reviewed a Sunday Times article by the journalist Trevor Phillips (also here in the Mail but scroll past the DM political hype to get to his piece), and I praised his candour for highlighting the woeful lack of debate about some of the practical problems posed by multiculturalism. After I published my blog I issued a tweet advertising it and then had an interesting exchange with one individual that I believe illustrates the real problems presented by tribal politics in our quest for meaningful debate.

I have left out the name of my sparring partner but an examination of my twitter account will reveal his identity if you’re curious. I have also offered him a full right to reply by blog on this site if he so wishes. Here is the exchange that took place:

Me: Brave, brave Trevor Phillips tackling unmentionable issues like race. His article reviewed here…link to the ruminating sheep blog.

F: dog/whistle rubbish for the Tory Press. Sadly Trevor’s realised there is a lot of cash to be made as a right- wing black guy.

Me: What’s right or left got to do with it? We’re talking about multiculturalism and ability to debate issues free of censure.

F: claiming all Jews are rich, and all blacks are criminals, is little to do with multiculturalism.

Me: Read the article. His point was the inability to discuss the subject and the dangers therein. You’re twisting it (poorly)

F: I’ve read the article. It’s very racist.

and

F: We’re not allowed to say ‘most black people are criminals’ for a reason – it’s judging a human being purely on their race.

Me: He’s not saying most black people are criminals. I will blog about our exchange tomorrow and give you full right to reply.

Now there is a delicious irony to this exchange which I will come to in a moment, but before then I feel it is right to address the implication that Trevor Phillips has written a racist article. First of all, a quick read of Phillips’ bio reveals that this is a man who has consistently promoted equality, diversity and social opportunity over a long career as a broadcaster and more latterly as a public servant. Second, there is nothing within his article that I could construe as racist. The context ( and I urge you to read the whole thing) – is about the barriers to a meaningful discussion on racial and multicultural matters. The focus of F’s objections seems to be this:

“If African Caribbeans are statistically more likely to commit some kinds of crime than other people, as indeed they are — we are especially proficient at murdering other African Caribbeans, for example — it might make some sense to understand why, so we can stop it happening. Not all Jewish people are wealthy; in fact, some are extremely deprived. But if — as is true — Jewish households in Britain are on average twice as wealthy as the rest, might it not pay to work out what makes these families more likely to do well? Is there something that the rest can learn from their traditions and behaviour? We all know why these things cannot be said. The long shadow of slavery and the Holocaust rightly makes us anxious about the kind of slack thinking that led to the dehumanising of entire populations.
Yet should history prevent us from understanding the differences between us — especially if those insights might improve life for everyone?”

I just don’t see that as racist especially in the context of the main thrust of his article. He is merely stating facts and explaining why they are relevant to his thesis. Note also that Philipps is of Afro-Caribbean descent himself.

Now to the irony. In previous posts, Avoiding the Debate and Toxic policies I explained some of the factors preventing proper analytical political debate and how this was causing electoral apathy and cynicism.  Some of these factors include media hyperbole, tribal politics, political dogma and the party whip system. Importantly, it also includes certain nefarious activities like evasive politicians attempting to be all things to all people and pressure groups and organisations suppressing debate by calling into question the integrity and motives of anyone attempting to discuss certain matters.

The whole point of Trevor’s article was about the suppression of the multiculturalism debate. By accusing him of having financial motives and of making racist remarks, his detractors would seem to be using ad-hominem accusations to avoid discussing the substantive issue. This precisely and extremely elegantly proves the exact point made by Philipps in his article. Quad erat demonstrandum.

I have no idea of the motivations of ‘F’ in his twitter remarks but tribal politics and his instinctive defence of multiculturalism as a political rather than social phenomena seems to have played a major part during our exchange on twitter. That is tribal politics at work and neatly illustrates how it raises barriers to proper debate. I have offered ‘F’ the right of friendly reply with a post of his own here in the sheep shed, and I would be interested to hear his perspective. Let’s hope he will eat hay with us and ruminate in the spirit of constructive debate.

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Postnote: ‘F’ has posted his reply in comments which you can find below or by following the link here. I still feel that he is viewing the issue through a political lens which in my view is unhelpful but probably realistic in today’s climate. I would nonetheless like to thank him for his constructive contribution to the board. Perhaps others have a view?

