Saturday, March 31, 2007

Nike India Cricket Ad

This is a Nike advert to coincide with the cricket World Cup. It is very similar to the hugely successful football ads with the same emphasis on ordinary people 'just doing it'. I think they should show it outside India, even in non-cricketing nations like the US. It would send a wonderful message of common feeling. As an advert, building Nike's image, I think it would also be a pretty good investment of TV time.

Kermit is sad...

Watch this and feel a little part of your childhood die:

Friday, March 30, 2007

Scientologists are crazy

John Travolta "encouraged his fans to "do their bit" to tackle global warming". So far, so utterly ordinary.

Does doing so mean cutting down on flying or other consumption perhaps?

Travolta doesn't want to throw rocks in a glasshouse. He "owns five [jets], along with his own private runway."

So what is his plan for how we might avoid climate catastrophe?

Apparently "we need to think about other planets and dome cities". Brilliant.

Letter to the Evening Standard

As a result of my review of 300 I had the following letter in the Evening Standard today:

"Derek Malcolm calls Zack Synder's screen version of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, 300, extremely Right-wing and urges
readers not to think too hard about it in case it does them "permanent

But this film is not about hating homosexuals (the term "boy lovers" is reserved for the Spartans' temporary allies, the Athenians, not the Persians). It is also not about modern Iranians, as the Iranian government and other commentators have alleged, as the film clearly differentiates its Persians from them.

What it does do is celebrate sacrifice in the name of the West. While our challenges are less desperate than in previous eras we do need to stand up in defence of freedom and rationality. Sometimes compromise with our enemies is wrong: an obvious example of which was the cowardly response to threats to freedom of expression over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The film's huge box office figures suggest that the public is receptive to this kind of unapologetic and heroic story.

Matthew Sinclair,"

I think it has survived editing in pretty reasonable shape.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I don't like the West Wing

I think about three quarters of my friends are West Wing fans. Everyone loves it. I don't. It just seems to be a mixture of talking quickly and vague, platitudinous politics. The emotional weight that others find in it I just don't see. Is there something wrong with me?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Recent Comments"

I've added a feed of recent comments to my right-hand bar. The almost unreasonable length of some of my more extensive fisks may, I fear, prevent readers checking down to older posts. As such, I've boosted the recent posts list to the top and added a list of recent comments so that discussion is flagged up for those coming to the main page.

Given that I found this feature, an add-on from Storago, being used by Mr. Eugenides it is, perhaps, appropriate that his comment is the first to be added to the feed.

Rhetoric and Iran's Hostages

I haven't written about the sailors captured by Iran until now but not because the issue isn't important. I haven't written about it because I've yet to see a remotely convincing idea as to what we should do next. However, other commentators have not been so reticent. I feel I should point out the problems with their proposed courses of action.

Both Britain and America and EU Referendum cite Melanie Phillips. Citing Melanie Philips nearly always means that you're not sure what to recommend so have fallen back on ideological outrage as this is nearly all Phillips does. Her piece is full of her usual throwaway bizarre statements. Take this one for example:

"In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared war on the West. We took no notice."

That's entirely untrue. The fall of the Shah was most certainly noticed even though the response was Carter and the worst foreign policy mistake in US post-war history. EU Referendum's piece deploys that blog's characteristic "you're all rubbish" rhetorical style.

All three blogs make the quite sensible point that the rules of engagement should allow for self-defence. While getting in a firefight with the Iranian Republican Guard has serious consequences we can't put troops in the presence of our enemies and refuse them permission to defend themselves. If they do need to be changed it is a little late for changing the rules of engagement now, though. The Iranians don't need to keep pulling this particular trick.

Also, the military do insist that it was not the rules of engagement but an ambush which left the sailors unable to defend themselves:

"The officer at the Ministry of Defence justified the lack of reaction by the British personnel. Their rules of engagement, he said, were adequate for self defence but they were taken by surprise as they left the ship they had inspected.

Two Iranian boats with far heavier weapons - rocket launchers and heavy machine guns against rifles and pistols - came alongside after indicating a friendly attitude."

None of these blogs has a persuasive idea for what to do about the problem now the sailors have been captured.

Melanie Phillips argues that we must set a timetable. However, a timetable which does not include what we will do if that ultimatum is flouted is a joke. She then argues we should get a UN resolution. Melanie Phillips arguing for a UN solution!

Even if the resolution she is looking for, "enabling us to use ‘all necessary means’ to get them back", were to be passed that just puts us back at square one working out what exactly we're going to do with the power the UN has authorised us to use. Not one of the commentators, three of the most right-wing in Britain, is prepared to openly advocate military action so all we're left with is vague suggestions of sanctions.

EU Referendum recommends European trade sanctions. Richard North arguing for an EU solution!

Even if these sanctions could be put in place they leave out Russia and China which means that Iran will not exactly be feeling its pips squeaking. Iran will also not want to risk looking weak in the face of sanctions with its credibility on the line and the nuclear issue not going away. Iran can and will ignore economic sanctions.

Both EU and UN solutions rely upon institutions which move exceptionally slowly. This is a problem because Iran can move exceptionally quickly to promise to return hostages, to offer conditions, to actually return hostages at the last possible moment. Our sailors could spend months in captivity while motions are discussed, vetoed and resubmitted.

