Friday, 3 April 2020

Those who can, do. Those who can't go into politics.

Those who can, do. Those who can't become politicians.   The old adage had it that they become teachers, but that is unfair to teachers as everyone who has tried teaching knows, and every parent now trying to educate their children at home.  Being a good teacher requires not only training and expertise but also aptitude.  But what of politicians?   While politics, history and law seem to be popular subjects for politicians, no training is required, although generally MPs start in the hard (nursery) school of local party politics and prove themselves before progressing.  

It seems to me that aptitude is also required for politics.  Commitment to make a difference is important, to persevere with intensely boring and often fruitless activity.  And politicians admit they require a thick skin; the business of politics is cruel and cut-throat.   Is it any surprise that being ruthless and a bully are also common characteristics.  And is it surprising that these traits are most seen amongst the most successful politicians; those who end up in cabinet?

What about training? A leader of industry, responsible for running large, complex, organisations employing thousands of people will have honed his or her skills as they work their way up.  They will also have undertaken multiple training programmes to develop their management skills and they have increasingly studied management and business at post graduate level.  So how can a politician, with no training and minimal expertise, step into a senior management role in a government department and be expected to perform effectively from the off?  

I am sure that those who are wholly ineffective are quickly weeded out, but there is no performance appraisal and success depends not on superior delivery but on the whim of leadership and personal relationships.  How can a Prime Minister (or President) who is a bully with an inflated ego, not to say a narcissistic personality disorder, judge whether a minister is good at their job other than his or her own personal standards.   

Is it not time that we measure politicians performance on their management skills and their delivery, not on what they say?

Monday, 8 April 2019

Brexit? I blame the media

Anthony Seldon in the New Statesman “J’accuse” (29th March) says “the judiciary and the Civil Service need to be better representatives of British society today”.  But it is unrealistic to think that any branch of government will ever be populated with people who represent the whole of society.

There is clear recognition of a lack of faces from ethnic minorities and women in the upper echelons of these institutions and efforts to change that may or may not be successful over time.  Society also now appears to be taking the issue of social mobility and if equality of opportunity were to become the norm it would at least help those who with the necessary aptitude and desire.  But nothing can be done that will ensure that the institutions Mr Seldon speaks of.  By the nature of their success, judges and senior civil servants are part of the so-called “elite”.  The high academic and performance standards required to progress, and the material rewards and social status that comes with that, mean that neither judges nor top civil servants will be representative of that part of the electorate that feels excluded and overlooked.  People may nostalgically cling to the class of their birth, and write in their memoirs of their fond memories of a council estate childhood, but in most cases they deliberately left that behind.  In any event, even if they were able to exercise their own conscience, and conscience is not a function of social origins, by and large they are servants of the state and are largely bound to do what politicians want.

The fair and just society that most people want will not be achieved by re-populating government institutions.  We need to give a voice back to the people.  For most people in the UK, their vote at the ballot box is of no consequence because they live in safe seats and the duopoly of Labour and Conservatives is not responsive to their views.  Even local elections are more frequently fought along national party lines and based on national party politics.  Where not in use already, a system of proportional representation needs to be introduced.  The alternative vote, which the conservatives in the coalition government agreed as the basis of the 2011 referendum, was and is inadequate to accurately reflect public opinion, one of the reasons why they insisted on it (and then campaigned against it).  Only proportional lists, such as in use in Germany, or multi-member constituencies with a Single Transferrable Vote, will do.   

Second, for people to exercise their votes responsibly, they need to be properly informed.  In the following article in the same edition of the New Statesman (“The humbling of Britain”) Martin Fletcher addresses all those who are responsible for the Brexit debacle we now face.  They are on all sides of the political spectrum and most of those fingered deserve the opprobrium that they will probably avoid.  But more than anyone, in my view, the media are accountable.  

It is the media’s responsibility in a modern democracy to put their energies into informing the public.  We expect politicians to be biased, devious and mendacious but they would be a lot less so if the media challenged and fact-checked instead of fanning the flames of prejudice and ignorance.  So long as they continue to do the latter instead of the former, our democracy will be undermined.  So long as politicians and governments are not held to account on a daily basis, not just once every 5 years, we won’t find the leaders of stature that Anthony Sheldon is asking for.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Gender is no longer relevant to civil society. Let everyone be treated equally

This blog is in response to an interesting article on LibDemVoice.  I agreed with most of it but my comment was too long to be acceptable to wordpress, so I have published it here.

