Tories on the level

Life’s pretty hectic at the moment, and doesn’t look like it’ll get any less so this side of Christmas unfortunately. However, I’m determined that Pushing the boundary won’t be allowed to wither on the vine like so many other blogs, so I’ll post whenever the time, inclination and material to post coincide.

Level crossing

Last month, David Cameron likened his mission to decontaminate the Tory brand to a computer game. Those few short weeks ago, he claimed:

"Until you have cleared level one, which I have incidentally never done, you cannot get on to level two. Level one is: are you a reasonable, decent, non-discriminating, sensible, practical person who understands the world as it is lived today, who wants to live in a modern world and who accepts what that means? If so, then you can move on to level two, where you can talk about some of the difficult issues about families and about responsibilities which can lead to trouble."

Strangely, despite his claim that he hadn’t cleared level one (I can’t argue with that, based on his own definition), he seems to be getting on pretty well with level two regardless. I’m not sure you can do that in most computer games: perhaps he found a cheat code online.

Since (and indeed during) that interview, the Conservatives have been allowing various nastier sides to peep out from behind their Level One sheen.

Nasti spumante

Among these was an opportunistic attack on black fathers. Barack Obama said it first, apparently, so that makes it officially Not Racist. I’m sure Barack Obama has said plenty of other things which don’t involve denigrating minorities, but it’s surely just coincidence they should pick this one – a bit like when the Daily Express happens to pick only the bad stories about immigrants for its front pages (or indeed any of its other pages).

[Incidentally, did you see last Friday’s Express front page? Apparently “1,650 NEW MIGRANTS INVADE UK EVERY DAY”. Seriously. It said “INVADE”. Astonishing.]

Then there was that report by Policy Exchange, saying northern cities have “failed”, which David Cameron had to rush to distance the Conservatives from, despite the fact (familiar to Boris Watch readers) that Policy Exchange has extremely close links to powerful Tories and indeed they’ve managed to keep several of their number in Boris’s administration (so far – who knows if they’ll end up going the same way as James McGrath, Ray Lewis and Tim Parker?).

Sexual discourse

Most recently, yesterday, the Guardian reported a speech given by Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, in which he told overweight people that there are “no excuses” for being obese. Hectoring the overwhelmingly poor obese is yet another return to nasty party habits, but what’s this I see nestling away in one particular paragraph of the speech? Can anyone spot the word here which makes me raise an eyebrow?

"As it is, people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight. Young people who think many of their friends binge-drink are likely to do so themselves. Girls who think their peers engage in early sex are more likely to do so themselves.”

So we have “people”, “fat people”, “young people”… but suddenly, in the last sentence about early sex, we find “Girls”.

Does peer pressure not affect the age at which boys first have sex? Does the age at which boys first have sex not matter? Are boys to be encouraged to have sex early to prove their macho credentials? If so, presumably that will be with much older girls – or perhaps other boys – so as not to encourage young girls to join in.

This appalling statement is just the latest glaring example of the sexism and outmoded thinking at the heart of the supposedly modernised Conservative party.

Marrying value

Similarly ridiculous is their pledge, repeated as a front-page splash in Saturday’s Telegraph, to instigate a Married Couples Tax Allowance.

This policy represents a complete misunderstanding of cause and effect. The Tories portray this as a way to encourage marriage, on the basis that children brought up in a marriage are more successful in life.

But can it really be the case that a nice day out at a church or licensed civil venue and a couple of rings can fundamentally affect the life chances of the happy couple’s offspring?

How about looking at it in the other direction? Isn’t it possible that the reason why children of married couples do better is that they are children of people who are in a stable enough relationship to consider marriage, and who are well enough off to afford a wedding ceremony, and who go on to remain married for many years aided by the fact that they are comfortable financially and so avoid the “number one cause of divorce”, financial stress?

Of course children living in a comfortable, stable environment like this will have a smoother upbringing than those living in poverty with constantly arguing parents, and get better life chances as a result. But if poverty is the root cause of the problems for the children, what will the Tories’ policy actually achieve?

In the unlikely event that the opportunity to claim a extra tax relief actually does result in any couples marrying and staying together who wouldn’t at least have been living together happily in the first place (and so already pretty likely to bring up successful children), there’s every chance the marriage won’t work out (since they weren’t otherwise confident of it doing so), meaning more rows for the children to put up with, and perhaps eventually a messy divorce (and the loss of the tax bonus).

The more likely outcome is that the tax changes don’t actually affect most people’s behaviour, instead just upsetting people who are already upset, and making already poor people relatively poorer still.