David Frum, whose hawk credentials should hardly be in doubt, has a rather different take on things:

"Over-emphatic American rhetoric at this point would give the Europeans an escape hatch. Over-emphatic rhetoric would make America, not Iran, the issue. And under today's circumstances, such rhetoric would accomplish nothing. I've argued for a long time that the Bush administration will not strike Iran militarily. I may ultimately be proven wrong about that, but even if I am, they are certainly not going to do so in the next three months, while the surge in Iraq is proceeding. Warnings and threats now must be empty ones, and it is always best to refrain from those.

Iran paid a terrible price for holding 52 Americans hostage in 1979-80: US assistance to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, assistance that helped Iraq to tear up Iran's under-equipped armies. I am sure the time will come for a reckoning with the hostage-takers of today. But this is not it. This is the moment for the US and UK to be all sweet reason - the better to force Europeans to align themselves more clearly now with the right side in the confrontations to come."

This is probably strategically the sensible thing to do. If we are not yet ready to start a war over nuclear weapons then we are almost certainly not ready to do so over a handful of sailors. This means that our threats are, in the end, idle and idle threats are toxic to the credibility that we will act in the future. However, Frum's piece still leaves us with an important question. What is the sweet and reasonable way to go about trying to get our sailors back?

While Frum can speculate that Iran will eventually get what it deserves for this transgression Britain needs to do something now to rescue its citizens.

The starting point for the next phase in a diplomatic attempt to get back the sailors is that we didn't initially publish the data demonstrating the location of the sailors when they were kidnapped. There was some speculation this might be because we were in the wrong. However, it could also be because to do so involves accusing the Iranians of violating Iraqi sovereignty which is a pretty serious diplomatic hit. This appears to be forming the core of our 'reasonable' attempt to get the sailors back.

The emerging shape of the British response is summarised by the New York Times. It is a combination of mild sanctions, a freeze in “bilateral business” and more openly making the case that Iran is in the wrong. In the New York Times article Admiral Charles Style has quite a cutting quote:

"In diplomatic contacts, Iran had provided Britain with an initial set of coordinates for the position of the boats that placed the incident in Iraqi waters.

“We pointed this out to them on Sunday in diplomatic contacts,” Vice Admiral Style said. “After we did this they then provided a second set of coordinates that places the incident in Iranian waters” over two nautical miles away from where they were said to be by Britain, he said.

“It is hard to understand a legitimate reason for this change of coordinates,” he said."

The BBC characterisation of this as the "'ridicule' tactic" is quite apt. There are some signs that it may be bearing fruit as Iran promises to release the female sailor.

While it may grate that this kind of diplomatic language is the most we can do in the face of Iranian provocation this is the bind mistakes in Iraq have gotten us into. It is easy to get angry and accuse the government of appeasement or cowardice but unless better alternatives are offered, or someone wants to make a serious case for war, diplomatic pressure is the only option open to us.

UNHRC in all its glory

This speech, via Mr. Eugenides, is utterly brilliant. The message is compounded by the response of the chair.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fixing Democracy?

Tom Paine has an expatriate's concern that our country has gone to the dogs in his absence. This post appears to capture "the country's going to the dogs" libertarianism quite well and so is deserving of a thorough response.

"These days we accept democracy, unthinkingly, as a good thing. I have not heard a serious word against it since University, when some young men of my acquaintance affected to think it “a brave experiment that failed.” I begin to wonder if they were right, at least as to its British incarnation.

Something is clearly very wrong with British democracy. Our low election turnouts prove that. Our voters do not face bombs and bullets on their way to the polling station, but they show less enthusiasm to vote than the Iraqis who do. Perhaps we should arrange to stain British voters’ fingers with purple ink and have men armed by Iran take pot-shots at them? I am sure President Ahmadinejad would oblige."

Isn't it a sign of how successful our political system has been that politics is usually not a matter of life or death?

It doesn't seem surprising or problematic to me that people have less interest in the political system when things are going relatively well. So long as the economy keeps chugging along in reasonable health and people feel fairly secure then the electorate can afford the luxury of apathy. If things get much worse and our electorate remains apathetic then I would be more concerned.

Britain faces very real and important issues which do need to be confronted but low turnout means that those not turning up to vote have decided to leave decision making to the middle class voters who still vote. I'm not convinced this is such a tragedy. If people don't want to cast a ballot that's entirely within their rights and doesn't stop them participating in future elections if things go wrong. The only real bias is towards the middle class at the expense of the poor; this is the Dude's objective and has been secured by the poor's own free will.

"One might expect the constant meddling, the authoritarianism, the sheer bloody priggishness of New Labour to drive people back to the polls. They were elected by a minority and they are imposing the views of part of that minority on the rest of us. Yet British non-voters I speak to are way beyond mere disinterest. They are militantly apathetic. They have enthusiastic contempt for the process."

It seems possible that they express their apathy in militant terms because it sounds a lot cooler than just admitting ignorance and assuming political decisions will turn out alright if left to others. There are plenty of avenues for active protest if one does not like our present political system. If someone chooses to be apathetic that is a revealed preference for leaving decisions to the rest of the electorate.

