Glen Newey

Glen Newey is professor of practical philosophy at Leiden University.

Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’

Glen Newey, 19 January 2017

‘A New Jerusalem​ cannot be built without an effective sewage system,’ Miriam Eliav-Feldon wrote in Realistic Utopias (1982). Indeed, the old Jerusalem relied in biblical times on a municipal waste-combustion site, Gehenna, identified by Hobbes as the real-world model for hell – where the fires would keep burning for as long as there were sinners for incineration. In...


Glen Newey, 21 January 2016

Marchamont Nedham​’s The Excellency of a Free State of 1656 sums up both Machiavelli’s notoriety and his place in the short-lived English republic: ‘It was a noble saying, (though Machiavel’s), “Not he that placeth a virtuous government in his own hands, or family; but he that establisheth a free and lasting form, for the people’s constant security, is...

Hate Speech

Glen Newey, 5 December 2013

‘You are a totalitarian asshole.’ It’s probably not the sort of email that often drops into an All Souls professor’s inbox but, as Jeremy Waldron tells us, some people take the doctrine of free speech literally, and cut up rough when they think it has been slighted. All the same, one assumes that the sender of the email would defend to the death Waldron’s right...

Morals and Markets

Glen Newey, 21 June 2012

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy does for the market what the London Dungeon does for urban history. It’s a compendium of horror stories arising from what one might call the ryanairation of social life, the breakdown of once cash-free practices into severally billable units of account. Capitol Hill lobbying outfits now pay queuing firms to stand in line, sometimes overnight, so that the lobbyists can step in just before a committee session starts; ‘concierge’ medical companies offer queue-jumping treatment to those willing to stump up the fees.

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’

Glen Newey, 22 March 2012

Habit, Samuel Beckett says in his essay on Proust, substitutes the ‘boredom of living’ for the ‘suffering of being’, and he has a point. Human existence is an acquired taste, and many of us get through it with the aid of what Vladimir in Waiting for Godot calls the ‘great deadener’. Blank simian rote – the round of feeding, grooming, ablution,...

Short Cuts: Murdoch

Glen Newey, 28 July 2011

Has the old cane-toad lost his touch? The BSkyB takeover bid nixed. Murdoch père and fils summonsed to Parliament with the ousted Rebekah Brooks. News Corp shares in free-fall. One would need a heart of stone not to gloat. Murdoch’s initial response to the crisis in closing the News of the World was acclaimed by several commentators as ‘brilliant’ but...

Bad Arguments

Glen Newey, 14 July 2011

Here are the nominees for the greatest bad argument in political theory. They are: Thomas Hobbes, for Leviathan; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for The Communist Manifesto; and Plato, for the Republic. Why them? Each of the candidates is hallowed as a Penguin Classic. Each has been foisted on freshman generations in Pol Phil 101. And each could be thought to exemplify, after a fashion, the...


Glen Newey, 17 March 2011

Politics begins with walls, and death. Uruk sprang from the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BC, its walls founded, according to legend, by Gilgamesh. In the epic he leaves the city with his enantiomorph Enkidu, a wild man snared in a honey-trap by the holy harlot Shamhat and thereby civilised. The gods – who, unusually for an epic, seem to vote Democrat –...

Diary: Life with WikiLeaks

Glen Newey, 6 January 2011

Freedom, in the words of the old Irish nationalist song, comes from God’s right hand. As with the gift of divine grace, it puts its recipients on the spot. Are we in a fit state to receive it? In The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates Milton observed that most subjects are

slaves within doors, no wonder that they strive so much to have the public State conformably govern’d to the...


Glen Newey, 23 September 2010

English has a problem with the morally bad. Terry Eagleton reports his son’s approving reaction when told that his father was writing a book on evil: ‘Wicked!’ Words like ‘wicked’, ‘bad’, ‘nasty’, ‘filthy’, ‘naughty’ have all fallen prey to ironic subversion. The word ‘evil’ is something of an exception:...

Amartya Sen

Glen Newey, 28 January 2010

At some time in the past the idea took hold that social justice was all about the state’s hoovering up resources and then blowing them at needy or deserving recipients. Some of these resources, money for example, were material, and others, like opportunities, were virtual. But there were various problems. One was that there had to be just one hoover, the state, sucking in goods,...

Chris Mullin’s Diaries

Glen Newey, 27 August 2009

I’m on research leave in Finland, which, like any well-ordered social democracy, but unlike the UK, maintains an air of strenuously contained bedlam. Public notices in Finnish look as if they were produced by pogoing on a typewriter. Bank staff, waitresses, children, even the drunks, have the air of Marks & Spencer management trainees. Matti Vanhanen, Finland’s cyborg-like...

Political Morality

Glen Newey, 9 July 2009

A lot of modern political philosophy – at least in the English-speaking world, and in its dominant version, liberalism – sets about applying morality to politics. In what future writers may come to think of as the palmy days of political moralism, theorists have tried to imagine what politics would be like if it were redesigned according to a moral prospectus. It is not usually...


Glen Newey, 29 January 2009

Like making jokes or copulating without regard to season, torturing is one of those activities that distinguish human beings from other animals. Inflicted both on our congeners and on other species, it marks us out, in the words of the King of Brobdingnag, as a pernicious race of little odious vermin. Even Richard Rorty, the self-styled postmodernist liberal, felt able to pronounce that cruelty was ‘the worst thing we do’.

Bum Decade for the Royals

Glen Newey, 23 January 2003

And so we come to the Jubilee and its reaffirmation of the ‘People’s Monarchy’. Before the day few thought that on 3 June a million or two groupies would throng the Mall to watch a bunch of clapped-out old-stagers presuming on the public’s indulgence for one last hurrah.

John Gray

Glen Newey, 7 June 2001

Corinthians, it was once said, worshipped at the tomb of the unknown god. Liberals worship at the tomb of the unknown principle; they’d be prepared to die for their beliefs, if only they knew what they were. Nowadays the creed, at least among political philosophers, recalls the fate of the Old Left: implacable certitude combined with smithereened factionalism. At the same time, liberalism...

Global order

Glen Newey, 25 January 2001

In Being and Nothingness Sartre has an admirable passage about the stubborn human tendency to ‘fill’, the fact that a good part of human life, in politics as elsewhere, is devoted to ‘plugging up holes’. Holes are vacant, and the humdrum psychopathy of political life seeks them out, in the cause of repletion – by contrast, the bore of omnipresence, as Sartre...

From The Blog
31 August 2017

Like everyone, I know exactly where I was twenty years ago when I learned that Princess Diana had croaked. I was in my parents’ bathroom and the announcement came on the radio. My future ex-wife, who was in the bath, said: ‘It must be a play. Or a joke.’ It wasn’t a play; few greeted it as a joke. On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land. News sources reacted much as North Korean state television handles the demise of a Kim, or as Spanish telly did when Franco died.

From The Blog
4 August 2017

Where's your dictatorship button? When is a democratic decision bad enough for you to override it, if you could, by personal fiat? Most people have such a button; those who claim not to are vulnerable to a form of the argumentum ad Hitlerum. Others are remarkably sanguine about deploying it, for example when they disagree with the result of a plebiscite about membership of a trade association. They have various button-masking props, such as citing the fact that – in an extraordinary departure from normal political practice – campaigners for the other side (and only they) were less than wholly truthful; though unlike their gullible co-electors, the button-pressers weren’t fooled.

From The Blog
19 July 2017

In the fatness of these pursy times, there’s much talk of Henry VIII, the first Brexiter. The tubby tyrant’s serial monogamy led to Brexit from Rome and from Pope Clement VII, then incumbent in the line of apostolic succession that has latterly issued in Jean-Claude Juncker. In an early exercise in having one’s cake and eating it Henry hung on to the title of Fidei defensor, which Rome had granted him for taking a pop at Luther. As part of the Reformation power grab, Henry got Thomas Cromwell to draft the Statute of Proclamations of 1539, which has given rise to today’s talk of ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in the Brexit legislation launched last week in the Commons.

From The Blog
26 June 2017

The post-election deal, between a dogmatic and narrow sect in the grips of a 17th-century mindset and the DUP, isn't a full-scale plighting of troths. It's more of a fling, for confidence and supply, between the Nasty Party and their Ulster brethren – devotees of the summer's glorious twelfths, when they have fun socking it to grouse (August) and nationalists (July). Each party remains hostage to its own contradictions. The Tories' lie between their laissez-faire ideologue Brexiters, whose holy of holies is free trade, and little Englander nativists, miffed that the wogs now start before Calais. The DUP's voter base, like everyone in Northern Ireland, depends on open borders with the republic, but its ideology covets a Brexit yet more rejectionist than that of many a gin-sozzled Tory backwoodsman.

From The Blog
16 June 2017

Last 16 June, a week before the EU referendum, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by Thomas Mair. The police investigation revealed that Mair had far-right sympathies and had collected materials on Cox, some printed out from the web. Mair was charged with murder, tried last November, and is now serving a whole-life term in HMP Frankland. Investigation into his life disclosed a man without a job, partner or anything resembling a social life. Everyone seems to agree that Mair was a 'lone wolf' killer, whose espousal of a hate-filled ideology drove him to carry out a hateful act in isolation. But if Mair was such a loner – in this week's BBC documentary on Cox's murder, DS Nick Wallen, who led the investigation for West Yorkshire Police, remarked that Mair's mobile recorded him as having sent three texts in three years – how did he manage to get hold of a lethal weapon, without any criminal background or known underworld contacts?

From The Blog
12 June 2017

For the time being the election has left the country with rulers that neither see, nor feel, nor know, but leech-like to their fainting country cling. Theresa May has put together a coalition of convenience, formed of incompetents whom she’s too weak to sack, and the DUP, whose votes she can’t do without. Her weekend reshuffle recruited such stellar talents as Gavin Barwell and Michael Gove, the renowned environmentalist, to the praetorian guard. One theory, that Tory grey eminences have demanded she stay on, makes her out to be too weak even to sack herself. May has already had to reassure Ruth Davidson, the lesbian leader of the Scottish Tories, that some of the Orange people’s unreconstructed attitudes on family values are unlikely to find their way into official policy. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, joint chiefs of staff at Number 10, have taken one for the team leader, rather as John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman did in a vain bid to shield Nixon. On Saturday evening, Downing St said that the coalition was a done deal, only to be contradicted by the DUP. Over in Brussels, Eurocrats awaiting the kick-off of the Brexit negotiations must be quaking at this show of national strength.

From The Blog
9 June 2017

Well, that came as a surprise, certainly to me. My meticulously calibrated model proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May. Yesterday in Edinburgh I dropped into Ladbrokes on Nicolson Street. There were large pictures of Corbyn and May in the window; all the punters inside were scanning the racing pages. I looked at the prices on the betting machine and the shortest odds (10/3) were on the Tories’ getting 351 to 375 seats. I thought better of putting a tenner on.

From The Blog
8 June 2017

So here it is, the last throes of a campaign that began with Brexit and has ended with terrorism. In between, Theresa May’s foibles have blossomed like a suburban cannabis plantation under the arc-lights of scrutiny. For all the cosseting from her handlers, May has looked ever more frail and flailing as the campaign has worn on, which the terrorism brouhaha has barely concealed. May can scarcely moan about the personalisation of an election that she sought to fight on her own personality. Verbal and other tics obtrude. A pet tag is ‘I have been completely clear that’, which generally prefaces either content-free blather, or a false denial of having fudged or U-turned. Her angularity, faulty judgment and sheer want of imagination make her look like a beneficiary of the Peter principle.

From The Blog
7 June 2017

This election was made, as Proudhon said of the 1848 revolution, without an idea, beyond that of bunkering the Tories in power and shielding them against blowback from Brexit. Their strategy assumed that people had made up their minds about the party leaders’ competence, and that voters were fixated on Brexit, so cluelessness elsewhere wouldn’t matter (though the government seems clueless about Brexit, too). Hence the uncosted Conservative manifesto.

From The Blog
5 June 2017

Brittle and blustering Theresa May reacted to Saturday night's killings in London with strong words from outside Number 10. We know they were strong, because the BBC’s anchor Jane Hill kept telling viewers so the next morning, during the rolling coverage near London Bridge. Central Office must have been heartened to see that Lynton Crosby’s election campaign attack lines are getting through undiluted into the Corporation’s news reporting. Later, on BBC1's evening bulletin, Hill's 'strong' had become 'blunt and uncompromising' from the Beeb's political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

From The Blog
2 June 2017

YouGov's latest poll projection has the country heading for a hung parliament. This is certainly the most eye-catching forecast in the election so far, aimed to fuel lumpen-commentariat reaction about the closing gap between the Tories and Labour.

From The Blog
31 May 2017

I'm in Scotland for my daughter’s 18th birthday and to kill fish with my son. We bagged nine codling from a charter boat off the Northumbrian coast on Saturday before a thunderstorm ended our fun. In Dundee, Fife and the Borders, the election campaign seems to be some way short of generating steam heat. A trawler berthed in Eyemouth harbour had a peeling yellow SNP poster stuck on one of the windows in the bridge. There are a few to be seen in Fife, parts of which are not merely post-industrial, but post-agricultural. After coming in from the downpour we took refuge in The Contented Sole.

From The Blog
25 May 2017

Two weeks out from the election, and soldiers are patrolling Britain's streets. The securitisation response, with the usual bovine complicity across the media, has sidelined politics. Spooks who advised May in the Cobra meeting after Monday's atrocity in Manchester will have presented their best guess about national security, as well as what their political masters want to hear, in cranking the 'threat level' up to 'critical'. Now the election campaign is overshadowed by what is in effect a state of emergency.

