Tuesday, 31 August 2010

He Does Have A Lovely Wife

Last week there were rumours about a Cabinet Minister threatening legal action over rumours of a gay affair. This was in addition to Crispin Blunt coming out as gay last week and leaving his wife, which does not seem to have been on anyone's radar, possibly because nobody really knew who he was.

Now Guido goes where no newspaper or mainstream news organisation is prepared to go and reports that William Hague shared a room with his driver during the election campaign and has subsequently appointed said driver, Christopher Myers, as a special adviser on the public payroll. Mr Myers is 25.

What to make of it all then? Well, as I remarked just last week, it is possible for two men to become close and to genuinely just be friends. If Mr Hague feels comfortable and close to Mr Myers and trusts him then why not have him working close as a special adviser? Politics can be a lonely business which is why so many of our leading politicians tend to rely on close confidantes who can be trusted with the day to day minutiae of their busy lives.

But I admit it does all look a bit odd, although whether or not it is inappropriate to share a room with an aide in this manner is a matter of opinion. It might be perfectly innocent and just a practical arrangement given the early mornings and late nights the two were undertaking during the campaign. I imagine this is why newspapers are hesitating over the story. I don't want to come over all Morecambe and Wise, but Mr Hague does have a lovely wife, the beautiful Ffion whom he met whilst serving as Secretary of State for Wales all of those years ago. But maybe that is me being all blind and heterosexual about it.

This may not be much of a story at all, especially in the Brokeback Coalition. It's hardly a major scandal. The only way it is a story is if it all comes as news to the lovely Ffion.

A Little Death In DixieThe SuburbsThe Girl with the Dragon TattooWilliam Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade CampaignerWilliam Pitt the Younger: A Biography
A Little Death In Dixie

IPCC Caught Proselytising

It was finally acknowledged in a report yesterday that the IPCC has been less than rigorous when reporting on the science of climate change. That is being charitable. Professor Harold Shapiro of Princeton, the chairman of the report into the report, said that one of the constituent parts of the overall IPCC documents, 'contains many statements that were assigned high confidence but for which there is little evidence.'

Now to my eyes that statement sounds extremely damaging, even if it is phrased with scientific discretion. To put it less diplomatically, the IPCC was telling the world that the science was pointing one way but had no evidence for their assertions. Furthermore, says Shapiro, the IPCCs response when errors were pointed out was 'slow and inadequate.' Or, as I would put it, they reacted defensively and arrogantly, like politicians rather than scientists trying to uncover facts with evidence. It was spin not science.

This tends to vindicate those of us who have long argued that the IPCC, painted as an honest broker for the truth, was instead actively seeking out evidence which accorded with one theory to the exclusion of evidence to the contrary. That is not science. That, as this new report states, is lobbying. In fact it is not even that. This was proselytising for the new religion of climate change.

There is general agreement that human activities are having some impact on the climate but that is the extent of the consensus we hear so much about. The rest is so much guesswork. The embarrassing episode about glacier retreat also misses the point. Even if this alarmist nonsense had turned out to be true rather than something based on a speculative magazine article, it  still didn't prove what was causing the change in the climate. We simply don't know for sure.

This new report does not really address the fundamental problems associated with the science surrounding climate change. Too much of it does what the IPCC did, it looks for the proof to reinforce an existing and flawed theory and massages facts to suit. This new investigation is critical but in the mildest of terms. This ought to be a huge scandal. We are committed to spending trillions, yes trillions of dollars on 'preventing climate change.' In the process we are seeing vast sums spent by governments and companies on taxes and the new wheeze of carbon trading and huge profits for those who exploit green politicians. People are being thrown out of work, factories closed and carbon credits traded to the benefit of less scrupulous (or naive) countries more keen to protect and advance their industries.  

Now we have it confirmed that the independent, international body set up to advise on the issue has been cutting corners, copying and pasting whole sections of its reports, exaggerating facts and making up others. Shouldn't we be outraged by this? Shouldn't we be questioning why we are paying extra on our energy bills to fund this nonsense? 

I am proud to call myself a climate sceptic. That should be the default option for our politicians when told that we must raise taxes and load ever greater costs on industry already struggling with recession and cheap foreign competition. We should demand incontrovertible evidence before we go down that drastic route. 

