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Whatever happened to politics? September 28, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, Ireland, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party.
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God, it’s depressing. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’m close to losing what little interest I had left in Irish parliamentary politics.

I’m not talking about Irish politics in general; that’s much too broad, and many important, even urgent issues fall under that heading (alleviation of poverty, energy policy and climate change, tackling inequality etc.). No, what I’m finding so objectionable is the extent to which issues like those – real political issues, with no easy answers – seem to be increasingly excluded from debate in favour of whatever the talking point du jour happens to be.

Take the current uproar over Ahern’s acceptance of a substantial sum of money in 1993. Certainly, it’s a serious issue, not just that he took the money, but equally the extent to which he seems to believe that there’s nothing at stake in doing so, as if being a decent aul’ skin who likes his pint of Bass, and his coddle and his G.A.A. (add cliché, as required) means the same ethical standards by which others are judged to don’t apply in his case. And it’s completely proper that’s he’s held to account on the charge, although that seems to waning after a risible performance yesterday from Kenny and Rabbitte (that said, the scuttlebutt over on politics.ie is that the Government may well fall tonight, if only to show how lamentable my powers of prediction are).

That said, while it is serious, is it really that substantial an issue? Given that no one is seriously claiming that the payment was a bribe, or that corrupt of his Office was involved, it’s hard to accept that the level of coverage it has realised it proportionate to the importance of the issues at stake. While the Opposition will flail about, faking ire for a while to score points against a weakened government and it will receive wall-to-wall media coverage because the politicians are talking about little else, maybe we should consider it a matter of regret that something like this generates such excitement whereas something like civil liberties or the European project doesn’t. Politics, in the wider sense, seems to have been completely overshadowed in favour of a shallower ‘current affairs’.

This phenomenon – the rejection of policy as central to political debate – didn’t, of course, originate in the current ‘crisis’ (what crisis?, etc.). Travelling to work in the morning, I notice that Fine Gael appear to have launched yet another vacuous publicity campaign against the hapless commuter. The two posters I’ve seen so far feature Enda Kenny, in one holding some documents and looking very purposeful out a window, with the slogan ‘It’s time for a new team, with new ideas’; in the other, he’s in an office and appears to be dictating or lecturing to a blurred group of young professionals, diligently taking notes below him, accompanied by the words ‘We’ll work as hard as you do’ (which isn’t a great selling point if directed at me).

Does anything, can anything represent the abandonment of politics more completely or more precisely than these posters? They may as well be saying to the electorate ‘You know that thing you want? Whatever it is, that’s what we’ll do’. Who cares what the ideas are, provided they’re new? Who cares what policies the party will implement, so long as they work hard doing so? It’s marketing, just marketing, in its purest form, selling an image with represents nothing but itself, all surface and no depth. Has Jean Baudrilliard has become the party’s new image guru (at least it’s a step up from Eoghan Harris)?

Similarly, the government parties don’t engage in any kind of debate of ideas (admittedly it’s tricky when there are no ideas – as opposed to ideas about ideas – put forward from the other side). Instead of laying out any kind of vision of the Ireland they want to lead us into, we’re treated to inane phrases like ‘slump coalition’ and completely meaningless and decontextualised statistics about the unemployment rate in 1994.

Frankly, all of this is an insult to the intelligence, and an insult to the electorate. In my admittedly naïve way, I’d always had a particular idea of what an election campaign should involve – various parties setting out different proposals about what they intend to do in government, and taking it as a given that the voters have the gumption to assess the relative merits of each before making a choice. Instead, the main parties seem to have conceded that policies and ideas don’t matter any more, that there is no difference between them, and squabble for the public’s attention like two people in a park, each trying to attract a confused puppy to themselves. ‘Vote for us – we’ll do exactly the same as them, only better. And NEW!’. ‘Vote for us – we’re already here, so we’re better because the alternative is worse even though there is no alternative’. And so on …

So who can we blame for this complete degradation of debate? I’d start by pointing a finger at the Liveline approach to politics (alternatively known as the ‘keep those texts coming in’ school of thought). Somewhere in the late nineties there a decision was taken somewhere that the views of the public were important. Or, rather, that the expression of those views was important and newsworthy in and of itself. Don’t make the mistake of confusing this with a respect for those views, and ensuring that a wide range of opinions fed and influenced public debate. No, most important of all with interactivity, the instant reaction, preferably in ten words or less. The text message into the radio programme, or to Questions and Answers, the pointless surveys on TV3 or ireland.com and, perhaps most pernicious of all, the increasing ubiquity of opinion polls as actual news stories – all of these should be seen as anathema to real debate, rather than complementary to it. It’s no great exaggeration to suggest that once a week, a newspaper reading is likely to encounter a top story about a recently released opinion poll, thereby telling people what they already think, rather than giving them the basis to form an opinion in the first place (which is surely more important).

It’s, I believe, this kind of mentality – treating people as consumers, as subjects of marketing research whose most banal preferences need to be studied, then fed back at them, rather than as conscious, engaged citizens who are open to a persuasive and rational argument and are intelligent enough to understand a relatively detailed policy debate – that has so degraded public discourse in this country. The main parties believe that people can’t deal with real arguments, so hide behind slick, but empty, slogans and campaigns. And the electorate, presented with nothing more substantial than cheap platitudes responds with the old favourite ‘Ah, sure they’re all the same’ (a view which, admittedly, the parties themselves do little to dispel).

So where does one go from here? In the diatribe above, I’ve referred to the ‘main parties’. I realise that it’s a very flawed phase, in that I’m referring to the three largest parties, plus the Progressive Democrats, simply because they seem to be the ones which receive the most coverage. And what a bunch they are – two populist parties still fighting a civil war, but missing a casus belli, a Labour Party which seems to have missed the point of the Labour movement, and a centrist mini-party which saw a choice between being radical and redundant and decisively opted for the latter.

When the election comes around I could, of course, opt for Sinn Féin. They, at least, seem to have a reasonably consistent progressive ideology (leaving aside the issues surrounding Northern Ireland/the OSC/whatever), although I’m not sure how far I’d trust them (an issue which deserves its own post, and which I hope to return to in future).

I could, alternatively, paraphrase George Orwell, or Winston Smith more precisely, and suggest that ‘If there is hope, it lies with the Greens’ (never forgetting the importance of the hypothetical there). And, indeed, the Greens’ aren’t afraid to put brave and innovative policies front and centre, and deserve praise, rather than ridicule, for attempting to run election campaigns in this way. But while I believe they’re the only party really willing to give climate change it’s due seriousness, I’m not entirely convinced about the merits of their policies in some other areas (what little I know of them – entirely my fault, but sometimes such a broad church can have too many alcoves). The choose a party simply because it takes policy seriously, rather than on the merits of those policies, would be almost as foolish as thinking ‘Yes, it is time for a new team’ etc. Obviously, I’ve some serious thinking to do between now and next summer.

