Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why I Would Rather The Labour Party Were In Opposition Forever Than The Tories Were In Government Forever With No Opposition

I am Socialist. 

In fact, I am probably your worst nightmare. I am a Christian Socialist. 

(I can answer the one about men's bottoms better than Tim Farron, but I am not going to.) 

I am not a Marxist or Communist. I think that everyone, including me, should pay slightly more taxes; and that the money be spend on schools, hospitals, libraries and parks which everyone, including me, can use.

I am also, incidentally, a liberal, in the sense that I think that everybody should be allowed to do whatever they like so long as it isn't interfering with anybody else. ("I find it squicky" does not count as interfering.)

My ideal arrangement would be a consensus around the political center-left:
  • Health care free at the point of need
  • Public service broadcasting
  • State schools that are sufficiently good, that no-one needs to pay for private education
  • A job for every one who wants one 
  • Everyone with a job able to afford a mortgage (or rent on a decent home); to feed and clothe their family; and have a bit left over for beer
  • Everyone without a job paid an allowance so they can buy food and pay rent and have a bit left over for beer
  • No-one made to feel like an outsider or in danger because of their headwear or the word they use for "god" or who they fall in love with (this includes headwear, deities, and sexual practices I persohnally find squicky) 
  • A country where we don't execute school children; spank murderers; or torture people who look a bit like people who think might be terrorists. 
  • The rich permitted to continue tearing small woodland animals to pieces in the privacy of their own homes if they really want. 
However, as I understand it, a center-left government is not currently one of the options on the table.

The options on the table appear to be

1: A far right government that wants to abolish the BBC, abolish the welfare state, abolish the NHS and bring back the Workhouse, with an center left opposition that criticizes them, attacks them, campaigns against them, picks holes in their laws at committee stage, supports protesters and strikers and generally makes life as hard as possible for the government. 

2: A far right government that wants to abolish the BBC, abolish the welfare state, abolish the NHS and bring back the Workhouse and an opposition which positively encourages them, in the hope that, in 2025, the opposition can form a government which believes in abolishing the BBC and bringing back the workhouse.

So I choose option 1. Obviously, option 3 (a center left government with a center right opposition) would be the best option. But it isn't on offer.

They won't call them workhouses. But silly teenagers are going to carry on having sex whatever Geroge Osbourne says. Particularly when the newspapers won't ever allow realistic advise about sex, contraception and abortion to be given to school children. Dacre and Murdoch and Desmond are prudes, like all pornographers. So instead of "silly ladies with five kids from three different men being supported by the public purse" we are going to have "silly ladies with five kids from three different men who can't possibly support those kids." So either we go back to Cathy Come Home, kick her onto the streets, and send the kid catcher round to forcibly put her kids in a state orphanages (which is more expensive than Welfare) or we send poor people who simply won't stop breeding to some sort of state-run institution, probably on the model of detention centers for immigrants, where they can be taken care of away from the public gaze. And those detention centers will be made as nasty as possible, so as not to appear to reward people who have "done the wrong thing" and chosen to be poor. And the Daily Mail will say that these places are like holiday camps, and that honest people's tax dollars shouldn't be spent on water and air for women who've had sex too young when they can't afford it, and if they would rather die they had better do so so quickly and reduce the surplus populations. And Labour will say that that's what they're hearing on the doorsteps and it would be self-indulgent to disagree.
As a very wise man once said: the poor drink and dance and screw because there's nothing else to do.

Politics isn't a destination, it's a trajectory. 

At one time, we had the Tories saying "Move slowly to the right" and Labour saying "Move slowly to the left". 

Then it became the Tories saying "Move quickly to the right" and Labour saying "Move slowly to the right." 

The new policy is Tories saying "Move quickly to the right" and Labour saying "We certainly aren't going to stop you."

Perhaps one day, David Cameron will say "We have now moved as far to the right as we need to, and can stop?" On that day, will his party say "Hooray! We have moved as far to the right as we need to, and can stop." Or will they denounce him as a communist? 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Democracy Works

"Now I will tell you the answer to my question. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake."
Nineteen Eighty-Four

How I think democracy works

Everyone votes for the candidate whose politics most closely match their own.
The candidate with the most votes in a particular region goes to Parliament.
Parliament as a whole -- consisting of many members from many different parties with many different points of view -- represents "the people" who also belong to many different parties and have many different points of view.
The many different MPs debate taxes and wars and duck houses from their various points of view, and then take a vote. Whatever the majority of MPs vote for become the Law. 

