Chartres begs the question   (29.4.11)

Congratulations to the happy couple.

Bishop of London Richard Chartres preached a sermon at Westminster Abbey today which included these beautiful and true words:

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

What a shame that Chartres fails to see that gay and lesbian relationships are also capable of embodying love of this kind. He set out his reasons for this view a few years ago in a pastoral letter. If you boil it down, his argument against civil partnerships (and gay marriage by implication), goes as follows:

  1. Gay marriage is morally prohibited.
  2. Permitting gay marriage violates that moral prohibition.
  3. Therefore gay marriage is morally prohibited.

Who'd have thought that one of our most senior church leaders could fall foul of a basic logical fallacy? This argument from moral convention could be used (and was once used) to defend practices of slavery, which are explicitly permitted in passages of scripture. Slavery was once morally conventional in Christian eyes too. Aside from the logical circularity of this way of thinking, a further problem with Chartres' reasoning is that there is nothing moral about it: it is simply a dogmatic defence of the status quo, dressed up (literally) as theology, making no reference to the substance of the question being debated.

If Chartres' view, and flawed moral reasoning, were representative of Christian minds generally, I'd be out of the church in a flash. Thankfully, the church is redeemed by the ministry of those who recognise the Gospels as a story of liberation from the strictures of moral conventions, received wisdom, and modern-day phariseeism. May Chartres one day discover the joy of a love which pays no heed to these prejudices.

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Oldham race divide   (27.4.11)

Oldham schools attempt to bridge race divide. Great stuff. Hope Phil Woolas is full of shame, but I suspect not.

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Text of Cotton speech   (27.4.11)

The Graun runs a text of Joe Cotton's speech in defence of the Education Maintenance Allowance. Good points well made. He also draws our attention to a letter from ten leading economists calling for the EMA to be retained.

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AV kills fairies   (26.4.11)

lol. (thx A.C.)

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Regressive banality   (25.4.11)

Oh good grief, we're back to the child benefit nonsense. The Resolution Foundation points out that a family with an income of £45,000 will lose a greater proportion of its income than a family with an income of £60,000. Quite how it took them this many months to come up with analysis of this banality is beyond me. Of course, we could add another family to their comparison, this time one with an income of £1,000,000. The child benefit cut makes an even smaller difference to them!

The Resolution Foundation tries to claim that this means the change is regressive. As I've said before, this is a daft understanding of the word "regressive". The effect is only "regressive" in this narrow sense because the current child benefit system gives money to the rich in the first place. This point also gives the lie to the claim that a family on £45,000 is "low-income".

It is meaningful, however, to describe an income tax system that takes money from the poor at the same rate as middle earners as "regressive". Thankfully, this government has committed to increasing the personal income tax allowance year-on-year (a policy NZ Labour is realising to be a Good Thing), and benefit cuts should be understood in the light of this progressive measure. (Although I and many Lib Dems would like the 0% tax threshold to be raised further and more quickly.)

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EMA still going   (25.4.11)

Good on Joe Cotton for defending the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The EMA is not a large burden on the public purse but makes a substantial difference to further education access. (For the time being I'll turn a blind eye to the self-serving words of NUT General Secretary Christine Blower (first Bangs, now Blower! Where do they find these names?))

I suspect, though, that the Conservative rationale for scrapping the EMA has little to do with a need to save money. The Conservatives believe, with some justification, that the number of people attending university is too high; and A-Levels serve little purpose beyond getting people into university. It follows that they would want to remove incentives to remain in further education, and encourage people instead to enter professional training or work at 16.

If this really is part of Tory reasoning, it is troubling that Gove & co. seem not to care that, by scrapping the EMA, they will reduce further education numbers exclusively by taken an opportunity away from the poor. Presumably it doesn't matter if there are too many people taking A-Levels and studying for degrees, just so long as they're wealthy.

I'm also disappointed that the Lib Dems seem to be exerting no pressure on the Conservatives over this policy.

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Cameron confused on internship remarks   (23.4.11)

David Cameron may be right that parents' use of their professional and social networks for the benefit of their children is simply an inevitable part of life. To legislate away the use of such networks would be immensely burdensome and not obviously of social benefit, since it may destroy incentives which currently exist for parents to secure opportunities for their children. We would also have to consider what kind of a society it is that restricts parents in this way.

However, common sense seems to tell us that there must be some kind of moral limits on the manner in which these networks are used. Such networks are often within class and income groups rather than between them, as the upper-class background of the majority of Conservative cabinet members demonstrates. Cameron's insistence that there is nothing wrong with him giving internships to the children of his friends is, therefore, pretty narrow-minded. It would be narrow-minded in any walk of life, but the fact that these internships are being doled out from his unique position of prime ministerial power suggests that Cameron simply doesn't recognise that inequality of opportunity leads to social injustice.