From The Blog
22 May 2017

That didn't last long, even by the standards of Theresa May promises. Less than four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, with much fanfare about fairness and a Britain that works for all, May has pulled the plug on her pledge to pay for old people's care bills by forcing their heirs to sell their homes. Canvassers' feedback from the election stump indicated that the 'dementia tax' was not playing well in the shires. What was 'sensible' last Thursday is today a vote-losing raid on the nation's nest eggs.

From The Blog
19 May 2017

As a student I sometimes whiled away the longueurs in the library with A Humument by Tom Phillips. It’s a redacted version of the sentimental Victorian novel A Human Document, with much of the text blotted out, and doodles by Phillips. Much later, following his inspiration, I set to work on Tony Blair: A Journey, the ex-PM’s remainder-friendly mea minima culpa. ‘To Bar a Jury’ remains a work in progress, not least because of the boredom of actually reading before deciding what to paintbrush out; one technique is to remove all words but ‘I’, which still leaves a fairly densely printed page. Theresa May’s election manifesto invites the Phillips treatment or similar.

From The Blog
16 May 2017

Winston Churchill once addressed the nation's workers in a radio broadcast, 'listening to me in your cottages'. In Tory 'one nation' lore, the mystical bond between the mighty and the patronised unites the toff in his hunting lodge with the peasant in his hovel, a Hovis fantasy that redacts plain facts of modern life. Still, you can't say the Conservatives don't do their bit for the unemployed. Since Theresa May sacked him as chancellor, George 'we're all in this together' Osborne has scraped a crust by working six jobs, including £700,000 on the black-tie dinner-yack circuit and £650,000 for a one-day-a-week gig as a consultant for BlackRock, plus his new (salary undisclosed) quasi-sinecure editing the Evening Standard – on a journalistic CV that includes rejection by the Times and the Economist, and freelancing for the Telegraph’s gossip column. David Cameron meanwhile has been busy putting 'hay in the barn' with speeches at £120,000 a pop.

From The Blog
11 May 2017

First, a bit of good cheer. Election forecasts often get it wrong. On 8 November 2016, the day of the last US presidential election, the Princeton Election Consortium ('A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004') gave the probability of Hillary Clinton's winning – that is, winning the electoral college, not merely the popular vote – as 93 per cent. And the rest is history, or at least the alternative version of it in which Andrew Jackson nearly prevented the civil war, and Frederick Douglass lives on into his third century, doing an ‘amazing job’. Meanwhile, Princeton's first draft went through the shredder. So, when betting websites have the Conservatives at 1/33 on to win the most seats in the British general election next month – an implied probability of over 97 per cent – wizened heads can nod indulgently and note that whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.

From The Blog
5 May 2017

An electoral mandate, Theresa May keeps saying, will 'strengthen her hand' in the Brexit talks. The bigger her mandate, we're led to think, the stronger her hand. This is performative affirmation: the oftener it's said, the truer it becomes. Or does it? On election night, will the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, be nervously eyeing the returns from Billericay, poised to fold if it clocks up a Tory swing? It seems unlikely.

From The Blog
2 May 2017

Theresa May and other leaders born to clergymen, like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown, are said to have a ‘moral compass’, a higher sensibility denied the rest of us. But do they? Maybe if subsistence depends on passing off the bizarre as unimpeachable dogma, one grows adept in glossing absurdity. Mere U-turns in policy, betrayals of binding pledges, become child’s play alongside hob-nobbing with Jesus or imbibing his bodily fluids in the guise of dodgy Merlot. From there it’s a short step to salchowing over a burka ban, or signing the Lisbon Treaty in hugger-mugger. May's moral compass seems to have turned into a common-sense bypass.

From The Blog
29 April 2017

Finland celebrates its centenary this year. After bowing to the tsar for a century, the Finnish Senate decided the Bolshevik Revolution was a step too far and declared independence. In the ensuing civil war, the bourgeois, Swedish-speaking Whites eventually crushed, with German help, the Bolshevik-backed Reds. To mark the anniversary, the Finland Mint struck commemorative coins, including one that features the killing of Reds by a White firing squad (now withdrawn after protests). It's all about forging national unity through strength.

From The Blog
24 April 2017

Some elections are landmark events. As in 1918, 1945 or February 1974, they're called not simply because another lustrum has elapsed but because some major issue requires resolution ('What will postwar Britain be like?'; 'Who governs Britain?'). Brexit is obviously the big issue overshadowing this election, but there's far less distance between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit than between her and Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine, dinosaurs bedded in the Euro-swamp where May herself still languished not a year ago.

From The Blog
20 April 2017

It’s a done deal. Theresa May has bagged the two-thirds Commons support that, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, is needed to call an election before term. The big question is: why did most Labour MPs vote with the government? Given the situation, they should eye an early election with as much relish as badgers do shaving brushes. But no, the ivory-handled bristle has got the brocks crowding the lobby. Less than a quarter of the PLP didn’t back the government: a handful voted against; around fifty abstained.

From The Blog
18 April 2017

It’s said that British prime ministers are either bookies or vicars. Some are determinately one or the other, while others think they are the one while being the other. Tony Blair was a bookie who thought he was a vicar. Theresa May – like Gordon Brown, the child of a minister – talks like a vicar and behaves like a bookie. People will talk about May 'gambling' on an early poll, but the point about bookies is that they don't gamble, but play the percentages. In announcing a snap election for 8 June, May will have calculated that, for the Tories, things can’t get any better. Current polls have them around 20 per cent ahead of Labour. May is set to win by a country mile.

From The Blog
4 April 2017

In politics, principle is play-dough for adversaries. Take nationality. Gibraltar is as British as the royal family, or a cup of Darjeeling. No it isn’t: it’s as Spanish as Catalonia, or the Alhambra, or flamenco.

From The Blog
23 March 2017

The statistics make grim reading. In a 2013 report, Overview of Fatal Incidents Involving Cattle, the Health and Safety Executive notes in its usual lapidary prose that ‘this paper gives an overview of fatal incidents involving cattle to (a) Enable Agriculture Industry Advisory Committee members to consider the current trends in agriculture accidents involving cattle.’ There is no room for complacency. The HSE logs 74 'fatalities involving cattle' in the UK in 2000-15, compared to 53 deaths caused by Islamist terrorism in the same period.

From The Blog
13 March 2017

In the week the Netherlands goes to the polls, the irruption of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into the Dutch election has wrenched the campaign out of its somnolence. At the weekend, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and the family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, came to campaign among Netherlands-based Turks for next month’s plebiscite over extending President Erdoğan’s powers. The Dutch government banned Çavuşoğlu from entering the country and, after stopping Kaya entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, kicked her out into Germany. Turkey has had a long-standing friendship with the Netherlands since Atatürk’s day. ‘Security’, that trusty standby for squelching political inconvenience, is cited as the reason for banning the ministers and their Rotterdam rally. Early on Sunday, police dispersed demonstrators with dogs and water cannon. Erdoğan has accused the Dutch government of Nazism.

From The Blog
18 January 2017

His Royal Highness the Prince Charles Arthur Philip George, Prince of Wales and nob of much else, has written a Ladybird book on climate change. Naturally, as with other tasks such as brushing one’s teeth and providing one's urine sample, this is not a feat the dauphin has pulled off solo. He’s roped in Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey for a spot of authorial toothpaste-squirting and flask-holding. Penguin, which owns Ladybird, apparently tapped seven specialists to wrestle with the 5000-word spider-written MS in order, as Roland White of Penguin put it, to 'amend some of the more assertive language to ensure it was bulletproof'.

From The Blog
16 December 2016

Back in the day, the rhetoric of American power was thick with talk of high moral purpose. The 'international community', the label of choice for the United States' Facebook fanbase, proved compliant in the face of US-sponsored mass killing in Indonesia under Suharto, the fire-bombing of civilians in Vietnam, and the decades-long portfolio of Monroe Doctrine-inspired murderous dictatorships in Latin America. Hot on the heels of Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Latterly the high moral tone took a bit of a knock from the bungled crusades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But now, in the dying days of the Obama regime, it’s back.

From The Blog
29 November 2016

It has been said both that Fidel Castro was a bad man whose henchmen tortured and sometimes killed dissidents, and that Castro was a good man who gave Cuba a healthcare and literacy programme to rival many in the developed world. The BBC, in its quest for ‘balance’, says that people in Havana and Miami (‘only ninety miles away’), which hosts Trump’s only significant Hispanic constituency, are saying these things. Philosophers chew over the ‘problem of dirty hands’ – thought to arise when a politician does something morally wrong in the name of securing a public good or preventing a public bad. It's notable that the problem is framed in that way, rather than as one that arises when a politician fails to secure the public good or prevent the bad by avoiding doing something morally wrong – the ‘problem of clean hands’, as it might be called. The notion that actors can acquit themselves of blame often relies on the fantasy that they act in a historical vacuum.

From The Blog
8 November 2016

John Locke, commonly seen as a founding father of liberalism, also foretokened the political thought of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In chapter 14 of his Second Treatise, Locke turns to the notion of the prerogative: 'This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative ... therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.' This is Locke's version of Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand, usually translated (no version is perfect) as ‘state of exception’, which obtains when the sovereign deems it necessary to override the law.

From The Blog
28 October 2016

Just over a century ago, ‘plucky little Belgium’ stood against the might of the ‘Hun’ by refusing Germany free passage to invade France. Earlier this month, the plucky and even littler Belgian region of Wallonia took a brief stand against the combined might of the EU and Canada, by blocking the CETA trade pact under the federal provisions of Belgium's constitution. Yesterday, however, Wallonia gave in, 'extremely happy that our demands have been heard'. Viewed in the blear light of Brexit, the Walloon impasse, however temporary, suggests it won't be straightforward to get any deal past the 27 EU rump nations. But it also highlights blindspots in both Brexiters' and Remainers' thinking.

From The Blog
20 October 2016

Three weeks out from polling day, Donald Trump has called the election for Hillary Clinton by alleging widespread voter fraud before most people have cast their ballots. At last night's debate Trump refused to say he would accept the election result, having earlier this week conjured the bogey of a zombie army of dead voters rising from its necropolis to spook his chances. Wisely, he's discounted the possibility that his impending defeat has anything to do with having alienated most US voters by his mendacity, bigotry, sexual predation, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, manifest unfitness for public office and encyclopedic ignorance of public policy. Maybe he should call in Russian election monitors to ensure fair play. Responders have noted that verified cases of voter fraud are rare in US elections; their tendency is to infer that all's well with US democracy. This is a non-sequitur.

From The Blog
4 October 2016

On 13 September, the Boundary Commision for England published its proposals for the 2018 Boundary Review and launched a 12-week consultancy period. David Cameron initiated the review to equalise constituency size while cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Cameron’s rationale for axing fifty seats was saving money, the idea being that, under austerity and after the expenses furore, the public didn't want politicos living high on the public hog. Projected savings aren't that much – around £12 million a year – and the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has repeatedly said that the case for the cut hasn't been made. Whether or not the public wants fewer MPs, there’s been little demand for the far bigger recent increase in the Lords (current size 809): austerity is not for the nobs. Cameron created 246 peers, each entitled, like extant members, to a £300 per diem for showing up. The Lords has become a bloated public welfare scheme for aging apparatchiks.

From The Blog
13 September 2016

On 19 June, shortly before the EU referendum, David Cameron tweeted that 'Britain isn't a quitter.' Outside 10 Downing Street three days later, he reaffirmed that 'Brits don't quit.' The next day, Britain voted to quit the EU. During the campaign, he had let it be known that if it did, he would remain prime minister – before quitting on the morrow of the referendum. In his resignation speech he vowed to stay on until the autumn, to 'steady the ship' for his successor. When he was elbowed aside within a fortnight, he vowed not to quit as MP for Witney. Now he's quit at that, too.

From The Blog
5 September 2016

By origin the European Union is a deeply Catholic institution. Its six-member precursor took in the main Catholic powers of Western Europe, apart from Fascist Spain; even part-Protestant Germany was led in by that devout Roman Catholic Rhinelander, Konrad Adenauer. The Union's close historical avatar, the Holy Roman Empire, aspired to an imperium that, if not wholly Roman, remained as firmly of this world as papal power itself.

From The Blog
27 July 2016

One way round the legal problems posed by Brexit might be to mould it on the EU’s current relationship with the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. I grew up in, or on, Jersey (more on the preposition soon). It’s an odd place, for which the term ‘insular’, if anything, understates its inverted-telescope worldview. Jersey people can tell if someone comes from elsewhere in Britain in two ways. One is that they say ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ Jersey, which irks locals because it suggests, accurately enough, that the place is a windblasted reef jutting from the surf. The other is that they refer to Britain as ‘the mainland’ – because, for Jersey people, the mainland is Jersey. This helps make Jersey a microcosm of the attitudes that ‘Fog in Channel: Continent Isolated’ Englanders hold towards Albion, and a propitious model for its constitutional future.

From The Blog
14 July 2016

So Boris Johnson is the foreign secretary. Heir to the mantle of such as Castlereagh, Palmerston and Halifax. Christ. It hasn't taken long for the new PM to stiletto expectations. If there was one by-blow of Brexit that could command general approbation, it was surely the toppling of Johnson, a clown with a plank who belatedly discovered the plank could do some damage, before getting a pratfall from his straight man. Now Theresa May's spoiled even that.

From The Blog
6 July 2016

Iraq's invasion and its aftermath illustrate Lord Salisbury's maxim about the 'optimist view of politics', which 'assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, it will make two hardships to cure one'. The Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 war in Iraq is a world away from the whitewash obligingly thrown over the venture by Lord Hutton's 2004 report, commissioned by Tony Blair while still in office. Sir John Chilcot's summary findings mount a cumulatively devastating critique of Blair's conduct before, during and after the war.

