Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Headline of the day

It's really all about ...

One of the many dubious arguments against liberal interventionism is the accusation of bad faith. Somehow, whatever the situation, the action is seen as illegitimate because the ostensible causes are not the real ones - the 'it's all about oil' argument. Chris Dillow nailed this in a post some time ago when he wrote that though there is much talk of 'collateral damage' we seem less willing to acknowledge 'collateral benefit'. In other words, the beneficial results of action are still felt even if the action was conceived for other than purely altruistic reasons.  Though this distinction is lost on some of the commentariat, it is not on the Libyan revolutionaries themselves, who continue to fully support the UN intervention. This is a typical example:
“Of course there are interests at play,” explained the man in the graffiti-covered tunic, listing oil and winning broader support among Arabs following the debacle in Iraq as possible reasons behind the intervention. “We’re not stupid, we know Western countries have their own interests when they finally decided to help us.” A man from Sirte who identified as being from Gadhafi’s tribe interrupted him, expressing a widely held sentiment: “It doesn’t matter what the West’s interests are, because we too have our interests—we want to survive and get rid of this regime and ultimately live like the rest of the world, without fear.” The crowd erupted in applause.

Monday, May 30, 2011

If at first you don't succeed ...

...make the same mistake again and again and again. There were those who said that the austerity programme imposed on Greece would induce a deeper recession, reduce government tax receipts (despite tax increases) and therefore increase debt rather than reduce it. Guess what has happened. So the next tranche of debt to pay off the increasing debt comes with ever more stringent austerity measures that some say will induce a much deeper recession etc, etc.

So what will happen? Political agreement is not forthcoming and Syntagma Square in Athens is being occupied in Greece's own Facebook protest. There is no sign of a challenge to the elite consensus, which, with supreme self-confidence, has lapsed back into economic orthodoxy despite its near catastrophic failure in the banking crisis. Politics and protest are confronting the powerful and there is no meeting point. So are we heading for a default in Greece? Who knows, though in a thoughtful article Aditya Chakrabortty argues that it would be no bad thing. I can't fault his conclusion:
So why doesn't Athens just give up? Surely not because its economy would do any worse, but because the banks, in Germany (which holds $26bn of Greek debt) and France (which owns $20bn) and in Greece, would then have another brush with insolvency. But the answer would be to deal with the banks – by giving them more money or just taking them over – rather than crucify an economy.

For Costas Lapavitsas, an economist at the School of Oriental and African Studies just back from Athens, the situation represents only one thing. "It's the triumph of the banks," he tells me. "The lenders in Greece and abroad are being given preferential treatment over the Greek people."
 I have a feeling that if the next tranche of austerity is enforced then both will be losers, though the ones that will feel the pain will, unsurprisingly, be the Greek people.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A sense of proportion

"Syrian lives were now cheaper than a bullet"

Milia stayed out all night protesting. That night, people were chanting in the new clock square, the one that protesters had dubbed “The liberation square of the governorate of Homs”. Milia’s house is on Hamidia Street, right behind the Khaled Ben Walid mosque. But this Christian neighborhood also harbours one of the oldest churches on earth, the Church of the Holy Girdle and Milia lives right next to this landmark, visiting it every Sunday to receive the archbishop’s blessings.
 Read it all here. The courage...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pride in the Lions

What a cup tie! We pushed Warrington all the way and you could see they were worried. The final score? Warrington 112 - Swinton 0.

Friday, May 20, 2011


We're all doomed I tell ye. The world ends tomorrow - perhaps.

Anyway, us sinners left behind are going to have one hell of a party:
Atheists have 'better sex lives than followers of religion who are plagued with guilt
"Did the earth end for you too darling?"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


A trombone solo with soul ...

There is no film of the performance, but the sound is better here.

No real reason for posting this other than to share the moment when I heard a clip of this on the car radio today and thought, I need to have this music. And now I do.

Monday, May 16, 2011


It is late here and I have been submerged in a tunnel of exam marking, one of the most dispiriting tasks known to humanity. Nobody in this time zone should be sitting in front of a computer, so, especially for the odd insomniac who has stumbled on these pages, here is something wonderful to lull you to sleep.

The Library of Congress now has a National Jukebox containing hundreds of historical recordings, which I found out about from Norm and George. So here is Brahms's lullaby, recorded incredibly in 1906 by Ernestine Schumann-Heink.


