Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crime and passion

I was at the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday. It was a great day out with friends. The rebuilt stadium is impressive. Escalators took you up to your seats high in the stands. Stewards were everywhere, every part of the design regulated the flow of people and made overcrowding impossible. Seats were comfortable and spacious. Outside, the policing was efficient and good natured. The queues for the underground were well managed, making sure that the platforms and the trains were not overcrowded. Even the train announcer cracked jokes at the fans over the tannoy.

At a semi-final twenty-seven years ago the authorities managed to kill ninety six people. At last, at long last, the killings have been declared unlawful. Prosecutions may follow. This superb report from David Conn, one of our best football writers, is damning. Read it all.

Now look at the pictures, not just the awful ones of the mayhem and the dead. Look at the ground. See the shallow steps that fans stood on, where even craning your neck you could only get an obscured glimpse of the game. And then there are those fences. Cages for fans, penned in on either side and prevented from getting to the safety of the pitch, away from the carnage. It isn't in this report, but one of the most poignant pictures shows empty spaces on the terracing adjacent to the pens where people were being crushed to death. If they had been able to move there, no one would have died. The same goes for being able to evacuate onto the pitch. The standing areas in Hillsborough were a crumbling, squalid death trap.

Manslaughter happened that day because of two things. The first was an attitude of uncomprehending hatred of football fans by those who ran the game and a political elite who had yet to find supporting a club to be a vote-winning fashion icon. The response to the real problem of the violence of the minority was punitive to everyone, the innocent majority included. Grounds were changed to be like prison camps and facilities were rarely upgraded. They were an emanation of the way ordinary fans were despised.

The second was a managerial culture that favoured mediocrity and the exercise of authority over intelligence and expertise. Being both a boot licker and a bully was the way to promotion. I have often seen this phenomenon in education, though there the cost can be measured in careers and qualifications, not in corpses.

After the deaths came another crime, a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Like all conspiracies, it soon unravelled. But it still took twenty-seven years of struggle for the authorities to finally, and reluctantly, concede their guilt.

I have been in a bad crush once. It was outside a first division football ground in London in the early seventies. The gates had been closed with queues of people still outside. The game was not televised (no league games were then) and it wasn't all ticket. A narrow street leading to the ground was packed as people funnelled in to try and get into the ground. Once you are in a crush you are helpless, swept one way and then another. The police had lost control and a frightened police horse was trapped in the entry with us. At last I was was pushed towards wrought iron gates. At first I was grateful to be able to breathe through them, then the pressure intensified painfully until the locks gave way. They burst open and the crowd stumbled through them into the wide open forecourt and car park that we could see but couldn't reach. Nobody fell. We were safe. I was young then. I got through the turnstiles, into the ground and watched the game, but when I looked down my shirt was torn and all the buttons had been ripped off. Looking back, I know that we were all lucky.

It is so different today. There is much wrong with modern football. The economics of the game leave a nasty taste. TV matches are nearly all on pay-per-view. Fans are locked out of ownership of the clubs they love. We need safe standing, after all we have it already as people stand in nominal seating areas. There is the creeping gentrification and the ubiquitous corporate takeover. Then there is the expense. It wasn't cheap to go to Wembley. But then again, I would rather be treated as a cash cow than as cattle going to slaughter.

My only worry today is about getting a ticket for the final.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


It's time to move into the realm of post-reality politics. I stumbled across this thanks to a former student. Anonymous, that bunch of mask wearing hackers, posted an article about the sad death of a New York Times journalist. To them, and the post that was their source, this was not tragic, but sinister.

You see the woman had, according to them, been murdered by strangulation and she had written an article exposing,
Project MKUltra, often referred to as the CIA’s mind control program, was the code name given to an illegal program of experiments on human subjects, designed and undertaken by the the CIA."
The conclusion was obvious:
Is it possible that Ms. Kershaw stumbled upon some new information that made her dangerous? Considering the speed at which the capabilities of psychotronic weapons has improved, the possibility is extremely high.
Except for a couple of things. She wasn't murdered. She wasn't even strangled. It appears from her obituary that she ended her own life due to the pain of a chronic illness. And that article? She wrote it in 2008. It is about how the proliferation of 'mind control' sites on the internet can reinforce and perpetuate delusions. It isn't about MKUltra at all. Ironically, it is about mental health. Judging by these posts, she had a point. She didn't write any more on this either; she mainly wrote about real estate.

