Sunday, 18 July 2021

At Least Something Is Getting Better

Eleven years ago, I posted a blog venting my displeasure with the England football team of the time, and I haven’t watched another match until last week. Another defeat, but not a shameful one this time, so it seems fair to write another little piece, on how much they have improved over the years.

For much of my life, football stars have mostly been shallow, decadent playboys in their lives off the pitch, and so it was no surprise when they displayed a sad lack of character on the field. My interest in giving the new England team a watch for the first time in many years was piqued as much as anything by the personal publicity the members of the team were attracting. Manager Gareth Southgate has brought conspicuous personal integrity to the job alongside his tactical competence, and he has shaped his team in his own image, it seems. The culprits of the South African debacle I so despised are all retired, or at least past international football, now, and the generation replacing them are made of finer stuff. I am unused to seeing it from footballers, but, instead of feeling licence to behave shamefully, these young men have a sense of responsibility about their fame and fortune. Especially, Marcus Rashford, whose determination to use his own wealth and influence as levers for doing good for his country has been a heartening compensation for the lack of moral leadership from Parliament in these troubled times. However, not one of the current team has been exposed for scandalous behaviour; the worst thing I have seen about any of them is some huffing and puffing several years ago about the tastefulness or otherwise of a tattoo one of the oldest men in the team got when he was much younger.

This character showed in their performance on pitch, just as the 2010 team’s character showed in their performance. To be honest, Italy outplayed England for substantially longer periods of the match than England had the upper hand, but never by enough to overwhelm the determined defending, so different from the 2010 rabble. England were ahead or level for the entire game, and only lost when the final kick was well saved by an excellent goalkeeper. They were beaten, but as narrowly as a defeat can be, and, if the circumstances of the match were not such that there had to be a result, it would have been a very respectable draw.

In my 2010 blog, I worried whether the team were a true reflection of what our national character had become. I still have the same question, but it is now hope rather than worry. If England can follow the example of these men, then it should be able to rise above the linked disasters of Brexit and the Johnson government in due course. The fact that two of the unsuccessful penalty takers were mixed race, and another of full-blooded African descent, provoked a certain amount of nasty racist comment. The massive outcry that shouted the racists down showed that although we may still have a bit of a problem with racism, the racists are not winning and the country is on its way to getting better, and that is an important good thing to emerge from the fuss.

I look forward to seeing more games played by this generation of England, and I also look forward to the positive influence they will likely be able to exert on their country.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Big Boys Are Not Men

 What does it take to be a real man? A few years ago, a national survey on favourite poetry established that Rudyard Kipling’s stoic creed, “If”, was Britain’s best-loved poem, so it would seem that many Britons still subscribe to that rather unfashionable standard. In the days when it was written, the moral code “If” encapsulates was still broadly accepted. Men who lived by it would be respected as honest men or gentlemen, according to station, and men who did not were likewise disrespected as blackguards or cads according to station.

Up to the 20th Century, back deep into ancient history, while physical gifts of strength, stamina, agility and deftness have been duly valued, the essence of manhood has been mental; courage, discipline and will to do what is right as a social creature. These were the qualities that built and sustained empires. However, in the Western World of the 21st Century, while the old paradigm may not have been totally eclipsed, a new ethos is in the ascendant.

Over the last hundred and fifty years or so, an inverted notion of manhood as exaggerated boyhood has swept America, and been dispersed beyond its borders by movies and rock and roll. I was a boy once, rather a long time ago now, admittedly, and I cringe at the memory of what awful human beings my friends and I were, and we were nice boys; a great many were even more awful than we were. As the hormones start to flow, boys’ characters deteriorate all the more from their already low base, and as teenagers external disciplines of work or military service used to be imposed to make men of them. But these days it is commonplace for brats to be indulged and empowered as they reach physical and legal manhood, without any transformative process. 

We now have a cult of Machismo entrenched in America and thriving elsewhere, which overturns the age-old values. Humans are nothing if not social creatures, descended from millions of generations of monkey troops, but boyish selfishness is now inflated to a cynical and mean spirited individualism in today’s Modern Man. Manners? Courtesy? Yielding to others is for losers, and Modern Man just needs strong elbows. Respect for women? The complexities and paradoxes  of relating to women have always been the biggest challenge for men as an aggregate half of humanity, but Modern Man balances instinctive attraction with social contempt, and desperately seeks sexual activity without any liking or care for those expected to provide it. Yet gullible women sometime take the view that only bad men are real men, I suppose because being ruled by testosterone proves that you have some, and reward the Modern Men with offspring, instead of letting their like drift out of the gene pool. Once upon a time, maybe still in less degenerate countries, confessing to serial indecent assaults would be the end of a political career, but if there are enough Modern Men among the voters, it can instead just signal that you are one of their kind, and win you the election. And honesty is perhaps the least valued virtue of all in our New World. Dishonesty in both senses is now seen as the hallmark of a winner; if you can can answer with an untruth then having false information to work with is the other guy’s problem and you have won, and if you can get away with theft by robbery, fraud or extortion, again that is the victim’s problem, and you have won. The indulgent attitude to dishonesty extends to an appetite for absurdly false facts. When Lewis Carroll created the character of the Red Queen, rigorously learning untruths as an exercise in willpower and mind over matter, she was a comic grotesque. A hundred and sixty years later, anyone with a Facebook account only has to scroll a few lines to encounter somebody pushing ridiculous fake stories as proof of how strong minded they are to maintain faith in the face of so much worldly disproof. I despair to see such people looked up to, instead of down on. The way of today’s world is that they are, though, and that needs to change if we are ever to recover from our historically dire situation, poised on the brink of a new Dark Age.

So far, this little essay has kept to a broad view of time and place, but there is a reason I feel that I want to write it, and that anchors it to the time of writing , and a place connected to my own by two thousand miles of water, and extensive cultural and economic links. Donald Trump, the 45th US President, is running for re-election as I write, and he is the very apotheosis of Machismo, all the things I have complained of and more, writ large. Cheat; swindler; draft-dodger; tax-dodger; faithless husband, user of juvenile prostitutes and molester of women; bully; racist; compulsive liar; financially greedy and cynically indifferent  to the well-being of the American people he was elected to serve, recklessly irresponsible in all his domestic, international, social, environmental and economic policies, and about half of America loves him for all that. 

I think men know Right from Wrong as well now as they ever did. The great change is that the macho Modern Men deliberately choose Wrong,  both factually and morally, as they see it as more manly. But bringing this full circle, choosing wrong is not manly by any time-proven traditional measure, it is the way of naughty little boys with a little testosterone starting to flow and no mental maturity to harness it. At some point soon, we are going to have to start seeing these overgrown boys for what they are, and judging them against the old values, or else they are going to bring disaster upon us if we let them

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

 Awareness of autism has increased immensely in the last half-century, both within the psychological profession and amongst the public at large. The autistic were always there, but not many could label them appropriately. An unfortunate backfire of improved diagnostic rates has been medical charlatans causing harm by attributing an apparent rise in rates to false causes, but overall it has to be a good thing.

At its worst, autism can be a gross mental and physical handicap, and terribly life limiting. But it is called a spectrum because it comes in all levels of severity, from permanent invalidity needing lifelong nursing, to merely being an oddball nerd with a somewhat feline personality. At the milder end, there is a distinct sub-category, not officially recognised by American authorities, but real enough to be a useful diagnosis elsewhere, called Asperger's Syndrome. Public awareness of Asperger's has lagged behind the broader spectrum of autism, but it too has grown enormously in recent years. I don't suppose many of this blog's few readers will have paused and muttered "What?" when I mentioned it. I must have been in my twenties when I first heard of autism, in my forties before I heard of Asperger's, which piqued my interest, as the description the article gave perfectly described someone I had been in a band with, and past sixty by the time I came across a full enough description of Asperger's to bring me to the stunning and shocking realisation that I have had it myself all my life, and not known.