How Harriet Harman thinks democracy works.

Everyone votes for the candidate whose politics most closely match their own.
The candidate with the most votes in a particular region goes to parliament.
The party with the most seats in parliament is deemed to represent the will of of "the British people."
The opinions of those members of the British People who voted against the party with the most seats in parliament are disregarded.
It becomes the moral duty of candidates who were voted in by members of the minority party to pretend that they support the majority party because the majority party, by virtue of being the majority party, represents the will of the whole of the British people, and to vote against them would be "undemocratic". 
It is clear that the whole idea of representative democracy is a terrible mistake. It would be better to dispense with constituencies altogether, and to give which ever party secures the plurality of votes 100% of parliamentary seats, presumably picked off a party list.
Indeed, the whole idea of "parliament" is a terrible mistake: it would be better to dispense with MPs altogether and simply elect a President, with absolute dictatorial powers, for a term of 5 years.
Possibly, in fact, the whole idea of "representatives" is a terrible mistake and we should simply vote for a programme which Civil Servants would then carry out unquestioningly until the next election.
(This is extremely close to how Mr Tony Blair did, in fact govern: I don't need to listen too much to Parliament, because people voted for ME to Prime Minister; I don't need to to listen to criticism of my programme, because The People voted for The Pledges which were in The Manifesto and therefore whatever was in the Manifesto is the People's Will and it would be undemocratic of me to do anything else. The idea may be that Labour wants to treat the Tories as elected dictators in a one party state because they intend to behave like elected dictators in a one party state when they get back into power in 2025 or 2030.)

What Harriet Harman thinks happened at the 2015 election.

Harriet Harman thinks that the 2015 was a disaster for the Labour Party. She thinks that The People rejected the Labour Party on such a scale that the only sensible thing to do is to stop being the Labour Party and become something else instead.

What I think happened in the 2015 election

I think that the 2015 election was a Damn Close Thing.
I think that 37% of those of us who voted voted Tory; 30% of those of us who voted voted Labour and 33% of those of us who voted voted Something Else.
I think that 25% of us voted Tory, 20% of us voted Labour, another 20% voted for Something Else and 35% of us didn't bother to vote at all.
According to our crazy election system, that means that 51% of MPs are Tories; 36% of MPs are Labour and  13% are Something Else. But that still means that the Tories have only got a slender majority. Members of Parliament do occasionally vote against their party, or call in sick, or get stuck in traffic, so every single debate and vote ought to be regarded as a Damn Close Thing. 

What I think the point of the Opposition is.

I think the point of the Opposition is to oppose.

What Harriet Harman thinks the point of the Opposition is.

I don't know.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Coffee and Clangers

Suppose I go to a cafe and have a horrible cup of coffee.

There are a number of things I might do. I might send it back and ask for a nicer one. I might decide not to go to that cafe any more. I might say that in the grand scheme of things drinking a horrible cup of coffee isn’t that big a deal.

On the other hand, I might draw the conclusion that it is impossible to get a nice cup of coffee anywhere in England nowadays. I might go further. Until recently, every village and high street in England was full of shops selling really great coffee. But suddenly, all the coffee shops started serving filthy American coffee — the kind where you grind up beans and force steam through the powder, not the traditional English kind that comes in bottles with a picture of a gurhka on it. And no-one, absolutely no-one, likes this new Star-Bucks drink. The BBC decided to give undue prominence to a tiny number of celebrity chefs who told everyone that the foul American drink was better. They probably did so for bad motives. Possibly they had financial interests in the new coffee shops; or possibly they just wanted to reinforce their sense of superiority by affecting to like a drink which no-one could possibly like. 

Before long, I’ll be talking about a powerful coffee lobby with a name ending in brigade or -ista who has made it impossible for anyone to say, or even think, that Nescafe is nicer than single estate Americano – except, of course, for you and me, who are the only people on earth who understand these things.

