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Monday, 22 September 2014

England's Green and Pleasant Land

Finally, we say, Enough is Enough. We will use our new Devolved Powers and we will say that Pavements are for People. Parks are for People. Beaches - even in Brighton - are for People.

We have tried for long enough to curb the anti-social behaviour of Dog Addicts. We have spent millions on telling them to Clear Up after their pooches and many many millions more shovelling their shit into lorries and carting it away to landfill.

We have tried without success to persuade them to keep their dogs on leads at all times. We have tried to curb their taste for dogs which bark and attack and sometimes kill. Enough is Enough.

From now on, no dogs on pavements; no dogs in parks; no dogs on beaches

No longer will parents have to navigate their child's buggy around pavement dog shit. No longer will parents have to check that the grass or the pebbles are clear enough of shit for their children to play. No longer will everyone have to watch out as they walk the pavements or go to sit on the grass.No longer will people have to get away from the "He's Friendly" dog jumping all over them

We've waited a long time for Devolution and this is how we are going to use it.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Paradoxes of Centralisation and Devolution

In a centralised system of government, people may end up feeling that the context of their daily lives is mismanaged or misunderstood simply because the System is too remote. It may indeed be physically remote - and very few countries manage to locate their capitals in the middle of their territory. It may also be remote because mediated through layers of bureaucracy: the centre gives orders to the next layer down which gives orders to the next layer down .. and so on. One weakness of this approach is that it is incompatible with any ideas of local initiative. The System ends up being staffed by people who only do what they are told, though not necessarily with any great enthusiasm. But such officials are more likely to be sacked for showing initiative than for showing laziness.

Occasionally, centralised systems try to solve the problem of what one might call "follow through" by appointing local representatives of the centre to monitor the work of local administrations: my guess is that this is one aspect of the French system of "Prefects". In the old Soviet Union, local party representatives also had the function of ensuring that local administrations implemented the central line.

Centralised systems are designed to hold together societies which might otherwise fragment and people are more likely to accept them if they feel that everyone in the society gets treated more or less the same way and gets more or less a fair share of whatever benefits are on offer. But the reality is, centralised systems often fail those tests. And so pressure builds up for devolution of power. That's what has happened in the UK over the past few decades. Westminster and Whitehall have lost credibility as effective policy makers and system managers and so those in favour of devolution have argued for local policy making and management.

The more devolution you get, the more you are likely to want. The centre seems not only increasingly remote but increasingly irrelevant. Why do we still have to give them money? It has quite often been theorised, but there are actually very few functioning federal systems where the centre occupies itself with little more than foreign affairs and defence against external enemies, issuing passports, managing borders, and so on. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, there were those like Gorbachev who pushed for a new federal structure of this "weak" kind. It didn't happen. Given a taste of power, local power chiefs decided to grab all the power.

So devolution designed to address the problem of a remote centre ends up making the centre even more remote and even less loved. Devolution sets up inexorable pressures for independence, real or de facto. In Scotland, the opponents of independence all want more devolution - what is called "devo max". And there are those, like Gordon Brown, who quite fancy a future as Chief of a devomax Scotland, both running its own affairs and  still sending MPs to Westminster to special plead the Scottish case and superannuated MPs to the London House of Lords to do the same.

A formula for catalysing the rather weak forces of English Nationalism.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Their Referenda and Ours: Ukraine and Scotland

On Sunday December 1st 1991, 84% of registered voters in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic turned out to vote YES to independence from the Soviet Union. In the former Austrian and Polish areas to the west - Galicia - over 90% voted Yes. In the more ethnic Russian east, the Yes vote was still over 70% : in Luhansk it was 83% and and in Donetsk 77%. Even in majority-Russian Crimea, the vote was 54% in favour of Ukrainian independence. [ For Source, see Footnote]. The Russians in Ukraine thought that they has a better chance of a good future in an independent Ukraine than in a crumbling Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin's Russia, itself in the process of freeing itself from the Soviet Union,  had already signaled that if Ukraine voted for independence, it reserved the right to raise boundary questions: Crimea and eastern and southern Ukraine were identified as areas over which Russia had a claim. But the large majorities for independence contributed to those boundary questions not being pursued.

Some candidates in the Ukrainian presidential election, held at the same time as the Referendum, favoured a federal Ukraine - it's a big country, created out of territories ruled in the past hundred years by Austria,Poland, Germany, Romania and Russia. But other candidates, fearing separatist tendencies, held out for a more unified structure, among them Leonid Kravchuk the outright winner of the presidential election with 61% of the vote.

