Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Conversion of the Bulgars to Christianity

"[Pope] Nicholas saw his chance. At once he dispatched two more bishops to the Bulgarian court with meticulous answers to every one of the 106 items in [Tsar] Boris's questionnaire, making all possible concessions permitted by canon law and, for those that could not be granted, explaining the reasons for his refusal. Trousers, he agreed, could certainly be worn, by men and women alike; turbans too, excepting only in church. When the Byzantines maintained that it was unlawful to wash on Wednesdays and Fridays, they were talking nonsense; nor was there any cause to abstain from milk or cheese during Lent. All pagan superstitions on the other hand were forbidden, as was the Greek practice of divination by the random opening of the Bible. Bigamy, too, was out.
The Bulgars were disappointed about the bigamy, but on the whole more than satisfied. Boris cheerfully swore perpetual allegiance to St Peter and, with every sign of relief, expelled all Orthodox missionaries from his Kingdom. Their Catholic counterparts were not slow in coming."
- A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich.

Labour Leaders past and future

New Leaders of the Labour party are chosen either following the death, defeat or resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister. Let's list them. Chosen after defeat:
Hugh Gaitskell
Michael Foot
Neil Kinnock
John Smith
Key point: not a whiff of electoral success between them. Incidentally, I record here my mystification at the secular canonisation of the late John Smith. Nice guy he may very well have been, but he had the word loser stamped all over him (or, if not loser, "fat dull bank manager"). His floundering performance as Shadow Chancellor at the 1992 General Election may not have cost Labour the election, but must have hurt it significantly. He showed early signs of "Gordon Brownitis", i.e. excessive worthiness and Scottishness, which would in due course have no doubt succeeded in alienating the English voter. Obesity isn't a good look in the television age either. His death, sad and untimely as it was, must have been a blessing in disguise for the Labour party.
Next: chosen after the resignation of an incumbent Prime Minister:
James Callaghan
Gordon Brown
Key point: went straight on to defeat and political oblivion. A definite poisoned chalice (after all, both Gaitskell and Kinnock got second chances).
Finally: chosen after death:
Harold Wilson
Tony Blair
Key point: definitely the way to go. 6 General Election wins between them, only one defeat, 18 years in Downing Street, both got out in time. Both subsequently vilified, not least by their own supporters. No one seems to love a winner when they've retired, particularly not the Labour Party. Minor points: both English, both Oxford, both middle class, both on the right of the Labour party (although Wilson of course had positioned himself on the left in opposition, rather cunningly). Both had some or a lot of "south appeal". Wilson very very clever (and a little bit charming), Blair very very charming, if you like that sort of thing (and a little bit clever).

If you take this seriously, it means it may not matter too much who Labour picks this time, as they aren't ever going to take office anyway. The best bet would be the one most likely to die, as that will pave the way for a charismatic successor. On that basis I would go for Ed Balls, as he is clearly the fattest with the most suppressed rage, but they all look depressingly young and healthy (from Labour's point of view).

In fact, I would probably go for Ed Balls anyway. This election is not about picking a Prime Minister after all, but a Leader of the Opposition. To use the horrid "Apprentice" phrase, Ed Balls is the one with fire in his belly (along with a large number of pies) [clearly, fat is a socialist issue] who will stick it to the Tories and rally the troops. Worrying about whether the Labour leader gets on with Obama or Merkel is premature at this stage.

Of the others, David M. is not a bad sort, although clearly an enormous poltroon. Brother Ed. is said to be more a man of the people - I guess it's all relative - but has an irritatingly nasal voice and a rubbery face. The other one is a non-entity.
Final point: Celts are bad news for Labour: Kinnock (Scottish ancestry, Welsh); John Smith (Scottish); James Callaghan (the Englishman from Wales with the Irish name); Gordon Brown (need one say?). Blair made jolly sure no one would ever think he had had anything to do with Scotland. Perhaps it's the curse of Ramsay MacDonald. You may rightly say that's not an issue this time round. But the odds of picking a (non-practising) Jew are fairly good. Not an issue in these enlightened times, one might think, but interestingly it's not an ethnicity anyone seems to think worth making anything of in the midst of all the claims that the contenders are all white, middle class, male etc. I think I'm right in thinking that pretty well no political party has been led by anyone remotely Jewish either before or after the (Anglican) Disraeli, although there have of course been many distinguished Jewish ministers. I guess we'll have a few years before having to chalk it up as a plus or a minus.
Of course, I haven't reckoned with Diane Abbott getting enough nominations. She would clearly put the cat amongst the pigeons as far as some of the above is concerned. Personally, I should have thought her too alienating to win, in any case, and if elected too languid to be a good opposition leader (or indeed leader of any sort). That said, she is probably as unhealthy as Ed Balls, so not too bad from that point of view.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Labour win in London?

It's widely said in Labour circles that Labour had a good result in London and that this is part of the surprise non-meltdown in Labour representation at the General Election.

