January 2008

My online existence at the moment is a bit fzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz pttttttttttttttttttt largely owing to the fact that a former flatmate crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrcccccccccccccrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr New Southgate with her computer, which has left fffffffffpppppppprrrrrrrrr really poor show at Scrabulous, and furthermore fzzzzzzzzz four, west by north-west, rising slowly, Dogger … ssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhccccccc only Sainsbury’s Online that was keeping me alive before, but fortunately my mother fzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz and with only very occasional dallying in internet cafes I have been able to crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr A wandering minstrel la-di-da etc pppppppppppppppppppprrrrrrrrrrrrbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb except of course for the Highgate by-election, which I have just cccccccccccrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzz schnell! schnell! and the situation could only have been saved by a truly improbably concatenation of circumstances such as pppppppprrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ddddddddddddddddddfffffffffffffffffffff woEEEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOO woEEEEEEEEEEEEE once knew a fellow who swore blind he’d tracked one through the Borneo jungle for three weeks, but not sure I believed him. Anyway, the fact of the matter is that ccccccccccccrrrrrrrrrrrrrr dum-di-dum-di-DUM dum-di-dum-di DUM DUM so you are really best off leaving a message at the Maid of Muswell.

Seriously, it’s really, really odd being without reliable internet access. I can’t do anything. Everything I think about doing is cut off, mid-plan. Hm, I’ll call Virgin and get internet access set up on the new machine! Yeah, I just need their number! Oh… Right, that application is nearly done, I’ll go to the library and bring it back so that I can… Wait, you can’t have a half handwritten job ap - I know, I’ll email it to myself! Oh…

And so on in the same vein, attended by the same sort of brainslip that occasionally makes me try to phone my keys when I can’t find them, or google my phone when I can’t find that. For instance, I have just, and this is absolutely true, spent ten minutes fiddling about with the Guardian website trying to find anything that resembles a TV listings guide (only the fecking Guardian would conceal such a lowly thing) before it dawned on me that I have been getting around this problem for the past three weeks by dint of, well, turning on the TV and seeing what’s on.

Lack of decent internet access has serious consequences for how I get my information, and has given me an insight into the data gathering and processing of the ornery, non-nerdy obsessive party member*. For the past month or so I have been largely reduced to hearing about what has been going on in the party through – gulp – the news. Why, only last week I was woken up by Nick Clegg saying things about the NHS that I did not know he was going to say in advance! And it occurs to me that quite a high quotient of my motivation to do things for the party comes from being in the know about this sort of stuff, and not learning about it four weeks later through a party news mailing.

A rather nice little newspaper about Clegg’s election came through the post in the middle of my information dearth, and it seemed such utterly old and irrelevant stuff that I checked the postmark to see if it had served time in the great North London Mail Mines, but no, this was how some members were first getting the party line on their new leader. Now, there isn’t a great deal you can do, in an age of digital information, about those who don’t have access to it except exhort them to bloody well hurry up or at least have the decency to fossilize where they sit and stop costing our free care for the elderly policy all that notional money. But you can, I suppose, bear in mind that even the net-savvy won’t necessarily be spending any spare time they have ogling Lib Dem Voice. Unimaginable though that is. 

Motivation begets motivation. If people make a tiny effort to be involved online, that effort is rewarded out of all proportion, probably (anecdotally) more so than the same-sized effort in “real life”. If we could work out a way to allow people to reap the same rewards in “real life”, we’d probably have a much more active membership. I am utterly lost without the internet, and – good god! – some people must feel like this all the time.

Despite being a member of about four months’ standing I have assumed the mantle of nerdy obsessive with my usual consummate ease.

Since, to my lasting horror, I keep being forced into the position of defending religion by dint of simply being a cussedly reasonably human being, I thought I would redress the balance by having a go at the Mormons. I mean, after all, there is a limit.

Some years ago, when I was a little spod whose greatest desire was to go to Oxnod and study histebod, I traced my family history. It may be fashionable now (to a given definition of fashionable) but before the televisual facelift, record offices were in every sense like tombs. There were no pretty copperplate volumes lying ready and waiting on sponge cushions for Tony Robinson to enthuse over, there were no long ranges of oak bookshelves kindly dispensing wisdom via the medium of Stephen Fry, and there were no magic answers. There were metal filing cabinets, evil-smelling choleric dust, resentful silence, and the chill of wasted time (you have to remember I was an extremely troubled adolescent).

