Friday, 30 December 2011


The news that 205,000 people have moved to Scotland from elsewhere in the UK within the past four years should be a wake-up call to those who doubted the success of devolution. It's also a sign of things to come, and a warning that we need to act now to develop policies for integration so we can make room for these people, benefit from their skills, and avoid related social problems.

To some of you living in other parts of the world, 205,000 may not seem like that big a number – but bear in mind that Scotland's total population is just five and a quarter million. Scotland has big cities – Glasgow and Edinburgh – but large parts of it are virtually empty, popular with tourists as one of Europe's last remaining wildernesses. In many ways this small population is its biggest strength. Not only does it have ample natural resources, it's really well represented in terms of politicians per constituent. Whilst Westminster increasingly flounders under the weight of the work it has to process, Scotland is a country where things can actually get done, where it's easier for parliamentary activity to keep pace with social change. Individuals have more chance of getting their problems noticed and it's easer for them to contribute their ideas.

Of course, whilst people are coming into Scotland, others are leaving. Nevertheless, net inward migration has risen steeply over the last decade and as far as our relationship with the rest of the UK is concerned, immigration has consistently outpaced emigration during that period. Furthermore, whilst population growth may not be as dramatic as those initial figures suggest, immigration creates its own particular issues, not all of which are tied to population growth itself.

With a birth rate below replacement rate, Scotland has, over the last few decades, been notably more welcoming to immigrants than other parts of the UK. We should be taking lessons from other areas, however, in how easily that can change. Immigration is particularly hard on low-skilled people who already struggle to find employment. If we are to avoid the tensions that have resulted from this elsewhere, we need to (a) concentrate on boosting this part of the economy (not as hard as it might sound in a recession, when building homes and infrastructure can be a good way to kick-start growth), and (b) ensure that incomers are well distributed across the country, avoiding a build-up of people competing for the same jobs in already deprived areas. We need to understand incomers in the same way we understand tourists and effectively market different parts of the country to them, helping them to make informed choices about the available options rather than just being drawn to the bright lights.

Scotland has a particular advantage when it comes to English immigration given the disparity in house prices north and south of the border. It's always easier to relocate if one has money; if one sells a house in England and buys one in Scotland one will have money left over. Of course most people doing this will still be weighed down by mortgages, but they should nevertheless see their disposable income rise, and we need to encourage them to invest that in Scottish businesses as well as spending it on Scottish goods. This financial gain will be important in balancing the initial outlay on integration.

There is one other sizeable group of people moving, or thinking of moving, to Scotland, and that's long term sick and disabled people. Scotland's free personal care has long been attractive to those south of the border, and coupled with the fact that changes in the UK's support system look likely to be resisted up here, it's creating a situation in which many people feel they can't afford not to move. This may worry some Scots, given the potential cost of providing support for a larger disabled population, but it shouldn't need to. Most disabled people can work if they have the right support, whilst others can make different types of contribution to society. The key is to make work more accessible so that support costs are balanced out, if not exceeded, by the tax revenue generated by working disabled people. This is relatively easy to do if approached as a serious social and economic infrastructure project. Making it more tempting for business to take on disabled employees who work from home, for instance, can make a big difference. If the state steps in more quickly to help with the costs of sickness absence (rather than repaying money months later) and if regulations ensure new office buildings have better disabled access, we can all gain not only from the work of disabled incomers but also from an enhanced contribution from our existing disabled citizens.

One thing all immigrants have in common is initiative, and settling in a new country often goes along with a desire to contribute, to make oneself a part of it. Scotland as a nation needs to engage with that. Many of those now arriving are long-absent Scots or have family here and are excited by the emerging sense of nationhood. Others are among those traditionally seen as the old enemy, but want to be part of what's happening here. We need to make sure they're not seen as invaders and act now so this process can provide opportunities for everyone, including Scotland's long term poor. That means we need to start national conversation on the matter now, not wait until we begin to feel overwhelmed.

NOTE: Thanks to Kate Higgins for succesfully clearing up a problem with the stats I originally used in this article. I've amended it accordingly but am leaving it in place because I still think the trend is significant and the issues I've raised here need to be addressed.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Values, Virtues and Votes

David Cameron's recent comments on religion seem, on the surface, to be among the silliest of his reign. So what do they really mean, who are they really for, and what is their likely consequence?

First of all, let's deal with the comments themselves. Britain is a Christian nation, he says. Well, that's debatable. The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2001 found that 48% of Britons considered themselves to belong to one religion or another, and this number has declined ever since until, in 2009, the number of people identifying as Christian fell, for the first time, below the number of those identifying as non-religious. Interestingly, a YouGov poll conducted last April found that 55% percent identified as Christian and 40% as non-religious, but that if the question was framed differently – are you very religious or not really/not at all? - then only 35% fell into the former category (across all religions) with 63% in the latter one. Only 11% said that they attended a religious service once a month or more. And of course, there are many other religious groups in Britain besides Christians – at least 3% of the population is Muslim and 1% Hindu, with smaller but not insignificant groups of Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists (it's hard to get an accurate figure for those who follow Pagan religions because their self-descriptions are so varied and quite a few surveys exclude them altogether).

It might therefore be fairest to say that around half the British population is notionally Christian but that a significantly smaller percentage is actively so, with many people rejecting or ignoring the organised aspects of their religion.

In these circumstances, arguing that Britain is a Christian nation is likely to make a majority of people feel uncomfortable, excluded or outright insulted. A nation cannot be labelled as belonging to a particular religious group on the basis of a first past the post system (no matter what the new rulers of Tunis might like to believe). Britain is plainly a secular country where lots of different religious interests (and the interests of those who are not religious) need to be taken into account. And secularism has served Britain well – in fact, it serves everyone well. Rates of violent crime are lower in secular countries; whilst this may be seen as correlated to stages of development, it's no reason to turn our backs on an approach that's working well. Secularity does not, as various researchers have shown, reduce the risk of a nation being violent to others, but it does reduce rates of religious hate crime within that country. It promotes an ideology of respect between religious groups and individuals. It also, interestingly, correlates to lower rates of domestic violence and unprotected sex, and to higher rates of self-reported happiness.

78% of those participating the YouGov poll mentioned above said they think religion has no place in politics. Religious neutrality among politicians is art of how we protect our secular culture, as Tony Blair understood when he chose to try and separate his Catholic values from what he perceived as his ethical duties to the electorate. But if Christianity is an inappropriate thing for a prime minister to focus on, what about Christian values? Can't most of us agree that, for instance, compassion, good neighbourliness, honesty and abstention from violence are virtues worth aspiring to?

I think most of us can. The trouble is, can David Cameron? Many would contend that his recent reductions in support for disabled people, for example, leave him looking a little short on the compassion front; and he really stumbles when it comes to the rejection of usury. He must know that advocating Christian values in this context risks making him look like a hypocrite or, at best, a buffoon, in the eyes of a large part of the population. So why do it?

Does he really believe it? If so, he's kept remarkably quiet about it until now. Is he seeking political advantage? There lies the rub.

Cameron is nothing if not an opportunist, and he knows full well that when he says “Christian values” some of us think of the Bible but many more of us snap back to thinking of Margaret Thatcher's moral crusade, of the red top social virtues that have, even very recently, led certain newspaper editors to declare that they would not vote for MPs who cheated on their wives (presumably, given the politics of their papers, they're quite happy to vote for MPs who fiddle their expenses). This is a world where sex is the true sin and, especially, sex that other people are having – undesirable other people like the gays whose side Cameron simultaneously insists he is on. This is, quite simply, a tactic aimed at creating loyalty in particular groups of voters by reinforcing the myth of the pernicious other that has so often driven people into the arms of the right. Calling Britain a Christian nation is an excuse for seeking to drive out those who are not like us, and talking about Christian values perpetuates the notion that some among us are really other.

His couldn't be much further away from the ideals of the majority of Christians, but it plays well, and Cameron knows it. It impacts at an emotional level before people have really thought it through. The thing is, it doesn't impact the same way on everyone. Consequently, there is always the danger of a backlash, as when Gordon Brown foolish blustered about British jobs for British workers. So it's a risky move and it's one which, to be successful, must impact on a particular group of (swing) voters at just the right time. Women – especially mothers – are more likely to hold religious values than men, so this could be an attempt to win back unhappy female voters. It's also worth noting that, outside Scotland, people in urban areas are less religious than those living in the countryside. We can map this against areas where the Tories need to solidify their support and the picture starts to look interesting. This is a call to the heartlands – a test, perhaps, to see if wayward voters who have flirted with the LibDems or been seduced by New Labour are now ready to return to the fold.

The question is, why test now? Why take risks now with strategies only likely to work in the short term? If Westminster rumours are true, Cameron and Osborne have been discussing the prospect of a March election. It would be a big gamble; with jilted LibDems unlikely to return to the fold and the Eurosceptic bounce unlikely to provide a sustained bounce, it might well pave the way to minority government (if not outright failure). At any rate, Cameron will probably watch the odds for a while longer before he decides whether or not to make a move; but if he does then, even before an announcement, we can expect a few more audacious statements like this. It may be reaching the stage where we all need to decide just what kind of nation we want to live in.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Island Empire

Was David Cameron right to take the actions he did in Europe? It's fascinating that, superficially at least, everyone in politics is treating this as a matter of morality. In fact it's a prime example of moral (and even pragmatic) concerns being sacrificed for political expediency. So, once again, did David Cameron do the right thing?