I mention this because it is an extreme version of another tendency to move beyond evidence. It has been showing up all over the place in the wake of the Panama Papers, and especially the mention of David Cameron. Why bother with the detailed research and dissection of hard evidence when you can fall back onto generalised mistrust and make things up? But when you do, you damage your cause irreparably. Effective opposition requires forensic accuracy. On the whole, reality is prosaic. To pretend it isn't is to completely undermine your case and be accused of wild hysteria, mainly because you are being wildly hysterical. For an individual, losing touch with reality may do little harm unless it is seriously psychotic; for a political movement, it is deadly.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Football fan message boards aren't usually inspiring. But this thread was:
What made me most proud about yesterday ......was that a man wearing make-up and heels could do a lap of honour and get a standing ovation at a football ground in 21st century Britain.
One reason why we live in a better world than the one I grew up in.

Eddie Izzard. Marathon man.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Against morality

My recent contact with the National Health Service made me return to this article. The author is a Finnish American citizen, Anu Partanen, who gets constantly questioned about the strong welfare state in Finland. People keep telling her that it all sounds nice, but the social solidarity of Nordic countries, which is the bedrock of welfare states, doesn't exist in the USA and so the level of taxation to support comprehensive welfare systems wouldn't be possible. Her answer is simple:
But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble. This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me. 
Yes, the real argument for welfare states is self-interest. They are a good idea. For you. You benefit directly and indirectly. If not in the present, in the future. It's obvious.

Why is the NHS politically untouchable (though infinitely reorganisable)? The answer is easy. We all use it. Birth, death, childhood, and old age are universal. And we all get ill. Sometimes those illnesses are life threatening and because of the NHS you don't die or become bankrupt. The point is that we think about us, our families and friends. We don't get carried away by a warm fuzzy feeling as we watch belligerent drunks at bus stops or neo-Nazi thugs parading in the streets thinking, "Isn't it wonderful that they are protected by the NHS." No, we think isn't it a bloody good idea that if one of these bastards takes a swing at us we can get patched up at the local hospital. The ultimate, total justification for all welfare provision is self-interest.

So why then do we insist on framing the debate in moral terms? Because that is what we do on both the left and right.

The left version is that a civilised society should care for the weakest and most vulnerable of our society. It's a charitable impulse that is sometimes described as social justice. It's also a moral belief that I share. The trouble is that it invites the response, 'why should I pay for someone else?' The left replies by calling the objectors greedy or selfish, a moral condemnation. This may be true, but calling someone greedy doesn't stop them being greedy, so the argument becomes pointless.

Right wing moral arguments are all about who deserves support and who deserves 'encouragement.' They divide the world into the deserving and undeserving poor or 'strivers and shirkers.' The result is a two track welfare policy. There is charity for the deserving, but sanctions for the undeserving. Those sanctions are dressed up in moral language as a way of encouraging people to get into work and save themselves from sin. Things like the 'bedroom tax' encourage people to give up living in larger homes and move into smaller, and mainly non-existent, accommodation. It's critics all focus on the moral arguments about spare rooms being used for disabled equipment and other such scandals, rarely on the policy itself.

This might appease the greedy, but it creates problems and undermines the case for welfare states. And, of course, the boundaries are never clear cut. The Tories have got into huge trouble by attacking Tax Credits, which go to low paid people in work, and benefits for the disabled. Both groups are seen as 'deserving' and rebellions in their own party has forced them to backtrack. We have even seen tentative attempts to introduce morality into the NHS with suggestions to exclude the obese or smokers from treatment unless they change their wicked ways. The anomalies and inconsistencies are so great that these seem to have faded away.

I have another suggestion. Let's bin all the moral arguments. And although I do think that there are strong collective and economic arguments for welfare provision, let's not bother with those either. Instead we should make the case for the individual benefit of good public services and comprehensive social insurance to everybody. Though collective means are the instrument to ensure security, the result is enhanced individual liberty. In that way, we are drawn towards universalism instead of judgemental conditionality, and to schemes like universal citizens' incomes, which have been advocated on both the left and right.

Then what would matter is that political debate on public service will not be about morality, but quality. This was something that New Labour understood, but then they blew it by thinking that good quality could be delivered through the imposition of centralised managerial control and grotesque bureaucracy.

The key to building the sort of social democratic consensus on wider welfare that has sustained the NHS is to see it as a system that benefits us as individuals, rather something that is done to others on the basis of disputable moral grounds. 

All's well that ends well

For all the talk of heath crises I think that we should remember one thing. In the developed world we live longer, healthier lives than ever before in human history. Dangerous conditions can be remedied and lives saved. This isn't down to fad diets, health cranks, latter day versions of snake oil, or the like. It is down to scientific research, 'big pharma,' and modern medicine. In short - it's progress. Here's to it and may it be widely shared.

Looking forward to my pal coming home tomorrow.