Archive for November, 2009

The Swiss get it wrong

30 November 2009

In a pretty decisive vote, the Swiss have approved in a referendum a ban on the construction of all new minarets.

This is a deplorable move however you look at it. It is highly illiberal and discriminatory.

More generally, though, it highlights one of the dangers that modern liberal representative democracy is supposed to avoid: the tyranny of the minority by the majority. The genius of representative democracy, as conceived in their different ways by Edmund Burke and the US constitution, is that it allows the people the right to run their own affairs while ensuring that populist dictatorship is made difficult to the point of impossible. The Swiss model of deciding some issues by referendum undermines this key principle, and its weaknesses are manifest in this decision.

Over at Archbishop Cranmer’s blog, Cranmer argues that, because the Swiss have voted in favour of a ban, that is the end of the discussion:

Switzerland is a democracy which permits freedom of speech and freedom of expression, so get over it.

The Muslim community there makes up 400,000 out of a total population of 7.5 million people. They are justifiably dismayed by this decision, but Switzerland is a democracy which is governed by the ballot box, so get over it.

This seems to me an extraordinary position to take. Morality goes out of the window, right and wrong have no place. Public opinion trumps all. This is a line of argument that leads to despotism, not democracy.


Another triumph for political opportunism

16 November 2009

Why do politicians do this? Why do they insult the intelligence of the public by indulging in empty posturing? As someone who is inclined, against the zeitgeist, to see politics as a noble art aimed, however imperfectly, at improving lives, I find it doubly dispiriting to see Nick Clegg waste some political oxygen in grandiosely calling for the cancellation of the Queen’s Speech at two days’ notice. Clegg magnificently calls for the speech to be

replaced with emergency reforms to “clean up politics”

Let’s hope some of these reforms include the banning of gesture politics.

Clegg must know that, two days before the event, it is simply ridiculous to call for the speech to be cancelled (quite apart from the dubious constitutionality of such a move). His motives are pure unalloyed opportunism. Disappointing all round.

MoD bonuses bring out the worst

12 November 2009

Sometimes a story comes along that just makes me want to ask the political classes to lie in a darkened room for a few hours until the temptation to say anything stupid has passed.

Such was the feeling this morning, on hearing about this story in the Daily Mail. In its inimitable fashion, the paper describes the scandalous situation:

Ministry of Defence bureaucrats have pocketed nearly £300million in bonuses while soldiers have been dying from lack of equipment.

The pen-pushers also won extra cash for hitting targets for promoting diversity and improving health and safety.

What a masterpiece of emotive outrage. On the face of it, the situation is indeed scandalous. Our boys are dying while fat-buttocked bureaucrats rake in the dosh for doing nothing more than moving a biro.

The government finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend this seemingly indefensible nonsense.

Of course, the truth is far more nuanced than the Mail would have you believe. Some years ago, the government in its wisdom decided that civil servants would no longer be paid a simple wage, but rather that the overall pay package would be depressed and that the remainder would be paid as bonuses in order to fulfil the government’s religious devotion to performance related pay. Performance related pay presupposes that some people will get less, while some will get more – that some people, in short, will get bonuses. These are paid not in addition to the standard wage settlement. They are part of the wage settlement. Complaining that MoD staff are paid bonuses is the same as complaining that they are paid at all. Bonuses are just part of their pay.

Of course, to our politically unnuanced media, this is so much sophistry. And it is hard to have too much sympathy for the government. By making ‘bonuses’ a standard feature of paying civil servants, it was only a matter of time before this kind of story came to bite it. But the Mail’s pious pronouncements on this issue are just so much hogwash. If it objects to MoD staff being paid – so be it. But that would hardly contribute to our military success in Afghanistan or anywhere else.

Wounded Brown

10 November 2009

So, our reverse-Midas-touch Prime Minister does it again. Given the task of writing a letter of condolence to a grieving mother, he fluffs it. And the Sun is after him.

There are lots of themes to this story. There is the picture of a Prime Minister at No 10 apparently writing letters in the dead of night that nobody is even allowed to check. There is the story of the bereaved mother, understandably outraged by what she sees as the lack of respect shown to her son both in life and in death.

But what stands out to me is the unpleasant taste in the mouth left by the Sun’s campaign to use a parent’s grief, the felt-tip scrawlings of a nearly blind man and its own proprietorial blend of outrage and sanctimoniousness to score political points against Labour.

Listening to Radio 5 Live this lunchtime, and eavesdropping on a bit of Sky News, I’m left with them impression I’m not the only one left feeling uncomfortable by the way Brown is being hounded on this issue. Enemies of Labour had better be careful that this doesn’t mark the start of a change in public attitude towards our wounded PM.

A response to the gay marriage vote in Maine

5 November 2009

Nobody puts it better, either emotionally or intellectually, than Andrew Sullivan. A marvellous post.

The false hope of a referendum

5 November 2009

Over at the Spectator, Melanie Phillips has a characteristically hyperbolic posting on the new Tory policy on the EU, in which she asks:

what is the point of the Conservative party?

To which her own response is:

The answer is, bleakly, there is none.