In David Lynch's Inland Empire, tragic characters are doomed to repeat the actions of those in a film-within-a-film, a Polish tale called 47. The number 47 acquires ominous associations, eventually appearing on a door no-one wishes to pass through, like the portal to a latter-day Room 101. Bereft of his Polish allies (despite manifest compromises in the past), David Cameron, floundering at the gateway to Europe, is also afraid of the number 47. There are 47 MPs, it is reliably reported, who are definitely out for his blood. This is a magic number because it happens to represent 15.3% of the parliamentary party – just enough to force a leadership election which there is a very real chance he would lose.

Whilst this may come as a shock to some, those watching the Conservatives closely have observed the situation building for some time. Cameron rose to power because of his supreme blandness – he was the only man rival factions could agree on. He also seemed able to charm the public, to come across as a decent sort of chap who was ready to do away with troublesome aspects of the party's image. But these talents are very different from those required in a leader. Once established, Cameron appears to have thought that was sitting pretty. He liked power. He had less interest in government. Cheerfully delegating all the hard work (which is inevitably harder for a party without a majority), he developed a habit of clocking off early, of taking extended holidays as if he were an American president. Like any boss behaving that way, he swiftly lost goodwill. Add to this a willingness to ride roughshod over the concerns of the 1922 Committee and to try and ride out numerous political storms just by ignoring them, and it soon became evident that he was making more enemies than he could afford.

Cameron's big advantage was the coalition between his party and the LibDems. It was the perfect excuse for telling backbenchers he couldn't do everything the way they might like, particularly on Europe, where it is quietly rumoured that he holds personal views far more favourable than most in his party would tolerate. But whilst the coalition excuse bought off his own party for a while, it carried no weight with UKIP, who steadily grew like a leech on the Conservatives' shoulder, sucking away their constituency party members. This made the party faithful feel increasingly threatened. They had to do something.

And so we come back to the number 47, and Cameron's fateful decision to use his veto on the new EU fiscal arrangements. In return for staying in power he was prepared to sacrifice everything that made that power count for something. What he has done has not only cost him LibDem support (with Vince Cable reportedly threatening to resign) and placed the coalition in jeopardy, it has demonstrated to his backbenchers that they own him, body and soul. He is now little more than a puppet; it is no longer clear that he can even choose which tune to dance to.

And there's worse. Having superficially decreased the likelihood of his party giving him the boot, Cameron has made it more likely that his country will do so, one way or another. Because by replacing him, by disavowing his actions, Britain could go back to Europe and reopen negotiations from a stronger position than Cameron's original one. Having shown that it is possible for it to play its worst card, it could almost certainly negotiate a better deal – provided, of course, that the person at the helm had some guts.

What does all this mean? For the Conservatives, it's a triumph of party ideology over successful government, and in due course it may cost them dear. For the LibDems it looks humiliating, but if they're smart they'll keep Cameron on the run and extract a different set of prizes. At any rate, in the long term, they can only stand to benefit from the disintegration of the major political forces. That's why it's not actually a bad thing for them that UKIP are overtaking them in the polls (given that their own support is not yet actually shrinking beyond the levels it was at six months ago). UKIP may, in turn, be feeling very pleased with themselves, but their particular position makes it unlikely they'll go on to great things. They're a right wing SDP; they may rattle sabres, but when it comes to a general election they are neither distinctive nor rounded enough to gather much more than a protest vote.

Where this situation becomes really interesting is in relation to Scotland. Cameron's European antics have now created a situation in which the Scots potentially have much more to gain from independence than as the case before. There will be gaps in the market as England tears itself (and Wales and Northern Ireland) away from Europe; niches opening up which Scotland is perfectly positioned to exploit. Separate from England and close to the EU, Scotland could pick up the advantages England has dropped – and research suggests that when individual Scots finally make the big decision about how to vote in the independence referendum, the deciding issue will be money in their pockets. Because this isn't really about the niceties of international unions or who takes instructions from who. It isn't about great men and it isn't about party favours. It's the economy, stupid.

Monday, 14 November 2011

We Are Devo

How much do you know about Devo Max? Probably not much,since there is as yet no agreement on exactly what it means. Despite this lack of agreement, some politicians are telling us it's the only way forward, whilst others claim it is a sneak tactic aimed at getting something close to independence by the back door. Alex Salmond, meanwhile, says that whilst it's not his preference he would be willing to offer it in a referendum – if another party wished to define and propose it.

Polls suggest that the majority of Scots want either independence or the mysterious Devo Max – more powers for the Scottish Parliament, at any rate. A defiant minority want things to remain as they are. Only internet troll Tom Harris and his pals seriously seem to think that it might be a good idea to return some powers to Westminster. Devo Max might seem like a natural compromise, but that assumption is based on another one – that the spread of support for this option is evenly distributed among unionists and pro-independence types. My research suggests that's not the case.

When I say research, I should make clear from the start that this was a small survey (with only 65 participants). It was deliberately kept as simple as possible. This leaves room for it to be developed and run on a larger scale, should any organisation choose to take that up. 57% of poll respondents favoured independence, which, in light of other polls, suggests it is not a representative sample. I do not think, however, that this compromises the validity of what says about Devo Max.

This is because the results are quite stark. Respondents were asked to answer on a sliding scale between being strongly in favour of Devo Max or strongly against. 54% of those who favoured independence defined themselves as somewhat supportive of Devo Max, with a further 19% strongly supportive (19% were opposed). This contrasts strongly with the picture for unionists, whose preferences were widely distributed. Unionist politicians may be mistaken in assuming that none of their constituency support this option – 14% described themselves as strongly in favour, 25% as mildly in favour. 11% were mildly against, 25% strongly against, and a further 25% didn't care.

What does this tell us? It suggests, first and foremost, that there is a wide spectrum of views within the unionist group, and that people belong to that group for a variety of reasons. The unionist campaign has largely centred on the premise that these people have strong British identities (even if they also have strong Scottish identities) and that they feel they benefit from the status quo. This may be true of some, but others, whilst unhappy about the idea of leaving the union, seems deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Indeed, some may prefer to see Scotland go it alone as far as they think is reasonably practicable – their unionism may be less about loving Britishness and more about thinking it impractical, or dangerous, for Scotland to be entirely on its own.

If there is more overall support for Devo Max in the pro-independence group, might unionist politicians be making a mistake by calling for a simple either/or referendum? True, these respondents favoured Devo Max overall (though again, the sample is probably too small for this to be meaningful), but a Devo Max option might have the potential to split off more independence supporters than unionists. Of course, in the end, a simple three question referendum could come down to tactical voting and a game of bluff, which is why it is vital that careful consideration be given to the format – and that, for everyone's sake, this sensitive matter not be rushed. The recent referendum on AV, which involved the distribution of information later admitted to be false, should have taught us that much.

What about those pro-independence people who are strongly against Devo Max? There are two straightforward ways of interpreting their position. Some may think that any degree of support for Devo Max decreases the chance of getting independence (in which case they may change their approach in the context of a referendum that specifically removed this risk). Others may fear that further Scottish devolution would reduce the long term prospect of Scotland becoming full independent (though there are, of course, others who see it as a possible step along the way). Perhaps, on both sides of the independence question, there are concerns not so much about the uncertainty of what Devo Max means today but about the uncertainty of what it may produce in the future. In this context, the fact that the majority still seem to favour it (if this is borne out by larger studies) may indicate deeper support.

In any event, a proper understanding of the relationship between Scottish voters and Devo Max will be essential to winning the forthcoming referendum. Naturally individual preferences will change as the details of this option are pinned down, but given the variables participants in my survey were already having to consider, it seems unlikely it will change all that much. It's time people on both sides stopped taking the preferences of unionists, in particular, for granted. The real debate going on in Scotland is much more complex than the one reflected in the headlines.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Stoning the Fox

Scandal ain't what it used to be, and neither are smear campaigns. That which Liam Fox pronounced himself the victim of must be among the strangest in British history, extraordinarily restrained and polite. Because whilst allegations relating to state security must be taken very seriously indeed, everybody knew there was another matter underlying this. Until Chris Bryant's comments in the House about how anybody, even in politics, ought to be allowed a friend, few had even hinted at it.

That matter, of course, is Fox's sexuality. It has been approached with caution for two reasons. Firstly, it's a personal matter. Secondly, the issue here isn't really whom Mr Fox is attracted to per se, but whether or not he was having a romantic relationship with the ubiquitous Mr Werrity. There is a difference between what interests the public and what is genuinely in the public interest. But there are other aspects to Fox's behaviour that make his sexuality acutely relevant to public matters.