The failure of independent Ukraine to deliver on the hopes of its citizens, the specific economic problems created by declining industries in the east, and a clumsy overlay of Ukrainian cultural nationalism fuelled the separatist tendencies which have come to a head in 2014. That gave President Putin of Russia the opportunity to pick up the border questions abandoned by his original sponsor, Boris Yeltsin, with consequences with which everyone is familiar. But they are not perhaps familiar with the fact that these issues go back to the period of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 - 91.

But what interests me here is the massive pro-Independence vote in 1991. It's the kind of vote you need if you are really going to disentangle yourself from relationships and structures going back hundreds of years - it was not just in the Communist period that Ukraine was tied to Russia. Russia and Ukraine were the double heart of Romanov Russia, dating back to 1613.

So though I really, really hope that Scotland will vote YES and try to take itself out of the crumbling Union state run from Westminster and Whitehall, I don't think that 51% is enough to make it work or work successfully. It's a toss of the coin figure. It means that in everyday life in Scotland, for every person working enthusiastically to create the new state, another person will be feeling cheated of the benefits of the Union. Scots will not be pulling together and half of them will be colluding with the Union apparatchiks in Westminster to make sure that independence doesn't work. There are regions in Scotland which are less than enthusiastic about rule from Edinburgh: the offshore islands, notably.

By way of example of what pulling together can mean: the first Minister of Defence of independent Ukraine, Major General Konstiantyn Morozov, was half Russian from eastern Ukraine. He had studied Ukrainian in school but, as a soldier, had had no occasion to use it. He was a Russian speaker but an independent thinker who favoured an independent Ukraine with its own armed forces. . On taking up his post, he had to promise to learn Ukrainian. On that basis, he was entrusted with the job.

Footnote: All the statistics for Ukraine are taken from Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire, Basic Books / Oneworld 2014, a fascinating book

Monday, 8 September 2014

Universal Suffrage - Fundamental Principle or Evolving System?

The campaign slogan was never "One Person One Vote" or even "One Adult One Vote" but always "One Man One Vote". Most people think that their countries had a functioning democracy even before the vote was extended to women - everyone knows Switzerland got there last (in 1971). Of those who fought and died in the trenches of the First World War, very few believed in female suffrage.

There were other, lesser anomalies which eventually got removed: in the UK, the Property Owner's Vote and the Universities Vote which gave some people two votes. Those were only abolished in 1948.

Some adults don't get the vote - in the UK, prisoners, and in other times and places, lunatics and bankrupts. No one in politics suggests that children should have the vote, though in my life time the voting age has been reduced from 21 to 18 and for the Scottish independence referendum it has been reduced to 16.

So Universal Suffrage is a bit variable at the edges but the fundamental principle, if there is one, is a bit like that of Mutually Assured Destruction - you vote Conservative and I vote Labour and we can cancel each other out. But if there are 51 of you and only 50 of us, you win. And in the British system at least, Winner Takes All.

It's relevant that in most cases, major things we associate with democracy, like a free press and freedom from arbitrary arrest, were in place before the arrival of universal suffrage. Think only of the Swiss case. In ex-colonial and other liberated countries where universal suffrage has been introduced first, a free press and so on do not always follow: universal suffrage on its own does not make a democracy.

All the history of the fight for what was also called "Manhood Suffrage" took place against a very particular demographic background, a world of young people and working people. Life expectancies in the major democracies meant that the elderly - the retired, pensioners, the elderly frail - were a small part of the population. The significance of this fact has generally been overlooked. It gave a forward-looking bias to democratic politics, sometimes disastrous for democracy itself (Fascism, Nazism).

Now the situation has changed and the increasingly elderly demographic of the advanced democracies, and even more so of active voters, gives a backward-looking bias to their politics. British political parties lack a vision for the future because they are not responding to voters who are seeking such a vision. They are responding to voters who want the past and whose time horizon is the next few years.

There is no obvious reason why this situation should be accepted. We generally treat it as natural that children should not have the vote - we don't think of them as disenfranchised. However, Googling to Wikipedia on Plural Voting, I discover that it has sometimes been proposed that parents should get extra votes for dependent children, in order to increase the importance of long-term planning as an election issue. The idea was put forward by the UK think tank Demos in 2003, by the Dutch economist Lans Bovenberg in 2007 and it is an official policy of the Christian Party of Austria.

