Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Richard Dawkins Delusion

Richard Dawkins' book the God Delusion is an understandably influential work. It pits science against traditional, literal religious beliefs in highly confrontational terms and not surprisingly makes the latter look pretty daft. There is no man in the clouds directing the actions of human beings on planet earth. There is a very strong track record of scientific endeavor enjoying great success with such tangible things as making aeroplanes fly, curing diseases and a host of other useful and beneficial things which centuries of superstition had failed to produce. 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, undoubtedly a highly intelligent man with a sincere belief in science as problem solver, and an understandable antipathy to religion as an often divisive and intolerant force. The problem is that some of his followers, blissfully unaware of the deep irony of it, appear to attach an almost religious zeal to their love of science and develop a completely irrational blind spot to the very serious limitations of applying science to all problems at all times and in all situations.

I'm thinking in particular of a debate I had recently, which flared up when I stated that I didn't believe a gay couple were able to provide the same sort of care and guidance to an adopted child as might a traditional male-female couple. My opponent seemed quite indignant that I had said this and proceeded to list scientific studies which apparently disproved my contention, thus showing that I was merely a narrow minded bigot who disliked gay people.

This became too long and circular to be worth repeating here, but in a nutshell my opinion on this matter is that no scientific study can really answer such a question because each case is entirely unique and the outcome of a happy and well balanced adult is so entirely subjective that it can't be measured in any way which definitively proves that gay adoption does not cause harm. In the absence of hard scientific evidence or the word of God then you have to form an opinion based on your experiences if you are to have any opinion at all.

I did have a look at each of the studies cited and very quickly found serious problems with each one - the lack of a control group, a very small sample size, a very short period of study or a very narrow focus on specific development indicators at a particular stage. Several focused on biological mothers with female partners. That's not to say they are bad science, they just necessarily focused on very narrow aspects of the question. None of them even attempted the absurdly abstract task of demonstrating conclusively that gay adoption is just as likely to produce well rounded and contented adults as is adoption by a heterosexual couple. Yet this was exactly how my opponent had read them, usually in news articles or meta-studies, and this he felt gave the full weight of science to his opinion, and rendered mine an irrational superstition based on my dislike of a certain group of people. 

When I suggested that his position was based on prejudice and personal belief every bit as much as mine then he seemed confused and angry. How could this be? His position was tolerant and it was backed by science. He became the very definition of a bigot, closed to any other opinions, and displayed textbook prejudice, insisting on the righteousness of his own beliefs in spite of the absolute lack of any conclusive evidence supporting them. 

I call this the Richard Dawkins Delusion not because Dawkins himself is deluded but because a certain strand of vocal atheists appear to have taken on science as a religion and Dawkins as a Messianic figurehead. With a fervor reminiscent of a scene from The Life of Brian they act as though science was some force in itself, peeling back layers of foolish misconceptions and revealing a certain and solid truth. Anyone questioning the truth revealed, as reported by scientists in peer reviewed journals, must be some sort of religious fanatic or charlatan. 

This is complete nonsense, and flies in the face of the very cautious, sceptical and open minded approach which underpins all good science. It is in itself a form of zealous, and often shrill bigotry which displays a narrow and closed mind masquerading as as an open and enquiring one, and it deserves to be highlighted as such whenever it arises.

The very essence of science is not unqualified belief in the apparent results, but the humility to accept that there are limits to our knowledge, to approach questions with an open mind and to treat dogmatic certainty with scepticism.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Trickle Down Economics Versus a Pig

The term "trickle down" economics is now almost a pejorative in itself. The idea that promoting growth and allowing people to be wealthy is a benefit to all is as fashionable as a mullet and a neon Swatch. Guardian economics editor Larry Elliot wrote recently that the theory has been disproven since 2008 by the growing gap between the super rich and the rest, citing Chistine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF presenting a report showing rising inequality, and the need to boost the incomes of the poor to achieve overall economic growth.

However the term "trickle down" economics is not a piece of right wing dogma from the 1980s. The term was first used by Democratic Presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan in his 1896 campaign for the White House. Then as now the term was a straw man. Bryan believed that the state needed to intervene to raise the incomes of the poorest to drive economic growth. The term has occasionally been adopted by those in favour of the free market, but more generally through it's history has been used by those arguing for state intervention.