Unmentionable Racial Issues

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In a previous post, I talked about how some subjects are never discussed because they are, or have been made, politically toxic. As a result, important issues lie unmentioned and simmering with politicians preferring to ignore them rather than raise their heads above the parapet. With this in mind, it was extremely refreshing to read an article in The Sunday Times by journalist and former chairman of the Racial Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, on the deep racial problems lying within our multi-cultural society and our inability to discuss them.

In his brave article (unfortunately behind a paywall), called Ten Things About Race that are True but we Can’t Say, Trevor highlights how New Labour’s attempts to tackle discrimination failed to addressed the problems of multi-culturalism in practice. He says that local authority funds promoting multi-ethnic diversity have been misused by community leaders who benefit from preserving isolation. He highlights that many young people are “trapped behind walls of tradition and deference to elders”, and identifies that the Charlie Hebdo shootings in France were partly of a consequence of segregation within Muslim ghettos. He believes that similar issues lie behind our own 7th July bombings.

The article would be incendiary if it wasn’t written by a well-known and respected black journalist, and perhaps this is the point. Trevor is absolutely correct that in our desperation to avoid causing offence we are ignoring critical issues and he cites as an example the institutional reluctance to tackle the grooming of young girls by some young Pakistani men in our cities. He also points out that the recent fury over Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of the term ‘coloured’ meant that his important point about the need for more black actors to be employed got completely lost. His key point is that it is “more and more difficult to address problems in our society because we are too afraid to describe them”

Bingo! This is exactly the point I tried to make in my previous post on toxic policies, and Trevor is also correct to highlight that unless we are brave enough to overcome this reluctance, then the far right, already ascendant in some European countries, will continue to make electoral progress for merely ‘speaking the truth’

Trevor Phillips will develop his theme in a Channel 4 documentary on Thursday at 9pm, and I for one will be interested to see it. Well done Trevor.

Political Grandstanding and Hubris

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In previous posts (here and here) I have discussed the pernicious effect that today’s 24-hour soundbite media has on the quality of our political debate and its contribution to electoral apathy. I don’t want to bang on about this but I was so outraged at the TV coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that I feel compelled to get a few things off my chest so that I can enjoy the rest of my day and eat lots of hay without enduring a bad dose of ruminant indigestion.

For those of you fortunate to miss it, this all-party Parliamentary committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, was taking evidence from HSBC executives on the company’s role in facilitating tax evasion schemes. Now, this is precisely the sort of core business that this committee should be conducting and it is quite right that Parliament investigates any abuse of the tax system. My objections are not to do with the subject matter but the conduct of the MPs during the hearing.

The verbal abuse of Stuart Gulliver and Chris Meares was bad enough but the treatment of Rona Fairhead was an abuse of parliamentary privilege. Unfounded accusations, inappropriate tone, confusing informed comment with personal views, refusing to allow witnesses to answer by talking over them, deliberate rudeness, contrived moral outrage and anger. The list goes on, and it only happened because the proceedings were filmed and presented an opportunity for our parliamentary saviours to grandstand safe in the knowledge that they would get a few moments of glory in the evening news.

The problem with this approach is that the purpose of the proceedings was undermined by the behaviour of the all-party committee members. The idea is to take evidence and report back to parliament, and by behaving in this way the committee members actually reduced the chances that witnesses would provide meaningful evidence and that anything consequential would eventually be reported. Moreover, whilst the MPs may have thought they were courting public opinion with their contrived anger, actually all they were doing was bringing politics further into disrepute and adding to the widespread public impression that they are solely interested in themselves rather than the public good.

It really is time to remove the cameras and have a clear out. I periodically have to do that with my sheep. Distasteful, but occasionally necessary for the benefit of the rest of the flock.

Toxic Policies: Mentioning the Unmentionable

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In a previous post called Avoiding the Debate, I mentioned some of the factors that I believe are stifling our political debate and reducing its quality resulting in worrying electoral apathy and a democratic deficit. Today, I thought I would mention another feature that undermines proper discussion, and that is the toxic policy.