Annulment horribilis

Picture the scene: your marriage of a few years is at a crisis point. You’d love it to carry on for the sake of the children and you’ve really tried to work it through, but it’s just not going to work. You’re already an emotional wreck, your home turned upside down by the sadness of the end of your marriage. You’re wondering how you’ll cope financially moving to one income, one parent doing the day-to-day child-rearing work, etc., and what do the Tory government offer you? A kick in the teeth in the form of a withdrawal of your married couple’s tax bonus.

It’s so blindingly obvious that only lasting love between partners can make a marriage work that it seems unbelievable that the Tories would seek to claim that however many pounds a week their bonus will represent could also do so.

It’s equally obvious that poverty is the main predictor of a child’s life chances, and while the dual income of a married couple can address this, so too could decent, targeted benefits for those in most need. Married couples, many with dual incomes, should not be at the front of the queue for assistance.

I’m married. My wife and I currently have no intention of having children. As I sit in my modest but comfortable home using my decent PC and watching my HDTV, I simply can’t for the life of me imagine why any political party in its right mind would want to give me any more money simply because I’m lucky enough (it really does come down to a significant element of luck, after all) to have found Mrs. Pushing the boundary.

The Conservative party, as it regresses into its old lecturing, moralising, sexist, reactionary and illogical ways, wants to compound the reward of marriage, rather than compensating the unrewarded. If that’s what Level Two is all about, let’s hope Cameron reaches Game Over soon.

Belgian waffle

Mrs. Pushing the boundary and I spent last week holidaying in Belgium, which contrary to popular belief is quite an interesting country – not least because it’s more like two or three countries, despite its small size.

The day after we arrived was Belgium Day, and some of the broader UK news outlets saw this as a handy hook on which to hang a bit of coverage of the current constitutional crisis that’s been building recently: could this be the last Belgium day before the country splits in two, that sort of thing. More4 News* brought us one report, and Radio 4’s PM programme* another, each along the same lines as the other.

Map of the regions of Belgium

Basically, for those not familiar with the country, it has a north-south divide that makes that in England look more like the divide between the appearance of identical twins. Until now I’d only really been to Brussels, where you’ll find most signs presented in two languages (French and Flemish), and a general acceptance of either language in most places.

This time we headed to the north of Belgium, Flanders (hi-diddly-ho, good neighbour), and here it is far easier to get on by speaking English than French – it’s Flemish all the way. Fortunately pretty much everyone does speak excellent English, or we’d’ve been doing an awful lot of stereotypical gesturing and shouting in the face of their initially bewildering language. It’s particularly bewildering to those of us who only learnt French (and Latin – don’t tell Boris) at school, as it has far more in common with German than anything Mediterranean.

What surprised me was the revelation that actually Flemish is essentially the same language as Dutch (which in turn apparently takes its English name from a corruption of "Deutsche" by mistaken sailors who thought the language they were encountering in the Netherlands was German). This revelation did at least mean we could use online translation tools from Dutch to English to get a pretty good idea of what was going on on local web sites.

Anyway, the lack of French-speaking made the Flanders region feel like a completely separate country from our more familiar Brussels. (You’ll note as the time passes that all our holiday destinations are at or near the end of a Eurostar line: it’s the only way to travel for meat-eating, computer-loving environmentalists, so we haven’t flown in years.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that that’s exactly what many in the region are clamouring for it to become: an independent nation.

Flag-based representation of the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of Belgium splitting apartThe south, more properly called the cartoonish-sounding Wallonia, is characterised in media coverage of the Belgium split story as something akin to the media’s equally broadbrush descriptions of Glasgow East – apparently it’s a poverty-stricken, run-down area of deprivation. I haven’t ventured outside Brussels into Wallonia so I don’t know how true this is, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to house any major tourist areas as the north does suggests it’s probably about right – tourist resorts do tend to try to build walls between themselves and social deprivation, after all (though not always successfully).

The upshot is that many in Flanders feel that the Walloons (would Wallonia and the Walloons make a good band name? Only for a Comic Relief single, I suspect) are taking money away from the northern region and squandering it in the southern region on benefits and other state aid.

There seems something ironic about the country at the heart of the European Union considering a split in order not to have to spread money from a wealthy region to a poorer region, when that’s half the point of the EU (and would no doubt continue via EU convergence grants if the two countries were to separate). And it’s hard to see, on the face of it, any other decent arguments for making the split, when the north and south are already so completely different anyway.

Apparently Belgium is one of the most federal countries in Europe as things stand, presumably explaining the non-Welsh-like way of handling the dual languages outside of Brussels – no pan-country requirements for bilingual signs here.

