Disillusioned Politics

With the excitement of the Liberal Democrat conference replaced by Labour’s in Liverpool, they haven’t seen in the limelight this week as much as normal, and this is set to continue with the Conservative Party conference this week. Two council seats were held by the Party this week – continuing the current trend of Lib Dem wins, one at former Labour stronghold Barwell, at council by-elections this year.

 However, a Liverpool councillor announced at the Labour party conference, claiming the party ‘indefensible’, regardless of the 75% manifesto implementation as analysed by the BBC.

 The idea of a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition has been floating around the press for the last several days. Assuming Miliband is still the Labour leader by 2015, could this actually be a possibility? With 68% of people thinking Labour aren’t fit to govern, would it be popular? Clegg has a 5-point lead on Miliband on the subject of ‘Are they doing a good job?’ (Cameron is still ahead on 49%.) After declaring that he would never work with the Liberal Democrats, could this be Ed Miliband’s ‘Clegg’ moment? After Miliband refusing to share an AV platform with Nick, would Clegg want to?

 Caroline Lucas’ urging of disillusioned Lib Dems to join the Greens sunk like a stone. They could, of course, if permanent opposition sounds like fun.


What next for the Scottish Tories?

For a party that excites little interest (and much opprobrium) in Scotland the leadership election of the Scottish Tories has become something of a newsworthy event. In 2005 David McLetchie was forced out as leader over his parliamentary taxi bill (a clear refutation to those who say that Scotland is behind English politically: we were at fiddling expenses first). Now, as his successor Annabel Goldie steps down after a poor showing in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, the front runner, Murdo Fraser, has again thrust the contest into the spotlight by suggesting the Scottish Conservatives should formally split from the rest of the party and rebrand themselves to reinvigorate one of the most moribund political parties in Scotland.

The Scottish Tories’ present malign situation is said to have begun in 1997 when they lost their 11 seats in the Labour landslide, itself the fruit of the perception that the Tories were arrogant about and contemptuous of Scotland. However, the situation is more complicated than that. Since the 1960s, the Conservatives in Scotland have been on a broadly downward trajectory. Until 1965 the party was in fact the Scottish Unionist Party and one effect of this merger has been to “Anglify” the party in the eyes of the Scottish voters. This was not helped by the fact that the Thatcher government was often perceived as cavalier in its treatment of Scots. Scotland has not forgotten that it was the testing ground for poll tax.

Detoxifying the brand, therefore, seems a sensible way to atone for the sins of the past. Cameron managed this effectively in the run up to the 2010 elections, even as much as changing the party’s logo and advocating ‘hug a hoodie’ have been lampooned. But in Scotland the problem is not just perception. In fact, it is of a much more fundamental problem. Quite simply, the Scottish Conservatives are not good politicians. 

The 2007 Scottish Parliamentary Elections illustrate this perfectly. In 2007, the Scottish political landscape leveled out with near parity of seats between Labour and the SNP. But, more interestingly, the Tories overtook the Lib Democrats. The idea that the Tories were toxic in Scotland and could never figure prominently in the political process was clearly untrue.

Most importantly, however, the Scottish Tories had a chance to lead the debate in the media on behalf of the opposition. With Labour leaderless and in disarray, a vacuum was left in the opposition for the Tories to fill. But the Tories did not fill it. In fact, four years later they managed to lose seats at the expense of the SNP. And the reason for this stems from their failure in 2007 to take control of the opposition. But the vacuum to be filled was not an issue of policy: it was one of pure politicking.

The central political force in Scottish politics since 2007 has been the SNP; and central to any SNP manifesto is its call for a vote on Scottish independence. The SNP had gained much political mileage out of this: while the other parties rejected a vote, these parties could not give a good enough justification for this rejection. Though the public didn’t care about, or indeed want, independence, the SNP used the issue strategically to portray the other parties as aloof and arrogant, refusing to listen to the voice of the electorate.

Refusing to agree to a referendum was a mistake. The unionist parties should have called SNP’s bluff and agreed to one. Lest they appear to be politicking themselves and waiting for the optimum time for the vote, pressure could have been applied to the SNP to arrange the election quickly. Given that independence has commanded at most 30% of the vote, the SNP would have likely lost the vote and their key policy, the party’s raison d’être, would have become a non-issue. Witness the internecine fighting and declining fortunes of the Bloc Québécois in Canada after losing the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.