Of course, perhaps it was always ever thus. I’m obviously idealising some mythical past in which policy took precedence over image or personality, or whether the prospective T.D. would ‘look after you’. And maybe I’m wrong in thinking that things are getting any worse in this respect. It might well be that everything’s just as bad as it always was, except there’s now more of it. But one thing I am sure of is that whenever I do go to cast my next vote, I won’t be doing it with any sense of enthusiasm or hope.

Not with a bang but with chintz – Tony, Cherie and the dangers of saying Farewell September 26, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, gordon brown, The Left, Tony Blair, Uncategorized.
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Good speech today by Tony Blair. Good speech yesterday by Gordon Brown. Dreadful misstep by Cherie Booth which marred Blair’s last conference speech as leader, even if he did manage to make a couple of wisecracks such as “At least I don’t have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door.” Humour is fine, it’s perhaps essential in selling a centre left message, but it’s completely insufficient at papering over the cracks in a pivotal political relationship which has served Britain (and this island to as regards the North) better than the cheerleaders of either protagonist appear willing to admit.

It’s hard not to feel that the whole situation, as it has played out this last few weeks, is a futile exercise. Here is a profoundly successful centre-left leader, who has to a large degree mortgaged his reputation on the apparently less and less successful intervention in Iraq, caught up in an internal power struggle at the very heart of the New Labour project.

Add in a partner who – at the very least – appears to have put herself in a position where she was misquoted, or alternatively actually stated a ludicrous comment borne of bitterness. And the response of her own father and his partner, interviewed on Channel Four news indicates the depths currently being plumbed. Disputes over curtains? Is this where it all ends? Chintz?

Cherie’s comment, whether accurately reported or not, has cast a shadow not merely over Gordon Brown’s speech, but also that of Tony Blair. What could have been a fine, defining moment where one era ended and another began was marred by the implication of churlishness. And to what point? Blair is a compromised figure. The steady attrition from Iraq impinges upon his own legacy. His political charm is dissipating as new figures (Alan Johnson – capable no doubt, but whohe?) jostle onto stage. Brown is moving towards a coronation, perhaps deserved, perhaps not. But the sour small of ambition denied and power husbanded (so to speak) is a grim reminder of the old maxim about power corrupting…

So well done, one and all. The lack of seriousness displayed over the past couple of days, the self-indulgence and the willful lack of discipline is reminiscent of another period in British political history some fourteen odd years ago when another party allowed itself to eke out it’s final moments in power in dribs and drabs.

Labour is not there yet. Not nearly there yet. But to Blair et al I’d tend to think an approach of ‘here’s your hat, where’s your hurry?’ might be the best for the future.

Okay, now for the culture bit… September 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Architecture, Art, Culture, Design, The Left, Uncategorized.
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I had the slightly dubious pleasure of attending the Arts Council sponsored Critical Voices “Art, Architecture, Design, Crossover” conference in the National Gallery on Saturday. Dubious only because I was tired from the previous week. But once there it actually was well worth the effort of hauling myself south of the Liffey. The idea of the conference was to consider creative practice and strategies in those fields and consider whether there is a blurring of distinctions between them.

Let’s stop for a second and think about if and why this matters. After all, who cares if Art, Architecture and Design are becoming more similar? Well, actually we all should. It’s not a matter of simple categorisation, but an actual reflection of how this society, and by extension global society is changing under pressures of commercialism, mass communication (I give you the internet as exhibit A), the ability to do new stuff with technology and so on and so forth. What appears to be happening is a convergence of disciplines in these fields where architects, artists and designers will work jointly on projects such as motor-ways and large scale public infrastructural developments, or commercial buidlings. We’ve moved beyond pure functionalism and utilitarianism into an area where our society currently has sufficient extra capital to see a need to incorporate aesthetic elements. These are used to soften the impact of a deveopment, or to link into the local community or whatever. Sometimes this is cosmetic, but often not, and it displays a genuine shift in the nature of the society, a shift towards the visual and the ‘social’. Of course the cynic in me is well aware how such activities can be used as a sort of ‘public good’ fig leaf. But even so, it’s a remarkable change from the brutalism, both aesthetic and concrete of the past…

In any case, the list of speakers was fairly diverse from Tom de Paor who is an architect and responsible for the Irish pavillion (made of briquettes) at the Venice Biennale in 2000 and has worked on the A13 motorway in the UK [see here], onto Aisling Prior who is Artistic Director for the Ballymun Art Commission programme through Breaking Ground (and by the by responsible for the commissioning lighting of the Boilerhouse in Ballymun that bright pink red colour at night – which was so liked by the residents that a six week art installation was extended for four years), and a number of UK and US based architects and gallery curators.

Of those Adam Scott was particularly interesting as he was one of those involved in the Millennium Dome, a project which was and is regarded as an abject failure of creative imagination and one that was utterly tainted by commercialism in it’s most crass manifestation. He’s working on a number of projects, including an installation for Liverpool city which would have a beam of light shone vertically into the sky, a sort of luminal version of Dublin’s Spire. Other pieces included a message as you enter Liverpool, they suggested an enormous metal and neon HALLO over the road as one drove in and a GOODBYE as one drove out again. Sadly Liverpool bottled it. Perhaps next time.

Perhaps most interesting for me though was Sean Griffiths, an architect from Manchester who is part of the FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) architectural practice (check out their memorial for Diana – the Diana Bridge – tasteful!). FAT have been involved in a number of projects, including social housing, which lean upon the vernacular. Griffiths father was a strong left wing trade unionist. This has informed the work produced by Griffiths and FAT, although as he points out he is no longer a ‘raging lefty’ himself, and this is manifested in a wish to undercut or reverse notions of liberal bourgeoise taste. And by that what do we mean?

Fireplace

Well he showed a couple of images of interiors from working and lower middle class housing from the 1960s onwards – note the fine example above. These consisted of extremely decorative fireplaces, a sitting room with a complete pub interior set into a corner including taps, bar space and so on, a fireplace which wrapped around a wall, another which looked like an explosion in an antique store (see image) which drew from many different and seemingly contradictory styles.

The audience at the conference laughed – uneasily it has to be said – but Griffiths pointed out that above and beyond taste these were enormously creative, the result of thought and time directed towards an aesthetic end. He contrasted this with the interiors of the next generations which were filled with strip flooring (oops, I have that)…and IKEA furniture (which I don’t) making them into pastiches of modernism (essentially minimalist interior design and decoration) and which he considered to be simply boring.