From The Blog
24 June 2016

In January I outlined a nine-stage process by which David Cameron's premiership could end within the year. The referendum's timing excepted, that has turned out much as predicted. Cameron's translation from PM to dogmeat is complete. The referendum campaign has been a Conservative leadership primary, and the blond populist has come out top dog.

From The Blog
22 June 2016

Aristotle identifies three types of 'proof' in public argument: logos, pathos and ethos, or reason, emotion and character. You wonder what'd he'd have made of the referendum campaign. From the get-go it's been a bad-argument Olympiad, marked by fallacious claims, scaremongering and self-parody.

From The Blog
14 June 2016

In a letter to his constituents published in the Spectator during the 1975 referendum campaign on the UK's membership of the Common Market, Tony Benn outlined five 'basic democratic rights' that were 'fundamentally altered by Britain’s membership of the European Community'. The fifth of them was the right of citizens to dismiss our political masters. As the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it last year, 'there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.' Nowhere is this more obvious than in Juncker's Commission, the body that governs EU affairs without needing a parliamentary majority. Effective power devolves on the commission and Brussels's smoothly oiled lobby-go-round.

From The Blog
29 April 2016

Barack Obama has been in Europe. British observers – always suckers for American blandishments that the UK is The Special One – saw in the president’s visit a mission to rescue the EU referendum for Remain. But Obama’s overriding aim, as became clear when he progressed to Germany, was to speed the EU-US talks over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) before he leaves office in January. A salient goal of TTIP is to shadow the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system (ISDS), an instrument of public international law granting firms the right to raise an action in a tribunal on the basis that a state’s policies have harmed their commercial interests.

From The Blog
21 April 2016

Long-lived monarchs need long memories, so they can remember what needs to be forgotten. John Aubrey recounts the disastrous gaffe by the 17th Earl of Oxford – famous as one of the people who didn't write Shakespeare's plays – while ‘making obeisance’ at court to Elizabeth I. After it, Aubrey says, the disgraced earl escaped by going on his travels, to return to the royal presence seven years later. ‘My Lord,’ Elizabeth greeted him, ‘I had forgott the Fart.’

From The Blog
8 April 2016

Plutarch describes Anacharsis' mockery of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, whose laws, 'like cobwebs, snag the frail and puny; but the rich and mighty punch through them.' As in sixth-century BC Athens, so now in the global sport of tax avoidance. The 'Panama Papers' disclosed this week by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Guardian and others contain some 2.6 terabytes of data leaked by a whistleblower in the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. In their files, the usual telly faces, Tory party donors, oligarchs, sportspeople and surplus royals wash up; they're all in it together. So was David Cameron's late father, via the still-trading investment fund Blairmore Holdings Inc., which avoided UK tax entirely for a thirty year stretch.

From The Blog
4 April 2016

Springtime for Europe. Magnolia buds jut from the bough, and the Netherlands is gripped by Euro-referendum fever. Or, if 'fever' is too strong, the vibe in Amsterdam's smokeasies is at least lightly tousled. For we're talking not of the UK's in/out poll on 23 June, but the one that really matters, here on 6 April, on ratifying the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine.

From The Blog
21 March 2016

In The View From Nowhere, Thomas Nagel describes his encounter with a large spider in a Princeton University urinal, from whose gutter it can't escape. Through the summer, the spider survives, even thrives, despite being urinated on 'more than a hundred times a day'. Finally Nagel takes pity and helps it climb out of the trough with a paper towel. Next day he finds the spider, exactly where he had left it, dead. The golden shower turns out to have been its lifeblood.

From The Blog
10 March 2016

A couple of weeks in, the EU referendum campaign has already spawned material to rival the US presidentials’ fabliaux spun round General Pershing, and Donald Trump’s mythic dong. A top pick in the EU campaign so far is the Guardian’s profile of the illustrator Axel Scheffler, warning that The Gruffalo, by the British author Julia Donaldson and the German Scheffler, might not have existed had Britain Brexited. It's a clear ploy to shunt the votes of three-year-olds, if not their parents, towards Remain. ‘The Gruffalo is a British-German creative collaboration,’ Scheffler said, gesturing darkly towards the non-gruffalic nightmare that the EU has spared us.

From The Blog
22 February 2016

So it's 23 June for the EU referendum. This afternoon Cameron bigged up his foreseeably footling deal with Merkel and the Eurocrats, insisting that he'd secured the UK's special-snowflake status on ever-closer union, the Euro, in-work migrant benefits, the handbrake on EU laws. Dave had done his best to 'battle for Britain' – but the view from his own party seems to be that his best is still crap. In Britain's previous in/out poll, in 1975, the leavers fielded Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Peter Shore and Michael Foot, with Enoch Powell for political balance. This time the leavers' A-team is Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan-Smith and Nigel Lawson, balanced by George Galloway.

From The Blog
15 February 2016

The US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is dead, and not before time. The co-author of some of the dodgiest court opinions since Judge Taney's in Dred Scott v. Sandford, Scalia was duly hymned on Saturday night's debate in South Carolina by the self-avowed psychopaths – Ted Cruz has vowed to make the Middle East 'glow' with US bombs; Donald Trump’s problem with waterboarding is that the torture doesn't go far enough – slugging it out for the Republican presidential nomination. Scalia's judicial opinions reveal a mind whose fixation with the jurisprudential genetic fallacy known as 'originalism' betrayed his embrace of legal ancestor worship in a peculiarly pure form. It seems fittingly bizarre that he died on a quail hunting trip (his Supreme Court crony Clarence Thomas noted that Scalia 'loves killing unarmed animals').

From The Blog
29 January 2016

A slightly belated prediction for 2016: it’s as likely as not that by the year’s end David Cameron will no longer be prime minister. Well, less a prediction that a statement of probability. It rests on a series of further predictions:

From The Blog
15 January 2016

Plausibly, nothing much matters. Among human beings, opinions differ about how much things matter. A surprisingly common defence of the status quo is to say of some institution arraigned for affronting reason or decency that it doesn’t matter – because it’s purely 'symbolic’, say – but it's very important not to change it. So having a royal head of state doesn’t matter, because she’s a figurehead, but it matters that the post is not filled by sortition, say, because then any fool might do the job. Again, with free speech, words are mere hot air, unlike sticks and stones; but it matters intensely that people get to vociferate them. And so it is with statues.

From The Blog
7 December 2015

Up to a point, the US is to guns as the Netherlands is to bicycles. Both bits of kit are widely owned, used and even venerated in their respective lands. Their users can mobilise powerful lobbies. On Saturday on the Haarlemmerstraat I saw an irate motorist get out of his vehicle to bawl at a cyclist. He was quickly surrounded by passers-by and forced back into his car. It was a more satisfactory outcome than some disputes between gun users. But then – and here’s where the analogy begins to give out – bikes aren’t generally designed to kill people. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘tragedy’ thrive in different semantic fields. After the murders in San Bernardino last week the media were at first stumped about whether to call it ‘terror’ or just another ‘tragic’ gun massacre.

From The Blog
27 November 2015

It’s war time again. Earlier this month the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) noted that legal opinion is at best divided on the legality of whacking Islamic State without Chapter VII support, but last Friday the UN passed resolution 2249 enjoining member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ – UN-speak for military action – against IS. David Cameron will probably seek and get Commons approval for war next week, a move that’s already had the spin-off benefit of splitting Labour’s Corbynites and hawks.

From The Blog
16 November 2015

‘Nous sommes en guerre.’ Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement on Sunday morning, after meeting François Hollande to discuss the massacres in Paris, echoed his successor’s statement to the French people on Friday evening, which used the g-word four times. Modern statecraft deploys a mobile army of mixed metaphors, as when the ‘they’ who kill ‘us’ are also partly ‘us’. If it’s war abroad, does that mean that Friday’s killers count as combatants, with Geneva Convention rights, and that military action needs legal authorisation? If it’s domestic terrorism, what title does the state have to range beyond its borders, pursuing Isis on foreign sovereign territory?

From The Blog
6 November 2015

Private George Taylor of the Worcester Regiment, my great-uncle, was killed in Flanders a century ago. Family lore has it that his sister, my maternal grandmother, was raking out the fire at home in Birmingham when a shiver went down her back; she said unthinkingly, ‘Don’t be silly, George,’ and that, it turned out, was the moment he had died. Uncle George thus joined the glorious, mute and quiescent dead. Meanwhile, my father’s father had enlisted at 16 when the Great War broke out. He took a bullet to the head while rescuing a wounded comrade in no man’s land – a heroic act for which he was, in the ludicrous expression, ‘decorated’. He survived. His ‘good war’ notwithstanding, my grandfather’s after-war life was a litany of petty criminality, dodging, black-marketeering (in the Second World War), and domestic violence – he once dangled my father, as a baby, out of an upstairs window when my grandmother couldn’t stop him crying. Such may be the lives of those who fail to die too young – or, to put it the other way, live too long.

From The Blog
7 October 2015

In the conference hall the blue-heads have just been shown a video of Labour’s election ‘Edstone’, as a reminder of disaster averted. For a moment everything goes black, like a seance. The massed jam-makers and xenophobes sit in anticipatory rictus, a suckling pig waiting to gulp down the sweet nectar of platitude. But when the lights go up, it’s only the prime minister, on stage in Manchester to give his annual Tory pep talk.

From The Blog
22 September 2015

As we know from William Hague’s career-trouncing baseball cap boo-boo, a Conservative leader has to be very careful what he puts on his head. Lord Ashcroft’s allegation, serialised in the Daily Mail and denied by the Tory party, that as part of David Cameron’s initiation into the Piers Gaveston Society, the future prime minister got it on with a dead pig, testifies maybe to a youthful lack of judgment, or perhaps simply to a dearth of sexual partners in Oxford in the 1980s. Whatever the reason, and regardless of the facts of the matter, the vision rears up of Dave tuxed and red-cheeked, breeches at half-mast and a bristly ear in each fist, pounding the snout with his symphysis.

From The Blog
4 September 2015

Last month, Amnesty International’s decision-making body meeting in Dublin voted ‘to adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work’. The policy rests ‘on the human rights principle that consensual sexual conduct between adults is entitled to protection from state interference’.

From The Blog
5 August 2015

In the early 1960s, the British state, having decided people could go to hell in their own way, legalised both suicide and off-course betting. Newly legal high-street bookies like my father, poshed up into ‘turf accountants’, still had to do their business behind frosted glass, lest passers-by be corrupted by glimpses of the depravities within. In a school-gate encounter with my mother, a fellow parent, Mr Crapp – a pillar of the local chartered accountants’ guild and man of God – voiced his surprise that she had the brass to show herself in public, given her husband’s job. My doubts about moralism surfaced around this time. Later, the parallel realisation dawned that bankers, mortgage lenders, insurers, even Mr Crapp – the plaster saints of market society – had feet of clay.

From The Blog
21 July 2015

Life as a royal correspondent has its longueurs. In fact, much of the time, there’s little but longueurs. At the palace tea-parties, everyone’s on their best, terrified of letting rip a Pimm’s burp or treading on a corgi. One yearns for a bit of bad behaviour – a drunken streaker, say, or a blue-blood f-bashing a dithering pap, or a party guest who’s swapped the usual frock coat and topper for a full Afrika Korps service uniform. One waits in vain, too, for her majesty to appear in SS rig to lead the canapé-rodents in a rendering of the Horst Wessel. Still, the Sun’s ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ scoop falls not far short of this.

From The Blog
10 July 2015

A new five-year plan is always a landmark event in the life of the people. The chancellor has acknowledged the deviationist errors of the past. He has re-educated himself since the 2012 budget which tried to VAT meat pies, a staple of the worker’s diet. He has learned how to do glottal stops so he can tell the people how it is in a language they understand. He is the economy’s friend. He knows that a friend to the economy is a friend to the worker, the powerhouse of the land.

From The Blog
26 June 2015

This week the queen showed up in Berlin to meet Angela Merkel. Her trip has taken in excursions to Frankfurt and Bergen-Belsen, to which the British seem to feel a proprietary bond through its having been liberated by UK and Commonwealth forces. She looked bemused when her hosts presented her with a painting, based on a photo from 1935, of her sitting on a sub-Franz Marc blue pony in front of her father, George VI. Did the queen recognise him? ‘No.’ Links between Germany and the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha remain robust, despite a couple of regrettable misunderstandings during the last century. But for the vagaries of 18th-century Anglican politics, the queen might have spent a blameless life pickling cabbage in Dortmund. At Berlin’s Technical University this week, she was greeted by a robot imitating the royal wave. It underlines the fact that the queen could have her job done for her by an android.

From The Blog
18 June 2015

Legend has it that every English schoolboy knows three things about the battle of Waterloo. Each turns on a supposed remark by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; English footsoldiers were ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’; and, in a charge near the battle’s end, when his cavalry commander had his right knee puréed by French grapeshot – ‘By G_d, sir, they have shot off my leg’ – the Duke responded with puckered sangfroid: ‘By G_d, sir, so they have.’

From The Blog
28 May 2015

The Queen’s Speech has all the pomposity and solemnity of a panto you’re not allowed to laugh at. This bowdlerises its political content, grimly apparent were it delivered by a nerd in a lounge suit. Elizabeth lumbers in, glazed and jowly, with the familiar cast of attendant lords, including her husband, her heir and her heir’s duchess, who’s kitted out with a purple sash that could be left over from the Ukip election campaign. As ever the queen herself looks as if her breakfast porridge had too much mogadon in it. Since she always reads her script as if she were reciting the E numbers on a packet of jelly, it’s anyone’s guess what, if anything, she thinks about it. The custodian of the speech is a nerd usually seen in a lounge suit, Michael Gove, who from journeyman beginnings as a Times hack and a Commons expenses home-flipper, has now hit it big as lord chancellor. Yesterday he got to try out his new 18th-century chancellorial garb.