As so often with the psuedo-science of economics it pays to cut through the worthy sounding reports and peer reviewed numbers games, and to simplify it back to something readily visualised. In this case a pig. If I buy a piglet, feed and raise it to a good size, kill it and sell the meat then wealth has been created. My labour and capital have grown to a value that is greater than the sum of their parts. Yet no wealth has trickled down. I haven't been the fortunate beneficiary of a redistribution. I have used inputs to produce something of value. If someone cures parts of that pig into bacon they have done likewise. If someone cooks that bacon and sells it in sandwiches then they have added to this chain. In no case has wealth trickled down.

This misconception about the nature of wealth seems fundamental to left wing thought. The very notion of trickle down economics rests on the idea that wealth is some sort of endowment, given to the few to be dispersed to the rest. This is a fundamentally interventionist view of the world which will always lead to the demand that the state must intervene to rectify the inequity of the situation. It's an idea that might make some sense in a feudal kingdom where the right to hunt, farm, fish or trade is handed down to the commoners by barons who in turn derive their authority from the king. In a free, property owning society it is a nonsense.

Wealth is not an endowment handed down to the wealthy to be distributed to the population, by trickling down or otherwise. Wealth is what people create by arranging their capital and labour to their own advantage. It doesn't matter if this is done by rearing a pig, 1,000 pigs or by putting together a complex finance deal to fund corporate merger, the principle remains the same.

When people talk scathingly of trickle-down economics being discredited they are attacking a straw man with an attractive yet wholly false metaphor. The idea of wealth trickling down from rich to poor relies entirely on a perception of wealth which is rooted in a feudal society. This was rendered obsolete not by the state redistributing wealth from rich to poor but by property rights giving people the incentive to create wealth themselves.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Why Cameron Can't Enforce Purdah

The ongoing fuss about "Purdah" in the run up to the referendum on EU membership seems to be completely missing the point. Purdah is borrowed from the Persian word for a curtain or veil, and in this context describes the period before an election or referendum where government can not make announcements or introduce new policies which could influence the outcome of the election. Cameron has pointedly refused to have this period of purdah before the EU referendum against opposition from secessionists including his own backbenchers.

Cameron's stubborn refusal to adhere to this convention at first appears to be simply his own Europhile leanings wishing to use taxpayers' money for pro EU political ends. This in itself would be bad enough, but I suspect there's something more to it. After all even in the Scottish referendum, which Cameron appeared to be in favour of winning, the convention was observed.

The difficulty with purdah in the EU referendum is that it would imply that the European Commission was prohibited by British law from campaigning for an In vote during the referendum, and this is something that the British government does not have the power to do. Enforcing purdah would mean that the British government would be obliged to prosecute European Union officials for using public funds for campaigning. Since British law is, and even after "successful" negotiations still will be, subordinate to European law this would be a nonsense. It would be like a local council prosecuting the British government, when the end game will be that the sovereign power will overrule local officials.

This is not some wild conspiracy theory. The European Commission intervened in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, using tax payers money to secure a Yes vote. This was considered unlawful at the time by some, however it seems that nothing came of any legal challenge.

The popular assumption seems to be that Cameron is suspending purdah because he wants to use the British state to promote the In vote is actually understating the amount of power we have already lost to the European Union. He is avoiding this because he knows full well that the European Commission will simply pay no attention to purdah, putting him in the embarrassing position of having to either enter a legal battle with the Commission or publically accept, at the very worst time politically, that EU officials are above British law.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

If You F'ing Love Science, Try It

One of the most nauseating threads that keeps popping up on Facebook is "I F--king Love Science" on which typically eternal studenty types with Richard Dawkins delusions share snippets of pop-science and militant atheism, presumably trying to look intelligent. 

This often seems to completely miss the point of scientific endeavour, which if it's about anything at all must surely be about critical, constructive scepticism. You don't just believe something because "scientists" say so. Let's just take this story, shared on Facebook with a picture of planet earth in flames, and the headline that the first 5 months of 2015 are the "hottest on record."

The author does have the decency to link to the NASA data showing this apparent trend, but the rest of the article is sensationalist guff about melting roads, and only a vague mention of a Washington Post article which itself makes only a passing reference to carbon emissions as a possible cause of this, tagged on the end almost as an afterthought.