The toxic policy is an issue that has become so politically suicidal ever to mention that no MP will even dare to raise the matter for discussion. It is a political no-go zone. A good example is our centralized funding model for the NHS. Now I don’t know if our current model is the best solution or not. But I do know that the NHS costs an extraordinary sum of money and that demand for health services is increasing at an alarming rate. With this in mind, it seems to me that periodically we should at least look at other ways of funding health care even if we subsequently decide that the current model remains appropriate for today’s circumstances. At the very least we should have the courage occasionally to take a look and discuss it.

Making subjects politically impossible to raise is a deliberate tactic employed by those who oppose change and seek to stifle debate. Frequently, those employing the tactic will try to adopt the moral high ground by implying that someone is extreme or despicable if they dare even to open a matter for discussion. At a local level, a good example is the use of the term Nimby to describe someone opposed to a development. The moral implication is that an individual or party is somehow acting selfishly and against the common good for opposing a development even if they are the person most affected by the proposal. The Greens are particularly adept at employing the tactic when wind farm developments are proposed but it is also used to stifle debate on other policy matters. In these instances, contrived moral outrage is often reinforced by accusations that the very fact that a subject has been opened for discussion reveals that a decision for change has already been made.

The problem with such political correctness is that questions that need to be asked remain buried, change becomes impossible to achieve and political orthodoxy becomes dogma. Now you might think that a politician that is unwilling to tackle the toxic policy lacks bravery and that would be true to some extent, but in the face of the likely adverse media coverage it becomes much easier to bury a subject rather than to raise it.

This is ultimately bad for all us in my view. How will we ever get better if we don’t look at all the options?

Pick and Mix Policies for the Politically Homeless

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The problem with tribal politics is that politicians and voters are forced into narrow categories where there is little scope for interpretation or shades of grey (no we’re not going there today). Politics has always been tribal to some extent, but the 24 hour scrutiny of a media that is hungry to write stories about internal divisions has made party politics even more partisan and boring. The Whips hold sway, and with some notable and interesting exceptions, politicians rarely put their head above the parapet to challenge their party orthodoxy with interesting and new ideas. I discussed some of this in a previous post, Avoiding the Debate.

Recently, I have started to reflect on which political pigeon hole I should adopt as my home, and I found that I don’t really fit anywhere particularly well. I suppose if I was forced, I would say that I’m socially liberal but economically conservative. I believe that self-reliance should be promoted wherever possible as it enriches lives, but on the other hand I want the State to provide a temporary safety net for those of my fellow citizens that fall on hard times. But, note, a safety net not a means of dogmatically redistributing wealth, and so I would place limits on the extent of taxpayer support (see here for my post on the welfare state). In a similar vein, I think that the State should be as small as possible for efficiency but that does not mean zero state activity as government intervention in some areas is necessary and beneficial. I don’t think governments should run trains but they should run the security services and law enforcement, for example.

Even on other economic matters I do not necessarily adhere to conventional doctrine as whilst I believe in a free market I also think that limits should be placed on its excess. I don’t want higher taxes but I do think Google and the like should pay their way if they expect to trade here. Similarly, I’m not opposed in principle to the private sector providing public services so long as it is properly regulated to ensure the necessary standard. Sometimes, the private sector can do a better job than civil servants, and that can offer value to taxpayers so long as we don’t get ripped off. And, finally, do let the bankers make loads of money so long as its not at our expense, they pay their taxes and they don’t rely on us to bail them out when they cock it up.

On other topical matters, I have decided that on balance I would like the UK to leave the political and legal structures of the EU and to implement proper immigration controls (see post here) for the benefit of all the people living in these Isles. Yet, I also want to protect the rights of our existing immigrant population now that they have settled here. I see them as British as myself. On civil rights, I believe in our democratic rights and legal system but I also think that with citizen rights come responsibilities and that the balance occasionally gets skewed the wrong way by inappropriate laws some of which are imposed from outside the country. On social affairs, what’s wrong with gay marriage, for example? Why should I try to stop someone experiencing the same happiness that I have found in my own union. It affects me, my lifestyle and my country not one jot. It is only religious and extreme political dogma (see post here) that would oppose such ideals and I have no truck with that.

