Category Archives: Politics

The meaning of ‘moderate’

I understand why people resist the label ‘moderate’: it sounds mild, milquetoast, and, like its cousin ‘centrist’, like you orient yourself solely by comparison to others. Identify the extremes, position yourself somewhere inbetween, and, there, you’re a ‘moderate’.

But when I describe myself as a ‘moderate’, I mean something different.

When I was a teenager, I went on a bunch of Scout camps. I remember one, where a loud, aggressive kid called Adam — I must have been 17 or so, Adam around 14 — managed to get pretty drunk. This transformed him into (or revealed him to be) an excitable child, one minute jumping up and down, the next flashing everyone, the next bursting into tears. It got bad enough that the grown-ups found out, and believe me, they turned some pretty blind eyes to mild tipsiness. Anyway, later on, when we’d managed to get Adam into our tent and he had calmed down, one of them stuck their head in. “A word, Adam,” he said: “Everything in moderation.”

He didn’t say, “you’re too young to drink.” He didn’t say, “alcohol is bad.” He said, “everything in moderation.” He knew there was no point getting into a debate about the rights and wrongs of alcohol per se, or even alcohol for a 14-year-old. He focused on a message he could confidently deliver: whatever you do, just don’t go crazy, OK?

I’ve thought about that a lot since.

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The fundamentalist the media loves to quote

Johann Hari’s column this month in Attitude magazine expresses horror at the continuing media presence of Stephen Green, head of the campaign group Christian Voice. Green, you might remember, led the campaign against Jerry Springer: The Opera, which led to much of the show’s UK tour being cancelled a few years ago.

Hari argues that it’s shocking Green remains frequently quoted and interviewed on TV and radio, considering his support for the murder of gay people.

Do you deserve to be killed for being gay? Should you be hanged, or shot, or electrocuted? In Britain today, a man who believes you should be – and who actively supports the on-going campaign to hunt down and kill gay people in Africa – is being given prime-time TV slots by the BBC and Channel Four. When Elton John had a baby, he was given the main response on the flagship Six O’Clock News. He is in the rolodex of all the “moral discussion” programs, wheeled on whenever we inch closer to equality for gay people. He is Taken Seriously, and treated as a neutral commentator by shows like Question Time and newspapers like the Daily Mail. His name is Stephen Green, and if he had his way, you’d be reading this from death row.

Now, I like Johann Hari. But he does get a bit carried away sometimes, and I wondered what evidence he’d cite for Green’s pro-murder views. It comes, it turns out, from a newsletter Christian Voice sent out last year. In it, Green appears to write approvingly about Uganda’s proposed law introducing the death penalty for gay sex in some circumstances: “The Bible prescribes precisely the penalty [Ugandan MP David] Bahati is proposing for sodomy in any situation, whether or not ‘aggravated.’”

Crikey. But I was still sceptical. Noting the Bible’s support for something isn’t the same as endorsing it yourself; some deeply religious people have separated themselves from the nuttier aspects of the chosen faith’s holy texts. So I fished out the newsletter, fully expecting to find a qualification that let Green off the hook.

Spoiler alert: nope.

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Ed Miliband and Me

Fun fact: I once had dinner with Ed Miliband. And, on another occasion, played with his BlackBerry when we were both at a picnic on Regent’s Park.

I point this out not to show off – or at least, not purely for that reason. Rather, to illustrate just how rapidly he has risen – and share some thoughts on his suitability for the position he’s ascended to.

I first became aware of Ed Miliband in the autumn of 2003. As you may now, Ed (I sense that people are going to refer to him generally as ‘Ed’ rather than ‘Miliband’) spent 2003-4 teaching at Harvard University. This is widely-known because it meant that he was out of the UK and away from Government around the time of the Iraq war, which has helped him no end since.

I was studying at Harvard in 2003-4. Not long after I arrived, the campus was covered overnight with posters advertising a course called “What’s Left?” and subtitled something like ‘the future of social democracy in Europe.’ And by covered, I mean plastered. The bloody things were everywhere. Advertising for courses, especially new courses, is common at the start of the year at Harvard like elsewhere. But there were three or four of these for any one of anyone else’s.