Instead our politicians, as is their wont, prefer to grandstand on the international stage and aspire to lead the world into a greener future. There is nothing wrong with advocating research and development into new fuels and energy, encouraging recycling and greater efficiency. But that is very different to promises to cut CO2 emissions before the technology is available. That is very different to loading costs on to our economies, this meaning that ever more jobs are transferred abroad and that no CO2 is saved anyway. The politics of climate change has actually meant that we close factories here, transfer them abroad and effectively subsidise the creation of a new factory doing the same job thousands of miles away. Foreign companies can't believe their luck. And it doesn't save a single gram of CO2. Quite the opposite. 

Before we commit ourselves to these actions and try to forge international agreements at ever larger hot air festivals in places like Copenhagen, shouldn't we insist that the science is rigorous and properly tested? Or would we be better spending money on ensuring that people around the world can be fed and given clean water? Before we divert trillions trying to prevent a problem that may not exist or may be largely natural shouldn't we be very sure about our facts? If we're going to fundamentally change the way our world works and sustains itself over the next half century, it would surely be nice if we were right. 

The SuburbsDexter: The Fourth SeasonThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

No Respect

Take a look at this excellent piece by the always interesting, informative and provocative Nick Cohen. It concerns the confusion of the liberal intelligentsia over Islamism and the moral relativism this creates.

People who advocate the oppression of women, the murder of apostates, forced marriage and the other outrages of radical Islamism, or those who refuse to condemn them - calling it cultural imperialism - are not showing respect, they are betraying their beliefs.

It is possible to be tolerant of people's private religious beliefs so long as they themselves remain tolerant of those who dissent. The moment those beliefs are used as justification for oppression, repression, torture and barbarism is the moment when we have the right and duty to object.

I have no respect for any religious beliefs since all religion is essentially facile. It is my right to say so in a democratic society. Given the nature of Islam, my lack of respect tends to be focused on that religion, although not exclusively so as the forthcoming tour of the Pope will illustrate. Yet for some my lack of respect is in itself wrong and outrageous (interestingly the same people will feel no compunction about showing none for the pontiff), some even equate it, ludicrously, to racism, forgetting the fact that Islam is not a race but a man made fiction about which we have a choice. Our race is obligatory.

Demanding respect is the modern way for religions to silence dissent. Where once they shouted about blasphemy and heresy they now demand that, whatever our views, we must respect them and their views. But silence is inimical to progress. The only reason we are now in the happy position that religion is optional is because brave people in the past spoke out, they pointed out the inconsistencies of religion, its contradictions and irrationality. Not so very long ago they could have been outcast for their bravery, or often much worse. In many parts of the world this remains the case. Indeed the brilliant and stupendously brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one such voice who has emerged from the world of Islam to speak out against its worst excesses and pervasive obscurantism.

This is why we have to resist the call for respect. We reserve the right not to respect your insistence that evolution is just a theory. We reserve the right not to respect your right to subjugate women because of what it says in a badly written book. We reserve the right to resist your attempts to give equality to Sharia which is demonstrably not god given law as you claim.  All of these things should be self evident to anyone calling themselves liberal.

InfidelNomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of CivilizationsThe Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and IslamNomad: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of CivilizationsWhat's Left?: How the Left Lost Its Way

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Emmys 2010

Congratulations to everyone who won awards at last night's Emmy Awards in America, but in particular to the gorgeous British actress Archie Panjabi, long admired by your blogger, in particular for her performance in East is East. It's sad she has had to go to America to get regular work, but at least she has now got recognition for it. Her award was for her performance in the legal drama The Good Wife.

It seems to be a well worn path now for our actors to head over to America, adopt the accent and thus get regular work. It's the advantage of a common language and our top quality training earning dividends I suppose. And perhaps it should be seen as supporting the argument advanced by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC in Edinburgh at the weekend, about the need for the BBC to be maintained given how much it supports what production we have. Given the recent weakness of ITV and Channel 4 and the reluctance of the all powerful Sky to invest in more British production instead of importing so much from the States, the BBC is all the more important.

There were of course many award recipients last night (Mad Men did well again and deservedly so, I admit my initial reaction to it was wrong), but special mention should also go to Jim Parsons who won much deserved recognition for his brilliance as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, another favourite of this blog as mentioned on a number of occasions. The Big Bang Theory has everything that is right about U.S sitcoms without doing anything particularly radical or different. But Jim Parsons' performance is about the best you will see in the whole genre and is the principal reason why the show is so enjoyable.

