Mr Showbiz

Do not tell me you weren’t impressed by Gordon Brown’s ninth budget performance. He’s such a showman. He’s like a movie star of the Golden Age – a brooding matinee idol – Robert Mitchum or Ray Milland (with some Methodist preacher thrown in). His delivery is quite awesome. What about that perfectly timed “…and I can do more…” (impossible to convey the subtlety of cadence here: you’ll have to listen to it). He should be on the stage – GB for Child Catcher once his leadership ambitions have been finally crushed?

Bracing wasn’t it?

Like a sort of constitutional cold shower. On balance, and setting aside the merits of the legislation itself (I know, I know…), I think last week’s strange and thrilling events in Parliament add up to a pretty good testimonial for British democracy – an eccentric, contradictory and sometimes barely comprehensible institution on top form.

Being afraid…

Abridging ancient rights seems to come naturally to British Governments of all complexions. Something about power makes them itch – all those quaint checks and balances and constraints on power really wind them up. “I am in charge now and I will permanently damage the Bill of Rights/Magna Carta/Parliament Act/Ireland Act (delete where not applicable) if I feel like it.&rdquo (and don’t even try to tell me that Labour are worse than the Tories or I will be forced to produce a long list of Conservative constitution-busters for your delectation).

In The Observer, Andrew Rawnsley puts a charitable twist on the story. He reckons ministers (especially Clarke) are scared half to death: that a phalanx of spooks and mandarins have made it their full-time job to get them all in a funk about Madrid-style bombings in the run-up to the election. I’ll be honest – I prefer this explanation to the more depressing authoritarian scenario and, if Clarke et al are genuinely scared, then I think we ought to know…


British general election campaigns are sick. Or at least they exploit the sick. Each needs its iconic sick person: someone so desperate for treatment they can even entertain the prospect of a one-on-one with Michael Howard, a man whose bedside manner might, at best, be characterised as ‘chilly’ (“Now, this might sting a little…”).

I know I’m partial (I remember Michael Howard the first time round) but would it be too nerdy to point out that even in a perfectly functioning (say, Swiss or Bahraini) health service, brute statistics make it inevitable that some unfortunate patients (and especially those with real complicating factors like Mrs Dixon) will get their operations cancelled many times?

Politics is the only branch of organised human endeavour in which it’s legitimate to build policy and argument around a single, statistically-insignificant case very far from the mean (hold on! I forgot about tabloid journalism). As I’ve said before, sometimes we’re not well-served by our politicians.

Evidence Schmevidence

Pols of various complexions have embraced something called ‘evidence-based’ policy lately. Evidence-based policy is supposed to be more rational, closer to the cool, double-blind, statistically-valid world of scientific experiment (the phrase comes from medicine).

The evidence so far, though, is that evidence is always going to come second to cheap political ‘hot buttons’. The evidence: the Government’s clever-looking, income-linked fines – which promise to hit the criminal rich with larger fines than the cheeky chavs – is an almost perfect clone of a failed policy the Tories called ‘unit fines‘ in 1992. Kenneth Clark quietly dropped the policy in… er… 1993 when they were shown to be unfair, unpopular and unenforceable.

Will Labour’s unit fines survive the upcoming general election campaign? Unlikely. I’ll bet you a tenner the scheme is buried by Easter. The evidence is pouring in, though: politicians can’t adapt to the more open, networked, media-saturated, post-democratic era that produced the desire to ground policy in reality in the first place. Cheesy political posturing will persist. Real evidence will continue to be ignored.

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Fixing pensions

Pensions are important and will be for a long time (how about the indefinite future? Or at least until you can get uploading on the National Health). I find myself really losing patience with the politicians. No one doubts there’s a crisis coming and we’ve seen some interesting new ideas (like the citizen’s pension) but something as big as this should present an opportunity to try something new, something really radical and challenging to the legislative status quo.

We need a huge, broad-based, non-party effort and a commitment from our politicians to set aside ideology and the electoral cycle just for once if we’re ever to sort out provision for our old age. The legislators should convene a conference or a standing commission representing all the affected groups, give it a long-range remit (twenty years plus) and some insulation from the political ebb and flow (so it won’t be swept away in the next regime change) and grant it some legislative clout (access to ministerial resources, drafting rights, some kind of special parliamentary status).

I’d like to think something like this could happen in Blair’s Britain. It would be an interesting experiment and, if it worked, might provide a model for other very large-scale (even planetary) and very long-term (>100 years) issues like climate change, trade or migration.

Somehow I doubt it’ll happen, though. Pensions will remain subject to the collapsed five year time horizon of MPs and ministers and, as a result, we’ll see no solution until it’s much too late and the continuation of the ‘anything for a quiet life’ policy from all of the electable parties will produce a nasty social crisis when the storm hits. Very depressing.