In the absence of leadership on this issue from Labour and the Lib Democrats, the Tories could have agreed to support the SNP bid for a vote, maneuvering the Tories into a position where their voice would be listened to in the media. Moreover they would have embarrassed Labour and the Lib Dems, reinforcing the image of them as contemptuous of the electorate’s opinions. Most importantly, for both the Scottish and British Conservatives, they could have rehabilitated their image with the Scottish electorate, making themselves seem less arrogant and more willing to listen to the Scottish electorate. The Banquo’s ghost of the Poll Tax would be exorcised once and for all.

The key challenge for any Scottish leader, therefore, is not one of policy, or of pursuing a scorched-earth policy regarding the party’s image, but rather being able to deal with the formidable political abilities of Alex Salmond. They need less of an Obama, and more of a Machiavelli. But this does not happen because the Scottish Tories, quite simply, are not up to the challenge of taking on the SNP.

The Scottish Parliament has been seen as a great way for the Tories to engage with Scotland and Scottish issues without prompting accusations of imperialism from London. But Holyrood is part of the problem. The best Scottish politicians are quickly snapped up by Westminster. In the current cabinet, some of the biggest beasts are from Scotland. Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith are all Scottish and big players in the cabinet. Even in Conservative intellectual circles the siren-song of London calls: Andrew Neill and Fraser Nelson are two important voices with a distinctly Scottish lilt, both based in London. Yet the SNP’s best politicians stay up North, meaning the quality of the average SNP politician is a cut above the rest.  While this Conservative brain drain continues, no amount of rebranding will solve the problems of the Scottish party.

Conservative Schools

Eton.  A charitable school that contributes to its local community or an elitist breeding ground for Britain’s next generation of leaders where the children’s education is completely sheltered from reality?  Many see this top independent school as the latter, myself included; however, David Cameron recently urged his old school Eton, along with other independent schools up and down the country, to rediscover its “charitable” side and help set up state schools in the area.  This came a few months after Lord Adonis’s speech on how the gap between state schools and independent schools needed to be addressed and closed and Cameron believes that this is the solution.  However, how far will this actually help, and will it not, instead, perpetuate the gap?

To say his scheme is tainted condescension is an understatement.  Whilst Cameron and his privately educated cabinet (the Liberal Democrats included) may believe they are demonstrating incredible charity and pushing towards a more egalitarian society, in reality the elite will not only be maintained but will be accompanied by an increasingly elitist state school system.  By helping to set up state schools, top schools are able to appear as though they are assisting and welcoming equality.  In reality they are now able to keep those who are intellectually able yet socially and financially inferior at arms’ length rather than having to offer a bursary or scholarship.  This may be a crude and cynical view but I honestly cannot see it developing in any other way.

As well as encouraging top independent schools to offer a helping hand to set up local state schools, Cameron has persuaded top performing state schools to take on Academy status.  Academies were a Labour government creation to grant schools freedom from local authorities to run their own admission policies and to have free reign over their curriculum.  However, whilst the Labour government wished to persuade under achieving schools to benefit from becoming Academies, the Conservatives are targeting the top performing state schools.  The Academies have faced criticism over fears that this is a movement towards privatising the education system and the Conservative policy seems to fuel this fear.  By allowing the top state schools to buy into this scheme, the Conservatives succeed in segregating the top slice of education even further as these good schools are pushed more towards independence.  Labour were looking to help those schools that really needed the boost, whilst Conservatives seem to be looking to help their own.  When you think about the top performing state schools your mind does not immediately leap to inner-city, working class, multi-cultural schools but more towards the smaller and more rural; essentially, more Conservative.  Therefore, once these Academies take their place in the education system of Britain, the gap between the highest and lowest echelons of education will be greater and the educational gap will ultimately perpetuate the class system.

The People’s Labour Party by Peter Harrison-Evans

The papers seem largely convinced – Red Ed is back. Some commentators on the left are arguing that the Labour leader’s “new bargain” and “new economy” represents a radical break with New Labour and the neoliberal hegemony of the past three decades. Those on the right see it as nothing but “back to the future”, with Labour, in time-honoured fashion having entered opposition, now off for a wander into leftist obscurity. If everyone’s saying it, they must be right, mustn’t they?

