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Jesus, the jungle and Nadine Dorries

I am not an MP for any reason other than because God wants me to be. I constantly try to do what Jesus would do.

So said Nadine Dorries in 2007. Obviously, Jesus has now recommended that Dorries abandons her constituents and takes a month off her regular job (while retaining a full £65,738 salary) to earn about £40,000 appearing on a tacky reality television show. God certainly works in mysterious ways!

This 1,876th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, News and Comment, Politics, Quotes, .

Review: A Journey by Tony Blair

Tony Blair’s autobiography gives a real and detailed insight into what it’s like to be Prime Minister: the stresses and how he coped with them, the challenges and how he tried to overcome them, the successes, the failures, the balancing of family life with political life and statesmanship. It really is quite fascinating.

Politically, there’s little in here that we haven’t heard before, but the detail and explanation of how and why decisions were reached seemed interesting to me. The “behind the scenes” detail of the huge events that occurred under Tony Blair’s leadership provided genuine insight, if not new information – Diana’s death, 9/11, 7/7, the Hutton Inquiry, and Iraq to name just a few.

Yet, it’s taken me the best part of two years to plough through this tome. That’s mainly due to what Ben MacIntire of The Times described as a “congenial style peppered with slang and gossipy asides”. I’d describe it as a style resembling transcribed speech, and it frequently becomes very thick and frustrating.

Let me pepper this review with some examples. When talking about the themes underpinning his leadership (something he does frequently, citing different themes each time), the following sentence appears: “Perhaps above all, an emphasis bordering on the religious on what counts to be what works.”

It’s not a crime against humanity, but it is a verbless sentence that doesn’t really scan very well. It’s the sort of sentence you have to re-read a couple of times to get the message. In a paragraph of prose, it’s a frustrating sentence that should have been edited. And these are little throughout the book.

Here’s another example. Read this sentence aloud: “I wondered – as did some of the newer and more radical faces in my Policy Unit, although this was still heresy in the party, not least among most of my ministers – whether we had been right to dismantle wholesale GP commissioning in the NHS and grant-maintained schools in education, instead of adapting these concepts of local self-govenment to spread decentralised management across the state health and education systems, but without the inequity inherent in the underfunded Tory reforms we inherited.”

Again, the message is clear, but it isn’t an easy read. A decent editor would surely have added some more punctuation, or cut this down into several sentences.

And, since we’re on a roll, let’s play “count the subclauses” in this example: “Precisely because the roots of this wider struggle were deep, precisely because it was a visceral life-or-death battle between modernisers and reactionaries, precisely because what was – and is – at stake was no less than the whole future of Islam – the nature of its faith, its narrative about itself, and its sense of its place in the twenty-first century – precisely because of all this, there was no way the forces opposed to modernisation, and therefore to us, were going to relinquish their territory easily.”

I think these examples demonstrate the message that this book is not an easy bedtime read. Yet, within a few sentences of passages like those above, Blair tells us about Alistair Campbell’s “clanking great balls”, describes Iraq as “a basket case”, PMQs as “a girls’ school playground” and relates that “I like to have time and comfort in the loo.”

And then, occasionally, Blair becomes suddenly coy: he didn’t want to discuss his son’s vaccination status “for private reasons the family was sensitive about issues to do with.” Note, again, that this hardly scans well.

The constant juxtaposition of long badly written passages of political prose and puerile descriptions of characters and situations wore me out. I couldn’t read more than a couple of chapters of this at once.

I think this demonstrates that I found this book a difficult read, which makes it difficult to rate. On the one hand, much of the content is five-star – well worth reading, whichever side of the political fence one occupies. On the other, the form of expression is risible, bordering at times on unreadable. This is a book that badly needs a revised and edited edition under the guidance of a decent editor! Until then, I can’t in good conscience give it more than three stars.

A Journey is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This 1,794th post was filed under: Book Reviews, Politics, , .

Some interesting rail statistics (really!)

Rail fares are going up again. Every time this happens, talking heads on the news suggest that a re-nationalised railway would be cheaper. Is this true?

That is, of course, an impossible question to answer. It is undeniable that private companies now take profits that would otherwise have been returned to the Treasury under a nationalised system. But there is some data to crunch – There’s some data I’ve located with the help of @jrothwell (he blogs here) and @welsh_lisa2 in the House of Commons library.

This sets out rail fare increases in real terms since the late 80s, using the contribution of rail fares to RPI. I don’t think it’s too erroneous to assume that this is an okay proxy for an inflation-corrected comparison of the average change in rail fares. Because it’s based on a comparison of contribution to RPI with a 1987 baseline, the data isn’t in intelligible units – it’s all comparative.

This data shows a 42% increase in the real cost of rail fares from 1987 to 2011: this seems like a bad thing. This graph shows how rail fares increased over time. It shows the percentage increase on the 1987 fare for each year (including the 42% increase over 1987 fares in 2011).