The Good Wife: The First SeasonEast Is EastThe Big Bang Theory: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2The Big Bang Theory: The Complete Third Season

NHS Direct: Not Direct Enough

There is something rather comical about the Labour reaction to the news that the government is to scrap or otherwise reform NHS Direct. You would think they had announced that the NHS was to be dismantled or privatised judging from the hysteria.

This is a telephone helpline we are talking about, not mass redundancies for nurses, closure of thousands of hospitals and involuntary euthanasia for anyone over the age of 50 with health problems deemed unacceptably expensive.

And it isn't as if that helpline is being scrapped altogether. It is being replaced by a similar service accessed from a more memorable phone number and staffed by people who read from a computer script rather than the trained nurses deemed necessary by those who set it up initially. But Labour scent an opportunity and so are in full heartless Tory battle cry. NHS Direct was one of the few things they can point to as a real achievement, regardless of whether it is any good. And it feeds into their predetermined strategy for the next five years. This will be their approach to everything from now on.

Now I would be the first to admit that NHS Direct was a good idea, at least in theory. Unfortunately, as so often, especially with the NHS, the reality of it never matched the initial good intentions and rhetoric. It was originally intended to take some of the pressure off front line services, particularly hospital A & E departments. In practice it did nothing of the sort. It's arguable that it increased those pressures.

We hear sometimes about people being diagnosed and even treated over the phone in rare and emergency situations in remote parts of the world where no doctors or nurses are available. But this is hardly ideal. And dealing with such matters presupposes that patients are able adequately to express themselves and describe their symptoms and the site of the pain. There was a documentary on television recently in which a nurse, face to face with a patient, tried several different ways of asking him how he had anal sex. Was it penetrative? Non comprende. Did he give or receive? Que? In the end she had to resort to doing a kind of Benny Hill impersonation before he twigged what she was asking. Imagine doing that over the phone. But that is what NHS Direct tries to do. How can they possibly do that without risking misdiagnosis and potential lawsuits?

And anyway, in this health and safety obsessed and litigious age, the chances of someone on a helpline telling you to buck your ideas up and stop being a hypochondriac were always going to be minimal. Instead they listen to your problem and as often as not tell you to go and see a doctor to cover themselves against being sued or being responsible for your death from a disease not covered by their software. If they are lucky they dissuade people from going immediately to hospital and making an appointment with a GP instead. But that is the best that can be expected.

And this new 111 service won't work either. Some people with genuine emergencies will call it when they should have called 999 but didn't want to make a fuss. Others will call 999 because they've missed the last bus (a genuine call that one). We live in a world in which people want instant help and results. That is why NHS Direct has attracted a lot of calls. But that doesn't make it worthwhile. People still go to their GPs and demand antibiotics for their sniffles and become angry when told that there is no point and still no cure for the common cold. It doesn't matter how many helplines you set up, how much education you give people, they will still do stupid things, ask stupid questions and always demand that someone else sorts out the mess that they are in. By constantly creating these services you just create the impression that personal responsibility can be delegated and that a free service can be used and abused on a whim with no consequences.

Most health practitioners will tell you that  NHS Direct is a waste of time and money. It actually should be scrapped completely and replaced by a service which just offers advice about finding a doctor or hospital and other basics. Trying to do anything more complex is pointless and self defeating. Unfortunately though it exists now and is part of the NHS and so we are stuck with it or something like it. As Labour found when they tried to close hospital departments so as to move treatment centres to make the service more efficient, people will fight tooth and nail against anything which can be painted as closure. You can add whole new layers of bureaucracy and add new services to your heart's content. But try to close or rationalise something and woe betide you.

NHS Direct treats nobody, doesn't save lives and actually costs money which would be better off spent on proper treatments and services dealing with patients face to face. But it's there now, politicians have created it and so it must be protected with cries of cuts and privatisation and dismantling of vital services. That is the dishonest and ludicrous politics of our beloved health service.

Gone Digital

There is, I suppose, something inevitable about the news that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in its full and unexpurgated glory - all 20 volumes of it - will never see the light of day in printed form. Seriously, who can afford to buy it? The only people who could or would want to are lexicographers themselves, hardly a large marketplace and presumably not handsomely remunerated, and wordsmiths who tick the same boxes.