The excellent article by (Sun 22nd July 2018) was a forceful plea against giving support to feminist groups who are anti-transgender rights because of the risks this supposedly creates for non-transgender women.  I am conflicted, and I suspect a lot of people are in the same place.  From where I stand (I confess I am a happily married hetero-sexual middle class white pensioner, not so old age if you please though I have to admit I am probably horribly old to some) there are genuine concerns but more importantly attitudes need to change.
When I was young boys and men changed for the swimming pool in open spaces. No one thought twice about the naked man next to them, although you did of course not stare.  When I was a teenager and young adult I believe that many clothes shops had open changing rooms for women, though I never came across one for men, you always had a cubicle.  But this was not a problem for the ladies (as far as I know, much as I would have liked to check for myself).  Now I am older (or rather actually old), I find it strange that my (adult) son will only undress in a cubicle and is shy about his body in front of me or the general public. 

I don't have the advantage of seeing what happens in the ladies changing room, but I wonder what would happen when a self-identifying woman with a penis gets naked in the ladies?  You can guess the range of reactions if someone with a woman's body, however they self-identified, did the same in the gents.    This is all a bit light-hearted but when you think of men crossdressing to gain access to women-only environments then it becomes serious. 

We seem to have arrived at a point in society when we are questioning what it means to be male or female; is it physical attributes, genetic or a psychological outlook?  in the short term we will not solve the problem of toilets and changing rooms but in the longer term we can - it is only a matter of money.  Many new buildings are already provided with unisex toilets and changing rooms are no different other than that they may be in different stores  (shelters should not be any more complicated because the people who need shelter are in fear of someone or something and just need a space away from everyone).

But is it not time that we moved on? We have male and female, bisexual, homosexual (male and female), transvestites, transgender, CIS, and I am sure other groups you could add.  Should society not simply start treating everyone as human beings?  I am a heterosexual male, but am called out for occasionally wearing a dress because I am being disrespectful, of transgender women, who by the way are allowed to wear trousers like any other woman.  Why?  What you wear does not define you.  Whether you want to pee sitting down or standing up does not define you. Whether you wear make up or not does not define you. Society should stop trying to pigeon hole everyone, and I mean everyone should stop doing it including the self-righteous minorities who complain in our multi-cultural society, about cultural appropriation.

Politicians must start to think in this way and not always to think about how to protect one minority or another.  Instead we need to respect everyone's right to be themselves and provide a safe environment, and legal framework, in which they can do that.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

What do you do when people ignore the facts?

I was having a conversation the other day about Brexit.  Who doesn’t?  My friend is an economist with exemplary credentials.  The subject was not “in or out” but why do people hold the views that they do, often in the face of evidence to the contrary.  For the purpose of this blog  my position on the EU is irrelevant, even if it becomes clear as we proceed.  

My friend started by mentioning that he had met David Davis MP, Brexit Minister, recently and concluded that he was genuinely stupid.  He contrasted Mr Davis with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who are not stupid, far from it, but they were calculating egotists solely interested in their own success.  I am inclined to agree with him on Johnson and Gove, both politicians who will walk over anyone to get what they want, but in Davis’ case the evidence is from his own mouth; when he said “I don't have to be very clever.  I don't need to know that much”.  Well he demonstrated that when he undid what Theresa May had achieved over the Irish Border with one careless, throwaway remark.  He should have added “but I do need to know when to keep my mouth shut”.

Then I thought that surely not everyone who does not see or accept a logical position is either an idiot or an egotistic chancer.  Most of us, however normally logical, inevitably fill some of the gaps in our factual,knowledge with assumptions or beliefs.  Some of us look for facts to fill the gaps and vary our views as the facts or better arguments become apparent, some are more resistant.   Racists, xenophobes, religious fanatics (anyone religious?), Brexiteers, Remainers (some anyway), socialists, libertarians, most politicians of all persuasions fall in this category.  Some people hold their views so strongly that they are a threat to society, at least to socially liberal democratic societies like ours.

The question is how to bring people around who don't necessarily base their views on facts?  I don't believe this can be done overnight; it requires concerted efforts over a long period of time. Such people need to make up their own minds.  If you hold a different opinion, don't give up; just keep arguing, provide the evidence and, occasionally, show that what is in their best interest.  

