Archive for June, 2001

Rise of the Meritocracy

June 24th, 2001

Having disagreed with Roy Hattersley a couple of weeks ago in these pages, I now turn to salute him. In today’s Observer he has made what the paper is calling a “savage attack” on Tony Blair, using the relatively shrewd method of pointing out that his leading “ideas” are objectionable and that they contradict the traditional values of the Labour Party.

In particular, he does the useful work of pointing out the trouble with meritocracy, Mr Blair’s latest buzzword — the latest in the succession of “social-ism”, “stakeholding” and “the Third Way”. Hattersley isn’t the first to do this, and Francis Wheen made many of the same points with his usual flair in a Guardian column earlier this year. But in the present climate, the argument can’t be reiterated often enough, that (i) the word “meritocracy” was invented in 1958 by Michael Young — who also wrote the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto — to describe the dominant ideology of an imagined dystopian future, and that (ii) meritocracy above all concerns the justification, and not the abolition, of inequality (which might not be a problem in itself, except that the justification it offers is a scandalously poor one). Hattersley:

Meritocracy removes the barriers to progress which block the path of the clever and industrious. But the notion of social mobility on which it is based is… a cruel joke. A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority… Meritocracy only offers shifting patterns of inequality. The term meritocracy was invented by Michael Young in a fable which ‘aims to present both sides of the case’. It contains an equation which lies at the heart of the argument about what sort of society we want to see: IQ+effort=merit. Both intelligence and enthusiasm are inherited characteristics. So Young concludes, as all socialists should, that ‘being a member of the lucky sperm club confers no moral right to advantage’. Yet that is what meritocracy aims to provide. To them that hath, more shall be given.

The “debate” about meritocracy has reminded me for a while now of a passage in the Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, where Marx says this:

“It is not the radical revolution, not the general human emancipation which is a utopian dream for Germany, but rather the partial, the merely political revolution, the revolution which leaves the pillars of the house standing. On what is a partial, a merely political revolution based? On the fact that part of civil society emancipates itself and attains general domination; on the fact that a definite class, proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society. This class emancipates the whole of society but only provided the whole of society is in the same situation as this class, e.g., possesses money and education or can acquire them at will.”

The last clause makes it clear that he is writing about Mr Blair’s Britain, where the focus on education, and “access” to education is even more intense, based on the link between education on the one hand and money on the other. And the rest of the passage isn’t too bad as a description of the dynamics of New Labour, either.

The Monarchy should be abolished

June 22nd, 2001

Over the centuries, the traditional prerogatives of the Monarch have increasingly been exercised by the ministers of the Crown in the government of the day, accountable to the elected House of Commons. High time, then, that we took the final step and abolished the entire institution, making the Speaker of the House our official Head of State — insofar as we need one — in a new democratic Commonwealth. Doing it this way means there’s no need to worry about having an elected president or anything like that, and we have a rich tradition of seventeenth-century radicalism on which to draw to provide an appropriate political language for the new order of things.

An uncontroversial enough opinion, you might think. But I read here that putting it into print is enough to earn me a sentence of life imprisonment under the 1848 Treason Felony Act, and that the British courts have today upheld the legality of the Act — despite the passage of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines a right to free expression in law.

I won’t be prosecuted for this weblog entry, obviously enough, but this is a useful occasion for reminding ourselves that these stupid laws aren’t just anomalies left over from the nineteenth century. Jack Straw’s Terrorism Act 2000, which came into force on 19 February 2001, kicks off with an overdrawn definition of terrorism which makes the advocacy of many forms of resistance — including certain kinds of nonviolent resistance — to repressive regimes abroad illegal, with long prison sentences for malefactors.

The laws of 1848 and 2000 are absurd: the sooner we are rid of the pair of them the better.


June 16th, 2001

The tide has already turned in this country concerning the legalisation of cannabis. The politicians may huff and puff, but it is only a matter of time now before decriminalisation, which will come as surely as night follows day.

But if public opinion is moving inexorably on this issue, there are still many who question the desirability of legalising “hard” drugs. In this context, Nick Davies’ article in today’s Guardian is welcome. Davies highlights the vicious absurdity of the contemporary “war on drugs” — a thirty-year campaign of ghastly failure which has brought about enormous suffering and directly contributes to the spread of the phenomenon it means to combat.

Three snippets. (1) “The war against drugs is unique in all conflict: we can win it, simply by ceasing to fight it”. (2) “The bottom line now is that after 30 years of prohibition, the number of heroin addicts has rocketed from less than 500 to as many as 500,000.” And finally, (3) “Future historians will look back on our treatment of drug users in the same way as we now look back on the Victorian treatment of those in Bedlam – beaten for their pain.” It’s a good article. Read it.

Alec wrote [17.6.2001]: Moreover, this futile battle has wasted masses of public money for no tangible benefit – money that could otherwise have been spent on treatment.