However the NASA data linked in the article is still not quite the whole story. Despite looking serious, the devil is in the detail. The top of the page has two notes - firstly that the base period is 1951 to 1980, and secondly that the records have been adjusted for "the elimination of outliers and homogeneity adjustment."

There's quite a good explanation here of why outliers are excluded, but it's not entirely clear that they should be in this case in this instance. While they probably wouldn't affect the trend, what they do show is that large variations are much more common than the adjusted data suggests. 

The homogeneity adjustment is a far more complex area, there's an explanation of it here. It takes a bit of brain-work but if you f'ing love science then it should be manageable. This is basically a very complex method of averaging 'urban' and 'rural' stations. It appears to average out recorded temperatures in a given area to account for localised heat from urban areas. This is an accepted statistical method, and it is clear why they have done it this time as there are far more urban areas generating a lot more heat today than there was when the data started in 1880. However it's not clear that this is an especially effective way of achieving this.

A bit of digging around brings you to the "long data" - that is to say the data as it was recorded without statistical manipulation. What it shows is that "outliers" are fairly common and this years deviation of 0.7°C is not especially extreme. January 1893 for instance was a full 1.44°C cooler than the this fairly arbitrary average, while February 1998 was nearly 1.2°C warmer. These could reflect inaccurate measurements, or they could simply reflect a temperature variation. Even 1.44°C, the biggest variation in the data, is hardly unheard of.

What this data set also lacks is context. 135 years is a long time by human standards, there have been huge advances in our ability to accurately measure temperature, and a far broader ranger of places we can do it. It wasn't until after world war 2 that there was any serious research presence in Antarctica. So while the data shows a very broad trend, trying to read anything into a deviation of 0.7°C seems a bit optimistic. In the context of something as multifaceted and complex as the climate of our 4.5 billion year old planet this is is a hopelessly small period of time over which to draw any meaningful conclusions about data.

None of that though makes a very shareable meme for the Facebook pages of those who f'ing love science. A sensationalist article with a clear narrative and a smug sense of intellectual righteousness does. It served to brilliantly highlight the relevance of this excellent piece by Johannes Bohannon, who concocted a cleverly designed study to show that eating chocolate could aid weight loss. Of course it is complete nonsense, but they did indeed set up a trial, use some statistical sleights of hand, a worthy sounding (though unrelated) PhD and a headline grabbing narrative. The article was eagerly accepted by scientific journals, and soon enough appeared as news on health blogs and in newspapers around the world. 

If you do love science, try it before swallowing wholesale any attention grabbing meme that pops up on your Facebook page. There does appear to be warming trend in the NASA data, but to take this, or an apparent scientific consensus as some sort of proof that man made global warming is an undeniable fact is not a love of science, which depends on scepticism and open enquiry. It is a love of bandwagons and sensationalist claptrap, driven by a desire to be seen as intelligent without putting in any of the effort required to look beyond a 3rd hand article designed to grab attention. 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

AIDS, the fashionable disease

One of the supposed controversies of the recent general election campaign was Nigel Farage's suggestion that new migrants to the UK should be required to test negative for HIV before being issued with a visa. This generated the predictable howls of indignation from many such as The Terrence Higgins Trust who said it showed “an outrageous lack of understanding” while Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood accused him of "stigmatising" people with the disease. 

So just to make sure I'm not, apparently like Farage, simply lacking an “understanding” of HIV I went and had a look at the Wikipedia page. As I thought all along, HIV is a horrible infection which untreated leads to a slow death as the immune system breaks down. It's now manageable, but not curable, through expensive drugs. HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, and is fortunately very rare, with just under 100,000 known sufferers in the UK, according to AIDS charity Avert. Certainly then, it's not something you want. 

Farage's point was that we should block new migrants who are already infected with HIV. It sounds, on the face of it fairly sensible. We already screen for Tuberculosis, a less serious - though admittedly more contagious - disease, suggesting that we don't have a problem in principle with "discriminating" against carriers of contagious diseases. There are arguments about the practicalities of it, and about the actual cost and prevalence of this sort of long term health tourism, but so far as I can tell no-one has campaigned against "stigmatising" those with tuberculosis. "Discriminating" against them is a long standing part of our immigration policy. Extending this to cover HIV seems like a sensible move for the UK, whose National Health Service is already stretched.