I think a bit of me is also nationalistic in the sense that I believe we should act in the interests of the UK and all its citizens. Now that may sound a bit scary or suggest that I could be a closet EDL or BNP supporter but I could never vote for them because I believe in the equal rights of all British citizens whatever their ethic origins or religious beliefs. I believe that the UK should continue to play a role on the international stage but with our own interests placed at the centre of our approach to diplomacy and international aid, and not necessarily for the benefit of those around us (depending on the issue, they may coincide, of course). In this regard, I would like to see us deploy our overseas aid budget more strategically to support foreign policy.

Above all, I want to feel that I have some kind of influence on what happens around me. That means that I am gravitating away from the centralized Westminster political model towards a more federal system of government. That is the preferred Labour answer for English devolution if I correctly understood their comments following the Scottish Referendum. Following my earlier post on Devolution, blackandwhiteram made some interesting remarks about the US federal system, and on reflection I think that the size of our population could now make a similar system viable for the whole of the UK. A fully federal system would allow the regions to tax and spend (but not borrow) in order to provide services but with a greatly reduced federal government at Westminster providing mainline services such as defence and foreign policy. There are some difficulties with this model which we discussed previously and it would be necessary to design the regions carefully (or come up with an English Barnett formula to reduce regional inequality – see the Devolution post I linked). A federal system needn’t cost a lot more if Whitehall was reduced in size and a layer of local government stripped away to make space for the regional assemblies or whatever you want to call them. Most importantly, it would improve voter representation and influence, and we could get away from this charade that is currently taking place in the run up to the general election.

So I am indeed politically homeless. There are signs of new thinking. I notice that Tim Montgomerie has started to promote a right-leaning initiative that challenges the Conservative orthodoxy by introducing an element of social justice, and maybe this is a sign that some of the dogmatic political boundaries are starting to erode. Its worth a read although its still not quite right for me.

So, homeless for the moment. Good job I’ve got a sheep shed to sleep in.

Unpicking the Immigration Debate

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Today’s release of the latest ONS quarterly immigration statistics has caused a predictable political storm, so I thought I would dip my toe into this emotive matter. The problem with the immigration debate is that people always start by shouting about EU controls and racism before considering the facts and trying to come to a considered conclusion. I can’t promise I will achieve this but I’ll give it a go. Please also note that when I refer to ‘national interests’ in this essay I mean the interests of all those currently residing here whatever their origins. And, yes, that includes those that arrived here as immigrants. Its a longer post than normal but bear with me.

When we discuss UK immigration policy we do have to distinguish between EU and non-EU migration because the law currently regards each category separately. I will mention both but initially I would like to discuss some general factors.

It would be fair to say that global population movement is becoming ever more straightforward. Improved global communications have made it much easier for potential migrants to learn about possible destinations and to compare their present situation to what they hope might be possible elsewhere. The over-riding desire is for a better life but that may be prompted by a number of drivers including economics, employment, corruption, poverty, war, disease, religious discrimination and any other number of the horrors that we see across our screens each day. In the worst case, these push factors are ruthlessly exploited by organized crime syndicates who traffic people in the most amoral and dangerous ways. Few will fail to be moved by pictures like this one taken near Australia.

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The UK is clearly an attractive destination for many, and I was struck by a recent BBC interview of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, many of whom identified the UK as the place they wanted to go to. It is easy to understand why. The economy is prosperous, we have a solid legal system that protects individuals, by and large, from persecution, crime is low and we protect ourselves collectively with our welfare system (see my previous post on welfare). A key pull factor is the existence of trans-national networks in the form of relatives or friends who have already settled in a country and of course this is certainly the case for multicultural Britain.

The worrying aspect is the number of people that want to move. If you want to judge the potential scale of the problem then have a read of this Gallup paper. It takes a global perspective on migration but there are aspects of it that are startling for the UK. Some key facts are as follows:

* 700m adults worldwide would like to migrate to another country if they could.
* The US is the preferred destination followed by Canada and the UK
* The paper concludes that developed countries such as our own could be overwhelmed if aspirations became intentions.
* The desire to migrate is highest in sub-saharan Africa where 36% or 166m people would migrate if they could.
* In third place, the UK would attract 46m people with France 39m and Germany 26m

It is very hard to know for sure how many people would actually leave their own countries but as transport links and communications improve it will become easier, and if even a small proportion of those who aspire to migrate actually moved, then a great number of people could try to reach our shores. It is worth pondering these two images. The first shows the projected increase in the UK population, and the second redraws the map of the world according to population density. Compare the size of the UK with, say South America or the US. We already have lot of people.