The course, needless to say, was being run and taught by one E. Miliband. He’s David Miliband’s brother, someone explained. I was only dimly aware of David Miliband, so the existence of his brother didn’t particularly excite me, and I didn’t take the course. But I was told the first lecture was literally overflowing ,with over 500 prospective students turning up. “Crikey,” Ed apparently said when he walked in. “I guess advertising does work.”

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Belated election thoughts, part 3: the Great Flirtation

When I watched the now-famous rose garden press conference on 12 May, I, like everyone else, was struck by the easy-going chemistry between our new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. We seemed to be watching the beginnings of a potentially blossoming friendship. Despite the widespread teeth-gnashing over the workability and legitimacy of the coalition, the tone of the affair seemed a breath of fresh air.

I wasn’t alone in this. The next day, the media had a field day. In a charmingly gushing piece, the Times‘ Matthew Parris described the conference as “something approaching a philosophical spasm.”

After any election there’s usually a sweet, unrehearsed moment of optimism the media seizes on – think of poor Cherie picking up the milk on 2nd May, 1997. But this was something else: the media was captivated by the idea of Cameron & Clegg as an item.

The Independent dubbed the pair “Britain’s new power couple” and “the Bromance of the Century.” The Mail talked about the “No. 10 love-in”. The Express simply declared, “It’s Love.”

The Times‘ Ann Treneman milked a whole column out of the rose garden conference as a wedding. “The only thing missing was a small orchestra and a tremulous song by Andrew Lloyd Webber,” she snarked.

Others preferred to up the homosexual implications by calling it not a marriage but a civil partnership. “The marriage – or was it a civil partnership – between Tories and Lib Dems has taken place. Now they must make it work,” said The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh.

“It was not so much a love-in as the exchanging of vows at a political civil partnership ceremony,” said Nick Robinson. Fraser Nelson, even while pointing out the coalition’s many faultlines, also called it a “civil partnership.”

Even the FT, for heaven’s sake, got in on the act.

Downing Street’s rose garden was tastefully arranged as if in readiness for a wedding; though in this case it was more of a civil partnership. The grass was verdant; the sun shone; the blossom was in full bloom.

The two young men were nicely turned out and full of sweet things to say about each other. Oh yes, this is going to be a very civil partnership.

This was just the kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about. We’d seen them earlier on the steps of Number 10 and – well, frankly, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

“The very kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about” is a double entendre worthy of Carry On Conservatives.

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Obama and the other Kennedy

Ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination commentators have been falling over themselves to evoke the memory of John F. Kennedy. Obama’s youth, short time in the senate, and relentless message of change all stir memories of the handsome young upstart who squeaked the presidency in 1960. With the endorsement of Obama’s candidacy by several senior Kennedys in late January, the comparisons became more frequent. “A president like my father”, Caroline Kennedy called Obama. The New York Times evoked Kennedy’s most successful book when it referred to Obama’s race speech as a “Profile in Courage”.

With JFK still generally revered by most Americans, particularly the white working-class voters Obama desperately needs to win over, it’s a comparison Obama’s people are happy to see made (despite the odd snipe by commentators). The truth is, though, that John F. Kennedy and Obama came from very different places politically – and had very different concepts of “change”.

Obama’s campaign has been built on a solid platform of opposition to the Iraq war. Indeed, if Obama hadn’t been able to contrast his own opposition to Hillary’s mixed record, it’s highly unlikely his campaign would have gathered the momentum – and the money – it needed to seriously compete. With his willingness to negotiate with so-called “rogue states”, and to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, Obama has nailed his colours pretty clearly to the dove mast.

The contrast with the Kennedy campaign of 1960 couldn’t be clearer. Kennedy’s brand of change, and its attendant criticism of the preceding eight years of Republican rule, was unequivocally hawkish.

