World class wanktanking

Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute has recently been yukking it up in the papers in favour of Oxbridge getting to put its prices up more (I shorten).

That Hillman is a former Tory SPAD and failed Tory candidate is no surprise but I am really quite impressed that he lists as one of his publications a pamphlet for the Institute of Government on how to be a SPAD. Maybe he could start a thinktank on Better SPADs, or even better thinktanks.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

Culture-bound syndromes

Swinging off something I discussed in another place, the Wikipedia list of culture-bound syndromes is fascinatingly odd, although several of them seem to reduce to depression and several more to sexism. I wonder if different Wikipedias have different ones?

But what interests me is this: what with globalisation an’ all, will these get smoothed out by the invisible hand like so many obscure languages, until we’re all crazy according to world-class best practice and international standards?

Or will we get something different? Weird jarring mashups from the grab-bag of available symptoms are a possibility. Try a combination of ufufuyane, tanning addiction, and scrupulosity, or perhaps boufée délirante, smilorexia, and puppy pregnancy syndrome.

That’s if nothing entirely novel emerges.

Perhaps it already has and “Troll (Internet)” should be in the list. Perhaps I should put it there.

Moazzam Begg, always in the paper, rarely reported.

Am I right in thinking that Moazzam Begg’s political role is getting more complicated, more important, and more impressive? Here’s a story. It kicks off with:

British jihadi fighters desperate to return home from Syria and Iraq are being issued with death threats by the leadership of Islamic State (Isis), the Observer has learned.

A source with extensive contacts among Syrian rebel groups said senior Isis figures were threatening Britons who were attempting to travel home. He said: “There are Britons who upon wanting to leave have been threatened with death, either directly or indirectly.”

The source is apparently the Observer‘s home affairs editor’s source, rather than a foreign correspondent’s source, so you might well wonder what kind of anonymous source is based in London, has contacts in Syrian rebel groups, and is very, very keen to get the message out that ISIS might kill international volunteers, specifically British ones, who want to leave.

Begg now appears in the story. It’s impossible to know whether there is any logical link between the source and Begg, or whether the Observer writer juxtaposed them to make it look like they support each other, an old hack’s trick. But if you want to reach potential jihadi volunteers with the message that they can’t trust ISIS, an ex-Guantanamo detainee would be a more convincing representative than almost anyone else. He would be a classic “surprising validator”.

Reading down, it seems he certainly knows that some wannabe jihadis have been held against their will in Syria, but any association with the “source” is either the Observer‘s gloss on it, or else that of someone who briefed them.

Begg seems to be moving from a campaign for the release of Guantanamo prisoners, to a campaign both for forgiveness towards volunteers in Syria and to prevent them going in the first place. Both are necessary. But I really wonder about the complex politics emerging around him.

He is the face of the dissident campaign demanding an end to the extralegal punishment that defines the War on Terror. He is also something like a spokesman for people who would like to leave the jihadi movement. These two are mutually consistent. But he is also increasingly a voice for de-radicalisation and prevention as a strategy.

This makes sense as an alternative policy proposal, but it also involves him in the underreported bureaucratic fight between the community-policing (in every sense) people sponsored by DCLG since Hazel Blears’ time, and the traditional intelligence services. One side is focused on prevention, policing by the community (of people who are described as a community), and works with the police and social services. The other is focused on technical surveillance and agent-running. With less money about, the two have been fighting like cats in a sack since 2010.

Mark Townsend’s piece seems to be using quotes from him to further a briefing campaign against ISIS recruiting, and also to back the DCLG-Contest-Prevent people in government versus the hard security lobby.

Then, I also wonder about the mission to Syria that landed him back in jail in 2013. When he set out on that mission, we were still supporting Syrian rebels and especially the FSA, rather than flying close air support for the FSA and the regime at the same time. More than a few testimonies from returned British jihadis mention that they believed the Syrian adventure had some sort of official Western blessing.

So, we have Begg, ex-prisoner and cause célébre. We have Begg, peace activist. We have Begg, de-radicaliser. We have Begg, continuing Islamic aid worker. We have Begg, still a target of police surveillance. Do we have any other roles? I imagine they make sense as a wider whole to the man himself.

I can see every reason to run the best possible propaganda campaign to stop people signing up with ISIS. (I’m not quite as cynical as John Dolan, whose piece is pretty good even if he thinks Luton is in Yorkshire.) But this is complicated, risky, and ambiguous stuff and wants more scrutiny than it gets.

Begg has grown into a bigger and more interesting political role than just that of wannabe jihadi or Rumsfeld victim, the Islamic adventurer the lads wish they were, but at the same time, the wise old head and voice of reason, a figure of the debatable lands. If he doesn’t get killed, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see him as an enduring national figure of some sort. But where is he going with it, and how far does he control it?

