Why the floods mean you should support my politics

I imagine we’re going to be in for quite a few of these, so let’s get in quick. As Daniel Davies allegedly wrote:

Many people will use this terrible tragedy as an excuse to put through a political agenda other than my own. This tawdry abuse of human suffering for political gain sickens me to the core of my being. Those people who have different political views from me ought to be ashamed of themselves for thinking of cheap partisan point-scoring at a time like this. In any case, what this tragedy really shows us is that, so far from putting into practice political views other than my own, it is precisely my political agenda which ought to be advanced.

Indeed. With that beautiful thought in our minds, let’s proceed. As well as property, I hope the River Aire will have swept away some illusions. The first illusion is of course that we can just go on treating floods and water as a minor news event to be managed through the technology of public relations, this being one of the great unspoken cross-party dogmas.


It’s like that enormous coal-fired power station was trying to tell us something!
As long as I can remember, there has been endless official concern, reports beyond number, constant chin-stroking, but bugger all action. until it rains a bit. Then politicians appear in high-visibility jackets, as do token numbers of soldiers. Eventually the water ebbs away and so does the media interest. Now, surely, we’ve had a teachable moment: Leeds and Manchester flooded on the same day.

I wouldn’t sign any cheques on that, though.

The second illusion is that the devolution offer to West Yorkshire is at all useful. Very simply, it wouldn’t give Yorkshire the budget or the authority to reinstate the planned Leeds flood defence scheme. If you can’t have different policies to those selected by Whitehall, you don’t have devolution in any meaningful way. The only reason to want it is to set different priorities, and you can’t do this without a substantial capital budget. This has so far been a vague and theoretical issue. It is now as concrete as…concrete. Ask what we might have done differently, and there’s your answer.

As I pointed out here, the current proposals offer the devolution of responsibility without the devolution of power. Don’t kid yourself that we wouldn’t now be seeing the prime minister touring the North with George Osborne, blaming the disaster on one-party Labour councils and their crazy overspending. This leads me to the third illusion.

The third illusion is that the devolution offer is right in terms of geography and of politics. The water didn’t come from Leeds and is not going to end up in Leeds, nor did it come from a Leeds City Region.

Water does not care about trying to cut this or that party’s voters in or out. Instead, it defines the landscape that later defines us, in its own way. Yorkshire’s historical boundaries to the North and South are rivers. To the west, the boundary is roughly the watershed, and to the east it is of course the sea. Within this space, water flows from the moors down through the steep, narrow southern Dales, creating the heads of water that powered early industry and that filled the canals of later industry, through the cities, and down the Ouse across its floodplain, the Vale of York, to the sea. Yorkshire is roughly the River Ouse catchment area, give or take the upper Ribble.

It follows that you can’t solve a Yorkshire-wide problem in Leeds, and indeed that’s why we had a Yorkshire water authority and now have a privatised Yorkshire water company. This really ought to be obvious from that alone.

But, aren’t the Yorkshire-wide proposals rather weak? Perhaps. We have some relevant experience here, though. This was a criticism of the Welsh and Scottish assemblies and of the Greater London Authority when they were created. It was also a criticism of the Northern Irish assembly when it was created. All the devolved authorities have gained in power and authority with time. The mayor of London started out without even having any authority over the Tube, but has progressively taken over more and more power, and has even gained a veto over the commissioner of the Met. None of them has ever handed powers back to the central government.

This is, I think, because they are comprehensible, they cover the essential geography, they are elected, and they started with significant powers.

The mayor of London is mayor, of London, and his area of responsibility matches very well what is commonly called London. You can always niggle about boundaries, which are inevitably imperfect, but there is nothing grossly silly about the GLA’s. Similarly, the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish authorities do what it says on the tin. No city regions there.

These authorities also draw legitimacy from the fact they are elected. In a sense, each election is not just a choice of parties or individuals, it is also a referendum on the institution’s existence. Therefore, with each electoral cycle, the devolved authorities have become stronger, more legitimate, and better established. To get the ball rolling, though, they needed to have a minimum of substance, enough to make a palpable difference. For London, it was enough to give Ken Livingstone the buses and the congestion charge.