So why the big fuss about this particular statement? Was Farage saying that HIV sufferers are bad people? Was he saying we should paint a red cross on their door and burn their clothes? Or could it be because HIV and AIDS have become a cause célèbre for a certain group of people? And, quite insanely, they are treating "discrimination" against people with a highly infection disease with the same sort of horror as they would treat discrimination along racial or gender lines. Why on earth would you even approach the question in those terms? Are there any advocacy groups who campaign against stigmatising people with stomach cancer, or seeking to end discrimination against people with gonorrhea?

It's important to understand, though not always widely known, that AIDS disproportionately affects certain groups - homosexuals and those who inject drugs, and that it's especially prevalent amongst blacks. And no, this isn't the propaganda of some far right American religious group; this is from National AIDS Trust here. This demographic appears to have given it a sort of cachet amongst a certain part of the media and political establishment. In the 80s such figures as Freddie Mercury had AIDS. In the fictional town of Walford that is home to Eastenders an improbably high proportion of heterosexual white people were struck down with the disease, and just up the road the disease featured in Grange Hill far more often than I remember it featuring in my own school at the same time.

Photographer Edo Zollo's Stand Tall Get Snapped project epitomises this attitude. Photographing 30 people with HIV to, in his own words, "expose the still widely held misconception, that HIV is largely restricted to gay men and people of black African origin." A curious aim, since as we’ve already seen the disease does indeed disproportionately afflict these groups. Even the (scarcely hard line liberal) Daily Mail oozes this sentiment here, reporting on some of Zollo's subjects, starting with the story of Rachel, who contracted the disease 8 years ago and found an unknown well of positivity. The article is interspersed with photos of other sufferers such as one lady called Amanda from Glasgow, who apparently "calls her 'visitor' Betsy as we had to share the same body. I'm in a happier place because of my journey with her" If I'm reading that correctly, she actually believes that contracting a terminal illness has been a good thing. 

Of course people do find strength in adversity, and if the people quoted in this article find comfort in this manner then it's not for me to tell them they're wrong. The question is whether this fashionable metropolitan drum should be banged at the expense of sensible public health policy, and I can't really think of any earthly reason why it should. 

What Farage said about restricting the immigration of HIV positive people was simply sensible policy as used by Australia and until recently the United States amongst others. The reaction was the shrill fury of what amounts to a fundamentalist sect who believe on some level that HIV is a badge of honour and a passage into the rarified kingdom of liberal righteousness. This is an absolutely ludicrous basis on which to set policy on immigration or anything else. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

Sussex Police: Help us do Nothing

A curious article popped up on my Facebook page this morning. It was  link to Sussex police, asking members of the public to help them in keeping an unlicenced driver off the road. Ben Botting of Crawley has been caught on three separate occasions since December driving a car without a licence. On at least 2 of those occasions the car appears to have been fraudulently registered to a fake name and address. Botting has been fined, and the cars taken away and crushed, yet still the police feel the need to ask members of the public to be on the look out for him.

True enough that driving a car without a licence is not, in and of itself, a very serious crime. No one is inconvenienced or harmed by it provided no accident happens. A fine and a stern warning is probably the appropriate sanction for a first offence. However to have been caught three times in 6 months shows that Botting has a complete and utter disregard for the law in this area. It also raises the question of what else he is doing with these cars, registered to a bogus address and presumably bought dirt cheap (they haven't even made Ford Sierras for over 20 years).

The police aren't everywhere, and they tend to stop cars that are being driven erratically or at speed. There's no indication that Botting was doing so on any of the occasions when he was stopped, and it's quite possible that he was picked up by a number plate recognition system or a keen eyed policeman running a spot check. However it is equally possible, and to me seems more probable, that this man routinely ignores the law. In his estimation of the likelihood and consequences of getting caught he believes it is worth his while to drive a car with no licence. And he's been proved right. At the 3rd time of convicting him, he has been given another fine, which he probably won't pay and been told not to do it again.

I imagine he will one day find his way to prison. The question is what level of disregard for the law does he need to display to do this? Does he need to wreck someone else's car, in one of his uninsured bangers? Does he need to injure or kill someone?