His point is that there is a divide in visual culture and this is where taste, politics and class intersect. Draw the line and you can tell where people stand on either side of it by class analysis. Good taste tends to be seen as middle class, bad taste tends to seen as working class. Hence the highly decorative interiors as in the image above are ‘bad taste’ and vulgar. But he points out a huge contradiction. His experience (and mine too) of architecture and design worlds tends to see those involved as left-leaning, vaguely middle class, Guardian readers. And yet the cultural expressions of these worlds is implicitly anti-working class or at least indifferent to working class cultural expressions. In fact he ascribes it to a ‘fear of the working class’ or as he said ‘what is it about these interiors that refined, educated people find so horrific?’. As he says “Housing is a process to make places into homes – which is quite different from how architects see designing houses”.

Now there are counter critiques of this. Taste is notoriously slippery as a concept. Further differentiation into good and bad taste is even more difficult (although it’s worth noting that this is a very modern problem, one that has developed only in the very recent past as commodification has spread from the upper classes to the middle classes and on to the ‘working class’). As one attendee pointed out Adorno had something to say about working class culture and why it might not necessarily be adopted wholesale, but I think Griffith’s point is important because it tells us something about the way elitism works, even or particularly when that elitism is perhaps well-meaning and how, in cultural areas, engagement is necessary.

New Islington

Some of the projects he has worked on, in particular a social housing development in New Islington in Manchester has utilised this, by actually going and asking residents what they require. Open plan? Out. The residents don’t want cooking smells wafting through the house. L-shaped rooms in, so that they can have at least two windows in each room increasing visibility and therefore the sense of space (worth noting that the buildings are entirely compliant with energy saving regulations). The residents chose them in an open competion, and why did they choose them?
According to Rita, a long-time resident of the Cardroom Estate who has just moved into her new home, the reason they chose Fat was much simpler:

“They listened. They really listened to what we wanted. And we just liked them as people.”

I think this is important, above and beyond even the notions of taste. If we truly believe in democratic systems of governance, we must also believe in choice in the sense of autonomy, that we listen to what people want. And choice isn’t something that should be restricted simply to our patterns of consumption but should be extended to our patterns of life. In this instance the residents were consulted and listened to. They were lucky, the architects were willing, no were actually philosophically driven, to take on board the concerns of residents, to shape their aesthetic, their ‘taste’ to that of the residents. It’s almost stating the obvious to consider that perhaps those who might actually live in a development should have their opinions taken into account, but we live in societies where until very recently public bus transportation systems made no provision for those with bags, prams, those with difficulties or disabilities or the elderly to board a bus with any degree of ease. This indifference to the welfare of those using these systems, or those forced to use them is certainly more important than simple (or complex) matters of taste but it belongs within a spectrum of attitude.

The final shape of the development used facades as can be seen in the image, behind which were the L-shaped houses. These facades used a playful style which used interesting little decorative features, and even space for bird boxes and mock ornamental gabling, fake windows and so on. The rationale of the oversize facades was as much to provide a visual counterweight to the larger apartment blocks which will be built around the development.

Any mis-steps? One major one. FAT thought they might put the names of the mill owners from the area (the site was built on a former mill) along the top part of the facade in white capital letters, rather like the painted names used on old warehouses. The response was:

‘F*** off! Why would we want to immortalise the oppressors of their ancestors?’.

Which is an interesting insight into how certain elements of traditional ‘class consciousness’ remain extant even in this day and age of supposed meritocracy.

One major element of the FAT approach is to effectively critique ‘modernism’ in architecture and art which they believe, even in it’s stripped down functionalism is no more or less honest than any other ‘style’. Theirs is a sort of ‘decorativism’, ornamentation used pretty much for it’s own sake rather than for any functional requirement, which is hated by purists but is rapidly creeping back into not just architecture, but across the visual media, I point you towards the recent spate of advertising – such as that used by Coke – which uses floral silhouettes as framing devices, or the station ident of the Living Channel on Cable which has more floral motifs growing out of the name of the station. This decorativism is interesting, because it strongly reflects a deeply engrained impulse to take a lived environment and lend it little touches here and there to humanise it.

Sure, some will see this as post-modernist play acting, that FAT are as much part of that game of retrospection and retrieval as the most jaundiced neo-modernist high-end architectural practice. Note this example of their thinking… I like it, but I can see problems ahead.

Tower Block

Perhaps it’s impossible not to play the game. Or perhaps it’s too easy, as in pieces like this, to place too much emphasis on the game. Yet one doesn’t have to be a structuralist in relation to class analyses to appreciate the utility of engagement, indeed it is very much the non-conformity of FAT which is so attractive, that although taking a submerged class position they wind up championing the individual. To my mind there’s a very specific irony in there which tells us more than any arid ideological texts of left or right about the direction which our society is heading.

Still and all, Griffiths was asked how would he feel if one or all of the residents were to use cladding on the facade of the houses. His answer was that he didn’t mind, that it would in some respects be a vindication of the project.

I think he’s telling the truth.

The Coombe Vs. Jehovah September 22, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Bioethics.
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Yesterday’s case in the High Court, involving the forced blood transfusion of an unwilling Jehovah’s Witness raises some very disturbing questions both about the medical profession as well as the way the High Court reached its decision.

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about the details of the case (and given the circumstances, it’s probably best that too much information isn’t in the public arena, to protect the woman in question as well as her child). And I don’t think a written judgement is available, or I can’t find it, so the legal basis of the decision isn’t very clear. But from what is available (and I’m going by the Irish Times report – sub req’d. If there’s a more informative link, drop it into the comments box), it seems as though some fundamental rights have been trampled on in this case.

Firstly, and most importantly, the basic right to refuse treatment has been ignored. Recognition of this right is pretty much universal in medical ethics and is virtually uncontested. There are, obviously, situations of the capacity to exercise this right is blurred, such as cases where the patient may not be of sound mind or cases involving children. In such circumstances, it may well be appropriate for the courts to intervene. However, in the current situation there appears to be no question of either the woman’s views on the matter or her competence in reaching her decision.

Even if her reasoning is ludicrous (and given that it’s a religious belief, it by definition is) what right does the state have, or should the state have, to take the decision-making out of her hands? Gerard Hogan, acting for the hospital is reported as making a very interesting argument:

A blood transfusion, while intrusive, was a standard routine medical procedure and it was not as if the court was being asked to sanction surgery or some experimental treatment the patient would have to undergo.

