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Friday, 31 December 2010

Dr Liam Fox will not last the year ...

I have already allowed myself two predictions for 2011:

1. The pound will not go up or down against the euro and at the end of the year it will be roughly where it is is now (today: 1.16 - 1.17 euros to the pound)

2. Voters will say "No" to electoral reform. They are conservative anyway and will be even more so in the face of continuing uncertainty about their personal finances.

If I allow myself one more, then by the end of 2011 my predictions will be either mostly right or mostly wrong ... So here's the third prediction:

3. Dr Liam Fox will not be Secretary of State for Defence by the end of 2011. That's just a hunch - and an attempt to think about politicians other than Cable-Clegg.

And on that note, I wish you, Dear Reader, a Happy New Year!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Another Prediction for 2011: Voters will Say "No" to Electoral Reform

When Russians went to bed on 31 January 1918, they woke up on February 14: the Bolsheviks had finally brought Russia into line with the rest of the Christian world and abandoned the [inaccurate] Julian calendar in favour of the [more accurate] Gregorian.

It took a Revolution to achieve this technical adjustment. When the changeover was made in undemocratic Britain, in the eighteenth century, there was popular unrest: people thought that a fortnight of their lives was being stolen from them.

I can't see British voters turning out in May to say, Yes, they want Electoral Reform: an end to First Past the Post and the adoption of some system of proportional representation ( it's the Alternative Vote which is on offer).

The depths of British conservatism can always be gauged from the attitudes of Labour Party grandees. Think of Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons, a man so steeped in belief in the Establishment and its traditions, including the britches he wore, as to make Tsar Nicholas of All the Russias look like a positive radical.

The Labour Party grandees are already standing up to announce their opposition to electoral reform. God, the Queen, School Uniform and First Past the Post - it's all part of the seamless Order they have profited from. They will fight in the last ditch.

British voters aren't much better. They aren't really in favour of change. It's usually foreign and new fangled, like the decimal system which took pounds shillings and pence away from them.

The Voters idea of Change is either A Bit More of the Same or, alternatively, A Bit Less of the Same.

Taxes up a bit or down a bit. Benefits up a bit or down a bit.

The trouble with Electoral Reform, as the Referendum will present it to them, is that it asks them to endorse discontinuous change. I can't see them buying that. And unfortunately you can't calibrate First Past the Post into something a Bit More sensitive to the popular will and a Bit Less unfair to minorities. That's not how it works.

So, Tough. Life ain't fair, the voters will say. First Past the Post it will remain. God Save the Queen.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Tax Freedom Day

The Adam Smith Institute does a useful job calculating, each year, what they call Tax Freedom Day - the day on which someone in employment starts to keep the money they earn instead of handing it over to the government in taxes. For 2010, TFD fell right at the end of May - basically, forty percent of everything anyone earns goes to the government.

Very few people are shocked by this. Over the decades, as the percentage going to government has drifted upwards so the "middle ground" assumption about what is a reasonable level of taxation has drifted up with it.

I don't think the political Right should have a monopoly over thinking that forty percent is too much. High taxation does not a left wing country make. Or a fair country. Or a just one. France has high taxation and France is one of Europe's nastiest right-wing countries. People there are very unhappy.

What reconciles most British voters to high taxation is the thought that they will get it back in benefits of one kind or another, some of them very tangible - like the bogus "Winter Fuel Payment" which is a direct cash transfer to the bank accounts of those known to be particularly bribeable (the over sixties).

The troubles with this line of thinking are two-fold.

First, it uncritically assumes that government is She Who Gives Benefits. This kind of thinking is child like. It is a very odd notion of what government is for.

Second, it ignores the costs of the middleman - the apparatus of government and administration which collects taxes and gives it away. They don't do it cheaply, you know. And they don't do it very efficiently. You would probably be better off not paying the taxes in the first place and simply buying some of the services government provides. People might be better off buying or swapping books than paying for public libraries.

I think the middle ground assumption needs to change. It could be done from a left wing position. On the left, someone could say: we will abolish all flat taxes because they are regressive taxes, hitting the poor harder. So we will abolish VAT. Then we will raise the thresholds at which variable taxes kick in, so that the rich pay more than the poor. But we will not stop cutting taxes until the tax take is down to 20% of Gross Domestic Product.

Of course, we will be cutting expenditure too. We will abolish the House of Lords for starters followed next by the Arts Council.Policing costs will go down because there will be no more State Visits from tin-pot dictators, Papal or otherwise. And we will cut by at least 50% the number of poor countries we invade and occupy.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Public Holidays: Could Do Better?