Of course for the complete idiot, there might be no solution.  But Theresa May could fire him.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

How can the Bible or Koran be the basis of a peaceful and humane religoin?

How can anyone point to the Koran or the Bible and say these documents are the bedrock of a peaceful and humane religion?  (This may apply equally to other holy scriptures but I am less familiar with them, so let's stick to these two).  They are full of blood-curdling violence and attitudes that would be completely unacceptable if they were espoused today.   But their violence and anachronistic attitudes are not at all surprising; they were written by people who were ignorant about the world around them, when science as we know it today did not exist, when human life was cheap and hung by a thread, threatened by hunger, natural disaster and disease, where people attacked and murdered each other over food and water as well as the gods they worshipped.

So when St Paul espouses slavery, or The Prophet wields a bloody sword, or women are treated as chattels, we should not get too hung up about it.  That was then, and this is now.  What the authors of these sacred texts thought 1300 or 2000 years ago is irrelevant to our lives today.  Sure, they have contributed to the intellectual development of the human race, and are interesting from an historical perspective, but as a species we moved on.  We learned to order our lives better and to control our environment so that life became safer and in doing so we had time and space to become more tolerant of each other, to show empathy for other human beings, and we replaced ignorance and superstition with science.

The Bible and the Koran are interesting historical tracts, but to rely on these documents to inform your behaviour is to say that you believe the world in which they were created is a better place than the one you live in today.   Some people may think so; the real fundamentalists, though I don't see them rushing to live without clean running water, modern medicine, almost universal literacy, modern communications (including you tube and Facebook!) and with fear that their lives might be extinguished tomorrow by a wild animal, a microbe or the tribe down the valley.  

Let me say, however, that I don't think it is necessary to live without belief completely.  You can believe in the inherent good nature of (most) human beings; that most of us know what ethical behaviour is and display it without recourse to "the good book".  We can believe that an enquiring mind is always better than a closed one. There will always be dangerous thoughts out there , but approach other ideas with an enquiring and scientific mind and the ascent of mankind will continue unabated, albeit with some hiccups on the way, even further from the distant and irrelevant world which spawned the holy-to-some Bible and Koran.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Surely not difficult to disrupt VAT fraudsters using Amazon's facilities

Amazon are accused of conniving in VAT fraud by foreign sellers who distribute their products from Amazon warehouses in the UK.  Surely if the vendors fail to pay VAT, i.e. are acting illegally, then HMRC have a simple solution; impound the goods, or better still get a court order preventing thhem from being shipped from Amazon's warehouse until back-date VAT bills are settled.  This will make the process unprofitable for their foreign owners and disrupt Amazon business as well as deny them the related commission, so a double whammy, at least for Amazon.a

 I have had enough of photos of smirking dot-com bosses in the financial pages of the press.  Jeff Bezos in the Sunday Times today (17th September) looks like the cat who has got the cream.  It is time that governments acted to spoil his not-so-little game, and that of the other VAT/Corporation Tax avoidance mega-corporations that increasingly dominate our lives.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center

Whether or not Maajid Nawaz's personal story is exactly as he says, and in retelling any history numerous times omissions and elaborations are the inevitable result of incomplete recollection and confirmation bias, it is one that is familiar to us in the UK.  Your bracketing Nawaz with American hate-mangers and alt-right apologists is unfair and damaging to the process of reforming Islam in the U.K., let alone around the world.  His name should not be on your list of Anti-muslim extremists, and if you have any integrity you should remove it and make an apology.

You say that Nawaz is anti-Muslim because he advocates active monitoring of extremism.  Your simplistic and misleading analysis fails to provide any details, suggesting his position amounts to wholesale monitoring of Muslim citizens.  This however is not what he has said and you should check your facts.  

Widespread monitoring is an attack on the freedoms of citizens in a democratic society, which liberals should rightly jealously guard.  Ironically of course it is also opposed by the very extremist groups who seek to undermine democracy and its freedoms because they know it is there to seek them out and prevent them from doing harm.   So there is a balance to be had between state oversight and monitoring and freedom.  Different nations have different solutions; the USA values individual privacy above collective security, at least in public, more than perhaps we do in the U.K. (gun laws are probably the most extreme example of that). In any event there is a political debate to be had, in the open, about this.  Advocating more or less monitoring is not a hate crime, it is freedom of expression.  In Maajid Nawaz's case you are welcome to call him on his radio show and debate the point.  You will be sure to get a fairer hearing that most people who call in to American radio "shock-jocks". 