If this was accepted by the court in reaching its decision it shows a stunning ignorance of how seriously some people take Biblical injunctions. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses have described the action taken by the doctors as tantamount to rape, and a spokesperson on Newstalk earlier today suggested that it was a fundamental violation of her integrity. While the learneds down at the Law Library might consider it routine, the subjective nature of such a judgement has obviously been close, and there are some who would consider it anything but.

Justice Abbott has claimed that he based the judgment on choosing life over death. That being the case, it’s hard to see the relevance of how routine or otherwise the procedure is. Is the suggestion that if the operation was more invasive, the patient should be allowed to reject it, even if this resulted in certain death? If so, then where is it proposed the line should be drawn? To my mind, the obvious place should be at the discretion of the patient themselves, but this has been rejected.

Perhaps they’re adopting a ‘common sense’ approach to the situation, one which states ‘hey, it’s just a blood transfusion, it’s no big deal’. Of course it isn’t, until someone else makes the same argument in relation to abortion or stem cell research. Hey, it’s just an embryo, it’s the size of a pinhead, surely you can’t seriously think it matters one way or the other. One man’s trivial detail may be another’s strict religious principle, and stupid as such principles might seem, it’s important that people be given the opportunity to make their case.

Which brings us on to the next point. Again, it’s hard to comment without all the facts, but the Irish Times article reports only the arguments of the counsel for the hospital. Coupled with the fact that Justice Abbott stated that he ‘would deal with the application on the basis of Ms K being before the court on a stretcher and objecting to the application and telling him not to make the order’, this suggests that the woman herself wasn’t represented in court. To be fair, the hearing does seem to have been held as an emergency session, and there were clearly some tight time constraints involved. But if the court ordered such a serious violation of bodily integrity and ran roughshod over fairly basic rights, and the woman in question wasn’t even represented, it would seem that a rather grave injustice may have been done to her. I wouldn’t, however, want to make this claim unless I was in full possession of the facts, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The basis of the decision seems to have been the need to act in the best interests of the woman’s child. This is an issue we saw discussed earlier in the week, with Brian Lenihan’s appearance before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva and the debate around enshrining those rights in the Constitution. While in cases which directly involve a child, it seems reasonable enough to ensure that that child’s welfare is of primary concern. That was the basis on which the prospective adoptive parents of a particular child were granted custody instead of the natural parents, in last week’s case cited by Gerard Hogan in yesterday’s proceedings.

In this case, however, the question of how ‘directly’ involved the child has to be is crucial. This isn’t a custody case, or even about the medical treatment of a child. It would be different, for example, if it involved the mother directing doctors not to give the baby a blood transfusion. No, this is about how certain implied rights the child might have can override the fundamental rights of an individual parent. Is the court suggesting that every decision every parent ever makes must always ensure that its in line with the best interests of their child or children (and should they be legally sanctioned if they don’t)? To take a trivial example, should a parent be forced to spend several thousand a year to send their child to a private school rather than buying a new car? Clearly the first option is preferable as far as the child is concerned, and the right to new, flashy consumer goods would seem far less important than the right to bodily integrity which was superceded yesterday. More importantly, though, does this judgment suggest that final decision-making powers be removed from those patients who have children, and handed over to doctors or the courts? Would a parent with serious cancer be forced to undergo invasive and debilitating treatments against their wishes if it presented a chance of prolonging their life? I would imagine that there a few Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ireland who might imagine that the chance of finding themselves in the same situation as this woman is now a very real possibility.

Except, of course, that for them it probably isn’t. One aspect of this case that shouldn’t be overlooked is the racial one. It’s not a very pleasant vista, but I can’t help thinking that this might have been very different if a middle-class Irish woman was involved, rather than a French-speaking Congolese one. I don’t want to be unfair to the medics involved, but is it really outrageous to suggest that the overbearing paternalism seen in this situation, reminiscent of the arrogance of the medical profession (particularly in the Obs-Gyn field) in years past is, at least in part, down to her background? And would the court have been so willing to dismiss deeply-held (albeit stupid) beliefs if they were expressed by an Irish woman rather than an African one.

One clear test of how seriously the courts take the best interests of the child will be to look at what happens in deportation cases. Surely if the welfare of a particular child is so important that someone should be forced to undergo an invasive medical procedure to serve it, then deportations should only occur in cases where it too serves the best interests of any child involved.

Somehow, I’m not convinced.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the Greenest of them all? September 22, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Greens, Uncategorized.
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There is an interesting debate rumbling through certain portions of the environmental movement.
A piece in the New Statesman by John Gray this week under the heading ‘Clear and Present Danger’ reviewed George Monbiot’s latest work Heat. The book is about global warming, and has been serialised in the Guardian this week. It’s good stuff, but extremely depressing. Monbiot is convinced of the necessity to implement sweeping changes in the society.

Yesterday Monbiot criticises the report from the Tyndall Centre, which we’ve noted here previously, but I’ll look at that in a moment.

Let’s start with John Gray the interesting, if mildly misanthropic, philosopher who has made a career from taking contrarian positions on a range of issues.

The essence of the debate, actually let’s call it a three way debate because of course Friends of the Earth and the Tyndall Centre are also involved, hinges on this. The Tyndall Centre has proposed a report which calls for specific cuts in emissions in selected areas. Monbiot considers that the Tyndall Centre figures are too little and are ‘two decades too late”. John Gray considers that Monbiot might well be right, but that global warming is, as James Lovelock has proposed, now all but inevitable and it’s now a matter for battening down the hatches and preparing for it’s impact.

So who is right? Well, essentially all three are right but perhaps some are more right than others.
The Tyndall Centre proposals are probably overly cautious. Something needs to be done, but attempting to implement that in a democratic society is going to be incredibly difficult (note the way in which Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian admitted last week that it was only An Inconvenient Truth which finally brought home to him the reality of global warming – if he found it difficult to get you can bet 90% of the population is in some form of denial). That’s why Tyndall have pitched towards the political centre and acceptability. Tyndall seeks to rein in temperature rises to only two degrees above preindustrial levels, something they believe can be accomplished by a 90% decrease in emissions by 2050. Monbiot disagrees since he believes Tyndall have got the figures wrong and that even a 90% decrease is too little unless achieved by 2030.

Monbiot characterises this in the following terms in the Guardian piece:

“In other words, Friends of the Earth [who initiated the Tyndall Centre Report] had already set the target before it asked its researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be “politically unrealistic”. The message seems to be that the science can go to hell – we will tell people what we think they can bear.”

He’s right. But he’s also wrong. Unfortunately it is politically unrealistic and unacceptable. The nature of the changes Monbiot believes are necessary are such that it’s hard to see anything short of a very authoritarian government being able to push them through. Perhaps that’s what we’ll have by 2030.