From The Blog
15 May 2015

‘Queen Victoria stuck to the throne like shit to a blanket,’ my grandmother would occasionally remark during one of her Benson & Hedges-fuelled historical disquisitions. Annette Crosbie had then lately been on telly in Edward the Seventh, as the Prince of Wales’s dismayingly adhesive materfamilias. Bertie, as he was known to his intimates, spent a lot of his long wait for the throne on grouse moors and in Parisian knocking-shops. It could be argued that he was spending his time more fruitfully than the present Prince of Wales, whose ten-year-old letters to government ministers have just been published after a long campaign by the Guardian.

From The Blog
11 May 2015

Nothing in Ed Miliband’s election campaign became him like losing it. For all the garment-rending since Thursday, it was a good election for Labour to flunk. Even without a formal agreement with the Scottish Nationalists, a Labour government would have been perpetually open to the charge of being ‘held to ransom’ by an SNP fraction pulling the UK ever further leftwards. The Tories, probably led by Boris Johnson and hoorayed by the press, would have been free to indulge in Europhobic braying from the opposition benches without the discipline of running an in/out referendum to make them act responsibly. Miliband would have been torn between two nationalisms: the left separatism that has obliterated it throughout Scotland, and the rightist anglonationalism of Ukip that has leeched Labour’s vote in northern England. Fleet street would have had a hoot. It would have made eating bacon sandwiches look like a picnic.

From The Blog
30 April 2015

Earlier this month Southampton University spiked a conference on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, organised by an Israeli-born professor of law and philosophy at the university, Oren Ben-Dor. It had promised to explore ‘the creation and the nature of the Jewish state’ and ‘the role international law can play in political struggles’. The idea had got about that Southampton would be throwing a shindig for aspiring jihadis and Zion-deniers, thanks to the Henry Jackson Society, Eric Pickles and the Daily Express, who demanded that the event be squelched.

From The Blog
10 April 2015

In the brave new world of know-biz, universities now issue ‘tone of voice’ marketing-correctness drills to staff charged with handling the ‘brand’. The comms and marketing wonks who write them face a tough challenge: to pander to their institution’s special-snowflake syndrome, while spouting the same commercial cobblers as everyone else.

From The Blog
27 March 2015

The UK Supreme Court yesterday ruled that 27 'black spider' memos sent to the government by Prince Charles in 2004-5 may be published. Judges overruled a bid by Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, to gag publication. Thoughts that Charles has previously shared only with his mother's ministers and sympathetic root vegetables may now see the light of day. In response to the Supreme Court decision, the prime minister shared his 'disappointment' with a grieving nation, while the prince's office said that 'Clarence House is disappointed that the principle of privacy has not been upheld.’

From The Blog
20 March 2015

Last month Amsterdam students occupied the Bungehuis building on Spuistraat, in protest against the university’s ‘Profiel 2016’ plan to shred jobs and academic programmes. Hardest hit is the humanities faculty, rated in the top thirty globally in 2011, where around 100 staff face the axe. Within humanities, ‘small’ languages such as Arabic, Polish and Italian will no longer exist as majors. Falling enrolment is blamed, though humanities admissions rose from 1417 in 2006 to 1875 in 2010. The cuts aim to save €7 million from 2017; other humanities programmes may be ‘consolidated’ into a generic liberal arts structure.

From The Blog
13 March 2015

Last week the government ‘delivered’ on its plan to privatise the successful East Coast main line. Stagecoach and Virgin now co-own it. My first experience of the new regime came while buying a ticket for my daughter, when I saw that the old East Coast booking site has been cosmetically Virginised. I was charged £6.45 for ‘special delivery next day’. Five days later, the travel time booked for had come and gone. Two messages of complaint, no reply, and Virgin still has my cash safely trousered.

From The Blog
25 February 2015

‘People of the same trade seldom meet together,’ Adam Smith said, ‘but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public.’ Smith was wiser to the wheezes of the marketplace than many of his latterday disciples. But even he might have found it hard to credit that democratic governments could conspire to bind themselves to accepting private supply of essential services.

From The Blog
16 February 2015

Austeritarian politics minds less about balancing the books than cutting the state. It aims to bear down on public spending but also distrusts tax, particularly on the well-off. Austeritarians bang on about the debt while failing to plug revenue holes. Labour muddied the issue last week by merging it with the question of toxic party funding. At prime minister’s questions Ed Miliband attacked Tory donors including Lord Fink, who’d benefited from HSBC’s newly exposed Swiss tax scamming. Miliband apparently saw this as a chance to brand the Tories as high-rollers contemptuous of the fisc. The tactic was doubly doomed.

From The Blog
9 January 2015

Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage. Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones.

From The Blog
24 December 2014

George Orwell, in a celebrated if brutal remark, said that at fifty everybody has the face he deserves. Luckily for him, Orwell didn’t have to specify what one would need to have done to deserve the face Tony Blair has on his Christmas card this year. As a schoolteacher in the 1980s I took my politics class to sit in the Strangers’ Gallery of the House of Commons. More or less horizontal on the shadow front bench, his feet propped on the Speaker’s table, lounged the recently elected member for Sedgefield, aged 31 and acting already as if he owned the gaff. I thought he was an arse then. It would probably be over-egging it to say that he’s come round to this point of view. But on the Xmas card, Blair wears the look of a man wracked by other people’s conscience. His wife, in scarlet, manages to coax her features into a simper while cosying to his manly pecs.

From The Blog
12 December 2014

Western just war theory progressed in lockstep with justifications of slavery. Infidels waging unjust war had put themselves beyond the moral pale and were fair game for enslavement – a humane act, since the alternative was death. We no longer ‘believe’ in slavery (modern-day servitude notwithstanding). But as in the crusades and modern humanitarian bombing, human lives are small fry in the face of high moral purpose.

From The Blog
21 November 2014

Foam, Amsterdam’s photography museum, has been running a show on Disguise and Deception featuring work by Anika Schwarzelose, derived from the Tarnen und Täuschen camouflage unit of the German army. On Monday, Foam staged an associated symposium at the Marineterrein naval base.

From The Blog
7 November 2014

The philosophers ‘will need to use a lot of drugs’, Plato says in the Republic, talking of the guardians’ need to con the banausics into thinking that their destiny is to keep their betters pondering. It’s one of my favourite Plato lines – ‘No pun intended, man!’ as Russell Brand might say. The other night, I speed-read – or, if you like, e-read, crack-read, acid-read – Brand’s shlockbuster Revolution, and had the strange feeling of having read it faster than I had.

From The Blog
31 October 2014

I was walking along the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam’s inner canal belt when a woman whizzed past on a bike. She was perhaps in her fifties, and presumably, like most English visitors, on the chuckle-gum trail. I knew she was English because of the way she screamed at nobody in particular as she zipped by: ‘They’ve given me a bike with no fucking brakes!’

From The Blog
14 October 2014

How many languages do you speak? Last week Jakub Marian, ‘a Czech mathematician, linguist, and musician currently living in Germany’, blogged his guesstimate of the figure for the typical person in each European country. Expectedly, the British are near the bottom of the heap; only the Hungarians do worse. It’s debatable whether this is cause or effect of the anglosphere’s hegemony (well, perhaps not that debatable, though it’s hard not to like the theory that puts its triumph down to Britons’ refusal to learn anyone else’s lingo). The Brits bounce back, though, if the question is what percentage of a given country’s population speaks English, at around 95 per cent.

From The Blog
16 September 2014

Is the island of Albion about to split? It’s clear that the No/Yes gap has narrowed but it’s still likelier that ‘No’ will win, by a clear if not comfortable margin; certainly if the bookies, who usually get these things right, are credited. The London press has blunderbussed out unionist propaganda, some of which, in the way of propaganda, has hit the truth, notably about Salmond’s triangulation of left and right by promising to scrap Trident while levying bargain-basement business rates. No prizes for guessing which pledge would be met first.

From The Blog
26 August 2014

A few weeks ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rescinded its offer of tenure to a professor of English then working at Virginia Tech. Steven Salaita was offered a post as professor of American Indian studies, subject to the formality of confirmation by the university's board of trustees. Before the board met, the university's chancellor, Phyllis Wise, wrote to Salaita revoking the appointment: the board was, she said, unlikely to approve tenure, so the proposal to appoint would not be put to them. Since then, a large number of academics have signed petitions condemning UIUC's decision and undertaking to boycott the university.

From The Blog
5 August 2014

'We tortured some folks,' Barack Obama admitted the other day, in a speech hailed as an unflinching mea culpa for the post 9/11 'enhanced interrogation' programme. It's not the first time Obama has reached for the F-word. In a speech in New Britain, Connecticut, earlier this year, Obama addressed the spiny question of the US's yawning inequality. 'There are folks at the top who are doing better than ever... we understand that some folks are going to earn more than others.' Happily, the president was battling to make sure 'hardworking folks' got a rise. They included the good 'folks who are cooking the meals of our troops, or washing their dishes, or cleaning their clothes. The country should pay those folks a wage you can live on.'

From The Blog
1 August 2014

This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.

From The Blog
15 July 2014

Under ten months till the UK general election, and the parties are busy pushing round the hat. Last week Labour threw a fundraiser at the Camden Roundhouse, at £15,000 for a seat at the top table. But that's barely a groat in the cap beside the Tories' prowess at stuffing the topper.

From The Blog
4 July 2014

Just how nasty are politicians expected to be? Maybe they need to look nastier than they really are, because the demos demands that they hang tough. Even so, voters baulk at politicians who go home and dismember effigies of opponents or torture kittens; indeed the public, at least as ventriloquised by the press, demands politicos not succumb to such common moral foibles as fibbing, graft and the wedlock-bucking hump. As the two demands clash, modern politicians find themselves flip-flopping between machismo and piety – which explains why, taken in the round, they often present as characterless vacuums. Thatcher’s and Blair’s premierships managed to strike both poses at once, in a tic that degenerated into self-caricature.

From The Blog
24 June 2014

After years working as a subeditor on the Grauniad – where, as the joke went, his job was to put in the typos – my brother Adam now bakes sourdough loaves for a living in his flat in New Cross Gate. He delivers the bread to the residents of Telegraph Hill in the pannier of a cream-coloured converted 125cc Taiwanese scooter. He also owns a small hand-operated lever-press made by Adana of Twickenham, and uses it to print poems that he encloses with each loaf. A spindled roller passes over a revolving disc painted with ink and passes it onto the set type, which is then clamped against the platen holding the paper as the lever is depressed. Typesetting is time-consuming – setting a poem (his preferred font is Garamond 12-point) can take several hours – and the composited formes use up most of his type, so he keeps a poem, once typeset, for a month at a time.

From The Blog
11 June 2014

Does Michael Gove exist? It’s a poser of the kind that vexes philosophers who scratch their oxters over puzzles such as the nature of holes: does the hole in your pocket exist as some thing, over and above a sheer absence of fabric, or is it really zilch, with the striking attributes that nothing boasts (such as a lack of physical location)? Here, as often in philosophy, the big if is whether everyday chatter can survive a hard look at how things are. And when it comes to Gove-chat, that must be more than doubtful.

From The Blog
5 June 2014

It might have been synergy. Last weekend Edinburgh’s new tram service opened, passing the newly refurbished and enlarged Haymarket station, just months before Scotland hosts the Commonwealth Games and holds its independence referendum. The trams are quite nice. They offer on-board wifi and public service notices in minuscule (‘have you validated?’). They creep along as softly as a caterpillar over cashmere, and sport stripes in the council’s signature offal colour, the legacy of Walter Scott. In fact, seeming synergy is mere serendipity. Edinburgh’s tram system was meant to open in 2011. The construction project is a hangover from the NeoLab scamalot days, when public and private, state and shyster, could doss down together like the lion and lamb, and zero-sum was old-thinkers’ lore.

From The Blog
26 May 2014

Sleek, complacent Brussels takes its alfresco chocolate and beer and waffles in the early summer sunshine, untroubled by the European elections or a few anti-semitic murders. The bo-bo Sablon district, which hosts the Jewish Museum, scene of Saturday’s shootings, was thick with drinkers again twenty-four hours later; indeed, the gratification of a man interviewed by Flemish VTM Nieuws soon after the attacks remained undimmed when he learned that the TV crew was there because three people had just been shot dead about a hundred metres away. I went down there on Sunday evening. ‘Ah oui, j’en ai entendu parler,’ a young woman said absently. I’d given her directions to Petit Sablon, and said there were a lot of police were about because of the murders. Nothing much is meant by this indifference – it would no doubt have been the same had the victims been Arab or Chinese. Apathy is a great leveller.

From The Blog
23 May 2014

What price a mobile phone? Pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act, passed after the 2008 crash, the US Securities and Exchange Commission set 2 June 2014 as the deadline for mining companies to report the provenance of minerals they put on commodities markets, the aim being to flag ‘conflict minerals’ as such. Minerals dug in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces, including coltan (columbium tantalum) cassiterite and gold, are used in capacitors and other components for tablets, phones and computers. Various armed rebel groups in and around the Kivus vie for control of the mostly hand-worked mines.

From The Blog
2 May 2014

Why isn't there just zilch? It would have saved everyone a lot of bother, and you wonder why it never occurred to the Almighty. Creative artists, whose calling is to negate nothing by making something, can prove strangely drawn to inexistence – their own, if not the world’s in general. W.H. Auden found T.S. Eliot playing patience once, and asked him why he liked the game. Eliot said: 'Well, I suppose it's the nearest thing to being dead.' Painting seems to have done much the same for Francisco de Zurbarán, the subject of a major exhibition at the Bozar centre in Brussels until 25 May.

