February 14, 2008

George Osborne's choice of schools

Apparantly George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, has got his kids into private schools. Mike Ion is not impressed, he thinks that this represents the abandonment of progressive politics by the Cameron conservatives, and that Osborne should have chosen a state school rather than becoming part of the problem by sending his kids to a private school.

I have always found such arguments unconvincing. Ultimately as far as I see it, every person in the UK has the right to send their kids to private school if they have the money. Yes they may be perpetuating inequality: but a variety of other choices also perpetuate inequality as well- buying houses in 'nice' neighbourhoods or having books available to your kids at home or even the type of food you buy for your children and yourself. Furthermore we are criticising Osbourne without knowing the reasons he wants to send his kids to private school: he may have really good reasons for choosing that private school over this state school for his children. It is not for us to second guess the choice of other people.

It is not my opinion that Osbourne needs to justify his choice of school for his children, anymore than he needs to justify his choice of supermarket. What he does need to do is provide an analysis of the state system and how to make it better for everyone else: that is his job as a politician but once his job is over and he goes back home and spends the money he has earnt, I don't think it is any of my business that he spends it one way or another (providing its legal). Focusing on where he sends his kids to school misses the issue- its what he wants to do to the system in which so many others send their kids to school that's the real issue. At the moment it seems to me our political system does not let politicians get away with poor personal decisions, but lets them get away with poor policy decisions.

That's the wrong way round: lets ask the Tories complicated policy questions and not about their personal lives.

Reasons to love Cricket

Stephen Fleming has just announced he will retire as New Zealand captain. On his resignation he has asked how he wanted to be remembered and he said he would want to be remembered as a thinker about the game, as someone who could bring together a team and make them more than the sum of their parts. If anyone needs a justification for watching sport, then the fascination of human psychology under pressure is a great one- cricket shows that often at its best. Its fiendishly complicated and incredibly thoughtful as the bowler, captain and fielders conspire to trap the batsman into playing a shot he doesn't want to play. I'm sure the Umpire will have something to say as will James Hamilton: but I think its interesting that the bit of cricket that Fleming declared he enjoyed was the thinking, the way the game could be shaped by leadership and tactics. Its one of the things I enjoy watching team sports- you can see the tactics being played out on the field.

February 13, 2008

Campaign Chaos

Hillary Clinton hasn't been doing as well as predicted since the New Year: she was expected by some to have the nomination sown up at that point, some even predicted that Super Tuesday would be a coronation. They were wrong and the result seems to have been widespread discontent in her campaign for the Presidency with her long term aid, Patti Solis, leaving Clinton this week. The Atlantic has a fine article covering Solis's resignation, rumours had been swirling even before Solis left about the disfunctional structure of 'Hillaryland' and journalists had picked up on those rumours. Hillary's team is obviously involved in mutual recrimination about how they have lost their frontrunner status.

Both of the articles I have quoted above suggest that what this demonstrates is how uniquely disfunctional Hillary's campaign has been. I don't think that's true. Seasoned observers of US Politics have commented to me before that Clinton has run an almost perfect campaign- obviously it hasn't worked but on the other hand, she hasn't self destructed and Obama has run a brilliant campaign. Furthermore any campaign faces downturns and moments of pressure: pressure produces internal stresses however tight the team of people put together by the candidate. It also produces a kind of focus that makes the inner circle unable to see the wider picture: hence the need to bring in new blood in order to give new advice to a candidate. What we are seeing with Clinton is really the effect of a long campaign.

What's interesting is not what this tells us about Clinton- but what this tells us about politics and campaigning. I think the articles and the events of the last few days capture the intense closeness of politics: the suffocating claustrophobia of living in a campaign where every leading article is a major event. Sometimes that can obscure the longer term issues or even policy discussions: it produces fierce rivalries as well. Understanding the lives that politicians live is indispensible to understanding the kind of decisions they will take: I think what the Clinton campaign illustrates is the way that politics is a very visceral experience, altering day by day. Politicians have to cope both with the intensity of living in a perpetual drama and complete alterations in fortune: their psychology has to contain the confidence to survive that and be brutal to their allies and friends.