That looks fairly damning! But is it down to privatisation? Privatisation got underway in 1994. The average year-on-year increase in fares between 1987 and 1994 was 2.34%. If we assume that this level of increase would have continued had privatisation not happened, we can plot the new course of history (red) versus the old one (blue):

As the new red line shows, had fare increases continued at the pre-nationalisation level, they would’ve ended up higher: they would be 73% higher than the 1987 equivalent.

However, some people claim that between 1992, when the Conservatives were re-elected with a mandate to privatise the railways, and 1994, when this actually happened, fares were artificially inflated to make the franchises seem more desirable. So, perhaps it’s unfair to include 1993 and 1994 in our calculation of the pre-nationalisation average increase. If we exclude them, the average year-on-year increase drops to 1.73%. The graph then looks like this:

That is, fares still end up higher in real terms than they actually did: in this scenario, the 2011 fare is 53% higher than the 1987 equivalent.

It would be great to have some pre-1987 data to see if that suspicious looking flick up in 1991 is really unusual, or just part of the pattern of the background picture: certainly if the 1987-1990 trend had continued, fares would hardly have increased. Combined with the above data, this answer in Hansard from Norman Baker suggests that the change from 1980 to 1986 was of the order of 6%. If we assume a 1% year-on-year increase, as that figure suggests, then the predicated and actual fare increase from 1987 to 2011 are pretty much equal.

Bearing in mind all of the above, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that privatisation has driven up passenger fares, even if some of the revenue is now siphoned off to private profit rather than being invested in public services.

Add this decrease in the rate of increase of fares to the indisputable data showing that passenger numbers have risen, passengers satisfaction ratings with both trains and stations have risen, and delays have decreased considerably, and suddenly privatisation seems like it might not have been the disaster we’re often lead to believe it was.

Of course, this is an extremely simplified view of things. I’m ignoring the complexities of the timing of various changes, I’m ignoring the government subsidies that have happened even under the privatised system, I’m ignoring the added jeopardy of train operating companies handing back franchises and leaving the government to pick up the pieces, and I’m ignoring the potentially dubious morality of selling off national infrastructure.

I’m not left with an overwhelming sense that privatisation is the best thing since sliced bread – or even that it was the right move – but I think that perhaps the waters are a little muddier than some would have us believe. And I’m going to stop being geeky now, and resume normal service…!

This 1,732nd post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

Andrew Lansley’s bad day

If people could actually see inside my brain, all the things I was thinking, it really would be a very bad day.

So said Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, in an interview with Amber Elliott for Total Politics published today. This may be a slightly ill-advised soundbite given that there’s a perception that he’s duping the public with his plans for the NHS.

As it turns out, he’s having a pretty bad day anyway, as doctors have voted to take industrial action over pensions.

This 1,667th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, Health, Politics, Quotes, .

Nine years of blogging, and the permanence of it all

Today marks nine years since I started blogging. Nine years. Increasingly, people are becoming concerned about the permanence of stuff posted the internet. Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign was hampered by the web, and the fact that for almost everything he said, he’d previously given an equal and opposite quote to some other source at some point in the past. And, of course, there’s many other less prominent examples of people’s online history coming back to haunt them.

Anyone with a blog, like me, can essentially make a choice. I could delete a load of old stuff. It wouldn’t make it completely unavailable online, as content from this site is cached all over the place; I guess it might make it slightly more difficult to find. But I’ve chosen not to do that. I’ve chosen to keep the complete sjhoward.co.uk blog intact. And I’m sure many people wonder why.

Firstly, let me say that it’s not because I think everything on here is great. It’s not. There’s some terrible stuff. There’s stuff that’s just plain dross. I’ve written things that I’m a ashamed of, like using “gay” almost as a punchline, or referring to the entire French population as “crazy frogs”. There’s positions I’ve asserted that, at best, are altogether blunter than I’d ever express now, like saying “I’m very anti-smoking”. And that’s before we even open the can of worms labelled “unnecessarily base humour”.

So why, you might ask, do I keep this stuff online, with my name written at the top of the page in a massive font size?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. In the end, my reasoning was fairly simple. What I wrote in 2003 might have been unprofessional, but I wasn’t a professional then. It might have been immature, but so was I. The date is clearly and prominently shown on all the posts I’ve written. Of course I don’t hold all the same opinions I did when I was 18 – does anybody? We grow, we develop, our viewpoints and opinions change.

One of the more remarkable things about this little site is that you can how it happened. You can see the softening of my opinion on Tony Blair, from barely concealed hatred, to grudging admiration, to actual respect. My changing interests are reflected, from the 2005 election, during which I published daily “swing updates” based on a complex formula weighting different polls, to the 2012 local elections which were only mentioned in passing beneath a pretty picture of a bus stop.