To be fair, my wife had been lightly suggesting for several years that I might have AS, since she started encountering AS children as a teacher, and remarked on how like me they were, but I smugly took it as a running joke. Maybe a decade ago, I did start wondering enough to take a shallow online DIY test for autism or autistic tendencies, but I happily accepted the false negative and dismissed the thought. Two years ago, though, I read a thorough description of the syndrome, which vividly depicted boyhood me and to a fair extent was adult me, too. Denial suddenly ceased to be an option.

In the 1970s, there was a much loved British TV comedy series called Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. It was brilliantly scripted and performed, but I personally sometimes found it rather uncomfortable viewing. With hindsight, I now know why: Frank Spencer, the protagonist, was a sharply observed and harshly lampooned stereotype of an Aspie, with the situational comedy mostly driven by his misunderstanding what he was told, and the slapstick arising from dyspraxia. (Although Michael Crawford, who portrayed Spencer, was a professional song and dance man in his physical prime, and was limber enough perform spectacular pratfalls without any joke-spoiling injuries, when real life Aspies just hurt themselves). I would tend to identify with him when I was meant to be laughing at him. It would be politically incorrect to remake the show today, now AS is better known, but what gave it its strength then was that everybody knew someone like Frank. They just categorised us as low-functioning normal rather than high-functioning autistic back in those days.

So, what about me amounts to Asperger's Syndrome? It was reading about how it presents in boys that really clinched it for me. Being at least blessed with a decent helping of general intelligence, I have learned coping strategies and workarounds and maskings and suppressions over the years, and just categorised them as growing up and behaving myself, not having had the insight into my condition at the time to define them in their proper context. But it is still with me to a significant extent. The embarrassing hand-flapping tic is mostly suppressed, and I seldom subject unfortunate listeners to monotonous monologues on things that happen to have caught my interest any more - two ears, one mouth is a simple rule to take on board, and in adult life I am usually laconic and slow spoken. Yet still the jabber-demon sits on my shoulder and I sporadically give thousand word answers to simple questions, compelled despite knowing better. The Frank Spencer problem of finding the wrong meaning in ambiguity hangs over me always. Emojis are handy little things to illustrate typed electronic messages. I use about six, and don't really know what to make of the rest. A classic AS symptom - diminished ability to read facial expressions. I have no time for those TV drama and movie scenes where the actor stares into the camera with a slightly twisted face, either. I think they are supposed to be full of meaning and emotion, but they are wasted on me and just go over my head. I can always pull my weight in a pub quiz team, from a life of hungrily gathering facts about whatever might catch my attention from time to time. Guess what avidly gathering facts on a subject without otherwise gaining any functional expertise is characteristic of. Bad handwriting is associated with Asperger's Syndrome. Nearly every teacher or boss I have had in the last 58 years has complained about my writing, so I'll have to make a mark in that box and call it a tick, too. The dyspraxia has certainly haunted me. Of course, I wasn't diagnosed as such, just dismissed as cack-handed, the poor balance and co-ordination attributed to being left handed. I had chronically scabby knees at primary school, was late mastering a bicycle, had numerous motorbike spills, wrecked a car only the other year by tangling my foot in the pedals, and just about always still have a cut or bruise somewhere, especially hands and shins. In adult life, I can learn fine motor skills, but it is a matter of substantial practice of specific tasks.

And then there is the whole big thorny question of relating to people. I am not so unsociable as to crave a hermit's life, but I am fully content with much narrower and shallower interactions than most of the other people I know. I love Facebook, because it keeps me in touch with hundreds of acquaintances without the slightest risk of any of them getting too much in my face. Almost all of them are friends through shared interests in politics or music, having been colleagues or having been in quiz teams. Without those starting points, I am not well equipped at all for befriending strangers; small talk is heavy going for me. Beyond that, people often don't warm to me anyway. I think others read the signs of AS more easily than I could in myself, and not many are friendly enough to want to bother with an oddball. At least it means the friends I do make are all nice people, so I am not overly bothered.

So, what does it mean for me? Almost two years on from finding out, I have come to terms with it, after a disconcerted period struggling to get my head round the realisation that I was not at all who I always thought I had been. For the most part, it has not meant any practical change in my life; as I said above, developing coping strategies was subsumed into growing up for me. The biggest change is that it has discouraged me from political activism. For many years, I saw myself as an ordinary man, different only in my willingness to stand up and be counted, and fancied myself qualified to speak as an everyman on behalf of the silent majority. Now I know I am actually viewing the world from a substantially different viewpoint through different filters compared to most of those around me. So, I can't speak for them. Of course I can still speak to them, but that is a little different; campaigning has value, but it is not representing and still less leading, and I doubt that I belong in politics enough to try again as I have in the past. I do have the example of Greta Thunberg, the openly AS climate campaigner to look at, but there is a mixed message to take from her. She has traded on her otherness to promote her views, which are right to the point of being bleeding obvious, but rather uncomfortable to those of us with lives under the current system, however, she is also a highly divisive and unpopular figure, not that she cares. I like her, but she raises the hackles of many of my friends. I don't suppose I would care much about being divisive and unpopular for pushing something I believed in either, but, being old enough to be Greta's grandad, I have enough worldly wisdom to doubt the value in being that man, when a warmer and more intuitive campaigner could do the job to better effect. David Attenborough is on the same page as Greta, yet probably the best-loved person in all of Britain, but he is a very different personality. I shall remain very interested in politics, but the idea of running for office when I retire from real work has very much faded in the harsh light of my new self-knowledge.

And what does it mean for you? Go gently on the handful of clumsy, nerdy people the Law Of Averages probably throws into your life, don't mock. They can't help it, but will be loyal friends if you are nice to them.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

All at Sea

Fire crew and lifeboat crew are two vocations only suitable for genuine heroes and heroines, and fully deserve immense respect from everybody. However, the ability to bravely rise to life-or-death occasions carries no immunity to other human frailties in day-to-day life. For example, while nobody could reasonably begrudge them some pride in the status their heroism earns them, too much of it could lead some individuals to unheroic acts of vanity.

Jersey has seen some rather unheroic goings-on with its local lifeboat service in recent months. The RNLI operate three boats out of two stations, so, when all is well, there is quite a lot of help available for maritime emergencies in local waters. However, all has not been well. The crew of the biggest boat quit en bloc in the Spring of 2017, then retracted their resignations, but then announced that they were only coming back to the RNLI until they got their own boat. When the RNLI management had had a couple of days to consider the implications of that, they then took control of the situation by "standing down" the rebel crew.

Of course, such drastic actions were no casual whim. Not all of the events driving the decisions are in the public domain, and some of what has been made public can at best be rated as plausible allegations, rather than certain knowledge. The erstwhile Coxswain, Andy Hibbs, although clearly having the passionate loyalty of his own crew and the high regard of those local mariners fit to judge his seamanship, seems to be a divisive figure also prone to making bitter enemies among those who have to deal with him. I don't personally know any of the parties involved, and have no opinion on whose fault the bad feelings are, but his dysfunctional relationships with the port and coastal authorities, and the RNLI's own hierarchy seem to be undisputed facts. I have read a claim that the former parties bear or bore a grudge over being deprived of a fine salvage fee by a successful rescue, which would be disgracefully corrupt if true, and as disgraceful corruption happens, that is plausible, and none of the blame for it lies wth Mr Hibbs. There is another anecdote in circulation, claiming that Mr Hibbs refused an order from his onshore superiors on safety grounds, causing a falling out there. Once again, if that story be true, and it too is believable,  then Mr Hibbs was firmly in the right.