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the election of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half-slave or half-free, whether it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the road that we are taking, or whether it will move in the direction of slavery… We discuss tonight domestic issues, but I would not want that to be any implication to be given that this does not involve directly our struggle with Mr. Khrushchev for survival.

So Kennedy began the opening speech of his famous debate with opponent Richard Nixon. Granted, Kennedy discussed poverty at length in his campaign, and also lent his support to the nascent civil rights movement. But his most progressive ideas were always couched in the rhetoric of the Cold War. “The kind of country we have here, the kind of society we have, the kind of strength we build in the United States will be the defense of freedom,” he went on in his opening speech. If we do well here, if we meet our obligations, if we’re moving ahead, then I think freedom will be secure around the world. If we fail, then freedom fails.”1

Indeed, as George Packer points out, Kennedy’s message of hope was coded to speak to insecurities bubbling under the surface of a nation allegedly at east with itself. In an atmosphere of steady-as-she-goes conservatism – the 1950s, with their fetishising of conformity, had just ended – Kennedy brought to the surface fears about the economy and America’s place in the world that had previously been unspoken. Obama, by contrast, faces a nation in turmoil, where divisions over the best response to myriad challenges have almost made civilised discussion impossible. This means his message of hope, his focus on the positive, can be much more effective.

So is the strange, and ultimately sad, Kennedy story of no real relevance to the Obama campaign? Not so fast. Because there is a Kennedy campaign that Obama has much more in common with – the 1968 campaign of John’s little brother, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

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The end of regeneration?

A new report argues that fifty years of urban policy have failed to revitalise the economies of Britain’s Northern towns. If they’re right, the very future of our Northern cities may have to be rethought

Those who know me will be surprised to hear I’ve been reading a Policy Exchange report recently. PE, for those who don’t keep up with the ever-growing roster of UK think-tanks, is the leading centrist (read: sane) entity amongst the conservative ‘tanks. Unlike its crazier cousins, such as Civitas and Politeia, Policy Exchange serves as more than a mouthpiece for bored minor ex-ministers and a peddler of slightly silly state-the-obvious reports.1 Despite the concerns of the Fourth International, PE is essentially a serious enterprise. And, determined to be taken as seriously as lefties such as IPPR, PE has taken the radical step of commissioning and publishing actual academic research by actual academics.

This report, into the history of Britain’s urban policy, makes depressing, if fascinating reading. Five or six decades of urban policy, it argues, have essentially failed.

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Democracy 2.0

In a faraway domain, a fragile democracy is fighting for survival. Everyday we watch on our screens it struggles to maintain order amongst chaos and defend its day-to-day operations against dissent and malicious attacks. What? No, not Iraq! I’m talking about Wikipedia.

We think of the internet mostly as consumers – we read sites, use them, buy from them. But the internet started off as a community. The first websites were bulletin boards, designed to let academics share information. They didn’t have staff or managers, and they certainly wouldn’t get sold for millions of dollars. They belonged to the people who use them: they were democratic.

Wikipedia is the biggest democracy on the internet. It’s the 15th most-visited site on the web, and every one of its millions of users can take part in its decisions. Not only can anyone edit pages, but anyone can vote – or stand – in elections to its managing boards. One American academic thinks it might even be “the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration the world has ever known.”

But as Iraq is finding out, it isn’t easy maintaining order in a democracy of equals. Wikipedia has its own insurgents: vandals. It suffers thousands of vandal attacks every day – entries are deleted, defaced, or altered for political or personal reasons. “George W. Bush” is its most frequently edited pages. Politicians have admitted having campaign staff edit their pages to cover up criticism. And workers campaigning for better conditions have been known to alter their employer’s entries to put their points across.

In the early years of the project, such insurgencies plunged Wikipedia into civil war – between its co-founder and “chief organizer,” Larry Sanger, and a mysterious anarchist called “The Cunctator.” Sanger wanted a certain amount of authority to ensure the site’s quality; “Cunc” was in favour of total equality. After months of deleting each other’s edits to pages and sparring in the sites’ talk pages, the war ended with Sanger leaving the project.

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