Joseph Smith’s troubled adolescence occurred in the 1810s and his outlet was actually far more fashionable than mine – he had religious visions in an age of evangelical revival. All well and good, until one of these visions sought to address the inconceivable fact that none of the events recounted in the Bible had taken place in Amurrica. An angel called Moroni (apparently a coincidence – “moron” derives from the Greek “moros” meaning foolish, but seemingly was not in use as an insult until the twentieth century) appeared to Joseph and told him the whereabouts of certain gold tablets on which were inscribed the narrative of a flight from Israel to America and God’s contact with them there. He published this “lost” book of the Bible (you can read it for free on t’internet) and devoted the rest of his life to preaching and converting, and by the time he was killed by a mob in his late thirties, his Mormon religion had 26,000 followers.

This is an impressive haul for a delusional egotist by the standards of any age (more impressive than Jesus, for a start), but still dwarfed by the 190,000-odd Mormons (or Latter Day Saints) living in the UK today. Like absolutely every reformed church in the history of everywhere, they think they are the ones returning the church to the pure state Christ originally intended. Their beliefs are expressed with touchy-feely care: polygamy was officially discontinued over a century ago (oh, that’s all right then); they are apparently noted for their tolerance towards other faiths; there is emphasis on the importance of family and there is also a belief that earthly life is a middle phase in the soul’s existence. So not only is there life after death, but before birth as well, and families can actually be reunited post the earthly life if the appropriate sacred covenant is made in a Mormon temple on earth.

The reason I mention all this is that the Mormons have a project. Actually, two projects. One is Mitt Romney, the alarmingly Ken-like (doll, not mayor) Mormon who has just taken his second state in the still wide-open Republican contest. The other is the collation of massive databanks full of dead Christians from everywhere on earth, so that Mormons can trace their family history and – you may wish to sit down for this - make Mormon covenants on behalf of all their ancestors so that they can all be one big happy multi-generational, a-nuclear family in the afterlife. Imagine being a sixteenth-century Lincolnshire swineherd and waking up in the Great Beyond to discover that your genes have given rise to Utah’s finest and then having to have Sunday dinner with them for all eternity.

This gathering in of the unwittingly faithful has been going on quietly for about thirty years, incorporating literally millions of baptism and marriage and census records from all over the UK. It has had the effect of revolutionising genealogy. No-one tracing their ancestors can do anything without the efforts of the Mormons. Any names found in these databanks have at some point been mass-covenanted in Salt Lake City in the course of a morning. Now, I quite obviously couldn’t give a toss that my ancestors have a spiritual option on Mormonism, but I venture to guess that some of them would have objected. Even been terrified out of their wits at the very idea. Certainly the Catholics.

The casual mass production values involved are chilling when you consider what it’s all based on. They may look deceptively normal alongside scientologists, and disquiet in the British media has been more focussed on Mike Huckabee of late, largely because he has come from nowhere to take on the Mormon challenger for the evangelical vote. But  Mormons still believe that a teenager copied the word of God from miraculous gold tablets in the same period as the invention of the locomotive engine, they believe that there was an Israelite exodus to America in ancient times and they think they know better than the silent majority itself. And one way or another, they’re on the up.

Under the least sexy blog title I hope ever to write comes part (b) in number II of the now alarmingly fractal Terribly Boring series…

Nearly everyone I know who has a manager thinks they do a crap job, and nearly everyone I know who is a manager hates doing it and thinks they’re crap at it. These people, obviously, are often one and the same. Anecdotally, that’s not a very encouraging sign, is it?

Management theory, however, is a boom industry in education and in publishing. On the one hand you have the Oxford Saïd Business School MBA, the programme for which reads like some moderately hardcore economics and technical finance has been wodged togther with a soupcon of sociology and international development. Comparatively little that is obviously balls. Well done. On the other hand, you have Who Moved My Cheese While I Was Busy Screwing Over Absolutely Every Consumer in the World and Still Getting a Knighthood in One Minute For Dummies. Or whaddever. Descending down the categories tree on Amazon like Dante into hell, I find that the Books > Business, Finance and Law > Management path yields at the time of writing 152,497 results. And that’s just on UK Amazon.