In the Spring of 2017, allegations of gross misconduct were made against Andy Hibbs, and the RNLI took them seriously enough to suspend him while investigations were made. And this is where our heroes stepped off their pedestals. The whole crew walked out "in support" of Mr Hibbs. This could only make sense as an attempt to influence the disciplinary process. It may simply have been an ill-considered emotional reaction with no sense to it, but if they were thinking through what they were doing, then it was a profoundly corrupt act. Not that it did influence the process, which initially found against Mr Hibbs, before an appeal stage dismissed the allegations and exonerated him with an apology. With both Mr Hibbs's reputation and the RNLI's disciplinary system vindicated, the stage was set to pick up the pieces and carry on.

Indeed, there certainly have been some carryings-on since, which is why it has moved on from being a private matter for a few RNLI volunteers and managers to a public and political issue worth writing blogs on. As soon as the initial walk out happened, there were numerous demands for a political solution to the diminished lifeboat cover. The island's politicians had a cannier sense of what is and is not in their domain and let the RNLI sort themselves out, however.

The crew seem to have remained disgruntled and unsettled though, while the leaders of the calls for political action coalesced with a sense of purpose around their objections to the RNLI's actions. Ever since they have been heading in directions that do not seem to me to be indisputably right.

The most unpleasant aspect of the affair is that the people around the rebel crew have been vigorously promoting a hate campaign against the RNLI, trying with some success to discourage islanders from continuing to donate, as well as some of them floating the suggestion that past donations received and held in Jersey should be seized as "ours". Apart from financially harming a very valuable public service, they have been whipping up ill feeling against it with sufficient skill to swing a significant minority. On the other hand, there are countless people with various personal reasons to hold the RNLI dear, myself included, who are being antagonised by this tactic, which is no help to them with the bigger part of their project.

The former crew and their leading supporters are trying to found a local independent lifeboat service, funded by such donations as they can divert from the RNLI and government money. Unfortunately, they have not laid a clearly thought out business case for it before the public, and evade questions about the obvious issues when challenged.

As the answers are not forthcoming, it seems fair to assume they don't have them, so I shall take a look at some of the reasons why I do not think the proposed independent lifeboat service is a good idea, beyond being somewhat prejudiced against it by the hate campaign.

The biggest weakness of the project is that instead of building an institution and recruiting for it, they are taking Andy Hibbs as the starting point and trying to build their new institution around him. There are grounds for thinking he may well be a suitable candidate to be the first Coxswain for a new service, but for him to actually be the service is putting too much onto him. Besides, he is already middle-aged and grey, and if it is to be all about him, then where will we be five or ten years down the line, when he is no longer physically up to it? The would-be founders of the JILS claim that nobody else is capable, which, if it were true, would mean that not only could the RNLI no longer operate their AWB, but that the JILS would be unable to carry on in the event of Mr Hibbs's absence or retirement.  A further doubt about making Mr Hibbs the centrepiece is that there is the suggestion that he does not have satisfactory personal relationships with the port authorities, which would hamper his effectiveness.

In the last quarter of a century, the concept of due diligence has been brought to the front of all corporate and institutional managers' minds, by changes in the law to facilitate civil litigation for damages, pithily summarised the compensation lawyers' marketing slogan "where there's blame, there's a claim". Meanwhile a generation of MBAs were rolling out managerialist systems of corporate governance compatible with the new emphasis. Consequently, the days when working to rule was the penultimate sanction of a workforce on its employer in a dispute have gone, and it is now expected to be normal practice. It is no good hankering for the days when corners could be cut left, right and centre, times have changed and the stakes become too high. So a lifeboat service has to be as fussy about setting rules and collecting evidence that they have been followed as anything else. One of the complaints that has been repeatedly aired about the RNLI by the hate campaign is that they are too bureaucratic and restrictive, and do not give enough scope to the exercise of local expertise. Yet, an independent service would either have to copy the RNLI's rules, or run an anachronistically slack regime that would be wide open to being sued to bankruptcy by the lawyers of the first crew member to come to harm in service. What is so heroic about lifeboat crew is that they do put themselves in harm's way, so there is nothing fanciful about considering the What If scenario. But the promoters of the independent lifeboat just rail against the RNLI for having professional management, without offering the least hint of how they will operate a successful service without organising the administrative aspects.

Money has featured prominently in the ongoing campaign, in several ways. The initial idea that the Jersey restricted funds of the RNLI could just be taken as "ours" and given to the independents could not be implemented without opening a massive legal can of worms, and although some of the noisiest supporters have called for it, the smarter minds at the very centre of the scheme have not been pushing it themselves to any extent that I have become aware of. However the promoters of the putative Jersey Independent Lifeboat Service have certainly been hustling to divert present and future donations from the RNLI to the JIVS. Someone who does not seem to be a main member of the committee, but is certainly a friend of Andy Hibbs heavily engaged in the social media campaign, made the astounding claim quite early on that many people had already changed their wills to disinherit the RNLI in favour of Mr Hibbs. It strikes me as improbable that this is true on two levels, both the unlikelihood of RNLI supporters spending hundreds of pounds on legal fees to redirect their bequests to someone who has no lifeboat right now, and is likely to have retired by the time they die, and the unlikelihood that the campaigner has any access to such confidential information. However, it at least shows the level the JNLI camp are stooping to.

Future bequests are a long-term source of funding, but in the meantime the JILS are looking for a seven figure startup cost and six figure annual running costs from the Jersey public, whether as donors or taxpayers. But are they proposing to give value for all this money? The latest generation of all-weather lifeboats are substantially cheaper than the older "Tamar" class boats such as Jersey's RNLI boat, but when the RNLI still have that in service, the expenditure is otiose. The RNLI has a significant pot of existing covenanted donations to be spent on their Jersey services, and the interest on it must go a good way towards covering the expenses, together with the general collections received from year to year. The JILS would not have any pot in its early years, and would be dependent on what it could capture from former RNLI supporters, plus government subsidy. But once again, this expenditure would be surplus to the island's needs while the RNLI have an AWB in local service. So the public of Jersey would gain very little from the investment.

So who would benefit? Andy Hibbs and his crew have sacrificed some personal prestige in losing their places as the RNLI crew, and being the JILS inaugural crew would restore it. The promoters of the JILS would also gain prestige, and an enhanced political profile with elections coming shortly, and might be able to get themselves on a few junkets, if their secretive plan does not involve the urgent recruitment of a management committee of the great and good to hand it over to. But, can we justify such huge sums being spent on a vanity project for a few has-beens and their ambitious friends? The RNLI still has their all weather boat in Jersey, and no difficulty in finding further volunteers proud to serve as its crew, so the extra lifeboat would not meet a  genuine need.

And who would lose? The JILS may not have acquired a lifeboat yet, and possibly never will, but the one thing they have achieved is to damage the funding support given by local donors. The RNLI has significant capital reserves reserved for their Jersey operations, but the annual running costs are rather more than the interest the reserves generate, and they could not ride out a long-term fall in donations without cuts in services. It is quite easy to imagine a situation where the JILS fails to successfully establish a viable independent lifeboat station, but the RNLI has to reduce the cover they provide us with, because the harm the JILS has done to their income means they cannot afford to carry on with the present cover. An intangible loss being faced by the least deserving is that the JILS's hate-mongers are trying to brand the new crew as scabs and traitors. To maintain their loyal service to the RNLI (most have been the inshore lifeboat crew at Jersey's other lifeboat station) and their island, with quiet dignity and without politicking or tantrums is a fine thing that we should all be praising them for, not a pretext to hurl insults at them. This attitude by some of the JILS camp reflects very badly on them.