In addition or as an alternative, I  suggest we should think about whether elderly people should have the vote or the full vote. Maybe the vote is something you should get at 18 and keep until you are 68 or, subject to fitness,78 or 88. A bit like a Driving Licence. Maybe it is something which should reduce in value as the decades pass, so that a full vote at 18 becomes a half vote at 68 and so on down.

It's not an outrageous idea. It's about securing a future. And if Scotland goes, England will be in dire need of some future-oriented thinking. And it ain't gonna get it in Clacton (see my previous Blog post)

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Destructive Power of Elderly Voters

I have been thinking about Clacton. The Conservative Member of Parliament for this English constituency, Douglas Carswell, has resigned thus forcing a bye-election - in which he will stand as the candidate for the United Kingdom Independence Party. He will win, overwhelmingly.

This has made me think quite a bit about the destructive power of elderly voters. They are a big majority of those who will vote in Clacton and a majority throughout England. And they are a threat to the future of their country.

They look backwards, not forwards, and in terms of narrowly selfish preoccupations, they win hands down. They want to know what's in it for them and that's about it - apart from some xenophobia which they have learnt from the Daily Express. They dominate elections so totally now that younger people don't bother to vote just as people who don't own their own homes don't bother to vote. They know that the political parties aren't interested in them.

For the forthcoming Scottish Referendum - please let it be Yes! - the voting age has been lowered from eighteen to sixteen which tilts things just a little in favour of those who might think about the future instead of the past.

I think we need to push things farther in that direction. We need to break the power of elderly voters. If we don't, we have no future.

So I make the following proposal. I am happy that the voting age should remain at 18. But I think that at 18, a new voter should start with a vote which will be counted as 100 votes. At each birthday, the value of a person's vote should reduce by one, so that an 88 year old would have a vote counted as 30 votes: 88 - 18 = 70 years older and 100 - 70 = 30 votes remaining. ( On this scheme, I would currently have 50 votes)

At a stroke, this changes the whole electoral situation and would force the political parties - a complacent, ostrich-like bunch of clapped out clubs - to confront a whole range of issues they would prefer to duck. Housing would be an obvious one, but others would include drugs policy, jobs, energy supply, transport infrastructure and climate change. That's just for starters. They might even have to think about their cosy little assumption that next comes King Charles III.

The same result could be achieved by a method which is not discriminatory in the way that the first proposal is. At eighteen, a voter starts with 100 votes - and that is their life time supply of votes for General Elections. How many they use in any one general election is their decision. They have to reckon that in their life time there will be around 12 - 15 General Elections. But instead of averaging out their votes, they can vary the number they use each time. So if they are desperate to get rid of Mr Cameron, or whatever, they can use 50 or even 100 at one go.

Oh I know these are outrageous ideas. But think about it. Do you really want to be ruled by the Dead Souls of Clacton?


Back in 1968, when students occupied the London School of Economics, one of the banners read, "Beware the Pedagogic Gerontocracy". I have just changed "Pedagogic" to "Electoral".

It would be interesting to map the changing age profile of voters at  General Elections since 1945 and how the voting patterns by age group have changed.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Rethinking Political Correctness

Political Correctness - PCness -  is something everyone now loves to hate. Rightly so. No one wants to be nannied about by low level functionaries with no other job of work to do than draw up Lists or by those who, unable or unwilling to articulate a distinction between Right and Wrong, can only purse their lips and raise their eyebrows as a substitute for argument. Worse, there are things which are widely believed to be PC when they manifestly aren't. You can't read a newspaper or an academic book without having to deal with the word "gender" being used incorrectly when what is meant - and should be meant - is "sex". This is not PCness gone mad; it is simple Orwellian mystification engineered by those who would prefer us not to think about questions of Sex and Gender.

We need a fresh start from a fresh starting point.

There are lots of social theorists who will tell you that social life is impossible without a background, routine assumption of Trust. Even in the most oppressive regimes, trust is indispensable.

We can build on this idea. I want to say that at the heart of a good society is an assumption that everyone, regardless of accidental characteristics like sex, race or sexual orientation can be trusted and should be trusted until it is proved otherwise.

Let me illustrate this idea by reference to schooling, where many of our troubles start. A trusting teacher will assume that every pupil, whether they be a boy or a girl, can do any of the things which are routinely asked of them and can do those things equally well. Reading, writing, math, swimming ... it's irrelevant whether you are a boy or girl. Go on, I trust you, just try. Just do it.

