October 28, 2006

The Dynamic of Politics (Apologies blogging at speed)

Earlier on in this blog I referred to the idea that most of politics is based upon the expression of mutual hatred- the definition of parties through the fact that they are not the other party and vice versa. Right Wing News (an American blog with unsurprisingly conservative leanings) argued yesterday that the Bush administration had lost one of its great tactical advantages recently- it could not argue given its record the argument elect me or you'll get the other lot in.

Whether that's correct or not, and this is turning into one of the nastiest American elections on record, its definitely true that opinion within the Republican party has turned to become more self critical recently. From Andrew Sullivan to Peggy Noonan conservatives have recently been turning on Bush, whereas the liberals at DailyKos have been trying to back Democrat candidates everywhere no matter whether like Bob Casey they are pro abortion or like Hllary Clinton pro war. (Joe Leiberman the exception to my rule is interesting because Kos and co object to him on grounds of lack of party discipline.) The opposite paradigm can be observed in Britain where factions within the British Labour party are clamouring at the moment for clear red water whereas Tory malcontents are staying quiet even as Cameron moves them to appear further to left than they are.

What we may be seeing in these parallel moves, on each side of the Atlantic, is the tendency of power to affect the minds of those who wield it. In oppositions, parties become more effective and more aligned to the electorate- in government they become more focused on policy and consequently more divided and extreme. IN one sense therefore there may be a natural evolutionary mechanism at the heart of party democracy- whereby phases of opposition are neccessary to renew parties' appetite for power. This must be posted now, so the thought is incomplete but I hope regular readers of the blog know what I am getting at- and I will try and ammend it further later.

October 27, 2006

Complicating Kedward

Sunil Khilnani's recent review of Roderick Kedward's study of the French 20th Century has many good points- he expresses himself well and makes many of the issues within French politics plain, as well as complicating some too simple views of the past century of French history. Having not read Kedward's study but hoping to, I can't comment on Sunil's view of the book but I can comment one thing on his own review of France in the 20th Century and that is of what he leaves out. French history by Sunil's account is a clash of principles- those of Jaures, the early socialist leader, versus those of De Gaulle with others added in, a clash between revolution and the state, between muslims and society and between empire and republic. It needs to be reitterated that running through French history in the 20th Century, as through Spanish, German, Italian and English, is a far older conflict between Church and State. The ideologies of France took their expression in the 20th Century from their attitudes to the Church- ranging from the fiercely critical socialist to the laudatory traditional Gaullist. Sunil is attempting to forecast and look at Professor Kedward's work through the lense of the current election- much of his piece discusses the two candidates- Sarkozy and Royalle- but by using the a history of the past to focus attention on the present he loses his accuracy. In reviewing Professor Kedward's book, Sunil forgets that for many years during the 20th Century in France attitudes towards the Church determined a Frenchman's place within his times.

That lesson is one Western intellectuals need to learn in analysing societies both in the present and the past- we need to understand that for the beleiver religion is central to life and therefore to politics. To put it rather simplistically most people in the world have through history valued cures over the custodians of the state or political causes.

Carnival of Cinema

The Carnival of Cinema is up over here go and read it, there are plenty of good posts, including one from this blog.

LATER I should note that the comments below the fold have nothing to do with the Carnival of Cinema but are about Iran- an anonymous reader took issue with something I said on the Guardian blog about Iran, he provides some interesting links and I may have been wrong, I don't want to start a huge argument about Iran here but if you are interested in his links go and look at the comments.


Franco has always been a rather interesting figure. The Spanish Civil War consumed the powers and lives of many of Europe's leading intellects during the 1930s- George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, not to mention the political encounter between Stalin and Hitler but Spain over the next forty years was relegated to the side of European history by events both in Germany and then in Russia. Professors Preston and Vinas at the British Academy last year conducted (you can listen to the whole discussion by clicking on the ear at the bottom of the page) a fascinating seminar on what we do and don't know about the man at the centre of this period in Spanish history- General Franco.

Franco was undoubtedly a dictator but his status in European history beyond that is a little more fragile. What Preston and Vinas point to is Franco's roots within Spanish society- this was not a conventional Fascist (whatever that might mean) but a traditional Spanish rightwinger with added murderous impulses. He was styled as a second El Cid and then later hoped to become through tagging onto the second world war a second Charles V. Stripping away the propaganda they concentrate on what historians know and think about Franco.

What they leave us with is a very interesting portrait for the modern world- for while the kinds of dictatorships left by Hitler and Mussolini have largely faded away- the kind of dictatorship that Franco had has curiously become more relevant. Whether in the Middle East, in South East Asia or in South America the phenomenen of a strongman who stands behind traditional values and uses traditional iconography to support him, is a very common one and curiously it may be that as we enter the 21st Century an understanding of Franco may do more to help us understand what is happening in the wider world than an understanding of the other major dictators of the 20th Century. Spain seems once again to be the centre of the modern world- just as it was in the dark decade of the 1930s.

LATER AFTER THE COMMENTS (Its been pointed out in the comments that the last line means that I think Zapatero's Spain could collapse into dictatorship- what I mean is that 1930s Spain should become a focus for study again- present day Spain seems to me very stable. Apologise for any confusion caused- such are the perils of writing without fully engaging the brain!)

October 26, 2006

Spectator in Reactionary Rant Shock!