Every couple of Februarys, England loses a day or two’s work to the weather. Everybody who stops to think about it understands why this happens: we get so little snow that it would be pretty pointless to spend millions of pounds on thousands of snow ploughs that would sit in garages gathering dust on nine hundred and ninety nine days out of a thousand. Nevertheless, it is an important national tradition that we spend the bi-annual cold February saying (all together now) 

What’s the matter 
with this country
(of ours)
two inches of snow 
and it 
grinds to a halt!

That’s all perfectly good fun. Almost as much fun as laughing at the railwayman who blamed train delays on "the wrong kind of snow." (He never existed, and he never said it, but it's still good fun.) But I recall a year or two back A Pundit, (possibly Christopher Hitchens brother) going on Question Time to explain that England was now THIRD WORLD COUNTRY and we were slow at unblocking frozen roads because COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS. No-one has ever actually written my coffee essay, but I do recall A Nother Pundit eating a meal that was more highly spiced then he happened to like and writing a column to the effect that there was no longer a single good restaurant in England because political correctness. 

The iconic example of the genre is of course Paul Johnson's 1964 essay which claimed that young people didn't really like the Beatles: they were pretending to because politicians told them; that music critics pretended to be able to tell the difference between different kinds of jazz to cover up the fact that it was all equally a savage cacophony; and that the youth of 1964 liked the same things that young people have always liked, namely Dante, Matisse and Proust.

I don’t think that I would go as far as Philip Sandifier who characterises this kind of mindset as “fascist” – the golden age, the act of backstabbing betrayal, the belief that the back-stabbers are secretly running things; the need for a mighty hero to come and slay the celebrity chefs.

I’d be more likely to call it the Old Man’s Fallacy. 

Stuff changes. Most of us are more comfortable with the stuff that was around when we were young and less comfortable with the stuff that has come along since. I remember visiting the town I grew up in after a few years absence and being confused and mildly annoyed that the 261 bus that I used to take to school was now called the 84 and stopped in a different place. It would have been terribly tempting to draw the conclusion: "It is the natural order of things for the 261 to stop outside the newsagent; Ken Livingstone must have changed it for some ulterior motive. He is a commie, after all."

In fact, I recall thinking "I suppose when you are old, everything feels like this: the whole world is confusing and mildly annoying."

But it would be crazy to believe think that a bus route is part of the natural order of things. As crazy as thinking that the right number of pennies for there to be in a pound is 240, or being prepared to go to jail rather than weigh your bananas in grams. Or starting a political party to ensure that our unit of currency is never called the Euro. A millennium survey found that the second most hated man in history, after Hitler, was Dr Beeching.

And there's nothing wicked about liking old things and thinking that change for changes sake it is a bit silly. I like the fact that each generation leaves stuff for the next to look at; and I like the fact that the next generation thinks "Why on earth did the last generation leaves us that?" It reminds us that what everyone agrees is obviously true this year is not what everyone agrees is obviously right last year, and that next year something different will be obviously right. Two hundred years ago the people of Bristol thought that Edward Colston was just the kind of person you ought to commemorate with a statue. Nowadays "everyone" agrees that a guy who made his living selling tobacco and black people is more a monster than a hero. That strikes me as a very good reason to leave the statue exactly where it is.

The Old Man's fallacy is particularly prevalent among Old Men who write for a living. It is possible to turn "I ordered a cup of coffee but it wasn't very nice" into a sparkling anecdote that makes readers want to come back next week and find out what happened when you ordered you ordered you steak medium and got it well-done. Bill Bryson has made something of a career out of that kind of thing. But most of us, if required to transmute life's minor irritations into column inches are tempted to read the general into the particular, he universal into the specific. A proper essay on "Why Joe's Cafe served me a rotten drink" would you require you to talk to Joe, interview Joe's customers and his baristas, to take a tour of the kitchen and learn a little about the fine art of coffee making yourself. Actual work; actual research; actual journalism. But any fool can rattle off  "Why this cup of coffee proves the world is in an awful mess" in an hour and a half.   


The Clangers was a children's animated TV show from around 1970. There were 24 episodes of the original series, meticulously hand animated by stop-motion animation. Everyone agrees that it was just about the best children's TV programme ever made. Forty years on, the BBC has produced a new series, twice as long as the original. 