If there is truth to the anecdotes about attempts to force Andy Hibbs out for malicious and corrupt personal reasons, then he has undeniably been seriously wronged. However, his role as a figurehead of attempts to damage the RNLI's Jersey services, and to set up a multi-million pound boondoggle has ended his career of previously distinguished public service with a massive blemish. The gang of troublemakers and chancers surrounding him can't even offset their own disgrace with a narrative of being wronged heroes. None of them deserve our millions for such a pointless project, anyway. We should just be thankful that the RNLI is still with us, doing what it was founded to do.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Don't Throw Away Your Vote On An Abuse Of Process

I count the leading figures of Jersey's “Reform Jersey” political party among my personal friends. I wish them to remain so, thus I shall take pains to be temperate in this critique of their latest tactic. However, I disagree with it too strongly, not to challenge it at all.

(Background for non-Jersey readers: The island has a unicameral parliament, but with three different modes of election for the members, having different titles for functionally the same office.)

Senator Zoe Cameron was frozen out from working on her subjects of special interest and competence by the Council of Ministers, was totally ineffectual and rapidly became disengaged. To her credit, instead of serving out her full term as a waste of space, she admitted her failure and stood down so that another could put her seat to better use. So, we have an island-wide by-election to look forward to.

The purpose of a by-election is to replenish the House to its full complement of working members, that is all. The ballot asks no other question of voters than, which of the candidates do they prefer to take office. In practice, for many voters, the choice is who is the least unacceptable, rather than whom do they want, but it is still about filling a vacant office with another holder.

Reform Jersey have disappointed me greatly, by putting forward Deputy Sam Mezec as a candidate for the by-election. Now, this is not going to be an ad hominem attack on Sam: I know him personally, like him a lot as someone to talk with about our mutual interests, and I approve of him as a politician. However, I believe that his candidature in this election is wrong in principle on multiple levels.

The first objection I have is that Sam is already a member. If we vote for him, and he wins, then we have made no change at all, but simply delegated the choice of who the new member eventually is to the electorate of Sam's current constituency as a Deputy. This is an abdication of our democratic right to no discernable benefit. We have no idea who the candidates would be in the consequent by-election there, and, moving from principle to strategy, it is one of Jersey's most bipolar constituencies, with a track record of electing both very right-wing and very left-wing candidates to its multiple seats, so we can hardly count on them to give us another in Sam's mould, even if Reform Jersey offer them one.

My second objection is that Reform Jersey are justifying the plan with some sophistry about how a vote for Sam serves as a referendum on the proposed Medium Term Financial Plan. No: As I said above, the vote chooses a new Senator, that is all. It is quite possible to disapprove of the MFTP and also want to see one of the other candidates become the new member of the House, and totally impossible to legitimately deem votes on an explicit question of who should be elected to office as referendum votes on another matter entirely. I am pretty sure all the RJ leadership are sharp enough to understand that, so to suggest otherwise is a cynical ploy that I am somewhat less than proud of them for stooping to. Disowning them as friends would be a gross over-reaction, but I am not going to pretend I approve of the duplicity.

A more trivial objection is simply this: Elections have a substantial cost, to the public purse, to the candidates and in the time of honorary officials and volunteers working pro bono publicae. To contest an election with an intention to simply cause another is an irresponsibly wasteful plan.

Now RJ have announced this, they are pretty much obliged to go through with it. So, I shan't waste my time calling on them to think again. I can address my fellow voters, though. If you have no sympathies with Reform Jersey anyway, do what you would have done. If, however, you are like me in wanting Sam to be in the States, we already have him there: We do not need to waste our votes on him now. By the time all candidates have declared, there will at least one credible and capable progressive candidate in the field, whom we can get behind to fill Senator Cameron's place to good effect.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Cluster[bomb]

A cluster bomb is a munition in which the main bomb scatters numerous small land mines around the explosion site, to cause multiple subsequent casualties. Thus, a neologism that has recently crossed the Atlantic takes the concept and replaces the word bomb with a swear word, whose commonest secondary meanings are to harm irreparably and to put into a hopeless situation. And now the word has been invented, David Cameron has seen fit to give us a practical example of one.

The consensus of expert analysts is that Cameron’s referendum on EU membership was a tactical gambit to avoid losing votes to the official Conservative Party’s fellow-travellers in UKIP. Still a shabby thing, even if it had been done well, but against all precedent for referenda on major constitutional changes, it was drawn up to decide by a simple majority. The case for continuing in the EU was then presented as badly by the official campaign as the case for leaving was presented by their rivals, but at least the Leave campaign shrewdly targeted the prejudices of the mob whose fitness to hold the franchise is dubious, and won the referendum. So, there was the burst. Now, where have all the mines gone? Just like a real cluster bomb, we will be finding the last of them the hard way for years to come, but we can track a few already.

Although Parliament’s sovereignty was not conceded to the referendum in any formal way, and the result does not bind it to act, now the result is known, it would be political self-destruction for the Houses not to implement the choice they have asked the nation to make for them. The Leave contingent’s small majority include all of the violent and anti-social far-right groups, and a refusal to abide by the decision would turn over half the public bitterly against the government, and promote the far-right from a fringe of despised pariahs to leaders of the revolution, which would spell horrific bad times whether they won or lost in the end. So, on a crucially important issue, Cameron has thrown away Parliament’s  practical capacity to give leadership to Britain.

At the time of writing, Parliament has not yet had the chance to carry out its obligation to give formal notice of leaving the EU, and it remains to be seen what shape our relationship with Europe will take in coming years. It seems unlikely to be as good as we have had, however. Wisely, guarantees are already being put in place for the millions of EU nationals already settled in the UK, which will not only prevent the misery and social disruption that would come of their forced expulsion at the expiry of Britain’s notice, but also head off the risk of the tit-for-tat repatriation of millions of British emigrants to the EU. However, there is a choice of the “Norway” option, if it can be negotiated in time, where Britain continues to get the benefits of European access, at the continuing price of legal harmonisation and fiscal contributions, or the “World Trade Organisation” option, where we just lapse to being part of the Third World, so far as the rest of Europe are concerned. 

Before the referendum, the Brexiters were cocky about how desperately the EU would want to keep us, and how strong our negotiating position would be as result. However, our decades of intransigently demanding special treatment have in fact used up Europe’s goodwill, and now we have given them the opportunity to be rid of us, they are keen to make it happen as soon as possible.

The Leave campaign also robustly denied the forecasts of economic disaster flowing from Brexit as scaremongering and sneered at the idea of listening to experts. In a matter of days, though, the pound has crashed in value and global businesses are reconsidering their British commitments. The weakening pound may save some export related jobs from being lost altogether, but will still diminish the purchasing power of their wages. Many other jobs will simply be lost to economic contraction though. Even jobs that do not directly depend on EU exports or services will be affected by the reduction of EU related trade in the economy as a whole.

Racism in Britain is hardly a new problem - there have been four hundred years of private bullying and public rioting since Shakespeare felt the need to write the classic anti-racism play, The Merchant Of Venice, but the Brexit result was in part down to the votes of those who hoped to send all the foreigners back, and has emboldened them to become more aggressive and offensive in their hatred. The foreigners are not going to be sent back, of course, but that means still more public disillusionment with, and alienation from government. Those of us with liberal views may not want to see the racists prevail, but we have to admit that there are enough of them out there to be worth worrying about, and that they will now become angrier than they were, at another perceived betrayal. So we may expect many more harrowing and unpleasant tales of atrocities against European and Commonwealth immigrants - the typical racist not being interested enough to know the difference.