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cartogram population map

But does a large and growing population matter? Well it depends on your point of view and what matters to you. A sudden increase could place pressure on services, but if the economy was growing then this could be accommodated so long as there wasn’t a sudden surge. We also have space for new development at the moment but as a countryside dweller I would not wish to see our green spaces become totally covered over with concrete. That said, I am sure that there are many readers who love the city life who would place their cosmopolitan lifestyle high up the wish list of life. There are also the cultural changes that would undoubtedly occur as people from overseas became residents and brought in their own cultural norms. Now personally, I don’t really mind about these either. But I might if cultural diversity started to challenge the fundamental things that make me feel British such as our democracy, legal system and rights. I have touched on one component of this issue in my recent post The Religious State.

One important factor that is often ignored is the security implications of large-scale migration and this seems particularly relevant today. I have mentioned the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa wishing to move and you only have to look at the chaotic scenes in Italy as migrants are rescued, disembark and then disappear from holding camps to make their way illegally across Europe often without documents proving their origins. Whilst I am sure that the majority are just looking to improve their lot in life, it would be relatively straightforward for an organization like ISIS, for example, to deploy sleepers, amongst the throngs who may eventually come to these Isles to do us harm. There is also evidence that ISIS intend to use migrant movements to destabilise Southern Europe and shipping routes in the Mediterranean. This is certainly something that we need to bear in mind without assuming the worst in all those that make the treacherous crossing over the Med.

And then there is the economy. A key advantage of net immigration is that it can fill shortages of skills when the economy is growing fast. Whilst this perpetuates growth and suppresses inflation, it can be a double-edged sword. For example, we currently restrict the number of medical school places available for UK residents whilst bringing in trained foreign doctors to fill jobs in the NHS. There can be doubt that we have loads of bright kids that could fill additional places to study medicine and yet we choose to restrict the numbers to save money. I do like it when we save money, but I don’t like to see our kids stymied in their aspirations. More broadly, the danger is that we save money by outsourcing training and education to other countries who probably can’t afford the costs anyway and who suffer disproportionately when they lose domestically-trained individuals. It is a tricky one; where does the national interest lie, and whose national interest is it? The same applies to low-paid workers. We bring in foreign workers to do jobs on the minimum wage that many of our own people would decline. This keeps industry competitive but it also encourages some to rely on the welfare state which I discussed in the post linked earlier. If the entry of unskilled low-paid foreign workers was restricted then pay would rise and in-work benefits would subside…to the benefit of taxpayers but at a cost to industrial competitiveness.

Looking at these issues, it seems to be a problem of degree. We want migrants to come here but not in such numbers that we are overwhelmed or which disadvantages the people already resident here. Acting in the national interest is why we have countries. On balance, this does mean that we should implement comprehensive border controls. We do have one advantage and that is geography. Our Island status makes it easier to control entry and exit to the country although we would have to spend more than the existing and pitiful 1.7% of our tax revenue to so so. Neither should we distinguish between EU or non-EU migrants. We should judge each application on its merits and only take those immigrants that we have identified as being advantageous to accept according to our needs at that time. Now, that is not to say that we wouldn’t negotiate bilateral agreements that would waive visa requirements with certain countries but, in the case of the EU, it would be on a case by case basis. I have yet to understand why the free movement of people within the EU is such an important component of the internal market and it seems to me to be more of a measure designed to socially engineer economic equality rather than free trade. I will eventually write a post on the EU as I expect there will be no getting away from it, but for the moment it is sufficient to say that the EU is essentially a political structure and therefore all things can be negotiated if there is a will.

Finally, we cannot ignore the components that drive migration. We cannot resolve economic inequality by throwing open our doors but we can try to address some of the less desirable factors by playing a full role in the international community and by directing our overseas aid budget more strategically. And I will post on that too before long. But that is enough for now. Please be polite to me and one another.

Devolution: Who’s Accountable?

