Friday, January 30, 2009

Conservapedia in left wing bias shocker!

If you fancy a laugh online, try a look at Conservapedia. This website and those behind it genuinely believe it is a serious alternative to Wikipedia, providing a "conservative" perspective on the universe, but is actually a hilarious parody of the most extreme attitudes of Bush Republicans. (See my previous post Is conservapedia serious or a parody?)

But it's amazing to find in some places it has accepted left-wing mythology in place of truth. One that stands out is the claim that the Greater London Council was abolished, in the words of Conservapedia, "for political rather than administrative convenience", (Conservapedia: Greater London) because Ken Livingstone "pursued a high-profile campaign of opposition to government policy, so infuriating Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher" (Conservapedia: Ken Livingstone).

It is amazing when a socialist does more to dispel left wing mythology than Conservapedia, but that has happened here. The Greater London Council wasn't abolished for political reasons because of Ken Livingstone, it was abolished for administrative reasons because it had become an excessive tier of bureaucracy that delivered a low proportion of services and was especially resented by outer London borough councils. It would have been abolished regardless of leadership. The best page I can recommend is: United Kingdom Election Results: Electoral History of the Greater London Council. See also the author's comments (under two separate handles) at Wikipedia: Talk:Ken Livingstone: Abolition of the GLC and Wikipedia: Talk:Greater London Council: Politics.

So since Conservapedia can't even stick to the right when recycling old political myths, can it be trusted by the comedians behind it, let alone anyone else?

Bad news for separatists

In recent times it seems that the strategy of Scottish separatists wasn't so much to convince the Scots of the supposed benefits of an "independent" Scotland (let's leave the EU out of this for now) but to provoke the English into driving Scotland out.

So it's interesting to see the figures from the latest British Social Attitudes Report from the National Centre for Social Research. These figures can be spun both ways - see The Scotsman: Scots get too much cash, say rising number of English and Scottish Unionist: Nationalists fail to whip up English resentment for alternative spins. A Pint of Unionist Lite: All a question of presentation... notes the different ways of looking at this.

But here are some of the interesting figures:
• Nearly a third (32%) of people in England now feel that Scotland gets more than its fair share of government spending, up from 22% in 2003.
• Well over half (61%) agree that Scottish MPs should not vote on English legislation, though this figure was already almost as high (60%) in 2003.
• Only a minority oppose the devolution that is already in place. Fewer than one in five people in England (18%) oppose the idea of Scotland having its own Parliament, while only 20% oppose the Welsh Assembly.
• There has been no increase in the desire that Scotland should leave the UK; only one in five people in England (19%) want this, no more than felt that way in 1999 (21%).
• The majority (57%, the same figure as in 2001) think England should continue to be governed from Westminster rather than by an English Parliament (17% in favour) or regional assembles (14% in favour).
• Forced to choose, 47% of people in England say they are British while 39% say they are English.
• While the proportion saying they are British is down by 11 percentage points on 1996 (58%) it is up three points on 1999 (44%).
• More than half (55%) of people in England say that the creation of the Scottish Parliament has made no difference to how well Britain is governed.
• 50% trust the UK government to look after England’s interests either ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’.
The obvious conclusion is that the UK's current arrangements are broadly felt to work and it is only a couple of comparatively minor issues that still maintain resentment. And only a third were concerned about the Barnett Formula, a situation that should eventually correct itself. This is hardly the image of England in uproar and hatred towards Scotland that some like to play to.

So if the Scottish separatists were hoping on the English doing the job for them it seems they've totally misplaced their hopes. Maybe they should go back to explaining why they want Scotland to be like Iceland is now.

Oh it seems that even Iceland doesn't want to be like Iceland is now. (Christian Science Monitor: Will EU lifeline sink Iceland's fishing industry?)

Further thoughts on another "British Obama"

Further to my past post on British Obamas? Yes we've had a few, a few other thoughts on the matter, this time on the problems in the US.