As many have pointed out on hearing this news, the internet is really the more natural home for a dictionary, particularly one which attempts to keep track of a language as dynamic and ever changing as English. Reference books, especially those which run to many volumes, have found a more natural home on the web. It's just that it doesn't feel that way.

There is something oddly satisfying about the written and printed word. There is something aesthetically pleasing about a room full of books. For all of the efficiency and immediacy of the internet, browsing through a book is more satisfying. Like many people who love words and language, I have been known to browse the pages of a dictionary just for the fun of it, and not just to look up expletives, slang, oddities and record breakers like antidisestablishmentarianism and floccinaucinihilipilification. And anyway sometimes such books are necessary. The spell checker has not heard of floccinaucinihilipilification, which is frankly scandalous. No wonder education is going to the dogs.

Ironically the library has lately been staging something of a comeback in the homes of the wealthy with too many reception rooms and a desire to impress. In years gone by, when books were coveted luxuries - the plasma screens and Crestron home automation systems of their day - dictionaries and encyclopaedias were at the core of all decent book collections. Now we can all access such things for free thanks to the internet.

Knowledge has been democratised and we are all better off for it. But if this is the beginning of the end of the printed book it is still sad and regrettable. Progress is relentless and usually for a purpose, but the digital world  lacks some of the romance and aesthetics of the analogue one. Just as music felt more pleasurable when owned on a disc, so the written word feels better in print. But it is not just the romance of it. To me modern media lacks the permanency and durability of the old fashioned methods. Will those who would once have had to burn books now simply press a delete button? Maybe that's what makes me worry.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Call My Bluff

Downing Street, it is being put about, fear Little Milly the most as potential Labour leader. Is this true? Is this Ali Campbell style spin and bluff? Is it Ali Campbell style double bluff?

Back in the days when Campbell was in his pomp in the Downing Street operation, he let it be known that the man they wanted as Tory leader was Ken Clarke. This was not true. They were terrified at the prospect of Clarke. This was why people like me backed him for the leadership. I even wrote to him to say so - I'm not saying my backing was important, just that I felt strongly enough to write to him about it. People like me backed him despite our fundamental disagreement with him over Europe. We knew that he was the best the Tories had in terms of charisma, blokeish charm, intelligence and debating skills. He was also a pragmatist and knew the party well. Campbell knew this too which was why he spun so furiously and deviously. In the end the Tories took the disastrous and ill fated decision to elect Iain Duncan Smith, thus illustrating that they were not ready to govern.

It is impossible to say if the spin worked. I would suspect not. The Europe issue did for Clarke. It was still a corrosive issue within the party. An unelectable party elected an unelectable leader. It probably says more about Labour's constant insecurity, despite their double digit majorities. It is part of the reason for their failure to get on and govern.

This is why I hope that this is not Tory spin now. Little Milly is the best of the potential leaders. It's just that he is the best of a bad and uninspiring bunch, most of whom are sullied by their links to a failed government and all of whom are desperately trying to reposition themselves whilst not dumping too much on their governmental legacy. It's a difficult trick to pull off, and so far none have.

Nobody doubts the intelligence of the Milly brothers. But they do come across as policy wonks made good, political geeks who need to get a life before they presume to tell the rest of us how to live ours. For all of their talk about feeling our pain and understanding our needs, they have worked in a government which studiously ignored the rest of us once safely entrenched in power. They look like what they are, products of a metropolitan, technocratic elite whose only use for the Labour heartlands is to provide them with their safe seats.

Labour do need to move on to the next generation of course. But the trouble is that the next generation were tied in to the old and passed generation too, and have shown little inclination to distance themselves from it. Indeed they are showing the Bennite tendency of arguing that the reason they failed is because they weren't left wing enough. Their response? Higher taxes. Labour, whatever the generation, really do never seem to learn.

When David Cameron emerged out of nowhere to take the Conservative leadership, he did so by looking fresh, new, energetic and innovative. He also had the added advantage that he was only very tenuously linked to the last Conservative government, and not at all in public perception. None of the Labour leadership candidates, or at least none that matter, has that advantage. Furthermore they have shown a marked reluctance to change and learn the lessons of their defeat. Large parts of their party are in denial over that defeat. They still cling to the view that it wasn't a real one because the Tories didn't win a majority. That is why they continue to attack the Lib Dems as collaborators. That is their biggest mistake because the electorate have been impressed by this new grown up politics. A new Labour leader will have to cajole his party into accepting this. It will not be easy, especially with the unions and dinosaurs like John Prescott in militant and combative mode. They even face the nightmare possibility of Gordon forgetting his promise of going off to run a charity and making a comeback as a loyal shadow cabinet member.