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Who needs the Equality Act 2010?   (21.4.11)

That is a question asked by the Cabinet Office as part of their Red Tape Challenge (urgh). Well, Rebecca Nash and Hope Stubbings are two people who need it. The government would do well to distinguish between red tape of the illiberal kind (you know, trade protectionism, paperwork which stifles enterprise, control orders, etc.) and "red tape" which actually invests liberty. The Equality Act 2010 is an example of the latter.

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Seaton Canoe up the creek without a 2:1   (18.4.11)

Nigel Seaton argues that degree classifications should be abolished, and that academic transcripts should instead be consulted by universities and employers to assess the performance of graduates. He claims that this should happen because the differences between a 2:1 and a 2:2 graduate can be negligible, yet their life chances are substantially affected by that difference.

I'm all for changes that make a system like degree results fairer. But I am sceptical that the unfairness Seaton identifies is a real one, and I'm even less convinced that the change he proposes would be an effective or, all things considered, a beneficial one. Is not a degree grade simply a function of the scores on your transcript, even when compensations are made? And how many employers have the time or resources to pore over a graduate's transcript? And if it is true that the difference between a 2:1 and a 2:2 is so important, I say: best make sure you get a 2:1, then.

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AV some Ashdown   (17.4.11)

Paddy Ashdown makes a case for AV and criticises the "No" campaign's tactics.

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Maisey t' dog   (16.4.11)

Maisey t' dog

Taken by t' S.


AV a different referendum   (16.4.11)

There's a fine summary of Britain's AV "debate" in this week's Economist. Bagehot points out that just about every argument advanced either in favour of the Alternative Vote, or against it, has been misleading or a downright fallacy.

To take a few: First, "Yes" campaigners argue that AV will make MPs work harder as they must secure majority support. It's not obvious why this would be the case. Obtaining over 50% of the vote, in the final (two-candidate) round of voting, possibly based on fourth, fifth, or sixth preferences, isn't our normal understanding of "majority support". It is also questionable whether candidates would have to work any "harder" to earn people's second or third preference votes. People already have a hierarchy of electoral preferences, and all AV would really do is allow those preferences to be expressed. Second, "Yes" campaigners argue that AV will end the problem of safe seats. Bagehot points out that "That is a stretch. A study by the New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, estimates that AV would merely trim the number of safe seats, so that 16% rather than 13% of seats would change hands at a typical election."

On the "No" front, things have been worse. The fallacy deliberately peddled by the "No" campaign is that AV is an end to the principle of one-person-one-vote. This is first-rate nonsense, for reasons set out several times at normblog.

In my view, the AV system is a self-defeating fudge. It has the capacity to deliver a final result, even after five rounds of voting, in which no candidate achieves a majority. This happened in the Radio 5 mock AV election a few weeks ago. The reason this can happen is that under the present proposals, nobody will be compelled to articulate a full set of preferences, so those wishing to could still express only a single preference, producing an increasingly "incomplete" iteration of preferences the more rounds of voting take place.

Having said that, there are clear problems with the first-past-the-post system, and these should not be dismissed by the "No" campaign. The biggest is FPTP's abject failure to represent votes cast. Understandably, people fear the prospect of far-right MPs. Nobody of good conscience wants their fellow voters to opt for the BNP. But 1) FPTP makes it easier to cast a vote for the BNP with a feeling of moral impunity, because people know their vote won't be represented. Under FPTP, a vote for the BNP is a true protest vote. And 2) by the same token, it is hard to explain how FPTP delivers democratic representation for the 563,743 electors who voted BNP in the 2010 general election.

I think I'll be following the advice of a friend and spoiling my ballot paper on May 5. Nick Clegg was right first time round, when he called AV a "miserable little compromise". But FPTP has had its day, I feel. I hope the debate will continue, with new proposals for reform.

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Unconvincing defence   (15.4.11)

Two men kiss in the John Snow pub on Broadwick Street in Soho. Landlord throws them out for being "obscene". Ex-president of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations Daniel Griffiths defends the pub thus:

From a personal point of view, whether they were gay, whether they were lesbians or whether they were heterosexuals, I would still have thrown them out.

It's very, very hard times and we have got to keep as many people in the pub [as possible]. We make the house rules and we stand by those house rules. If he doesn't like the house rules, don't use the pub.