"Once every little boy and girl born into the world alive, was “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” Yet now, we hear the fatal words, “they’re all the same.” So, indeed, they are. Perhaps it is not that our democracy is failing, but that it is working too well? Politicians have views as diverse as ever. There is no view too absurd to be represented in the House of Commons, as George Galloway sufficiently proves. To get and keep power, however, now involves concealing ones opinions. Men and women go into politics to pursue their agenda, but soon the peoples’ agenda is pursuing them."

The first sentence in this section hits on something important. Before when people voted they were probably just as ignorant and unthinking about their vote as those who do not vote now. They voted a certain way because that was what was expected by their family and community. Isn't not voting preferable to giving a party a mandate which is simply an expression of partisan loyalty? Now a mandate is weaker as the electorate has shrunk but at least it is honest.

"The only effective “check and balance” in our Parliamentary democracy was the way in which, for centuries, the British divided neatly, sportingly, into two roughly equal political "sides". Whigs vs. Tories, Conservatives vs. Liberals, Labour vs. Conservatives, etc. Our dangerous three word constitution (“Parliament is sovereign”) was not a problem. We could always rely on the swing of the political pendulum to keep government honest."

The Labour party appears to be suffering very significantly in the eyes of public opinion for its dishonesties and corruptions. Major's government was certainly weakened by scandal. It would appear that the system is still working to keep politics honest. At times the system falters and corruption occurs but that is more a testament to the imperfect nature of human beings and the corrupting effect of power than a fault with the British political system. It certainly exists under alternatives like the US system and is massively more prevalent in most dictatorships.

"We still have two major parties, but few feel any allegiance to them. Their memberships are derisory, smaller than a hotel loyalty scheme, larger than a decent-sized fishing club. Both are led by slimy, unprincipled populists. “I’ll tell you what I think” they seem to say, “as soon as I have worked out what I think you want me to think.” All of which means that we ourselves, dear readers, have become the problem. Constitutions protect people from each other, as much as they protect people from the State. In the shambles of our modern democracy, we are each other’s prey."

Again, why is party loyalty necessarily a good thing for democracy? Take a look at my numerous exchanges with DK on the UKIP and you'll see that I can probably be described as a Conservative loyalist. Despite this I always hope that my loyalty is based upon the Conservatives actually being the best path to getting policies I support implemented. Loyalty is a wonderful thing in personal relationships but can be toxic to democracy. Its decline could well be good news in the ongoing struggle to keep politics honest and accountable.

"Alexander Tytler (1747–1813) famously observed that:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits ... with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.

He had it almost right. In truth, the masses can accept occasional fiscal discipline, but only if first brought to beggary by their own idleness and greed."

Okay. This is an empirical claim and can be tested. Is our system producing fiscal irresponsibility? Martin Wolf had a great graph on this but it is now subscriber-only and I'm not a subscriber (if anyone reading this is and can retrieve it for me that would be great). Hence, here is my graph from EU data with the new entrants left out:

It's a little hard to read as a web graphic I'm afraid but you can take a look at the data yourself. We have among the lowest levels of government debt in the EU, the Americans aren't in this data set but have much higher levels of debt than we do.

Some developing countries and smaller nations have stronger positions but that is usually because they need to work harder to convince financial markets their debt is secure. Historically the British state has almost invariably been either the most or among the most fiscally conservative in the world. As a matter of economic history Paine's analysis, and Tytler's prediction, is just wrong.

A more detailed comparison would look for a relationship between age of democracy and level of debt to see if it fits Tytler's pattern:

"The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From Bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage."

A cursory examination shows that the oldest democracies (Britain and Luxembourg I think) have low levels of debt. An inexorable democratic progression to decadence does not appear to be sustained by empirical examination.

"When Labour last wrecked the economy, the Tories under Thatcher won their reputation as “the Nasty Party". They made a sick nation take its bitter medicine. It had to be done, but no-one enjoyed it. Many who lived through it are bitter that our lives were thus blighted by the greed of previous generations who voted themselves unfunded benefits; so inflated the currency as to repay their debts in base coin and then left it to us to straighten things out. We are even more bitter now that New Labour has made all our efforts vain."

I think I've already dealt with this issue sufficiently. We do need to be careful about maintaining fiscal discipline in order to ensure interest rates and future taxation can remain low. However, there is no crisis.

"Our generation has paid for everything - twice - only to be told there is nothing for us. Our taxes, our pensions, have been diverted to bribe an army of Government “workers” and the mass of idlers on permanent benefits which now passes for “the working class”. Anyone who does work in Britain, if not for the State, is for much of the year in forced labour to feed the Government's hordes.

As has been sagely observed, “Labour always spends its way out of power eventually.” Cameron may pout, preen and posture now, but the Tories will be called into service as the Nasty Party again. "

The state has grown significantly over the last century and this can, perhaps, be seen as a result of the pressures of mass democracy. However, this is not likely to be something that constitutional reform can tackle. Even in the US there is no obvious constitutional limit to the size of the state. It is a political problem with a political solution.