If they can already coexist in one country while maintaining separate languages, cultures etc., what’s to gain from splitting?

Or looking at it another way, there’s also a lot to lose for one side or the other, in the form of Brussels. This city is important both symbolically, as the home of the EU (and perhaps the sprout), and as a major tourist destination, with that handy Eurostar terminal sitting in its southern station.

So do you split the city down the middle, as Barack Obama definitely maybe probably doesn’t want to happen to Jerusalem, or as did happen to Berlin? Does the slightly more geographically appropriate north get it? Could its low proportion (11%) of Flemish inhabitants mean the south could lay claim to it? It seems the question of how to handle Brussels, which in some ways is like a third different region in itself, may be the biggest obstacle to splitting up the country.


* Yes, I watched and listened to these in my hotel room in Belgium. I think there might be another blog post to be written about some of my more unusual uses of hotel wi-fi when abroad…

Nudge fudge

Fruit machineIt’s been pretty hard so far this month to avoid talk of ‘nudge’ politics [future link].

Apparently it’s big in the US, where Barack Obama is a big fan, and naturally after London elected their answer to ‘Change we can believe in’ in May, the Conservatives are equally enamoured with the nudge phenomenon too. (It’s interesting to notice how much Obama and the Conservatives have in common: it’s as if the entire political spectrum in the US were situated to the right of our own… because it is.)

Where some political philosophies may emphasise people’s rights and freedoms, others their responsibilities, and others the state’s responsibilities to serve and protect them, ‘nudge’ politics is based on the idea that people are basically extremely stupid, and therefore need to be told what to do.

Were such a philosophy espoused by the left, it would no doubt be ridiculed as the nanny state gone mad, but of course this is the new, cuddly and most critically electable Conservatives and it’s therefore perfectly acceptable to the right for them to come out with this idea.

We’re all idiots

The nudge idea is actually quite a reasonable one, as far as it goes. In its propensity to continue to ruin its planet, its self-destructive urge to binge-drink, over-eat and overindulge with drugs, the human race is often its own worst enemy. So unless you take the extreme libertarian view that everyone should be left to get on with it, whatever the consequences (even if those consequences could ultimately be, for instance, the deaths of millions in climate change-caused disasters), giving people a nudge in the right direction is not a bad idea.

NHS Organ Donor Register - non-donorcard - I don't want to help others to live in the event of my death The idea is to provide people with the state-determined ‘best’ option as the default choice, while still allowing people to choose other paths if they disagree. So you enrol someone for a pension but give them the chance to cancel it if they don’t want to pay into it; perhaps you even reverse the current organ donation situation, requiring anyone who doesn’t want to donate organs to carry a card to make their wishes clear.

So where can we see this approach in action already? Where are there millions of people, most of them not really understanding what they’re doing, making uninformed choices which can have bad consequences for thousands of others, all of which can be mitigated by sensibly chosen default options? There’s a 90%+ chance you’re looking at it now: Microsoft Windows.

Curtains for Windows?

The vast majority of the world’s computers run Windows, and certainly almost anyone without the first clue about computers will be using it, probably without even realising they’re doing so. (That’s not to suggest only the stupid use Windows: I have first, second and third clues about computers and still choose to use it.)

For a long time, ease of use, to encourage computer take-up, trumped security. Don’t know what this webpage alert about needing to install the rootkit.exe plugin means? Don’t worry, just hit Enter and the page will work fine.

Users’ freedom to do as they pleased in the short term outweighed the benefits to everyone in the long term. (Don’t understand this pension scheme terms and conditions document? Just throw it away and forget about it for now, then.)

But it soon became clear, halfway through Windows XP’s life, that this approach simply wasn’t good enough any more in the always-connected internet age. Suddenly those auto-installing ‘plugins’ were turning into huge internet-wide ‘botnets’ of unknowing computer users’ systems, working together to send spam, attack web sites and generally make internet users’ lives a misery.

Improvements nudge into view

Microsoft responded with Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which was effectively a significant new release of the operating system but was shipped as a free service pack to try to get it out to as many of the existing millions of XP machines as possible.

You look like you're installing some spyware. Would you like me to slap you repeatedly until you learn the error of your ways? This release was an early example of some pretty tough ‘nudging’. Vast swathes of default settings had been changed to favour security over ease of use. The firewall was turned on by default, important system patches awaiting installation nagged users into submission, and the browser didn’t even prompt you prominently to install plugins (encouraging casual ‘Yes’-clicking to rid yourself of the nuisance of a pop-up dialog box), instead notifying you through an unobtrusive strip to be sought out only if you were wondering why something obviously wasn’t working properly on the page.