This is utterly pathetic, and no way at all to run a country. The whole purpose of having a penal system is to keep dangerous offenders off the streets where they can not harm innocent members of the public, and to provide a disincentive to offend in the first place. Our impotent and cowardly refusal to use it has ensured that this has failed on both counts and is putting lives at risk, as well as sending out a signal to anyone else weighing up the costs and benefits of adhering to the law that it doesn't really matter.

If Ben Botting were to spend even the next 6 months in prison then it is guaranteed that he won't be driving around in unroadworthy, uninsured cars, causing a danger to other road users and their property during that time, and it's quite possible that he will think a bit more carefully about doing it in future if he knows that the law has actual teeth and if provoked repeatedly will bite.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Spoil Sport Ice Caps

Aren't those polar ice caps a rotten lot? As politicians are busily trying to save them from melting, they've gone and stopped disappearing all on their own. Despite the best efforts of climate change fanatics at producing a lot of hot air, NASA have quietly noted that Antarctic sea ice reached a new maximum extent last year. That wasn't supposed to happen. As everyone knows the ice is melting because of all the carbon we're emitting, so how do we explain that it actually isn't?

It isn't actually that difficult to explain, but it would involve making the crucial admission that we don't actually know why the ice is doing what it's doing. We have absolutely no idea, and a terrible record at predicting it. Al Gore thought it would all be gone by 2014.

What's actually happened here is a classic case of mistaking correlation for causation, by using a hopelessly small set of data. Arctic ice has only been measured with any accuracy since 1979 when NASA started using satellite images to monitor it. This was great news for those who wanted to find a big problem, because as old people will remember the mid 20th century was a mini ice age and global cooling was more of a concern than global warming. Average temperatures rose slightly and the ice caps retreated in the years following and the global warming scam began.

36 years is a hopelessly small period of time over which to discern any meaningful information about changes in the climate of the planet. Something which evolves slowly, changes constantly and something of which we have only a very limited understanding.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Cheer up Peter Hitchens

This is adapted from my reply to Peter Hitchens article here.

I am a great fan of much of Peter's writing writing but this wallowing self pity and out of hand defeatism is simply unworthy.

Yes, the cards are stacked in favour of a vote to stay in, and will be judiciously stacked again in the coming months, but if you believe simply that the votes will be fairly counted in each polling station (and if you don't believe this, then as you allude to it is time to take up arms) then everything is still to play for.

You may not have the platform you would like, but you have a huge platform and a huge following compared with most of the thousands of bloggers and campaigners who are broadly in agreement with your aims, and inparticular the aim of secession from the European Union.

Deposing the Tory party was always a hugely ambitious aim, even at their lowest ebb. Even at their lowest ebb they remain a proven party of government (bad government you may argue, but there are many worse) and a huge political organisation. And as you have scathingly said of UKIP they have not been a viable alternative at a general election at any time in their short history.

There remain genuine secessionists in the Tory party, even if you don't agree with them on anything, and it's not unimaginable that John Redwood, David Davis, Daniel Hannan and others could actually form a front bench that would indeed take Britain out of the European Union. Or that some arrangement with UKIP on the model of the Canadian Unite the Right movement could take place before 2020, and harvest the 15 million votes these parties won between them at the general election into a genuine movement in the right direction, if not to exactly where you would like. Politics, and indeed living in the same polis require compromise as well as a rigid vision of how things should be.

Lastly, if the SNP have shown us anything at all it's that losing a referendum is not the end of a movement. From 6 MPs who secured a referendum they did indeed become a viable party of government at the general election, securing a massive majority of the MPs returned by Scotland.

Even if you privately don't hold out much hope of a victory in the referendum why not take it as a huge and potentially very effective exercise in galvanising together the disparate groups who believe in a future outside the European Union and hammering out this case as a starting point for a new political movement.

Political climates change slowly and to imagine that one journalist could banish the Conservative Party from government forever was fanciful at best. To imagine that you could act as a focal point for one strand of opinion in the forthcoming referendum is not nearly so ambitious.

To sit on the sidelines and laugh, while ordinary men and women with far less influence and ability is simply not becoming of the passion, sincerity and subtle optimism in your work.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Bahar Mustafa - Empty Vessels Make Most Noise

The apparently obnoxious pink haired twerp Bahar Mustafa has popped up again. That's right, the one who shot to fame by banning heterosexual white men from her meeting, and went on to use her limelight to tweet that she wanted to kill all white men. Next the left wing figure of fun claimed as a minority woman herself she can't possibly be sexist ot racist which appears to make no sense at all.