So, whether this is bluff, double bluff or a genuine leak about Downing Street's private fears is ultimately immaterial. Five years from an election, the coalition has more important things to worry about. Labour is starting the long process of renewal. For now though they seem incapable of the kind of honesty and introspection this will require.

Are either of the Millies going to lead them in that process? For all of their intelligence and youthful good looks, it is hard to see them rising to that challenge. Are they willing to tell their party some home truths? Do they have the political and personal skills to pull that off? Can they even see what the truth is and what is required? I can't see that Labour even have the option of electing a William Hague type figure who will be unable to reform the party but can at least perform well in the Commons.

The other elephant in the Labour room is that, whichever of the Millies eventually prevails, we may be about to see the party's history repeating itself. One has for long been the heir presumptive. The other has come along and threatens to usurp him at the last moment. We've been here before haven't we? When Blair usurped Brown we had a decade and a half of  dysfunctionality at the top of the party and then in government. Now, whatever their claims of brotherly love, we are certain to see more resentment, the sort which can only be engendered by sibling rivalry.

At least this time the party is to elect its next leader. But that is only the start of their problems. Assuming that the choice is between the two Millies, what Labour face now is essentially once again Tony versus Gordon, but this time with one refusing to drop out. Little Milly (David) is Tony, but without the charm and charisma, and that, love or hate TB, is a major deficit given the task he would face. LM knows Labour needs to change and face some unpalatable truths but does he have the balls to say so and force through change? His past would suggest otherwise. Little Milly Minor is Gordon, but without the paranoia and charm deficit. What he does share with GB however is this phony sense of mission to save the poor and a deluded set of ideas about how to achieve that.

If Downing Street really is worried about either of these candidates, it's hard to see why. They should be rubbing their hands in glee, just as Tony and Ali did as the Tories shot themselves repeatedly in the foot during  their lost decade. They may surprise us, grow into the job and mould the party once more into the formidable election winning machine it once was, even if it then proved incapable of governing. But whoever they choose this time, their problems will only just be beginning.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Keep The Stig's Helmet In Place

What are the rights and wrongs of Harper Collins the publishers releasing a book revealing the identity of Top Gear's the Stig? Well to me it seems like an open and shut case. The Stig is a fictional character created by the Top Gear team, specifically Jeremy Clarkson and the show's editor Andy Wilman, but with input from a lot of other people. The conceit has been that he is some kind of non human being.

Just because he takes part in a television show and is played by a real person who also happens to be a racing driver does not make that person, whom I shall not name, The Stig. He is a character in the same way that Harry Potter or Delboy Trotter are characters. For someone else to come along and seek to make money out of it by outing the Stig is outrageous but it is also fraudulent.

The newspapers have of course had a lot of fun speculating about who The Stig is and this week named him. But these are the same papers who miss no opportunity to slate the BBC for waste and a lack of commercial nous. This is the Beeb showing that nous. Top Gear is a huge worldwide hit. The Stig is part of that. It is not for some other company to come along and try to hitch a ride on the cash generating bandwagon without permission. The Stig is the BBC's intellectual property and should be respected.

But more than that it's spoiling the joke. I've watched and enjoyed this new version of Top Gear from the very beginning. They have built the brand and The Stig is integral to it. Revealing who plays the character is missing the point. He's not supposed to be human. He has a girlfriend but she too goes everywhere in a white helmet, even the swimming pool. It's funny. It's clever. Why do people have to spoil it?

Some say his sweat is acidic and he knows two facts about ducks and they're both wrong. I say shut up about who plays him and let's enjoy the joke.

Top Gear: The Complete Season 12Top Gear: Complete Season 13 (3pc)Top Gear: The Complete Season 11Top Gear 10: The Complete Season 10The Big Book of Top Gear 2010Top Gear My Dad Is The Stig Kids T-Shirt 4YrsTop Gear Polar Special [Blu-ray]Top Gear - Great Adventures 3 (2pc) [Blu-ray]Top Gear Box Set Collection [NON-U.S.A. FORMAT: PAL Region 2 U.K. Import] (Includes the Specials: Revved Up, Winter Olympics, and The Best Of)