We can compare the various regional entities – partnerships, assemblies, government offices – which have never lasted. Without comprehensible identity, democratic legitimacy, or significant powers, they have just been afterthoughts.

You might say that a city region solution could progressively take over more territory, in the same way that a Yorkshire-wide one could take on more powers. But there is no precedent for this, and it could as well lose it as gain it. The central government frequently chops up local government boundaries. But as I say, all the other devolved governments have only ever gained more powers, while local governments have as often lost territory as gained it.

And remember:

Please, I ask you as fellow human beings, vote for the political party which I support, and ask your legislators to support policies endorsed by me, as a matter of urgency.

It would be a fitting memorial.


So, #Cosmonauts at the Science Museum. Put it this way: they’ve got Valentina Tereshkova’s ship.


More than that, they’ve got documents of Tsiolkovsky’s, an LK-3 lunar lander, an ejection seat for dogs, Vladimir Dzhanibekov’s strides. And that’s saying something. And the volunteers (I think) are really impressive, hopping out from behind artefacts to press information on you.

I especially liked the way they expressed the sheer length of Russian/Soviet space history back to the 1880s, and its situation in the tumult of Russian culture at the turn of the 20th century. Where everyone else was either getting into Kulturpessimismus or Freudian introspection, they were almost obsessively optimistic.

This played out in various directions – in one way, in search of transcendence through the creation of artistic experiences, in another, in search of political revolution either through assassination or through a vanguard coup, and on the poorly defined frontier between serious science and tinkering, in the effort to leave the planet itself. Anything could be achieved with enough will, and it’s telling that the revolutionaries specifically chose to dump the impersonal economic forces from Marxism in favour of giving history a kick up the arse.

So we have the architect who spent decades in the Soviet Union re-planning his monument to cosmism, the (pretty crazy) philosophy that inspired, among others, Tsiolkovsky. The architect ended up in the gulag in 1948, only two years after Stalin signed the directive bringing the 1930s rocket tinkerers from GIRD back together to start the long-range rocket programme in Kasputin Yar, and not many more years after Korolev himself was released.

And it wasn’t just that a lot of Constructivists and Suprematists produced work that looked space-y; Tsiolkovsky, still around, sketched out treatments for science fiction movies that fed back into the culture. They were getting it from the source. This culture inspired the rocket tinkerers and therefore directly influenced the people who would eventually build the R-7 Semyorka that Tim Peake took to the ISS last week.

Also, fans of high analogue user interfaces will love it.


Why so many Republicans are still running for president

People occasionally wonder why there are still so many Republicans running for president. We can make a simple model of the situation to understand this.

Any candidate who decides to drop out of the race will probably drop out in favour of some other candidate, throwing their support to that candidate. They can expect some kind of reward from that candidate in the event of success. A candidate X will decide to drop out if the expected value of staying in the race falls below the best offer they could get from another candidate.

The value of staying in the race is interesting; it consists of a fairly predictable, risk- or debt-like term which represents their chance of winning based on the current polls, plus an uncertainty or equity-like term which represents the residual value of just being in the race.

While X stays in the race, it’s possible that some other candidate will drop out in X’s favour. It’s also possible that some event will knock out a major candidate and transform the others’ fortunes. This being America, the classic example is a wild-eyed loser sneaking into a Trump rally with a pink AR-15. Public opinion drives the first term, while the other one is basically exogenous, with the important proviso that its value declines as we approach polling day – there is less and less time available for our wild-eyed loser to intervene. This implies that the chance of dropout is asymptotically increasing with elapsed time. It also, interestingly, implies that greater generalised uncertainty – more wild-eyed losers – predicts more candidates, and I think you can actually see this effect in world politics (compare, say, Italian and British political parties).

The potential offer is also interesting. Candidates with less support will be willing to bid higher, because they need additional votes more intensely. We would therefore expect to get the highest offer from the next candidate ahead of us in the race. This would suggest that we’d see a cascade of exits, as the weakest candidates exited first, until only Donald Trump and one non-Donald are left, providing only that non-Donalds all prefer non-Donald candidates to the Donald, and that they can make credible promises of reward.