In choosing to leave the European Union, England has inadvertently made the case for the end of an older and closer union, too. Scotland knows it is too small a country to thrive in isolation, and is far prouder of its EU membership than its UK membership. Many English people seem not to understand the difference between union and empire, and bemoan rule from Brussels when the sovereign power has remained in London, and Europe has to dance to British tunes as much as any others. On the other hand, the “United” Kingdom has a more imperial flavour. In recent decades, a modicum of power has been restored to Edinburgh, but to a large extent Scotland is still ruled from London. While Scotland has supplied more than its share of senior Westminster politicians in recent years, they have been incidentally Scottish leaders of a Britain mainly consisting of English living in England. It now looks a serious possibility that Scotland will leave the UK to rejoin the EU. Soon, we may well have an even littler England than the Brexiters were hoping for.

Our cluster “bomb” has started a couple of other political fires that bode very ill for the well-being of British government and democracy. The Leave campaign was conducted with a good deal of gross dishonesty, inducing voters to vote Out on the basis of false facts and impossible promises. Faced with the challenge of delivering on their impossible promises, the leading Brexiters hastily stepped back. Another betrayal for the voters, who thought they knew who would be their new leaders, if Leave won. We are now doomed to another Maggie. The next PM will now be either May or Leadsom, and it won't matter a lot which one it is. Both are hardline right-wingers who begrudge human and workers’ rights and will use their power for repression and austerity to the people and asset-stripping and privatisation to the state. Of course, a terrible Tory PM wouldn’t matter a lot, if they were likely to soon lose a general election. However, the Brexit vote has inspired the Parliamentary Labour Party to spectacularly self-destruct. In Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party finally have the leader who can present inspirational alternatives to modern conservatism, and the moment was theirs to press home their advantage. Instead, disgruntled with not getting yet another greasy pole climbing apparatchik to carry their business on as usual, his parliamentarians have mostly deserted and betrayed him. This could end with Corbyn having all the moral authority to be the next PM, but no ministerial talent to form a government with, or it could end with an experienced but discredited Labour team led by a usurper into electoral wipeout. Just when we needed a change from the Tories most.

Looking further ahead, the big challenges of the coming decades will be global ones, which no country, however, proud and vain its patriots, will be able to solve unilaterally. International co-operation and adherence to world rules will be the only hope to salvage some of the good bits of our civilisation from the “green” problems that we have been building up for the last couple of centuries. Resource depletion, over-population, pollution and climate change are putting physical constraints on how much further we can take industrialism, and either we make controlled changes or uncontrolled changes will come upon us. Exiting the EU will not be a pass for Britain or England to go their own way, and if they try, in the long run, the road will be to disaster and nobody to help.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Staying in Rhythm

A couple of years ago, I posted a piece about my adoption of a variation of an Intermittent Fasting diet, with a promise to follow up on how it went long term. Two and three-quarter years in, I think I am ready to draw conclusions, so here we are.

I was introduced to the idea by a BBC Horizon documentary, that, amongst other related topics showed how it had been discovered that humans metabolise and respond to protein intake on a 48 hour cycle, with potentially harmful low or high levels of some hormones arising from keeping the body stuck in the first stage by daily protein feasts. The same programme also looked at the more inconclusive effects of Caloric Restriction, which was not a novel concept to me, but which I viewed with some scepticism. However, the section on protein metabolism was so clear, that I could no longer eat daily meat, knowing what I learned that evening.

After a day or two of consideration and comparison of the various IF strategies, particularly Alternate Day and 5:2, I settled on a usual regime of 4:3, having a low calorie vegetarian diet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, although not as extremely low as 5:2 and CR followers go, and eating more indulgently on Tuesdays, Thursdays, weekends and holidays. This, on the one hand, puts me in the vital second stage of the protein cycle three times a week, but on the other hand, never leaves me more than a day away from a good meal, which is psychologically easy to cope with.

In the early weeks, I lost over a stone, and from the greatly increased ease in bending, I think much of the loss was the internal abdominal fat that no doctor ever has a good word for. However, after about a year, my overall weight started to creep back towards its original level, which I presume is my natural equilibrium. Although the weight has now come back, it does not feel as if it has returned as undesirable internal fat. Another effect has been that when I return to eating daily full meals on holiday, my body now furiously lays down reserves, and my weight temporarily soars, before falling back over a few weeks of resumed 4:3.

Initially, I was rather troubled by hunger on my low-cal days, but I have found that in the long term my appetite has adjusted, and I no longer miss proper meals on the days I don't eat them, and need just a few snacks to remain satisfied from the previous day's food until evening, even if I sometimes need a little supper.

I have seen it suggested that these kinds of restricted or partially restricted diets can be beneficial to immune system problems, such as allergies. I have no idea whether the continuing disappearance of my asthma since the time I started 4:3 IF is causally linked, or mere random co-incidence. It seems prudent to act on the assumption that it is causal, though, which is as powerful an incentive as any to carry on.

About a year into the diet, I had an opportunity to get a general blood test. My previous one had showed excessive cholesterol, and I was interested to see if my changed eating habits had helped to reduce it. I was pleased to see that, while my cholesterol level was still undesirably high, it had fallen out of the danger zone. That is still something that I need to keep watch over, but the first result was encouraging.

My long-term conclusion, therefore, is that 4:3 IF is delivering a healthier life for me, at no more downside than sometimes feeling a bit peckish. I would recommend it to anyone interested in maximising their own health, unless they already have ailments that are aggravated by an uneven food intake.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Whose Shops Are They Anyway?

I spend several thousand pounds a year at the Channel Island Co-Op, for the convenience of their shop locations and the few hundred pounds kickback in dividends. I also shop a little at Jersey's other chains, for different product selections, or because I happen to be nearby.

Therefore, as a customer and shareholder, I like to think that the management have their eyes open for opportunities to minimise prices and maximise dividends and range. And so, it gave me food for very mixed thoughts, when they recently announced a grand new plan to shift almost all of their procurement to the mainland Co-Operative group's new national distribution centre at Andover.

There would certainly be significant upsides to the Andover move, in terms of efficiency and profitability.(*1) However, closer analysis reveals that there also some serious downsides, and, moreover, downsides that either do or should matter a lot to the CI Co-Op's general membership.

The biggest practical advantage would be that dairy and provisions could be ordered from national stocks on a day-to-day basis. At present, the CI Co-Op outsources fresh goods procurement to local wholesalers, who buy in stock to order for the Co-Op shops according to pre-orders estimated a week in advance, and sell it on to them on arrival. This shifts jobs from the Co-Op to their suppliers, but still keeps them in-island. The flexibility and responsiveness of 36 hour lead times has to be a good thing in itself. The obvious difficulty, however, is that shelf lives will necessarily be poorer on goods bought from stock held at Andover before shipping, than on goods shipped direct from source and redistributed locally on the day of arrival. The other major drawback would be that the work now done locally by the workforces of CI wholesalers would be done by the Andover staff. It would still be the same amount of work, but the cost of it would be drained out of the local economy to England instead of recirculated by local workers. A neutral decision for the company in terms of cost management, but a strategic blunder for the community in terms of economics and social responsibility.

The logic of shifting stocks of long-life goods to England does not stack up at all.(*2) Fresh foods can only be handled with a just-in-time system; too soon and they perish before sale, too late and they have missed the opportunity to sell and once again perish. But it is different with long-life foods. The freight links cannot operate in all weathers, so it is essential to carry local buffer stocks sufficient to cover the longest foreseeable interruptions. The running costs of local storage may indeed be somewhat higher than a proportionate share in the running costs of the Andover base, but they are necessary costs, and trying to dodge them will doom the CI Co-Op to empty shops in windy weather. Moreover, once again, local costs are mostly recirculated, while UK costs are more money lost to our economy, that somebody has to export something to replenish.