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Since the Scottish referendum, there has been much discussion about devolving power down to the regions, and the recent announcement by the Government that it intends to devolve a £6 billion health and care budget down to the Greater Manchester area has been largely greeted with approval across the political spectrum. For sure, it gives local authorities the responsibility to set health and care priorities and to shift cash around but does it actually increase accountability and promote value for money for the taxpayer?

Well, I expect that there are few that would disagree that centralized structures are unwieldy and often struggle to get value for money despite the attractions offered by the economics of scale. We’ve heard about the £10 Whitehall paperclip too often for this not to be true. There is also no doubt that a centralised and corrupt political system often directs resources for political purposes rather than on the basis of actual need. Where it is allocated altruistically, it is often misdirected owing to a lack of understanding about particular local conditions and requirements. Local spending also gets better scrutiny and is more transparent as budgets are smaller and easier to inspect than the national versions.

Devolved budgets look attractive then, but in my opinion it is only by owning the right to spend and to raise revenue that proper democratic accountability can be enforced. If it is only the power to spend a budget that is devolved then there is little to stop the spender using up all the cash and then pointing to the central government when it finds it has run out of resources. ‘It’s not our fault, you haven’t given us enough’ will be the excuse. Particularly from a Labour-run council with a Conservative Government (or vice versa). On the other hand, if an authority has to raise the cash that it wishes to spend then it is totally accountable for both sides of the equation. It may decide to raise more revenue through an increase in local taxation and spend a little more but to do this there will have to be a conversation with the local electorate who may see things differently. That is proper democracy at work and a powerful driver for encouraging tax-payer value for money. Moreover, if that conversation takes place at a local level then the debate is often better focussed and able to highlight the real issues rather than a centralized argument that gets lost in all the Westminster noise.

So, it’s an open and shut case: we should devolve the maximum power down from the centre. Well, perhaps not. Whilst a centralised treasury sometimes misdirects resources through corrupt politics or incompetence, it does allow the central authority to at least have a stab at resolving geographically competing needs. If we fully devolved tax-raising and spending powers to small regions then the sparsely-populated or poorer areas would be completely disadvantaged, and it is unlikely they would be able to offer the same standard of services. In extremis, this could encourage significant population movements
to the metropolitan areas which could be destabilising and suddenly increase the pressure on services in particular areas. On a more philosophical note, I suppose one aspect of belonging to a country is that the population has a common interest in looking after each other regardless of location. Isn’t that why we have the Barnett formula for Scotland? That collective insurance would soon disappear as the devolved regions started to become more like autonomous mini states.

I am instinctively against big government and so the devolved solution looks attractive. But it is not a straightforward case and it requires careful thought. It may be that a half-way house solution that partially devolves tax and spending would provide the right balance of efficiency and accountability. In this regard, a locally levied sales tax (with commensurate reduction in VAT) might be one way of devolving tax raising powers without going the full hog. However, our Union has already suffered some shocks recently following the Scottish referendum and I think we need to move cautiously to avoid the unintended effects of any fiscal actions we take too hastily. It is probably a question of scale. The Soviet Union was too big to run from a centralized authority but, on the other hand, we can’t live in little tribes. Thoughts?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

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Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

Spying on Schoolgirls

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I was disappointed that the family lawyer acting for the families of the three schoolgirls who recently traveled to support ISIS in Syria should have appeared on TV yesterday to place the blame on the Security Services. The accusation was that it was the spies’ fault for not monitoring the girls’ twitter accounts and acting to stop them running away.

Well there are two points about this. First of all, the security services have got better things to do than spy on 3 schoolgirls. Make no mistake, there are really serious threats within the UK that demand far more serious attention than the schoolgirl whims apparent in this case. It is a question of resources, and personally I would prefer the authorities concentrated on stopping a home-grown terrorist outrage in a shopping centre than waste time by acting in loco parentis for a small group of kids in Bethnal Green.

Secondly, the case illustrates the real dichotomy presented for a liberal democracy such as ours. There is real pressure from within the liberal establishment for constraints on the extent of surveillance and intrusion into our lives, and yet here we are with a media implying that it was wrong that the state didn’t spy on three schoolgirls who presented no immediate threat to the communitiy. Well, come on, which is it to be?

There are other issues in this case which I will wrap up in a larger post coming soon. In the meantime eat up and ruminate a little.

Avoiding The Debate

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There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?