Even more extraordinary, there is film of her singing in 1927 on YouTube here.

And if you still can't sleep, browse through this amazing collection, listen to some of the gems and give thanks to the Internet for being able to bring you little delights in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paying the price

The death of a young woman; a Greek tragedy in Ireland, though one almost certainly being replicated in Greece and elsewhere.
This narrative of Ireland’s recklessness has been seized upon by politicians, ex-bankers, journalists and visiting emissaries from solvent countries like a life-ring in a cess-pond. It has the feel of Greek tragedy about it - we made mistakes and must be punished.
In this tragic narrative the Furies are represented by the implacable markets, and our great mistake, our hamartia, which Aristotle defines as ‘an injury to others’ and which later commentators came to call the ‘fatal flaw’, is to have become greedy. It must be remembered, however, that the hamartia is usually committed in ignorance of its evil nature or the likely consequences. It may even be committed against the best advice. Think of Oedipus who, in desperately avoiding the terrible crime that has been foretold for him by the oracle at Delphi, commits that very crime in ignorance if not innocence. Oedipus was a good man, but he misunderstood the role of oracles. We too have failed to understand that oracles are agents in our tragedy rather than disinterested commentators. Oedipus was blinded for his hamartia. Rachel Peavoy was frozen to death for ours.
 And so we continue to offer human sacrifices to the gods of economic orthodoxy in the hope that their propitiation will return us to the good days of self-indulgence and rising property prices. Yet:
The end of tragedy, according to Aristotle, to whom we still turn in these matters, is catharsis. But our catharsis will be long in coming and our children’s children will share the punishment.
And as another Irish writer put it:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
Hat tip to John

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Talking allowed

To the despair of my friends, I am prone to big speeches. In fact, one of the reasons for this blog was to spare them yet another monologue when we are in the pub. And as for my poor students; a simple question can lead to a long peroration, sometimes relevant and amusing, but by no means always. And so I read this touching and eloquent essay by Christopher Hitchens, on the joy of speaking and its intimate relationship with writing, with great pleasure and empathy. Every academic should read this as Universities can be dedicated to the eradication of good written English by enforcing the use of the impersonal and passive voice that deadens prose. Not Hitchens though,
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
And so his illness is a particular tragedy and of course I feel sympathy, but the main emotion his essay evoked was fear; a deep terror that I should lose my voice, my unique link with the world.

I wish him well for the selfish reason that I do not want to be deprived of regularly reading his prose, whilst his own hopes, characteristically, reflect something more universal.
What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.

Monday, May 09, 2011

It's the economy, stupid

I certainly don't agree with everything that is in his article but these quotes from Will Hutton seem to sum up my views on the government's economic policy perfectly.
In a strict sense, the government's economic policies are not a gamble – a gamble has some probability of success ... it is now obvious that we are living through one of the great economic misjudgments of modern times; there were choices last May about how to handle the legacy of private debt, gross misallocation of productive capacity, financial fragility and the need to eliminate the structural public deficit. They were not made; If the Lib Dems had been true to the great social liberal thinkers ... they could never have signed the coalition agreement; The big story is of politics driven by ideas that are wrong.
And, to my despair, there is, as Hutton notes, little sign of any mainstream political party even attempting to breach the consensus, let alone putting forward an alternative political economy drawn from different intellectual roots. And here lies the causes of the failure of the Liberal Democrats in the local elections, the lost referendum on AV and Labour's defeat in the Scottish Assembly. No amount of progressive schmoozing will restore the centre-left to power unless there is a coherent philosophy to unite behind and not the desperately unimaginative, modified conservatism that Jackie Ashley thinks will do the trick.
Labour's revival has to be based on a robust pro-business plan to revive a "making things" economy. It has to build a new relationship with genuine entrepreneurs and tomorrow's employers. Beyond that, Labour needs to be stronger on core issues such as discipline in schools, crime and low pay, which will help win voters back.
And you can multiply this failure a hundredfold if you are to talk of Ireland or Greece. At least the Greeks have a new strategy, er, tourism. Oh well, this might not be that original, but at least I can say that I will do my selfless best to support the Greeks in their struggles. How about you?