 Well, if an emphasis on responsibility over rights and merit over need (and an earlier condemnation of strike action) marks a substantial, leftist break fromNew Right and Third Wayideologies then perhaps thirty years of Thatcher, Blair, and now Cameron have made us forget what social democracy actually means. Sure the “old” Labour drum sounded at points – particularly with the timeless “you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS” line, greeted with delight by the hall – but it was in no way a return to the pre-Blair era nor was it a particularly strong turn to a new leftist politics.

 Some areas that Miliband touched on are simply a continuation ofThird Wayand centre-right policy themes. His emphasis on personal responsibility, particularly in the welfare system, was a crucial part of Blair’s, American-inspired, New Deals. The responsibility mantra has, in fact, been at the heart of welfare reform acrossEuropefor at least the past decade (for example,Germany’s “supporting and demanding” principle), with governments desperate to activate and recommodify their working age populations. European governments, ours included, are becoming ever more silent with regards to social rights, in the process shifting responsibility from the state to the individual. The old rights-based social contract is being torn up, replaced with one centred on reciprocity and conditionality. Ed Miliband’s proposals for social housing are simply another step down this path.

 Where, Miliband did potentially signal a change was in extending this responsibility rhetoric beyond the unemployed and those in poverty, towards the top end of the income spectrum. This was most notably seen in his attack on Sir Fred Goodwin, criticising the former RBS CEO, not necessarily for his material contribution to the financial crisis, but more for the perverse values demonstrated by his astronomical salary. This moralistic narrative is particularly significant as, like the general responsibility discourse, it has traditionally been confined to people on low-incomes – a jobless, morally deficient underclass. Perhaps, Miliband is attempting to start a new debate on an “overclass” who are equally (self-) excluded from mainstream society, taking without giving back. This extension of the moral high ground to look over the rich as well as the poor is, therefore, surely a sign of a leftward shift, isn’t it?

 Perhaps, but if, as some suggest, this is a radical change for the Labour party, its radicalism lies not in a socialist form but in a populist one. The speech was not about a renaissance in social democracy but instead centred on attacking popular hate figures most notably bankers, energy companies, unemployed welfare recipients, and Southern Cross care homes. It was a speech designed to resonate with the popular anger felt up and down the country about the state of the economy and society. Miliband’s delivery signalled this intention; the focus was on “You”, not you the Labour party member, but you one of the “hard working majority” or “the squeezed middle”.

 If some see the content of the speech as a move to the left, then perhaps popular opinion, certainly with regard to big business and financial services, is beginning to reject the liberalism of the past thirty years. A leftward turn in public opinion with regard to welfare reform is, however, clearly not apparent, and despite huge problems in the supply of jobs, concepts such as welfare scroungers and benefit cheats still proliferate. In focusing on merit and responsibility with regard to benefit receipt, Miliband looked to tap into this “popular” anger aimed at the state-supported unemployed.

 In speaking out against much derided groups at both ends of the income profile, Miliband is indeed turning away from New Labour. He is attempting to build a “People’s Labour Party”, but not in the shade of deep red that some commentators are reporting. Unlike the last great depression the grand narratives of socialism (or fascism, thankfully!) no longer resonate with the general populous, people are simply angry at those they perceive to be getting a free ride. Ed’s speech was, therefore, a call to create a kind of moralistic meritocracy, a radical change perhaps but radically populist rather than socialist.

Live fast, die young, look good? By M. O’Keeffe

The quest for the scientific equivalent of the fountain of youth has had major news this week: Living longer and looking younger. Unfortunately it’s not all good.

            In 1935 a group of scientists at Cornell University showed that if you restrict the diet of lab rats to just before the point of starvation, it dramatically increases their life span.[i]  This effect, often called dietary restriction, is now known to be present in a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates alike and its mechanism has been the focus of more than 75 years of research since.

            Great excitement entered the field in 2000 when researchers at MIT working with yeasts linked the increased life span to a class of proteins called Sirtuins, involved in post-translational modification to proteins found at the centre of chromosomes.[ii] Links were subsequently found in Nematode worms and then fruit flies.[iii],[iv] If this effect extended to other creatures, then why not humans? It seemed a molecule of youth had been found.