This last point is where it gets complicated. The offer consists of two components – the reward candidate Y offers candidate X, and the probability that Y will deliver. This itself consists of two components, the probability that Y will be President and therefore in a position to make X Ambassador to the Netherlands or whatever, and the probability that Y will betray X.

It’s possible that social trust is different between the parties, even probable, but this risks letting prejudice cloud our thinking, so let’s assume that political cynicism is evenly distributed for the moment. Therefore, the second component is a constant representing the average level of political deceit.

Now, the risk-adjusted value of the reward will be higher the more likely Y is to be elected President. The face value of the reward will be higher the less likely Y is to become the candidate. If the gap between the leading non-Donald and the rest is large, the credibility effect will dominate; if it is small, the reward effect will dominate. But in the aggregate, the value of any reward offered will be greater the more likely the Party of X & Y is to win the general election, because the winning candidate is more likely to be in a position to deliver.

(Y could also drop out in their turn, and transfer the promise to X along with their vote to some candidate Z, but we can deal with this by pointing out that such promises are only likely to be weakly transitive, and further by thinking about the party’s chances rather than Y or Z’s.)

Compare the Democrats. Most people expect Hillary Clinton to be the candidate and to win. Not surprisingly, all the other potential candidates skipped, accepting either an implicit or explicit offer of office or support in the knowledge Clinton is likely to be able to deliver on it. (Bernie Sanders chose to run in order to make a point, rather like John McDonnell in 2007 or Jeremy Corbyn this year.)

Upshot: the less likely your party is to win, the more candidates will stay in the race to be the candidate, and more generalised chaos tends to cause more candidates. Paradoxical! Further, if there is differential social trust between parties, the more trustful party will tend to have fewer candidates in their race.

Eurolobster: a technical appendix

Over at the Pol, I’ve been trying to answer the question: how long until robots take Brussels lobbyists’ expense accounts? Software. It’s eating the world, they say. You may already have guessed that this is a reprise of Project Lobster, and you’d be right. The inputs are the European Transparency Register, which lists lobbyists and their clients, the Commissioners’ and staffers’ registers of matters (like so), and the survey I administered to readers here. 157 of you responded, for which I am truly thankful.

I used NetworkX, the network analysis library from the great folks at Los Alamos – is that more or less creepy/cool than CreepyDB, sorry, Gaffer? – and a lot of my own work. Having downloaded the transparency register, made it into a two-way hash table, and scraped all the data from the meetings register, I could create some NetworkX graphs and store them. I then wrote a command-line utility to read out key metrics from them.

The metrics I was particularly interested in are as follows:

Weighted network degree. This is just the count of meetings a given node (commissioner, staffer, lobbyist, or lobby) had, multiplied by any weighting applied to reflect the relative importance of meetings. I used the survey results, normalised as percentages of the average result, to weight the different hierarchical ranks (e.g. commissioner, vice-president, member of cabinet) and functional jobs (e.g. competition, transport). I further divided this weighting by the number of lobbies present at the meeting and applied it on a per-edge (NetworkX terminology for a link) basis.

Shortest-path betweenness centrality. This is defined as the fraction of all the most direct routes through the network, using the edge weightings as distances between nodes, that pass through a given node x. What it tells you is how central Mr X is in the network.

Gatekeepership. This is one I invented, and it’s the ratio of the average weighted network degree of people who met node x to the network-wide average – basically, it’s like Value Over Replacement Player for lobbyists, although I was unaware of VORP at the time. It tells you about the extra influence Mr X gives the people they meet relative to the typical node.

Greedy_Fragile. This is the really creepy one, developed by West Point to optimise drone targeting against terrorist networks. It arose from the insight that killing off the most central individuals tended to cause the network to become radically flatter and more decentralised, and therefore harder to target. Instead it might be better to whack lesser power-centres in the network, so as to render it more centralised and therefore, brittle.