Do you find this defence convincing? I have never once seen a couple ejected from a pub for kissing. And what are these house rules he speaks of? I have also never seen a pub with a sign in the window saying "No Kissing". Because, in "hard times", it obviously makes sense to start kicking out your paying customers for no good reason. And besides, there are, thankfully, legal limits on "house rules", and it becomes clearer every time cases like this come before the courts that "house rules" discriminating on the basis of sexuality are not legal.

Not all injustices have to be dealt with by the courts, of course. An alternative course of action is to stage a kiss-in at the pub instead. Good luck to 'em.

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There's a fly in migration   (14.4.11)

Unlike Vince Cable, I don't think David Cameron's comments about immigration are necessarily "very unwise". Cameron was right to say that "there were Labour Ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist." Cable's criticism seem to be driven by a similar intention to shut down discussion. Whatever the rights and wrongs of immigration policy, it is at the very least without the spirit of democracy that someone attempts to proscribe public debate about it.

BUT. Cameron also says

Real communities are bound by common experiences, forged by friendship and conversation, knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.

That's why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods -- perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate -- that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods. This has been the experience for many people in our country - and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.

Cameron's definition of "real communities" sounds reasonable and uncontroversial to me. Community does mean more than a collection of individuals pursuing their own ends; and concern for such community is historically one of the Conservatives' more endearing traits -- certainly more endearing than the "no such thing as society" Thatcherism of the 80s. But I don't really understand the idea that immigrants (or even immigration policy) are somehow to blame for this breakdown of community. To suggest that they are smacks both of lazy thinking -- Cameron produced no evidence to support his claims -- and scapegoating a small minority for a putative breakdown in community for which we must all, by definition, share some responsibility.

A narrative I find more convincing is that a breakdown of community bonds began long before the latest wave of immigration, and if anything the job market's hankering after migrant labour is a symptom of that malaise. Britain is 92 per cent white. Most white people have predominantly white neighbours. Yet how many of those white people take any meaningful interest in the lives of their neighbours or communities? Relatively few, I dare say. So if it is true that immigrants don't go out of their way to integrate and make local connections, then it is probably true for indigenous Brits too. (A true cynic would be tempted to say that immigrants' indifference to community shows they have, in fact, integrated perfectly with British social mores!) Are we to hold immigrants to a higher standard of community participation than white people? That seems like an unfair proposition.

Final random thought: this is the point where idiots and the right-wing popular press (funny how those two juxtapose so poetically) start yelling "THIS ISN'T A CHRISTIAN COUNTRY ANY MORE!!!11" Well, if such idiots are that bothered about this being a Christian country, it might pay for them to consult what the New Testament says about our duties to foreigners, outsiders and outcasts. Even better, it might pay for them to act according to those principles, rather than merely paying them occasional lip-service.

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Smith on Oxbridge admissions   (12.4.11)

Here's a good riposte by Anthony Smith, former president of Magdalen College, at PoliticsHome (thx thom)

Successive waves of political reform of the state sector of our schools has brought about a uniformity that lowers the horizons of schoolchildren. The absence of the grammar school means that for many children, especially those who come from tightly self-conscious ethnic or class communities, there is no local experience to draw on. To go to university at all may seem to be breaching the moral boundaries of one’s community. To want to go to an elite university involves a sense of betrayal of one’s roots, of one’s people, of one’s ‘kind’. In schools themselves teachers often warn pupils against being too ambitious, perhaps to protect them against potential disappointment and against the jibes that might reach them from friends and family. And, indeed, the ambition to go to Oxbridge - as I know from my own experience – is itself an expression of social discontent, not entered into lightly, even at a time (the late 1940s) when state schools had teachers with Oxbridge backgrounds who went out of their way to encourage. Our politicians ought to look more sensitively at the society they have volunteered to govern, at its inner tensions and reluctances. It was easy for the young Mr. Cameron to bung in his application form for Brasenose; for another child the very act can entail weeks of family doubt and commotion and ‘told you so’ reproaches afterwards.

What do we really need of our politicians in this area? How could they actually help if they really wanted to? First of all, they need to respect the autonomy of the universities and colleges who now have to function within the financial nexus which Parliament and Government have created, for better or worse. They should recognise that universities and political institutions inhabit the same country and share the same values and ideals. They should vow never again insult them by making ignorant accusations of social and ethnic bias. If they want to see what this society has really become – and by that I am thinking of the vast social divisions that have emerged over the last couple of generations – they need go no further than peer into the educational system, with its agonies of disappointment and inadequacy as well as its innovations and places of hope.