All of this history, and all of these changing opinions, set out the path to where my politics and opinions lie today. And, of course, both will continue to shift over time.

In the end, I guess I came to the conclusion that if someone chooses to judge me on a personal opinion I held a decade ago, then so be it. Though I’d suggest that a far more interesting and intelligent approach is to ask questions: “You once said you thought x: do you still believe that?” or “Your position used to be y, now it’s z. What changed your mind?”

I don’t know exactly when the meaning of the term “flip-flopping” in political discourse changed from being about presenting different views to suit different audiences to being about actually changing your mind on a given issue, but I don’t think it’s a helpful change. I’m vaguely suspicious of people who claim to have “always believed” something – it has a slight whiff of valuing dogma above thoughtful and reiterative consideration of the issues. I can only speculate that the increasingly tribal nature of politics has led to increasing institutional derision of free thought: we must all toe the party line.

If you ask me, the sooner we lose the vogue notion that a change of opinion or reconsideration of position represents a weakness, the better off we all will be.

This 1,637th post was filed under: Blogging, Politics, Site Updates, Technology, .

David Cameron doesn’t know how many houses he owns

I own a house in North Kensington and my house in the constituency in Oxfordshire and that is, as far as I know, all I have. Do not make me sound like a prat for not knowing how many houses I’ve got.

David Cameron, talking to Ginny Dougary for The Times, in 2009. I missed this first time round, but have just found it via David Eaton in the New Statesman.

This 1,599th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, Politics, Quotes.

Debunking the D-Notice meme

On Saturday, a rally was held in London against the Health and Social Care Bill. Tweets have suggested that this peaceful rally was somewhat over-policed, with armed riot police in attendance and protesters being kettled. There’s some coverage on Indymedia, but little coverage by the mainstream media.

There’s a Twitter meme stating that the reason for the lack of mainstream media coverage is because a “D-Notice” has been issued by the Government to prevent reporting. This meme appears to stem from Dr No’s blog.

I should state clearly at this point that I have no inside information about what the defence services have or haven’t done, and no inside information about the media. I’m neither a professional journalist nor a signatory to the Official Secrets Act. However, the idea that a D-Notice was issued to cover up a protest by a couple of hundred people about a Government bill seems utter crap.

D-Notices, which have been called DA-Notices since 1993, are controlled by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC): they are not under the direct control of government. There are five government representatives on this committee, and 16 members of the media, nominated by bodies like the Press Association, Google, the BBC, and ITV. So for us to believe that a DA-Notice was used to cover up a protest, we must also believe that 16 members of the media – or, I guess, at least six members of the media to carry a majority on the committee – felt that this was appropriate action. Also, since DA-Notices are merely advisory, it must also be the case that not one journalist chose to break rank and shout to all and sundry about the most audacious UK government cover-up of a peaceful protest in history.

DA-Notices are very seldom used. Often, the existence of the DA-Notice itself is reported – these aren’t super injunctions. Back in 2009, the existence of a DA-Notice was extensively reported after Bob Quick accidentally flashed sensitive information to photographers when arriving at Downing Street. The photos were printed in many newspapers and shown extensively on news programmes, with the offending information blurred out and the DA-Notice cited as the reason. There was also discussion around DA-Notices and Wikileaks. So we must also believe that not only have media representatives voted for a DA-Notice to be implemented, but that journalists have also spontaneously agreed not to discuss the very existence of a surely controversial notice.

DA-Notices are so seldom used that in possibly the biggest temporary media blackout of recent years – when Prince Harry served in Afghanistan – a DA-Notice wasn’t issued, but merely a gentleman’s agreement by the press attempted (unsuccessfully) to ensure that the news wasn’t leaked in advance.

There are five standing types of DA-Notice, which relate to: the military; nuclear facilities; secure communications; sensitive installations; and security and intelligence services. I wonder which type of DA-Notice Dr No believes this protest falls under?

A quick Google search reveals that, in addition to Saturday’s relatively small NHS protest, a rally against climate change, an anti-workfare protest, a protest against the Assad regime in Syria, a protest against stop-and-search, and an anti-fur demo all took place in London on Saturday. I’m sure all feel that their protests were under-reported in the mainstream media.

Perhaps the media agreed to the issue of DA-Notices against all of these protests this weekend. Or perhaps it was felt that none of these protests was particularly newsworthy. Perhaps the protests were felt to be a little predictable – a restatement of a known position, rather than anything new. And I’d imagine that there were many complaints about perceived poor policing over the weekend, given the level of complaint against the police on any given day. Each incident in itself is unlikely to be newsworthy.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there has been a cover-up and a media blackout about this protest. But that’s an extraordinary claim and, like Carl Sagan, it’ll take extraordinary evidence to convince me. Until that’s available, perhaps protestors should stick to the facts.

This 1,571st post was filed under: Health, Media, News and Comment, Politics.

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