What is perhaps not realised so well is that the key barrier that had to be overcome to having a black President wasn't the Presidential election itself but in getting black politicians to credible elected positions - usually a Governor or Senator - from which they could then make a credible bid for the Presidency. Why Are There No Black Senators? and the resulting discussion thread looks at this problem in the US, with the conclusion that successive measures aimed to protect black voters have resulted at Congressional level in them being ghettoised into gerrymandered safely Democratic urban seats, with the result that black US politicians appear too left-wing for moderate swing voters and few Republicans have to make any appeal to black voters because there aren't many in their own seats. This in turn reduces the pool of potential Senate and Gubernatorial candidates who in turn could run for President. Obama got lucky in missing out a period in the House of Representatives (and it's easy to forget how during his Senate race practically everyone inside - and outside - the Illinois Republican Party seemed to falling over to remove any credible challenger to him) but it's going to take more to get a more permanent grouping of black mainstream politicians in both parties and enable black conservatism to gain a stronger voice. (And yes there have been black Republicans in Congress - the last was J.C. Watts who rose to the number four position in the House Republicans.)

The British system is very different and so far there is no route to the premiership other than service in the Commons. I can see London electing a black Mayor in the future (how about James Cleverly when Boris retires?) but I don't think we've yet reached the point where it's possible for a high flier in another political sphere to jump directly into front line politics in the Commons, unlike in Canada where provincial politicians and even private citizens often get chosen as party leaders. So it is going to come down to those who have worked their way up through the benches in the House and are sufficiently moderate to win the leadership. To take the first four BME MPs elected back in 1987 as examples, the likes of Diane Abbott and the late Bernie Grant would never make it, both being too far on the left of the party. Keith Vaz had a promising ministerial career but was derailed by sleaze. However I believe that if he had not become High Commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng would currently be one of the most senior members of the Cabinet and given Gordon Brown's succession of local difficulties Boateng would have been a credible potential candidate in all the leadership speculation and a darn sight more serious one than David Miliband and his banana.

Equality of opportunity or equality of outcome?

Sometimes I wonder if John Bercow is a mole sent to undermine causes from within. Then I wonder if he even knows what cause he's pushing for.

Bercow has written the astonishing piece Where is the Tory Harriet Harman? for The Guardian. There's not much to send Conservatives into a greater spasm of anger than "an article in The Guardian" but "Harriet Harman" is the nuclear option. Exactly why we need an upper-class anti-equality hopeless partisan is beyond me.

But for those who can get past that, Bercow is reiterating the call once again for the party to adopt all-women and all-black or minority ethnic shortlists. With many seats having all ready selected (and some having picked candidates for two term strategies) it's an odd time to be raising this.

And I have to wonder if something isn't getting lost in this debate. Is the aim to simply get more women and black & minority ethic people into Parliament or is it to create a level playing field in which neither is an impediment to being selected? And I am not naive to believe that there is no bias in the current selection process, though I believe things have been getting better in recent years and that if the Conservatives had done a lot better in the last election the proportions in the parliamentary party would be different.

There is something absolutely nobody argues for. It is called the "compulsory all-men shortlist". It can still happen but rarely (recently one Conservative selection wound up with only women on the final shortlist out of their own merit, not because it was imposed; I can't remember the last all-male shortlist). But nobody wants to bring it in because they rightly accept that it would reinforce the existing bias.

And yet there is a real danger that all-women shortlists will have this effect. If for instance one of a pair of associations in an area were to have an all-women shortlist imposed upon it, what would be the effect on a women's chance of being selected in the other seat? I believe it would decrease the chances. For people would feel that men would have a more limited chance and so would boost them. "Open" seats would rapidly become regarded as "male" seats because some women would instead be on the shortlist for the AWS seat, whilst those who did go for the open seat would be up against demands for "balance" locally. When the language of statistical exactitude is used to justify positive discrimination it is very hard to argue against it being used to justify discrimination in the other direction.

And this is before we even get into the thornier area of all-BME shortlists, a description that crudely assumes the BME population of this country is homogeneous and that representation could be easily apportioned out. And then would all-BME shortlists be used across the country or would they only apply to certain parts? Would Adam Afriyie have been selected for Windsor if all-BME shortlists were in existence or would he instead have been expected to go for a far less winnable seat with a shortlist?

Surely the real goal must be to break down barriers in open selection, not try to match discrimination with discrimination? Equality of opportunity will, I admit, take longer to achieve but it is by far the better goal for the long term. Equality of outcome breeds resentment but also risks ghettoisation.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Stephen Harper survives

Bad news for John Key. If he wants to win the next ConservativeHome contest for favourite centre-right elected leader in the world today, he will now have to actually fight for it instead of having a one-horse race.