Interestingly, it will then emerge that there are some things - a few things - where it's not true that the distinction between boy and girl is irrelevant. At the end of the day, at the Olympics, we have Men's Swimming and Women's Swimming and we have functionaries to ensure that you don't cheat and claim the wrong sex for yourself.

In some areas, we may end up uncertain whether there is a difference or not - Chess is a good example. In those cases, it may make most sense to run both options - Single Sex Tournaments and Mixed Sex Tournaments - and let players choose or gravitate. Nothing terrible will happen provided only that you start from the assumption that everyone can be trusted and no one will be told at the outset, "You can't do that because you are a girl".

In the same way, no one should start off being distrusted because of their race. That is to state the bleeding obvious. But there are racial differences and they sometimes need to be taken account of. Men of African heritage are more susceptible to prostate cancer (you can Google that) and if the susceptibility is significant then it may make sense to engage in Profiling. Men of African heritage might be targeted for screening campaigns on the basis that they are more at risk and that targeting them is an efficient use of scarce medical resources. There is no discrimination against Caucasians if the facts stack up. And there has been no failure of Trust.

Profiling is hated because it is often no more than an excuse for discrimination. But sometimes it's hated because it is based on fact. Sometimes people protest loudly not because they are being discriminated against but because they have been found out.

No one should be distrusted because of their sexual orientation and old-style distrust often looks absurd and sometimes confused, as when the tastes of paedophiles are attributed to gay men.

Equally absurd are beliefs that women can't be trusted to walk down the street unaccompanied by a Minder - a belief which seems to be widespread and extremely difficult to change. It is a belief which rather obviously makes it harder for life just to go on, efficiently and reasonably happily.

But Trust doesn't quite capture another feature of social life which is indispensable. That is Civility, the thing which children are taught when they are taught to say "Please" and "Thank You". Now Civility is interesting because it is something you are supposed to grant to everyone, and rightly so. You don't size up a person's sex or race or sexual orientation before deciding whether to say "Please" or "Thank You" - or if you do, you are making it harder for social life to go on, routinely and unproblematically and to the benefit of all.

In many ways, I think Civility is the thing which Political Correctness tries to concretise but does so by the mistaken method of making Lists.

I'll stop there. My proposal for now is that we start re-thinking Political Correctness by going back and thinking through the ideas of Trust and Civility.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Respect as Political Correctness" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Monday, 1 September 2014

Keep on Blogging in the Free World?

I posted my first Blog here on 22 January 2010 and since then, according to my Dashboard, I have posted another 481 Blogs. By the end of the first five years I should have around 500 posts here. Some, of course, are short and very ephemeral and - when I notice them - I remove them. Occasionally, I dislike what I have written, sometimes strongly enough to remove it. But if the post just shows me getting things wrong, I try to leave it alone.

I don't use a word counter but I guess the average length of a post is about 400 words, in which case with 500 posts I will have 200 000 words - equivalent to two or three books depending on how many pages and how big the typeface.

I sometimes have the fantasy of making one (short) book from a selection of the posts. In fact, not so long ago I got someone to print off everything on this Blog with a view to making a selection. But I'm not sure I now have the energy or enough critical distance. So I thought of trying to get someone to do it for me - to edit down the material to an interesting book of short essays.

To tell the truth, the Blog began because though I wanted to write One More Book (before I die ...)  I also knew that I have never been any good at sitting down and, beginning at the beginning, writing until it is all done. Two of my published books (Language Truth and Politics; Language in Mind and Language in Society) were both written piecemeal over several years and rewritten, cut, pasted - manually in those days - until something sufficiently booklike emerged.

I did sit down today thinking that I should make myself pick 18 topics for the 18 posts still needed for the 500. I could write them between now and the end of the year and then, perhaps, close the Blog.

But I don't have a ready list of 18 topics to hand. It's not how I work - well, most of the time: in the past, I have worked from Lists, sometimes alphabetical. It's how I wrote another one of my books (Key Concepts), much more rapidly than the previous two which had been traumatic to write.

Eighteen topics. There are things I would like to write about but not here. There are things I would like to write about but don't because I don't know how to do them justice. Torturers, for example. Other things I don't write about because there are plenty of other people discussing them and probably better than I can. And so on.

Anyway, hope for - or expect - another 18 posts, after which I don't know. This year, I have been unwell off and on for several months and I see that this year's total number of posts is well down on previous years. But finding the sense for an ending is much harder than just stopping.