Bryant is a politician whom I have always admired for pursuing his profession at a time when it was very difficult to do so as an openly gay person. I dropped out of a promising political career myself because I felt I would simply have no chance in what was then an intensely homophobic media climate, and I know a number of other prominent people - now working in journalism, the civil service or the charity sector - who did likewise. One cannot, then, accord much blame to those who might have chosen to keep their sexuality a secret in order to pursue such careers, especially if, as is bound to be the case for some, they valued their political principles more highly than personal freedom and openness.

There is a danger, however, in having politicians in senior positions who harbour secrets which they dare not see exposed. Fundamental to changing the law on homosexuality in England was the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, which centres on a lawyer who is compromise by blackmail relating to his sexuality. Viewing the film, the public came to understand that not only is homophobia damaging to individuals, a climate of secrecy about such a matter creates dangerous opportunities for extortion. It creates a risk of corruption and, should that apply to a Minister of Defence, the potential dangers to state security could be considerable.

In politics, these risks are managed by a system of vetting whereby individuals working closely with the government are asked about their secrets and vulnerabilities. This does not necessarily apply to ministers, but efforts are made to ensure that those in positions of power cannot be compromised. Additional security was, in recent years, provided by the close relationship between Downing Street and certain media magnates, but now that relationship has started to sour the risks are increasing, as today's sniping at Fox by The Sun reveals.

The Sun story has not gone down as well as its editors might have expected. Aside from a pretty flimsy premise (which suggests there could be no legitimate reasons for secrecy around who visits the Minister of Defence), it has roundly been perceived as homophobic. But whilst attacking Fox over the suspicion of homosexuality is contemptible, there is a legitimate side to journalistic probing in this area. It would be entirely legitimate to attack Fox for hypocrisy.

Those of you who remember the Family Values moral crusading of the Conservative Party in the 'eighties will be familiar with this one. Ultimately, if you are going to condemn others for certain types of behaviour then you had better not be caught doing it yourself. Whether it's having threesomes with other people's wives and daughters or ordering a distraught secret lover to have an abortion, it is not going to advance your political career.

Most of the Conservative Party has moved on from those days, at least when it comes to homosexuality. But Liam Fox has not. Right from the start of his career, when he was involved in student politics at the University of Glasgow, he was spouting exclusionary rhetoric about gay people. Since 1998 he has voted against the liberalisation of laws relating to homosexuality nine times, and has absented himself from such votes a further ten times. This position, increasingly extreme within the context of his party, has endeared him to its right wing, which has been instrumental in advancing his career. To put it bluntly, without the support he bought at the expense of gay people, it is unlikely he would have become Minister of Defence, and he certainly wouldn't have come to be seen (at least until recently) as a strong potential challenger to David Cameron.

Of course, it is quite possible to argue that even if he were gay he might genuinely believe homosexuality to be morally wrong, and may thus have voted in good conscience. Some of his choices, such as voting against measures designed to protect children from homophobic bullying, might still seem harsh, but of course he is entitled to them. What he is not entitled to is the freedom to make those choices on behalf of an electorate which is unaware of the contrast between what he says others should do and what he may in fact be doing himself. To draw a parallel, an MP caught engaging in tax avoidance whilst urging that others be punished for it could not reasonably expect to get an easy ride from the press.

If Fox is in fact gay or bisexual, several concerns arise. He has been exploiting right wing supporters who might never have backed him had they been aware of his behaviour. He has enjoyed the freedom to indulge his own passions whilst seeking to deny that to others. And he has, through his secrecy, potentially put state security at risk. It is often said that the first duty of a government is to protect its people. If the Minister of Defence is compromised, that is no small thing.

There is of course another possibility, which is that Fox may be gay but suffering from internalised homophobia, perhaps in relation to his religious beliefs. But as far as the security issues go, this isn't just about sex, it's about the strength of a particular emotional attachment. Imagine that Mr Werrity were in fact a young woman. The papers then would likely have been even quicker to shout scandal! in relation to all those meetings, as I'm sure Christine Keeler would confirm. And sexual attraction in denial can make emotional influences all the more powerful - there's nothing like the lure of forbidden fruit.

Could it all be nonsense? Could Fox be straight? Of course (and it could be that any corruption he may be involved in is purely mercenary, with no mitigating emotional element). Still, in light of all the revelations over the years preceding this one, it will be difficult for him to convince many people of that. And it is public business, because the consequences of hypocrisy and secrecy could be dire for all of us.

All these matters mean that Fox's position must now be considered untenable. Not only is he a liability as Minister of Defence (his civil service minders must be tearing their remaining hair out trying to work out how to vet his appointments) but it seems likely he will have lost that critical wedge of support that made him a future leadership contender. The game is up. Short of a Portillo-style reinvention, there are few ways forward. Those of us who considered but could not face Bryant's struggle may feel some sympathy, but if this is a tragedy, it is a tragedy of Fox's own making.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Ladies Are Turning

It's rare for a sitting prime minister to go on television and make a well publicised apology; rarer still when the issue at hand is not one of policy, but of his general behaviour. Yet that's what David Cameron has now done. His apology to women (“I said a few things... that didn't come out right”) marks an urgent attempt to stem the flow of women voters away from the party. He is right to be worried. Women's votes have always been a key plank in Tory success, and when a key demographic like this leaves, it rarely comes back.

When British women first obtained the vote in 1918, they quickly disabused sitting politicians on the assumption that they would vote like their husbands. Yet although the suffragists at the heart of the movement were radicals, women's votes have always, in the majority, tended to the right of the political spectrum. To an extent this is explained by the fact women live longer and most people move to the right as they get older (furthermore, traditionally, older people have been more likely to defer to perceived natural authority). But as the Conservatives at the last election came to rely much more heavily on the support of the young, they retained a lot of that female support, with polls giving them a 45% female approval rating.

That figure has now dropped to 25%.

So what? you might ask. Conservative support has clearly not fallen by that much overall, so they must have made gains elsewhere. But what matters – and their election managers will know this – is not just support, but the solidity of that support. The loss of this set of votes which could previously be taken for granted will hit the Conservative party the way Labour has been hit by its loss of support in urban Scotland. There is no way any political party can afford to campaign for every vote and policies can't be tailored to suit everyone, so these underlying blocks of support are essential to success. They allow campaign managers to relax in some areas and concentrate their tactics more efficiently in others. No party is equipped to handle a truly unpredictable electorate.

Will Cameron's apology make a difference? The early signs say otherwise – it may even have been a mistake. By acknowledging certain of his errors, Cameron has highlighted the problem to those who hadn't worried about it before whilst at the same time suggesting to his critics that he fails to understand the real issue. If he could have avoided the casually sexist remarks in parliament then he might have got away without having to talk too much about policy, but at this stage he will have to give dissatisfied women voters something more substantial. The suggestion that it is really all just about explaining better isn't going to wash. Women up and down the country are used to hearing carefully prepared explanations from errant men in their lives.

So we come to the age old question, what do women want? Whilst it might be tempting to shout furiously that women are people and want the same things as any other people, the stats present a more complicated picture. Women are more likely to have family responsibilities; to be carers; to be unemployed (female unemployment is now at its highest for nearly twenty five years) or to be low-waged. This makes them more likely to be impacted directly by the cuts. They also do the bulk of grocery shopping, so are more likely to notice and worry about rising food prices. They constitute the majority of elderly and disabled people, making them more vulnerable to the cold and more likely to be concerned by increasing fuel costs. And those lower levels of full employment mean women are more likely to be involved in community activities, primarily with other women – so their worries are likely to be shared.

For these reasons and more, pleasing women is likely require at least a rebalancing, if not a wholesale rethink, of the government's attempts to reduce the deficit. But there's more. Women are smart enough to know when they are being patronised and pandered to, so bringing them on side will require demonstrating that they have a voice in government. It is possibly in acknowledgement of this that we have seen a bit more of the Conservatives' female ministers lately. Whilst it is unlikely that Theresa May's pronouncements on the Human Rights Act will result in any real change, she is a forceful politician and her renewed prominence may do something to counter the image of the government front benches as a millionaire boys' club. Sayeeda Warsi, meanwhile, has featured prominently in conference coverage. It may be unfortunate that she embodies some of the worst stereotypes of femininity, but at least in this context she can demonstrate her emotional intelligence (more valuable that colleagues may realise) without getting into the sort of muddle over logic that she did when it came to AV.

The party's real difficulty will be in convincing women voters that this is more than just window dressing. This time around it doesn't have the advantage of a female leader, and it is difficult for it to take a strong lead on family issues when the Tea Party across the water is making this area toxic for the right. What it needs is to identify key issues affecting women's lives and focus funding there, rather than frittering it away on speed limit changes and extra bin collections that may please stalwart supporters but won't win over wavering ones. It needs to start investing now, before the rot gets too severe, or it may find its foundations crumbling.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Naughty Words

Despite intermittent backtracking, Labour now seem to be talking seriously about the idea of a register for members of the press from which 'bad journalists' could be struck off. That they could ever have thought this is a good idea is illustrative of how desperately they still need media advice (which doesn't need to be from Murdoch types – Coulson didn't exactly do a brilliant job for the Tories anyway). It is rarely a good idea to make enemies of large numbers of journalists, as the Murdochs are now finding out. If one finds just one supporter in the profession, well, Independent editor Chris Blackhurst hasn't been looking like the shrewdest judge of journalistic quality lately. And it is also unwise for Labour to lurch back so quickly toward the authoritarianism Ed Miliband recently assured us they were leaving behind them. But all this aside, how do they suppose such a register could ever hope to function in the real world?