So I finally bit. What does she actually think? Out of morbid curiosity I looked around for any blog, pamphlets or opinion pieces she might have where I could actually understand what was behind these extraordinary militant statements. What did she want to say? What was she so effectively drawing attention to?

The best I could find was this rather scant webpage asking for support in her campaign to be re-elected as Diversity Officer at Goldsmiths, which does include a couple of quite nicely written articles on growing up as the rebellious daughter of a Turkish-Cypriot family in London. One of these morphs into an attack on The Sun and another which explores certain facets of sexual politics in very broad and general terms. Neither is especially revolutionary or really underpins her image of a white man hating, feminist firebrand. There are tweets, quotes, and snippets galore on YouTube both from Bahar herself and of course many from her detractors. But nowhere can I find any further exploration of her ideas. Why does she want to kill all white men? Why can't minorities be racist, or women sexist? What is she for and what is she against?

So what is this strange Bahar creature? I'm inclined to think she is just an ace troll, who by virtue of a minor bureaucratic position in her Student Union is able to rattle cages with extreme statements, yet can not back them up with any coherent argument. A Twitter superstar. Like so many left wingers, firebrand and otherwise, there is obviously the germ of a decent thought in there, but apparently a refusal to subject it to the vigors of an actual debate when a glib soundbite can generate so much more attention while requiring no such mental effort.

Friday, 5 June 2015

A Referendum Prediction

If I was even more cynical I might believe that we're already seeing the strategy put in place to ensure that the forthcoming EU referendum goes the way it's supposed to. The Daily Mail recently reported that Rupert Murdoch has changed his stance on EU membership and will no longer campaign for an Out vote. I'm not quite sure if Murdoch has ever explicitly said that he would campaign for an Out vote, but in my experience his titles tend to take basically the Tory line on the matter of the EU. That is to say they go in for the faux-patriotic bombast best illustrated by the famous Up Yours Delors headline, yet stop short of advocating actual withdrawal.

My prediction is that the Murdoch press will continue to tell us plenty about the shortcomings of the EU, the intransigence of our partners and the musings of "bonkers Brussels bureaucrats" while lauding Cameron as a Churchillian figure, fighting against the odds for good old British common sense. When the final deal is announced and the referendum is upon us the Murdoch papers will strongly endorse whatever Cameron has claims he has negotiated (almost certainly very little), and they will back a vote to stay in.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

What's Daniel Hannan Up To?

Daniel Hannan is a curious individual, of whom in some ways I am a huge admirer. Extremely eloquent, peppering both his writing and his speeches with the sort of classical and literary references which make me feel embarrassingly under-read, he is also fluent in French and Spanish and an author of several interesting books. In 2009 he became a YouTube sensation with his cutting "Devalued Prime Minister" speech in the European Parliament. He has been a staunch and so far as I can tell very genuine opponent of European integration for his entire adult life and is one of the few relatively prominent Tories to openly call for withdrawal from the European Union. What continues to puzzle me is how and why Hannan remains a Tory.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 on the Conservative party list. At this time it was understandable why he would want to stand as a Tory. UKIP were non-existent, and the 3 seats they did win that year (their first) were a surprise, perhaps even to UKIP themselves, in Britain's first experiment with proportional representation on a national scale. The Tories meanwhile, led by William Hague and still reeling from their electoral meltdown in 1997, seemed to be heading very much in the right direction with strident opposition to further European integration and an uncompromising opposition to joining the Euro, which as many people now conveniently forget, was very much on the agenda at that time.

So far, so normal then. A Thatcherite conservative in the Conservative party. But in 2015 things have changed considerably. The Conservative party revived as a force in Westminster, all be it more by the floundering of it's opponents than any genuine renaissance. However it has also moved further away from nearly every position which Hannan has been vocal about. Cameron is the self described heir to Blair, unashamedly pro-EU and an unquestioning believer in man made climate change, the all consuming cult of the NHS. Cameron is visibly embarrassed by many in his party who share Hannan's views. Yet Hannan remains firmly loyal to the party.