For in Canada the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has survived, after the announcement that the Liberal Party would support it on the budget as amended, instead of trying to bring it down and install an unelected axis of weasel coalition. (Globe and Mail: Tories put on probation; coalition breaks up, Calgary Herald: Tories support Grit budget amendment & Reuters: Canadian government survives budget crisis) This says it all:
"The coalition is dead, it's finished, it's over," said Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, one of the parties that had signed the agreement.
And so ends one of the most extraordinary incidents not just in Canadian history (although it's amazing to find Canadians, normally such a well-adjusted relaxed people, getting angry over something other than an ice-hockey match) but in the entire Westminster System. Around the world many constitutional scholars both professional and amateur having been watching the events closely for what they reveal about how much the system can take in practice. But in the final analysis they show that democracy has triumphed over backroom deals.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Against the occupation of Queen Mary, University of London

I have just heard the news that a group of protesters have occupied Room FB113 at Queen Mary, University of London. The story hasn't yet made the online media but the protesters have set up a blog at Queen Mary Occupation: Free Palestine. Prosecute Israeli War Crimes. Yes that is what they're aiming for.

Whatever the wider issues, does anyone seriously believe that this is going to have the slightest impact on events in the Middle East? Didn't the days of students believing they could change the universe by occupying lecture rooms go out with the 1960s?

Normally I wouldn't give such silliness any oxygen of publicity, but as it is taking place at my own college I want to put on record that it is not being done in the name of all students here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Will a coalition happen in Canada... or here?

On Tuesday the Canadian Parliament sits again, for the first time since the dramatic events at the beginning of December (When was this put to the electorate?, Has Canadian democracy triumphed? and Harper 1, Dion Nil ). In the weeks since then the Canadian Liberals have gone and done one of our Liberal Democrats' favourite things - decapitating their own leader. New leader Michael Ignatieff seems to be desperately searching for a way to get out of the proposed coalition with the New Democratic [sic] Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois - see Ottawa Citizen: Parliament vs. The People. It looks like for now Canadian democracy has triumphed, to the credit of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

But could such a situation happen in the UK? Just imagine if the next general election returns a hung parliament, as many have been speculating. And then if the Conservatives are the largest party but Labour forms a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh separatists (the way things are going in Northern Ireland it's doubtful there'll be any Nationalist MPs actually taking seats in the Commons), thus giving a strong say in the running of the country to those who want to tear it up. The big point of contention may be over what the parties say in the general election. If some or all of the parties give pledges against a coalition they could not credibly claim a mandate.

And if particular parties campaign against each other it will be especially galling. If the Liberal Democrats campaign to take a Labour seat on the basis that "a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for Labour" (supported by a dodgy barchart) they will be betraying voters if they turn round and put Labour in government anyway. When pressed on the question of what the party will do in a hung parliament the Liberal Democrats are frequently evasive, either talking about vague general goals or saying they won't answer the question until the voting system is changed. If they want voters to trust them, they should try giving a clear answer for the entire country for once. But that would be totally alien to the party's nature.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Malapportionment in the UK?

One of the issues that has exercised many fingers in the Conservative blogosphere in recent years is the basic question of apportionment of constituencies for the House of Commons, with discussion of concepts of "fairness", "how many votes does it take to elect an MP from each party?", "Scotland is overrepresented" and so forth being thrown around. And a lot of the discussion is frankly poorly informed, out of context and mixing up several different concepts. See for example some of the comments below ConservativeHome: John Leonard: Don't reduce our representation at Westminster.

So I'd like to try and have a go at looking at what the various issues and confusions are, to see if there really is a bias in the system and whether it's deliberate or not.

Firstly a note on a few terms. "Gerrymandering" is the deliberate fixing of political boundaries to secure results. "Malapportionment" is when some people/areas have more representation than others. Although the two can be combined they can also occur separately - the United States has taken the principle of exactly equal sized constituencies to ridiculous extremes (with courts rejecting even a difference of just 19 voters) but has amongst the worst gerrymandering in the democratic world, whilst Australia has seen virtually no gerrymandering in its history but has a long history of malapportionment.

The other key terms are the "Boundary Commission", one of four impartial bodies that amend parliamentary boundaries, and the "quota", which is both the average number of voters per constituency in the existing constituencies and the desirable target size for each constituency on the new boundaries. I'll say upfront that I don't believe the Boundary Commissions have an inbuilt bias. Rather they are trying to apply the various rules and precedents to a situation that is far more complicated than its critics often realise, but are coming from a non-partisan background.

