Thursday, December 21, 2006

Oh Mr Porter …

Into Volos yesterday for some Christmas shopping and there in a newsagent was a three-day-old copy of the Observer crammed with blogging material.

I am ignoring the customary provocative feature on diet books. Instead, I was drawn to comment on a number of articles. First, was a really poor piece by Jasper Gerard on heroin use, inspired by the serial killer in Ipswich whose victims were all in prostitution to feed their habit. He argued that there is a need to eradicate the Afghanistan poppy fields (humanely, he at least suggests buying the stuff and funding crop substitution before it became necessary to "bomb the buggers") in order to take heroin off the streets. He could do with some simple lessons in market economics. The demand from an addict is inelastic. Once supply drops, the price will rise. That means more crime and more prostitution to pay for it. Heroin addiction is not a supply problem; it is demand led.

In the wake of the crimes, the media has focused on the impact of drugs and the consensus is that drug use is a response to misery, a very real opiate of the masses. But my current wine consumption is not due to wretchedness; it is to reinforce my unbounded pleasure at being here. It helps that I can buy half a kilo of "loose wine" (for some reason it is nominally sold by weight rather than volume in Greece though the quantities are the same) for €1.50 but even if it was more expensive I would still be drinking it. Any drugs policy that does not admit that taking drugs is actually pleasurable, until it becomes a tyrannically urgent necessity through addiction, is doomed to fail.

The Ipswich murders are also helping to fill the column inches on prostitution itself. The liberal consensus seems to rest on some form of state control and regulation. How they need to read the great 19th Century campaigner on prostitution, Josephine Butler, whom I have blogged on before. Her humane, deeply moral libertarianism needs to be rediscovered, not least by the columnists turning themselves into instant 'experts'.

The sanity in the paper was provided by the consistently excellent Nick Cohen on conspiracy theory in the wake of the Stevens Report into the death of Diana. Reinforcing his conclusions, and taking them further by showing how they can be used by governments as a tool of repression, was the report on the desperate plight of the foreign medical staff in Libya facing the death penalty, having already spent seven years in prison, for a conspiracy to deliberately infect patients with AIDS, despite the evidence pointing to poor hygiene practice as the cause. There is an excellent article on the case in Open Democracy. Michel Thieren writes,

"Today, a judge trumped science to protect non-humanitarian interests, condemned six innocents to deaths, and made ignorance prevail over justice in fooling hundreds of parents into believing that their children had been poisoned and/or murdered by their nurses and doctor".

However, the crowning glory was Henry Porter abandoning the issue of civil liberties to write an idiosyncratic "radical manifesto to revitalise Britain". What a curious agenda this is. He makes the standard point about the lack of choice due to the current centrist consensus, though I would demur and point out that the political consensus is actually right wing. In fact, Cameron's attempt to drag the Tory Party back to the centre ground it once occupied is making it look decidedly leftist. A bewildered electorate can only look on and abstain.

Porter's five suggestions didn't appear that radical to me, nor did I find myself reinvigorated. The piece read like a school project on "what I would do with …" Parliament would be "totally reformed" simply by having 145 fewer and better paid MPs. His suggestion for a means-tested NHS ignores all the research on the failings of means testing and then, completely without any empirical basis, comes the following charge,

"It must also be said that NHS staff can be slapdash, rude and disdainful of people's need for personal dignity and privacy. Paying customers would soon put an end to that."

All I would just ask if he has ever been a paying customer trying to get sense out of a customer service call centre?

And so it continues. The idea of a statutory sabbatical once every fifteen years of work would be welcome but hardly earth shattering. As for preventing foreign companies or individuals owning a controlling interest in more than two national newspapers, I take it that means that as long as the mega-rich fascist is British it is OK to own as many as they like. How long do you think it would be before Rupert got his citizenship?

Perhaps the bit on prisons is most indicative of the way that good sense can be brought down by shoddy thinking.

"First-time offenders and those under 25 years of age would be given the chance to attend physically and intellectually testing courses".

What do second offenders get? What about the over 25's or are they past it? At least I know something about this, as my University is proud to run courses at Higher Education level in prisons. The work is fantastic, the ability and dedication of the students are legendary. Rarely do they fit into the under 25 first offender category. Higher Education in prisons can transform lives at whatever age and how ever many offences have been committed. Wouldn't it be nice to see columnists actually do a little research before proclaiming their brilliant new ideas?

Sorry, Henry. 4/10. Must try harder.

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