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We’re here, we’re Royal, get used to it

Prince Charles among his subjects
If you’d been thinking, before all this media fuss about ambition and status and education, that maybe Prince Charles might make quite a modern monarch – someone a little less trapped by his origins and his status – then I guess you’ve probably had another think by now. Prince Charles is cut from the same cloth as his parents and theirs before him (and so on back to Canute or The Kaiser or whoever). Perhaps it’s unfair to expect otherwise. Perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway.

I’m no monarchist but I’m tolerant of the British monarchy within the context of what you have to acknowledge has been a very robust and successful constitutional democracy across the centuries. Maybe I’m just getting old but I fear the absolutist logic of republicanism: “look, it’s anachronistic! Abolish it!”. I think we’ve learnt that our freedom and our prosperity and our relative stability as well as the other less easily-defined benefits of being British (and the disadvantages, inequities and general weirdness) are all suspended in a pretty fragile web of institutions and habits of mind, some of which we need to preserve even if they look frankly ‘out-of-time’. That’s not a defense of the status quo – I’m in favour of real reform all over the funny old British polity – just a defense of complexity, contradiction (and the ad hoc) in its formation.

Having said all that, there’s really no way of interpreting the Prince’s memo as anything other than an off-guard defense of old-fashioned deference, unearned privilege and patronage. The Prince of Wales is a Royal after all and he ought to understand that his position at the top of the genetic pyramid is fragile too – contingent on the continued tolerance of the British people for his mediaeval rank and Victorian manner. The memo reveals a complacency about his God-given status and his automatic ascendancy that makes this loyal subject squirm. The ‘head of state’ remark is a total give-away – it might as well read: “I’m the only future Head of State in this office and don’t you forget it!”. Charles can hardly be oblivious to the world around him but it looks like he’s forgotten that, in 21st Century Britain, his power and privilege are guaranteed not by custom or ancient law or even loyalty but by public approval.

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I think I’ve waited long enough…

I’m really thrilled to be able to say that I’ve been enjoying Azeem and Shen’s new venture a lot (resisting the temptation to illustrate this entry with a wedding photo). Mink Media has entered into the Thin Media business with a rush and their first two titles are excellent and part of what looks like a really well-rounded commercial package. The Honourable Fiend (Westminster politics) is my favourite but I reckon Wanda Lust (travel) will grow on me too, once it finds its tone of voice (which is harder with PR-heavy travel material to work with, I reckon).

I’m enjoying Hon Fiend enough to urge the guys to switch comments on – I keep reaching for my quill pen – although I think I’ll understand if they don’t. Even this humble blog is now ploughing through 300-400 comment-spams per day and sorting out the real comments from the crap is getting more tiresome by the day. I think everyone acknowledges that blog media is still at best an each-way bet for the big time but ventures like this one are going to really help to nudge the form into the business mainstream. Good luck guys!

Gun crazy

The BBC's 'The Daily Politics' studio
Yesterday I was on the telly. I was invited (why? No idea) onto BBC2’s The Daily Politics to talk about the non-scandal of guns on eBay. It’s a non-scandal not because gun crime isn’t on the rise or because you can’t get practically anything lethal somewhere on the net but because poor old eBay (for whom I hold no brief but you’ll probably kick yourself if you don’t check out this really cheap job lot of Apple printers) is getting it in the neck – again – for apparently enabling hordes of scumbags and miscreants to deal in death under the noses of the law and in defiance of every norm.

As usual, the truth lies elsewhere. eBay, as its nearly eight million UK members know very well, is actually a big, open and thoroughly friendly place, in which illegal activity is frankly difficult. Guns and replicas make up a vanishingly tiny proportion of the 3.4 Million rare beanie babies, Mark 1 Ford Capris and battered paperback editions of Under Milk Wood listed every day (I couldn’t find a single gun – unless you count this). If I wanted to buy a gun, in fact, the very last place I’d look would be such a transparent and easily-policed place as eBay.

I don’t want to be flippant about this: I could hardly be flippant on the telly anyway, since my fellow guest was there because her son had been shot in the face by another kid a few years ago (I wish they’d warned me about that), but we really must keep the risk of kids obtaining guns on eBay (and other sites) in proportion. It’s important because the burgeoning eBay economy is already a significant creator of jobs and wealth here and elsewhere. We mustn’t put up new barriers to participation.

It’s difficult for legislators and journalists to resist the ‘something must be done’ reflex but imposing new administrative burdens on web site owners in an attempt to control the sale of guns would be the equivalent of closing all the level crossings in the country in response to the weekend’s dreadful train accident: an entirely inappropriate knee-jerk reaction.

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