That atmosphere determines exactly what kind of politicians and hence leaders that we get at the end of the process- the Clinton campaign's breakup is a useful indicator of the way that politics works in the United States and by implication in most of the West.

February 12, 2008

Two issues

There are two issues with Matt Sinclair's latest riposte to me on the subject of Rowan Williams- two issues that I think need to be dealt with in what is really a debating post and not an argument.

1. When I mentioned the lecture on neo-scholastic art, or one could mention the archbishop's points about the inequity of economic life, I was responding to Matt who said that the Archbishop seldom or never made interesting points. I then said that I liked an intellectual who did make interesting points in public life. Matt can't have it both ways: sneering at someone for being stupid and then saying that when he is provided evidence that they aren't, that those who provide him with that evidence are intellectual snobs. That's just too typical- not of the unintelligent mass- but of the much more thick group of hacks at the top of politics today. Matt is too bright for this kind of rhetoric- if you want a debate, please don't use these cheap tactics.

2. Secondly Matt more forgivably misunderstands the point of my remarks and that may be because I skipped ahead a couple of stages in my argument. You see I think the real issue that the Archbishop was attempting to solve was not a multiculturalist one- though some of that muddled set of thoughts may have smoothed his path to that conclusion- but this set of thoughts.

a. in an increasingly secular society law becomes increasingly secular

b. that creates problems of conscience (and he mentions some with regard to doctors and abortion for example) which the religious people of all faiths face.

c. one way around that is to have supplementary or plural jurisdictions which don't annull or replace civil rights, but which are voluntarily accepted by people who beleive in order to avoid issues of conscience.

d. without that you undermine community cohesion- between those who live with a sincere belief in God and those who don't- the most important set of values for the former group being their commitment to theism.

Ok- that's it laid out simply and straightforwardly. I think its a repugnant political doctrine because I want no relation between the law and politics. As I have said before- and its worth recycling this I DISAGREE FUNDEMENTALLY AND PROFOUNDLY WITH THE ARCHBISHOP, I THINK HE IS WRONG TO ARGUE IN THE WAY THAT HE ARGUES. I also think that the speech could have bad effects in other countries and am quite happy to concede that the Archbishop has been bad at publicity.

But what he is trying to argue is that religious people ought to live under their own laws to a certain extent (with qualifiers) something I think that is a theologically valid statement and then to fit that into a context where all religious people should have the same right. I disagree with the premise for reasons based on political theory- the Archbishop's endpoint was a bad political place to get to- but he is willing to discount that based on a theological vision of man that sees the virtue of private law as being over and above the virtue of political peace.

This whole controversy illustrates to me a fundemental truth about the West at the moment- our political discourse is well formed for say discussing economics, but when we get near theology for instance we collapse into incoherence.

I hope that gets that across....

February 11, 2008

Returning to Canterbury

Matt Sinclair takes a view in his latest post on the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Archbishop should resign because he has affronted Matt's and my views on what sensible politics consists of. Matt is wrong in his response to my post and I want to open up some of the areas that we disagree upon. Firstly it is worth me stating I think here that when I said the Archbishop opened up interesting issues, I was not specifically talking about this. The Archbishop has a long record of making interesting speeches and statements- I don't need to defend him on this- but I have listened for instance to him lecture about the state of neo-scholastic art theory in the 1920s in France in a fascinating and illuminating lecture. It might seem a little odd but I still remember that lecture as one of the most exciting and inspiring I have ever been to. The Archbishop does talk about issues in ways which are generally more subtle and interesting than any of his critics seem ready to engage with: one of the things I lament frequently is the cheapening of our political discourse- something that say the populists in all the newspapers, on all the television shows etc are attempting to perpetuate. I like the fact that there is in the UK a figure in public life who is an intellectual and I find that comforting- I do think from comments on this blog and at other places that Williams is despised for being too clever by half and I'm afraid I want him to stay for that precise reason. I'm sick of politicians like David Cameron and Tony Blair whose cultural hinterland is a squalid swamp.