The USA is not alone in suffering Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; we have had a number of incidents in recent years (and there have been many more throughout Europe).  We know that there is a group of hard-line islamists in the U.K. who are plotting further incidents, of whom the security forces admit to be monitoring around 3000 (as many as their resources will allow).  This is further evidenced by their success in preventing at least 15 attacks we know of.  Surely you are not advocating that surveillance of these people, many of whom have returned from being actively involved in violent  jihadism in Asia or the Middle East.  That would be negligent and an abrogation of state responsibility for maintaining the peace.  

There are also the ideologues who are actively promoting jihad (in this context I am sticking with the Islamic model, but this applies to any form of extremism).  If they are explicit enough they can be prosecuted for incitement, but many are just on the right side of the law in public.  These people invariably endorse an alternative political narrative that entertains overthrow of our democracy and its values, even though ironically they only survive because of it.  Generally they are anti-democratic, theocratic and usually endorse cultural practices that are inconsistent with western liberal ideas of individual freedoms.  That is their right in a liberal democracy, but the corollary is that the ideas are in the open, subject to challenge and debate.  Too often however these regressive ideologies are shared only in private, in restricted groups or in languages that most of the population do not understand.  Where veiled by religious dogma and the vague and ambiguous wording of scriptures it is all-too easy to make a defence that they are not threatening, when they are.  I suggest that the State would also be failing in its responsibilities if it did not try to monitor what they are saying.

For every committed violent jihadist there will be 10(s?) of people who share the extreme ideas even if they have not yet, or do not, endorse the violent means.  These people provide hiding ground for violent extremists, even (unknowingly) material support to their projects.   And for every person who endorses extreme ends, there will be another tranche who are ambivalent or neutral but who share cultural norms that are supported by the extreme Islamic vision. A Gallup World poll in 2005-2006 (see "Who speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think" Esposito and Mogahed, 2007) showed conflicting support for sharia (but not for religious leaders in charge of legislation) and cultural conservatism on the one hand, and for democracy and greater freedom for women on the other.  Western advocacy of "women's issues" for example was eyed with suspicion by women as well as men. It is easy for extremists to hide themselves in this population while seeking to persuade the vulnerable, disaffected, or even "idealistic" to join their cause.

In the U.K. The British government has implemented the "Prevent" strategy,  intended to identify people who are at risk of becoming radicalised and to provide them with support.  This depends inevitably on people, teachers, other professionals, friends, neighbours and even family, "informing" on the persons concerned.  This has been criticised as intrusive by segments of the Muslim community in the U.K. and, inevitably, as racist, if only because the vast majority of Muslims are not white.  The most vocal critics are inevitably the more radical.  

The authorities recognise that "Prevent" is not perfect.  But if you think it is an unwarranted intrusion on the liberty of British Muslims, then what alternatives do you offer?  Extremism will not magically disappear if only racism and discrimination stopped, because it is ideological.  And as to Maajid Nawaz's position, if you think he should be on your blacklist, then you had better put the British government there as well.  

Today in the U.K. Most mosques are led by Immams who were flown in from the Middle East or South Asia.  They are not the product of our society, they know little of our ethical and moral framework or of our culture.  Applying the culture and ethics of Peshawar in Britain today makes no sense, any more than inviting a pastor from a Ugandan charismatic church to lead an American Anglican Church.  Maajid Nawaz and Quillam make the case for a moderate, modern, liberal form of Islam, arguing against an Islam based on medieval ethics that is the foundation of extreme fundamentalist and occasionally violent Islam and jihad.  They do so in an open way that is consistent with our liberal democratic ideals.  You are free to disagree but attempting to suppress their views is anti-democratic and will damage the slow process of developing an alternative narrative to that which underpins Islamic extremism today.  To say that they are anti-Islamic is to imply that there is only one form of Islam (the position of course adopted by all the ideologues who think they are right and everyone else is wrong) which suggests you know very little about the religion.  

During the reformation the Catholic Church denounced all protestants as heretics, and they burned a good many of them at the stake.  There is a reformation needed in Islam today and you are not helping by metaphorically burning the reformers at the stake.  I urge you to withdraw your "fatwa" against Nawaz and to use your not inconsiderable resources to help and not silence the opposition to extremism.