From The Blog
7 April 2014

Twenty years ago, on 6 April 1994, the aircraft carrying Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyrien Ntaryarima, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi respectively, was shot down near Kigali airport as they returned from peace talks in Tanzania. Both died, along with others on board. In the following months between 800,000 and one million Rwandans were murdered; as a central Africa co-ordinator for Amnesty at the time, I remember it all too clearly, not least the wilful flannel deployed during April and May by the Clinton presidency and his secretary of state Madeleine Albright to dodge using the action-triggering term ‘genocide’.

From The Blog
31 March 2014

Out over the Toison d’Or the old bastard glooms. Shovel-bearded, he sits astride his mount, his 1000-yard gaze intent on the main chance. The socle bears his name, his regnal dates, and the legend ‘PATRIA MEMOR’: a stern summons to remembrance. As usual, though, with such biddings, the true call is for selective forgetting. It calls Belgians to remember the patrimony bequeathed by King Leopold II with riches milked from the empire in the Congo. In fact, to label Leopold’s venture ‘imperialist’ is, if anything, flattering.

From The Blog
17 March 2014

Three years ago I wrote a blog post hailing the New College for the Humanities as a parodically bad response to the ongoing marketisation of UK higher education, which prompted me to quit the system at that time. The NCH offers tuition at £18,000, and presumably more for its overseas intake (the college keeps its foreign students’ rates secret). That’s double the rate that was then being introduced as the sector norm in public universities, for which the jeunesse dorée get to camp in Bloomsbury, drawn by the roster of telly dons that the college had on board, at least for publicity purposes. At the end of the post, without much hope that it would happen, I sketched an alternative to the NCH:

From The Blog
8 March 2014

In 1878, as the Russo-Turkish war raged and Britons feared Russian expansion, the music-hall star G.H. MacDermott was crooning the ditty that gave the word ‘jingoism’ to the language. As McDermott pointed out, ‘we’ve fought the Bear before’ and ‘we’ve got the men, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the money too.' Now we’ve got few men, no aircraft carriers, and we’re broke. All that’s left, like a feedback screech, is the high moral tone.

From The Blog
18 February 2014

As my mother likes to say, life’s a shit and then you die. Not only that, but many of the things that help mitigate the shit – overeating, drugs, booze, brain-addling TV, tobacco – are likely to make you die sooner rather than later. So the clear-eyed choice is between eking out an existence of miserable and abstemious longevity, and one where the booze, as well as getting you pissed in the short term, bestows the added boon of an early grave.

From The Blog
23 January 2014

Those who hold up the Netherlands as a beacon of toleration often cite Amsterdam’s ganja speakeasies as evidence. Last weekend I took a (coach) trip there to see them. On the coach our Dutch chaperones are Brian and Edgar. Brian (his real name) has lived in Brussels for the past eighteen months. He reckons that Brussels, and Belgium generally, suck the chrome off a bumper. Why? Everything is better in the Netherlands. ‘Amsterdam is like New York. Brussels is like a village in Arizona. Public transport is shit. Everything is dirty. Wifi coverage is crap compared with Holland. Vegetables in the shops are squashy or too hard. And the bureaucracy...’ ‘Don’t tell me about the bureaucracy,’ I say, but he does anyway, with a credible saga about his problems getting a Belgian bank card. I ask him about the coffee shops.

From The Blog
10 January 2014

A quarter century after the Mauerfall, much of Berlin is still a building site. Hoardings often enthuse ‘Wir bauen um!’ ('We're rebuilding!') to an inconvenienced public, as if construction projects were never simply means, but always ends in themselves.

From The Blog
22 November 2013

As the saying goes, horses for courses – and now, if the Princess Royal gets her way, those courses will include not just Aintree or Newmarket, but first and main, possibly served with horseradish sauce or horse chestnuts. Princess Anne, as she used to be known before she was upgraded to Princess Royal as one in the eye for Diana, declared last week that horse should be on the menu again, notwithstanding the brouhaha earlier this year over horse meat. Times are hard: food is dear. So the proles can't afford Tesco value sausage? Let them eat horse.

From The Blog
12 November 2013

France last week had its credit rating knocked down a tick from AA+ to AA by one of the ‘big three’ rating agencies. Standard & Poor’s blamed the French economy’s sluggish recovery, high unemployment and a high debt-GDP ratio. Credit ratings, whose rationale is to make risk assessments for investors, matter for governments and other bond issuers, since lower ratings mean higher borrowing costs, and downgraded bonds can tailspin as increased repayments up the likelihood of issuers’ defaulting. For governments, that means higher budget deficits, and calls for austerity to balance the books.

So credit ratings are big bananas. But what are credit rating agencies?

From The Blog
28 October 2013

Earlier this year the first volume of Charles Moore’s ‘authorised’ biography of Margaret Thatcher appeared. Now it’s the turn of Jonathan Aitken’s Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality. Aitken’s fond of these plosive alliterative titles: his back catalogue includes Pride and Perjury and Porridge and Passion. An alumnus of Eton and Belmarsh – withstanding the rigours of the one doubtless good prep for the other – Aitken went down for perjury and perverting the course of justice in 1999, having lied when suing the Guardian for libel.

From The Blog
21 October 2013

A striking current feature of the European political landscape is its convergence and separatism. As the European Union expands, secessionism keeps pace. Scotland’s referendum is next September. Artur Mas steps up the pressure on the Spanish government to timetable a poll on Catalan independence. In Belgium, borborygmal noises from Flemish separatists are a ground bass over which national politics plays. Anyone tempted by the thought that secession is always nice has to face the history of Texas.

From The Blog
1 October 2013

From Glasgow to Brighton to Manchester, the party conference roadshow grinds on and, as every year, the big relief with the Tory do is that it’s the last one. The party shindies – still called ‘conferences’, but rallies in all but name – offer televiewers (and who watches this stuff?) a window on Totalitaria, a Lego Pyongyang. One-liners are delivered, opponents are trashed, and it often takes the somnolent claque a while to cotton on that they’ve missed their cue to ovate. Speakers offer little in‐jokes to nervous titters from the floor. Why don’t the party managers go the whole hog and have the rank and vile simply holding up cards, North Korea-style, to make a big smiley face when Osborne or Pickles reaches a claptrap moment? The telly coverage, too, is a pain in the arse, with kitsch‐complicit cutaway shots from whichever hack is on the rostrum, to their spouse or arch-enemy, to humanise the whole ghastly spectacle.

From The Blog
23 September 2013

It’s the season of the sere and yellow leaf, the fig hangs heavy on the bough, and here in Belgium it’s the rentrée académique. Down at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the bright yellow waffle van on the corner fills the air with the smell of ‘chocolate’ waffle additive, and makeshift blue canvas booths line the main campus boulevard. Student societies are offering newcomers various inducements to sign up. A free Bic seems a dubious swap for being spammed for ever by the Zombie Society, though it’s better than the carrot I remember one club offering when I was a student, a raffle ticket with a 1/nth (for n≈∞) chance of splitting a yet‐to­‐be­‐built cabaña in the Canaries for 37 minutes every February. It didn’t take long for some joker to add a large M at the end of the society’s ‘Win a Timeshare Condo’ slugline.

From The Blog
4 September 2013

Once, in a time beyond political memory, charity was touted as part of the government’s big thing. Conservatism in its ethical moments takes warmth from the idea of the well-off writing cheques drawn against their sense of richesse oblige, and the not well-off selling jumble and raffling gin to aid the needy in lieu of the state; indeed, this is how the Conservative Party itself has long been run. Its Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, introduced just before the recess and hurried back to Parliament for its second reading yesterday, sets up a statutory register for lobbyists.

From The Blog
28 August 2013

Justice is a toughie. It so often gets mangled in a slew of circumstance. The man who threw up beside me this week in Edinburgh at a production of A Theory of Justice: the Musical! as it revved towards climax may have not have been passing caustic comment on the show and its hymn to justice. But for me and others nearby it certainly gave the last ten minutes or so of the ‘all singing, all dancing romp through 2500 years of political philosophy’ an extra piquancy.

From The Blog
15 August 2013

As the story goes, an Oxford philosopher is asked by his wife to watch the soup while she’s out of the room. She returns to find him staring fixedly at the broth, as it bubbles all over the hob. The joke is on the prof, at once other-worldly and too literal-minded to follow a simple instruction (as Bernard Williams remarked, what would he have done if his wife had asked him to keep an eye on the soup?). But what does it say about the word literally, if a simple task like soup-watching can be cocked up by taking it too literally?

From The Blog
27 July 2013

To pardonable glee from the press, the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has got his crozier stuck in a cowpat, after suggesting that the Church of England could set up in business as rivals to payday lending firms. The church commissioners, who nurture the Church of England’s £5.5 billion-odd of assets, ‘manage a well-diversified investment portfolio’; in pursuit of this diversity they forked £75,000 to Wonga – generally seen as a ravenous great white among loan sharks, which last year was caught charging students interest at over 4200 per cent. Still, seventy-five grand out of five and a half billion is barely a drop in the font.

From The Blog
22 July 2013

With the Duchess of Cambridge in hospital, the media have gone into couvade. I’d half thought of a gag about ‘crowning’, but blow me if the Centre for Retail Research in Newark hasn’t got there already, headlining a press release: ‘As the royal baby crowns...’ The next bit says that Britons are set to bazooka an extra £243 million once the baby’s born.

From The Blog
4 July 2013

King Albert II of Belgium has mothballed his orb, vacating the gilded seat for his eldest son and heir, 53-year-old Prince Philippe, whose general aptitude and fitness for the job lie, by common consent even among Belgian royalists, somewhere south of a root vegetable’s. The thought that his new job might be better entrusted to a beetroot is unlikely to have crossed Philippe’s mind, but then, local royal-watchers suggest, not much does.

From The Blog
28 June 2013

As we know, the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom, but its arguments often look like a Möbius band. What goes round, comes round on the other side. This week the US Supreme Court made a couple of landmark decisions, one about the 1965 Voter Registration Act, the other on the Defence of Marriage Act 1996 (and a California statute of 2008). Coverage of the decisions amounts to law-making as team sport. Liberals (and others) throng round their screens, agog to learn which bunch of mainly old white straight Christian men will prevail – prevail, that is, by vote, whether or not by the force of stronger argument. This week, each decision went 5-4, against a key provision of the VRA (boo!) and against DOMA (yeees!).

From The Blog
7 May 2013

For the next period, debate over the UK’s relations with Europe, and UK politics generally, will be dominated by Ukip. Because of but also despite Nigel Farage’s persona – about one part Jeremy Clarkson to two parts Mr Toad – the purple people won big in last week’s local elections, and can now enjoy watching the Tories rip out each other’s gizzards in a political version of the Eton wall game. As the general election’s witching hour draws near, the Tory undead have started to rise, stakes uprooted from their hollow chests. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for an electoral pact with Ukip. From his Telegraph column Lord Tebbit tacks as close to endorsing Ukip as any Tory can who wants not to be blown out of the party. Now Nigel Lawson, dad of the more famous Nigella, has become the first major Conservative to announce that if David Cameron manages to hold his promised referendum on EU membership around 2017, he’ll vote for the trapdoor.

From The Blog
27 April 2013

In February the German president, Joachim Gauck, called for English to be adopted as the official EU language, partly to make the UK feel more loved now that David Cameron’s committed himself to an in-out referendum. Another candidate might be Latin, Europe’s lingua franca for over a millennium, but the ancient Romans are not thinking of leaving the union. This has its serious side, as the EU’s 23 languages (to become 24 when Croatia joins) contribute to a democratic defici; as with Belgium, in some ways the EU in microcosm, failure of accountability is often put down to the lack of a common language.

From The Blog
17 April 2013

1. Britain became ‘great again’ by leaping up the international output table. In fact, the IMF table of economies listed by nominal GDP put Britain sixth in 1979, where it still was in 1990 – it had overtaken the Soviet Union but also been leapfrogged by Italy. 2. Thatcher presided over a dramatic contraction of the state. Despite the privatisations, industrial policy led to a countervailing increase in the welfare bill. 3. She cut taxes. In fact, as a proportion of GDP tax receipts went up between 1979 and 1990, from 33.7 to 34.6 per cent. This had to happen to avoid drastic budget deficits caused by unemployment and associated ills. Thatcher did cut taxes for the well-off, but financed them with regressive indirect tax rises, notably the VAT hike of 1979.

From The Blog
28 March 2013

Boredom’s use as a political weapon is underappreciated. It allows liberties to be filched by stealth, on the wild frontier beyond people’s attention span. Such is the case with Real Time Information (RTI), whose full ‘roll out’ starts with the new fiscal year on 6 April (it’s already being piloted). It's been described as the biggest change to Pay As You Earn since 1944, when PAYE came in, but few people beyond payroll managers, employers and accountants have heard of it. Under RTI the tedium that shrouds any accountancy-related matter is compounded by the blandness of a clerical rejig. Instead of reporting payroll details to HMRC at the end of the tax year, as now, employers will be ‘invited’ (at two weeks’ notice) to join RTI, where the data are supplied to HMRC in ‘real time’.

From The Blog
15 March 2013

People sometimes ask me why I moan on so much about the royal family. Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like war, political repression, man-made climate change or Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League? To give the short answer, yes. But in a funny way, no. As constitutional monarchists never tire of saying, the sovereign is a figurehead. A figurehead symbolises or stands for something else. In the UK, the queen bears the same relation to the state as the Michelin man does to the tyre company, or the golden arches do to McDonald’s Corporation. Brand protection is big bucks; symbols matter.

