Buried at the back of Andrew Rawnsley’s excellent Sunday evening Westminster Hour is a consistently fascinating 15-minute segment called The Sunday Supplement. In this slot they’re currently running a short series from Peter “Swing-o-meter” Snow about the turmoil in opinion polling. This week’s is about the new kid on the block – Internet polling (click here to listen to the latest show).
Like a lot of those harried urban Labour MPs we’ve been hearing from lately, I feel a sort of vague discomfort with the idea of people on horses rushing through the countryside in pursuit of small, quite fluffy mammals – it’s just not very nice is it? Unlike most of those Labour MPs, though, I don’t have a constituency mailbag bulging with threats of deselection and other low-grade mischief.
The hunting ban is an ugly thing: illiberal, politically contingent and irrelevant – a throwback to an earlier era of dogmatic, one-dimensional leftism – sentimental, anthropomorphic, shabby. It’s a casual and thoughtless infringement of liberty that will save the lives of (maybe) 30,000 foxes per year – about a third of the number killed by cars. It’s such a bad law it makes me feel queasy. It’s like dangerous dogs on steroids – trashy, knee-jerk legislation for trashy, soundbite politicians. I’m a Labour Party member and I’m ashamed of it.
The animal rights people aren’t terrorists, not even the ugly ones wearing balaclavas and harassing researchers and their families – that’s just big pharma spin. They are stupid, though. Their story-book anthropomorphism is simple-minded, reductive and partial. Animal testing may offend you (it offends me – I’m as sentimental as the next man) and there are mature and sophisticated arguments against the subjection of one species by another and especially against our growing reliance on factory-farmed protein but the use of animals in research is a legitimate extension of domestication.
As a species we have put the animals around us to organised use for at least 10,000 years and this ongoing symbiosis has not imperiled or reduced our humanity – rather it has guaranteed it. Animal protein, muscle power and endurance have, to a large extent, made us what we are today. Animal testing, though it triggers some very basic and very understandable anxieties, will, like intensive animal rearing, continue. Our dislike of vivisection flows from our empathy and our squeamishness, from sensibilities developed through centuries of stories about cuddly woodland creatures, loyal pets and majestic wildlife. We’re obviously going to continue to produce these narratives (Nemo, Shrek, Animal Planet…) even while we quite happily process millions of beasts into mince and sausages and cutlets and bags of offal daily. In the meantime, sickening or not, we must continue to defend the animal testers – they’re the ones who have the stomach to do it for a living and the courage to keep doing so in the face of childish animal rights nihilism.
Listen. I know I can’t vote there (what with being British and living in Hertfordshire and all that) and I know I should probably worry more about the British political scene (which is coming along nicely isn’t it?) but I can’t help it. American electoral politics is going to be so entertaining between now and the Presidential election and the choice of candidates so unappetising (and my mother-in-law found some 1980s US election posters in her loft) so… I’m taking this opportunity to come out for Walter Mondale. He’s my man.
Does anyone know how much David Blunkett’s ID cards are going to cost? No. Doesn’t look like it. There are no costs in the draft bill (PDF) and only some misleading estimates of how much you’ll have to pay for a biometric passport and driving license on the otherwise excellent Home Office ID cards page. So, in the absence of any idea what it will cost us to get to perfect, compulsory, irrefutable ID, we can only wonder what we could achieve if we spent the same amount on cheaper, low-tech programmes to boost social cohesion, trust, transparency and education. I wrote about this in today’s Guardian.
Susan Sontag on the Abu Ghraib torture pictures: “The torture of prisoners is not an aberration. It is a direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us ideology of world struggle with which the Bush administration has sought to change, change radically, the international stance of the United States and to recast many domestic institutions and prerogatives.”. Mark Danner on reports from the Red Cross and the American military: “dispatches from the scene of a political disaster“. The man who built Abu Ghraib (and was subsequently gaoled there) thinks it shouldn’t be demolished. Update: I missed David Aaronovitch’s reply to Sontag’s piece (thanks to Stephen Newton).