John Gray points to a further problem with Monbiot’s thesis and implicitly that of the Tyndall Centre which I’ve already noted. The developing world is simply not going to alter it’s energy consumption in such a way as to alter global warming even if the UK does follow the Tyndall Centre/Monbiot path.

“However sensible it may be in parts, there is a profound unreality surrounding the programme of action Monbiot proposes. “Curtailing climate change must be the project we put before all others,” he writes. But who are “we”, exactly? Humanity at large is ridden with intractable conflicts, and delusional bigots rule its most powerful state. An American air attack on Iran would produce an oil shock greater than any that has yet occurred, triggering the search for other sources of energy – many of them dirtier than oil. Moreover, continuing growth in human numbers (a crucial factor in the worsening en vironmental situation that Monbiot mentions only once in the book, giving it less than a single complete sentence) is increasing resource scarcity around the world. It is always claimed that the human environmental impact is a matter of per capita resource rather than sheer numbers, but there is an upper limit. By conservative estimates, there will be some two billion more human beings on the planet 50 years from now. Coming decades are far more likely to bring intensifying resource wars than concerted action against climate change.”

More pointedly Gray comments that:

ˇThere is, in fact, not the remotest prospect of the world adopting anything like Monbiot’s programme, but once again this may not matter. As he recognises, it may already be too late: “Because the carbon released now stays in the atmosphere for some 200 years and causes climate change many years into the future, there is perhaps a 30 per cent chance that we have already blown it.” It is a sobering admission, from which Monbiot immediately retreats. “I am writing this book in a spirit of optimism,” he declares, “so I refuse to believe it.””

I don’t think that’s to Monbiot’s discredit, but I would tend to think along with Gray that the pass may already have been sold, that global warming is now on an unstoppable path and we’re going to have to adjust to it. This adjustment is going to be painful in the extreme, whether as painful or more so than that proposed by Monbiot is an important point to consider.

Let’s think about it a bit further. If global warming is unstoppable what we can expect are radical, but not unheard of, shifts in the nature of the planetary environment. Sea level rises, increased temperatures, the destruction of certain species, indeed of whole ecologies. All this is survivable, for much of the human population of the planet, but the point isn’t really survivability but how much of what there is now we should seek to preserve.

And that’s where Monbiot is absolutely correct . If global warming can be halted or at least softened in impact, it makes sense to plan our society in terms of much smarter energy consumption. If Gray is correct, and it can’t, then exactly the same holds true – if not more so. Frankly I’m not a huge fan of narrow energy sustainability, and am particularly suspicious of those who would see us retreat from technology. I would hope that we can find new sources which will leap-frog us beyond such constraints – but I’m realist enough to recognise that the world we live in is one where energy sources are decreasing and therefore in the short to medium term we must utilise them wisely.

Gray concludes by saying that:

“There are some useful things that can be done. In Britain, we can increase flood defences against rising sea levels, secure our electricity supplies by commissioning replacements for existing nuclear power stations, develop new technologies for cleaner coal and create wildlife corridors to help other species adapt. But first we have to accept that we cannot control the process of climate change we have set in motion. Unfortunately this requires an insight into the limits of human power that is beyond most environmentalists. Like the rest of humankind, they cannot bear very much reality.”

I think Gray is being unnecessarily harsh. Monbiot in particular has paid greater attention to this topic than many before him. One cannot fault him for retaining a sense of optimism in the face of catastrophic change. Environmentalism has been aware of these dangers for a considerable period of time – and now it shapes much of the debate, note the way in which capital (even if only in the form of Richard Branson) is finally waking up to the issue. Whether, though, the changes they seek to implement can realistically alter the dynamic of global warming is a different question, but at least some of the range of measures proposed will be worthwhile particularly if integrated into new technologies…

Perhaps that sounds like a new, somewhat greener, spin on techno utopianism. If so I plead guilty, but I genuinely see this as an opportunity for progressive technologies to be allied with environmentalism in the face of a fundamental change in global climate. If eventually we can’t ameliorate it perhaps we can be sure we won’t exacerbate it further.

The subversive pleasures of Spooks… September 20, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Terrorism, The Left, Totalitarianism, Uncategorized.
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Episode one of series five of Spooks screened this week. Intelligence units, MI5 and 6, a contemporary albeit overly glamorous spin on espionage. What’s not to like? Well, it’s a clunky show with plots that are so tenuous that they hover on the point of collapsing under the weight of their own absurdity, a cast that has perfected a sort of restrained hysteria or unlikely calm in the face of each and every threat, and an office (smaller it would seem than in previous years) strewn with Apple G5s, glass walls (hardly the most clever sort of fixture in any building likely to be the target of a bombing) and artfully subdued lighting in improbable shades of blue and purple. Mmmmm…restful.

Still, however unrealistic there is always something in it that is at least faintly disturbing, from the almost flippant way they dispose of major and minor cast members on a regular basis to an uncanny ability to parallel real world events. The latest episode had an effective coup d’etat by right wing elements in the security services in alliance with corporations and media moguls who had decided democracY was redundant in the face of the coming threats of global warming and terrorism. Somewhere along the line the plot involved the Prime Ministers son “Rowan” (droll, very droll) on the run from his halls of residence, the Home Secretary being pulled from his car before it was blown apart, two airliners on a collision course above London and numerous and sundry examples of gratuitous but highly entertaining violence.

A little voice in the head goes…far-fetched, sure but… somehow just enough smidgin of truth to be effective television. These people lounge around glass walled offices, they use computers to find information through bank accounts, airline ticket sales, national databases – why it doesn’t even look like work, but the message? Ah, now there’s the thing.

And it’s subversive in a let’s wreck the audiences heads by twisting current events around in order to fit with the plot lines sort of way. The most recent episodes took footage from the London 2003 Anti-Iraq War and May Day marches in London and dressed it up with some image manipulation in order to make them look like a march against repressive government legislation. They have a second or third generation English Indian head of a civil liberties organisation (who, in a fairly raw piece of television, get’s punched in the face to the phrase ‘that’s what I’ve wanted to do everytime I saw you on television talking about human rights’). They use actors playing anonymous BBC presenters on television sets, last year I seem to recall it was Sky News. And finally, and perhaps most subversively, they have MI5 as the gatekeeper of British democracy. But a conflicted gatekeeper, or as one character says to the head of the conspiracy ‘I share many of the same worries as you do’. Everyone is a player. No one is without an agenda.