"But enough of economics. What of politics? What, in particular, of liberty? Labour has opened our eyes to our constitutional danger. Though we were joyously ignorant of it, it seems that we were always at the mercy of an over-mighty State. All it took for habeas corpus to be repealed in Britain, was for the political balance to shift, so that one Party could do it without the other crying foul."

Before I move on to Paine's main analysis I should caution that it may be best to avoid fetishising old liberties like Habeas Corpus. While old liberties can remain essential sometimes things need to change. As Gracchi detailed some time ago it was increases in the strength of police power, themselves a response to new kinds of criminality, which led to the creation of many of our now old liberties. With new changes in criminality, particularly a rise in the number of crimes involving evidence and collaborators abroad, it seems plausible that our generation should be thinking about new liberties as much as old ones.

"Focus groups and opinion polls have had the same effect on political thinking, as wind tunnels and CAD had on car design. They are a more scientific, but also a more soulless, way to do the job. They have led to less choice as politicians adapt their offer to comply with the "scientific" data. Had Jefferson and Washington had focus groups, there would have been no American Revolution. Most colonists favoured the Crown. A majority moved to Canada to remain subjects of King George. But the founding fathers were not followers, but leaders. They built a democracy from undemocratic beginnings."

I'm not sure this is accurate. I read that the numbers were roughly a third in favour of independence, a third against and a third undecided. Boston was supposedly the turning point for the undecided group (before the war even started). Also, bear in mind that a lot of those who did not like independence left for Canada. Their opinion wasn't exactly led. Here's Wikipedia on the situation:

"Colonists were divided over which side to support. The Revolutionaries (known as "Americans", "Whigs," "Congress-Men" or "Patriots") had the active support of about 40 to 45 percent of the population. About 15 to 20 percent of the population supported the British Crown after 1775 and were known as Loyalists (or Tories). Loyalists fielded perhaps 50,000 men during the war years in support of the King. After the war, some 70,000 Loyalists departed the United States, most going to Britain, Nova Scotia or other British colonies."

"How safe is a parliamentary democracy to live in when most voters fail to understand that powers given to our rulers for one reason may be used for others? All civil liberties objections crumble today in the face of the word "suspect;" which means no more than someone thought, by a fallible someone else, to have done something bad."

This is an overexaggeration. There has been very real political, judicial and popular resistance to many of this government's impositions on civil liberties. Voters value security but that is contingent upon the current security/liberty balance. If civil liberties were infringed on to a larger extent that balance might change and liberty start to be prioritised over security.

Paine then spends some time going over awful policies that have been put in place democratically. I have no particular inclination to rebut this material as I do not think democracy is an infallible bar to atrocity. I agree with Paine on that point.

"Are there then then no limits to democracy? In Britain there are not. Our democracy is defective, because we have never clearly defined what power individuals have delegated to the State. Potentially, our lives, our freedoms and our worldly goods can be taken at any moment at the State's whim. That the State is under loose democratic control is of little comfort. Am I any less a serf if enslaved by a majority of my neighbours? Am I any less dead for being slain with their approval?

The State should enjoy only those powers delegated by individuals. Would any of us freely give the right of life and death? Would any of us freely give the right to tax us until we work most of the year for others, like indentured slaves? Democracy is a valuable, but not a sufficient component of a free society. We also need individual rights, which outrank those of the State, because it serves us, not vice versa. It is those rights that make us free, not the way in which members of the government are chosen."

Rights may, philosophically, exist in nature but they only affect real life if a large number of people believe in them. If we had a constitution dropped out of the sky and implemented when the Queen was drunk one day which said the government absolutely may not take more than 25% of the national income in tax would that rule be paid any heed at all?

If the population really want to they can do anything they want. Might may not be right but, in the end, it rules. Constitutions can be, and have been, broken and discarded as illegitimate by revolutionaries. They can be twisted to allow atrocity as happened with Hitler. They are not immutable. The defence of liberty cannot be left to rules but must rely upon the popular will. Under Paine's fatalistic account where the population just don't believe in liberty we are doomed and would do well to find a hole somewhere.

A constitution can be valuable if it is respected and acts as a rallying point for defenders of liberty. If people believe in liberty because they treat the constitution as somehow sacred then liberties are, indeed, more secure thanks to its existence. This appears to be what happens in the US.

There are costs to having a constitution. The final document will be imperfect and its interpretation can be even more so. I'm pro-choice but it seems infinitely preferable that this result has been obtained democratically in the UK instead of being imposed by the judiciary as in the US. Giving a small group of judges so much control over our affairs seems risky as they are fallible people and have huge, unaccountable power. It also creates resentment which could easily become generalised and threaten the liberties a constitution is designed to protect. Also, if our liberties do need to change with changing conditions a constitution could easily be a straitjacket.

That leaves us with a balance, a cost/benefit analysis for all states between the benefits of the British system and the 'rallying in the defence of liberty' benefit of a constitution.

Britain's unwritten constitution evolved slowly out stable earlier systems and, as such, could rely upon a certain measure of tolerance and respect for the conventions it reflects. We rely upon the fact that our institutions are respected without the imprimatur of an inflexible constitution. That means that we can avoid the costs of a constitution but still enjoy the robust defence of liberty other countries enjoy. Other nations do not have the same luxury as they are usually formed in violent revolution. This is why, despite never having a constitution, Britain has enjoyed a relatively liberal history (Hayek was one enthusiast).