This brings us neatly to the first key distinction. All too often the population, the total electorate and the people who actually turn out to vote are used almost interchangeably. But these are three distinctly defined groups. One of the biggest confusions comes because constituencies in the UK are designed on the basis of the total number of registered voters and not just those who turn out. Since the turnout varies across the country this often means that even if the constituencies have exactly equal numbers of registered voters there will still be some seats with more people voting than others. And because turnout in safe Conservative seats is invariably higher than in safe Labour seats this is the start of the numbers appearing to show a bias.

(A further factor in this is the accuracy of the electoral register. In urban areas in particular there is often a high turnover of population with the result that there are many people still listed on the register at both an old and new address, thus reducing the nominal turnout. Similarly many people with multiple addresses like students are registered at both addresses but can only vote once per election. The Boundary Commissions are presently not allowed to take either of these factors into account. Changes to the way voter registration is done in this country are likely to have a significant effect on the numbers.)

The second distinction is the point in time at which equality must occur. The Boundary Commissions are required by law to use only the numbers on the electoral register at the start of the review. But reviews often take a few years to complete and in turn the resulting boundaries are often used for several elections - for instance the boundaries produced in a review based on voter location in 1976 were not replaced until 1997 (bar a few minor local changes). The result is that by the time the boundaries come in they are already out of date and as time goes on the perceived problem worsens. It is no coincidence that this issue has arisen in the last few years, when the current boundaries date to 1991.

The obvious solution is to have more frequent boundary reviews, but this presents other problems, as discovered by the political parties at the 1955 election when the boundaries were changed after only five years. Several MPs found their seats disappearing, there was political chaos when new seats had two (or more) "sitting MPs" who battled for the nomination, local parties had to be reorganised and voters became confused by the sudden changeover. As a result of this it was agreed to have a longer period between reviews so as to minimise the disruption.

By far the most complicated set of number variations comes with the main stage. As you can probably guess an attempt to redraw boundaries for 533 constituencies in one go would overload the work of the Commissions, as well as make it very hard for members of the public to hold it to account. The result is that the review is broken into smaller amounts, usually at the level of the county. Invariably this forces some rounding - for instance Surrey in the most recent review has 11.43 quotas and so is rounded to the nearest whole, 11. Generally this effect balances itself out, though as urban unitary authorities tend to be smaller than provincial counties the rounding effect does create a slight urban bias.

A further bias comes in the use of the local government ward as the basic building block. Rather than face a potential infinite number of lines on the map that can be proposed and counter-proposed, the Boundary Commissions reinforces their neutrality by rarely going below ward level. This make the process much easier to follow, but once again the ward forces a rounding effect. Some wards in Birmingham have getting on for 20,000 voters and can leave the Commission facing either a 10,000 undersized seat or a 10,000 oversized one. Once again this effect is more urban as the wards usually have more voters there, though some rural wards are awkward combinations of several scattered villages. (And these can be further complicated if different villages in the same ward have different main towns.)

The cause of the most extreme variations is physical geography. Often there are some incredibly natural boundaries in existence, whilst in many rural areas it is difficult to represent the scattered voters if the seat is too large. The result is that some big variations come. As I've blogged before (A nice big seat) the constituency with the most voters is the Isle of Wight, because it's just too small to split in two and having a seat span the Solent is absurd. Similarly the smallest seat is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly known as the Western Isles, where representing a scattered cluster of islands is already difficult enough without adding on the mainland as well. Mainland areas can also have undersized seats - the Scottish Highlands, Cumbria and Northumbria all get extra seats because of this.

Division of KalgoorlieSuch a practice is followed in most parts of the world. The Division of Kalgoorlie (to the right) is not well known in the UK. If it were people would be amazed to learn it has a single MP. For this constituency in the Australian Parliament covers most of the non-Perth & environs area of Western Australia - a "mere" 2,295,354 km². At the last election it had 80,773 voters. Representing the seat must be an onourous task and perhaps this is why despite regularly being held by the government of the day it has not been represented by a minister since 1949.

Division of LingiariThe Division of Lingiari (to the left) has fared better, with the present member currently sitting in the Cabinet. But Lingiari is another monster seat, covering the entire of the Northern Territory except for the city of Darwin, and also includes the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It has an area of 1,347,849 km² and still has one of the smallest electorates, only 60,341 at the last election. And it's not just Australia with such large constituencies - Canada has the Nunavut electoral district covering the entire of the territory of the same name. It has an area of 2,093,190 km² and just 17,088 voters.