For most people who work for other people, holiday entitlements are valuable things -part of the package of benefits which includes salary, a salary scale, employer's pension contribution, and maybe bonuses.

But do people get the most out of their holidays? Over the festive season, for example, what proportion of working people have actively chosen and negotiated the time off they have? And, even if not, what proportion are satisfied with the arrangements made for them?

My guess is: Not very many. Lots of people are on holiday for no better reason than that their employer has shut down. That's true of many parts of the public sector - which could remain open 364/365 if only they would learn how to work a rota.

It simply baffles me that group practice GPs surgeries are allowed to operate as Monday to Friday, bank holidays excepted, nine to five offices. There's really no excuse. It should be seven days a week, 364/365 and no argument. Not only would patients be properly served, GPs might get more out of their holidays if they actually chose them. Complacency does not make for enjoyable holidays.

There is another side to the UKs protracted and clumsy Festive Season. If you are an outsider observing the UK economy, it looks very much as if these people are not very keen on working. Shopping, maybe. Drinking too much, maybe. Frankly, I wouldn't give this economy a triple A rating. That's why I make this Prediction for 2011:

Whatever the euro's problems, 2011 will end with the pound no stronger against the euro than it is today when it is trading at about 85 pence to the euro (about 1.17 euros to the pound). In the early days of the euro, Brits got 1.50 - even 1.60 euros to the pound. Trouble is, they produce increasingly fewer things that other people want. Scotch whisky, dodgy money deals and weapons of mass destruction (BAE) - that's about it.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

My Mick Jagger Secret

This is autobiography

In the months before I went to University, I had a temporary job clerking in the Dartford Youth Employment Bureau, a Victorian house with a large garden - in Miskin Road, if I recall correctly. I was 17 going on 18.

In those days, the State was less determined to keep Records on you. When you reached 18 you ceased to be the responsibility of the Youth Employment Service and any local records they held on you were destroyed.

One day, I was assigned the task of weeding the files - taking out everything held on those who had passed their 18th birthday, carrying it into the garden and making a bonfire.

When I got to the letter "J", I got to Jagger, Michael - a past pupil of Dartford Grammar School for Boys, just up the road. His file contained the form he had filled up preparatory to his Careers Interview with C R Councer, our Youth Employment Officer. The form asked the young Mick Jagger what he was interested in , what his hobbies were, and so on. Mr Councer had penned his comments and career suggestions at the bottom of the form.

I was very tempted to keep it. I had no right to, of course. The contents were of no legitimate public interest. But it was a curiosity and it might be valuable one day.

I burnt it along with all the rest. That's my Mick Jagger Secret.


Added 24 July 2018:This anecdote is now incorporated into the memoir of my childhood I Have Done This In Secret published in hardback only by degree zero in June 2018 and available online from Waterstones and other booksellers

Friday, 17 December 2010

Jesus Saves - but only if you know that?

As December 25th approaches and the western Churches call on us to celebrate the birth of the Saviour, spare a thought for all those who lived and died Before Christ and had no opportunity to be Saved by Jesus.

A lot of thoughts have been spared on that subject and all over Christendom articles and books and Ph D's discuss whether those born BC had a chance to be saved and, if so, how. Different churches have different answers, but in general nowadays they don't want to damn these unfortunates. It would seem illiberal. But they have to be careful how they formulate their positions. Give away too much and it sounds like a dangerous concession: Jesus is just one - er, historically recent - Way of getting Saved.

Worse, the birth of Christ creates a fresh problem. Ever since that first Christmas, there have been countless millions who have lived and died without ever having heard of Christ. For most of history, there was no Internet to spread the Good News. In truth, the Good News spread very slowly.

Liberalism also dictates that these unfortunates living in the wrong places should have a chance of salvation, though the suspicion sometimes sneaks in that maybe they are a bit to blame for their plight. Maybe they didn't listen out hard enough for the Good News.

It gets even more complicated. (Why did God make this so difficult?) The natives don't speak your language, so either you learn theirs or they learn yours. They can't actually know that they have an overwhelming reason to learn your language, since they haven't yet heard the Good News, so you learn theirs and preach to them in the local tongue and translate the Bible into their language. It's very time consuming and the Earth is a big place. There are lots of people out there who haven't heard of the Beatles, and maybe as many who haven't heard of Jesus.