Anyone who has ever worked in publishing will know what all those bright covers and offbeat, colloquial titles signify; this is competitive stuff, and not only that, it is a branch of writing whose basis is persuasion. These people are basically writing diet books for corporations – their way is the “one that really works”. There must be dry, academic tomes on management theory in there somewhere, and they may well be more analytical and less evangelical, but they buy into the same core belief: that individual managers can make measurable differences to corporations.

New Labour managerialism was going to change the world, and specifically the public services, permanently and for the better (if what follows is rather simplistic, it’s because I’ve cribbed it from the Search Inside bits of Chris Dillow’s book because it’s just too cold to go to the library). Better line management structures, whizzy McKinsey-esque strategic change, a wholesale importation of targets, mission statements, visions and all the other paraphernalia of the business guru’s art were going to turn around the culture of public services and transform them into self-sustaining market-engines of perfection. It was going to be the first implementation at state level of the thinking underlying the squillions of books, papers, conferences and motivational events: that you can use the same set of principles and tools to manage anything, and you can teach anyone to use these tools, and by using them arrive at a perfect solution which has a built-in capacity to keep re-generating managerial perfection.

In other words, managerialism as a philosophy is top-down, teleological, utopian and bizarrely, twistedly, egalitarian. Sound like any political party you know? Hm! Oh look, a one-size-fits-all solution that can be potentially implemented by every manager and every organisation in the same way and give rise to a universally ideal system based on centrally dictated guidelines, tenets and directives. No wonder New Labour bought wholesale into managerialism.

But at the heart of New Labour’s faith, and indeed in the credibility of the topic as a whole, there are two misfires. One is that their evident belief in certain brilliant individuals, and also in swoop-down strategic consultancy, to improve things, is demonstrably at odds with the universal nature of the one-management-style-fits-all principle. How can you have a universal system which gives supposedly everyone the same capacities, and also appoint gurus, czars, superheads and, if all else fails, call in McKinsey?* If A Few Good Men really can change the world, what’s the point of targets, mission statements and all the other self-sustaining fripperies?

And the faith is misplaced anyway. As Rob Knight suggests on his other oft-neglected blog, it is impossibly difficult to assess what impact individuals are actually having on an organism so complex, multi-layered and supra-human as an organisation. Human behaviour is so complex, and organisational behaviour (which is an entirely separate thing) is so complex that the science has yet to be invented that will effectively assess them in relation to each other. If you ask me (which you did by clicking in) management theory and practice as it is currently understood will bear the same relation to that science, when it emerges, as alchemy does to chemical engineering.

The other misfire is that the debunking of the old “progress towards utopia” chestnut really ought to have filtered down into even the field of business studies by now. It hasn’t because management theory is a proto-science in flux, uncertainly staggered between psychology and economics, and is it exceptionally vulnerable to quackery around the fringes. Never mind – ha! – that it hasn’t worked in the political sphere. The idea that it might work was intellectually bankrupt from the off. If it really were possible to construct a management system that, er, delivered sustainable improvement across the piste (nyaaaargh, it’s got me, it’s got me!), then why would governments departments and public services need to keep on doing it? Managerialism ought to be a concept that makes itself obsolete by creating a structure pervious to change, and that is manifestly not happening in politics any more than in Real Life. A system based on evangelism, individualism and persuasion and with an avowedly teleological approach, it has the same scope for understanding its own limitations as a goldfish.**

PS: In pottering around the internet in what laughably passes, these days, for research in the People’s Republic, I came across the Saïd Business School’s shiny new blog, born a few days before Christmas. A lot of what is there at the moment is your typical student bloggery (the post currently at the top of the page opens with the word “Whoa”) but there is a sub-blog promisingly titled “Research” that doesn’t yet have any posts, probably because all the would-be posters are agonising about how best to tilt their writing so that their fellow students don’t get bored and yet snidey observers like me can’t drive a sarcastic wedge into the first sentence. But it’s early days. If I were to suggest an opening post subject for some brave soul, it would be Convince the People’s Republic of Mortimer that the study and implementation of management theory is not a complete and utter self-important waste of time and space and also fundamentally at odds with the total debunking of the obsolete concept of teleological progress. Feel free to work that down a little.