            Hopes were dashed this week however, as Dr David Gems et al of UCL published their comprehensive study in nature showing over-expression of Sirtuin levels in both fruit flies and Nematode worms are not responsible for the increased life span. By out-crossing (breeding) a genetically modified strain of the Nematode worm with a wild type strain, they were able to remove the increased life span while not affecting the Sirtuin levels. They then used another long lived strain of the worm and interfered with the Sirtuin production but found the life span to be unaffected. Similar experiments with fruit flies gave the same results and the authors conclude that Sirtuin not is unfortunately, going to make the Nematode worm, the fruit fly, or indeed you, live any longer.[v]

            On a more positive, if still somewhat dubious note, New Scientist this week published an article giving credence to the work of one Dr John Casey in which he tests a new pill which is purported to reduce facial wrinkles by 10% over 14 weeks.[vi] One of the study groups also reported significant increases in fresh collagen deposits in the deeper layer of the skin, the dermis. The pills are composed of soya, fish oil, vitamins C, E and lycopene which are said to act together activating master genes which work to produce collagen and promote tissue health by “about a dozen genetic mechanisms”. Normally, anti-wrinkle products are creams applied to the skin and Casey hypothesizes that “the contents of the capsules, by contrast, reach the dermis, stimulating the production of collagen in deeper layers.

One should naturally be inclined to be wary of the efficacy of beauty products for which the funding is private and especially of the mechanisms by which they are claimed to be effective.  For example, the claim is made that “omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids taken from fish oil activate a master gene PPAR which is also involved in collagen synthesis”. This seems to me a far cry from saying that “this fatty acid promotes collagen synthesis” yet this is obviously the implication. The claim is referenced with a paper, which then quotes a paper which observes the effects of fatty acid regulation of a PPRA in rat cells in a lab dish.[vii]  The roundabout wording makes me suspicious of, as Ben Goldacre puts it, “[extrapolation] from what happens to some cells in a dish, on a laboratory bench, to the complex system of a living human being”.

All this is by the by, before poking holes in a theory one has to ask is there a statistically significant effect here at all?  The company Unilever commissioned four separate research groups to test the pill on 480 women across the UK, France and Germany. The tests are reported to have been carried out double blinded against placebo with neither researchers nor patients knowing who received what. The results of its effect do seem to be standing up to scrutiny from leading dermatologists in both the US and the UK. The attitude seems to be one of welcoming but sceptical acceptance. As Prof David Sarwer said in New Scientist this week “We need a number of studies in this area, with similar results and published in the peer reviewed literature”.

So as far as the research shows, if you want to live longer there’s no miracle product, no magic pill or holy grail, just good old fashioned self denial of food, rather a religious practice in itself. Luckily it seems you could look good while you do it by simply eating some pills, though I recommend not getting your wallet out until we’ve had the results peer reviewed, published and independently duplicated.


[i] McCay CM, Cromwell MF, Maynard LA. The effect of retarded growth upon the length of life span and upon the ultimate body size. 1935. J. Nutr. 10:63-79

[ii] Lin SJ, Defossez PA, Guarente L. Requirement of NAD and SIR2 for life-span extension by calorie restriction in Saccharomyces cerevisiae. 2000. Science 289:2126-28.

[iii] Tissenbaum HA, Guarente L. Increased dosage of a sir-2 gene extends lifespan in Caenorhabditis elegans. 2001. Nature.410:227-230.

[iv] Rogina B, Helfand SL. Sir2 mediates longevity in the fly through a pathway related to calorie restriction. 2004. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA.101:15998-16003.

[v] Camilla Burnett,Sara Valentini,Filipe Cabreiro,Martin Goss,Matthew D. Piper,Matthew Hoddinott,Joshua J. McElwee,Daniel Ackerman,Catherine Au,Giovanna Vinti,Michèle Riesen,Linda Partridge &David Gems. Absence of effects of Sir2 overexpression on lifespan in C. elegans and Drosophila. 2011. Nature. 477:482-485.

[vi] Coghlan A. A wrinkle pill that feeds your genes. 2011. New Scientist. 2831:10-11.