Nick wrote [18.6.2001]: “The politicians may huff and puff… ” This is nicely phrased, though perhaps unintentional in imputing hypocrisy to politicians (though after the Tory shadow front bench “scupper Widdecombe” revelations, nothing would surprise me less). What would the equivalent be for other banned substances?

Heroin: “The politicians may interject and inject…”
Cocaine: “The politicians may exhort and snort…”

Etc. ad lib.

Bob wrote [21.6.2001]: Good notes on the war on drugs. It *is* a patent absurdity, especially given my own experience. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, I could easily get marijuana, cocaine, or even crack – yet beer was a challenge. Despite the billions spent annually, it is still easier for me to buy a bag of weed than to get a six pack or beer or a bottle of gin.

What a pointless “war” which is most often waged on our families and friends…like Alec says, it is a terrible waste of resources that could be spent on treatment for those that need it.

Words on the occasion of the execution of Timothy McVeigh

June 11th, 2001

Invictus, by William Ernest Henly:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

From The Second Treatise of Government, by John Locke:

§18: “This makes it Lawful for a Man to kill a Thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his Life, any farther then by the use of Force, so to get him in his Power, as to take away his Money, or what he pleases, from him: because using force, where he has no Right, to get me into his Power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my Liberty, would not when he had me in his Power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is Lawful for me to treat him, as one who has put himself into a State of War with me i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a State of War, and is aggressor in it.”

From The Social Contract, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Book Two, Chapter Five: “Besides, every evil-doer who attacks social rights becomes a rebel and a traitor to the fatherland by his crimes, by violating its laws he ceases to be a member of it, and even enters into war with it. Then the preservation of the State is incompatible with his own, and one of the two has to perish, and when the guilty man is put to death, it is less as a Citizen than as an enemy. The proceedings, the judgment are the proofs and declaration that he has broken the social treaty, and consequently is no longer a member of the State. Now, since he recognized himself as one, at the very least by residence, he must be cut off from it either by exile as a violator of the treaty, or by death as a public enemy; for such an enemy is not a moral person, but a man, and in that case killing the vanquished is by right of war.”

Book One, Chapter Four: “Since the aim of war is the destruction of the enemy State, one has the right to kill its defenders as long as they bear arms; but as soon as they lay down their arms and surrender they cease to be enemies or the enemy’s instruments, and become simply men once more, and one no longer has a right over their life.”

I Gotta Know Your Intentions

June 6th, 2001

Over the course of the campaign, I’ve been hovering between not voting, spoiling my ballot paper, voting Labour and voting Liberal Democrat. But I think I’ve made up my mind, and here are four reasons to vote Lib Dem in Oxford West and Abingdon in tomorrow’s General Election:

(i) it’s the best available anti-Tory tactical vote
(ii) there’s no Socialist Alliance candidate standing in the constituency
(iii) Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris has an excellent record on queer rights
(iv) the Lib Dem manifesto is the most leftwing of the three major parties (sorry, Greens; sorry, Socialist Alliance), and the only one which calls for an end to the harassment of asylum seekers.

Nick wrote [7.6.2001]:I am startled that you ever considered *not* voting Lib Dem. The purpose of casting votes at a General Election is surely to kick, or preferably keep, the Tories out. There is almost no other point in voting, given our present system.

Your constituency, Oxford West and Abingdon, is Lib Dem over Tory, with Labour far behind. Until we get a properly proportional voting system, your moral imperative must surely be to put the Nazi-kicking boot into Mr Hague (by proxy), albeit by voting for TV’s Charles Kennedy.

For identical reasons, I have voted Labour in Eltham (Labour over Tory, with the Lib Dems far behind).

As a certain withered boot-faced old hag once said, “T.I.N.A.”

BTW, we all know it *can’t* be as good as last time, but I hope you still enjoy tonight’s party! Our three bottles are on standby for: Clive Efford (Eltham Labour MP, should be re-elected easily); Michael Howard (there’s a fair chance of kicking him out of Folkestone & Hythe); and, of course, the Overall Landslide Majority – a testament to British Democracy. Any surprise causes for celebration (e.g. Twigglet in Enfield) will of course preempt the Plan. That’s what it’s all about, no?

Alec wrote [11.6.2001]:I was very disappointed to see your endorsement of the Liberal Democrats on the weblog. As an activist from Exeter, it is hard to imagine that the Lib Dems could be supported on the issue of gay rights (I was overjoyed that in Exeter we gained a county council seat from the Lib Dems last Thursday). And don’t forget, when it came to the crunch in the last Parliament, the Lib Dems voted against the Windfall Tax on the excessive profits made by the privatised utilities. To be honest, I was hoping that the Tories would take seats back from the Lib Dems on Thursday, and hence was deeply disappointed with the results in Teignbridge and Torbay. The election of Lib Dem MPs (especially when aided by the tactical votes of Labour supporters) is truly terrible for local Labour Parties in those areas, as they are cast into complete irrelevance. What’s more, I’m not sure that electing a Lib Dem MP has ever done anyone any good whatsoever.

I stand ready for correction.