And I have precisely these misgivings about Nick Clegg’s appointment of Chris Bones. 

** Apparently their short-term memory lasts about three months, not, as some commentators unfairly suggest, seven minutes. Goldfish, that is. Not managers.

Being the second instalment of Terribly Boring, an occasional series for hungover weekends, in which I consider two utterly disparate ideas side-by-side for no discernible reason.

This became so long and had so few jokes that I eventually had to split it down into two – in my defence, I will add that after reading it you can cross John Gray’s Heresies off your Oh god, when am I going to get around to reading that? list. Just to keep you primed with excitement I’ll reveal the counterpoint – just what does she intend to consider alongside the doctrine of progress, eh? – at the end. I bet you can scarcely wait.

Progress – is it real or are we just speeding?

Some years after the rest of the intellectual world, I recently got around to reading John Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Before I outline his anti-progress argument, I will get some whining out of the way. Gray has cruel things to say throughout about liberal values and the people who espouse them. Now, this would probably be bothersome if it wasn’t quite clear that he is using “liberal values” as shorthand for, amongst other things, intrusive statism and aggressive western hegemonising. In other words, he is taking uncritically the definition of liberal values as espoused by a Blair or a Bush (and not a few self-styled “leftish liberals” among the left activist base). And he is to some extent quite legitimate to do so, because liberal values are what these people are claiming to be the justification for their actions. Gray isn’t in the business of realigning liberalism correctly with its actual meaning, that’s our job, so with that observation in place I’ll stop kicking him for it.

His progress argument, as nearly as I can remember it (the book has gone back to the library along with the one pound sodding forty fine)  is divided into three parts. First, he argues that technological progress, conceived as a sort of panacea which will lead us into an age of plenty in which no-one will starve and medicine will be available to all, is a delusion. The twentieth century has been a history of the misuse of technology for political ends – why should we imagine that future developments will meet with any better political response? The crux of this rather depressing point reveals, to me, Gray’s own Thatcherite past: human beings are fundamentally and immutably bad, and will continue to be bad no matter what wonders proceed from their brains. Everything human beings create is tainted by its origins.

Actually, to call this an argument against progress per se is slightly misleading. It’s specifically an argument against that teleological concept of progress that will one day lead us to Utopia (and Gray draws the comparison between this fervent belief in technology and the old, displaced belief in religion and in heart-and-head political ideals like Marxism – all supposedly leading to one form or another of heaven). On the specific point about teleology I’m entirely with Gray, by instinct and by training. It’s impossible to study history for any length of time (in both senses) and not know that teleology is rubbish. But he doesn’t put enough emphasis for me, and nor would he, on how technological progress nonetheless makes things better. I mean, penicillin and all that? Freely available to everyone in the UK (not, of course, in the US)?

This cavil aside, the idea that technological progress is not the supra-human light that will lead us permanently out of all-too-human political darkness is something that makes an instinctive sense to me, even if I do not quite share Gray’s somewhat one-dimensional view of human nature. People often glibly talk about how history proves that human beings have always essentially been the same and I can’t understand why, I really can’t. Yes, if you only study the post-1800 period, it probably does prove just that. But if you immerse yourself in twelfth-century France, or in Mayan culture, or in Classical Greece even for five minutes, the shape of the minds, mores and priorities you detect around you are so eye-poppingly different that you’re never quite the same again when you come out.

The other two parts of Gray’s anti-progress thesis are even more clearly rooted in historiography. Secondly, in discussing Iraq and US hegemony, he clarifies that the new “democratic values” wars of the 1990s and 2000s are still, nonetheless, basically the same land-and-resource wars that have always been fought, dressed up in a hearts and minds language that will appeal to what he thinks of as “liberal values”. Thirdly, and in the most scattered section that ranges over a number of topics, he essentially argues for what you might call the swings and roundabouts theory of history contra the forward march of those “liberal values” – thus, the re-emergence of the Far Right in Europe is actually evidence that, for all our leaders would like to have us think otherwise, we are not steadily proceeding into more liberal times.