This makes constitutional radicalism of the sort Labour has displayed dangerous but even Labour's degree of meddling is far from fatal. Our politics is still relatively healthy and our constitutional order shows no sign of imminent collapse. That changes to the Lords and devolution have been so mismanaged and there hasn't been a collapse (although further change will be needed) is a testament to our system's strength. A very British respect for tradition and incremental change has proven a reliable defence of liberty over the years. A great many nations with impeccable constitutions have fallen into madness and tyranny while we, despite our lack of a constitution, have remained free.

Paine ends with a call that democracy should not be above debate. I hope that my response is sufficiently measured that any fear of a hysterical answer to his reasoned article will be assuaged. He then argues that the Conservatives should embrace constitutional reform. There is some sign that they will, particularly with a new British Bill of Rights. However, I would hope that any such Bill will maintain the flexibility which Britain is afforded by a long and tolerant tradition.

Monday, March 26, 2007

If feminism is bad for your health...

A few days ago the Mail reported that feminism can be bad for a woman's health. Equality of income, management jobs and a 'pressured lifestyle' all hurt someone's expected health outcome. This research is from Sweden so it is reasonable to expect that this is feminism done 'properly' as far as is possible. There is state support for childcare and other measures to reduce the additional pressure on women that comes with equality.

This study's result is plausible as it fits with the other studies cited by those who want to reduce working hours or otherwise curb impositions on a leisure based lifestyle. It is not that feminism per se is bad for a person's health but that it exposes more women to pressures which always cause people health problems.

Would women trade their newfound equality for better health? I hope and expect not.

Doesn't this tell us a lot about how shallow our health and leisure obsessed, risk-averse political culture is?

When women say they're not feminists they mean crazy radical feminism. Those who still choose to bring up children instead of working are making a choice about what they want their work to be which is not an anti-feminist choice. Women are committed to a movement which will see them working longer hours and facing greater workplace pressure. They are committed because it is more important to someone's sense of wellbeing that they work and achieve all they can than that they avoid marginal harms to their health expectations. The feminists, on this, are right.

People are willing to trade their health for their work and to fight politically for the right to do so. It is illiberal and small-minded to stop any person, woman or not, working even if you think you are protecting them from themselves.

Flying Monkey Watch #3

Flying Monkey Watch was an early attempt at a regular fixture for this blog. However, since the Frankenbunny episode all has been pretty quiet on the flying monkey front but now it appears the project is back on.

If it is possible to make human-sheep hybrids surely a monkey-bird hybrid is equally plausible?

They are able to target specific organs according to the Mail on Sunday report which means that you wouldn't wind up with a beaked monkey or some other monstrosity. Continue the research...


Gracchi has a very thoughtful post up on the relevance of experts. The challenge is balancing the two concerns that these sections illustrate:

"To be uncharitable you might call it the Today program error. On the one side I have an eminent scientist who beleives in evolution, on the other a creationist who has never done any proper science who doesn't and I treat them equally. One though has done a huge ammount of experiments, rigorously tested out his theories and the other hasn't. Despite that the interviewer and the public adopt a posture somewhere in the middle.


I suppose to a certain extent what we see in society at the moment is too much respect for experts as magi, as mystical beings who divine truth in a mysterious way, and too little respect for the way that truth is manufactured."

This argument from Peter Frankln angered me when I first read it and might, by showing the other side of the coin, suggest the source of the 'experts' problem:

"Given Nigel Lawson’s record on economic stability, I’m pretty disinclined to accept his judgement on climate stability.


Twenty years ago Nigel Lawson decided that the best thing for Britain would be to shadow the Deutschmark. Twenty years later he is urging us to shadow the Chinese rate of carbon emissions. He is as wrong now as he was then."

"Some years ago Churchill decided that the best thing for Britain would be to return to the Gold Standard at the pre-war level. Now he is urging us to fight on against Nazi Germany. He is as wrong now as he was then". Plenty of politicians capable of sound judgement have fallen under the spell of fixed exchange rates and a strong pound. This is just lazy ad hominem.

The common problem is a perversion of accountability. People are being understood as black box 'truth machines' which have a certain efficiency. This efficiency is the likelihood than any particular statement they make will be correct. Such a method is lazy and the 'Today programme error' is a good term for it.

The only tonic is intelligence and regular fisking.

Thatcher saved us from this:

The Yellow Pages rebuts Layard

I saw this advert for the Yellow Pages over the weekend and was struck by what a powerful conservative, economically liberal message it has. A testament to the value of hard work not just for what it creates but for its spiritual value. Adverts are often keenly socially aware and if this speaks to a common feeling in Britain then that is very encouraging.

Mark Steyn makes baby Jesus cry

This article (via The London and New York Correspondence) is a fine example of why Steyn is just so infuriating. The subordinating of historical truth to modern day politics and bulldozing of subtlety in favour of a simple with or against us calculus makes me embarassed to be a conservative. Steyn regularly exhibits Coulteresque idiocy but seems to get away with it in a way she does not thanks to being a better writer.