It measures how much more or less centralised you make the whole network, being defined as the change in network-wide average centrality if node x is removed. This is why Al-Qa’ida No.3 is such a notoriously dangerous job. The intuition from it is whether someone tends to be an attractor in their own right, or a pillar of the overall structure.

After a lot of hacking painfully about and remembering how much Python I’d forgotten, I got results. Unfortunately, I’d made a seriously unwise assumption, that commissioners and staffers had unique names. Lobbyists do seem to be de-duplicated, but their targets are not. In fact they’re not even up to date or spelled consistently. This resulted in a race-condition: depending on who got scraped first, either all the DG Trade official Jonathan Hill’s meetings would be credited to the Financial Services Commissioner Jonathan Hill, or vice versa.

For a long sad moment I thought I’d discovered something funny. The less important Hill is massively lobbied because people think he’s the more important one! Then I realised the problem, and set about a completely new implementation. I was by this point back in practice, and it took me a day and a half to program it, re-run everything, repeat the data analysis, and rewrite the piece.

The results? Well, you can read them in the Pol. If you’re a masochist you can download all the code here. But if I was a lobbyist I might be thinking about learning to code. It’s the future. They said.

Best Of FOIA

They’ve been whining about the Freedom of Information Act again. Which gave me an idea, as I read this fascinating thread.

Someone has managed to get the Ministry of Defence lessons-learned report on the 2007 incident when the Iranians took a boat’s crew from HMS Cornwall prisoner. That was the one with the iPods, if you weren’t paying attention. I think this may be the most highly classified document released under FOIA yet, as it was marked not just SECRET but UK EYES ONLY, i.e. not to be shown even to the Americans. And now, well, any fool can read it.

It’s been redacted, of course, but even so, it’s full of embarrassing admissions of incompetence and stupidity, and basically says that while the whole chain-of-command in Iraq was trying to put pressure on the Iranians, nobody bothered to tell the Navy, which also didn’t bother to look up what was going on in databases they had access to, partly because intelligence seems to have been a career Siberia, staffed by anyone who happened to be at a loose end. Also, the admiral used the helicopter as his personal taxi until it broke down and therefore wasn’t available to support the boarding party, which suggests seriously odd priorities.

Anyway. Wouldn’t it be awesome to publish a collection of the best FOIA releases, a Freedom of Information Act: The Greatest Hits box set? A bit like those old “2005: Blogged” things, but with less shameless abuse of other people’s copyrights or indeed copylefts. I’d read that, but more to the point, it would be a great campaign device and might even raise some money. Obviously there’s the stash at WhatDoTheyKnow as a source, but crowdsourcing seems the only practical way to do it.

Reopening the #biryaniproject file

It looks like the Biryani Project is back in the news. I’ve created a new blog category for my posts from March-April 2015 on the subject here.

The news is this Huff story, which is driven by the fact Stephen Yaxley-Lennon needs another Stone Island jacket, and therefore he’s got a book out. The key detail is that he now admits that the Quilliam Foundation paid him cash money to quit the EDL, to the tune of £2,000 a month. Quilliam squirms quite a bit, denying that he was an employee or that he was borne on their payroll, but pointedly not denying that he received money.

SYL describes it as a straight-out deal, whereas Quilliam claims he only received cash in exchange for his contribution to some sort of project. Here’s the key quote:

“Tommy [ie SYL’s pseudonym] was remunerated, as an external actor, after invoicing us for costs associated with outreach that he & Dr Usama Hassan did to Muslim communities after Tommy’s departure from the EDL, in an attempt to reconcile Tommy with our Muslim communities.”

SYL describes this “outreach” as follows:

Robinson claims he was on the Quilliam payroll for six months and received about £8,000. During that time, beyond attending the press conference, Robinson got involved in a few “Quilliam-orientated projects”. One was a meeting in Luton between the EDL and a group of Muslims that was “chaos”.

This sounds very much like the Biryani Project effort to deliberately stage first a conflict and then a reconciliation between the EDL and a “group of Muslim lads”, in aid of a local political candidate’s campaign, funded with cash drawn ultimately from the DCLG counter-radicalisation budget. We know the Project did actually go into action once, in Dudley. This seems to be a second case.