It works… and it works – albeit on a somewhat less visceral level than 24 which also has this unusual meld of reality and artifice – because it brings the normal and the everyday and the recognisable straight into conflict with the unusual or the unpleasant or downright terrifying. A scene on Sunday night showed passengers on a bus in London. It panned across a man assisting a woman in a wheelchair onto the bus concentrating upon them as if they might be agents of destruction, then down the line of passengers, stopping reflectively on one or another, in almost exactly the same way one might if one were on a bus. The implicit message, any one of these could be carrying a bomb and be ready to detonate it. The pay-off, such as it was, came when one passenger collapsed with some sort of virus infection.

What was also notable about the current episode, away from the bleakly entertaining marriage of fact and fiction, was the nature of a possible authoritarian future it painted. This isn’t fascism in the old sense, of a single party with a racist creed, instead it’s a sort of authoritarian technocracy where ultra-conservatism and corporate power come together in a marriage of convenience perhaps in such a way as to conceal their true ownership of state power. In a way it’s both a modern form of fascism and a throwback to pre-democratic politics where elites exercised power more nakedly than at present. More clever than Pinochet style caudillo regimes, less totalitarian than classical fascism. The perfect prescription for those who find democracy a messy business (by the by, the episode explicitly referenced those who wanted to use extreme measures against PIRA during the 1990s, an intriguing bit of writing in itself).

Is it possible? This depends. The dichotomy for us is that the problem such an arrangement purports to be a response to actually exists. I often mention global warming because I genuinely believe that it presents an existential threat to both the developing and developed world in a way quite unlike any other. Terrorism is, to date and not minimising the tragic events in any sense, in the broad scale of nation states an inconvenience. Yes, with certain weapons it could presumably shatter nations, but the likelihood of it getting such weapons remains, thankfully, slim for the moment. Global warming by contrast has effects that are unpredictable, even counterintuitive. In the face of such a crisis it is reasonable to expect that calls for more authoritarian modes of government might, even temporarily, may well be made. Note the way in which under the current spasm of terrorism we see security measures which are extremely intrusive broadly accepted.

On the other hand it’s difficult to see such a power grab going unnoticed, one would hope that there would be outrage on both left and right of the political spectrum.

And yet those who one would hope and expect might resist such events appear less enamoured of democracy than they should. I read on the generally excellent Irish Socialist Network website about how our multi-party democracy is a sham. Others decry it in similar terms as a facade behind which the powerful manipulate us. This is troubling talk (and my intention is not in any way to slag off the ISN who I know are a committed group of socialists), even if it contains a small kernel of truth, because our democracy (however imperfect) is a legitimising process and those who speak against it have yet to provide a convincing example of an alternative form of democracy which would satisfactorily allow both the autonomy of opposition and the opportunity for that opposition to be exercised in a regular franchise. One only has to see how the process of changing power can alter the nature of a system, perhaps cosmetically, perhaps not.

In any case I think it’s a strategic error of significant proportions for the left. Once the concept of democracy as a legitimisation is handed away then there is no effective difference between a technocratic authoritarianism of the right, and say for example, Castroism of the left. In each case a small group of individuals makes decisions and rule by fiat, perhaps agreed later by some or all of the populace, perhaps not. But the core issue is the denial of the people to exercise their oversight, and their right to remove those who exercise power in their name. I’ll discuss Castroism at a later point, but the point is that that form of Revolution has run it’s course.

In any event, for all I dislike the anti-corporate warriors for overstating their message it’s clear that in this society, with all it’s messy complexity, it remains necessary for someone, or for many people, to be holding the feet of the powerful in the fire.

Let them roast a little. It put’s manners on them, and if Spooks in it’s clunky way assists people in asking just a few questions about the world, well it too (to coin a phrase) has it’s part to play.

Something on the Pope’s speech (and it’s not about Islam!) September 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
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… well, mostly not about it. It would be a little odd to comment on the recent controversy and not admit that the reaction (or, at least, the reaction we’re presented with – how widespread it is is something I’d need to be convinced of) is a ludicrous overreaction, as are the predictable calls for an apology.

It’s also worth considering how strange it is that the Pope would use a quote about Islam when referring to the tendency to spread religious belief through violence in the late Middle Ages, rather than referring to the record of his own co-religionists at the time. Perhaps pursuing that avenue of investigation might strike a little too close to home for a former head of the Inquisition.

No, much like the Satanic Verses affair, in this case the actual content of the entire speech, and the Pope’s attempt to ‘raise the question of God through the use of reason’ is far more interesting than the sadly predictable uproar surrounding one aspect of it.

What Benedict essentially argues, via some lengthy digressions on the hellenization of Christian doctrine, is that religious belief is not only compatible with reason, but that reason alone is incapable of providing a basis for ‘the dialogue of civilisations’.

Much of the piece is, in fact, taken up with denigrating those who reject the supernatural, religious claims making the quotation from Manuel II Paleologus stand out all the more, as it seems to have little to do with the overall theme.

Benedict’s remarks, strangely enough, are actually quite similar to a recent piece by John Waters in the Irish Times (sub req’d.), where he too tries to both reconcile religious faith with rationality, while at the same time denigrating the claims of a secular worldview.

The difference between the two authors, of course, is that while Benedict seems confident in his position and makes a reasonably coherent case, Waters appears to be throwing together catchphrases he’s picked up over in Rimini, but which he hasn’t subjected to anything even approaching a critical analysis. In one of the more bizarre passages in a profoundly bizarre piece, he writes:

Giussani challenges the assumption that faith and reason follow parallel lines, insisting they are one and the same. Faith exalts rationality because it answers the cry of the human heart for truth, beauty, justice and love. Faith and reason are one because the human longing for perfection has but one answer: God – our identity and our destiny. There are no questions, says Giussani, without answers. Faith is the highest form of rationality because happiness is synonymous with eternity. To speak of God is the most rational thing in the world.

 

In many ways, this is along the lines of what Benedict argues.

It’s hard to see, on one level, how the assertions of Catholic teaching can be reconciled with rational enquiry unless we understand that what the Pope is referring to when he talks about reason (the good kind, the kind he likes) is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s understanding. He’s referring to Reason, rather than reason, a Platonic, semi-mystical attribute which almost resembles some kind of divine spark enabling us to comprehend the Truth (which, as John Waters helpfully reminds us, is God). It’s like a little piece of God in all of us, handily enough, and is what he means when he talks about God as Logos, or the Word, and when he writes

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor.

 

To which Mandy Rice-Davies might reply ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’. If Reason comes from God in the first place, then obviously it would compatible with faith.

In a deeply disingenuous move, the Pope doesn’t contrast this supernaturally-motivated rationality with the kind of reason many of us would recognise: a sceptical but open-minded approach to debate, a willingness to be convinced by argument and evidence but a refusal to take something on blind faith. No, for Benedict, it’s a choice between religion and (boo! hiss!) ‘science’:

First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.