The closest thing we currently have to a register of journalists is the NUJ. Membership is voluntary, of course, but one has to qualify for it (and be recommended), which means that it provides at least some guarantee of quality when it comes to writing skill. But alongside well known broadsheet columnists, the NUJ represents the kind of tabloid hacks most likely to attract public ire. And despite being the chair of a media watchdog organisation (as well as an NUJ member myself) I fully support this. Breaches of newspaper etiquette, plagiarism and so forth should be dealt with by editors. Libel should be dealt with by the law. Regulatory bodies can work to ensure fair play. But journalists are workers like any others, and must have a union they can rely on to ensure they're fairly treated even if what they're saying is unpleasant.

Where would this leave a register? Several difficult questions arise. How do we define who is and is not a journalist? If we use NUJ membership as a barometer, we'll find there are quite a few freelancers and occasional scribblers who wouldn't be included. Then there's the issue of blogging. This is already an issue for the many journalists who occasionally need to supplement their income with state benefits. They're required to declare how many hours they work. But when is writing work, and when is it just self expression? We can't use pay as a marker. Some blogs pay even if they don't employ professionals; many small print publications and respected online news outlets don't. As journalists need to keep their profiles high in order to get work, writing for free can sometimes be essential. And anybody who has a public profile also needs to be aware that any time they express themselves it can impact their careers, even inadvertently. So is a journalist ever completely off work?

Given the difficulty these things present in determining who should be on a register in the first place, just what would striking someone off it involve? We might ban them from writing in a certain list of officially recognised publications – newspapers and magazines over a certain circulation, for instance – but of course that would need to be limited to those based in the UK (restricting foreign publications would result in real disaster). But this would only work if they were honest about their authorship or editors were astute enough to recognise their style (and honest in reporting them). It's easy enough to switch to a pseudonym and even a hint of whom that name belongs to can quickly summon back old readers. It would rely, in other words, on co-operation – not an easy thing to gain in the circumstances.

Let's suppose, for the meantime, that it did work. What, then, would we do about blogging? Attempts to regulate the internet are already in a mess, with politicians repeatedly demonstrating their cluelessness about the technical and sociological issues involved. And if it could be done, would it be ethical to stop de-registered journalists from putting down their thoughts like anyone else? When is a blog personal and when is it political? That's a philosophical minefield beyond Messrs Miliband and Lewis' pay grade.

Back in the old days, before blogging was an option, unofficial journalism was conducted through letters, journals and newsletters. Some freesheets met with the disapproval of the authorities but were still pretty easy to get hold of, just as illicit drugs are easy to get hold of now. Now, of course, we also text. We borrow each other's phones. It's very hard to be sure who's saying what, or where. And in the absence of such options, as Egypt's revolutionaries demonstrated, we can go back to spraying messages on walls.

I have a number of friends who are trained martial artists. Some of them are licensed as such. This gives them certain extra responsibilities should they find themselves caught in altercations. Their particular skills being recognised, they are expected to show a greater ability to restrain an opponent; they are granted less leeway for causing harm in self defence. This is all very well when it comes to fighting because most of us do our best to avoid getting into fights most of the time, and many will spend their whole lives without a serious encounter. But can we treat people who are skilled with words in the same way?

Police officers, miners, accountants and librarians are, by and large, valued for what they do (or are perceived to do). Journalists are valued for who they are. We might not always like them, but silencing somebody is a serious business with implications that go far beyond the professional sphere. Before Ed Miliband says that 'bad' people should be forbidden from engaging in journalism, he should ask himself how he would give up engaging in politics.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

Truth will out. At least it will if you're a habitual liar; lies built upon lies are almost impossible to keep balanced forever. Like many habitual liars, Johann Hari spent months crafting new inventions in an attempt to escape the consequences of those he'd made before. Now he says he's truly sorry. But should we believe him?

In a situation like this, many people consider it churlish to withhold forgiveness in response to a proffered apology. There is a suggestion that those who refuse to engage must be revelling in some kind of malicious glee. It is of course possible that this is true of some, but I would counter that there can be an equal degree of self-interest in rushing to say that the apology is accepted, that everything is alright now. It makes us feel magnanimous, but it isn't necessarily an honest or a wise response.

The real problem with forgiveness is that it is only a response; it cannot solve the underlying problem on its own. To mean anything, it has to be a response to genuine contrition, and contrition is not possible without a full understanding of what has been done wrong. Hari now says that he regrets altering Wikipedia pages to slander people he disliked because he would have been sad if they had done that to him. Not because, you know, it's wrong, never mind that it's professionally unacceptable. This is certainly an improvement on denying that he ever made those alterations, but it falls considerably short of the level of moral understanding required of a journalist who frequently focuses on the moral responsibilities of others. If Hari cannot improve on this, it doesn't matter whether or not his fans still believe in him – he simply will not have the authority to speak as he wishes to.

So what are Hari's options? Journalism school is a good start. There's no doubt he's already a good writer, but one hopes that he might learn something about ethics – or at least how to craft a more believable story next time he falls prey to temptation. The usual approach to moral gaffes like this is to disappear for a few years and then return as a reformed character, Portillo-like, complete with a book full of painful confessions emphasising one's noble sense of guilt. The journalist becomes the story, his abuses the sensation – and, of course, he still profits, though if he's smart and wants long term success he'll make a hefty donation to charity. Hari is a good candidate for this, because he's young and because he can produce elegant prose. But that opens up another question – why does he want to return to journalism at all?

I cannot be the only person to have observed that Hari's real success has been as a writer of fiction. The problem was that he was passing it off as fact. If he ceased to pepper it with pieces of other people's work (something editors will be very wary of in future) and if he constrained his cruel characters to speaking within the confines of a novel, he might give us something truly compelling. Hari's tragedy (such as it is) centres no on his fall from grace but on his failure, from the outset, to speak with his own voice. By hiding behind pilfered material he has belittled his own talent. His challenge, now, must be to show us what he is capable of.

The return of an Orwell prize already destined to be taken from him is a poor gesture on Hari's part. Journalism is about more than good writing – it is about social awareness, honesty, and a certain fastidiousness, at none of which Hari excels. His pursuit of it at this stage suggests a childish desire to be a somebody rather than the intelligent realisation of his talents. If he really wants to be taken seriously again, he needs to take a different path.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Moral Collapse

Are the recent riots and other social ills a result of a decline in moral values? Yes, but not the ones most pundits suggest.

Crucial to the Conservative Party's success in the 2010 election was the scrupulous effort made by several of its leading lights to move it away from its history of moral posturing. This was considered to be electoral poison, a view supported by the polls. Plenty of people support the Conservatives' take on economics but feel that how people live out their personal lives is none of anybody else's business. Indeed, one would think that family structures would be of more interest to socialists than to those who stress a belief in personal independence. If there is no such thing as society, why try to micro-manage it?

Moral crusading, however, is a guaranteed way to get attention. When things begin to go wrong they exert a strong appeal to politicians looking for a way out. The idea of the scapegoat first emerged in the Ancient Near East, where actual goats were ritually burdened with the sins of a troubled populace and then killed or driven into exile. These days we look for human ones, ans David Cameron has chosen two of the easiest targets – Criminal Elements and Young People Today.

Complaining about criminals seems straightforward enough, especially when one can blame them on the last Labour government. It's a shame that crime rates rose consistently under the last Conservative government and actually fell under Labour, but this reality is easily obscured by the public's emotive conviction that things are generally getting worse (something people have been keen to believe for centuries). More troubling issues come to light when one looks at the poor literacy skills and poor diet of the persistent petty criminals in our society. Experts in both areas say these factors interfere with cognitive ability, making it hard for people to connect actions and consequences. Of course this doesn't excuse criminality, but it does suggest there are more useful ways to tackle it than moral outrage and political grandstanding over prison sentences.

So what about young people? It's true that the majority of those involved in the riots were young. It's true that people between the ages of eighteen and twenty five are more likely to be involved in criminality than any other group, but this has always been the case. Statistically, there is not much to suggest that this group of young people is more inclined to be destructive than any previous one. This does not, however, mean that there are no positive ways we can intervene to reduce the destructiveness of this group. Many projects have been successful over the years, but only on a small scale, because getting funding for them is difficult. We know, for instance, that providing activities and social spaces for young people is very effective (and if you think this is just about fluffy liberalism, bear in mind that boxing and scouting are among the successes).