The most obvious home for Hannan would be UKIP, with whom he appears to have far more in common. Indeed he has made sympathetic noises about the party, and when Farage and he claimed their seats at the 2014 European elections the two greeted each other as old friends. However he has comprehensively ruled this out in the past, claiming to still believe the Tories are the best lever with which to pry Britain from the European Union.

This view has been somewhat vindicated by securing the referendum on EU membership, however the form of that referendum and the fairness of it's conduct remains to be seen. Like many others I have serious doubts, and the farce of Cameron's negotiations is hardly encouraging. On the one hand it is encouraging to have people like Daniel in the Conservative Party who can go at least some way towards ensuring fair play. On the other hand, from outside the party, I doubt his ability to do this to any useful extent. Secondly it's hard not to feel that the presence of Hannan in the Conservative Party actually lends a degree of credibility to that party's supposed scepticism about the EU project which keeps alive amongst certain voters a completely unrealistic hope that the Tories will eventually take Britain out of the EU project.

It's worth noting here that Hannan is in a completely different situation from other prominent Tories who oppose our membership of the EU. John Redwood and David Davis spring to mind, but both are in safe Conservative Westminster seats, in the latter stages of their career, and both have carved out a useful niche for themselves within the party. Hannan is 43, a strong parliamentarian and a popular figure. Oxford educated and more than capable of holding his own in tough interviews, if he was after high office in the Tory party it's hard to imagine that he couldn't attain that now. If he holds out the hope of reforming the Conservatives from within then he must surely at some point in the not too distant future make the move across to Westminster politics.

My own theory is that Hannan is waiting his moment to bring the two parties together on the model of the Canadian 'Unite the Right' movement which he has talked about previously. However with the Conservative election victory last month it might well be that the moment for this has passed. And barring a miraculous turn around from the Labour Party then we seem assured of at least 10 years of the blue party.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Pity Greece

As Britain weighs up the possibility of extracting itself from the European Union, across the continent Greece, after half a decade of stagnation and national humiliation, is facing the prospect of ejection from the single currency. It didn't have to be this way. A fanatical commitment to a political project has made it so, and the Greek public have paid an appalling price for it.

It sounds a bit trite to describe 11 million people as being warm and generous but so I have always found the Greek people to be. When I first visited the country in 2001 it was full of a tangible optimism. A quarter of a century after the military dictatorship was overthrown it appeared to be a flourishing democracy, with a strong and growing economy. 20 years of European Union largesse, trade and tourism had brought solid infrastructure and prosperity. Greece had been admitted to the Euro and was gearing up to host the 2004 Olympic games.

I remember well sitting in a taverna talking with a mixed group of Greek and foreign students, who were all enthusiastic supporters of European Union, and spoke with a genuine pride at their country's accession to the single currency.  Not only would this bring greater prosperity and stability to the often inflation-plagued nation, this was a vindication and a tangible coming of age of the country's exercise in democracy, They couldn't understand British, or my, antipathy to the project of European Union and the Euro in particular, and they dismissed as hot air the basically standard economic theory which predicts just such a crisis as Greek has endured since 2009. The political will and financial wizardry of the EU will ensure the projects success, they sincerely believed.

Why am I boring you with my holiday memories from over a decade ago? Because not having visited the country in 6 years they serve as an interesting snapshot of how things actually seemed at the time without my current outlook clouding them. It is also more interesting, as any fool can see tell you the mood of the Greek people today. With unemployment hovering at 25%, debt now standing at an astonishing 175% of GDP, and the talk moving from "whether" to "when" and "how" Greece will exit the Euro, the Greek people are angry, disillusioned and deeply hurt. Their burgeoning democracy has become a basket case.

This anger manifested itself in the elections at the start of this year where the Greek people elected the radical left wing SYRIZA  party led by Alex Tsipras, on what appears to be a cleverly cynical platform of on the one immediate and direct help for the financially stricken people such as using public buildings as soup kitchens, and on the other hand some unrealistic promises to renegotiate debt and alter the functioning of the European Union. Tsipras' knack for destructive populism showed itself again in March when he demanded war reparations from Germany. Whatever immediate bombastic support this may have won the Greek government the only sober view of this can be as a crass embarrassment to Greece. The nationalist and labelled by some as fascist Golden Dawn party coming the 3rd is perhaps an ever more alarming reflection of the dark mood of the Greek people.