And there are many others. Whilst some of the earlier biases have benefited urban areas, and thus Labour, this one is anti-Labour. The extra seats in Northumbria and Cumbria are both Conservative, whilst all five seats, and thus the two extra, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, are not held by Labour. It's also interesting to note that, as with some of the other causes of grievances in the system, this is also one that was agreed in recent times. In 1944 when the rules for the current system of reviews were agreed, proposals for a greater equality of constituency size resulted in many natural communities being broken up. It was agreed that a greater level of discretion would be allowed to cover natural communities and rural areas. (I don't think it's a coincidence that a large part of the complaints about the current set-up come from people in urban areas where this is less of an issue.)

Perhaps the biggest myth is that Scotland is still overrepresented compared to England. Since 2005 this has no longer been the case as Scotland now has seats based on the English quota. The reason it has a slightly lower number of voters per constituency is because of the extra seats in the Highlands and Islands, but as this rule also applies to England there is no imbalance.

There is however an imbalance when it comes to Wales. Firstly legislation gives Wales a minimum of thirty-five constituencies when on the same numbers as England it would have only thirty-two. Unlike Scotland this provision has not been repealed. Secondly Wales also has geographically sparse areas, with most of its smallest seats in the north and west (not the Labour the heartland in the south). Thirdly because each part of the UK has a separate Boundary Commission, the quota for each part is calculated separately and imbalances are rarely explicitly reset, and Wales has been operating on separate figures since 1944 (although amendments to both the Scottish and Northern Irish provisions in the last thirty years have had a reset effect).

This has been quite a detailed post so far but I hope it has shown that the imbalances in the system are not deliberate and are instead the by-product of several individual factors designed to make the system easier to use. There is, however, one area where political influence can make a difference.

As part of the public accountability of the review, the proposals must be subjected to a public enquiry if there is sufficient demand. At these reviews local parties and individuals will comment on the proposals and sometimes argue alternative proposals. Some of this is with an eye to partisan benefit, but argued on the basis of what the natural ties in an area are. Others are simply concerned with local ties, such as having a village in the same constituency as its main town, or matching the seat to things such as school catchment areas, bus routes and local newspapers and so forth. Unfortunately if one side makes a fantastic effort and the other a dire one it can have a distorted outcome. And during the 1990s review the Labour Party devoted central resources to supporting and co-ordinating responses to the individual sections of the review. By contrast the Conservatives left it to local parties who often wound up arguing against each other, with some in safe seats seemingly prioritising having the largest majority in the area over all other concerns! But to blame the Commission for accepting the better argued Labour cases is like an amateur who knows nothing about law arguing in court with a top QC and accusing the judge of bias for accepting the latter's outcome.

My very last point on this is the whole notion that there should be equity in the "number of votes it takes to elect an MP from a particular party". Such a concept is totally alien to a constituency based electoral system. If a party has a weak and scattered vote (as the Conservative vote has been in recent elections for reasons that having nothing to do with the boundaries) then it will find it difficult to win seats. By contrast if the vote is strong and concentrated it becomes easier. The first past the post electoral system has always carried this risk, regardless of constituency size, and trying to rig the boundaries to make the seats deliver a predetermined outcome would be a gerrymander that produced hideously unnatural seats. If people want "fairness" and "equality" in this area, the logical solution is a change in the voting system (though few proportional systems deliver absolute "equality" either), not a boundary fix. But I doubt many want to take that leap into the dark just yet.

I hope this post has helped enlighten what is a very complicated process. I don't believe there is any simple solution in this area because the problem is in the detail. The simplistic changes proposed in some quarters would produce awkward alternatives that no-one is actually advocating in and of themselves. And the differences are hardly on the grand scale of some of the grand malapportionments around the world in the past. The way to get more seats is to get more people voting Conservative.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Yes to a single currency

I bet many of you never thought I'd say that!

But no, it's not that single currency that's at issue. Instead David Mundell is bringing a Private Member's Bill that would require the acceptance of Scottish banknotes on the same basis as Bank of England ones. (BBC News: 'Legal' bid over Scots banknotes)

I have to say I've never had much of a problem with Scottish notes myself, but normally when I do come back from Scotland I aim to spend the notes in London where they're relatively well known, or even break them all in Scotland so I don't have any. However I gather they are more problematic in the country.