There are further complications. (Theology is more fun than Sudoku, you know).

How long do the natives get to get the message? Suppose I am already old and feeble when I first get to hear the Good News. It's complicated and new-fangled and, frankly, I don't understand all of it. This three-in-one business, for example. Maybe these Christians are just another bunch of scammers. So I suspend judgment and die. Damned?

At this point, the Roman Catholic church could step forward and claim that the real problem is the underlying Protestantism of my assumptions. I've made it sound like it's all between the individual and Jesus: Jesus saves individuals.

Not at all, says the Vatican. There has to be, at the very least, an intermediary. Yes, you guessed, Us. "Outside the Church there is no salvation", says the Vatican - and sotto voce nowadays, Look what happened to the Jews.

So the Catholic focus is not on all these doubting jungle Thomases, caught up in their own heathen cultures. It's on the babies. Baptise them quick. That way they are In and they stand a chance. Put them into schools which indoctrinate them and they stand a bigger chance, so that the likelihood that they will be beaten and buggered on the way to salvation is a price well worth paying


Added 24 July 2018: An expanded version of this blog post is incorporated into one chapter ("Jesus Saves!") of my Silence Is So Accurate (degree zero 2017) avaialbel online from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

For Services to the Vatican ... and other Public Service Awards 2010

For Services to the Vatican, Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC - now an outreach service of the bunker.

Runner Up: Private Eye. Though saved from an actual Award by one sharp front cover, Private Eye remains remarkably coy about the scandals which have engulfed the Roman Catholic Church. Even the cartoonists have gone docile: at the time of the Pope's visit, there was nothing in Private Eye's pages which could not have appeared in a Catholic rag.

But, true, they were saved by one front page gag (I quote from memory): "In the old days, boys wanted to enter the priesthood. Now it's the other way around"

For Services to Baroness Uddin: Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions who decided not to

For Services to the Royal Family: the British Press upon the occasion of a young chap announcing that he's gonna marry his live-in girlfriend.

For Services to Keeping the Lower Orders Deferential: David Cameron, who responded to the above announcement by giving them a Day Orff. As one wit writing to The Independent observed, that's the Circus organised, now we just need the Bread.

For Services to Scotland: Gordon Brown. Long may he continue with his round of Good Works in the Parish. I trust no one will try to draw him back to London.

For Services to Banking: Sir Fred Goodwin, for keeping a low profile.

.... Well, you get the idea. You could turn it into a Christmas parlour game. I have left you a clear field with the Liberal Democrats. It is the Season of Goodwill....

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A University Education: Is it worth it?

This is autobiography - and, on this occasion, quite difficult to write

I have always had my doubts about universities, doubts about the students and doubts about the teachers.

In 1965 I began a degree, on a full grant topped up with an Open Scholarship (£370 + £60 per year, enough to live on). I was the first in my family to attend University, sponsored by my boys' grammar school for Oxford entrance. My school told us it was hard to get into Oxford. But when I arrived and began talking to my fellow students at St. Peter's College, I was surprised. I had three As at A level. Some of them had a couple of Ds and Es. But they had gone to (minor) public schools and (more importantly) their fathers had attended St. Peter's. They were often sons of clergy, and at that time St. Peter's catered to them. The head of the college, J P Thornton-Duesbery, was a Moral Re-armer. Some of these young men with Ds and Es became active in OICU: the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a scary organisation of fundamentalists.

I don't think my grammar school realised they were enrolling me in a God-bothering Oxford college. They just thought St Peter's was an easy college to get boys into; its academic results were dismal.

Nowadays, maybe the equivalent of St Peter's is a former polytechnic where you are expected to lean to the left and study some bogus subject.

I didn't think very highly of my degree course (PPE) or (some of) those who taught it. When I graduated with a First, I wrote a pamphlet attacking the content of the PPE degree. Someone republished it a couple of years ago when people were marking the 40th Anniversary of the 1968 Student Revolt. Then a few years later, I wrote a piece of autobiography which reflects on the quality of the teaching - this piece, which I prefer to the pamphlet, is now on my own website,

Thirty years later, at the first opportunity, I took early retirement from my University teaching post. There were many reasons. Not the most important, but the hardest one to acknowledge - I have never said this before - was the feeling that too many of my colleagues, and too many of my students, weren't very bright.