The timeline is interesting. SYL quit the EDL in October 2013, immediately before going to jail. Around this time, and for the next 6 months, he was receiving money from Quilliam. Obviously whatever “outreach” he undertook must have happened after he was released. At the same time, future Lib Dem candidate and Quilliam chairman Maajid Nawaz was grant-hunting to keep Quilliam going (after all, you can’t make it rain in the club without plenty of old fivers), and seems to have hawked the capture of SYL and the broader EDL-Islamist reconciliation concept-of-operations around potential funders. Significantly, the FOIA response Political Scrapbook based their story on has been scrubbed from WhatDoTheyKnow on privacy grounds.

Scroll forwards to January, 2014. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi greenlit the £120,000 DCLG grant to Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate and personal friend, Afzal Amin, and his various similarly-named companies. This is the money that would end up being used to fund the Biryani Project.

So, around the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, we can see that things were changing. One source of cash for Quilliam is drying up. Another one seems to have emerged. At the same time, a new product has emerged, the recycling of SYL in person and the EDL membership in general, plus some still unidentified Islamists, as a force for reconciliation that can also be repurposed as support for Tory, or perhaps Coalition, campaigns in key marginals. Dudley North is exhibit A. Another campaign in Luton is exhibit B – probably Luton South, as Luton North went Labour by a 17.5% majority in 2010 even though the sitting MP, Margaret Moran, quit in disgrace over her expenses, and that actually increased substantially in 2015. The 2010 result in Luton South was a Labour majority of 2,329 or 5.5%.

And of course Maajid Nawaz himself ran for election in the London three-way supermarginal, Hampstead & Kilburn, where the Tories faced a Labour majority of only 42 and Nawaz faced one of only 841 as third-placed candidate.

It is probably worth pointing out that Warsi was Conservative Party Chairman, in charge of organisation and campaigning, up to 2012 before being replaced by Grant Shapps and given more ministerial responsibility, notably for the counter-extremism program. Interestingly, she has on occasion spoken of the need to address the BNP’s very real concerns back when they were cool.

That time I was nearly burned alive by a machine-learning model and didn’t even notice for 33 years

Remember Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s historical SF novel about the Soviet Union’s efforts to create a real-time planned economy using computers and the ideas of Oskar Lange and Leonid Kantorovich? Sure you do if you’re on this blog. Well, it turns out that it had a dark and twisted 1980s sequel.

We already knew about Operation RYAN, the Yuri Andropov-inspired maximum effort search for intelligence offering strategic warning of a putative Western preventive war against the Soviet Union, and that it intersected dangerously with the war scare of 1983. We also knew that part of it was something to do with an effort to assess the intelligence take using some sort of computer system, but not in any detail. A lot more documents have just been declassified, and it turns out that the computer element was not just a detail, but absolutely central to RYAN.

At the end of the 1970s the USSR was at the zenith of its power, but the KGB leadership especially were anxious about the state of the economy and about the so-called scientific-technological revolution, the equivalent of the Revolution in Military Affairs concept in the US. As a result, they feared that once the US regained a substantial advantage it would attack. The answer was to develop an automated system to predict when this might happen and what the key indicators were.

Model the whole problem as a system of interconnected linear programming problems. They said. Load up the data. They said. Comrades, let’s optimise. They said.

In all, the RYAN model used some 40,000 data points, most of which were collected by greatly increased KGB and Joint GRU field activity. It generated a numerical score between 0 and 100. Higher was better – above 70 peace was probable, whereas below 60 it was time to worry. The problem was the weighting applied to each of those parameters. Clearly, they had to train the model against some existing data set, and the one they chose was Nazi Germany in the run-up to Operation BARBAROSSA.

Who needs theory? They said. We’ve got the data. They said. A simple matter of programming. They said.

As Sean Gallagher at Ars wisely points out, this is a case of the problem described here, that gave us those amazing computer dream pictures. The neural network that classifies cat photos must by definition contain enough information to make a random collection of pixels catlike, although uncannily not quite right. Similarly, RYAN picked up a lot of unrelated data and invariably made it vaguely Hitler-y.