Perhaps the most obvious way to identify factors that trigger criminality in young people is to look at the great many in that age group who don't get involved with crime. Two factors stand out about this group: they are more likely to be in continuing education or to have good educational prospects; and they are more likely to be in employment. (This does not, of course, mean that there are not some educated, working vandals; and the vast majority of unemployed, less educated people are law-abiding.) It is a further illustration, however, of the importance of having an active stake in society. To put it simply, people need to feel a connection to society in order to feel committed to it. They need to feel that the law respects them – that they will not be assumed to be criminal simply because they are young – before they can respect the law. The hasty approach to processing suspects in the aftermath of the riots, lurid 'naming and shaming' and all, really doesn't help with this. Cases like that of Dane Williamson, who was named before he had even been tried, whose flat was burned down in a revenge attack, who lost everything he had in the world and who has since been found innocent, do not inspire much faith.

Aside from youth, one characteristic that stands out about the rioters is that the vast majority of them were male, yet it has not taken long for politicians and pundits to start finding ways to blame women. Single mothers have, as so often, taken the brunt of the blame. Some commentators have raised the long debunked notion that if minor girls were denied access to contraception without their parents' consent then there would be fewer teenage pregnancies. There has been an implicit assumption that it is female carelessness that leads to single motherhood, with abandonment by men scarcely discussed; and an unwillingness to discuss the evidence that, in many cases, children do better after parents in unhappy or abusive relationships have separated.

“Children need fathers,” says Cameron and Miliband, though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that female couples raise children less successfully than mixed-sex couples or that the children of single fathers are more successful than the children of single mothers. Even evidence that the children of single parent families are more likely to be involved in crime than those with two parents starts to look shaky once you control for economic variables. And identifying fathers with a physical discipline which may control problem behaviour is also a flawed approach. This confuses good parenting with forceful parenting, strength with aggression. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that children who are physically punished by their parents are more likely, not less likely, to go on to commit criminal offences.

So where exactly is this moral decline we've heard so much about? It's true that moral values are changing. There is less automatic deference to those in authority (and more of an assumption that if they want respect they must earn it, as the young are often told to do), but this is something that can be traced across decades and it is arguably a healthy thing in a democracy. Some other changes are more troubling – the increased distrust of education and science, for instance. This is perhaps a by-product of a wariness about received wisdom, which has unfortunately not been balanced by teaching about the do-it-yourself principles underlying the scientific method, nor by teaching research skills at an early age. The resultant marginalisation of intellectual discourse, particularly within the working class, is undoubtedly bad for democracy.

Over the past four decades two moral shifts in British society have really stood out. The first is a focus on the importance of material goods as status symbols (from trainers to BMWs). The second is a breakdown of the notion of society itself. Margaret Thatcher's very deliberate emphasis on individualism and shift away from the notion of social responsibility is perhaps now bearing fruit. If you talk to people in African and Middle Eastern countries, these are the two biggest criticisms they have of Western society in general. We don't look after each other, we value things above people, and consequently we are moving toward a mercenary way of living that makes criminality look far more reasonable than it should.

This criminality, of course, is just as evident at the top of our society as it is at the bottom – and it is here that we have seen a measurable change. Corruption itself is nothing new but it is rare for the public to see it as starkly as they have in recent years. Between the parliamentary expenses scandal and the hacking scandal (and, perhaps less fairly, unpopular wars), the public has seen those whom it looks to for leadership increasingly revealed as self-interested opportunists. Of course this isn't true of all politicians, but it's just as damaging as the illusory dangerousness of all young people. Our politicians talk about absent fathers meaning young people lack role models, but shouldn't they be role models in their own capacity? What message do they think it sends when people perceive corruption everywhere?

We do need to make changes in our society, and if we start working together we can do that. It should begin with enquiries at the top that are incisive enough to restore public confidence, and corrupt politicians (regardless of party) must step down; there can be no second chances at this stage if we are to restore faith in British democracy. Next, we must stop making scapegoats of the vulnerable and start investing in them so that everybody has access to real opportunities in life. We must demonstrate that social policy is founded in evidence, not only because this is more likely to be efficacious in itself but also because it is part of the process of reasserting the value of intellectual endeavour. We must show people at all levels of society that they are valued as something more than mere 'consumers'; we must stop using terms like 'feral' and start showing respect for our fellow human beings. We must celebrate families and communities in all their diverse forms so that we can encourage social support rather than attacking those who don't fit one narrow definition of acceptable living. There has been enough destruction. It's time to start constructing something better.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It Gets Better

For many younger people watching the riots that have unfolded around England in recent days, it must feel as if they're witnessing an unprecedented level of destruction. Buildings burning, looting, vehicles hijacked, increasing violence against non-participants - it's a scary business. So it's really important that we keep these incidents in perspective. Shocking though they are, they not unfamiliar; and more to the point, neither is recovery from them. We have been here before and at some point we will be here again. But the underlying trend, over time, is toward a decrease in violence.

"What is the world coming to?" is a question repeated so often that we give it more credence than we should. Similarly, we take altogether too seriously the suggestion that young people today are more savage and uncontrollable than they have ever been. People have been claiming that, generation after generation, since at least the sixteenth century, so think about it - if it were true, we would all have evolved into some kind of gore-fixated mutant killing machines by now. In fact, violence is the preserve of a minority and most people never do more than get into a couple of half-hearted punch-ups in their adolescent years.

What we need understand is that violence and chaos do not represent a state human civilisation is coming to, but rather one it is coming from. Let's start by looking at some of the principles that underlie our concerns. At the most basic level, we are horrified by violence because we fear people may be killed. Yet life has not always been accorded any civil value. It was only around 4,000 years ago - an eyeblink in the history of our species - that civil codes began to incorporate the idea that killing was wrong. Of course people objected to killing before that, and took revenge, but by and large states didn't care. And when life did begin to be valued, it was only male life, and the lives of male citizens at that, which counted. There was no assumption that the lives of women, slaves, visiting foreigners etc. should be protected by the state.

We have moved on from this. We have lapsed, sometimes, and there are still places where the lives of some are not protected (the recent Ghanaian purges against gay people provide a pertinent example), but by and large we have moved in a consistent direction, toward placing greater value on all human life. This is at the heart of what civilisation means. As it's Ramadan, let's take the example of how Islam, at its point of origin, advanced women's rights. Islam is often criticised in relation to a phrase in the Qur'an that describes woman as "the animal that speaks". In a modern context it is easy to understand why - we are horrified by the comparison of a woman and an animal - but in its time, when women were generally considered to be worth no more than camels or goats, the emphasis was different: the animal that speaks. In this way the Prophet Muhammed emphasised the personhood of women and their separateness from the animals traded by their masters. As Islam advanced, the trade in women decreased rapidly and women gained a civil influence which, in that part of the world, they had never had before.

History is full of these examples of progress. It is also full of cruelty, of course, and these cruelties can have such emotional impact that they seem to undermine everything else. Overall, in proportion to our numbers, we have killed each other far less often over the past century than at any time in our known history. How can this be true, people ask, when the twentieth century brought us the Holocaust? It's hard for us to imagine worse horrors; and yet the fact is that they did exist. In the century before the Holocaust came the vast European expansions into Africa and the Americas that led to the wholesale slaughter of millions of native peoples. The ancestors of today's Britons not only killed the natives but, in some cases, were responsible for flogging off their skins; for sticking their heads on spikes or using them to decorate flowerbeds; for driving them into the desert and watching as they died of dehydration, shooting those who tried to return. This is the ugly truth about what we are, about the potential that still remains within us, but we are moving onward. Although such horrors do still happen, they do so now on a much smaller scale. Back in the nineteenth century, the average European hearing about such things would have considered it a reasonable and natural part of the extinguishing of an inferior species. Today, for the most part, we recognise each other as human beings, and even where we feel unable to intervene as atrocities are committed, we care. Just caring may seem impotent, but it is a step forward - it is one of the building blocks of a better future.

After the Holocaust Europe collectively reassured itself that this would never happen again. Of course it has done - within Europe's borders as well as elsewhere. We don't yet have the power, or the collective will, to make it stop. But we are at least motivated to try. What doesn't tend to get taught to schoolchildren learning about the Second World War is that most of those who fought on the side of the Allies did so without knowing about the Jews in the concentration camps until the very end, and that many of them held deeply anti-Semitic views themselves - that was the prevailing culture of the time. There were those among Britain's leaders who would not have disagreed with Hitler's Final Solution. Of course there are still racist pundits today, but we don't give that kind of hatred the same easy public reception as once we did.

And so to riots. It is very important to distinguish riot from revolution. Revolutions can happen with or without them, but are ultimately dependent on a shift in ideas which many riots have nothing to do with. Looting and burning things down, in isolation, cannot bring about political change. Riots at their outset often incorporate crowd of idealistic young people who really believe they can use the violence to change society for the better, but in cases like the recent one it doesn't take long for them to become disillusioned (one hopes they won't give up on working toward peaceful change as a result). Once they're gone, there is no solidarity, no real social organisation, so thrill-seekers and criminals come to the fore. This pattern has varied very little over the centuries. What has changed - improved - is the capacity of civil forces to contain the rioting, and the capacity of civil organisations (whether part of the state or formed by parallel social movements) to rebuild. So although police numbers have been too low to contain much of the violence in the recent uprisings, and although a great deal of suffering is taking place, these are far from the ugliest riots in the history of these cities. In London, we don't have to look back very far - just three hundred years or so - to the Gordon Riots, when half the city burned, many died, and a huge number of people permanently lost their livelihoods. Not only was there the same restricted police control, but there were no insurance companies to pick up the bill, there was no civil movement to identify the perpetrators, there was no system of communication to help identify those in need of urgent help (yes modern communications can also aid the rioters, but we must not overlook the good they enable).