China changes government. Exclusive in the Observer.

The Observer is a strange newspaper. Here’s a bit from its business page today:

Disturbed by the lack of similar action in Brussels and in Frankfurt – home of the European Central Bank – investors fear that the eurozone is sliding ever closer to recession. They are also worried about a sharp slowdown in China, following moves by the ruling People’s party to tackle escalating state sector debts.

China is ruled by the People’s Party, rather than the Communist Party of China? How did that happen? Shouldn’t this seismic world-historical event be on the front page?

The worrying bit here is that the Observer‘s shtick is a sort of cold war liberal style. It throws a ton of reporters at international news and takes it very seriously, although it always adopts a very pronounced westernist tone, if that’s a word. It has the good bits of this – lots of foreign coverage – and the bad ones – far too close to our spooks and the diplomats it likes.

The second worrying bit is that the best thing about the paper is usually the business section, which is tightly reported, critical, and readable. Back when it was a whole pull-out broadsheet in its own right, I often thought that I’d happily pay for the business section on its own.

But here we are with the business section of the paper that prides itself on big-letter International news, and it doesn’t know which political party is in charge of China. There must be more stuff in there that’s as wrong as that, just I don’t know what it is.

I expect this sort of shit from opinionators like Andrew “that book was a while ago now” Rawnsley, but I hope for better from the business pages. Here’s Rawnsley.

I’m a tad suspicious of big, round numbers. Complex problems rarely resolve into anything so neat as a figure ending in a zero. The merit of big, round numbers in politics is this. They make people sit up and pay attention…

The Lib Dems’ promise to spend £1bn more than the Conservatives is turned into peanuts and Labour’s pledge of an extra £2.5bn is chump change compared with the £30bn that Mr Stevens says will be necessary if the next government, whoever forms it, wants to avoid a crisis.

Rawnsley ought to be more suspicious of big numbers. The £30bn is over the six years from here to 2020. As far as I know the others are changes to its annual, but recurring, budget. So the Labour offer is 6×2.5bn, about half the Stevens report, not the whole wad, but not “chump change” either. It might be rather more or rather less depending on how Labour and Stevens respectively deal with inflation.

It’s not hard. Is the number in real terms, or cash terms? Is it annual, or over several years? How many years? Is that a total, or an average? What is it as a percentage of the budget? What is it as a percentage of GDP? If it’s a growth rate, is it comparing years or months or what, and which ones?

I would love it if a national newspaper would commit to stating all numbers in money as real terms, annualised, and all numbers in budget proposals as percentages of GDP. Newspapers have style guides for words. They should have them for numbers. And their sub-editors should enforce them.

But if they don’t check if they got the ruling party of China right, what hope is there of that?

#rugbyleague tries streaming on the web. it doesn’t go well

Oh Rugby League, must it always be so? The answer is always yes. The FFR XIII, the French governing body, had the great idea of streaming their match with Wales today on the web, presumably because TV wasn’t interested and there are plenty of weirdos who would get up for the England/Samoa and Australia/New Zealand who would also watch the French game.

But tell me, having made the momentous decision, did they do a good job? Did they ask people who knew how to do a good job? You know the answer.

It ended up on Dailymotion, in really terrible quality, with no score, but not before they’d also knocked over their own WordPress site by putting the embedded video on the front page and handing out the link, so the thundering herd hit whatever VPS they bought for their website first rather than Dailymotion’s CDN infrastructure. Not surprisingly the database got its knickers in a twist. Why involve a database when what you really need is a cache?

So a good idea that our amateurish execution turned into a humiliating fiasco. Where have we heard that one before?

Open newslist 8

Things I’d like to include:

Phil Lapsley’s book Exploding the Phone and some observations about telecoms billing records and the police that arise.

David Wood’s book Smartphones and Beyond about how the future was right here and then it…wasn’t. (“right here” includes Macclesfield and Bury St. Edmunds.)

Circling back to Scottish and other devolution. Is full fiscal devolution actually a good idea? Also, reviewing my forecast (that Labour has an effective veto, and therefore it will go down to the wire, but the Tories would be better off agreeing).

Retrieving anything from here. I still have some #Savileweek content in reserve even though I couldn’t hack the whole week.

I could do more about Hack Attack, too.


Update: Oh yes. Response to William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece.

er, spark plug. thingy. germans. ha ha.

Michael Hofmann reviews Martin Amis and it’s a stinker. This is the bit that stuck out for me. It will look pedantic but there’s a lot that can be recovered from this paragraph.

I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.

There might be something to be said about the role of industry and technology in the Holocaust, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about the fascination, hatred, cooperation, similarities, and differences between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about German imagination of the two vast Fordist industrial superpowers, although quite a bit but maybe not enough has been. And clearly Amis wants to say it.