The score went through 60 as early as 1981. The Soviets responded by going on higher alert and sending more agents to posts in the West to get more data. Meanwhile, in the West, John Lehman’s maritime strategy was being put into effect, causing the US Navy and its allies to operate progressively closer to the Soviet periphery, which only made things worse. In the autumn of 1983, the score may have fallen below 40, around the time Stanislas Petrov did his thing.

At this point, Communist Party local cadres were being called in to be briefed on the coming war and their duty to prepare the population. Tactical nuclear weapons were released to local control and moved about by helicopter. The Soviet military was on a higher state of alert than even during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, at this crucial juncture, Yuri Andropov resolved the situation by dying and therefore denying the Big Algo that crucial parameter: patronage.

So, when I was reading all that SF as a kid, I had actually narrowly escaped being vaporised with nuclear space rockets by an evil computer that had convinced itself I was Hitler! I had no idea!

Less flippantly, one of the major themes in Red Plenty is the tension between Kantorovich’s vision of a decentralised, instantly responsive socialist economy, and the Party’s discretionary power – between communism and the Communists, if you like. The RYAN story flips this on its head. This time, it wasn’t the bureaucrats’ insistence on clinging to power that was the problem. It was the solution. The computer said “War”; only fundamentally political, human discretion could say “Peace”. As Joseph Weizenbaum put it, a computer can decide but it cannot choose.

Another thing from Red Plenty that comes up here is that the same unvarying forces of Soviet politics worked the same way, computers or no computers. In the end, everything was personal, and settled through the backstairs gift-economy of favours and influence. Only the loss of its patron could stop the machine.

Also, another theme in the book is the future role the actors in it will play in the perestroika years. We have the cadre down in Novocherkassk who refuses to get used to violence. We have the cadre and programmer who may be turning into an embarrassing trendy dad, but has been enduringly influenced by the Czech experience of 1968. We have the economist who has learned the lesson that the system will have to change dramatically, even if this gets put off 20 years. When they reach the peak of their careers, something is going to change.

And of course they were arriving there just in time to “sudo killall -9 ryand” before ryand killed us all.

Polar Behr wanders the frozen North

This Rafael Behr piece about the Oldham by-election has been getting the bird, not surprisingly given the central prediction was hopelessly wrong. The really interesting bit, in my view, is that if we take a maximally charitable view and assume that there is nothing outside the text, so everyone he spoke to in Oldham who expressed an opinion is mentioned and is quoted accurately…well, he had all the information he needed to call it correctly.

We hear from “Rob”, who apparently voted UKIP at the general election but is going to “lend” Labour his vote this time. That is to say, he’s going to vote Labour. “Jo” is also going to vote Labour. We also hear from “Warren”, described as a “UKIP supporter”. We don’t actually hear whether he intends to vote or not, so we can’t weight him by likelihood to vote, but let’s be conservative and score him a strong K-for-Kipper. We also speak to someone who describes Jeremy Corbyn as “just another liar” and refuses to vote, and a ‘kipper who says he’s not going to vote.

Someone else says Jeremy Corbyn is an idiot and needs to get his act together, but doesn’t say which way they might vote or if they will vote. You might say it probably won’t be Labour on the strength of their remarks, but if you asked me I’d say much the same, and I would have voted Labour.

Either way, we’ve got 2 Labour votes with a full turnout weighting, 1 UKIP vote with a full turnout weighting, two people who aren’t going to vote and whose opinions are therefore zero-weighted, and someone who might do pretty much anything. On the night, 2.69 Labour votes were cast for each UKIP vote, so this micro-poll was actually pretty good. Apparently, Rafael Behr is a fairly effective device for generating randomised population samples!

Or maybe not, as none of his respondents has a name implying South Asian ancestry. But that in itself is interesting; it tells us that the UKIP fantasies of vast numbers of fake postal votes from Those People are just that, fantasies, or rather, excuses. If the white population broke 2.x to 1 against UKIP, they were always on a hiding to nothing, because they just didn’t have the votes, and too many of their supporters were popping off general crankiness rather than seriously proposing to do anything.