Even if some added value can be gained by judiciously targeted use of Andover for specific products, the CI Co-Op's local warehousing and wholesale supply networks are essential to the stability of its supplies on the shelves. Beyond that, it is supposed to be a player in the Channel Islands' economies, not Andover's.

The rundown and disposal of the local warehouses would release a substantial capital windfall, that would look good in the accounts for the year they took place. They are an asset that can only be stripped once, though. Once the directors have taken their bonuses for that cash-rich year, the shareholders are just left with badly supplied shops to show for the divestment.

One final point, those of us who hold share accounts in the CI Co-Operative Society are not merely customers. We are the owners and employers. And do we want to be the sort of employers who throw hard-working long-term employees on the scrapheap in the pursuit of an irresponsible fast buck? I for one do not, and if there are some who do, I am glad they are not my friends. On the other hand, do we want to be the kind of employers who meekly tolerate the managers we employ taking reckless measures in the pursuit of their own financial benefit? No again, speaking for myself.

If you are CI Co-Op members, please make the effort to get to the forthcoming Special General Meeting, and stand up and be counted against the Board implementing this shameful betrayal of workers and customer alike in your names.

Email comments:
(*1)The significant upsides have only been stated not rigorously debated from the figures I look at it is going to cost the CI Coop more, the shelf life will be marginally less and the range in the Grande Marches will be reduced. As for the logistics they will be a nightmare for the shops, with small back stores, used to JIT in cages for all their goods. 
(*2)This is an issue which *originates* in Manchester/Andover not the Channel Islands and the fact that the UK Coop have built an infrastructure that is underutilised. It is no coincidence that in the UK Ice-cream World has closed its doors because the UK Coop has *just* taken all the ice-cream distribution in house - sound familiar. Andover is throwing everything at the CI Coop to persuade them to change over, how long before they realistically price I have no idea but by then it will be too late. 

The CI Coop has the 3 biggest outlets by sales in the whole of the Coop group, the UK Coop is far more used to dealing with and ranging for the normal smaller UK Coops.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Don't Be A Blockhead!

As internet social media draw more and more people into their reach, so the odds of them being put in touch with others, whom they would try to avoid in offline life, rise. Therefore, the major players very sensibly provide a Block function, so that their users can hide themselves from anyone who they suspect may attempt to harass them on line, or, worse still, track them down for committing physical violence in the real world. Risks identified, remedy provided, job done.

Nobody has to justify their use of a Block against a potential menace, and any procedure requiring them to do so would be a counter-productive deterrent that I could not support. However, with the right to use Blocks freely comes the moral responsibility to use them fairly and ethically. I fear there are so-called libertarians, libertines really, out there, who feel their rights to behave unfairly and immorally take precedence over any obligations to the rest of humanity, and there always have been, but they have to be written off as a lost cause, while I offer food for thought to the more conventionally decent of my readers.

If your social media involvement goes no further than using Facebook to swap gossip with your immediate friends and family, then you can control matters well enough by setting everything to Friends Only and taking care who those Friends are. However, once you start going to Facebook's Groups and Pages, or using Twitter, or Youtube comment threads , or that dying dinosaur of Noughties internet, MySpace, then you have gone public, and even if you have the technical facility to be a control freak to those internet users that immediately surrounds you, you have ventured out of your private zone and should behave appropriately to the virtual public place you have chosen to put yourself in.

And what does all that have to do with blocking, you may ask. Simply this: Internet forums and discussions run on the assumption that each and every participant in the thread can follow the development of a discussion entry by entry. This linearity is why we call them threads and not scatters! They are virtual representations of public meetings. However, it would soon reduce a discussion to chaos, if substantial numbers of its members could not see each others contributions. How is a participant supposed to make sense of a discussion, if, for a hypothetical example, the second and third commenters can't see each other, unknown to them, they do know the fifth commenter and seventh commenter can't see each other and they have been blocked by the fourth commenter and don't even know that they are there? The dynamics just become unworkable. Even so, there is a deplorable fad for capricious blocking spreading through Jersey's online political community amongst both left and right wingers.

Slamming the cyber-door in the face of a cyber-bully is fair enough, although such retreat cannot be credibly spun as victory. What is inexcusably rude to an entire group, though, is to refuse to interact with all in that group on an equal footing, save those one has already fallen out with outside of the group. And yet, we are starting to see a tactic emerging where certain people, unfortunately including a couple of my own friends, wilfully disrupt the functioning of discussion groups by blocking people who have made no attempt to be malicious. Blocking someone for expressing an opinion you do not share, but are too lazy to articulate your disagreement with, or because they do not feel safe enough themselves in the online environment to expose their offline identity or lifestyle, is both boorish behaviour and ineffectual politics.

Political discussion is all about the exchange and comparison of ideas. If you will only read what you already think, you will never learn anything new. Progress depends on considering one another's views and having the integrity to change minds when faced with better ways. Thus, the most important people to address and be addressed by are not your own comrades, but those on the other side to whichever your own may be. If, instead, you refuse to engage with them, whether from rudeness or spinelessness, then you are marginalising yourself as a participant in the political process, a mistake for an activist and a catastrophe for a candidate, and may as well get out of the game altogether.

Free and open public discussion of political issues is the foundation of democracy. Attempting to exclude others from engaging is a threat to this foundation. Unless you genuinely believe that somebody will ruin your life, if you dare to let them communicate with you, and I fully realise that sometimes there really are such cases, then do not block fellow members of forums and discussion groups. It does far more harm than good to both the cause of politics in general and your reputation in the eyes of anyone who realises what you are doing.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

How to Boost the Power of Your Vote

Despite the disappointment of the recent referendum on electoral reform in Jersey, where a poor selection of unsatisfactory options led to an inconclusive result, there remains an imperative to make overdue improvements. Thus, a proposal has been made to overhaul another aspect of Jersey elections.

Although the referendum failed in its purpose of giving The States a mandate for change, or even a mandate for no change, it did succeed in being a demonstration of transferable voting in Jersey. While such a system had never been used in an election for office here, the referendum offered first and second choice voting for the three options, so that, if there were no clear majority in the first count, as indeed happened, the third placed minority would drop out in the run-off count and their second choices added to the others. This had to produce a majority. Sure enough, it established that the Option A, which I personally preferred, was marginally less acceptable than the Option B to the overall voters, although commanding the largest minority of first choices, so B was the democratically chosen winner. At least the derisory turnout vitiated the referendum to the point that it could be ignored with clean consciences by The States. However the mechanism of the voting was vindicated.

One of the conundrums (the pedant in me thinks I want the word conundra, but my spellchecker doesn't!) of first-past-the-post voting is whether to pick one's honest choices or whether to attempt to game the system with tactical voting. If you fear that your preferred choice will not command enough other people's votes to succeed, but one you are strongly opposed to will, there is some sense in voting for a third candidate who is less desirable, but has a worthwhile prospect of victory. This may help to keep the wrong one out, but it fails to send a message of support and approval to your real choice, and tend to discourage future candidates from offering a similar manifesto.

By contrast, transferable votes mean ranking candidates, so that you can give your honest first choice your primary vote. If they fail, then whoever you ranked next receives your vote, and so on for however many rounds of run-offs it needs to obtain a final result. This delivers the most widely supported, or at least accepted candidates, without posing any pressure to understate the true level of support for the also-rans.

Rather than attempt to go into detail myself on this subject, I would recommend anyone interested to go to the excellent article my fellow Jersey blogger “Tony The Prof” has written at He says everything I would want to, and in better English than I can manage.