This simply isn’t true. The definition of science he’s using to has a very limited application, referring really only to the natural sciences. The ‘human sciences’ as he describes them, do not attempt to emulate that kind of ‘scientific’ approach. Rather, they recognise that the nature of a statement like ‘The Mona Lisa is a very pretty picture’ is categorically different from a statement such as ‘2+2 = 5’ or ‘The boiling point of water is 100 degrees celsius’. The fact that one statement may be objectively true, and be proven to be so, while another one cannot be, doesn’t make the latter somehow flawed. It just recognises that the kinds of claims which can be made in one discipline will differ from those made in another, an area looked at by the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations.

Why Benedict needs to equate secular, rational enquiry with a Popperian scientism becomes clear when he goes on to talk about ethics. He writes:

But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

 

Of course, he’s correct in one sense. Ethical statements can never be proven to be ‘scientifically’ true. And (as I touched on in a previous post on Peter Singer) it’s very difficult to see how there can be any fundamental basis for ethics without some sort of transcendental catch-all like ‘God’ playing a role.

But that doesn’t mean that ‘God is an answer’, as Waters asserts, any more than ‘because I said so’ is. And it’s certainly stretching his case to imply that a faith-system like Catholicism has the ‘power to create a community’ in a way that secular rationalism doesn’t unless, of course, one accepts that the truth-value of a religious claim is irrelevant. Surely if there is no God, then attempt to ‘construct an ethic’ from a religious position is going to be as inadequate as attempts to use evolution, psychology or sociology. And equally, accepting the existence of God simply in order to provide a transcendental basis for morality becomes little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.

In fact, that’s why reason, or reasoned debate, has far more potential for reaching agreement on an issue, including an ethical one, than any religious belief. Reason, in this sense, is not a faith in the same way as Catholicism might be. Rather, it’s better understood as a methodology, a set of ground rules for debate and enquiry.

If I make a particular claim, I should be prepared and able to support it with some kind of evidence or argument. And if I cannot do so when challenged, I should be prepared to concede that an opposing view may, in fact, be the correct one. This applies equally to ethical arguments. Once one can find some kind of common ground with one’s opponent, such as, for example, the Golden Rule (which isn’t an exclusively religious injunction) It is for this reason – the willingness to be convinced otherwise based on something other than one’s own opinion – that it’s dishonest of Benedict to claim that the absence of God leads to a pure subjectivism with the individual conscience being the sole arbiter of all things.

Contrast that with the religious mentality. Religious belief, contra Benedict, is a refusal to engage in argument (or, at least, to accept the possibility that an opposing argument may be true). It represents the abdication of reason, rather than its expansion. If secular ethics requires at least some element of subjective judgement then surely so too does the acceptance of one religious belief over another. As Kierkegaard argued in Fear and Trembling (in his meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac) religious belief always, fundamentally, requires a ‘leap of faith’ and such a leap is necessarily an irrational one. Yet this, the core aspect of religious belief is something that the Pope prefers not to address in the speech.

Which, in a sense, brings us back to the issue of Islam. If religion itself is, essentially, irrational then how can one rationally distinguish between one religion and another? (i.e. is one religion somehow ‘better’ than another) How can there be any ‘dialogue of cultures’ if ‘culture’ is taken to mean ‘religious faith’ (as seems to be the case in Benedict’s comments)? Dialogue requires the kind of secular rationality described above, the willingness to accept that someone else could be right. If one believes that it’s reasonable to make the ‘leap of faith’ in relation to, say, Catholicism, then why not take the same approach to Islam, or some other dogma? Or, to put it another way, even if we accept the points of the most vehement critics of Islam – that they want to enslave us all, that they view women as chattel, that it’s an inherently violent faith etc. etc – surely these are only negative if the religion itself is untrue.

The same applies to Catholicism. I recall ten years ago, at the time of the Divorce Referendum, people making the point that although they were Catholics, they ‘couldn’t believe’ that God wouldn’t want people to be able to get remarried after marital breakdown. I found this extremely hard to grasp. I mean, if you’re happy to buy into virgin birth, resurrection from death and consubstantiation, then a rather narrow-minded deity isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

All religious injunctions, therefore, are equally irrational no matter how acceptable the consequences might be from a religious perspective. The problem with the statement ‘God says that women shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house’ or ‘God says you shouldn’t use contraception’ isn’t how it impacts on people’s welfare – it’s the fact that someone believes that ‘God said it’ in the first place.

And there’s no arguing with that!

The first cut is the deepest – or how curbing emissions may not be so painful… September 16, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in climate change, Energy consumption, Environment, Environmentalism, Global Warming, Uncategorized.
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A great, illuminating article in the Guardian yesterday about a report from the UK based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research which for once actually maps out a clear strategy to carbon cuts in order to reduce greenhouse gases to a level that would actually make an impact. Granted these are for the UK, but they have a clear application on this island, North and South. You can find the details at the Tyndall Centre and the article here, but for your reading convenience the details are as follows.

A sustainable effect i.e. one that would prevent a 20C increase in temperature necessitates a 60% cut in emissions by 2050. That’s a huge figure but one that Tyndall Centre believes is realistic. They propose concentration on specific sectors but as Kevin Anderson, research director at the centre notes: “Our research demonstrates that the UK can move to a low carbon economy…but the journey will become much more demanding the longer the government leaves it to act.”

So what are the areas. Train transport: with the introduction and extension of the network, double decker trains and their use as a substitute for short haul flights (great, just as I get over my fear of flying the damned things are grounded).

Energy consumption: with a shift towards renewables – in fact a jump from 5% to 36% by 2030. Energy saving in industrial processes will be necessary with the introduction of smart technologies.

Car Transport: or goodbye the car. Well no, not quite. Simply by shifting from oil to alternatives would cut emissions. But it will also necessitate a reduction in car numbers, some 13% by 2030.

Buildings: A new emphasis on energy saving houses. Insulation, energy saving devices and bulbs and domestic energy generation alone would make a significant dent in the overall figure. Now they step into PARECON territory by suggesting we would all as individuals trade emissions. Interesting to see if that might work, but the possibility is there with greater integration of domestic electronic controls which various companies have been releasing into the market over the past decade or so, allied with the internet. Utopian? Perhaps not.

Aviation: A significant player, but not quite as significant as one might expect. Lighter aircraft, slower aircraft, updated turbo props for short haul flights and such like should be sufficient to negate the negative effects of aviation. And trains will take up some of the slack.