In the Gordon Riots, as it many others that took place in the run-up to the twentieth century, there was also the problem of prisons being emptied and dangerous criminals of all types spilling out onto the streets, often continuing to cause havoc for several years after the riots had been quelled. That is something against which we have much better defences this time around. And these defences did not come from nowhere - they are a result of our collective effort. They are what we pay our taxes for. We have all these facilities to minimise the impact of violence because we have worked together to build a society that values life.

When you go our into the streets and see the glow of flames on the horizon, or when you turn on your television set and see gangs running loose in the streets, remember that they do not represent all that we are. They certainly do not represent our future. The people out there in the mornings with their brooms and their cups of tea for strangers - they are our future. We know this because when we look at history we can see how our civil structures have grown. Tempting though it may be to some, selfish aggression is not a winning strategy. It is, at best, a means to short term gain. Working together is what we are good at as a species and it's where our real advantages lie. Violence isn't the end of what we have worked for, it's just a stumbling block along the way. It gets better.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Know Your Right

You have the right not to be killed. Most people agree on that. Who doesn't? Those who value other things more highly than individual lives – personal aggrandisement, or political ideology. Often the two go together, and nowhere are they more comfortable bedfellows than on the far right.

When the attacks in Norway took place, many politicians and media contributors immediately leapt to the conclusion that they must be the work of Islamic terrorists. So did many ordinary people, with the result that there was an immediate rise in the number of Islamophobic threats reported across Europe. Individuals were threatened or told to “go home” (despite the fact many were born in Europe), whilst mosques and madrassas came under attack.

The horror of this is pretty obvious. What may be less obvious is just how ridiculous it is. When you look at the statistics you'll see that the percentage of terror attacks in Europe committed by Islamist groups is very small. The reason they seem more commonplace is entirely down to the way they are treated by politicians and the media. In other words, there is an agenda here. That agenda has two aspects.

For politicians, encouraging a fear of Islamic terrorism is useful. Scapegoats and distractions are always handy in tough economic times. It also helps to justify wars in countries with large Muslim populations when local populations are unwilling to accept other reasons. For newspapers, it's even simpler: fear sells. The papers have always played this game. From anarchists threatening terror to black men endangering white women and gay men endangering children, it's the same thing recycled, generation by generation, finding a convenient monster. The important thing is that the monster has to be demonstrably Other. It can't come from the bedrock of readers or voters. It has to be excluded from the assumed Us.

All this makes it rather embarrassing that the Norwegian attacker turned out to be white, educated, middle class – in all respects the sort of person we Europeans are supposed to think of as one of us. A lot of desperate flailing has followed, from unsubstantiated claims he was inspired by Islamist violence to the bizarre ramblings of Glenn Beck, who, with his usual political incoherence, compared the Utøya victims to the Hitler Youth. A strange apologism for the far right has since developed in parts (thankfully not all) of the press. Perhaps it's fitting. After all, the killer, Anders Behring Breivik, quoted extensively from certainly popular press pundits – most notably Melanie Phillipps – in the manifesto in which he endeavoured to justify his violence. He recognised the right wing press as his allies, and they have been notably slow to disavow his agenda.

Is it fair to blame the wider right for actions like this? Of course the vast majority of them would never condone violence (and many, of course, are economically right wing without sharing this sort of social agenda at all). Any hesitation in so doing must, however, be weighed against that same old eagerness to let all Muslims take the blame for Islamist terrorist attacks.

Perhaps most telling has been the reaction of the English Defence League, which Breivik cited as one of his inspirations. Of course they wouldn't condone the attacker's actions, they insist, but they share his agenda. They have taken advantage of this raising of their profile to argue, as he did, that this centres on the need to remove all Muslims from Europe in order to protect its indigenous people (whoever they are). Breivik felt that sending a message about this made the killings even he called 'atrocious' worthwhile. His logic in this regard is somewhat unclear. Even if one wee to accept his ill-justified contention that Muslims are a threat, how exactly is he protecting people by, um, killing them?

You have the right to free speech, argue the EDL. If we shut down their democratic right to express their objection to our Muslim citizens' presence here, something not unlike the Norwegian attacks could take place in the UK. Worryingly, there are already hints of support for this kind of thinking coming from the mainstream. These Islamophobes are unpleasant, it's said, but we must placate them a little – make immigration laws a bit tougher, allow fewer new mosques to be built – or there could be trouble. This is nothing short of capitulation to blackmail. Why should ordinary Muslims suffer when they are not the ones making threats?

The rhetoric we hear in this situation asserts that it is liberalism that has allowed these problems to develop. Liberals, it is said, are so busy standing up for people's rights that they don't realise Muslims wouldn't grant them the same courtesy.

This is not only a misunderstanding of Islam – it is missing the point. Human rights are just that – part of being human – and they do not depend on one's affiliations or behaviour. What's more, this isn't about liberals versus the rest of the world. It's about everybody who wants to live in a peaceful civilisation versus the right wing extremists who don't.

Ultimately, those extremists vary very little in their aims, no matter which ideological tokens they cling to. Those advocating violence on the far right and those doing so in the name of Islam are much the same. They are all attacking the diversity, equality, and respect for human life that are the cornerstones of our civilisation. They are attacking the true Us. We are the ones who stand together, as the diverse peoples of Norway stood together in their grief, and say that we will not be bullied and threatened into giving up the civilisation we have worked so hard to build. We will not be turned against one another by those who can offer only destruction.

The far right has no place in our society and we must be neither bullied nor embarrassed into giving it one. It is time for right wingers who do not share that agenda to clearly differentiate themselves. That means an end to the use of Islamophobic articles to sell newspapers. It means an end to moronic statements about the 'failure' of multiculturalism from political leaders who should know better. It is time to stop feeding hate and to assert clearly that those who wish to label themselves European must show respect for all of the rest of us, no matter our religion, if they wish to be respected in return.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Education, Education, Education

Should Rupert Murdoch be in command of multiple media outlets? Despite public passivity on this matter that has lasted for decades, most people would now say no. The scandal that began at The News Of The World has changed the game. Now it is beginning to expand to other titles, with tabloid newspapers unconnected to Murdoch also the subject of suspicion. But there's another issue here that isn't getting nearly enough coverage, and that relates to Murdoch's wider interests – most significantly, his interest in education.

Aside from the media, education is Murdoch's great passion. He is a man who has always understood that power resides in control of information, and education is as important in this regard as newspapers and Fox News. Specifically, his interest over recent years has been in the Free School movement, whose development in the United States he provided with crucial support. That interest has extended to the UK, and the revelation that Michael Gove was paid £1,250 a week for one hour's work for News International, whilst serving as Shadow Education Secretary, is rightly raising eyebrows. [Update: he is still being paid this amount for a Times column.]

The Free Schools movement provides a vital opportunity for entrepreneurs of Murdoch's type. Because of the freedom it offers from the usual restrictions of the National Curriculum it makes controlling the information children receive – and don't receive – much easier. As such it has natural appeal to any number of fringe political movements and ambitious individuals. There's a financial interest for Murdoch too. He is committed to the notion that learning through computers is the way of the future, and just happens to own ninety percent of educational technology business Wireless Generation, which is already snapping up lucrative contracts in the 'States.

In the UK, Free Schools have got off to a less successful start, with the number of initial applications dramatically lower than Gove, as Minister of Education, predicted, and with considerable opposition from the public and teachers' groups. The government's health, justice and now even welfare policies have been compromised in face of difficulties like this, so why has it pressed ahead so hard with its educational strategy despite them? Is this simply about sticking to principle or is it about pleasing a third party whose influence when it comes to winning elections could be more important than policies themselves?

It's worth remembering that Gove started out as a journalist, working for The Times (as his wife still does) – which may itself place him in a vulnerable position as the News Corp scandal unravels further. He has enjoyed a close personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks and it is difficult to imagine that, even in the absence of direct pressure, his approach to policy has not been influenced by his social circle. Further to this, he has among his advisers former New York Chancellor for Education Joel Klein, who closely supported Murdoch's projects. For a man who has been described as a potential future Prime Minister, he would be well advised to tread carefully over the next few weeks. The News Corp contagion could well spread beyond the media.