On the face of it, this is true. Have a look at and, sure enough, you can see that the Labour to Conservative swing was a mere 2.5%, with Labour picking up 38 of the 73 seats on offer; Labour won 36.6% of the vote, the Tories 34.5%. This contrasts with a national vote share of 28.1% and 39.6% respectively, in England, or 29% and 36.1% in the UK as a whole.

Let's have a look at the comparable results from 1992, a year chosen because it too delivered a narrow Conservative win, albeit with an overall majority and a higher share of the vote (we may perhaps wish to revisit this election, for it is worth noting that over 14 million people voted Conservative at this election, in contrast with the 9.9 million who did so at the latest election). Nationally, the Conservatives gained 41.9% of the vote (around 6% more than 2010) and Labour 34.4% (more than 5% more than in 2010). The London scores were 45.3% and 37.1% respectively, giving the Tories 48 out of 84 seats.
What are the key trends?
Nationally, the combined two party vote fell from 76.3% to 65.1%; this is old hat, of course, the secular decline of the two party system being well known and documented. In London, the fall was from 82.4% to 71.1%, so in line with the national trend but with less third party support than elsewhere; perhaps not so surprisingly given the historic weakness of the Liberals in London and the absence of any Nationalist interest.
Labour support has (in fact) declined slightly, from 37.1% to 36.6%; this has been masked by the plummeting support for the Conservatives, which has allowed Labour representation to grow very slightly (from 35 to 38, the number of seats allocated to London having fallen from 84 to 73).
Tory support has fallen dramatically. From being significantly more Conservative than the country in 1992, the city has became markedly less so in 2010.
Why should this be? Economically, the London's relative position is little changed. Any Conservative misdemeanors from the 1990s should have been as least as forgotten here as they have been elsewhere. The obvious point is that London's hugely altered demography since the early 90s - and in particular the massive influx of immigrants - is the crucial difference. For multiple reasons, the Conservatives have been unable to attract significant additional support from this quarter. But neither has Labour.
The political changes brought in by New Labour - the mayoralty and assembly - don't seem to have made much difference. It's worth remembering that only one of the three mayoral elections has returned an official Labour candidate (and in that case one very clearly detached from the government) and London voters seem to have shown an admirably independent or ungrateful streak in this regard. The Labour government's fumblings over matters such as the Olympics, the Millennium Dome, Cross-Rail and the Third Runway didn't, in my opinion at least, distinguish them from their predecessors.
Note that this has not translated into increased support for Labour - who have at best maintained what was, after all, a losing position, but have declined less rapidly than the Conservatives. Third parties - the Liberal Democrats mainly - have continued to grow.
It would be superhuman of Labour not to take comfort from what was one of their best performances in a bleak national picture. But the risks are surely on the down side. Many of their traditional supporters - and new supporters for that matter - are highly conservative in their social attitudes. Even if they don't swing to the Conservatives, they have at least three alternatives: the Simon Hughes wing of the LibDems have shown that they can make inroads into white working class support; there is always the BNP for those who can't stomach the immigration; and, perhaps most interestingly, Respect shows what might happen to immigrant voters who feel they have been taken for granted. Their perhaps inevitable implosion under the egregious Galloway can't hide that this could be the most worrying development of all.
A more minor point - and another one worth revisiting - is that London illustrates in microcosm the failing nature of the electoral system. A "pure" proportional system would have given Labour 27 seats (11 fewer than actual) and the Conservatives 25 (3 fewer). The smaller number of voters (for all sorts of reasons) in Labour seats again masks their actual poor overall performance. The prospect of electoral reform should again be a cause for concern on Labour's part. Rising representation based on falling support cannot, after all, be a recipe either for long-term success and is likely to to be accompanied by ever increasing disenchantment on the part of the electorate.
Finally, there is the obvious point is that London's representation is declining. Given that there is no actual sign of significantly falling population, the obvious explanation is that too few of the incomers are entitled to vote to warrant the retention of the London seats. This is an unexpected consequence of the Labour open door on immigration and one which does them no electoral favours. It may be evidence that this is a policy with diminishing returns from a political point of view (and this position seems to be born out by Mr. Balls's recent pronouncements).
Update (belated)
An esteemed friend has pointed out another possible reason for Labour's London outperformance, namely that, since 1991, Labour has greatly improved its middle and upper middle class appeal. Since these classes are more common in London than elsewhere, this is an alternative or supplement to the 'ethnic mix' argument.

Overheard at the park...

Kensington Memorial Park that is, none of that Shebu nonsense today. BTW, the water park is a must for those with young children on a hot day - it's lamentable that nothing similar exists in Hammersmith and Fulham; one can but hope, I suppose. The overheard bit? "...then I had a breakdown... then I had an overdose... then I was in a scanner in the hospital.... I had a scar on my brain... when I was little, they put me in an icebath to bring down a fever and that gave me a scar on my brain, they're not allowed to put you in icebaths anymore... I had an operation to remove the scar, but it wasn't a success... now I'm on drugs to treat my scar... I was in a drugs trial..."

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Are MPs too old?