Ok rant over. My second and less personal reason for wanting Williams to stay in office is that I don't agree with Matt that he had an obligation to keep silent about this kind of issue. Matt assesses, as most of the blogosphere and media seem to do, whether someone should be sacked by the furore created. I'm actually quite sure that if anyone said this and it was picked up by the media then there would be a furore- especially in the way that the media quite frankly missreported the Archbishop's statements. Essentially the Archbishop was arguing for a private religious law for religious communities- he was arguing that the law of God should be recognised in the civil courts where all parties agreed it should be recognised. That seems to me a fairly uncontroversial idea to the religious. There is a set of people who are really upset with the Archbishop not so much for talking about inserting religious law into the law of England as inserting Sharia- that's essentially the Bishop of Rotchester's position and that's the position that I think the Archbishop's address really did undermine very well.

I disagree with that position- I don't think that religion should have anything to do with the law, for all sorts of reasons that I don't want to get into right now, right here. I think its a bad political argument- and would lead to various kinds of unhappiness within the realm. Now that may be true- but what is bad politics may well be good theology and ultimately the Archbishop of Canterbury's concern is not with good politics but with good theology. In that sense both in his defence of Islam and the possiblity of 'liberal' Islam and in his argument for theocracy (I use the word provocatively) he was doing what he should be doing: presenting a good understanding theology to the world in front of him. (Chris Dillow advances good liberal reasons for thinking that this defence of theocracy ought to have nothing to do with politics here- but taking for granted the intersection of law and commandment, we can see the Archbishop's argument has more validity). Any good Archbishop from that perspective ought to be causing furore, causing it by advocating theological arguments where they contradict political arguments. Many of his critics don't understand the theology of the issue- which is why they fail to understand what the Archbishop's role is. The contempt for instance for the Archbishop's penitent tone on the Spectator Coffee House reflects the fact that Matthew D'Ancona doesn't understand that the Archbishop isn't a politician, he is a theologian, his job is to get close to and understand the mind of God not that of man. Many of the criticisms made by D'Ancona and others relate to the legislative form that this policy might take- again that is an argument about the politics not about the theological argument about the source for law which is what the Archbishop was involved in.

The real argument which I think does endanger the Archbishop is the argument that the Political Umpire made here- the Umpire pointed out that the Archbishop's role is political as well as theological. But I think here too there are subtle distinctions to be made: the Archbishop is not a minister for religion, rather he is the appointed head from religion to the wider community. Consequently his role is theologico political, not politico theological. In that sense the priority that he has is to represent those who take their religion seriously- not those that don't. Again here I think the fact that his argument was firstly theological makes sense- and the fact that his critics miss this means that they miss in reality what his job is. There might be problems with having someone with that kind of job- but if someone is to have that job, then the Archbishop is doing the right thing. He is making a theological argument about the nature of civil authority and how it relates to issues of conscience- rather than a political argument which prioritises peace and stability over eschatology. The Archbishop is making the case for the religious to be able to live according to conscience and thus save themselves from hellfire- in comparison with that no war or civil strife is important- his argument is wrong but its wrong for political reasons- many of which have to do with the toxic way that theology interacts with politics.

Consequently I don't see a case for the Archbishop to resign- he has fulfilled the duties of his role. There might have been cleverer ways for him to perform those duties- he might have made a more moderate form of the argument, presented it more attractively and clearly (as say Dave Cole has done here) and there is plenty that I think the Archbishop could learn from this episode. Whether its media presentation or syntactical clarity, my Lord of Canterbury has some way to go. But I do not think he has to resign for presenting a good theological argument about law to an audience of lawyers and theologians- I still think he was wrong- but I don't think he should resign.