These two points in particular could have come straight out of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History , published in 1973 and probably the single most influential historiographical work of the twentieth century. Mind you, that famously slim volume, as far as I recall, has few actual examples or illustrations in it (admittedly it is some time since I read it). It’s one of those crystalline pieces of thinking that is so abstract and self-contained that there is no need for the author to have any truck with actual sordid reality. Accordingly, with your critical faculties and normal standards of evidence flapping in the wind, you read it and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is right. About everything. The main thrust of his argument matches Gray’s; the onward progress of history is an illusion. Most historians, by their nature tending to be liberal, Protestant, progressive people, write selectively to emphasise the progress of western history towards an enlightened ideal that fits rather happily with their own concerns. There is a:

tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present. 

So much for poor old progress. None of these are terribly lovely things to read for a liberal, small-l or big, because the inescapable implication is that, just as Marxism didn’t work, statism didn’t work and paternalism didn’t work, liberalism won’t work either. Or at least, not forever. It’s undoubtedly what we currently need but that is a different thing, a matter of balancing and rebalancing society.

Saying this feels a little heretical on day when the Cleggster has been delivering this corker, so I should qualify it to reassure you that, as far as you and I (and, to his chagrin, John Gray) are concerned, it really doesn’t matter that liberalism is not the perfect answer. It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best answer. Neither you nor I will live forever, so for current purposes we can put the fact that liberalism is not perfect for all times and all seasons at the back of the same drawer where we keep all our awkward questions, unfinished business, opportunities lost, the knowledge of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, and our Weightwatchers points card.

Join us again tomorrow or, depending on whether we can sneak past the library counter to the computers without paying out another fine, later today, for the next thrilling instalment of Terribly Boring in which the whole progress business is unloaded like a ton of bricks all over that famous Twenty-First Century Panacea: Managerialism.

I don’t suppose Gordon Brown has thought about Laura Spence for years. I was reminded of her today by this poll published by the Sutton Trust, which suggests that the majority of state school teachers believe that less than a third of Oxbridge students went to state schools (the real figure is 54%) and that Oxford and Cambridge are more expensive to attend than other universities (their tuition fees are the same as most, they have more generous hardship provisions, and, critically, a lot of colleges house all their students at heavily subsidised rates for their entire degree). Worst of all, only 54% of those surveyed would “always” or “usually” encourage their brightest pupils to apply. A staggering 20% never would. Yes, at the oft-invoked “beginning of the twenty-first century”, 20% of state school teachers would rather peddle snidey crap and limit their pupils’ chances of personal and professional development in order to keep themselves in mean-spirited sub-Marxist pub rants, if the poll is to be believed.

This was not, as I recall, a problem Laura Spence had. Her headmaster was energetically fighting her cause, to the point of involving the national press in the “scandal” that she had been rejected to read medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford because she was a Geordie state school pupil. In the ensuing public furore, Laura was offered a place to read biochemistry by a typically on-the-ball Harvard. Off she happily went, and may yet be played by Reese Witherspoon in a film of her life.

All sorts of interesting gobbets then tumbled out. For a start, Magdalen absolutely rejected accusations of prejudice and threw sheaves of figures into the papers, and it is particularly unfortunate for the line Spence’s camp was peddling that the admissions tutor at the college was himself from Newcastle. But then Oxbridge dons, conditioned to unabashed rationalism and unused to the pitfalls of media re-interpretation, willingly acknowledged when questioned that there were problems with interviewing state school pupils – one had to make allowances for the fact that they were likely to be less polished, less prepared, less confident, than the private school pupils who had had all traces of gaucherie expensively eradicated. They were promptly labelled snobs for recognising this distinction. The professor who chaired the panel that interviewed Laura said, with some surprise, that if Laura had applied for biochemistry she would certainly have got in; medicine was then the most competitive subject in Oxford bar none and Magdalen is one of the most highly sought-after and competitive colleges. The crucial implications of this statement – is there something unfair, not about the Oxbridge admissions system as a whole, but about the colleges system? – were totally swept away in the frothing sea of bigotry.