Prompted by this:
The gist of the question is this: not only is the average age of an MP around the 50 mark, but there are very few MPs under the age of 30. This situation is contrasted with that in the past, say 100 years ago, when there were often 100 or so MPs in that category.
Funnily enough, I've just been reading the Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (of which, no doubt, more anon). The point is made that because life expectancies were low and the period of vigorous life so much shorter than today, it was common for mighty responsibilities to be assumed at very young ages. The example of Edward III declaring war on the Scots and leading an army into battle at the age of 20 is given. No doubt the fact that power so often stemmed from birth rather than success in bureaucratic infighting accentuated this tendency.
One doesn't need to go back as far as the Middle Ages. The President of the United States, for instance, is constitutionally bound to be at least 35 years old. Stanley Fish argued that an age that would today be more consistent with the original intentions of the framers of the US Constitution would be 50, given increasing longevity. So no Barack Obama, no JFK, no Bill Clinton. Incidentally, Mr. Fish was making a point about the nature of law rather than age. And we are quite happy, I think, that the age has not been increased; but neither is there any pressure for it to be reduced.
Coming back to the MPs, I think the point is this. We live in an society which is not only on average much older than those of the past but in one that continues to age rapidly. To demand younger MPs would be to make them unrepresentative of much of the population. And, in a time when the perceived lack of life experience of MPs is increasingly decried, it would seem perverse to increase the problem. In fact, what is incomprehensible to me is that the voting age itself should have come down from the age of 21 to 18 with talk of it coming down to 16. No MPs under 30 and no voters under 30 either! Let's make the most of the wealth of age and experience available to us and leave the young to the gaining of wisdom, rather than depriving them of their youth.

Political Betting

Another blog I have linked to. It is, as I understand these things, quite a substantial operation, headed by Mike Smithson and supported by various others.
Clearly, the McGuffin is the making of money by betting on the outcome of political events. In itself, this is of little interest to me, although I admit to having had the odd flutter now and then. What makes it compulsory reading is the wealth of data on the standing of the various political parties and detailed consideration of the factors that might be driving those standings.
This is, in my view, one blog which, although it clearly draws considerably on the reporting of the msm, adds enough analysis and comment of its own to be able to stand out as being head and shoulders above the typical newspaper's coverage. The single minded focus on the betting leaves little room for the fancies that individual papers indulge in, driven as they are by their traditional party leanings.
One (minor) quibble is that the sheer volume of comment on every post makes for dull reading and there is clear dominance by a few hard core followers, of whom one can one only wonder what they do all day (and I think I'm bad!). It also, for me at any rate, makes adding comments of one's own a fairly pointless exercise. Still, a minor quibble and not one to lead one to any conclusion other than this being one of the very best blogs around.

North Sea Oil

It occurs to me every once in a while that just about nobody ever mentions North Sea Oil anymore. It used to be quite a common cause for comment.
In the seventies, it was thought of as the magical coming source of wealth that was going to transform Britain into the new Kuwait. In the eighties, it certainly allowed the government to cut (other) taxes faster than would otherwise have been the case. There were perennial worries about the Dutch disease of uncompetitiveness caused by an inflated exchange rate coupled with excessive domestic consumption. David Owen, iirc, wanted us to create a national provident fund on the Norwegian/Kuwaiti model - a sovereign wealth fund if you prefer - which would have neutralised the economic impact; it would also, and not in my opinion coincidentally, have cancelled out the political boost which accrued to the Tories.
Now, of course, production is in rapid decline and the positive boost to revenues and balance of payments is being reversed. Perhaps this is why no one wants to talk about it. But it seems to me that it must be, if not the elephant in the room, at least the hippo. For as long as the revenues continue to decline, there will be a permanent gap in revenues which must be replaced with additional taxes on the remaining productive sectors of the economy. The extraordinary boom which ended in 2008 must have masked this effect. But it would be very interesting to know how big it has been and will be.
I wonder if anyone has done any analysis on this point. Do let me know if you know of any!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Shepherd's Bush Blogs

Here's one:
The author is pretty passionate about the area and I would recommend it if you wish to learn more about the main issues and the goings on at the local council. Personally, I think there are bigger fish to fry, but sometimes something pops up and this would seem to be a good place to get a local take on it. The fact that we have just had three years of a Tory administration following supposedly radically different policies from those pursued by Labour for the previous 30 odd years seems to me to have made precious little difference to anything that concerns me, although them that care seem to get very heated about it.
That said, the council tax has been going down and I like that. But that's for another post, I think.

My First Post

The world is full of blogs and certainly doesn't need another one. So I'm writing to left off a little steam, which my wife and children might be grateful for, but probably won't be. If anyone reads this and wants to comment, that's fine.
I'm a middle-aged white man, interested in books, films, history and the law. I live in Shepherd's Bush, West London and, if you count an earlier stint in neighbouring Hammersmith, I've been here for some 16 years. So I think I qualify for the "Bushman" tag as well as many. I'll probably have a few things to say about the place, but I don't really share the passions of the true localist and will probably talk more about other things.
So now I've opened my account, I shall move on...