I'll leave out the article's initial "when I was talking to the President the other day" spiel.

"You don't have to read far into Roberts' volume to appreciate why it resonates with this particular Commander-in-Chief. On page six, we find another head of government of a global superpower, the third Marquess of Salisbury. Speaking at the dawn of the 20th century, Britain's Prime Minister remarks:

England is, I believe, the only country in which, during a great war, eminent men write and speak as if they belonged to the enemy.

Indeed. And, as Roberts adds, "In fact, the phenomenon was to recur throughout the English-speaking peoples over the coming decades, and in some engagements - such as at Suez and in Vietnam - opposition from a vociferous domestic minority was to doom their enterprises far more than foreign opponents.""

Steyn leaves any conclusions from this implicit. However, the conclusions he wants to draw are pretty clear. Domestic opposition is dangerous. This is highly questionable, that opposition was only really successful in Vietnam thanks to the lack of military success. The US didn't leave Vietnam quickly and committed huge force. The enterprise was doomed thanks to a failure of this committment to secure victory and domestic opposition was more a symptom than a cause of military failure.

Even if it is true that minority opposition can, through their words alone, harm the war effort that may be best ignored. Would it have been worth the price of silencing political expression to secure victory in Vietnam? That is a big question and one Steyn, of course, does not feel it important to discuss. After all, if Salisbury was talking about domestic opposition to the Boer War then it is possible that opposition to his war was in the right, we were doing some seriously unpleasant things at the time. Perhaps it was better that domestic opposition doom Vietnam quickly rather than slow military attrition doom it more slowly. I won't presume to answer the question of which side was right in these debates but freedom for minority opposition is important because being a majority is no guarantee of being correct.

"He's certainly right about Vietnam, but my eyebrow arches skyward when it comes to Suez. It was surely neither domestic opposition nor Egyptian enemies that doomed the enterprise, but explicit and fierce American hostility to British action. Short-sighted hostility, one might argue, that led in part to the creation of the fetidly "stable" Middle East that plagues the world today. But that's one of the pleasures of Roberts' book: muscular polemical prose that cheerfully invites an argument about something or other on almost every page. It is, of course, a sequel - to Churchill's History Of The English-Speaking Peoples, whose four volumes concluded in the year 1900. Roberts feels, reasonably enough, that it's a shame to end the story without an account of the Anglosphere century."

Note that it wasn't only Britain who suffered from American hostility to Suez. France did as well. In France the political reaction was far stronger and analagous to the Australian response to Gallipoli with the United States playing the role of the British Empire. It killed French trust in American leadership.

Which raises the question of what he means by "the English-speaking peoples". I have both the London and New York editions of this book. The British jacket bears four flags - the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Southern Cross and the Maple Leaf (surely it should have been the Red Ensign). By contrast, the American jacket replaces that coalition of the willing with a scene of post-war jubilation in Times Square, and the only flag to be seen is that of Old Glory. Roberts' New York publishers would appear not to be entirely on board with his view of the great anglophone family and, at least for promotional purposes, prefer traditional notions of American exceptionalism. The author, on the other hand, subscribes to something closer to the Churchillian idea of a Britannic family with America as the prodigal son, but a son nevertheless and the greatest of all:

Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common - and enough that separated them from everyone else - that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately.

This section is interesting and plausible. There is a huge amount in common between the two great Anglophone powers and studying how the two compare and relate to one another would be an interesting project. Indeed, that comparison is a major focus of Niall Ferguson's, far more interesting, work. However, instead of trying to think through the implications Steyn prefers using it as a stick to beat the Continentals.

"If you step back, this seems obvious. Of the three great global conflicts of the 20th century - the First, Second and Cold Wars - who called it right every time? Germany: one out of three. Italy: two out of three. France: well, let's not even go there. For a perfect hat trick, there are only those nations on the front of Roberts' London edition."

Well, France did 'call it right every time'. It was defeated in the Second World War but the Wehrmacht were not a trifling enemy. It's commitment to the Cold War was limited by the fall out from Suez which the French took very seriously, a fair reaction. Its commitment to the First World War can hardly be questioned.

America may have called the First World War right but only right at the end and after the major costs of victory had already been paid. It warrants two and a half out of three at best. The real world just isn't as simple as Steyn would like it.

"There is a distinction between the "English-speaking peoples" and the rest of "the west", and at key moments in human history that distinction has proved critical. Europe has given us plenty of nice paintings and agreeable symphonies, French wine and Italian actresses and whatnot,"

If this were really nothing more than a harmless joke then I'd leave it alone but it isn't. It's a bizarre contempt for the cultural and scientific achievements of the rest of the West.

"but, for all our fetishization of multiculturalism, you can't help noticing that when it comes to the notion of a political west - a sustained commitment to individual liberty - the historical record looks a lot more unicultural and indeed (given that three of the four nations on that cover share the same head of state) uniregal. Roberts provides a good summation:

Although they are ancient states, many of the constitutions of European countries are very young indeed, far younger than those of Britain's constitutional monarchy (1688-9), America's democracy (1776), Canada's responsible government (1848) or even Australia's Federation (1900). By contrast, the French Constitution establishing its Fifth Republic was only promulgated in 1958, Germany's Basic Law was passed in 1949... Italy's was adopted in 1949... and Portugal's became law in 1976...