For what it’s worth, I think they probably do the best they can with the resources and time available; every applicant gets allotted two colleges to interview them as well as their chosen college (or three if they haven’t put a first choice) and then over a few days every December tens of thousands of eighteen-year-olds, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, are shuffled in and out of oak-clad studies in a frantic tarantella of social equality. It’s a tremendous feat of organisation whose intentions are nothing but good, but it’s nowhere near perfect and its particular weakness, anecdotally, is that the most popular colleges are inevitably over-subscribed. This has the knock-on effect of the popular colleges sending more applicants on to their second college, by which time the second college may have filled all its places. And this weakness is particularly damaging to state school applicants like Laura Spence because they are less likely to have had someone put the following word in their shell-like, If you really want to get in, apply to a college with 1970s buildings, and if there is any slight variation offered on your chosen subject that would suit you just as well as the mainstream version, apply for that instead.

Anyway, back to Laura’s Fairytale, and enter stage left, trundling like a vengeful redbrick dalek, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer: “ELITism! ELITism!” The analogy is apt because, while some die-hards claim to find the daleks terrifying, a large section of the population just finds them daft. All his frothing - absolute scandal, old school ties, old establishment interview system, time to open up to women etc etc – sounded like a sub-standard bit of Morse dialogue, shot through with a petulance and an ill-informed silliness which seemed, to the unpoliticised student I then was, oddly out of character for the Iron Chancellor. But of course, there’s nothing in that little tantrum I haven’t learnt afresh over the past few months, watching Gordon play knock-down-ginger with general elections and European treaties, and twitching at PMQs like a wounded gnu. I should have trusted the early evidence. He is a very silly man.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Found to be reasonably entertaining by Mr Stephen Tall

Nick Clegg’s performance at PMQs today was all very fine and splendid and a jolly promising opening show and all that business, and it is therefore unfortunate that he also accidentally managed to make me cry, which I am sure was far from the intention.

My flat is on a prepay meter. It costs a bloody fortune. We’ve phoned British Gas about eight times in the past year to try and get it changed to Direct Debit, and every time, they refuse to accept that our flat exists.

“But I buy my gas from you,” I sob, “I know, because my little ‘I am a Second Class Citizen On a Prepay Meter, Shit On Me As Much As You Like’ Card says British Gas on it.”

“Do you mean 116A Alexandra Park Road? Or 116C?”

“No, I mean 116B.”

“We don’t have a record of that property.”

“And yet you have a record of both 116A and 116C. Try the other database.”

Suspicious silence.

“How do you know about the Other Database?”

“I’ve done this before. Go on, have a look. We’re on that one when there’s an R in the month, especially in the middle of the week when there’s a fair amount of cloud cover. I know it’s only Monday but there’s some decent nimbostrata around today, so I say we give it a shot.”

Pause, in which I hear someone hold their thumb over the headset and say “Lisa, she knows about the Other Database. Call Bootle and have them dismantle it and remove it piece by piece to Warrington.” Thumb is removed.

“No, nothing there. Have you just moved into the property perhaps?”

“About a year and a half ago. Never mind, perhaps the surroundings I am currently experiencing are just a mirage.”

Then they say they’ll have to send someone out and register us as being in existence, and we arrange a date and time. No-one ever comes. Ever. And then I ring them up to ask why and the whole process starts again.

Clegg unwittingly summons my personal Despair Squid. On the bright side, note the strong show of support from Chris Huhne, who despite being mostly busy elsewhere sent along his head in a jar.

The Department for Education, Skills and What-Have-You today announces the launch of a public consultation into the ethical issues surrounding use of the police DNA database, which contains 4.5 million profiles of both convicted criminals and innocent people.

I merely flag this up because the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it consultation will only last six weeks, by which time objecting liberals will just about have agreed (by poll conducted on Skype) on names, manifestos and constitutions for the protest leagues into which they will have voluntarily co-opted themselves in order to make a systematic impact on the consultation. Damn, they know us well. Up the Judaean People’s Front.