I can't believe it. Watching Swinton Rugby League Club is now fun. Scintillating attacking rugby combined with dodgy defence and appalling discipline results in games with lots of points, thrilling finishes, a fight and a win. This is what happened yesterday when having been drawn away to a higher division club, Dewsbury, in the Challenge Cup, Swinton raced to an 18-0 lead before being pulled back to 24-all at half time. They slipped behind at the start of the second half only to rally brilliantly, cruising to a 44-28 lead with ten minutes to go before the obligatory punch-up, two Swinton players sin-binned and a couple of late tries by Dewsbury stretched the nerves. The hooter sounded before they cracked, the fans celebrated with a somewhat optimistic chant about going to Wembley and then Swinton were drawn away to the cup holders, Warrington, in the next round where there will certainly be a lot of points, probably a fight, but the other two ... I don't think so somehow.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Negotiating skills

At the last general election the Liberal Democrats were brilliantly placed to act as power brokers. I can understand why a coalition with Labour, despite a broad level of agreement on the main issues, did not get off the ground as it would not have commanded a majority in the House and Labour were not the largest party. But to form a coalition with the Tories, where there were huge policy differences, would mean a substantial revision of Conservative Party policy. Of course, this is precisely what coalition government is supposed to do.  So how did the Lib Dem leadership grasp this unique opportunity?

1. The single most important area of government is political economy. The Lib Dems vehemently opposed Tory plans to reduce the deficit through rapid cuts in public expenditure. So they agreed to support and actively implement Tory plans to reduce the deficit through rapid cuts in public expenditure.

2. Next in salience comes education. They pledged to abolish university tuition fees and then agreed and defended the policy which has seen them rise to up to £9,000 p.a.

3. Of course health is a big electoral issue. The Lib Dems were opposed to 'top-down' reorganisation of the NHS. They are now part of a government which is attempting a radical top-down reorganisation of the NHS. (Mind you the Tories were also opposed at the general election - just where did that one come from?)

4. Finally, on the constitution, proportional representation was the Liberal Democrat's big issue. This was surely the one policy that was not negotiable. They could hardly enter a coalition that was not prepared to offer PR. So they used this unique opportunity to win a commitment merely to hold a referendum with only one choice between the existing system and a replacement that was not proportional and which they and most other advocates of electoral reform, including myself, rejected. Holding a referendum on something that nobody wanted never looked a winner. And it wasn't.

A radical Tory government has emerged unscathed from deeply unpopular policies; the electoral system, whose unrepresentative nature has cemented Conservative power on minority support for most of the post-war period*, is now unchallengeable; Liberal Democrat support has crashed.

So my question is - you are going to a car dealer's showroom. Who out of our unsavoury political leadership would you take with you to help you negotiate?

*And if you doubt this, look at how ruthlessly the Tories campaigned to retain it. They understand the mechanics of power.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Human shields

Pausing from my marking for a little light schadenfreude at the expense of Clegg Minor, a sobering thought spoiled the pleasure. Whilst the electorate has been busy punishing Lib Dems for being Tories, nobody seems to have got around to punishing the Tories for being, well, Tories too.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


From a travel circular,
"Whenever you feel that you need a second wind, let Greece charm you. Come out of your sloth and seek for the great passion that will upset your senses, will satisfy your devouring appetites and billow out your inner instincts. These passions are incurable!"
A second wind can certainly upset the senses, or at least one of them, especially after satisfying a devouring appetite. But a passion for Greece is incurable, I will give the author that. And though I am about to set off back to England to face a pile of marking, my return flight is already booked and I am smiling even as I leave at the promise of a long Greek summer, with only a passing grimace at the thought of those exam papers.

Thanks to Tim

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The future of adult education

The current model that sells higher education for its economic benefits will eventually run aground on the rocks of reality. My campaign would be for an inclusive system that sees education as of intrinsic worth, rather than simply a route to a bigger payslip, and central to that would be adult education as community engagement. Doing this would mean abandoning the patronising language of aspiration raising and, instead, getting down to the hard work of meeting the aspirations that already exist, changing the institution to fit the people, rather than people to fit the institution. To my mind, this would be a progressive agenda that should be a part of any contemporary, progressive political movement and a starting point for the renaissance of an adult education that this time round will not be lost because of the whims of politicians.
From my contribution to Harry Barnes' May Day meeting on the future of adult education. I was invited to it, but Greece just won out over Chesterfield. Read the whole piece here.