I had colleagues who had poor degrees (Lower Seconds or worse) and no subsequent research achievements to show that their degree-awarding universities had judged them wrong. They had got into university teaching during the period of university expansion when there were lots of jobs and not enough candidates. My feeling was that some of them had sought a careeer in university teaching precisely as a way of denying awareness of their own intellectual limitations. They were like surgeons who do botched jobs.

Sometimes students realised that their teachers weren't really up to it. On one occasion, I was asked to repeat a course for a group who had protested that they had been intellectually short-changed by a colleague of mine. They had been, believe me.

But then there were the students. For the last ten years or so of my career, I didn't teach undergraduates. I taught MA students enrolled on full- or part-time programmes for which (unless sponsored) they paid their own fees. They were "soft" programmes - Creative Writing and such like - and, basically, if you could pay, you could join. The barrier of an Upper Second as a criterion of admission had gone.

The result was a Mixed Ability class.

I came to the (private) conclusion that probably most university education in "soft" areas - the arts, the humanities, the social sciences - should be offered as "adult education" within part-time provision, with open enrolment, and full-cost fees. I could not think of any good reason why what I was doing should receive government funding.

I no longer have contact with universities - and they do not have contact with me.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Revolting Students? I blame the parents

The only certain consequence of a very big increase in university student fees is that more young men will try their luck at drug dealing and more young women will turn to lap dancing clubs - unless the Fawcett Society closes them down, in which case young women will turn to prostitution.

There is a background issue about parental responsibility. At what age do you lose responsibility for your children? (Leave aside, for the moment, when you acquire it). When they could leave school? When they do leave school? When they leave home? When they finish an undergraduate degree? When they are in proper full time employment? When (if female?) they get married? Never?

Let's stick with the middle classes and how they create families. Unless very affluent, they rely on free pre- and ante-natal care; free vaccinations; free schooling from 5 ( earlier if they are lucky) to 18; lower bus fares and cinema ticket prices. They assume that everyone is happy to subsidise their children and so they often have more than they would if they had to pay the full cost. There are lots of middle class breeders.

They assume that the subsidised life will continue indefinitely. They do not expect a radical change to occur when their children go to university. They certainly do not plan to pay for this stage of their children's education. When the children go off to university, surely that is when we upgrade the car, extend our holidays abroad, and replace the sofas they have trashed?

So some - some, not all - of our revolting students now find themselves caught between parents who Can't Pay, Won't Pay and a state which has decided it also Can't Pay, Won't Pay. In short, they are stuffed.

More precisely, they are faced with the prospect of building up quite substantial debts just to support themselves and pay fees. And this debt is secured against the prospect of rather uncertain future employment. Adulthood hits them all at once, at eighteen.

Adulthood ought to hit their parents too. Parents need to be weaned off their dependence on subsidies to bring up children. Perhaps they should be enrolled compulsorily in savings schemes which yield lump sums for their children when they reach adulthood. Maybe they should be told they have been feckless to have the children and not plan for their future.

Worst of all, there are lots of middle class parents out there who can afford to support their children but are too mean to do so. They talk about Growing Up and Responsibility. I am sure the demonstrators on the streets of London have heard a lot of such talk,.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Death and Taxes - and Crime

Like death and taxes, crime is one of the inevitables of life. Perhaps it's time to get over it. That would be one way of keeping down the prison population.

I am regularly a victim of crime. I set up shop at stamp exhibitions [ I am a stamp dealer by trade ] and stuff gets nicked. Sometimes I notice, sometimes I don't. You are not much of a victim of crime if you don't actually notice it. There was once an Arab sheikh, alarmed to be visited in his London hotel room by the police. They had come to tell him that his credit cards had been misused. For a million. Really? he replied.

When you do notice it, you then have to decide whether to report it. Is it worth the time? Is it worth going to court for? Will you yourself get into trouble? As a young man studying in Paris, I had my room burgled and money stolen. I spoke to a neighbour: I wouldn't go to the police, if I were you, she said; it will be a lot of trouble, and besides you are a foreigner. With long hair.

But suppose you persist. You detect it, you report it. The police file the report and that's the end of the matter. How are they supposed to catch the criminal? It's alright when it's a case of someone with an uncontrollable temper hitting someone right in front of a police officer. Or someone who walks into the police station and says, "It was me". But otherwise, it's a lot of work, catching criminals and to be honest, we can't be bothered.

For that, we should be grateful. If you had a nearly one hundred percent on-the-ball, efficient, motivated and sophisticated police force, unwilling to let any crime go unpunished, you would also have nearly one hundred percent of the population with a criminal record. Is that really desirable?