So, in a way it’s not about forgoing present societal standards, but making them ‘smart’.

Why do I like it? Well firstly because global warming is the single most pressing issue that we face, bar none. Secondly because this report doesn’t run around screaming with hands in the air pretending that technological society can suddenly shift into reverse gear, but instead approaches the topic in a measured fashion that places technological progress at the heart of social progress and – to my mind the security of our societies. The report accepts that air travel and car transportation will remain features of our civilisation but that they must be improved to be sustainable. Thirdly because it gives clear, attainable goals for action that don’t require herculean efforts on our part, merely a logical approach to the issue. Fourthly because weaning ourselves away from fossil fuels ensures, or at least improves, the security of our societies. Any criticisms? Well this isn’t a criticism but it doesn’t see a place for nuclear power, which is fair enough, my internal jury is still out on that one. Implicitly for it to be successful it would require a similar response from the rest of the world, a tricky job persuading those industrial behemoths India and China to sign up to this sort of regimen. It also is predicated on some new technologies and some fairly significant improvements in others. Perhaps they’ll work, we’ll see. But all in all a good days work.

Farewell Clare Short…what’s with the timing? September 14, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Labour Party, Uncategorized.
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A quick note to mention Clare Short departing the British Labour Party and British Politics. A pity, in one respect, for someone who had considerable potential and appeared to be reasonably sincere. Yet she made the classic error satisfying no-one by first staying past the initiation of the Iraq War and then resigning her ministerial position very publicly and very messily once the war was well under way. Either stay or go. Basic politics.
She hasn’t learned anything from that debacle to judge from today’s news. Now she is stepping down as an MP and calling for a hung Parliament. Needless to say this is just as Blair himself is close to bowing out and a contest for the leadership is becoming a real prospect. Yet she doesn’t discount the possibility of running as an Independent some time in the future.

She announced that “There are many good things that New Labour has done since 1997, mostly things Labour committed itself to before the New Labour coup, but I have reached a stage where I am profoundly ashamed of the government.”

Er… far be it for me to point this out, but hasn’t there been an election in the last eighteen months where she stood on a Labour platform? And only now is she ‘ashamed’?

Hard to see the logic.

Rabbitte and Kenny…a flawed strategy? September 14, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, The Left, Uncategorized.
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Reading in the Irish Times subscription required, about yesterday’s appearance at the Fine Gael think-in in Sligo of Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte Miriam Lord put it rather well when she wrote; “Pat’s surprise appearance stunned guests. He strolled into the pre-dinner drinks reception, escorted by a beaming Deputy Kenny. No applause greeted this unexpected turn of events: the clatter of Blueshirt jaws hitting the ground was matched by the sound of James Connolly turning in his grave.” I was struck by how dismal an idea that was and just how badly this may play.

Yet there is the reality that of all arguments advanced against the present coalition the one about change is perhaps best. Fianna Fáil has been in power an extremely long time. In any democracy that can be a troubling issue. In this one particularly.

Still, why do I think the joint Rabbitte/Kenny idea is so dismal? I’ve noted before that these are two sincere and intelligent politicians clearly dedicated to gaining power. But to my mind they appear to be basing their strategy upon a mistaken assumption. They seem to believe that ‘change’ is the pivotal issue for the electorate, hence the concentration upon a joint platform, the idea that they provide an ‘alternative coalition’ and that such iconic images as Rabbitte at the FG meeting is going to appeal to those hungering for change.

I doubt this proposition for a number of reasons. Firstly it smacks of solipsistic thinking – it’s certainly true that both FG and Labour want change, it is in fact their current raison d’etre, to gain political control but to extend this palpable and genuine hunger to the rest of the electorate is a different matter. Let’s go a stage further. Even allowing for the fact that change might be a key motivator for the electorate what actual proof is there that change to an FG/Labour coalition is the change that is sought? And how to judge? That’s an imponderable, so I won’t bother. The polls give contradictory information. It’s highly possible neither combination will have enough seats on their own to gain power.

But it’s worth considering how this strategy plays out amongst the electorate. Those on the soft-left will most likely row in behind Labour, their core vote as it were. The Fine Gael vote is doing rather well, all things considered and perhaps can be expected to gain an extra percentage point or two. So all told they might have a good showing on the day. Yet it’s Labour I’d be worried about. There are those, and they’re not restricted to me (who is largely neutral in these matters), who would consider it rather odd that Rabbitte would seek to position himself quite so closely to FG. Such a positioning appears to ‘rob’ Labour of any clear flexibility as regards policy. Sure, it means that attacks from Fianna Fáil about a lack of coherence lose traction. That’s a good thing. But let’s not overstate it. There is a down side. It means that like it or not Labour must of necessity cede ground on it’s left flank to the myriad smaller parties and independents who are already trawling in the further left. That’s bad news for Labour, but it’s also bad news for Fine Gael robbing them of the vital extra support in the form of extra Labour seats necessary to gain power.

In any case, if there is genuinely a hunger for change amongst the electorate it’s arguable a looser electoral arrangement might play as well, if not better, by allowing Labour to pitch further left. It is very notable how the Green have begun to pick up poll numbers since their more ‘independent’ stance has registered with the public. It may not save all or any of them come polling day. But it allows them to talk both to those who will support them come what may, and those who might otherwise register a protest vote with some other party or independent. They can as it were be both ‘radical and employed’.

Rabbittes reported comment: “”Declan Bree never gave me this kind of welcome,” ….referring to his on/off relationship with the former Sligo TD.” in the same piece by Miriam Lord worries me enormously. While superficially amusing, it is a remarkably tactless thing to say. What is left of the left of the party must be wondering exactly how far this new dispensation is going. But I think I, and everyone else, knows the answer is ‘all the way’. Although perhaps not as far as some suggest on this thread on Politics.ie where someone proposes that the ultimate object of the exercise might be a single Fine Gael party incorporating parts of Labour. No, the object of the exercise is power (not ignoble in itself) and if that is achieved by pitching slightly right then everyone will be happy-ish. But will it work?

Still, having decried this strategy I can understand the reasoning behind it, but suspect it’s not going to do the business for Labour on the day, and may indeed hobble the two parties chances for winning the election.

Finally I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that Kenny and Rabbitte get on so well. Nor am I too surprised that, as Cian notes earlier today on Irish Election, the ‘marriage’ appears to be going further than was agreed at Tralee. And I don’t think Labour should be either. When I was in Democratic Left back in the dim and distant past I was astounded how close the relationship between head office and FG was. This was in part borne of the reality of a FF/Labour coalition in government, but it was also borne of a certain sympathy. It’s interesting to see that sympathy, if anything, stronger some twelve years later.

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