Phillips’ thesis is that the UK has lost its capability

as a sovereign nation … to govern itself in accordance with its own laws, culture and traditions

She ends by coming out strongly in favour of an ‘in-or-out’ referendum:

the people must now be given the opportunity to say whether they wish to remain in the EU or not

It doesn’t take a political genius to work out where Phillips stands on the issue. As I say below, I’m not a fan of referendums. And Phillips and her co-Euro-naysayers are doing themselves no favours in seeing a referendum as the saviour for their political ills. The British people may well say to opinion pollsters that they are sceptical, even hostile, to Europe. In practice, they have shown themselves to be more pragmatic, indeed worryingly so for someone of Phillips’ point of view.

Since the 1975 referendum, when the population voted pretty tidily for our continued membership of the then EEC, there have been seven general elections. At each one, the party most hostile to Europe has lost. In 1983, the Labour party campaigned for complete withdrawal. And look where that got them. In 1997, the Tories shifted to a markedly more Euro-sceptic position. And hey presto, electoral desolation for over a decade.

I’m not making a simplistic point that being pro-Europe makes you popular with the voters. British politics is far too complex for that. But it is simply a plain fact that being pro-Europe is totally compatible with electoral success, while being Euro-sceptic is a much dicier affair.

Of course, Eurosceptics will claim that the 1975 referendum was somehow rigged, and that subsequent general elections have never had Europe as the central issue. Many would disagree, but even if true, wouldn’t the same be true of any future referendum or election?

If there were to be a referendum on continued membership of the EU, there is a strong chance, a very strong chance in my view, that the result would be a yes vote. And thus would die the hopes of a generation of Euro-sceptics. Be very careful what you wish for.

Referendum RIP

5 November 2009

So, it’s all over for the Lisbon referendum. As widely predicted, David Cameron baulked at the idea of holding a referendum that would be essentially meaningless. As I said in my post yesterday, at least it shows that he has some understanding of the way the world works.

Of course, the reaction of some sections of the right has also, as widely predicted, been somewhat cross, to put it mildly. The irrepressible Daniel Hannan MEP has thrown his toys out of the Tory pram in order to campaign for a referendum and more, as he puts it, ‘direct democracy’.

Personally, I find the prospect of not having referendums a great comfort. It is one of the more regrettable novelties of the past generation that referendums, those erstwhile playthings of despots and dictators, should have wheedled their way into the European body politic. Let’s face it: a referendum is a tool used by politicians to get out of political scrapes. All this talk of ‘giving the people their say’ is just a load of sanctimonious guff, and those who are lured by the siren call of referendums should be very careful for what they wish for. Those who see a referendum as their salvation from the menace of the EU have short historical memories: 1975 and all that (and that before February 1975 there was an almost 10 per cent lead in the opinion polls for withdrawal).

Politics is complex: it’s why we have politicians. To reduce huge questions of national importance to simple ‘yes-no’ answers is not just asinine, it’s positively scary.

Bad news for the losers; worse news for the winners

4 November 2009

Voters in the state of Maine have voted to reject a law legalising same sex marriages. Clearly, a major setback for those supporting marriage equality. Every time such a proposal has been put before the voters in a referendum, it has been rejected.

However, the winners should take little comfort here, as they are surely looking future defeat in the face. Consider this graph on public attitudes to same sex marriage in the US:

Support for Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage, 1988-2009
Source for data:

It shows that nationwide support for same sex marriage is currently at just over 40 per cent in the US. Not enough, not nearly enough, to overcome opposition. But when one considers that twenty years ago, support was barely scraping above 10 per cent, and the prospects look a little different (the article from which I took the above graph explains the apparently anomalous drop in support in 2003). The fact that the votes in places like Maine and California were so close makes a future vote in favour of gay marriage more a matter of when rather than if.

Supporters of gay marriage in the US will be feeling depressed this morning. But whether it takes ten, twenty or fifty years, they seem destined to find themselves eventually on the winning side of the public opinion battle.

Lisbon and the Cameron dilemma

4 November 2009

So, after many, many long years in the making, the Lisbon treaty finally crawls into existence. And now we wait expectantly for David Cameron to announce his much anticipated volte-face on whether to hold a referendum. Eurosceptics in the Tory party are already apoplectic that he might renege on his supposedly cast-iron promise.

If Cameron announces today that he will not hold a referendum on Lisbon, he will simply be showing himself to be a sensible politician with an understanding of how the world works. His error, and it was a serious one, was to make his ‘cast-iron’ guarantee in the first place. It showed a worrying willingness to make very short-term political gain at the expense of both his own, his party’s and his country’s longer-term interests. I sincerely hope that the mess he now finds himself in will provide him with a useful lesson.

Europe has been uncharacteristically dormant in British political life over the past few years. There is a distinct possibility, given the vitriol poured against the EU by much of the right, that Europe will once again mark a Tory premiership. The circle that cannot be squared is that huge swathes of the Tory party cannot abide the EU and want out. Cameron, having a modicum of sense, cannot give them what they want. They will never forgive him for it.

Cameron looks set to be our next Prime Minister. How he manages his European policy, both in these last months in opposition, and in the first few months in office, will be a key indicator as to whether he is up to the job.


2 November 2009

I’m a Brit, recently moved with my family to South Africa. This blog will be the home to some of my thoughts.