What is desirable is that the police try to prevent crimes which shatter people's lives and pursue those guilty of such crimes. That means protecting children and other vulnerable groups from violence and intimidation. It means taking seriously women who phone up to say they are terrified their ex -partner or their family is going to kill them. I would be willing to let an awful lot of crimes go unpursued if that meant that really horrible crimes were prevented or their perpetrators always hunted down and punished.

Instead, it seems police resources are still disproportionately allocated to pursuing small-time drug dealers selling weed or women sex workers whose offence is to offend rather than harm. And so on. Let it go, I say. Nothing terrible will happen. I am still in business even though stuff gets nicked.


Added 24 July 2018: An expanded version of this Blog post forms a chapter of my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), a paperback freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Atheism and Secularism

Many years ago I was commissioned to write a short book on Atheism. I had already written a short What is Philosophy? [ republished at my site]and thought I could deliver on Atheism.

But I couldn't. I found it emotionally difficult and I had other (emotional) worries, notably a divorce.

You could, for starters, distinguish three kinds of atheism : ontological, epistemological and moral.

Thinking about what there is (ontology), you can argue that there is no need to postulate a god to explain the universe and so, using Occam's Razor [ Don't imagine more things than you have to ], don't postulate one. You can also argue that any well-founded ontology looses its robustness or coherence once you start adding a god into it. And so on. None of this interests me very much, though I read some of the books.

Thinking about how we know things (epistemology) you can argue that it's unknowable whether there is or isn't a god - which leads to agnosticism rather than atheism - or that there is no evidence pointing towards the existence of a god or that the evidence points the other way. For example, the Problem of Evil (the theodicy problem) suggests that even if there is a god, he, she or it isn't a good one or isn't a powerful one. There's too much evil in the world. This is a bit more interesting and I read quite a few books.

But my own brand of atheism, such as it is, says that it is wrong to believe in god. It's a moral question. I ended up with the following formulation: If a good god did exist, he would not wish us to believe in him any more. Too many crimes have now been committed in his name. To expand on that, there is now something indecent about believing in god. From a slightly different angle, there is something weak-willed about believing in god. It is too closely connected to hedging one's bets, since in general (though for no compelling reason) belief in god and belief in personal immortality are interlinked. Take away the promise or threat of immortality and there is not much left of Christianity. The Vatican would not be able to frighten anyone without immortality.

But whether or not someone is a theist does not trouble me very much. In fact, from the religious and theological literature I read from my teenage years on, I always came away with respect for those who live quietly pious lives - I say "quietly" because the lack of demonstrativeness is the core of the piety. And I think there can be non-theist versions of that piety: paying attention [ to someone, to something ] is the natural piety of the soul.

What does trouble me is organised religions. With very few exceptions, they are dreadful outfits - mean spirited, cruel, corrupt, self-indulgent, full of hate towards women and children. The Vatican - a totalitarian bureaucracy - has demonstrated all that, continuously, for centuries.

So I want to clip the wings of organised religions and keep them out of public life. No state religions, no faith schools, no NHS hospital chaplains, no red carpets for the big wigs, no tax breaks, no immunity from civil and criminal law.

That makes me a secularist.

I am surprised how weak we are in our dealings with organised religion. Mussolini granted the Vatican recognition as a "state" because its bureaucrats wanted to put themselves beyond the reach of ordinary civil and criminal law. That is what the 1929 Lateran Pact is all about. Time to repudiate it. Send in the tanks. No Vatican State, just a church whose bureaucrats, like all other citizens, are subject to the laws of the country in which they live.

A Day Orff for the Lower Orders

Prince William is getting married. Hurrah for William! And Mr Cameron has given us the day orff. Three cheers for Mr Cameron! Hip hip!

You can see where Mr Cameron is coming from. Maybe he remembers Alderman Snudge at school speech days: Because you have worked so hard, I have asked the Headmaster to grant you an Extra Day's Holiday! Hurrah for Alderman Snudge!

What will actually happen?

GPs will shut down their surgeries, yet again, and moonlight as Out of Hours doctors, for which the going rate is £175 per hour[ Sunday Times research]. Three cheers for Mr Cameron!

Refuse collectors will work on Saturday and even Sunday to "catch up" the round they missed on Friday. They will be paid double or treble time. Hurrah for William!