But he doesn’t want to say it enough to look Magnitogorsk up in Wikipedia and find out that the vast iron and steelworks city the Soviets built with the help of consultants from all over the world, like John Scott and Ernst May, is named for the immense magnetic mountain where the iron ore comes from. That is of course why they built it there. (A magnetic mountain; not a bad title, eh?)

Further, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that a magneto is not a spark plug. A magneto is a device that produces electricity from rotational motion; a spark plug uses that electricity to light off the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder head. Evidently he only got the idea because if you spell the place correctly, as he didn’t in the final copy, it sort of looks like it might be Magneto City, not Magneticville or even just Magnetite, a good name for a mining town out west (or east). It only looks like that if you don’t care that it’s Russian and that’s a language that isn’t English.

But this is his shtick. Lionel Asbo; hur hur funny name. John Self; hur hur funny name. 21 virgins; hur hur funny the word is a bit like raisins in foreign. Apparently this time out he’s discovered German. It’s what he does, smart as in smart arse, never as in smart bomb. He aims for seriousness, over-pitches because he won’t put in the effort, and pulls out of the pratfall by sniggering at foreigners, broadly defined. He’s the Boris Johnson of literature. Like Johnson, somehow he fits into London in ways it would deny.

Also, it would be remiss not to point out that his chancer/liaison officer antihero of ambiguous and prolific sexuality and stereotypical cultivation sounds remarkably like yer man from Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillants, as does his relationship with his aunt, and indeed with his boss.

no access

So I was recommended this blog post. Don’t bother – this is better.


It’s a pity there’s no video, at least that I’ve found, because of course the banner is part of an integrated performance from the Red Faction, the Middlesbrough FC ultras. But to get a sense, try this.

OK? Now we’re oriented, that blog post. I’m sure they mean well, but really, terministic? Did we really need doxosophers? What on earth is a polygraph – a lie-detector? – and how does it get to be polymorphous? Apparently the “marginalised” can be found being “spatially marginalised” and the word “spatial” is used in every other sentence, but there are no rockets. I can actually read German faster than I could read this piece. And just look at the title! Even the choice of typeface is hostile, anti-access, and overdesigned, the absolute opposite of Orwell’s idea of plain style.

The point they want to make is basically the same as the Middlesbrough fans did. Now there’s a shorter for you. Actually, I kid, it’s a bit more than that.

Their point is that identifying places and individual people with the idea of poverty is a good way to stereotype the poor. Broken people live in broken Britain and that’s why they’re broken. Once you’ve done this, the poverty’s not an economic problem any more – it’s because there’s something wrong with the people. Politicians like this because it means the answer is less money, but more control. Something like Benefits Street provides the stereotype. It gets recycled by people like Christian Guy at Iain Duncan Smith’s thinktank, who have one foot in politics and one outside, and who add their solutions to it. Then the politicians pick it up and use those solutions on you. The way we describe things or people changes what we do with them, and that’s why it’s worth protesting this stuff.

All clear so far? Well, it took them 3,600 words to say that. In case you’re wondering, Christian Guy is both a doxosopher and apparently a polymorphous polygraph, your house is spatial, and TV is terministic. Personally, I prefer wanktanks, like thinktanks but entirely fake.

But the depressing thing here is that this post is a perfect example of the ideas the people who wrote it use to study society. The jargon I’ve been taking the piss about is borrowed from the works of Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher. Among much else, he thought that the language we use to talk about stuff was politically important in itself, and of course he was right.

Put it like this: If you want to read that blog post, you’re expected to know how a doxosopher might end up being terministic. You’re also expected to realise that the polygraph isn’t a lie-detector and perhaps to appreciate that calling someone a polymorphous polygraph might sound good in French. And because all these words were invented on a Latin basis, it might even help to have some classics. You’re also expected to appreciate the funny typeface in the headline, rather than just wish it was something more legible.

He argued that this was a kind of capital, like the economic sort: cultural capital. People without it, or without the right kind of it, are denied access to parts of society. Up to a point, it can be a substitute for the economic kind, but it’s never a complete substitute. If you have enough of it, you can get access to the rich and the powerful and to some of the things they do, but you won’t be one of them unless you get rich. In the opposite sense, vulgar rich people with no culture are common enough to be a cliché – but they’re still rich unless they lose all their money.

To his great credit, Bourdieu applied this to the academic world where he spent his whole life, pointing out that different specialities and professions tended to invent their own weird languages in order to keep other people out. Because each speciality gets to pick who comes in, it gets a sliver of power and status. However, because this basically comes from the power to exclude people without the right kind of capital, it also restricts the effects of whatever the academics might learn.

If you’re likely to be affected by Universal Credit or the bedroom tax, you probably won’t read that blog post, or if you do you might not get past those bloody doxosophers. This is precisely what Bourdieu would have predicted. But I doubt he would have been at all pleased.