James Shaw writes in the Spectator that he left a University Theology course at an institution he assures us was in the top ten because he was under worked and under stimulated- because he saw students around him doing little work and felt that it wasn't worth his time to acquire a degree. Whilst gracchi has considerable sympathy for any student beginning at university and finding the support less than they had at school, I feel some sympathy with those who want to be stretched. But British Universities might not provide the courses, but they do especially at the higher level provide the facilities. There is no difficulty for a person like Mr Shaw to acquire books, to find and meet postgraduates, to even attend seminars and lectures, which will stimulate their mind. Indeed learning off the syllabus at university is one of the pleasures of going there- historians can learn about Feynman, physicists about Gibbon, English Students about Wittgenstein and philosophers can savour Jane Austen. Given that Mr Shaw says that he was not stretched he could have taken that approach further: instead of dropping out because he was too good for the institution concerned. Mr Shaw underrates informal learning and overrates formal learning- if you don't feel a lecturer tells you enough- don't desert academia but get out into the library Mr Shaw and read and read and read.

Carnival of Liberals

The Carnival of Liberals is here and includes some quite fascinating posts from some really good blogs. Its always difficult to find good stuff on the net- but this is full of it.

October 25, 2006

Human Progress

Stumbling and Mumbling here makes an interesting point to which I've responded on his post. But one issue he doesn't reflect upon is cluster theory- why is it that at particular points in time say in Florence in the 14th Century you get amazing amounts of creativity whereas at other periods of time you don't. One economic explanation has been to argue that bringing clusters of people together so that they can discuss things with others with similar interests means that people become more creative. There is some truth in this. However there have been attempts to create clusters which haven't worked which indicates that there are variables in this, like the morale of the workforce (something that important work is being done in Cambridge upon)- so the search is still on for what exactly it is that provokes creativity.

Judicial Academy

Judicial Independence is both popular and unpopular today. Home Secretaries from Michael Howard to John Reid have been keen within Britain both to state that they believe in judicial independence and that they object to decisions made by particular judges in particular cases to implement the law. The Prime Minister himself has been particularly angry with the way that judges have implemented the terrorist laws, saying in the House of Commons that the Law Lords have failed to understand that the rules have changed, before indeed changing those rules.

Professor Sir Neil MacCormick yesterday dealt with these issues in his British Academy lecture where he attempted to defend the principle of judicial independence as part of a doctrine of the separation of powers. Professor MacCormick's defence broke down to two principle ideas: the first being that a magistrate, in this case in Parliament, should not make law that he himself was not bound by and that the only way to bind a magistrate like a citizen by the law he made was to remove the judgment of how that law applied from his power. His second principle was that the judgment of how a law applied was a different kind of judgment to the judgment of whether a new law was needed- judges, MacCormick argued, and politicians use different kinds of reason to meet different needs in performing their functions and consequently should be different people.

Its this second principle that seems to me to be most interesting. Its a principle that has reappeared through history in defences of judicial power- from the 17th Century jurists like Sir Edward Coke to now. The point is that a new law is made in recognition of all the old laws- so that Parliament sees an abuse in the system and goes to correct it. Now a judge, unlike Parliament, isn't as mindful of the abuse, but is mindful of the way that the law fits into the old laws so consequently he should, if the law was drafted rightly, implement it in the way that Parliament desired- ie that law is part of a conversation and whereas Parliament is caught up in the response it makes to a situation, a judge can see beyond that particular moment to the way that that response changes and does not change the whole structure of legality within a country.

Statute law in this instance is treated as a series of speechacts, whose context is an ongoing conversation with other Parliamentary acts and judgments, which only a judge is able to understand through their longterm view of the law. Its definitely a view worth pondering and is a problem to which we shall return.

October 23, 2006

The personal and the political in M

M is often viewed rightly as the masterpiece of German cinema and was one of the greatest films made by its great director, Fritz Lang- an overtly antinazi film it reflects upon themes of guilt and individual responsibility and this blog will no doubt turn to it again- like a great book, a great film can be reviewed as many times as one likes and still produce new insights.

M is a uniquely fruitful film though for the political enquirer because it doesn't have a conventional story- there is progress but the viewer makes few friends watching the film and many acquaintances. Characters flit across the screen to give us the impression of the terrorised city. More important than their character is their reaction to a specific situation and the combinations of attitudes makes the situation in which we are interested. Unlike most films therefore, M is truly about a community of people not inidividuals. Individuals are shown only as their actions impact upon the community.

The recent exercise in making a blog out of people's experiences of 17th October will fail as an exercise precisely because it doesn't recognise the entities out of which politics and history are fashioned. Like M, the politician and historian- and by extension the ordinary person, only recognises the individual as they intrude into the world that they perceive. Politics in some way becomes a metaphor for life- into a moment of fame the individual comes and then dodges out again- coming out of and going back into the dark just as the characters in M emerge from the shadows and then vanish back into them.

This lends the film a terrifying intensity- like politics itself the mob whirls upon the stage as if from nowhere- terrifying and scattering individuals before it. The civilised town turns hysterical thanks to the murders of little girls and innocent citizens are arrested on the streets by citizen militias for nothing more than their presence at the wrong time and wrong place. The nightmare of liberals reflected in works as various as this film and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (see the murder of the poet Cinna Act 3 Scene 1) is realised in the dark. Literature here merely imitates life- remember the News of the World British campaign against paedophiles which ended in attacks on a man with a particular kind of neck brace and a paediotrician.Peter Lorre in his great final speech speaks of shadows following him through the streets of Berlin- these are both the shadows of his conscience, of his victims but also the shadows of the mob which emerges at the end to confront him but earlier has confronted the innocent as well.

The greatness of M therefore lies in the lack of more than one great character and in the terrors of the crowd- it lies in the ways that as the law fails to find a responsible party, the population is unleashed and a righteous crowd gathers to enact justice. M is a nightmare- in which every individual ceases focusing on himself and focuses his moral judgement on the wrongs of others, where the mob replaces the state as the organ of judgement and where a court of criminals passes a sentence of execution.