Anyway, variations of transferable voting systems have been widely used in many countries around the world for decades. The advent of cheap and easily used computers has taken the hard work out of the necessary “number crunching” that is the only real drawback, so there is no longer any sound argument against the introduction here, too. It would also facilitate the success of another large multiple constituency system based on the rejected Option A, which is probably the most urgent electoral change Jersey needs to revitalise the democratic legitimacy of its government. Even if this particular attempt to introduce it fails, (and despite the proposal's inherent merit, it is not unimaginable that The States will reject it simply to spite its proposer), it needs to be returned to again and again until it does prevail.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Bald Truth and Bare-faced Lies

The Bald Truth Jersey, as linked in my blog list, is a witty title for the blog of my friend and erstwhile political colleague, Trevor Pitman, who has a bare scalp and a passionate commitment to calling things how he sees them.

However, he has cross-branded the title to a Facebook group, run by one Steve Southers, whom I believe to be Trevor's brother-in-law, although I may be mistaken. The Facebook group does run links to Trevor's blog, but otherwise, it has evolved its own identity, and become a very different kettle of fish.

Any Facebook group can only be as good or bad as the people who bother to join it, but the group administrators can, and usually do, shape the group to some extent, by constraining the content the members post, and controlling who is allowed in the group. I have volunteered as co-admin for a couple of the groups I am in, myself, and have been surprised at how many ethical challenges arise.

The Bald Truth Facebook group was initially populated with Trevor's Friend list, and has attracted others with an interest in Jersey affairs, until the thousand-plus membership has made it the largest Jersey discussion group, that I know of. Unfortunately, as the membership has grown, the proportion of posts from members with profoundly counter-factual worldviews has also grown. The headline posts letting us into the secret that humans were genetically engineered from apes by extra-terrestrial visitors can be enjoyed as comedy in small doses and the resident climate change denier's obtuse failure to absorb the resident environmental expert's patient debunkings also has a comedic dimension, reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch where an inept swordsman continues to bark challenges sans limbs after a comprehensive hacking.

The glimpses of an alternative reality get worse, though. There is much evidence of conspiracy theories on the page. Trevor Pitman's own political career has been hampered by a closing of ranks against him, so I can see why he would be inclined to sympathise. The tone of Steve Southers' Facebook group, however, is an anything-goes credulity towards suggestions of sinister forces secretly manipulating the world to their own benefit. (I am old enough and worldly enough to realise that great wealth does carry power, and the private and informal relationships of the very wealthy and powerful do play in counterpoint to the overt and formal structures of law and government. I am also wise enough to know that key words like Illuminati flag a need to engage extreme scepticism at least, if not ignore altogether.)

What has become the most worrying feature of the group, though, is that in spite of its links to a serving legislator, it has begun promoting the dangerously false legal advice of the Freeman On The Land movement. This is a Canadian variation of a scam that has been circulating in the USA for some years, in which dishonest legal advisors sell misinformation to to laymen on how the law is not legitimately the law of the land, and they can repudiate their obligations by declaring their independence from it. Although, they often assert that the state does have massive counter-obligations in their own favour. All untrue, of course.

Were the FOTL (Please yourself whether you read that as Freemen On The Land or Fruitloops On The Loose!) links posted as genuine discussion points, in the way most things are in topical Facebook groups, then at least the more rational members of the group could attempt to steer the more vulnerable members away from taking an unhealthy interest. Alarmingly, Southers, in spite of presenting himself as a defender of free speech when he turns up on other discussion groups is prepared to protect FOTL posts with active steps to suppress dissent. 

Note Southers' minatory response to criticism of a link to a FOTL video

The offending comments were rephrased in a way less open to misinterpretation as a slur on fellow group members.

But, it seems that the problem must have been disrespecting FOTL because Southers answered that question with a ban.

Not that that saved the piece from further attack from one of the other group admins.

So, there is one admin on the group not prepared to go along with it. Even so, it must be cause for concern that a Facebook group riding the coat tails of a current Member of The States of Jersey is actively fomenting disregard for the law, and doing so under false pretences, too. You may disregard my opinion as that of a layman, although I seem to know more real law than the FOTL gurus. You may even feel that Sam Mezec's LLB is not a sufficiently lofty qualification to impress you. Never mind, if you have a few hours to devote to some heavy and slightly repetitive reading, Chief Justice Rooke, of the Canadian Province of Alberta, has written the definitive debunking of the FOTL and all related “Organised Pseudolegal Commercial Agreements”:

I don't like to write blogs without points, so this one is coming to two. The first is that despite the links to Deputy Pitman, the actual Facebook group may promise Bald Truth, but abounds in Bare-Faced Lies, and should be viewed with caution and suspicion, if at all. The second point, incidentally arising, is that FOTL and other like OPCAs are utter buncombe beneath the mock-legal phraseology, and if they seem interesting, just remember that their facts are simply untrue, and don't be tempted to act on their advice.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Clothier? Think Twice

Many of my politically interested friends are pleased to see that this week The States Of Jersey finally approved, in principle, a referendum on the revised electoral system proposed by the Clothier Commission. There is certainly a strong case for replacing the current mish-mash of accidents of history with a modern and coherently designed process. Nevertheless, despite those around me telling me how good Clothier is in theory, I have yet to see any explanation that actually convinces me it is the right way forward.

The Clothier scheme successfully addresses the equality questions that so many hold against the current complex voting system. Neither voters in their representation, nor politicians in their mandates, have any kind of equality from parish to parish and office to office. Clothier would have a single rank of members, all from similarly-sized constituencies. Job done.

However, I feel Clothier has provided the right answer to the wrong question. In general, equality is a better principle than inequality, but I disagree that it should take priority over effectiveness of representation. Before they started chipping at the current system, I had fourteen representatives, the Constable, a Deputy and twelve Senators. In the urban districts, despite their whinging about getting less than their share, the multi-Deputy districts had sixteen or seventeen representatives, including up to four of their own local ones. So, apart from uncontested elections, we all got to vote for or against over a quarter of our little parliament. That is actually pretty strong democracy, that most of the world would envy, despite the awkward structure benefiting the kind of candidates, that people who read blogs like this would not want. Now, cuts in Senators bring our shares down a little, but I can still look forward to ten votes at the next election. Even so, that is still almost a quarter, a real say in the make-up of the States.

What, in contrast would I have to look forward to on the first election day after an implementation of Clothier? Possibly, one single seat to vote on, and in my particular locality, if it were contested at all, there would still be only one potential winner. Thus, as an avid follower of politics and current affairs, I would find myself denied any significant power to contribute to the success of those I would like to see in government.

All around Jersey, others like me would find the same disengagement foisted upon them. Each district would put forward its popular local bigwig, with or without the bother of seeing off a no-hoper or two, and except in a handful of less predictable town seats, effective democracy would be wiped out. That prospect saddens and scares me.

A “Yes” vote for Clothier would certainly blast the present political establishment, but it would be a suicide bomb that takes our own hopes for better democracy with it. Don't do it!

One Moron, One Vote

I think it was Winston Churchill who pointed out that democracy was a bad system, but everything else that has been tried was even worse. I grew up indoctrinated with the orthodoxy that democracy was, on the contrary, a very good thing. However, living and learning do little to substantiate that opinion, and each passing year deepens my suspicion that the great man was right.

For small groups and trivial questions, simple majority voting is more than adequate. As the voters rise into thousands and millions, though, the scale brings practical problems to all but the most sparing use of general popular votes. Moreover, as the questions become more complex and arcane, the validity of the general lay voters' judgement necessarily declines. Thus, we have to resort to representative democracy, where the nominally empowered voters elect, according to context, a committee, council, board or parliament comprised of those who the voters trust most to study the complex questions they lack the time, if not the capacity to research, and vote appropriately on their behalf. Well, that is what they need to do to make it work, anyway.