How differently all this could have turned out if only the Greek government, in collusion with EU officials, had not pursued the insane policy of forming a currency union for reasons of political prestige. This disastrous policy pursued by Costas Simitis saw some very creative accounting used to secure Greece's place in the Euro, eagerly encouraged by EU officials keen for their project to be as large as possible. The Greek people are now paying a dreadful price for this vanity, and the endless delays and negotiations are merely prolonging what will have to inevitably happen. A Greek exit from the single currency, and either formally or through devaluation, a default on the massive debts accumulated by the Greek state.

What was a decade ago a symbol of progress, development and democracy has put these aspirations in greater peril than anything else since the collapse of the military junta in 1974, and 11 million people have had their hopes dashed by this conceited exercise, and their generous and optimistic nature stretched to breaking point.

If this sad and needless episode can serve any useful purpose at all it must surely be to highlight the staggering wrong-headedness of those behind the European Union project, and their dangerous determination implement their project regardless of the consequences.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

How the Conservatives Could Back Electoral Reform

Looking at the last few months you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole idea of electoral reform is off the agenda for the duration of this parliament. Against most sober predictions the Conservative party achieved a majority, despite an enormous popular vote for UKIP and a surge for the SNP in Scotland. In the normal run of things, this would make the Conservatives staunch supporters of our 'first past the post' voting system and the apparently stable (Tory) government it produced. However this is far from the normal run of things for a very important reason: The narrative of the half century is one of terminal decline for the main parties.

If you go back to 1931 Stanley Baldwin commanded a majority of 470 MPs, with some 55% of the popular vote. In 1966 the two main parties still commanded some 89.9% of the vote. Even as recently as 1997 when the Conservatives slumped to 165 seats, Tony Blair's Labour Party had a thumping 418, with over 43% of the votes cast. However by 2015 Cameron won with just a 36.9% share of the vote, barely an increase on 2010. The combined total commanded by the two main parties was down to just 67%. So while the Tory slump in 1997 was offset to some degree by the strength of Labour, the current slump of Labour is not offset by a healthy Tory majority, nor even by a Lib Dem protest vote which punished Labour in previous elections.

Instead what we have seen is the rise of the SNP decimating both major parties in Scotland, and the rise of UKIP playing havoc with predictions south of the border, taking away variously from Labour, the Tories. Even the Greens got one MP, and over 1.5 million votes across the country. From a situation where to all intents and purposes the whole country chose between two main parties, we had a crowded seven way leadership debate ahead of the 2015 general election with every party represented gaining seats in parliament.

What all this shows is that the main parties are in a terminal electoral decline, yet the parties that are replacing them don't really seem to have government as their main objective. The nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland have no real ambitions beyond their borders, UKIP and the Greens both retain a strong focus on their core issues but struggle to appeal to a broader audience anywhere, which explains why despite large shares of the popular vote they each ended up with only one MP.

Sooner or later the situation anticipated before the last election will come to pass - that none of the traditional parties will be able to form a majority government. At this point coalitions will become the norm.

This is the point at which the Conservatives need to look at who are their potential coalition partners. The Lib Dems with whom they teamed up in 2010 are all but gone, and unlikely to repeat the mistake of joining a coalition with the Tories again for a long time. The nationalists and the Labour party despise the Tories, and the small number of MPs from Northern Ireland are not numerous enough to be king makers.

Any sort of government of the right will need to bring on board the massive UKIP vote to beat what will otherwise be an perpetual left wing coalition of Labour, Lib Dem, Nationalist and Green MPs voting for ever greater spending.

UKIP can win votes which will never be Tory, and if you take the very simplistic view of adding the Tory and UKIP share of the vote in 2015 it comes to over 15 million - better than John Major's extraordinarily high victory in 1992, or any election victory since. This demonstrates clearly that there is a strong appetite for a party committed to smaller government and the other values shared by both UKIP and the Tories. However the divergence is too great for one party to appeal to both sets of voters.

In short, the Tories need potential allies who share common goals but don't have the toxicity of the Tory brand. Some form of proportional representation can give them this entirely at the expense of their opponents.

It can only be a matter of time until this simple arithmetic dawn's on the Conservative leadership and the case for electoral reform becomes hard to ignore.