[vii] Pawar , A. , and D. B. Jump . 2003. Unsaturated fatty acid regulation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha activity in rat primary hepatocytes. J. Biol. Chem. 278 : 35931 – 35939

Lib Dem Shenanigans

That’s another Liberal Democrat autumn conference over for the year.  I, along with many other party members, descended on Birmingham – the majority, quite rightly, deciding to leave their socks and sandals at home.

 I was able to attend for the weekend, and with the rally, training sessions and interviews I observed in those two days, the members of the party are generally positive about their position. At Nick Clegg’s question and answer session, one opportunity for members to really let rip to their leader was reduced to Clegg begging for further questions. I was present at a training session which involved writing down two bad things that the Liberal Democrats had done in government, several struggled to think of a second. During Saturday night’s rally, all Clegg had to do was get on stage for him to receive a standing ovation.

 Announcements of plans to legalise same-sex marriage, raising the tax threshold to 12,750, pressure on Osborne to keep the 50p tax rate were all declared with cabinet consent, and have all satisfied the supporters among the party. However, it’s all very well to please your own party, but so far, the Lib Dems are not redeemed in the eyes of the public or, as is to be expected, the right wing press.

 Judging by the scale of security, the party expected full scale protests, but all I witnessed were the Socialist Workers’ Party in the city centre, a small group chanting behind some railings in front of the ICC, and one man with an A4 printout saying ‘Nukiller power’.  The only ‘abuse’ I received, even after walking around the Bullring with my bright yellow lanyard clearly visible, was one (slightly drunken) bloke mumbling something that sounded like “you Liberal Democrats” as me and a friend walked down Broad Street. I have to say, I was mildly disappointed.



David Cameron- from Russia with indifference By Matt Allison

Last week David Cameron returned from his glorified day trip to Moscow clutching his trade contracts like a latter day Neville Chamberlain. In business and government circles the trip has been judged a success; a thaw in the frosty diplomatic relations between our two countries which followed the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and a £215 million boon to our flagging economy. Cameron and his aides secured a raft of trade agreements, including the lifting of the ban on British beef in place since 1990 and lucrative manufacturing contracts for the likes of Rolls Royce. The rigorously managed photo opportunities tell their own story: Cameron and Medvedev all warm smiles and firm handshakes; the backdrop to a new dawn of harmony and co operation.

But there is a darker side to Cameron’s diplomacy. In failing to force the issue of human rights abuses which have become commonplace in Putin’s Russia (despite the ‘Medvedev tandem’ it seems fair to apply this tagline to the current administration), Cameron offered an implicit legitimization  of Putinist politics, undermining international human rights norms by demonstrating that Russia will not be held accountable for its errant behaviour.

Despite concerted efforts to ignore the human rights issue from both parties during productive trade negotiations, the sizable elephant in the corner of the room could not be ignored completely. Cameron and Medvedev entered a brief dialogue on the subject of the high profile murder of Alexander Litvenenko in London in 2006. They addressed it summarily, agreeing publically to ‘agree to disagree’, a highly unsatisfactory arrangement in anything nearing the importance of a calculated political assassination.

Neither was prepared to give an inch on the issue. Cameron set out the British position in these words ‘Our approach is simple and principled. When a crime is committed that is a matter for the courts, it is their job to examine the evidence impartially and to determine innocence or guilt. The accused has a right to a fair trial’. Medvedev responded robustly ‘”You have to learn to respect our legal framework. I would like to remind you that article 65 of the Russian constitution says a Russian citizen can’t be extradited for legal proceedings. We should understand it and respect it. We have questions about how court decisions are come to in the UK but we are not raising these issues.” Incongruously however, whilst both sides appeared to agree on the intractable nature of the difference, it appeared that it could be miraculously circumnavigated for the mutual benefit of the two nations.

Cameron was subsequently at great pains to deny that the issue had been ‘parked’ whilst trade negotiations took place, a ludicrous claim considering this was exactly what happened. Whilst not wishing to digress into semantics, a simple internet definition serves to illustrate the point: the verb to park is defined simply as ‘to deposit or leave in a convenient place until required’. Can a more fitting description be given for Cameron’s handling of the human rights issue? Debates over the wanton human rights violations endemic in Putin’s Russia were neatly put to one side, where they could not obstruct the more important two way traffic of trade negotiation. Cameron’s rebuttal of this accusation was so weak, and so clearly based on wishful thinking that one might well ponder: why even bother?