Or, as I like to say, the US Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian and Spanish constitutions, it's older than all of them put together. The entire political class of Portugal, Spain and Greece spent their childhoods living under dictatorships. So did Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel. We forget how rare in this world is sustained peaceful constitutional evolution and, to be honest, it's kinda hard to remember when the principal political party of our own demented Dominion peddles non-stop Canada Day smiley-face banalities about how "we are such a young country" (Paul Martin) - which, aside from being obvious tripe, gives us the faintly creepy air of a professional virgin. "The English-speaking peoples did not invent the ideas that nonetheless made them great," concedes Roberts. "The Romans invented the concept of Law, the Greeks one-freeman-one-vote democracy, the Dutch modern capitalism..." But it is the English world that has managed to make these blessings seemingly permanent features of the landscape."

He spends a long time on this as if it has some significance but never spells it out. Perhaps it is a sign that the more liberal approach to state building that characterises the English-speaking world is inherently more stable. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of geographical security. Steyn seems to prefer leaving his analysis at a vague "we're better people". He doesn't even address the question of whether constitutional stability is a good thing. This is pure, brute rhetoric concealing the substituting of prejudice for genuine thinking.

"As Roberts sees it, the story of the 20th century is one of anglophone democracies defending the planet against what he calls four assaults: "The First Assault: Prussian Militarism 1914-17", "The Second Assault: Fascist Aggression 1931-39", "The Third Assault: Soviet Communism 1945-49" and "The Fourth Assault: Islamicist Terrorism and its De Facto Allies". In between come periods of complacency ("The Wasted Breathing Space: 1990-11 September 2001") and loss of faith ("The Long, Dismal, Drawling Tides: The 1970s"), but in the end the good guys always step up to the plate."

The French did far more to defeat Prussian Militarism than the Americans, the Soviet Union did most of the fighting against Fascist Aggression and Steyn acknowledged in his section on Suez that myopia may have led the Americans to make a mess of the Middle East and contribute to the Islamicist problem. Might the actual history of the twentieth century be a bit more subtle than 'anglosphere defends everyone against tyranny and oppression'?

"Our cousins across the ocean marked the dawn of the 9/11 era by selling off the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The whole lot, gone."

Okay, the New Zealand Air Force was never up to much. Running an airforce has huge fixed costs which would seem to make it a poor choice for a small country which does not need one for its own defence. It seems quite sensible that New Zealand focus on providing troops to a general Anzac alliance. This gives them far more capacity to project power and assist the Australians as a regional peacekeeper than spending on expensive but still sub-standard jets.

"Britain itself seems unable to rouse itself from a fatalistic three-legged danse macabre with Europe and its Islamifying cities that may yet mire it in the Continental pathologies it managed to avoid in the 20th century.

"Ah, the Anglosphere," Australia's Alexander Downer, my favourite foreign minister, said to me last year, when the subject of Canadian troops in Afghanistan came up. "There are really only five of us." But, in their present political sensibilities, Canada is semi-French, Britain is semi-European, and New Zealand is semi-bananas. The next volume of this story will be an interesting read."

One could extend this. Australia is a regional power (look at its tiny contribution in Afghanistan and Iraq despite having been such a supporter of both wars) in a region with a number of countries, India, China and a more forceful Japan, which seem likely to render it irrelevant pretty soon. The US has proven itself utterly incompetent in managing the results of its foreign policy interventions without European help. If it keeps making a hash of things it will soon choose a return to fearful isolation.

Of course, neither of these results is preordained but neither are the fates Steyn projects for the rest of the Anglosphere and Continental Europe. It is possible to write off any country you choose to with a touch of rhetorical overexaggeration of their problems. It is more interesting and more helpful to think seriously about how these countries might avoid this fate. They probably have a better chance if they work together rather than succumb to the temptation to snipe and bicker that has defined Steyn's career.

Unity, Disunity; the US, Europe

I've been thinking about the Western alliance recently. To be more precise I’ve been thinking about how few real defenders it has. People increasingly seem to choose a 'side' between Europe and America, usually on ideological lines. Those who don't, Tony Blair for example, seem to be more interested in avoiding a decision or an argument than making a genuine case for European and American ties.

Why should we care about the West? What is special about the European-US alliance? Why is Europe so much more important an ally to the US than, for example, India?

The answers to all these questions seem important to our future choices as a civilisation. There are probably a host of reasons why Europe and the US work so well together and it is clearly wrong to propose a monocausal explanation. Common cultural ties are the most commonly cited justification for strong links between Europe and America. However, I would like to advance a new explanation of why Europeans and Americans working together can be so successful which I think is of particular importance.