If this sounds paranoid, consider what Murdoch himself has said on the subject of education in a series of speeches and articles that represent teachers and school governors as conspiring the benefit financially from the current system at the expense of their pupils. We would be better off, he told the New York Times, if schools were more like American Idol. But win or lose, all children grow up to be potential voters. This is why it is vital that we keep our educational system as politically neutral as possible, and to do so we must ensure that it is managed in accordance with choices made at the ballot box, not influence purchased by those who stand to gain.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Damage Done

As a journalist, I'm as sorry as anyone to see good people lose their jobs as a result of the closure of the News of the World. But I'm not sorry to see the paper itself go. I hope to see Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs properly taken to task for what they've done. I hope to see a future which has more room for decent publications that respect their staff and readers alike.

In the meantime, having written about the political implications of the scandal, I feel it's important to address an area that has received too little attention in all of this: the human cost of tabloid journalism.

By 'tabloid journalism' I don't mean everything ever written for a tabloid newspaper. There are good people at most of them, many trying to please their readers whilst pursuing a socially responsible agenda. But we all know that there's another sort of journalist - and editor, and owner - involved in the business too. These are the ones I encounter day to day through my work at Trans Media Watch. They are the ones whose victims come looking for help, with nowhere else to turn. Rarely celebrities. Generally just ordinary people whose private lives have been splashed across the pages in lurid detail, along with photos (often their own, used without permission) to identify them to the neighbours. Often they are subject to outright slander but they lack the financial means to challenge it. Their stories are heartbreaking. Some lose jobs. Some lose their families. Some are assaulted in the street. They are the ones paying the price for the "much loved family newspaper".

I'm lucky. I've never been the victim of a direct attack by a tabloid myself. But then again, I find myself thinking, hasn't their presence indirectly affected my life to a considerable degree?

Let me explain.

I've been passionate about politics from a very early age. At fifteen I was a member of the Labour Party; by seventeen I was on its local housing committee, working to ensure social provision for those facing a financial squeeze under Thatcherism. There wasn't much new blood in the party at that time and I was treated as something of a rising star. I was asked if I would consider getting involved at conference, perhaps addressing the whole party. A promising career beckoned.

I walked away from it for two reasons. The first was the Kinnock purges, which, though I didn't altogether disagree with his intent to reshape the party, created an internal atmosphere in which neighbour spied on neighbour; it was deeply unpleasant to be around. But the second, more pertinent today, was that I'm queer.

I realised that, at that time, it would simply be impossible for me to take on any senior political role without being torn to pieces the moment a tabloid found it convenient to attack my sexuality or gender. This was the 1980s, and I inhabited a landscape full of screaming headlines whipping up panic about how homosexuals might harm our children. They were the same reason I daren't hold a girlfriend's hand in public; the reason I would walk around the block twice to be sure no-one was following me before I entered my favourite bar. The thing was, even if I hadn't been afraid of such an attack on a personal level it would still have ruined me politically; it made the whole thing seem pointless. It was broadly agreed that, for all the gradual legal progress that might be made by gay rights campaigners, nobody would ever accept a queer in office.

I'm not so vain as to expect you to reel in horror at the thought of my lost opportunity (I'm not unhappy with the way things worked out for me in the longer term anyway). What I do want to make clear is the far reaching effect that kind of tabloid intimidation had. It curtailed the ambitions of individuals who weren't even on the papers' radar. How much talent did our country lose access to as a result? How many brilliant people - potential sports stars and entertainers as well as politicians - gave up and chose to live quiet lives underneath the radar, wasting their talent, because of what they very reasonably feared would happen to them otherwise?

That's all in the past, you might say. It's better now. But if you spend as much time watching the tabloids as I do you'll soon see that it's not. The campaigns against gay people are less overtly vicious now and are couched in different terms, but they're still there. Attacks on transsexual people are frequent and often try to paint them as paedophiles or other kinds of sex attacker. There may no longer be ugly headlines about black people but we see plenty about Muslims, Poles and Roma people, often followed by stories which rely heavily on fabrication. Disabled people are frequently portrayed as workshy scroungers regardless of whether they're really incapable of working or, in some cases, they actually are in work. And the attacks on people who simply have the misfortune to grow up poor are horrific. This is an industry built on hate.

Sometimes the tabloids get it wrong, misjudging how much hate their readers will tolerate. Attacking the victims of the Hillsborough Football Stadium disaster went too far and cost The Sun the support of a whole city. Jan Moir's Daily Mail piece about Stephen Gately provoked outrage that went far beyond the gay community. Yet day to day, the attacks continue. A Monday afternoon's titillating scandal can ruin the life of a hapless individual who happened to draw the wrong kind of attention. And those who have already been the victims of crimes know that tabloid attention can make it worse, whether they're the targets of phone hacking or rape victims whose experiences have been salaciously detailed opposite page three.

For anybody who has failed to sit up and take notice of this, the way in which the News of the World was willing to treat the families of Milly Dowler, Jessica Chapman and so forth must make a difference now. It must show the contempt in which these newspapers hold those whom they claim to serve. It must, because as a society we simply cannot go on like this. Former News of the World journalists seeking redemption have already discussed several suicides which they believe their stories contributed to. The human cost of this kind of journalism is too high. It is time to stand up, all together, and say that we will not tolerate it any more.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why Press?

Every now and again a news story breaks whose connotations are so obvious to those working in the media that we forget our duty to explain them to other people. The News International scandal, which today saw the demise of 168 year old newspaper The News Of The World, is such a story. It has flooded television news and slowed down the internet, bewildering those who think of it, ultimately, as just an unfortunate tale of privacy intrusion.

I have talked with a number of people who have been upset that this story is getting so much coverage when other important matters aren't. I quite agree with them that issues such as the mass rapes and murders in Sudan, the catastrophic violence against women in Nicaragua and the pogroms against LGBT people in Iraq are more shocking, more disturbing. I agree that such matters deserve extensive coverage. But that is precisely why I consider it vital that the News International story stay in the headlines now.

As this scandal has encouraged opportunistic politicians to talk about state regulation of the press (as if regulation by a neutral independent body were not even a possibility), it has set up the false dichotomy of a state controlled press (certainly an unpleasant prospect) versus a 'free press'. The truth is that there can be no such thing as a free press if our major newspapers and broadcasting companies are owned by a tiny handful of people. Corporate influence is no more bound to be politically neutral than government influence. The vast majority of journalists (assuming they want to be paid) don't get to write about what they want. Even section editors have limited control where powerful editors-in-chief and owners are involved. They are told what to cover. They are told what constitutes the news.

This situation no longer represents the fait accompli that it once did. The internet means that people now have access to many more sources of news. Yet the fact is that only a small proportion of them actually take advantage of this. Many millions more still depend on red top newspapers as one of their principal sources of news. Research suggests that they are increasingly cynical about this news , yet it still shapes their world view - and, perhaps most importantly of all, it delineates what they are unaware of.

Without a balanced picture of what is going on around the world, it is difficult for people to understand major political issues like how we get involved in wars, why terrorist threats occur (and how seriously we should take them), and why people seek asylum here. But it's not only in their filtering of world news that the red tops routinely distort the political landscape. Heavily biased social and sometimes party political agendas distort their coverage of what goes on in the UK. They can bring down governments - witness their unrelenting attacks on Gordon Brown - or they can connive with governments they like to keep challenging ideas off the agenda.

Why would they do this? There are two reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, they have a self-perpetuating agenda. In order to get away with behaviour like that we have seen from the news of the World, they have to minimise government interference. In order to maximise profits, they have to keep their tax situations comfortable. And so forth. When a political party depends on you to stay in power, this is relatively easy to arrange. Secondly, there is power for its own sake. Many people crave it. When they have it, they want to use it, to shape society as they see fit. See, for example, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, who has a moral agenda that includes the denigration of LGBT people. This is the reason why we saw yesterday's peculiar attack on soap operas by Brian Sewell, clearly out of step with how the majority of the paper's readers actually feel.

Of course, we all like to feel that we are not influenced by this sort of thing. If we are good liberal types we may like to believe that other people are more sophisticated that we give them credit for, too. That's fair enough, but there are complicating factors. Most people outside media related professions don't really have much time to consult a variety of news sources, nor even to research particular stories they distrust. Furthermore, people are influenced in all sorts of subtle ways by the views of those around them, and if those views have been shaped by politically biased newspapers, those papers will still be able to advance their agenda.

If you ask people who actually work in journalism, you'll find that most - including those who work for red tops - agree that there are really important stories that don't get the coverage they deserve. Many will also agree that those stories can be written so as to interest the public, even if they are about places that are far away or with which those readers have no personal connection. Part of the art of writing news, after all, is to make readers feel they have a personal connection. So it would be perfectly possible to run a news organisation that carried stories like this. The reason it doesn't happen is that it simply doesn't interest those with established financial and political power bases.

To change the media is to change society. There is no more profound cultural influence, and cultural change lies at the base of every major political and economic change. The media, more than anything else, is where power lies in the modern world. This is why we cannot tolerate corruption and abuse within it; why we cannot risk letting monopolies form; why we must promote the representation of a diverse range of viewpoints. This is why the battle for justice at News International must go on. If we fail, most of us will never hear about the other things that matter in the first place.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


After the shredding of Andrew Lansley by the Royal College of Nursing and David Willetts by the Congregation of Oxford, the next major government policy plank looking likely to run into trouble is Social Security. Meanwhile, the first volleys are being heard in a battle to determine whether or not Scotland will take control of its own Social Security matters after independence or a further devolution settlement. The demonisation of working class people and those with disabilities which commentators like Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones have recently remarked on ought to have made these issues politically straightforward, but this is a context in which the political ground can shift very quickly. What does this mean for the Westminster coalition, for Holyrood, and for those who depend on the welfare state?