He bothered because rhetorical statements on the importance of human rights and civil liberties are an important part of the way our political system legitimates itself in the eyes of the population- devoid of content as such statements may be. A revealing contrast can of course be made with Russia, where no such public reassurances are made. The Russian public has by and large accepted that human rights are not something Russia has or ever will put much of a premium on. Instead they accept the greater economic and political stability offered by Putin, and embrace their country’s enhanced diplomatic standing under the former KGB man.

The legacy of Cameron’s visit is to add strength to the Putinist system. Since he came to power in 2000 Putin has offered the Russian population a Faustian pact: more security and prosperity in return for less freedom and democracy. That the Russian people should enter into such a deal after the economic and political turmoil of the late 1990s which came in the wake of the democratic gains of the early Yeltsin years is hardly surprising. However it is the obligation of Western leaders to demonstrate to the Russian people that there is another way: the goals of democracy and freedom on the one and hand and prosperity and security on the other are not mutually exclusive.

This is a vision which Cameron singularly failed to outline in his whistle stop visit. In sidelining the human rights agenda, he demonstrated to Russian observers that we in the West are also willing to deal with the devil. In placing a greater premium on trade contracts and middle-eastern security arrangements than the consolidation of democracy and human rights in Russia, Cameron pursued a political strategy that was Putinist in its purest form.

Several years ago, Sarah Mendelson, an expert on Russian human rights published a remarkably prescient article ‘Russia’s rights imperiled, has anybody noticed?’ In this article she argued that if the international human rights regime was not robustly enforced by its key advocates, then it would not take root in Russia. According to Mendelson, ‘the highly permissive international environment has failed to take Russia to task for its non compliance’. If tolerance of non compliance remained high, then Russia would see no reason to undertake reforms. This is the exact process at work today: in failing to punish Russia for its errant behavior, we will only serve to propagate Putin’s suffocating hold on Russia’s fragile democracy. Standing alone we may not have the diplomatic muscle to force Putin’s hand, but a concerted EU strategy, in conjunction with the US could offer results. So much for Cameron’s successful day trip: he returns from Russia with a Faustian pact of his own, written indelibly on the reverse side of a prized trade contract.


To intervene or not to intervene… by Richard Le Vay

Libya has reopened the debate on interventionism, but it doesn’t prove our politicians are getting any better at it.


Since the early 1990s the concept of humanitarian intervention has been in and out of vogue in Westminster and Washington as many times as leather jackets. The ill fated American intervention in Somalia seemed to demonstrate the Western public’s insurmountable aversion to so called ‘wars of choice’. Once US Marines initially deployed to alleviate famine suffered a mere 13 fatalities in Mogadishu President Bill Clinton felt compelled to announce a timetable for withdrawal. The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the Balkans was widely seen as a just cause, but the peacekeeper’s reputation was trashed by the rampant corruption amongst many troops and the agonising ineffectiveness displayed by Dutch troops in failing to prevent the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica.


Tony Blair put intervention back on the map, of course. The May 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone was a successful and clear cut intervention that was the catalyst for a ceasefire that undoubtedly saved countless lives. Blair remains a cult figure in the West African nation to this day. Nevertheless, after the spectacularly achieved consensus on Iraq in 2003 rapidly broke down, support for military intervention as a concept had been at a low until the Libyan rebellion came along.


The NATO mission in Libya is far from over. This is something much reportage and cross-channel triumphalism seems to ignore. Nevertheless by browsing through a host of editorials in the wake of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Libya, one might believe that the concept has been restored – but this would be a worrying mistake. Brendan O’Neil has argued that the intervention in Libya can quite easily be seen as “clueless militarism” with the aim of achieving maximum PR and economic benefit with minimal risk. In many ways the military aid to the rebels has been both opportunist and reactive. That it has improved the basic freedoms and fuelled the aspiration of countless Libyans, it can be argued, is neither here nor there.


This ‘risk transfer’ approach to intervention favoured by our politicians, described by Martin Shaw as the New Western Way of War (http://www.polity.co.uk/book.asp?ref=9780745634104) is inherently limited. Drone strikes in Pakistan, operated by a ‘soldier’ in California may be useful at eliminating al-Qaeda and Taleban leaders, but the impotent rage these attacks cause has dangerous long term potential since they are inevitably perceived as cowardly. It is pure delusion to believe that ordinary Pakistanis will ever support the US actions in their country.