3.10 to Yuma: Kant amongst the Cowboys

3.10 to Yuma was one of the last year's more interesting films- it has just come out on DVD hence my effort to review it. A revival of the Western genre which mostly consisted of morality plays about the fate of particular men in particular communities is sorely needed: the West performed for Americans as a metaphor about human nature, about what men would do in a society without laws, bound only by violence. Great Westerns from the Man from Laramie right up to Unforgiven sketched out the ways in which men would react in such times of anarchy- they sketched out the basic limits of what human nature was when the state was a distant and often powerless presence over the vast horizons of the West. Accompanied by amazing photography and great acting, those canonical Westerns turned the genre into one of the most subtle artforms produced by America and indigenous to the United States. 3.10 to Yuma fits into that tradition- though it has to be said compared with the classics it has its limitations.

The story is simple. A rancher, Dan Evans (played by Christian Bale, one of Hollywood's most versatile and adept actors) is down on his luck and lives on parched land. By pure chance at the same time as his affairs come to a crisis, a notorious bandit Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) holds up a wagon. Wade though stays in town to seduce the local barmaid and Evans finds him and gives him to the sherrif. It is then Evans's responsibility to take Wade across country to the only train with a prison carriage- the 3.10 to Yuma- from which Wade can be transported away to be hung in Yuma. Following swiftly behind are Wade's gang, dangerous and psychopathic men, who are willing to kill and laugh as they do so. And in front is the jail at Yuma, from which Wade tells Evans near the end of the film he has escaped twice already. Evans's motivation is established early on by the reward offered to get Wade to the train- 200 dollars of American money, but as the film goes on, we begin to realise that Evans could get the reward without transporting Wade to the station. By releasing Wade or even just by protecting his fellows on the escort he could get that money- he chooses not to though. He chooses to take Wade to the train.

Its a fascinating issue. Why does he do that? Afterall there is every chance that Wade will escape quickly- furthermore there is every chance that Evans will be killed in the attempt and rather than coming back rich, will leave his wife without a husband and his sons without a father. Part of the reason you suspect is that he feels his older son will disrespect him unless he does this: unless he demonstrates his bravery and manliness in some way. Part of the reason is that he feels humiliated in his son's eyes by the presence of Wade, the kind of man who is a hero to other men and desirable to women. But that is not all: because such considerations, almost suicidal considerations, don't really work because they would not attract praise and yet there are reasons to praise Evans's conduct. He really does set his heart on something that is right- transporting a criminal to prison- even though it will bring him no benefit but death and inevitable pain.

So why is it admirable? It isn't religious- religion is referred to in the movie and yet God's presence like the government's is distant. Evans doesn't mention heaven- it doesn't perform much of a role in his motivation. The real reason that he does what he does is because he knows it is right to do what he does. He obeys the law because it is right, not because he receives advantage. In a sense he is Jobian, screaming at God that he does not receive any luck in life (indeed the rain he seeks for arrives just as, by a grim irony, he faces his final test) but he continues to do the right thing. Immanuel Kant would have recognised what he was going through- which is why I've titled this review the way I have- for Kant morality was a matter of willing a law which was universally applied irrespective of interest. The point for Kant was that morality was something that you followed especially when nothing good for you could flow from it. That is the situation that Evans finds himself in, nothing good will flow from his actions but still he continues to perform them, still he continues to get Wade to the train.

Too many reviews of the film focus on Wade: but in truth he isn't as interesting as Evans. What Evans represents is an attitude to morality and to law which is strictly anti-utilitarian. Evans simply obeys because the law is the law, morality is morality and irrespective of consequence you must continue to behave in a certain way. The film illustrates the Kantian option- and provides an argument as to why it is moral and other options are not. All other options promise a reward: and yet by the end of the film we admire none of those who use their conduct as an instrument to profit, power or heaven, its the man who knows that morality will create disaster for him but still persists in being moral that we admire. And all he has in the end is not a tangible reward, no choir of angels or earthly reward, but the admiration of the audience and our surrogate- his son.