Where I have had problems though are with Northern Irish banknotes, even in places that don't give Scottish notes a second glance. This is probably because they're much rarer down here. I hope that when the Bill is finally presented it will place them on the same footing as Scottish notes throughout the UK. Being able to shop and order with confidence that the money in your pocket will be accepted wherever you are in the UK is straightforward common sense and I'm surprised it's taken this long to enact.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

When another fresh face entered the White House

Mars Hill has been running various YouTube videos of past US Presidents (see President Kennedy On Civil Rights & President Johnson's Announcement That He Won't Seek Re-Election, President Carter on the Success of the Egypt/Israel Talks and President Reagan on the Cold War Situation and President Nixon's Resignation Speech and President Ford's First Speech as President ). So in response I'd like to post another, this time another inaugural address. And it's one that seems very appropriate for today.

It was a time when after years of tension and turmoil the United States had been left bitterly divided. Then in a fiercely fought Presidential election a fresh face won the election and entered office with so many full of hope that everything would change, that the country would recover its lost international prestige and greatness and that it would be a glorious new era.

Not so different from now, eh?

So without further ado I give you the inaugural address of the President whom Obama seems to be most like:

Yes Jimmy Carter and his oh so wonderful presidency. Now how long before Obama becomes Carter in deeds as well as in entrance?

Still after years of Carter came Reagan so in the long run things turned out better!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Kiwi toughness

A Get Well Soon to John Key. The Prime Minister of New Zealand has broken his arm in a fall. In spite of this he managed to shake hands with 120 rugby players before it was seen to. (BBC News: NZ PM shakes on despite arm break)

I knew Kiwis are legendarily tough but this is impressive. But let's hope the next time Key appears in the British media it will for strong armed political moves.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The return of Ken Clarke

I've just seen BBC News: Clarke in Tory front bench return. After several weeks worth of speculation it's not that big a surprise and it's by all means a good move.

Ken Clarke is still one of the biggest beasts and most experienced MPs in the party and his energy, experience and talents will be well deployed against Peter Mandelson. Often some of the best appointments are the controversial ones and this is no exception. It's time to put past issues aside, as the new front bench have, and focus on the real issue of getting rid of Labour so as to make this country great again.

Monday, January 12, 2009

John Scott Martin 1926-2009

I've just heard the news that John Scott Martin has recently died. (The Stage: Obituaries: John Scott Martin) He was one of the most prolific actors in the classic series run of Doctor Who, with numerous roles from playing a giant ant (a Zarbi) to an infected miner to a huge prawn! But by far his best known role was as a Dalek operator for over twenty years. He will be much missed.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

So Prince Harry has Royal Blood after all

So Prince Harry used a non-PC remark to someone who wasn't offended and didn't complain. And this is apparently the biggest news story going. Why does our media drop everything at the hint of a Royal story?

But I hope at least this incident puts to bed all the speculation about Prince Harry's paternity. What more proof is needed that he's descended from Prince Philip?!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The consequences of fancy dress outfits

As seems frustratingly common these days, I was off-line for much of yesterday but heard about these events nonetheless. (For those who have missed the seeming deluge of coverage see ConservativeHome: Three CF activists expelled from party over online boasts about a Madeleine McCann fancy dress outfit.)

First off Matt Lewis is currently a fellow student here at Queen Mary, University of London but I don't know him that well (the curse of these days spending very little time on campus outside one's own department) having only met him on a few occasions. I can't recall ever encountering Richard Lowe at all and think I've only encountered Flick Cox from afar when she was elected to the national executive of the National Union of Students (she stood claiming to be an independent but was actually a member of one of the ruling factions - see In the world of Adam Nazir Ahmed Teladia: NUS NEC elections).

I don't think Matt meant to cause harm or offence and indeed as many others commenting on this have noted there are many other people who've similarly made bad taste comments and actions without having them dragged all over the media or getting back to the victims and their families. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a stupid thing to do and I have no doubt of his depth of horror at the consequences coming back upon him.

One point that has been rather overlooked is the comment (see Tory Bear: Sick):
Im quite glad about that, I would hate to have to end our friendsship when I become and MP because you had pulled a Prince Harry!!! LOL x
That's not the comment of someone being a friend, that's the comment of a scheming (and deluded) careerist.

But I will also be blunt - the reason this became a story and offended the McCann family is because another blogger took it upon themselves to act as judge, jury, executioner and town crier by running the story on his blog. That is also an act that causes offence to people.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Cones Hotline vindicated?