The reports of ‘reprisals’ against black Libyans are increasing, whilst fundamental questions about the future policy of the NTC remain unanswered. Furthermore, the scale of influence held by Colonel Gaddafi held as a power-broker in Saharan Africa and beyond is rarely acknowledged. In the past a substantial amount of military training and financial aid was given to numerous incumbent despots in the region by Libya. The new regime is bound to lead some of these military dictators to feel dangerously insecure. Some of their opponents are Islamic extremists. As a result, it becomes increasingly pertinent that David Cameron and William Hague bear in mind past failings and appreciate that is impossible for British military power to ever achieve political change in a broader sense. 


Leading lights in international development such as Paul Collier have called for a renewed willingness to intervene amongst the members of the G8 if the cycle of violence and poverty in certain failed states is to be broken. Sierra Leone showed that military intervention can be used to achieve positive aims. Libya might.


However, the likelihood of many more scenarios emerging where Britain and its NATO allies can simply bomb their way to progress is slim. The bloody impasse in nearby Syria and Yemen demonstrates this. Perhaps in a pre-2003 world ‘boots on the ground’ may have been a viable option to halt the bloodshed, but, alas, the moral authority is now long gone and has not been restored by the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.



Today’s word of the day is… Criminality by Anon

Say the word “rebel” or even better “rebels” to virtually anyone at the moment and it is likely to conjure up images, not of the parliamentary backbenches but, of desert sand, AK-47s, and tricolours of red, black, and green. Being the thorough and exhaustive wannabe journalist that I am, I carried out a straw poll (of three!) on this issue and found this to be the case. High-profile news stories, the Libyan uprising included, tend to drag to the fore particular words or concepts that become branded onto our collective memories through their continual reference within the media and within the general political discourse. These words represent a kind of hashtag (existent long before the advent of twitter) affixed to particular moments in history, not only serving as a mental page mark to such events, but also acting to exclude other words and in doing so construct on-going or recently past events in particular ways. Those still loyal to the Gaddafi regime have, thankfully, been unsuccessful in promoting their words (not rebels, but gangs and terrorists) for the now victorious opposition.

 Despite the Libyan focus of this rather drawn-out introduction, which has probably sent what few readers that began reading this article promptly onto Facebook, YouTube, or just straight to bed, the main attention of this piece is directed towards UK politics. The particular topic, the England riots, is also one which may now be thoroughly sleep-inducing having been extensively covered by far more eloquent and well-informed writers than myself in the general press and on this site. However, thanks partly to the likes of me, but mainly thanks to people who are actually influential in the social and political life of this country, it is a topic that won’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, go away (it was for instance the lead piece on this Thursday’s Newsnight). Media coverage and political debate surrounding the riots brought forward more previously unfamiliar words and phrases to the centre of public discourse than any other major news story of 2011. We are now all familiar with phrases such as “wanton violence”, “mindless thugs”, and “feral underclass” (as discussed by Matthew Allison below).   

 The word that I focus on today, “criminality”, has arguably been the most successful out of all those elevated by the fall-out from the second week in August. While clearly existent prior to the riots, a quick search of Google reveals its strong association with those events – out of ten results (three of which are definitions) Google finds four riot- related pages. In a more thorough test, although still probably offensive to any statisticians out there, I searched a UK newspaper database (NexisUK) for the word criminality based on the assumption that crime constitutes a major part of newspaper reporting at any one point in time. My first search covered the five weeks predating the riots and generated 458 hits (on average 92 per week). I then searched the same database for the five weeks during and after the riots and got a staggering 1,431 hits (286 per week) – an increase of over three times.

“Criminality” has been so successful that even though leading politicians have often been candid over their explanations for the violence, keen to respond to, rather than lead, public opinion, “criminality” always constitutes a large part of their response. This is most evidenced by Theresa May’s contradictory statement to the home affairs select committee that in one breath argued that it was unhelpful for politicians to speculate (á la Ken Clarke or Ken Livingstone) as to the causes of the riots, and in another stated that “I am absolutely clear that what underlay it was criminality”. But what does criminality actually mean and what is it trying to say about the violence seen acrossEngland? Well certainly it draws the attention to the criminal rather than political actions of those involved – something which even for the most left-leaning social liberal would be difficult to argue against. It goes beyond this, however, in actually saying something about the fundamental “nature” of those involved.