Let's start with a simple question. Why change the Welfare State at all? The answer the Westminster government will give you (and one which was earlier espoused, to an extent, by its Labour predecessors) is that it is all a matter of money. The system costs too much (at £152 billion a year) and loses too much in fraud (approximately £1 billion). The danger of buying into this theory is that it's too easy to see those figures in isolation. As with every other public service, we should be asking what we get in return for this investment, what we would stand to lose if we cut the money, and how it fits into the context of comparable services.

First of all, let's set aside the issue of fraud. Fraud is, of course, a serious problem and needs to be tackled, but it should not be a major consideration in policy making for two very good reasons: firstly, that £1 billion is a small amount when compared, proportionally, with losses made by major financial organisations operating in the private sector; and secondly, it is a small amount in comparison with the amount of benefit that goes unclaimed by British citizens who are entitled to it. The value of unclaimed benefits amounted to around £15 billion last year. Some people choose not to claim, of course, but others are not aware of their full entitlement because the system is so complicated.

How did it get this way? This is a natural consequence of Social Security having been a political football for several decades now, kicked around by politicians of all stripes. Many have tried to reform it, for varying reasons, and the end result is that it has become a collection of poorly connected systems assembled around half-complete strategies that are at odds with one another. This is a problem for governments, staff and claimants alike. It's one of the reasons why the system is riddled with poverty traps whereby claimants can end up being poorer if they work. It contributes to claims taking months to process whilst claimants struggle to feed themselves and stay in their homes. It has also resulted in a bloated bureaucracy that costs the taxpayer a fortune. If we want to make Social Security cheaper we should be looking not simply at how much claimants receive, but at how much it costs to deliver it to them.

Simplifying this is a noble aim and there is a lot to be said for Iain Duncan Smith's early ambitions. Unfortunately, like many ministers before him, he has found that this isn't so easy to do in reality – especially within the lifetime of a Parliament. The measures now travelling through Parliament are consequently just another half-baked plan that doesn't really tackle the underlying problems with the system and will end up adding to the existing mess. That the government knows this too is evident in its cautious climbdown over hasty suggestions like the cap on benefits at £26,000 per year. Now that we are told this “was never intended to apply” to households which include disabled people and that it is unlikely to be applied to households with children, it is difficult to see who it will apply to. Despite the shocking figures which the Department of Social Security has now admitted it took, without verification, from the Daily Mail, there is no real evidence that people on benefits are bringing in over £100,000 a year. Most live on very little.

So let's take a look at some of the central problems in the system, how they manifest, and what could realistically be done about them.

First up is the issues of long term recipients of Incapacity Benefit. When Iain Duncan Smith and Ed Miliband express their shock at how some people have been 'left' on these benefits for over a decade it may sound shocking, but what does that really mean? In some cases there is reason to be sceptical about long term claimants. In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher's government was worried about the consequences of spiralling unemployment figures, many claimants with relatively minor health problems were moved onto Incapacity Benefit as a convenient way of massaging the statistics. This was a particular issue in depressed areas of the country where little employment was available (it's one of the reasons, for instance, why the number of claimants in Glasgow is so high, when you consider that unemployment reached 85% on some Glasgow housing estates during that period). Some (not all) of these people could now go back to work, though they would of course need extra support to update their skills and to find jobs when they are unlikely to be considered very employable. But this does not apply to all Incapacity Benefit claimants.

It is estimated that approximately a third of current Incapacity Benefit claimants could work, a third will never be able to work, and another third can do some types of work with a lot of support. Though I have never claimed this benefit, I might consider myself in the latter camp – my serious illness means that I am limited to working from home, which in turn effectively limits my earnings. It's not so very bad for me because I have skills that enable me to do this, but many people with long term illnesses and disabilities don't. Any government serious about having them work – and keep working – must provide the necessary training, create suitable job opportunities (by more effectively tackling employers' unwillingness to take on disabled staff, by encouraging the development of more telecommuting opportunities, etc.), and acknowledge that many of these people will be unable to cope with full time hours. The upshot of this is that it may well cost more to help such people into employment than it does to keep them in receipt of Social Security. This is one of the reasons why we have a welfare state – sometimes it's the most practical option.

This brings us to another intrinsic problem with the system – it is built around a model that assumes people will be in full time work or not working at all. Again, Iain Duncan Smith has the right idea with his pledge to support those in 'micro jobs', but at a policy level he has failed to follow through on this. Part time working is heavily penalised at many levels. People working more than one part time job because that's the only way they can earn enough to support themselves are penalised by the tax system, hardly an encouragement to work. Benefit claimants working over sixteen hours a week can have their benefits docked even if they are not earning enough to compensate for their losses – not a problem if they are above the minimum wage but a serious impediment to people who are self employed, for instance. As an individual earns more, they become ineligible for specific benefits such as free dental care, so that they may easily end up being poorer as a consequence of working. They should do it anyway, you may well say (and, indeed, I have long done it anyway), but when one is on the breadline and has a family to support, that's not such an easy call.

Part time working is the best model for many people with long term illnesses and disabilities, for single parents and others with care responsibilities; and it's also very often the only choice people have when full time jobs are scarce. We might prefer that people not claim benefits at all, but it's better people contribute what they can than not contribute at all. Working also tends to result in better health outcomes for individuals and reduced pressure on families, both of which reduce later costs for the state. So these barriers to work need to be removed. How do we find them all? By using the only research tactic that has been consistently ignored throughout these decades of poorly thought-out changes: sitting down the long-term claimants and asking them what has made it difficult for them to work.

One point raised again and again in these situations is the particular difficulty experienced by families. Because partners (whether married, in civil partnership, or not) are expected to support each other financially there is a disincentive for one partner to work when the other is not working (because if their earnings are relatively low they will receive very little financial reward for it) and there is an incentive for families to split up, which then costs the state more because it is more expensive to provide Housing Benefit for two properties and there may be additional bureaucratic costs in relation to child support. It would be one thing to penalise partners like this if their responsibility for one another as dependants were acknowledged in the tax system, but it is not, so they lose out at both ends. The system also loses out because this means that people can be paying taxes at the same time as they are receiving benefits, so the state is taking with one hand and giving with the other and inevitably losing money in administration during each process. Iain Duncan Smith's early proposals included the suggestion that this obligation of support be broken, so that people were responsible simply for themselves and their children; he also proposed ensuring that people would not pay tax until they were above the threshold at which they received benefits; but again, these potentially effective measures were lost in subsequent redrafting as political concerns interfered with his attempt to bring a straightforward management approach to the system.

The danger of allowing political rhetoric to contaminate approaches to Social Security is twofold. First of all, it can create lead to real suffering and a lack of help for the most vulnerable people in our society, something all politicians decry but few seem willing to take action on. Secondly, it encourages short term solutions that fob off the worried taxpayer whilst doing nothing to reduce costs in the long term. Taking away people's benefits if they're fit to work but don't accept jobs might sound like a good idea, but the reality of it is much more complicated. What if they have children – do we leave the children to starve, or take them into care (costing the state a lot more)? What if they start stealing in order to provide for themselves? What if they have been wrongly assessed as fit and their health declines rapidly in the working environment (at least one man has already died of a heart attack after finding himself in this situation)? As so often, this cost saving measure could easily become more expensive than simply leaving things as they were.

There is a real problem with a small minority of benefit claimants who simple can't be bothered to work, but to focus policy around them is economically naïve and risks seriously harming those in genuine need. It makes for good soundbites but it doesn't make for good government. Simply put, we need to take the same approach to the benefits system as the banks – fraudsters must feel the full force of the law and we must aim to clarify the rules to make things more difficult for those who simply avoid doing their duty. Meanwhile, we must make take care that the problem minority are not allowed to tarnish the whole system.

Just as we all depend on having access to banks, we all depend on Social Security. It's a safety net for society and it's insurance for us as individuals – that portion of our taxes that goes toward supporting it is not just there to provide for other people, it's there to ensure that we, too, will receive support if we should ever fall on hard times. In a recession, this is something people should be acutely aware of. Politicians and tabloid journalists frequently complain about benefit claimants having a sense of entitlement, but they should feel entitled to draw upon a system that their taxes have contributed to. Why do bankers have a sense of entitlement to large bonuses when their companies are making losses? Why do some of Mr Cameron's front bench colleagues have a sense of entitlement to inherited wealth and, well, titles? If we are to question the entitlement of the poor it should cut both ways.

There are real problems with the Welfare State and there are fictitious ones. It's time our leaders stopped play-fighting with the latter and took responsible measures to introduce genuine reform and make Social Security a better system for everyone.