The Association of Chief Police Officers is clearly in no doubt that the purpose of the consultation is to establish a mandate for how the police use the  database:

The citizen’s inquiry will add to public understanding and will hopefully help develop broad agreement for the forensic use of DNA in the future

As ever this kind of statement is a double-edged sword: yes, a consultation is taking place, but will it ever be analysed for fairness, much less repeated, or will its results be used for ever after as a quasi-democratic justification for abuse of a database which contains (this is apparently absolutely true) 40% of the UK’s black male population’s DNA?

Expect to see a stepping up in security announcements and fearmongering over the period of consultation.

A happily conterminous sidelight on this story: yesterday it was confirmed that the one-offender-one-record database project supposed to track offenders through the system is being scrapped amid spiralling costs – this originally from August. Jack Straw’s comments to MPs afterwards (from an uncorrected oral evidence transcript, as I am required to make clear on pain of pain) are highly revealing of the classic statist blindness to the problems that inevitably occur with such over-arching projects:

Nonetheless, it is very frustrating that so many people, including the private sector, are taken in by snake oil salesmen from IT contractor who are not necessarily very competent and make a lot of money out of these things. I am pretty intolerant of this . . .

I think we all face problems . . . whereby unless we are total IT experts there is a danger of being taken in by snake oil salesmen.

Damn all this snake oil sloshing about everywhere, leaking all over NuLabour’s ten year plan to store everyone on a memory stick. People are so messy, aren’t they.

In other news, a totally unprecedented event has occurred. My epolitix morning bulletin carries a Liberal Democrat news story at the top of its list. And it is indeed the news that Clegg enters the PMQ lists today. I am almost as nervous as if I was actually going to stand up and do it myself, rather than be huddled up on the sofa with a cheese and pickle sandwich which is what I shall be doing.

Lush, the natural cosmetics company, scourge of unnecessary packaging, unrepentant drawers of little smiley stick figures and manufacturers extraordinaire of Jasminey Things with Glitter in them need no advertisement, but I’m going to give them one anyway for once again bringing joy to my liberal and girlish heart.

Not only have they started using popcorn* in their mail order packaging instead of polystyrene. They are now offering a free face mask to customers who bring back five of their trademark little black plastic pots to a Lush shop for recycling. Lest this sound like a tall order to the uninitiated, I should explain that I have four nearly empty such pots in my bathroom right this minute, and so does every other genuine Lush aficionado. Aww, they really do care! I call upon the party to embrace this fine initiative and really differentiate itself from the dull, sluggish, oily-with-dry-bits Con-Lab consensus.

* I have made the mistake for you and it tastes of soap.

I don’t normally pay any attention to polls* but it’s awfully tempting to begin this post with “On a day when a Populus poll shows the Tories to have lost three points to the Lib Dems over Christmas…” so I will.

On a day when a Populus poll shows the Tories to have lost three points to the Lib Dems over Christmas, it comes as no surprise to hear once again the whining sound of David Cameron’s fingernails as he desperately scrabbles to cling on to the pitilessly vertical deck of the HMS Frothing Tory:

Benefit claimants will lose a month’s worth of state handouts for the first job they turn down, three months’ of payments for the second “reasonable offer” and a third employment refusal will be punished with a bar on unemployment benefits for up to three years.

Needless to say, “reasonable offer” is not defined. Now, this is a deeply undeserved digression but I do wonder sometimes whether politicians of every stripe might do well to be bolder about this sort of thing. It’s so easy to slag off the Tories for this little gem it actually bores me to petulant tears.

If Cameron had said, oh, say, “Now, don’t quote me on this, because we haven’t done our research, but I’m defining reasonable here as being a job that pays at least 80% of the average salary level in the area and which complies with all relevant regulations as regards paid holiday, sick leave, breaks and so forth and has a formal contract of employment providing protection for the employee whether temporary or permanent. Go on, bite me.” and then we could at least have engaged. Said things like, you’re totally missing the point about what makes a decent living-wage job, you stupid plummy thumb-man. Or, oh right, so you’d condemn people to a miserable, unsuitable position just to get them off your stats with no thought for their long-term welfare or, by extension, that of the economy, would you?