Schools will shut. Last day of school, last day of sorrow! A supply of fresh faced children will be made available to line the streets and wave the flags. Hurrah for William! Three cheers for Mr Cameron! They will be bussed in to create the illusion of popular enthusiasm. London will be quietly transformed into a Potemkin village.

Apparently, in North Korea, attractive young women in nice clothes are employed to sit on benches, book in hand, near the awful monuments which tourists are obliged to visit. It's meant to create the illusion of normality in a country where people starve and die on the streets, but not on the streets of Pyongyang because only the party faithful are allowed there.

While the children are waving their flags, their teachers will be shopping in Ikea and Tesco, whose workers - of course - will not enjoy a day orff. Public holidays in Britain are basically public sector holidays and public sector workers like to be served. There is a pecking order and at the end of the pecking order is the ethnic minority check out worker in Tesco. Who is also expected to cry, Hurrah for William!

There is no public holiday on which shops and restaurants shut and town halls and GP surgeries stay open.

There is no public holiday when it's England versus Germany. The economy cannot afford it. But when the second in line to the throne decides to marry, it's only natural that the Prime Minister of the bride should want the public to pay for it all.

Not that the bride is terribly important. She will have to learn her place. Just like Diana.

Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post material re-appears in modified form in my paperback The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A paradox of getting older

All the surveys say that older people are happier than younger people. "Happier" may be read to mean less restless, less anxious, less troubled; more contented, more satisfied, more at ease. Whatever, I put my hand up to say I am one of those people who feels happier now than when younger.

In some ways this is surprising. Older people often have money worries and they all have health worries. From fifty or sixty onwards, things start going seriously wrong: there are things which are debilitating, like arthritis; and things which may be terminal, like heart attacks and cancer. Poeple live longer but few die of old age.

My parents' and grandparents' generation lived differently as they got older in one important respect. Serious illness struck them down, often suddenly. They dropped dead from heart attacks and they died within months of cancers which had developed unnoticed. There was no warning. They had not been seeing their doctor.

Nowadays older people live with cancer screening, blood pressure monitoring, cholesterol checks, vital organ function checks. Over 60, you can easily clock up a lot of tests.

In the past year, my age alone has meant that I have been offered bowel cancer screening ( you do this one by post), a cholesterol check and probably a diabetes check (I can't remember - I just remember that I don't have it).

Then, because of my heredity, I have regular prostate cancer screening.

Then, because of a virus which did not identify itself to routine blood tests, I had liver function and kidney function tests, followed by ultrasound scans of kidneys, liver, pancreas. After all that, the virus gave up and went away. As it would have done anyway.

There have been more tests, but I think you get the point by now.

I think you could be forgiven for getting a bit anxious with all this screening and testing, even if at the end of it you are still fit and blogging. Sometimes I think that I will say No to the next test. Or simply not go to the doctor. But then I realise that is irrational.

So I have to learn to live with it. But I still think it's a bit of a paradox that I both feel happier and at the same time keep being reminded that one day there will be something to worry about.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Wikileaks and The Secrets Fallacy

It's true that sometimes They know things that we don't. I didn't know that Chinese officials talking to American officials feel free to brief against North Korea - and I was a bit relieved to discover that they do. It reassures me that the Chinese are rational.

But a lot of the time They don't know any more than we do - and sometimes less. This is true both for diplomats and spies. They both move in rarified circles and it would call into question their salaries and their status if they conceded that, actually, you can generally find out more by reading the newspapers and Googling. Or by reading books.

But the moment something becomes Secret, it acquires an authority which makes it worth leaking. It then becomes headline news.

Before the UKs last General Election no one ever claimed that David Cameron and George Osborne were in the rocket science class when it came to understanding the fiscal and monetary measures needed to keep UK plc afloat. Gordon Brown claimed rocket scientist status for himself and the press had awarded the title to Vince Cable. When it came to forming a Coalition cabinet, there was a general feeling that though it had to be Osborne at the Treasury, it ought to have been Vince.

So it's no surprise that Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, should have been unimpressed by Cameron-Osborne. It may be more surprising that he shared his assessment with the American ambassador, but then it is a diplomat's job to get people talking and King was not saying anything terribly controversial.

Once again I feel relieved: just like the Chinese officials, the Governor of the Bank of England seems to have got his head screwed on.

Whenever I am in danger of being overawed by the wisdom of those whose emails are marked Secret, I remind myself of how, at the time of the Kosovo conflict, NATO forces came to bomb a Chinese mission in Belgrade thinking it was a Serbian military or police installation. They hadn't consulted an up to date Guide Book.