From The Blog
8 March 2013

One result of marketising UK universities is that they now act like private corporations. Campus high-ups make policy by fiat; university senates have little more power than shareholders’ AGMs. Vice chancellors defer to the latest government ukaz, kissing up and kicking down. Like banks and supermarkets, they fret over their public image, and whack employees thought to tarnish the brand, as Nottingham did during the Rod Thornton affair. Now London Metropolitan has suspended three members of staff in its Working Lives Research Institute – Jawad Botmeh, Steve Jefferys and Max Watson – for ‘potential gross misconduct’.

From The Blog
1 March 2013

By-elections seldom mean that much. The idea that they matter a lot is an illusion jointly propagated by party hacks, to whom they do matter a lot, and press hacks, whose job is to make them look as if they matter. Party candidates, ventriloquised by their minders, are egged on to terrorise hapless local voters with the prospective death of Nato or the EU, communist invasion, or droves of dark immigrants if they stick their cross in the wrong box. Journos generally play ball. They roll out their watersheds, such as the 1962 Orpington by-election, ‘credited’ with springing the old Liberal Party from the morgue gurney (and, one might add, much good that’s done us).

From The Blog
24 January 2013

Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.

From The Blog
12 January 2013

The National Portrait Gallery has just unveiled its portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, formerly Kate Middleton. The picture follows loyally in the narcoleptic tradition of royal portraiture, where the sitter gives every impression of having taken a cocktail of Valium and Reader’s Digest.

From The Blog
29 December 2012

It’s that time of year again, when the roulette wheel stops and an anxious nation learns who’s bagged a gong in the New Year honours list. It would be unchivalrous as well as unnecessary to bring up Sir Jimmy Savile’s knighthood. Nor need mention be made of Sirs Nicolae Ceauşescu, Fred Goodwin, Lester Piggott, Mark Thatcher and Robert Mugabe, or the bent financier Jack Lyons. But as these illustrious defrocked show, bestowing honours now means taking a punt: plaster saints so often prove to have feet of clay. One of the headaches facing the honours committee, which passes up a list of names via the prime minister to Her Majesty, is that it knows that it is betting on the future durability of present reputation. Bradley Wiggins seems a good egg, but then so did the now benighted Lance Armstrong, his feat in winning the Tour after shrugging off testicle cancer dimmed by a cocktail of performance pills and diuretics. The problem of drug-pepped prowess extends beyond sport. What if it turns out that Tracey Emin produced such works as My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With while out of her tree on bong?

From The Blog
24 December 2012

Fundamentalism about texts, legal or biblical, marks people of the book. The word, taken at its word, affords a rallying-point of last resort for societies whose bonds are otherwise watery. The Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia, for instance, is an ‘originalist’ about law – he thinks that with texts like the Second Amendment, their meaning now is what a reasonable person would have taken it to be when it was enacted. Originalism can look quite like ancestor worship, though according to Scalia it is the only way judges can avoid interpreting law via their own prejudices. That claim sounds odder after reading the Supreme Court judgment in DC v. Heller, which ruled unconstitutional a DC law regulating the private ownership of firearms. There Scalia devotes twenty tortuous pages to expositing the phrase ‘keep and bear arms’ as it figures in the Second Amendment, with riffle-throughs of Johnson’s Dictionary, which fail, despite his best efforts, to mask the fact that its meaning turns out to be what a ‘reasonable’ 18th-century pre-incarnation of Antonin Scalia would take it to be.

From The Blog
30 November 2012

Press propaganda before the Leveson report came out warned darkly that a statutory press scrutiny body would herald a return to a censorship regime that expired in 1695. The Telegraph and others insinuated that in that year newspaper publishers, tireless in their defence of free speech, finally won out against an overweening state.

From The Blog
23 November 2012

When people ask why I left UK academe for Brussels, I usually say I came here to escape bureaucracy. Belgian universities are hardly free of red tape, but they seem much less bad than the UK, where commercialisation and endless government-monitored performance indices give rise to the bureaucratic version of the categorical imperative: that committees be treated never merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Still, the myth persists, and nowhere more so than in Britain, that Brussels as the EU capital pullulates with Eurocrats living high on the hog.

From The Blog
20 November 2012

What is the point of academic journals? The main one, surely, is to disseminate new findings and ideas, but this doesn’t go far in explaining the current publications set-up. Journal articles loom large in government monitoring exercises like the Research Excellence Framework, a Standard & Poor’s-type academic credit-rating. REF figures shape departments’ public research funding and individual researchers’ career prospects.

But the ghost of G.E. Moore haunts the exercise: quality can’t be boiled down to component merits that are then tick-boxed into a ‘metric’.

From The Blog
11 October 2012

Political party gatherings in the UK are no longer conferences, but telly-fodder rallies. The members show up, apparently of their own volition, and sit there like mannequins, a studio audience tasked to chortle, applaud, boo, pout concern and ovate on cue. As it’s going out in real time, it has to be got right in the first take. Even Triumph of the Will had to fake up some sequences in post-production. In a banner over the entrance to Birmingham's Symphony Hall, and plastered across the lectern, was the legend ‘Britain Can Deliver’. When and why did this intransitive, wholly generic use of deliver catch on, as if the UK were a nation of milkmen or obstetricians? Whether delivery is welcome rather depends on what’s being delivered. One can imagine a Tory conference anno 1770 under the strapline ‘Britain: Delivering Slavery throughout the Empire’. In his speech David Cameron had the gall to puff the fact that Britain had ‘led the world’ in abolishing slavery, having practised it with gusto for 150-odd years beforehand, and tossing in the towel only after losing the American colonies.

From The Blog
8 October 2012

In the bad old days, neoliberals bemoaned state meddling in the economy with a mobile army of mixed metaphors. Public corporations like the state-owned car giant British Leyland were ‘lame ducks’ that would ‘go to the wall’ were they not ‘featherbedded’ and ‘bloated’ by public subsidy. In the 1980s privatisation bonanza, state assets were stripped and sold back to the public at a discount, on the plea of serving the consumer, rather than producer interests. Now, fuddled by talk of ‘stakeholding’, we have got to the point where public policy defers to private producers instead. David Willetts’s open access policy on publishing research offers a case in point.

From The Blog
17 September 2012

Oh, to be in Belgium, now the British party conference season is near. As a talking-point here in the brasseries of Euroland, the UK political season’s kick-off is bested only by Bernard Arnault’s application for Belgian nationality and Herman van Rompuy’s Elvis obsession. David Cameron looks increasingly like a man in over his head. The best that can be said of the reshuffle is that it didn’t make things much worse – but then, a reshuffle makes little odds when all the cards are jokers.

From The Blog
24 August 2012

One can only imagine what thoughts may have passed through the Queen’s mind at breakfast this morning as she digested the front page of the Sun along with her bread and dripping. Most days she no doubt passes it across the breakfast table to her husband for page 3 while she gets her teeth into the Racing Post, but one fancies that, if for only a moment, the royal gaze fell on snaps of her grandson plastered – geddit?! – all over the front of the Current Bun. Catching a royal at it, in flagrante, in a naked – and here comes a word only ever used in red-top-land – romp, in the sort of royal flush that falls to hacks but rarely. It aligns all the bananas in the fruit machine, a feat pulled off in once-in-a-lifetime headlines like Gordon Ramsay’s 'Naked Dwarf Porn Double Found Dead in a Badger Hole in Wales', or the Scottish football writers’ dream, 'Super Callie Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious'.

From The Blog
6 August 2012

Week two of the Olympics, and British wins in boats, the velodrome and the Olympic stadium offer a feel-good moment. For some of ‘us’, the first person plural always induces a certain ‘Gott mit uns’-type queasiness, and the thought that the scope for identification between sinewy athletes and the British viewing public, sofa-stranded and bloated, is a bit tenuous. Still, as the economy continues to crap out, we blear-eyed viewers learn we care more than we ever thought about pukka equitation or the mysteries of luffing (‘Oh no! Saskia’s failed to trim her spinnaker!’). Daily Mail-reading immigration-haters whoop heartily over the successes of Christine Ohuruogu and Mo Farah, and rouse themselves from the sofa to dance ‘the Mobot’.

From The Blog
19 July 2012

In 2009, Elmer and Chastity Weebles, a Christian couple from Hackensaugh, New Hampshire, had their infant son marked with the stigmata of Christ. During the operation the feet and hands of eight-day-old Mercey Weebles were impaled with ordinary kitchen skewers by a medically unqualified pastor known to the Weebleses. Secularists lobbied to have the couple arraigned on charges of assault. But the DA’s office declined to file charges against the Weebleses, arguing that to do so would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The NH attorneys were backed by Deputy Governor Dirk Lopov-Iacioppa, touted as a future presidential hopeful, who proclaimed: ‘I do not want Hackensaugh to be the only county in the United States in which Christians cannot practise their rites.’

From The Blog
10 July 2012

In his Treasury Select Committee evidence yesterday, Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, denied nudging or winking to Barclays over the Libor rate. Whatever the semiotics, warning signs over Libor were already plain long before Tucker’s supposed nictation in October 2008. Minutes from November 2007 of the Bank’s money markets liaison committee meeting show its members were already exercised, eleven months before the exchanges between Tucker and Bob Diamond at Barclays, over lowballing Libor prices: several expressed concern that ‘Libor fixings had been lower than actual traded interbank rates’. The oversight regime resembles a dead chameleon, stuck on orange, while the system goes critical.

From The Blog
22 June 2012

‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,’ Carl Schmitt famously wrote in Political Theology. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which so excited Schmitt, invested the president with emergency powers. After they came to power in 1933, the Nazis duly got president Hindenburg to use article 48 to annul constitutional rights in the wake of the Reichstag fire. Executive fiat survives intact in today’s democracies. In the UK, Orders in Council persist as executive powers with the force of primary legislation, exercised under the royal prerogative – they were used in 2004, for example, to overturn a court ruling that the forcible exile of Chagos islanders was unlawful.

From The Blog
13 June 2012

In words that the secretary of state for education has caused to be placed in every school in the land, ‘He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 23.1, King James Version). Like the rest of the good book, this instils a useful lesson for life: it never rains but it pours. You get kneed in the nuts behind the bike shed, only to learn you’re not going to heaven either.

From The Blog
1 June 2012

Why do people love the queen? Or, to put a slightly different question: what do people love when they love the queen? Whatever it is, this week’s Guardian/ICM poll suggests that a lot of people still do. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents thought Britain would be worse off, and only 22 per cent better off, without her. As politicians sink ever deeper in public esteem, so the queen rises. Over the coming weekend the country’s usually scabrous public sphere will turn, as it did when Diana croaked, as deferential as Zimbabwe’s.

From The Blog
21 May 2012

Facebook’s $106 billion flotation last week offered a punt at $38 a share on a firm that databases consumer identities. Nobody knows, and some doubt, whether Facebook can convert that into dividends. But Google’s tussles with pseudonymous users like Identity Woman and BotGirl Questi show that ‘identity’ is big business both as cognomen and bundles of individuating data.

From The Blog
30 March 2012

Yesterday evening I had nothing better on, so I went round to some friends’ for a catch-up. Nothing too fancy, just a kitchen supper with some old muckers. Phipps the footman – no doubt a professional alias – met me at the front door of the flat and put me through the in-house baggage scanner before escorting me straight into the kitchen. It was the usual scene familiar from descriptions of London labouring-class homes. Plasma screen the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, blaring away over the Aga. Fair-trade bush-meat in the Smeg. Enamelled jerrycans brimful with bio-diesel.

From The Blog
22 March 2012

According to classical Garbage Can theory, set out in a landmark 1972 article by Marshall Cohen, James March and Johan Olsen, bureaucracies are essentially chaotic systems. In the public policy soup, policy entrepreneurs vie to find problems to which they can offer a solution. With an ad hoc cast of contributors, policy-making is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for a decision situation in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision-makers looking for work. George Osborne makes an unlikely Garbageman.

From The Blog
16 February 2012

Yesterday’s meeting between Benedict XVI and Baroness Warsi in Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the pontiff to meet a great spiritual leader of our time, for which he seems to have been grateful. (At least Ratzo was elected. In the Tory chair’s one face-down with the electorate, in Dewsbury in 2005, she managed to bump up Labour’s majority against the national swing.) Meanwhile, back in Britain, another unelected leader has weighed into the church-and-state debate: the queen delivered a paean to the ‘under-appreciated’ Church of England in front of representatives of what the newspaper write-ups, dutifully following the church’s press release, called ‘the eight non-Christian religions’.

From The Blog
23 December 2011

De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, as they say, and in this week of deaths it’s often been a job to tell the pearls from the balls. Unsurprisingly, the seldom missable Pyongyang Times has churned out snuff-guff prolifically of late, marking the dear leader Kim Jong Il’s passing ‘from a sudden attack of illness’, later amplified as myocardial infarction. The PRK has been convulsed by a spasm of grief, with North Korean telly screening continuous-loop footage of women rending their garments on a (stationary) escalator. Kim’s mortal coil lies in state like a beached dugong, in a glass case oddly reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s Popemobile. It’s rumoured that the corpse, like Kim Il Sung’s, will be whisked off to Moscow for embalming if Pyongyang can scrape together the dosh.

From The Blog
14 December 2011

It’s an ill wind that blows no jobs. The recent storms in north Britain have spotlighted Scotland’s plans to grow into a wind economy in the years to come. Alex Salmond, as head of the SNP government, has pledged to meet all of Scotland’s electricity needs from ‘renewables’ by 2020, and that plan rests squarely on wind. Salmond enthuses about Scotland’s ‘unrivalled green energy resources’. One thing that everyone agrees on, even ignoring the first minister’s own contribution, is that Scotland has a lot of wind.