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Sloppy seconds   (12.4.11)

David Cameron's error regarding Oxford admissions is even sloppier than it first seems, given that David Lammy made exactly the same mistake last December and was rebutted in print by Oxford at the time.

And maintaining that the PM's criticisms are valid, in spite of being based on a wildly inaccurate figure, only serves to obscure the fact that the admissions issue is symptomatic of an underlying problem: that BME (and particularly black) pupils are leaving school without good enough grades to get into the best universities on merit alone. This problem, and the reasons for it, are what should really be scandalising the PM.

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Hypocrisy Hypercritics   (10.4.11)

There are still some people left defending Nick Clegg, honest. Catherine Bennett is one:

With luck, enemies of hypocrisy will be too preoccupied with the Lib Dems' exploitation of graduates to note that, prior to internships being redesignated a scandalous affront to fairness, they were Labour policy, as well as practice. Do the words "Parent Motivators" ring any bells with Harriet Harman, last seen teasing Clegg about Tory auctions of "City internships for the children of the highest bidder" and with Hazel Blears, who asked him to agree that "unpaid internships are exploitative and totally unacceptable in this day and age"?

Published by Lord Mandelson's department in 2009, the eponymous pamphlet introduced us to, among others, unemployed "Charlotte, 22", from Surrey, with a degree in media studies. You might conclude that Charlotte made a big mistake studying for this useless qualification, but not so: "Charlotte's father happened to mention Charlotte's situation to a fellow colleague, who noted that his wife was currently working in PR and suggested Charlotte should send her CV to her." Can you guess how it ends? "As a result, Charlotte had a successful interview and managed to get a two-week work experience placement which led on to a three-month graduate placement, and subsequently a full-time career in PR. One year on and she hasn't looked back."

And the lesson? "You can help your son/daughter in this by talking to your friends and colleagues and keeping them up to date about your child's search for work for her dream job." Assuming you've got colleagues. And a child who'll work for nothing. "Even unpaid internships can be extremely valuable," urge Labour's career advisers. Or they did until last week, when Clegg's exposure prodded Hazel's morals into a state of wakefulness. The hypocrisy would be quite striking if, following her house-flipping and Harriet's shameless school-wangling, you didn't already know these MPs, like the hypocrite Miliband (cuts) and the hypocrite Balls (banks), to be the standard, compromised issue. Where, in the end, does the endless cycle of unmaskings get you, if it's not a collection of unyielding, uncompromising loners? "Anti-hypocrisy is a splendid weapon of psychic warfare," wrote Judith Shklar, "but not a principle of government."

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Crock of Harwood   (6.4.11)

I think evidence like this is referred to in the trade as a crock of shite. The judge will no doubt formulate a more eloquent description. I don't see on what grounds Harwood is escaping prosecution. One of the best means of preventing police brutality is to give members of the public the right to initiate criminal proceedings in the event of it. This is a right sorely lacking in the USA, and we know how good the police's record is there. Members of the public can pursue criminal proceedings against police officers in England, but as with all English criminal cases, the decision whether or not to prosecute rests with agents of the Crown.

(Incidentally, Liberty was founded in response to police brutality witnessed at a protest.)

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Positive Selby   (6.4.11)

Anyone still claiming that Mark Selby has a negative game must be partial to talking through their hat. To clear from this position was amazing: at several points almost all the reds are safe. (NB 6'25", 6'45", 8'15" and from 9'35" to the end. How's that for shotmaking?) And later, it was a positive shot choice in frame 18 which lost him the match.


Sound off for justice   (4.4.11)

Sound Off For Justice = one of the more respectable anti-cuts campaigns. (It is unfortunate that their ads have rolled out with a typo that reads "Will you be silenced by cuts to Legal Aids?")

Reducing access to Legal Aid is indeed a Bad Thing. Ensuring equal access to a society's judicial system, in both criminal and civil matters, is a feature of any democracy worth the epithet. Indeed, failing to ensure such equality of advice in the assessment and enforcement of contracts arguably makes those contracts procedurally unfair and -- paradoxically -- potentially unenforceable.

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Sound the Trumpet   (3.4.11)

Congratulations to Judd Trump, who defeated Mark Selby in the final of the China Open today. How proud Malcolm Thorne would have been to see two of his protégés battling it out in a major final. Selby rises to world no. 3 (no. 1 on the one-year list), Trump to world no. 14 (no. 5 on the one-year list).


Robertson on Libya   (3.4.11)

In last Friday's Independent, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC (not to be confused with George Robertson, whose opinion we might also expect to hear on this matter) argues that military action intended to kill Gaddafi could quickly become lawful and morally desirable.

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