A nudge too far?

The trouble is, even that didn’t appear to be enough. I’m one of those people that gets called on to sort out parental acquaintances’ PCs when they go wrong, and I’ve seen even the most well-patched XP SP2 machines crippled by all kinds of malware that’s tricked its way onto people’s PCs. I once found someone who had actually paid to ‘renew’ a piece of fake anti-virus software that had tricked its way onto his computer – past his existing anti-virus software.

So Windows Vista ups the security and nudging to a whole new level, with administrative elevation prompts often described as ‘intrusive’ in reviews. These pop up whenever you try, or anything else on your system tries, to do something which requires administrative privileges: installing software, changing system settings, generally doing anything which could feasibly result in your computer being turned into a lean, mean, spamming machine, or worse.

Mrs. Pushing the boundary (the wife formerly known as Mrs. Stop Boris) got a bit fed up with these prompts, and Vista’s other beefed-up security credentials and went back to XP. It’s not an uncommon tale (albeit mixed in with the usual teething problems caused by hardware companies keener to sell you new hardware than to spend a few hours writing a new driver for their old hardware), and it illustrates the fine balance to be found between nudging people enough and pushing them too far.

Nudge off

Those of us who know what we’re doing with computers can of course disable all the nudging, although I rather like knowing when something wants admin rights so I haven’t. Governmental nudging would be unlikely to come with a universal off-switch in the same way.

Even at the individual decision level, how would Cameron strike the balance mentioned above successfully? It needs to be easy enough to opt out of, say, a pension plan for those people who genuinely understand the options and don’t think that’s the best one for them, yet hard enough that uninformed people focused on the short term don’t spot a tick-box which to them appears to say “Don’t give away 5% of my money each month after all”.

Con-tradictions

And as with so much of Project Cameron, it could appear that he is seeking an impossible compromise between fundamentally different approaches, like free-market economics and environmentalism, or hugging hoodies but throwing away the key if they’re carrying a knife.

Is this the party David Davis has apparently decided he would like, one which defends liberties and freedoms (apart from freedom from the death penalty and homophobia, of course 😉 ), or is it instead another party which will want to tell everyone what to do for the greater good? Are the two reconcilable in a single manifesto? If and when some concrete policies start appearing from the Conservatives, perhaps we’ll find out.

Why politicians can’t win: the postcode lottery

The postcode lottery. (This picture took two hours to make, after waiting for a lottery draw to come on TV so I could get the original image. You're right, it wasn't worth it.)

I’m sure there’s another series of posts to be had on the theme of “why politicians can’t win”, but here’s one reason to get things started.

We hear quite frequently about a “postcode lottery” in health, or education, or whatever other public service is in the media firing line on any particular day.

It’s outrageous, the message runs, that the government allows a situation to arise whereby someone in one area is prescribed a particular drug, or given access to a high quality of teaching, while someone in another area is left pleading on their knees outside their GP’s surgery for a prescription for the same drug, or given shockingly substandard teaching.

That’s certainly a decent enough viewpoint, but there’s no disguising the fact that it amounts to a call for much more centralised control of the public services in question.

Yet the people who play the “postcode lottery” card are often the same people who at other times will trumpet the benefits of “localisation”. The Tories are particularly keen on localisation at the moment, and in fact on Tuesday night they called on their council leaders to ignore central government requests for information and certain non-statutory activities. As Eric Pickles put it:

The time is overdue for Conservative councils to stand up to this bullying and controlling government on behalf of their communities. It is time for Conservative councils to just say no. […] We are not in the business of delivering ‘Labour Lite’; local priorities now must take precedent.

But if local priorities take precedent over central co-ordination, won’t we end up with a postcode lottery in which some localities prioritise some drugs while others prioritise others?

So if they over-centralise, they aren’t giving local people the power to have their own say over their lives, but if they devolve power they cause postcode lotteries. What are they supposed to do to win?

Haltemprice and Howden

I realise my track record on influencing people’s voting choices isn’t great, but for the record I wholeheartedly agree with Dave Cole’s conclusions on next month’s David Davis-induced by-election.

There are no other relatively mainstream, left-wing, liberal parties standing against Davis, and his support for the death penalty and what might abbreviatedly be called Section 28-day detention gives the lie to any pretence he’s a champion of civil liberties, so backing the Green party would seem a no-brainer to me, were I actually living in the constituency.

Is 26 candidates in a by-election a record, by the way? Does anyone know? It seems rather a lot, particularly considering the absence of most of the main parties. Hope the returning officer has stamina.