From The Blog
30 November 2011

In every journalist, Marguerite Duras said, lies a moralist, and one knows what she meant. Moralism is the one trusty pleasure left to those whose knowledge is marred by their impotence. Modern societies and the internet create plenty of both, and so, predictably, tartuffery is the order of the day. Even bloggers – virtual hacks of no great moral pretensions – can sometimes get sucked in. It can be a challenge, faced with its seductions, to keep one’s feet planted firmly on the moral low ground. Duras might have found Paul McMullan a testing case for her dictum.

From The Blog
21 November 2011

Last week George Osborne announced that the government intends to cut back on Public Finance Initiative public procurement. PFI contracting, introduced by the Major government in the 1990s, grew apace under the Neo-Labs. Its attractions were obvious enough. Ministers responsible for public procurement in education, defence and health tend to find themselves under pressure to spend money in ways that deliver visible, short-term results, which has impeded capital investment in public infrastructure. PFI promised capital funding off the public balance sheet, with lots of new schools and hospitals to be paid for later. There was also the idea, which now looks ever more quaint, that for-profit businesses would bring market rigour to public works.

From The Blog
11 November 2011

Eleven-eleven-eleven is upon us, and the 93rd anniversary of the Armistice. Politicos and telly folk have long vied to out-poppy each other by getting on their red blooms ever earlier in October, and this week the poppy piety has merged with its near-ringer, the death-piety of the Premiership, where it only takes the groundsman’s cat to croak for a minute’s silence and black armbands all round. The entirely proper matter of honouring war dead has been 'overshadowed' by teacup squalls over the England football team’s royal-enforced right to wear poppies and Muslims’ lack of a right to burn them – with, as usual, the red-tops riding shotgun on the catafalque. Thursday’s Question Time panel, sanctimonious even by QT standards, unanimously agreed with the home secretary’s decision to ban poppy-burning, on the strange ground that this 'glorifies' terrorism.

From The Blog
31 October 2011

In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the eponymous couple wage attritional marital warfare. Mr Twit gradually lengthens his wife’s walking-stick and chair-legs to make her think that she’s got ‘the dreaded shrinks’ and will soon die by dwindling and finally disappearing. Such an end now awaits the fast-shrinking Big Society. Before Margaret Thatcher, Conservatives in government were chary of pursuing political projects. The likes of Lord Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin saw their job as keeping the seat warm, for fear it might pass to someone who meant to use office and not merely sit in it. But it doesn’t do nowadays for Tory leaders to own blandly that the propertied interest has its fists round the loot, and intends to keep things that way. Unlike Bob Cecil or Stan ‘the man’ Baldwin, Dave Cameron has to ‘reach out’ to the rank-scented many. Even the party of cloven-hoofed squirearchs must proffer a ‘vision’ or ‘narrative’ to voters who supposedly crave such a thing.

From The Blog
6 October 2011

In the old days of party conferences, the nomenklatura would wash up for oysters or jellied eels at some windswept seaside resort, with predictably farcical results, such as the spectacle of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea. Anno 2011, times are soberer. Kinnock has been towelled down and ennobled, and the parties’ annual beanos now go on not in Brighton’s decaying stucco gulches, but megalopolises like Manchester and Birmingham. Front benchers, and especially the leaders, fall over themselves to shmooze up to the party’s rank and vile – invariably referred to by hacks as ‘the party faithful’, though ‘the boundlessly credulous and opinionated’ seems nearer the mark – while also appealing over their heads to those at home who haven’t forsaken the telecast for Celebrity Poodle Parlour or a hump on the sofa. This need to triangulate his audiences explains, charitably, David Cameron’s turn at the Tory rally this week, where the prime minister chose to adopt the mien of a Butlin’s redcoat jollying along passengers on the Titanic.

From The Blog
5 October 2011

L’état, c’est Jacques. In a moving peroration at the end of the ex-president’s recent corruption trial, his lawyer Georges Kiejman declared: ‘You can’t drag down Jacques Chirac, who embodied France for twelve years, without dragging down France itself.’ The jowly satyr, pronounced too gaga to appear in court, makes for one of Marianne’s unlikelier incarnations. But Kiejman’s cri de coeur captures the fusion of executive, judicial and administrative power in French politics. Fuelling the process is, of course, wonga.

From The Blog
14 September 2011

When do empires die? The late François-Xavier Verschave, economist and founder of the pressure group Survie, coined the term Françafrique to denote the Fifth Republic’s suffocating relation to its former African colonies. The pun – France a fric – was intended. With Jacques Chirac on trial for municipal corruption while mayor of Paris, the Franco-Lebanese lawyer Robert Bourgi has alleged that the ex-president and his Gaullist sidekick Dominique de Villepin helped themselves to some $20 million in bungs from African dictators between 1995 and 2005. Both men have denied the allegations and issued writs. Chirac has pleaded memory loss to avoid having to show his face at the corruption trial, but remembers enough to know that Bourgi’s allegations are false in all details.

From The Blog
1 September 2011

The price of freedom, as we all know, is eternal vigilantism. In its quest to build the Big Society, the coalition government, like its predecessor, has determined to let a thousand grasses squeal. So the general public is regularly exhorted to rat on housing benefit frauds, bogus asylum seekers and in-the-pink incapacity benefit cheats, not to mention suspected ‘terrorists’. Shop a looter! posters currently grace Manchester’s Piccadilly station. As its trains pull out of each station, the ever drear Trans­Pennine Express enjoins passengers to report ‘anything suspicious’ to the TE conductor. I’m writing this on one of their trains, and there’s a bloke on the other side of the glass partition in First Class who looks a bit dodgy. He could be a serial tax evader. Time to tip the clippie the wink.

From The Blog
12 August 2011

It’s the Glorious Twelfth, when by tradition tweeded patricians, with beaters and ghillies in tow, pitch up on Scottish moors to kill gamefowl for fun. These days it sets back a party of eight about £50,000 a day to hang around on sodden heather waiting for ptarmigan and grouse to startle from their coverts. So the beads are drawn nowadays not by plus-foured opisthognaths but by short-sellers from Manila or Mile End out for kicks that boast a cachet lacking from paintball. Like the shooting season, the public riot is a child of summer, a free-access Glastonbury without the portaloos.

From The Blog
8 July 2011

As The Ballad of Reading Gaol says, all men kill the thing they love. Well, up to a point. Rupert Murdoch may have had a soft spot for the News of the World, but it’s as nothing to his amour propre and love of the power born of wealth. Murdoch knows that the papers now are good at best for pin money. The real aim is to fireproof NewsCorp’s global brand, ensuring that its big airtime account-holders don’t take fright. Then there’s the the BSkyB merger, which, after the consultation period ends today, can hardly go through on the nod, even if Sky News is ‘spun off’. A few hundred workers on a UK rag – 168-year history and all – are, as Hyman Roth says in The Godfather II, small potatoes.

From The Blog
1 July 2011

Tough times for Greeks, and for teachers of Greek, as the austerity regime bites. Royal Holloway’s classics and philosophy department is the latest to go. Under the plans, seven posts are being scissored, and another five classicists are being moved en bloc to history. The philosophers will be shunted to the politics and international relations department. Royal Holloway’s classics BA degree will be binned. Edith Hall is being shunted over to English, presumably on the grounds that she does research into Renaissance performances of classical drama – which seems a bit like moving an expert on the history of enclosures to a job in estates management. Happily, though, it’s not all downsizing, short-staffing and curriculum cuts on planet academe. One who isn’t facing the dole queue is Rick Rylance, who today takes over as the chair of Research Councils UK.

From The Blog
8 June 2011

The New College for the Humanities must have looked like a winner on paper. A higher education Britain’s Got Talent fronted by celebrity academics not just on the payroll, but taking a dividend. Financiers on board. Mayor BoJo’s blessing. Saudi princes by the tanker-load offering their custom. And then the project has seemingly shrivelled faster than a LibDem campaign rosette. Birkbeck swiftly distances itself from the NCH and parts company with its founder. The college’s financial, fiscal and institutional status prove foggy. It turns out that the Cannadine-Colleys are only showing up for one lecture each a year. Poor A.C. Grayling gets ambushed in Foyle’s and smoke-bombed when all he wanted to do was puff his college and shift a few copies of his rewrite of the Bible. Is nothing sacred?

From The Blog
6 May 2011

A.J.P. Taylor memorably remarks in The Course of German History, written to mark the centenary of the failed 1848-49 revolution, that with the Frankfurt Parliament, ‘German history reached its turning-point, and failed to turn’. A similar non-moment in the UK’s constitutional history now lies before us, in the form of the alternative vote referendum on the voting system.

From The Blog
27 April 2011

Royal occasions offer the pleasure of mass atavism, including the revival of antediluvian words and attitudes. As journalists and newsreaders constantly drool, Catherine Middleton is a ‘commoner’. When her wedding was announced, the word turned up in the Mail and the Telegraph, even – though in bet-hedging scare quotes – in the ‘liberal’ Guardian. The overseas press has been at it too. The other day, France 24 told its viewers that the prince was to wed a roturier; the Corriere della Sera said that he was marrying a borghese. It reopens neighbouring semantic fields, notably the use of ‘common’ to mean ‘not distinguished’, ‘vulgar, of plebeian origin, nature (derog.)’, as in ‘a common prostitute’, ‘common as muck’ and so on.

From The Blog
11 April 2011

Mid-April, and Britain attends to the 5 May referendum on the Alternative Vote with all the rapture of a gutted cod. Voters will be asked: ‘At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?’ This version of the question is a redraft, made at the Electoral Commission’s bidding. When the government published the original, one-sentence version last year, which rendered MPs in unabbreviated form, the commission worried that people would be too thick to understand it. Now campaigners merely worry that people are too thick to understand AV itself.

From The Blog
21 March 2011

Section 20 of the UK census asks respondents to specify their religion. The tick-box options cover ‘no religion’ as well as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism; it also includes a space for ‘any other religion’. In the last census, in 2001, the space was hijacked by 400,000 self-professed adherents of Jediism and the odd Pastafarian – so-called ‘fictional’ religions. This time, secularists have been urging respondents not to do this, because the results would overstate levels of religiosity in the population at large. Of course, it is a nice question what a ‘fictional’ religion is: after all, one way to distinguish religious from non-religious people is by asking them whether they regard ‘non-fictional religion’ as an empty category.

From The Blog
28 February 2011

For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.

From The Blog
4 February 2011

Does the right to free speech entail a right to lie? On Wednesday, lawyers acting for five New York consumers filed a five-million-dollar lawsuit against ex-President Jimmy Carter. Litigants in Unterberg et al. v. Jimmy Carter et al. allege that Carter’s 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid contains defamatory falsehoods about the state of Israel. The plaintiffs, who each bought a copy of the book for $27, maintain not that Carter was not entitled to make ‘malicious and false’ statements in the book, but that under New York General Business Law section 349 the plaintiffs’ rights were violated because they assumed they were buying a factual account of Israeli-Palestinian politics. Hence, they contend, Carter and his publisher (and now co-defendant) Simon & Schuster would have been within their rights had bookshops shelved the book with fiction rather than non-fiction.

The action compresses a number of oddities, which will prove fatal to it.

From The Blog
25 January 2011

On Friday Tony Blair returned, orange and varnished, to the Chilcot Inquiry to clarify his doctrine of sovereign exceptionalism. As his deposition to the inquiry explains, after 9/11 ‘the calculus of risk on global security had radically and fundamentally changed.’ Blair did not mean that it had changed because after 9/11 the global police got more trigger-happy. It changed because al-Qaida had shown that random sets of hoodlums could hook up and wreak mayhem. Hence the 2003 coalition of the willing. The US was going anyway, and Blair was with them.

From The Blog
14 January 2011

Why does Berlin have a museum dedicated to the Ramones? (Why does London have a museum with bits of the Parthenon in it?) It seems that the museum’s founder had stockpiled so much Ramonesiana that his girlfriend issued an ultimatum. It’s on Krausnickstrasse, not far from Museum Island, which hosts Berlin’s more established collections like the Pergamon. I went along hoping to be beaten on the way in with a baseball bat, or at least have feedback-spiked insults bawled at me, but it’s disappointingly tame. Perhaps more striking than the presence of the Ramones display is how little of Berlin is not a museum or memorial of one sort or another.

From The Blog
30 December 2010

According to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech on 19 July, the government means to ‘foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action’. It was Peggy Noonan, one-time phrase-turner for the Gipper, who as George Bush senior’s speechwriter in the 1988 US presidential election campaign came up with the tag ‘a thousand points of light’ to lip-gloss the Bush I prospectus of hollowing out state provision and part-plugging the gap with charity. Bush’s thousand points of light were a bit like the starry welkin, but with the sun switched off. Cameron is now following this lead, the Big Society being the minimal state writ large. It has just floated the idea of soliciting charitable gifts from ATM users; will those be tax-deductible? It’s already cut back sharply on central grants to local authorities and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whacked university teaching grants, and farmed out parts of the social care budget to charities – whose government funding is also getting cut. Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well.

From The Blog
23 November 2010

Universal rejoicing at the news of the royal engagement may not be shared in one corner of the kingdom: Highgrove. In polls commissioned to mark the announcement, Britons now seem to take a leap-frog view of the succession. According to yesterday’s ICM survey in the News of the World, 64 per cent of Britons want Prince William, rather than his father, to become king when the queen dies. ICM also found that fewer than one person in five wanted the crown to pass to Charles and Camilla. Meanwhile a YouGov poll in the Sunday Timesfound that 44 per cent of people thought Charles should make way for his son to become the next king, against 37 per cent who thought he should not.