This would have been a great story, of course. But such was the power of Behr’s preconceptions, the mere fact that he met twice as many people who actually intended to vote Labour as he did ‘kippers doesn’t seem to have passed through his mind en route from memory to keyboard.

Daniel Davies has formed the opinion that Behr is the worst opinion former currently practicing in the UK. I’m not so sure. This piece on Tories taking an interest in Ed Miliband’s ideas about the economy is not only good, it also appeared in the paper on the morning of George Osborne’s autumn statement, seriously prefiguring the Ozzer’s U-turn so big it was more a Gefechtskehrtwendung. Either that was a very good prediction, or else Behr has a high-quality Treasury source.

Those aren’t dinosaurs.

While I’m clearing up things I drafted but didn’t have time to post, I took this photo at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon earlier this year.


As you can see, the museum seems to think it is appropriate to hang Australian Aboriginal artworks with the dead dinosaur, despite them being contemporary, made by humans who may well be still living, and nothing to do with dinosaurs. I don’t know enough to date them stylistically – I can identify the late 60s-and-after Papunya style but that’s it – and all the label would tell me was that they had been acquired after 1968, which might put them in the context of the artistic revival of that period or just be a coincidence.

The weird hang probably isn’t, alas, a coincidence. In another section of the museum, I found a collection of industrial artefacts (a Renault Trucks V12 diesel, a power loom, a Minitel, that sort of thing) classified under “Creation” although a (rather impressive) collection of Native American ones wasn’t. To be honest the display didn’t say anything about the people who built the V12, at a RVI plant only a few miles away across town, so at least they didn’t just erase the creative contribution of the Native Americans, they did it to the French working class as well.

The Australian collection, which is actually quite impressive, is contextualised as being part of the struggle for native title. Well, when it isn’t put with the dinosaurs, that is. On the other hand, all the Native American stuff originates, according to the labels, from the Pontifical Missionary headquarters’ collection, and there is not one word of how missionaries might have come to own all this stuff. If anything is problematic, it is clearly somebody else’s problem, and not our fault, guv.

The institution’s deeper story explains a bit of this. The huge, techno-flashy building was put there, after years of wrangling and cost overruns of pharaonic proportions, because they wanted to press the button marked Arts and have the money roll into an ex-industrial area that (apparently) needed redeveloping. Did I say flashy?


Flashy. At some point, they had a Dome moment; the building was going to look great, but what was going to be in the building? The answer was to pass the hat around every local institution that had a museum, and regroup all their stuff in the new one. This risked just having a lot of assorted objects without any organising theme or project, and in fact that’s what they got. The answer to that was to make a virtue of it. It would be – ah – like a princely cabinet of curiosities in the Enlightenment, a post-modern celebration of historicity and diversity, a universal museum like the British Museum, a place where different streams came together, as the site itself implied.

That filled up the press release and the grant applications, but it didn’t give it the sort of definite steer that would keep it from just drifting towards the assumptions of the institutions that originally collected all the stuff. Of course, you can make a career precisely out of talking about why missionaries put all this stuff belonging to other people in our museum, and the British Museum has developed a speciality in just that. You can mock it, but at least they don’t hang the Aboriginal art with the bloody dinosaurs.

Don’t buy politics the way you wouldn’t buy electricity

Part of the point of this post was that this is, in the end, an awful way to make a decision.

Yesterday I was arguing about devolution to Yorkshire, again, and my opponent, Jonn Elledge, kept coming out with the same point. Manchester has signed! Don’t be left behind! This is something, not nothing! Hurry up! It doesn’t seem to have struck him that you’re not allowed to sell electricity or washing machines that way. It’s against the law to insist the customer signs, now, no you can’t read the terms and conditions, yes, this price is only available today, just sign it now. If you sign up with a new electricity provider, you have a statutory right to cancel within a week (I think). There are reasons for that. Why should it be any more acceptable to sell politics that way?

And when you make decisions for bad reasons, you tend to make bad decisions.