The thing about those Mirror photos, I think, is not that they always looked like fakes (which they did) but that they really looked more like pages from a training manual: fig. 12a: (humiliation) correct technique for urinating on detainees, fig. 22b: (coercion) use of rifle in producing confession, fig. 31f: (disorientation) use of hemp/hessian sack in interrogation…
I always had Gordon Ramsay down as a superannuated Sunday Supplement wanker. Tonight I saw the first of his Kitchen Nightmares on Channel 4, in which he was parachuted into Silsdon in Yorkshire to fix the unfixable – a diabolical restaurant/bar called Bonaparte’s. Inevitably, he failed, and Bonaparte’s was shuttered by the end of the show. Along the way, though, Ramsay showed himself to be a sensitive and passionate manager with a genuine understanding of people. I wouldn’t like to work for him, though…
Meanwhile, our Prime Minister continues to provide management lessons of his own. Anyone who’s ever run a company will tell you that sooner or later you’re going to come to work one morning and get a sick feeling when you realise that some malignant subset of the crowd of sweaty herberts you hired (out of the goodness of your heart) has taken over your precious company – or at least plans to do so (or at least thinks they could do so if they felt like it). Peace of mind drains away, replaced by stomach-churning paranoia. The worm has turned. It must be like this for Blair right now. He’s still nominally in charge and there’s really no prospect of a coup before the next election but the cabal has formed and the ink is drying on the tawdry conspiracy that’ll see him replaced. It’s just a matter of time now.
Managing his Government, party and increasingly treasonous cabinet through this period while attempting to sell the utterly unsalable European Constitutional Treaty to a sceptical and ignorant public in the teeth of a hostile press is going to be the biggest test of his career and will make Iraq look like a walk in the park.
Alan Milburn, proper Blairite (retired), has got the faith (you’ll need to have a FT.com subscription). He thinks Labour’s third term goal should be ‘subsidiarity‘. He wants Labour to embrace decentralisation, devolution, community-level decision making and law enforcement and all things modishly grass-roots – ‘the new localism’ he calls it. Of course, I think he’s dead right. One of the big frustrations of the first two Labour terms has been the grim-faced, white-knuckled refusal to loosen the grip on central power – or rather the paradoxical readiness to devolve power to Nations, Cities (and even regions) but, and at the same time, to concentrate real power – mostly in ministries but also in a long list of agencies, committees and commissions – at the centre.
I want to be even-handed – most Governments talk the ‘power to the people‘ talk while in opposition but then find the glamour of undiluted power difficult to give up once in the hot seat – and not always for sinister reasons. The temptation, as a barnstorming, pro-change Minister, for instance, must be to think: “I’ll just get this raft of reforms out of the way then I can hand power back to the people in time for my replacement’s shift. If I expend too much energy devolving power now I’ll never get through my programme and we’ll be back at square one”.
Still, I don’t need to tell you that the net already makes a powerful argument for decentralisation. In a networked world, the theory goes, power, like intelligence, settles closer to the network’s edge, in the ‘nodes’ themselves and miles from the big, dumb core where decision turnaround can approach infinity and where bad decisions – skewed by political contingency, electoral short-termism and simple ignorance – are in the majority.
If Milburn is on the money, if his ‘new localism’ is going to have Labour’s official endorsement for the third term manifesto, I think this is the kind of issue that could excite jaded supporters and catch the imagination of ordinary voters and might give the next Labour Government the boost it needs.
Politics is an ugly business and there’s nothing uglier than Messrs Howard and Davies scoring the easiest points of their miserable careers from the Romanian visa scam. They’re so in tune with the Daily Mail’s second-rate racial hygiene fantasies that it makes me nauseous. The apparent chaos in the immigration service is hardly encouraging (another frustrating, pointless own-goal) but nothing in this story supports the phony hysteria and gutless populism of the Tories – they can barely contain their glee. It’s like free money for a bankrupt political force like the post-Thatcher Conservative Party.
Sealing the borders – rolling on the giant National condom against foreign contamination – is an almost irresistible policy for a mainstream politician at a time of crippling uncertainty, real threats from brown-skinned terrorists and accelerating globalisation of capital and labour. That doesn’t make their disreputable double-act any nicer to watch. This is the lowest point in Howard’s leadership so far and something tells me we’ll see lower.
Some links: today’s Downing Street press briefing on the topic – scrabbling when they should be kicking Howard smartly into the weeds. The Commons debate according to today’s Evening Standard and tomorrow’s Independent. A gripping piece from The Guardian about the business of preparing ‘business plans’ for wannabe immigrants in Sofia.