NuClangers is about as steeped in nostalgia as a TV show could possibly be. Not a sequel or remake, it's more like a painfully devoted love-letter to the original. It uses old fashioned stop motion animation when the temptation must have been to CGI the thing. The characters are still very obviously knitted puppets, although I am told the internal skeleton is more complicated than in the olden days, so the creatures can strike poses they wouldn't have managed in the original. 

It is most unlikely that anyone at Smallfilms in 1969 said "I know, let's use knitted puppets, because that will look quaint and endearing." I think that knitting was probably just the easiest way of making little pink aliens. TV screens were smaller in those days, so probably hardly anyone saw the stitching. Valerie Singleton didn't tell us to knit a Clanger: she told us to make them out of socks. Mine was made out of an old school uniform sock: grey with silver foil armour. But that’s find because, in the 1970s, the Clangers were grey. They only turned pink in 2000, when we got to play remastered DVDs on colour tellies. 

A TV show that was obviously meant for children, but was obviously set in space on an alien planet, seemed fresh and strange in 1970s. It can't possibly feel like that now. The original show was made by basically two people, frame by frame, in a shed, doing whatever seemed to amusing at the time. Modern TV reels of lists of set designers and animators in dozens. Old Clangers existed in a very specific time-slot, namely 5.30 on weekday evenings. We kids were still watching our after-school children’s programmes, but Daddy had just come in from work and was waiting for the early evening news. Then it would be tea time, and then, as Zebedee might have put it, time for bed. The children’s programmes that lived in that space were allowed a knowing, adult irony. That slot simply doesn't exist any more. The natural home of NuClangers is CBBC, which means that it has to appeal directly to kids, which makes it slightly more patronising than it was before, and slightly more moralistic. Or at any rate slightly differently moralistic. The Soup Dragon, explains the narrator carefully, is only sulking because she wanted Small Clanger to say "thank you" for the Soup; Major Clanger means well in building Granny Clanger a knitting machine, but doesn't understand that she positively likes knitting. 

If anything, its slightly too faithful to the original show. A Clangers Classic story involved some new thing arriving on the Moon, and the Clangers, after some initial misunderstanding, making friends with it. Unusually for a kids show, it had a sort of continuity to it. If Small Clanger plants a music tree in episode 3, then there is still a music tree on the Moon in episode 5. Each episode creates a new status quo. NuClangers is reluctant to disrupt the status quo that was established in the final part of old Clangers. It has to place the Iron Chicken and the Froglets and Cloud and even the Sky Moos in fresh configurations to produce new stories. It does a good job in making up new stories about the friends that the Clangers had already made in the original series, but so far it hasn't introduced any new ones. Original Series; but so far it hasn't introduced any new ones. 

The Daily Telegraph's main complaint was the blinkin' obvious one. NuClangers is narrated by Michael Palin, and Michael Palin is no Oliver Postgate. Oliver Postgate had a voice which could comment on the Universe at one moment (“this is the planet earth; our home; it is a small world, wrapped in clouds”) and on Tiny Clangers hi-jinks the next (“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea...”) with hardly a modulation in his tone. Stephen Fry said that if he believed in God, then the voice of God would sound like Oliver Postgate. Oliver Postgate is not narrating the new series for one very good reason: he has, er, been dead for seven years. 

Well, I suppose one might possibly say "Clangers without Postgate is like Trek without Nimoy: it's an obviously silly idea, and there is no more to be said." The Telegraph proceeds to say that, because of the lack of his voice, the new series is not as sad as the original, which may, perhaps be true. (The main thing that struck me was that in the old series, space was black, but in the new series, space is blue.)

And so the Old Man's Fallacy kicks in: 

But it draws the Old Man’s Conclusion; that things ain’t what they used to be, and the reason for this is that bad people have gone around changing things for bad motives. “It is” (concludes the essay) “another example of how children’s TV has become sanitised, just like so much else in children’s lives.”

To which the only possible answer is "No it isn't and no it hasn't".

No-one has sanitized anything. But it is possible that in the last 40 years, the world has changed in various small ways.

And, of course, accepting and adapting to small changes in your world is very much what Oliver Postage's original Clangers episodes were all about.

Old Men who keep abreast of new TV shows, new comic-books and (especially) new music are universally referred to as "hipsters".