Stuff like that. Of course, had he said any such thing, he would have been quoted, and soundly pilloried for any departure from it following said further research (assuming, which I charitably will, that there are at least three people in the Conservative party who do Reading and Writing).


Cameron: increasingly resembles a thumb

We’re oddly adolescent as a political society, aren’t we. We can’t cope with the idea that our authority figures might change their minds. “But you said!” we yelp in furious injury, and flounce out slamming the door. So they tiptoe round us. And one literally has no choice but to fall back on to background knowledge to work out what they might mean, an information strategy which somehow never seems to serve the Tories particularly well. Poor blossoms.

* No, the lady doth not protest too much, I really don’t pay much attention to them – unlike those of you who bluster furiously along similar lines and then furtively minimise seventeen Excel windows whenever anyone comes into the room. You dirty dogs.

I don’t tend to use this blog as a platform for having a go at people who are technically still children. It seems a bit, well, non-LD. Nor am I socialist enough to be gratuitously rude about rich people per se without a good reason. After all, many of my dearest friends are rich people. Damn them.

But the People’s Republic is in sore need of an easy target to break a recent bout of blogger’s block, and I’m willing to take a punt and say that Cheltenham Ladies’ College schoolgirls are almost certainly never going to be any of my favourite people. I can say this in safety at the grand old age of (now) twenty-nine since it is a statistical probability that I have already made the bulk of my best friends, and the chances of my having to make an embarrassing climb-down are remote (prove me wrong in the comments and see just how pink I can go). Furthermore, they make up a fabulously small and probably unremittingly Tory slice of the electorate. Plus, despite my rapid rate of ageing, I’m still in that perfect bracket where it’s permissible to have a go at young people and tell them they’re talking complete bull and not be accused of being a jealous, creaking old fartbag. No, on the whole, I am content to stand up and be counted as an enemy of Cheltenham Ladies’ College and all its works.

So, what the hell, I’m going to tear a strip off one of the simpering, over-entitled little madams for causing trees to be cut down in the cause of some self-absorbed ropey old toss called An A-Z of Teen Talk (as if any vaguely sentient person between the ages of 13 and 19 would ever describe themselves as a “teen”). How was this shocking waste of cultural brainspace allowed to happen? Apparently, she came up with the idea after her father claimed not to understand a word she and her sister were saying to each other. Somehow I find this really difficult to believe. It only takes a slightly enquiring mind to take on board new linguistic usages. My own father is currently in the habit of adding “an’ shit” onto the end of every sentence, after the Armstrong and Miller chav pilots sketches, and my mother works in Youth Services and collects new gems all the time - a recent favourite was “I mean like, go there, innit” which we agreed, over tea, to be an incredibly sophisticated construction whose interpretation is as follows:

My opinion is [filler] that one shouldn’t consider this course of action and I know it to be likely, given your various experiences in the area under discussion, that you agree [filler].

What marvellous economy and creativity went into producing that pared-down phrase. “Don’t go there” is already abstract slang - to trim it still further while retaining the meaning is a triumph of pithy sophistication. Simpering schoolgirl and I agree on that much at least.

In fact, that in itself gives me pause for thought – what normal child does this sort of thing? Whatever happened to alienation, disaffection, having your stomach pumped? Why is this chirpy media-friendly sprig embarking on a career as a by-the-till dross-spinner and beaming out of my broadsheet in a pretty polka-dot dress, rather than huddled up  on a beanbag clutching a bottle of Diamond White with over-mascara’d tears running over her pustules and plotting her revenge on an ungrateful world? I’ll tell you why, it’s because she’s a dangerously over-privileged poppet who already knows for an absolute fact that said world will never, ever shit on her. Oh bwahahaha, that’s like sooooo funny, it’s like sooo much of a like cultural trend, I should like sooooo write a book [upward emphasis].

So much for her stomach-churning good intentions to aid parental understanding. The underlying reality is of course a stone-hearted determination to keep herself in Accessorize goodies for life by publishing “updates” and probably, by and by, “commentating” on related yoof issues. Have you ever been in the Cheltenham branch of Accessorize? It is terrifying. They stop at nothing. Nothing. And nor will she. Your worldview will be contaminated with her complacent, self-important little rich girl chatter for years to come. You read it here first.


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