Regular readers will have noticed a mundane tendency of this blog to pay more attention to real world outcomes than the beauty of theories. So, the reality is, many voters, especially political voters, do not ask themselves whether they trust their representatives to judge well on their behalf, but instead vote for either the most famous candidate or the one from their loyalty group, without the least attempt to assess their capabilities to make the well-informed and thought-through decisions they are unable to make for themselves.

Equality of rights is a fine and good principle, that I am proud to uphold. Even so, equality of ability is an absurd fancy, so a presumption of it is an unsound basis for anything. The compromise lies in the concept of fairness. Unfortunately, fairness is an inherently subjective matter in a way that equality is not. We all know what honestly seems fair to each of us, but our individual ideas of fairness vary and even conflict. Yet another matter where consensus is probably the best thing, for all the reflexive difficulty in fairly determining it.

One way to resolve the conflict between equal rights to vote and unequal ability to use that vote is to weight the voting, so that those likely to have better judgement count for more. I do not know why political thinkers generally shy away from considering this. The only writer I personally know to have explored it was the mid-20th Century novelist Neville Shute.

Shute once wrote a dystopic fantasy of what Britain and the Commonwealth might have been like in the 1980s, projecting from a time of writing in the early1950s, called “In The Wet”. His premise, reflecting his personal circumstances as the proprietor of an aircraft factory under the Attlee government, was that the UK was a hotbed of creativity and engineering talent dragged down by an electoral system favouring talentless union placemen, while the entrepreneurial spirits had all baled out for colonies with go-ahead leadership, as Shute himself did in real life. In the book, the extra votes went for having a degree or equivalent, working abroad then coming back, being a clergyman, raising a family to adulthood without divorce and a few other indications of being a solid citizen. Shute's vision, rightly or wrongly, was that this would lead to a sharp increase in the quality of candidates being elected.

Sixty or more years on from when Shute flew his kite, the electoral process is a hot topic in the Bailiwick of Jersey. The current electoral districts are gerrymandered to restrict the representation of urban voters to way below pro rata, and the urban voters do their own part to justify their under-representation, by mostly abstaining from voting for the few Members they do get. Despite this manifest apathy, the minority, who do care, have long clamoured for reform.

2013 actually saw a referendum on electoral reform, but the questions were fudged to make a three-way choice between a fine reform, a botch to make matters worse, or leaving things be. Of course, people will be people and the botch narrowly won, fortunately with too small a turn-out to provide any sort of mandate for implementing it. However, one interpretation that could be put on such a result is that the democratic will of the people of Jersey is for an unequal distribution of voting power. This is where Shute's additional vote scheme comes in. With updated and locally appropriate criteria, only politicians rash enough to suggest that anyone of superior judgement would be prejudiced against them could object.

While the principle is not unreasonable, the devil would be in the detail of how the additional votes were assigned. Could we trust the States of Jersey to give the extra power to the wisest voters, or would they settle for something similar to gerrymandered boundaries, maybe one extra for a bank clerk, two for an officer, three for lawyer or accountant and none for a teacher because they are often left-wingers? I fear the latter would be the reality.

If it could be done honestly, it could be a way of improving Jersey politics, by playing on the vanity of the current establishment, to lead them to empower those who they think would support them but don't. Moreover, it would accord with the local cultural expectation, that politics should be for the middle classes. Although I would not back it myself, except as the other choice to a truly awful option, it is at least a different approach to stopping Jersey democracy from being considered an oxymoron, so I offer it as food for thought.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Trinity For Unity?

With a year to Jersey's next election, the politically interested are once again turning their mind to the island's remarkable lack of formal political parties.

Eight years ago, the 2005 election saw a surge of interest in party politics. The Centre Party, who were actually staunchly right-wing, but just not of the Establishment, soon vanished, while the Jersey Democratic Alliance nearly settled into becoming a permanent institution, taking several years to fade away after an unsustainably vigorous start. The Establishment politicians, for their part, did not see the need to set up a formal party to promote their own side, but they made it clear that there was a considerable amount of teamwork between those who intended to be working together when elected or re-elected.

Several more years of drifting in the same direction have kept those who are content with it from wanting to be any more politically active than they were. However, those, who are are discontented with various aspects of Jersey's current government, are beginning to feel the lack of formal vehicles to express their grievances and, one day, possibly implement solutions.

To topple, or even constrain, the established clique of ethically challenged cynics will require all who are not positively with them to unite against them. Saying that much is facile, but the first challenge is in how to unite them in a manner that is both flexible enough to accommodate internal dissensions without schism, and strong enough to maintain a cohesive direction. The Jersey Democratic Alliance was initially founded with the intention to be a very broad group, hence the name of Alliance. However, the centre-right element soon found themselves uncomfortable with the dominance of more left-wing thinkers, by both work rate and intellectual power, and baled out. The centre-left element bled away more slowly over the next five years, and, since the left-wing remainder became, in effect, the Jersey Labour Party, it has done nothing, if it even continues to exist at all. If practical lessons can be learned and applied from the JDA experience, though, then it was not all in vain.

To form a party, there has to be a nucleus of people agreed on a series of policies that they either desire, or at least assent to for the sake of their colleagues' desires, and motivated to pursue them. They can then recruit the uncommittedly sympathetic as rank-and-file members, and market the policies to the relatively apolitical general public as something worth voting for, come election time. Now, it seems to me that there are more than one tenable set of policies that could be pursued, according to taste and conscience. Therefore, there should be different nuclei of supporters around the different visions. The consequence of that, in turn, is a multi-party system.

A multi-party system, though, does not in itself unite the opposition, so much as formalise its divisions. Thus, to actually achieve anything, the parties must form coalitions to implement the overlaps on their policy lists, which will probably be quite substantial. Many things that should be either done or undone remain good or bad in capitalist, social democratic and socialist societies alike, and the parties can agree to do that much together. In a simple two-party system, cross-party agreements do not happen as often as they should, as tactical gaming tends to displace political integrity, but, with four-plus parties, dirty players can just get frozen out and marginalised.

If Jersey is to succeed in achieving the degree of political health most comparable jurisdictions enjoy, we need more than a party. We need a diversity of parties, and we need formal inter-party structures in turn. I envisage something like this as the way forward:

Four to six smallish parties, perhaps representing left, centre-left, centre-right and right on the traditional socio-economic continuum, and maybe green and libertarian taking other priorities, would make the basis. Most people, who would be activists at all, could find something for them amongst that selection.

Pairs or trios of parties with substantially overlapping aims would then have coalition agreements to work together on these shared aims and co-operate electorally. Certainly there is scope and even need for such a coalition between a leftist party and any centre-left and green party that may also form, and other parties will probably want to make similar connections.

All parties would benefit from also having an association of Jersey political parties, strictly concerned with the general promotion and support of party politics, and neutral as to what its constituent parties' politics may be. This could be used to both make general recruitment drives to encourage the public to work for their political beliefs, whatever they may be, and as a lobby group, to discourage The States from further measures to restrict the formation and growth of political parties.

The detailed picture of what emerges would have to depend on how many people actually care enough about what policies. There is a threshold of 20 signatories required under Jersey Law to found a party in the first place, and, given our firmly entrenched tradition of political apathy, some of the parties that could have been might not find them.

Anyway, I see the way to mount an effective challenge to the Establishment clique as not a simple unity of opposition, but a trinity of such left-wingers as there are in Jersey in one party, non-socialist liberals like myself in another, and a formal joint project of the two parties to organise a coalition in pursuit of the two parties shared objectives.