From The Blog
20 September 2010

Apparently the last pope, John Paul II, didn’t much care for the term ‘Popemobile’, which lacks the gravitas of the sedia gestatoria, the flunkey-borne sedan chair, flanked by white ostrich plumes, used for bearing popes on public show until the start of Karol Wojtyła’s pontificate in 1978. Presumably the term was formed by analogy with the Batmobile, used by the Caped Crusader for his forays into Gotham City’s dark underbelly, there to do battle with the Penguin, the Joker and other badhats.

From The Blog
17 August 2010

And the Lord spake unto his good and faithful servant, saying, Thou art my son, in whom I am well pleased. And though there be some that pretend to adore Mammon through God; yet others cherish God, by the offices of Mammon. Thou knowest well, my son, many there are that give by taking; and their name is Legion. But twice blessed are they that take, by giving.

From The Blog
15 July 2010

A discredited and aloof government presiding over a sporting extravaganza conscious that the eyes of the world are on it; scenes of mass penury among the locals while the tribal elites schmooze with the jet set and live high on the hog. Yes, it’s the Open Golf Championship at the Royal & Ancient course at St Andrews, the ‘home of golf’, which tees off today. At least we should be spared the braying vuvuzelas.

Why does the world contain golf? The question is strictly analogous to asking why it contains evil. Like chess or darts, golf is clearly not a real sport, which I define as an activity that you can only be any good at with a BMI of less than 35. At school, golf was offered to us as a ‘games’ option in the sixth form. Then, as now, I had no interest in bashing a dimpled pill towards a tiny and distant hole. But it looked less nasty than waddling through sludge in frozen mist after a leather ball, or getting the club-end of a hockey stick in the nuts. I was beguiled by the golfing scenes, in TV soaps as much as sportscasts, where the players were conveyed between strokes in electric buggies, alighting only to swoosh a lazy approach shot to the green. Reality bit when I found that I had to lug the bag of clubs myself, blasted by wind and rain, for a nominal five miles – a purely theoretical figure, bloated by the constant need to divagate onto the beach or into tussocks of marram to track down my wayward ball. It was with relief that I switched the year after to another non-sport, snooker, where you could at least stay in the warm and get a drink.

From The Blog
25 June 2010

We have a new prime minister, heading up a centre-right coalition, with a fondness for bear-shooting and cerise tops. It’s Mari Kiviniemi, elected on Tuesday by the Eduskunta, the Finnish Parliament, as leader of the governing coalition’s dominant Centre Party by a margin of 115-56. She takes over from the discredited Matti Vanhanen. Though the talk is that Vanhanen’s hand was forced by irregularities in party funding, he has blamed his departure on his leg (phlebitis). Vanhanen, like his successor, was chosen partly for his boringness: in a past life he was, incredibly, a teetotal journalist. He hadn’t even been through detox. But he then spoiled it all with a slather of extra-marital affairs.

From The Blog
18 June 2010

Are you washing your hands as much as you should? Sure? We’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, as the viewing public is discovering, sufficient unto the day is the World Cup coverage thereof. Wads of cash are already being blown on wagering the outcome – north of £1 billion by British punters alone. The England team’s script is written already, and all that awaits is its pitiful enactment. 'We' grind out a series of low-score stalemates, as in last Saturday’s deadlock with the US, and scrape through to the quarter-finals or more rarely the semis, only to crap out on penalties after another bore draw, this time against a former fascist dictatorship. Vide Italy 1990, France 1998, Germany 2006 etc. I’m backing North Korea this time, as the lone standard-bearers for utopian socialism left in the tournament. If it’s a big dark red horse you’re after, look no further.

From The Blog
20 May 2010

The shade of Earl Russell, ‘Finality Jack’, still moves among us, and his name is Clegg. The deputy prime minister’s brief in the new administration is political reform, whose compass, he promised in yesterday’s statement, will be wide – as wide as Russell’s vaunted ‘final’ settlement of 1832. Clegg describes the electoral system as ‘broken’. The Electoral Reform Society branded the general election result ‘unrepresentative’. The criticism is invited by the umbrella labelling of the electoral reform statutes of 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 etc. as ‘Representation of the People’ Acts. The complaint that the system is unrepresentative is levelled indifferently at the simple plurality voting system (‘first past the post’), and at the remaining ‘pale, male, stale’ demographic in the House of Commons. These two complaints are distinct. Clearly proportionality defangs the first charge, of unrepresentativeness, or at least those forms of PR that make seats won directly proportional to votes cast. But it doesn’t fix the Commons’ dominance by middle-aged white males.

Goya’s The Third of May, 1808. The scene is laid in darkness outside Madrid, where the city’s captured defenders face a firing-squad. Some already lie dead, boltered with pink gore; meanwhile, the squad – a faceless testudo – takes aim again. The eye is drawn to a man, arms raised, pleading for his life. A point of suspension between life and death, he effectively sabotages the representation. His shirt is a splash of paint so incandescently white it looks as if it belongs in a Persil ad. One dwells on the improbably lingering moment, his dazzling shirt, the wayward compositional lines; and the longer you look the odder it gets.’

Slack-Sphinctered Pachyderm

Glen Newey, 29 April 1999

‘Statecraft’ is a word not much heard nowadays. The idea that politics could be a craft or techne, familiar to readers of Plato and Machiavelli, is well-nigh beyond superannuation. But even though there’s little bite left in the old dog, it can still bark at a full moon. Its main currency now is in conspiracy theory – or, with the recursive tic which marks this style of political analysis, conspiracy theory theory. For a peerless example, see Lyndon LaRouche Jr on Daniel Pipes’s Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes from in Executive Intelligence Review:’‘

The first business of government, Confucius wrote in the Analects, is to ‘rectify names’. His point was that rulers should seek agreement on final ends. But reflection on the realities of power takes us from nomenclature to the nomenklatura: names, in the right, or wrong, hands are potent instruments of rule. ‘Words,’ Hobbes noted in Leviathan, ‘are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.’ Hobbes’s nominalism became the handmaiden of his realpolitik. Terms like ‘justice’ had no meaning apart from the facts of power, in a kind of dominant ideology thesis avant la lettre. Hence Hobbes’s comparison, at the end of Leviathan, between the Papacy and the kingdom of fairies – fictive edifices both, reared on the credulity of the downtrodden. Modern writers like Ernesto Laclau have used a similar idea to explain how the meanings of words are fixed by ‘hegemonic’ power relations.’‘

Gassing and Bungling

Glen Newey, 8 May 1997

Atrip to Berlin last year offered a chance to take stock of the once and future capital of Europe, and the none too stealthy ascent of the Fourth Reich. Its monuments, largely built by foreign coolies, are rising from the ashes of the Potsdamer Platz, while, down the road, Unter den Linden retains its old Prussic astringency, as if the last fifty years had been but a waking dream. In deference to the BSE brouhaha, posters in every public eatery in town vouchsafed that the dead quadruped on offer was rein deutscher Herkunft – of pure German origin; grim photos in Der Spiegel showed British bovines being shoved into Topf-style incinerators. Irony, or even memory, was at a discount.

From The Blog
29 April 2010

Sleek and pawky Alex Salmond, first minister and Scottish National Party leader, has been in court challenging the BBC over the SNP’s non-inclusion in the final prime ministerial debate on BBC1. His grievance would be a bit more justified if the Nats were fielding candidates in Glossop or Penistone, and the rest of the UK. But as the SNP is only putting up candidates in Scotland (59 seats), it’s quite hard to see how Shrek could put himself forward as a UK prime minister in waiting. And then there is the usual question of line-drawing. If the nationalists had been allowed their place in the sun, why not the Greens, UKIP, the English Democrats and the BNP? Indeed, why not independents, or CURE, the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality Party, fielding four candidates on a ‘zombie rights’ platform, to allow civil partnerships between living people and stiffs.

From The Blog
23 April 2010

Oh to be in Stoke, now Nick Griffin’s there, launching the British National Party’s manifesto as its contribution to the St George’s Day festivities. Stoke has a strong claim to be regarded as the BNP’s spiritual doss-house. Sir Oswald Mosley, head of the BNP’s grandfather organisation, the British Union of Fascists, was born there. Oswald’s first wife, Lady Cynthia Mosley, was a Labour MP for Stoke in the 1930s. His son Nicholas wrote in a memoir in 2002 that the 400-strong Stoke chapter of the BUF was ‘part thieves’ kitchen, part bawdy house’. The BNP is putting up candidates in each of the three Stoke-on-Trent constituencies, though not in the more genteel Newcastle-under-Lyme next door. Simon Darby, self-described on his Twitter page as a ‘naturalist, angler and deputy leader of the BNP’, dethroned in 2004 as a local councillor in Dudley, is standing in Stoke-on-Trent Central. Darby can be seen in his offices, having just landed the coveted electoral endorsement of Richard the Lionheart.

From The Blog
26 March 2010

It has been a Grand Guignol for the moral majority. Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon, if not Margaret Moran, belong within the inner ring of the Blairite rump. All four are leaving the Commons for good on dissolution. Apparently Monday evening’s PLP meeting saw a mass outpouring of grief and loathing, as backbenchers who aren’t standing down waxed bilious at having their re-election hopes shafted. Hoon and Hewitt may have calculated, after the fiasco of their January putsch against the PM, that they had little left to lose. Their places on the red benches in Another Place have been cancelled. The one Tory MP suckered by Channel 4, Sir John Butterfill, has also hit the ermine ceiling.

From The Blog
2 March 2010

Children quickly master the idea of fairness. On my five-year-old son’s lips, ‘It’s not fair!’ covers an impressive variety of unwelcome contingencies, like his not getting as much ice-cream as he wants, or the fact that it isn’t snowing. Some optimistic political theorists think this shows that an instinct for fairness is hard-wired, or acculturated early on. Others suspect that it shows how fluently humans adapt principled talk to self-interest. On 22 February, Desire Petroleum, the UK firm set up to prospect for oil in the North Falkland Basin, began exploratory drilling, in the face of Argentine objections.

From The Blog
23 November 2009

Philosophical theories of justice generally assign an important role to rectification, the putting right of past wrongs. Thierry Henry's handball in France’s World Cup qualifier against Ireland last Wednesday has offered a mass exercise in rectificatory justice, with many in the Republic calling for the game to be replayed. The Irish know what they’re talking about, having recently had to take the Lisbon Treaty referendum to a replay in order to get the right result. FIFA has spoilsportingly turned down the Irish FA’s pleas. The iniquity is blatant. But why stop with the Henry handball? Why not rectify other instances of footballing injustice? English readers will need, in fact want, no reminding of the anguish of Maradona’s 'hand of God' goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup. That one should obviously be replayed.

From The Blog
26 August 2009

In politics, the quality of mercy is usually strained through several layers of dirty washing. The Westminster and Edinburgh governments now boast a ‘justice secretary’ each (Jack Straw and Kenny MacAskill respectively). In the old days, it was left to judges to ensure that justice was dispensed without fear or favour. Now it has to be entrusted to politicians. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has kicked up a sandstorm in the dank and lawyerly chambers of Holyrood. Commentators have deplored the ‘sickening’ spectacle of the saltire being waved at Tripoli airport by Gaddafi’s claque, and Secretary MacAskill’s politically inept audience with al-Megrahi in HMP Greenock. But bad politics is sometimes good politics. We now like the Libyans, emeritus members of the Axis of Evil.


We did it

21 March 2013

David Lea reports the late Daphne Park’s claim that she ‘organised’ the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (Letters, 11 April). Getting Lumumba sidelined was certainly high on UK officials’ wish list. In July 1960 John Profumo, the Foreign Office minister, worried that the Congo would ‘become just the sort of African slum in which Communism would be most likely to take...

All Too Human

29 January 2009

On the basis of my article on torture, Alex Bailin attributes to me the view that ‘it is acceptable to mould international law to fit executive policy if the law in question is unclear’ (Letters, 26 February). He adds: ‘It is not: the function of lawyers is not simply to provide “legal cover".’I wouldn’t, and didn’t, put it quite like that. The idea was more...

Carpet Bomber

25 January 2001

David Guedes’s squib (Letters, 8 February) in response to my piece about Noam Chomsky charges that I am nasty about quite a lot of people, such as Geoffrey Sampson, and not a few cherished institutions, such as Nato and the Académie Française; that, like high-altitude bombing, this nastiness is indiscriminate, or nearly so; and, anyway, there’s no pleasing some people. His...
The last paragraph of my letter (Letters, 5 October) in response to Peter Berkowitz’s review of my book Virtue, Reason and Toleration says that ‘the basis for ascribing certain views to the many or the wise varies with the solidity of the institutions themselves.’ Berkowitz might well think that this is a view no less bizarre than the one I attribute to him: ‘institutions’...


8 May 1997

Gerard Holden, writing in response to my review (LRB, 8 May) of Jürgen Habermas’s Fact and Norms, accuses me of ‘some classic Germanophobe sneers’ and betrays some doubt as to my own origins. In fact I am from the Channel Islands, which endured five years of German occupation during World War Two. Like their fellow islanders, my father and his parents were subject to enemy rule...

Good Things

5 September 1996

It’s an occupational hazard of philosophers, as professional purveyors of theory, to reduce all wrongdoing to theoretical error. Challenging those, like Philippa Foot and Bernard Williams, who deny that a moralists are irrational, Colin McGinn says that since it’s absurd to say that the thinker’s desires, rather than logical validity, decide whether it’s rational for him to...

The theory of toleration

Peter Berkowitz, 7 September 2000

Once liberalism’s signature virtue, toleration has of late been superseded by other more fashionable ideals. Foremost among these is ‘sensitivity’, before which there was...

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