I've just seen BBC News: The cones hotline's legacy... which looks at the legacy of "probably the most ridiculed policy ever to be introduced by a British government." And it comes out rather better than the years of ridicule and myth would imply. It suggests that John Major's drive to give ordinary citizens a voice in public services has been vindicated by more recent government plans and proposals, with the aim of citizen empowerment now a part of the political consensus.

So John Major can have the last laugh on this one!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

So where's the US democracy?

I have a confession to make about US politics. From what I've read and seen from Al Franken I find him funny. Compared to the po faces, ranters and zealots that dominate the US right in the media, Franken is a breath of fresh air. Just look at the way he wiped the floor with Ann Coulter:

But Franken's politics are a very different matter. Electing him to the US Senate would be like electing Ian Hislop to the British House of Commons. But the people of Minnesota (who after all once elected an ex-wrestler as governor!) have decided differently and the result is all but formally declared. (Minnesota Public Radio: Franken increases lead over Coleman to 225 votes)

Now call me old fashioned but I was always led to believe that in a democracy the representatives are chosen by the people. However it seems that some in the US Senate have different ideas, wanting the courts to choose the winner and threatening to invoke obscure rules to block Franken from taking his seat as the duly elected Senator. There is something seriously wrong with democracy as practised in the United States if elections are being determined not by the voters but by the courts and losers can't accept they've lost but keep running to the courts to change the rules as they go.

As a side note, it seems that the determination of the Democrat Senate leader to seat Franken is generating criticism because of the controversies surrounding the Illinois seat vacated by Obama, with people declaring that seating Franken, who is white, and not the appointee, who is black, by an arrested sleaze consumed governor, will be a sign of racism. But it is clear the two situations aren't remotely the same. Those throwing around accusations of racism are the ones playing the race card themselves. Such accusations merely belittle racism and encourage people to be dismissive when it really happens.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

And the new Doctor is...

...Matt Smith!

Well let's see how this goes...

The new Doctor Who

At the moment we're still awaiting the announcement of who the new Doctor Who will be.

So naturally like all other fans who have yet to see the new actor in action I feel perfectly qualified to declare that the series will be "Ruined FOREVER"! (Yes I know that's a different site, but it sums up the point well.)

But seriously, yes there will be criticism from fans - organised fandom has always attacked the show of the day. But for once let's actually wait and see what the new Doctor is like before condemning him, okay?

Has anyone seen Dr Brown?

One of the often commented facts about Gordon Brown is that he is the first British Prime Minister to have a PhD. As it's in History this is something that historians can take a special pride in regardless of our politics.

But has anyone ever seen an image of Brown in his doctoral robes? Or even in whatever robes of office he wore when he was the Rector of the University of Edinburgh? Off hand I can't think of any and it's evaded others on a mailing list discussing academic dress. Does anyone know of one?

In the meantime we'll have to make do with a picture from one of his honorary degree ceremonies. Here, courtesy of Daylife, is Brown receiving a Doctor of Letters last January from the University of Delhi:

(Original Photo from Getty Images by AFP/Getty Images)

Academic dress can be fascinating in its own right and can throw some interesting examples up, though unfortunately for me the worst degree hoods in the UK are widely considered to be in the Academic dress of the University of Kent. I don't know of anyone, whether student, alumnus or just interested, who has anything good to say about those monstrosities. Hopefully one day the university will switch to a more traditional design for them.

For those interest in more there is the Burgon Society, founded to promote the study of academical dress.

Shoes - the new tomatoes

It seems there are some places where the credit crunch hasn't hit. I've seen reports that shoes have been thrown at Downing Street. (BBC News: UK protests over Gaza air strikes) Naturally this is in imitation of the one thrown at George W. Bush but I'm reminded of this classic movie moment:

Still it's freedom of speech and anything that keeps an industry going is to be welcomed in this day and age!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Welcome to 2009!

Happy New Year everyone! 2008 was quite a year and it seems 2009 will be even more unpredictable. Still we'll see what it brings.

And I can't let the opportunity pass without noting that for many of a certain generation, today is the day that the Time Wars begin. Fortunately in the real world we're spared not only giant robots trying to suck the planet dry of its natural resources and terrorise humans but also the awful fashions predicted. However when I went into a shop the other day I saw that Dragon's Claws has been collected in a tradepaperback and so is once again available. So one prediction of that future from twenty years ago has come true...


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