 “Criminality”, defined by the OED as “the quality or fact of being a criminal”, hints at the underlying personal deficiencies of those involved, constructing them as people with some sort of criminal essence. The decision by the Ministry of Justice to release figures on the previous criminal convictions of those arrested certainly seems to cement this construction of the rioters and looters as fundamentally criminal. By elevating the “criminality” discourse to the centre of the debate questions of causality are necessarily constrained within a surface level debate about the criminal justice system. Questions about re-offending and sentencing are certainly important, but by exclusively highlighting this aspect, the politically-driven “criminality” argument serves to limit and restrict the debate. In stating that those involved in the riots are inherently criminal, it obscures deeper questions of why people become involved in crime in general and in these actions in particular.

 These are the real questions that need to be answered, and they do not necessarily derive their answers from any one end of the political spectrum. Yes, those on the left may point to social exclusion, a greed culture, and an unequal distribution of civic, political, and social rights; but the debate is also open to social conservatives, such as Danny Kruger (Cameron’s former speech writer) who argues that local/familial social relations and the moral culture produced within them represent the major causal factor. What ever political position you hold it is vital to challenge the emerging hegemony of the “criminality” discourse in order to tackle the fundamental societal problems that made the terrifying events of August 2011, a possibility in the first place. The search for new words is on.              




The drive for transparency: putting commercial interests above privacy? by Duncan Reynolds

The “Transparency Tsar”, Tim Kelsey is a former journalist and founder of Dr Foster (the “UK’s leading provider of comparative information on health and social care services”). He is charged with delivering the government’s pledge to open up data in education, social care and health, a move which on the face of it is praiseworthy but which will also surely play into the hands of commercial organisations like Dr Foster.  Releasing prescribing data from General Practitioners (GPs) is said to allow identification of “negligent doctors” whose prescribing habits vary from their peers. The data to be released seem innocuous enough at first glance – one would be able to see by practice, which drugs were prescribed and in what volume. No patient-related details would be released so personal privacy appears to be safe…so far so good.

A number of databases already exist (largely used for research by academia and the pharmaceutical industry) which rely on GPs submitting prescribing and personal health records information in a carefully anonymised form. Access to these research databases can be obtained by subscription. The individual GP practices are not named and so it is impossible to identify an individual from this dataset and one set of anonymous patient records is one among millions.

If the transparency drive means that GP practice prescribing data are released then it is very easy to map the published data against the GP data in the research databases and a quick exercise shows that even using quite high level data, individual practices can now be identified with a great degree of accuracy (and with them the anonymous records of people registered with them).  If one knows where a person lives one can make a pretty informed guess as to which GP practice they are registered with.  . Instantly, a record is now one among 10,000 not several million. Still pretty secure but all it needs now is a little bit more triangulation and the odds fall even further. Now subdivide the 10,000 records by age and sex and the target record of interest is now part of a much smaller dataset of no more than a hundred, still secure but getting rapidly less so. Let’s assume our target record belongs to a man aged 38.

The final piece of the jig saw comes when one knows one more specific medical fact. For example that he visited his GP or local hospital on a particular day. That allows an unscrupulous investigator to trawl the few hundred records and make a very specific identification. The likelihood is that only one 38 year old man living in a known area visited a known practice on a specified day.

So let’s run a scenario. It is reported in the press that a well known politician has had to cancel an engagement on a known day because they have pneumonia. We know where they live, their gender and their age. We can now accurately identify the individual and have access through the database to all of their past and future medical records. No researcher is likely to go through this process, but recent events at the News of the World leave one less than confident that an investigative journalist would not.

So far requests that the prescribing data from GP practices are not identified by name has fallen on deaf ears on the grounds that only minor breaches of confidentiality might occur, but what is described above is not a theoretical or difficult process – it’s easy and it threatens the anonymity of personal health records in theUK. Education and social care databases may not be immune to similar “jigsaw identification”. Perhaps the time has come for those who champion transparency to come clean on why they are so keen to release these data – the commercial reasons are clear, the ethics are debatable.