Ironic Politics

When two inciteful commentators say something, its worth thinking about it. That happened this week when both the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley and the Economist's Bagehot column devoted themselves to examining the influence of Tony Blair on his successor's government. Both argued that Gordon Brown is not merely unable to escape the legacy of Blair, he is significantly unwilling to escape it. The former Prime Minister's policy prescriptions were inevitable for someone who accepted his analysis of the way that Britain and the Labour Party had to move. In particular both articles suggested that Blairism- a devotion to the principle of mixed provision of public services- was a policy that Brown as well as Blair and even Cameron and Clegg would have to follow given what they had said. I think that both Rawnsley and Bagehot are entirely right- and it opens up what is the really major question about Gordon Brown and the reason that his Premiership has yet to inspire many.

The problem is that it is difficult to provide any account of what has changed since Tony Blair left office. The deckchairs round the cabinet table have been switched- some figures have left politics and newer men and women have been promoted (often it has to be said as in the switch of Jacqui Smith for John Reid to the detriment of the cabinet's ability to make a public impact) but little of substance has actually changed. Partly that is because the current Prime Minister was of course Chancellor before his elevation- everything done from 1997 to now has his paws all over it and he can't really deny that. Despite the fact that of the leading members of his cabinet only Jack Straw and Alistair Darling can claim as long service in cabinet, its hard to avoid the impression that to row back say on the independence of the Bank of England or the structure of the welfare system would cause the Prime Minister personal embarassment.

But there is also another factor and that's that the animating spirit of the government has not really changed. New Labour was an effort to marry Tory efficiency to Labour compassion- and avoid the moral complacency of the conservatives whilst adopting their judgemental approach to crime. It was a fusion of concepts- derived from the experience of the battles of the 1970s and 1980s which left the Labour party pulverised. Politicians like the young Blair and Brown saw that the Tories would win election after election unless Labour changed. They also appreciated that not all of the Tory reforms were awful- that the Tories won for a reason and that Labour had to behave differently in government to how it had behaved before. Those attitudes worked for a while and set Labour up for its three election victories- 1997, 2001 and 2005 but the magic began to wear off. In part because of Iraq: if Britain learnt anything from Iraq it was that we fell out of love collectively with Tony Blair. But more crucially the underlying source of discontent lay in the public sector: with the management of the great public monopolies of health and education. The hope was money plus reform would bring improvement: to be honest we haven't yet seen the timescales neccessary (more money into training doctors means more doctors not today but in seven years time for example, reforms take time to bed in and for people to become accustomed to them and start altering behaviour).

All of those prescriptions sound solid but two things lead me to suspect that they are not going to provide Labour with the reassurance of majorities in the future. Firstly the economic situation is getting worse globally and locally within the UK. All forecasters and professional economists seem to agree that the US could slip into recession, it might already be there, and that the UK may follow. This happens at a time when the Governor of the Bank of England is worried about inflation and consequently may be reluctant to cut interest rates further. Secondly the problem is that we have now heard everything we can hear about modernisation from Gordon Brown and his team: the public are losing faith in Labour's ability to modernise and are willing to give Cameron a try. If politics is just management, then why not change the managers and see how the Tories do for a while. What is important here is that the government doesn't really have a new vision, a new way of seeing the problems or a new way of explaining them to us the people. They seem, to paraphrase Disreali, to ressemble a series of exhausted volcanoes not a lively group of people filled with fresh ideas- and in part that comes back to the Prime Minister.

Its not that the Prime Minister should go: but that increasingly his term feels like the end of a government not the beggining. In part that isn't his fault- he was always more likely to be Blair 2 than to be a new kind of Prime Minister. He has the same ideological background, the same mentors- indeed he was basically Blair's political twin from the moment they met. Its no surprise therefore that his administration looks so much like that of his predecessor's. The only thing that distinguished them was that Blair had the job he wanted: the problem for Brown is that he may have got it when the moment for this kind of politics, for New Labour, had ebbed away. We shall see what the next couple of years bring- but at the moment the Labour party looks tired- its hard to see any ideological alternative from the right or the left emerging (Cameron's Tories don't seem to offer much than more extreme Blairism) but that may be the question for another day. The situation at the moment seems filled with a kind of tragic irony- one that both Bagehot and Rawnsley with typical acuteness have understood.