June 4th, 2001

From today’s Boston Herald:

The Sox’ 5-4 victory over the Blue Jays sealed a rare four-game sweep at SkyDome in a game that featured a 491-foot moonshot home run by Manny Ramirez that was the longest ever at the ballpark. By the time everyone took a breath from oohing and ahhing over Ramirez’ shot, the Sox had tied their season’s highwater mark for a winning streak: five games.

Pedro Martinez pitches tonight at Yankee Stadium. Victory will give the Sox a reasonably comfy three-game lead in the AL East.


June 3rd, 2001

It is a darkly comic tale. According to The Rising Nepal, “King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev passed away at 09:15 p.m. in an unanticipated incident at Narayanhity Royal Palace last night”. An “unanticipated incident” indeed, which also just happened to kill another seven members of the royal family, in what the news media are calling the biggest mass death among the world’s royalty since the Bolsheviks had the Tsar’s family shot.

If we are to believe Prince Gyanendra, the new regent, the deaths occurred after the “sudden discharge or explosion of an automatic weapon inside the palace”. If we believe eyewitness accounts, including that of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Crown Prince of Nepal — now the new King — slaughtered much of his own family after a dispute over the implications of the Astrologer Royal’s advice about the timing of the prince’s marriage, before turning the gun on himself. Neither story seems especially plausible, but the balance of probabilities seems to me to favour the latter.

The Crown Prince is apparently in a deep coma in hospital — although it’s not clear whether we should believe anything emanating from Nepal at the moment –, and the new regent may soon be making the decision to switch off the life-support system, and thereby to become King himself — which would bring, I suppose, what Americans like to call “closure” to the proceedings.

There are many reasons for wanting to get rid of royal families at home and abroad. Their inability to handle their domestic affairs in the manner of sane and rational people is just one of them.

State of the World

June 3rd, 2001

I was in the Little Bookshop in Oxford’s Covered Market earlier today, looking for the usual left-wing books that I tend to buy when I think I have spare cash, and I found a secondhand copy of the The State of the World Atlas, first edition, 1981, on sale for £1.50, edited my Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal. I bought it without hesitation: a bargain.

After a gap of many years, I began thinking about this book again after reading Franco Moretti’s marvellous Atlas of the European Novel last year, another book which uses imaginative maps in a creative way to make very serious points. Then I found myself wondering just how implicated The State of the World Atlas and its successor volumes — including at least one edition of The War Atlas — are in the decade-plus-long process of my political opinions shifting ever leftwards, from 1988 or so to the present.

I think that I must have been given a copy of the book in 1982 or 1983, not too long after it was first published. It must have been before 1984, as that was when The New State of the World Atlas was released, and we had a copy of that, too, though not, I think, any of the successor volumes published in 1987, 1991 or 1995 (though I did have a copy of the 1985 State of the Nation Atlas, an altogether less interesting book in the same vein).

For when I started reading the Atlas, aged nine or so, I loved it. I was interested by the different ways in which the maps were drawn and coloured, in order to present different kinds of information on any number of subjects. At first I looked at the images; it was a couple of years at least before I began reading the small print in the endnotes at all carefully, and finding out what the sources of the information presented were, and it was many years later that I would have come to the conscious realisation that the people who put together this wonderful volume were very left-wing indeed, and that the Atlas was a first-rate piece of entirely admirable and (in my case) terribly effective propaganda.

The Atlas did many things. It taught me that the UNESCO-backed Peters projection of the face of the globe was a horrible distortion on page one. By the time we get to maps 7 to 12, I was being taught something about military conflict in the world, about the arms industry, and about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Map 24 displayed patterns of international indebtedness; map 37 introduced me to the idea of a tax haven; maps 53 and 54 to the extent of the pollution of the face of the earth. Flipping through the book’s pages tonight, I am reminded of just how much my opinions about the state of the world are stuck in a 1981 timewarp, because of the powerful impression this book made on me at the time.

It is at the end of the book that the political agenda becomes most apparent. Some of the maps seem dated: map 56 is of “The First Inflationary Crest”, and graphically displays the various national inflation rates of 1974. Others seem prescient: map 62 depicts “Russia’s Ununited Republics” and emphasises the strains of ethnic and national politics in what we can now – but not then – call the former Soviet Union. And the book closes with maps showing changing abortion laws, and patterns of 1960s student protest and 1970s urban insurrections. The significance of these meant absolutely nothing to me in 1982-3, nor for a time afterwards — but I know that I pored over these pages and that something from them entered into my soul.

In the last few years, there have been a few tenth anniversaries to get used to. People my age tend to think they are too young to have to have the feeling that something they remember happened a decade ago, but it crops up too often to be ignored. I can remember newspaper articles from 1988, the revolutions of 1989, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, all as if they took place yesterday. The State of the World Atlas is now twenty years old for me, a rather alarming thought, but twenty years later it remains a wonderful, wonderful book, and it is delightful to remake its acquaintance again, after a gap of so many years.