Europe's huge achievements over the ages have been built on its division. This is an argument which has been advanced in economic history by various authors such as Landes. When one nation's creative genius was spoiled by awful institutions or the devastation of war another would seize the torch. A classic example is the Inquisition which broke the collective mind of the Spanish in particular who had been leading lights in earlier periods. In another region, China for example, that could have ended intellectual progress and killed a chance at economic development but in Europe it just lead to Northern Europe taking over. Strategic competition between states meant that those left behind soon had to catch up and introduce successful innovations. At the same time European kingdoms were at least an approximation of modern states and could provide the modicum of security development required; economic gains would usually provide a strategic advantage rather than riches for others to plunder.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an article about the EU by the way. The idea the EU can rid Europe of its divisions is either alarmism or touching optimism depending on your perspective. If it started to do so I might get genuinely alarmed but there seems little sign of that as EU states continue to make different policy choices.

By contrast, American success came from its unity. Political unity meant that it possessed an unusually large market without tariff barriers to break it into sections. That market was also made up of relatively homogenous consumers. Britain, and the rest of Europe, didn't develop mass production because it didn't have the demand for large quantities of standardised consumer goods. As worldwide incomes rose the American, mass production model was more able to guarantee a general rise in living standards.

Now, if the source of Europe's strength has been its disunity and the source of America's has been its unity I think these qualities might hint at their contribution to an alliance as well. I'm afraid I'll have to stick to gross generalisations but I think that there is something to this idea. Of course, Europe can exhibit unity and the US is often deeply disunited as with the regularly cited ‘red states vs. blue states’ split. However, in general it seems sensible to believe that Europe has more disunity than the US.

Europe's disunity provides durability to the ideas, values and progress of the West. When one country drops the ball there is usually another making different choices. I think this makes Europe both the West's soul and its testing ground.

However much Europe loses its way it is a diverse place and there will always be states who remember what makes the West great. If the West was one nation, one culture that society might forget its values far more easily. For the purpose of this article I'm not going to claim a special knowledge about what ‘Western values’ might be. Whatever your view of what makes the West so successful that view is reflected somewhere in Europe and can be reasserted elsewhere from its existing foothold. Europe is a far more durable container for the intangible values that make up the Western soul thanks to its disunity.

Of course, sometimes it is important that the values or politics of the West change rather than be maintained. This is also easier with disunity. Disunity makes real dissent far more possible as different policies can actually be tried. While the states in the US can do this they are limited by the far greater strength of the Federal state and a common political culture (there is something of a common faultline in American politics even if different views predominate in different areas). The use of disunity to establish testing grounds can be seen with school vouchers in Sweden or the flat tax in Eastern Europe. It can also be seen with different forms of child support between France and Italy (cash) and Scandinavia (free childcare). All these are differences that have arisen since EU membership and new differences seem to be emerging at least as quickly as the EU standardises other, often narrow, areas of policy.

America's unity makes it strong. There is a reason why it was America that played a leading role in defeating the great threats, internal and external, to the West in the last century. While Europe has greater population and sometimes a larger economy in total there must always be a temptation to free-ride. As each small state is comparatively weak (although many are still titans compared to most non-Western states) they often cannot do what needs to be done alone. Cooperation is difficult to find because it is easier to hope that others will do the job of confronting common enemies. Without America Europe is endangered and weak. Without the power it used to possess thanks to Empire and technological dominance it is vulnerable to the great crises that afflicted the world in the last century and might do so this century as well. America's unity allows it to intervene more effectively than the Europeans even in Europe's backyard (the Balkans) but also to confront other enemies in the wider world.

Without Europe America cuts a sad figure. I have never been convinced that America should choose multilateralism because of some legal or moral duty. I doubt our enemies would respect international law if they were more powerful and if all international law can do is restrain the good it is not worth much. I see no principled reason why America's defence of its interests should be contingent on French, Chinese and Russian approval. However, I think perhaps it is not a coincidence that America's unilateral engagements have been managed so poorly. Europe brings a diversity of opinions which has to make the American approach to using its power more thoughtful and effective. America alone is not just more incompetent, though.

It is also fundamentally less impressive. As an Atlas America looks lonely and embittered. As leader of the 'free world' America is confident and proud. When Europe and America are working together as they were in the Cold War the universalist ideal America looks to for inspiration is much more tenable. Without Europe the question of why, of whether anyone actually has any interest in the shining city on the hill, is far harder for America to answer. Europe gives America purpose and keeps it from the temptation of small minded isolationism.

Neither those Americans, Mark Steyn is a prime example, who take satisfaction in the moral simplicity of America being alone or Europeans such as the French Gaullists who wish to set their country up in opposition to America have their country’s best interests at heart. The West is stronger than the sum of its parts and cutting it to pieces will make all weaker.

I’m a little worried that this article is a little messy and poorly argued. I must confess I’m still working these ideas out in my head but thought the comments of others might clarify my thinking. Let’s think about it in another way.

Disunity tends to lead to uncertainty whereas unity leads to certainty. In a unified body a decision can be made and stuck to whereas in a disunited body it will be subjected to further challenge by those who never agreed and were forced into line. Europe will generally be less unified and also less certain than the US.

Mencken on the advantages of uncertainty:

"Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on 'I am not too sure.'"

Dalrymple on the problems with uncertainty:

"This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction, brought about preferably at your own expense. First, you can't take them seriously; second, you suspect they might in any case be right."

When Europe and America work together they can take the advantages of being both certain and uncertain.