Are we fighting the wrong battles?

October 27, 2007

An interesting piece from Matthew Parris in the Times on Britain’s power position in the world today:

“In a range of big foreign policy questions it is time we British embraced the politics of impotence. We should save our enthusiasms, our money, our international friendships and our soldiers’ lives, for what is doable.”

Parris argues that British adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq should be placed firmly in the opposing category: they were not, and are not, doable. On aggressive posturing towards Iran:

Britain should do here what we should have done before the attack on Iraq: give the world to understand that we are unpersuaded that the time is ripe for confrontation; but that we will not try to undermine a key ally, America, that has taken another view. We should sit this one, like that one, out. We are, anyway, impotent.

I can’t help feeling that he has a point. Are we still suffering from a post-imperial hangover? Certainly, Britain is still (for now) the fifth largest economy is the world, ranks sixth in the world in military spending, and holds a seat on the UN Security Council. But any sober judge must recognise our ability to project power around the world is limited.

As such, should we be concentrating the limited resources we have on showpiece moral projects, or must we be more ruthless? What Britain most needs in the contemporary world is not a democratic Iraq, satisfying as that is, but access to markets and to reliable supplies of energy. Is the belief that we can still play great power politics distracting from these aims, to our long-term detriment? Perhaps Britain must choose: either we accept our descent to a middling power and bind tight to the national interest; or we keep our ideals, but move them to a stage where there is the potential for Britain to have genuine influence – is now the time to look again at a single EU Foreign and Security Policy?

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Mobile phones: better than friends

October 26, 2007

The Carphone Warehouse and the LSE have released an interesting report into the impact of mobile phones on European life, based on a large survey by polling company MORI. The report compares mobile phone usage in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK.

Here are a few key quotes:

The sociological idea that mobile phones have become a kind of “imaginary friend” or “interactive cyberpet” was given credence by the fact that a substantial minority of Brits [25%] now use them as a convenient barrier with which to resist the intrusion of strangers in public places”.

The purchase of a mobile phone by a parent for a young adult is akin to a rite of passage in the contemporary family.

Western Europeans, and particularly the British, emerge from this survey as endowed with an almost neurotically intimate attachment to their phones. A full one in ten respondents admitted that they felt “addicted” to their mobile phone, and an equal number claimed that their mobile phone was their most prized possession. The mobile phone has now become a kind of “pacifier for adults”.

The report also notes that “style is significantly more important to the French than anyone else when choosing their mobile”.

Some things never change.


Lay-zee-boy Thompson

October 25, 2007

Journalists have a reputation for laziness.

And the journalists covering the current American presidential election appear to conform to type. Perhaps it’s understandable – this campaign, with no incumbent president or vice-president running will be the longest ever. Journalists have deadlines to meet and they have to write something – just to get some words in print.

So what to do?

Easy. Revert back to an old narrative and fit whatever happens to be going on that day into the pro-forma article that demonstrates that, for example, Hillary Clinton is power-hungry and driven, Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper or that Fred Thompson is lazy. The beauty of this method is that because everyone’s heard it all before, the current article doesn’t even have to be accurate – it just sounds so familiar anyway.

The reason it sounds familiar is because there is undoubtedly some truth in the charge. But a narrative of this type, once acquired, is remarkably hard to dislodge – imagine the caption for a photo of Fred Thompson taking a ride in a golf cart compared with the caption for an identical photo of Mitt Romney.

Energy (or the lack of it) is an issue in most campaigns (Is he too old? Is she up to the job?) – and it’s probably part of the reason why Fred Thompson’s campaign is in the toilet (or is soon to be).

But the bigger issue may well be the lack of mental energy displayed by the press – their job is not simply to reinforce our preconceptions. If they can challenge those, they might also succeed in challenging the candidates more as well.


Spiders on Drugs

October 24, 2007

More important news on drugs to be found at this site.

Continuing their fine tradition of pointless research, NASA’s scientists have given a bunch of spiders a load of different drugs, then taken photos of their webs.

Below, stoned spider. The site helpfully records that “spiders on marijuana made a reasonable stab at spinning webs but appeared to lose concentration about half-way through”.

Stoned Spiders

Just don’t look if you’ve been drinking coffee…


Drugs (mis)treatment 2

October 24, 2007

A postscript to my post of 18th October about the BBC’s story on drug treatment.

A mate who works in the drug treatment world went down to visit the Plymouth Drug Action Team today. They were the people who were fingered in particular for supposedly giving “rewards” to drug users, and were featured in all the news bulletins.

He sent me this email.

“Plymouth was very interesting. Apparently the BBC spent a lot of time talking to users there and then didn’t show any of it because the users resolutely refused to say what they were supposed to say (or rather they showed it, in the sense that they used visuals, so the viewers could register what a drug addict looks like, but not sound – just a disapproving voice-over.) The interviewers kept asking what rewards they got for presenting clean urine samples and the users kept saying things like ‘staying clean’, ‘making progress’, ‘feeling better’. Poor fools, no sense at all of what makes a good story…”


Comment is Free: not all bad

October 24, 2007

In a time when opinion is diverse and collective standards hard to come by, surely one thing that unites all right-thinking people is a deep contempt for the comments that follow every piece on Comment is Free.

My special favourite for unthinking rage and facile anti-Americanism comes after this rather unassuming article on Northern Rock by Gavyn Davies. BungleBonce’s comments are particularly worth the scroll. Apparently the very concept of money is “all a scam and a fraud that has kept the human race virtually enslaved and fighting each other in world wars, and any one who knows the system and is not trying to expose it is a traitor to the human race”. Which is nice.

Today though, for the first time, I found myself applauding the commenters. Andy Brunt, chairman of Eccles RFC, polluted the pages of the Guardian with this crude and self-serving commentary on the class composition of England’s 2007 World Cup rugby team. The England team is made up of toffs, he says, but nobody is speaking up about it. “Is it because the majority of these people went to independent schools, or have children at them and therefore don’t want to stir things up?…it does make you wonder”. Rugby conspiracy theorists. Are things really that bad?

Finally, the commenters had a suitable target for their bile. They responded magnificently. My personal favourite? “Oh, so what? It is their job to win not to accurately represent England’s national belly button to the world”. Thank you unmemorablename; I even forgive you your split infinitive.


Mitt the Mormons

October 23, 2007

I’ve always thought that Mitt Romney’s religion could be a strength, rather than the weakness it appears to be.

Firstly, Mormonism is the only truly American religion.

Secondly, confronting the issue might give the Romney campaign the narrative strength it currently lacks, presenting Mitt as a real person, rather than someone created by a committee.

Lots of people have mentioned that Kennedy did just this, famously, when the issue of his religion became a political problem. However, as this short piece in The New Republic makes plain, Romney cannot take the Kennedy amendment on this one. He has founded his campaign on the belief that he can remake “the house that Reagan built”, reforming the Republican coalition based on the Christian right. He cannot come out and say that a man’s religion should play no active role in his politics.

Romney, then, has two choices. 1. Carry on trying to pretend his Mormonism isn’t an issue to American voters. 2. Make a virtue of his difference, and tell people something they don’t want to hear.

Like Adam Nagourney in today’s New York Times, I like to believe that voters value candour. They don’t always want to have their prejudices confirmed. Giuliani and McCain have shown in this campaign and the last that giving it to people straight can work actually make them like you. Moreover, it’s a pretty essential quality in a President.

So why not Romney?