Saturday, February 19, 2005

UK Blogging: officially a pointless waste of everyone's time

The other day, over at The Yorkshire Ranter, there was a piece about how Americans seem to think the British bloggosphere is effectively nonexistent. It was a prescient post, it seems...

Hell, I mean if abject failure Iain Duncan Smith says blogging's got potential (especially for the Conservative party's revival), it must be dead, right? This is coming from the man who said he'd lead the Tories to victory in the forthcoming General Election, but who is now a balding nonentity on the backbenches. This is also coming from a politician so on the cutting edge of technological change that his own website doesn't appear on the first three pages of Google after a search for his name. Hardly the soothsayer UK political bloggers were after...

Judging by my own experiences of the UK bloggosphere, the whole thing is indeed largely pointless. A determined few, led primarily by Manic over at Bloggerheads via campaigns such as his latest Backing Blair lark are genuinely trying to make a difference. Around 80% of the rest seem to be either single-issue obsessives, vindictive arseholes or nowhere near as educated or clever as they think they are. The remaining 20% is made up of people - like me - who really just want to be columnists on a national newspaper. Why the hell do our opinions matter? Precisely.

As for this blog, despite having built up a respectable amount of traffic since I started updating it regularly at the end of August last year, it has thus far achieved precisely bugger all - beyond wasting my time and causing me a lot of irritation. Although I know that several thousand people read the bloody thing each week, the majority of the interaction via the comments section and emails etc. seems to come from fellow bloggers - many of whom are never going to agree with me about anything.

I seem neither to have convinced anyone about my point of view on anything nor to have provoked any real thought, as most comments seem utterly to have missed the point. The only thing which is nice is the occasional word of praise from someone who agrees with me entirely. There is, apparently, no middle ground - even though I'd count myself as a political centrist and support no single party, so should be able to find common cause with people from across the political spectrum.

It could, however, be different with other political bloggers. As I have no agenda (despite what some may think) beyond wanting to think about the issues a bit and work out where I stand, coming high up the Google rankings for various search terms is merely a minor ego-boost (after all, I'm writing this under a pseudonym - it's hard to be overly impressed that my "Nosemonkey" persona is doing well, and Nosemonkey's success is unlikely to get me any work under my own name). For political parties and MPs blogs may be useful for promoting their policies and profiles online, but I doubt they will ever win fresh converts.

Unfortunately, for politicians to blog presupposes that any normal member of the public can actually be arsed to look up anything political on the interwebnet, rather than merely buggering about downloading movies and hunting for free porn. Most people interested in politics (who make their presence known online) seem to be committed to one particular party and one particular world view. They are frequently dogmatic and vehement in their support for their chosen ethos, and either contemptuous of those who disagree or unwilling to actually pay sufficient attention to alternative arguments before responding with a stock answer which is only vaguely related to the initial topic. These people are not likely to be won over by reasoned argument, or even to visit sites written by people with whom they disagree other than to look for a fight.

The blog of EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom is a prime case in point. Her comments section has thus far seen two kinds of response, and two kinds of response alone: (1) Uncritical support from random passing EU citizens who think what she's doing is an interesting new approach, and (2) General attacks (rarely, if ever, confined to the topic of her postings) on both her personally and the EU in general from strongly anti-EU bloggers and their loyalist readers.

The ratio between positive and negative comments is approximately 1:10 - the anti-EU lot are there in their droves, apparently determined to make the poor woman so fed up with the whole thing that she simply gives in. Exactly the scame scenario can be seen over at the Yes Campaign Blog's comments section, and - on and off - in the comments sections of most UK politicians' blogs (bar that of the widely popular Boris).

The damage that these attacks by people who disagree can do was especially apparent during the Hartlepool by-election, where the rabid tactics of anonymous posters trying to undermine the chances of Lib Dem candidate Jody Dunn were quite possibly a factor in her losing the election. There was also some unpleasantness (some of which could have resulted in libel writs were it to have taken place in traditional print media) revolving around online campaigners against Lib Dem MP Sandra Gidley - and the ongoing Gidley Watch blog is another example of the pitfalls for politicians if your opponents decide to get obsessive. The experiences of Dunn and Gidley prove amply that blogging is just as likely to be a curse for politicians - the benefits do not necessarily outweigh the potential pitfalls.

In short, Duncan Smith is talking out of his arse. Again. And UK political bloggers really do have a long, long way to go. Maybe Tim Worsthall's idea of a UK political blog roundup may help change things and get us bloggers (of whatever political persuasion) acting a tad more constructively together to build up proper online networks and sensible debates, but it has to be said that from what I've seen so far I'm not too optimistic...

Sunday update: Think I'm a whinging cynic? Have a read of Martin Stabe's more considered analysis of the British bloggosphere.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Bush in Brussels, a Barroso balls-up and a bit on Iran

The Periscope is going to be keeping tabs on Bush's trip over the next few days, and already has lots of useful links.

It will, however, be a visit I shall probably avoid mentioning too much, as it appears that certain visitors to this blog are determined to misinterpret every single last thing I say whenever it comes to the transatlantic relationship (and various other areas for that matter). I really can't be arsed to get into more pointless spats with people who think I'm some kind of anti-American maniac due to their inability to bother reading what I've actually written rather than what their ill-formed preconceptions lead them to think I've said. (Can you sense some exasperation here, perchance?)

In other news, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has been a bit of an idiot, and got involved in a dispute about electioneering. He is, of course, supposed to be obliged not to poke his nose into partisan politics as the supposedly neutral effective figurehead of the EU. This Commission really hasn't been doing too well thus far, and is hardly helping the cause, it must be said...

Oh yes, and for those of us hoping that the Iranian situation can be resolved nicely via diplomacy may be interested by the news that Moscow is backing Tehran all the way on this one, and is determined to continue helping the Iranian nuclear programme. Or is this just another Putin ploy?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

A simply astounding leap of non-logic

The Bruge Group is often responsible for spouting abject pap and inanities about the EU. This particular piece of nonsense, however, is based on so much non-logic that it is almost unbelievable.

Step One: Make a wildly over-the-top analogy in the very first sentence of a long and supposedly analytical piece on the constitution, and act as if that analogy is so accurate that is in on the level of indisputable truth.

To wit: "What is the meaning of the "constitution" of something resembling a new Soviet Union in Europe?"

By the simple addition of the word "Soviet" (which actually means, lest we forget, one of the legislative assemblies of the former USSR, and is not anything but superficially comparable to the various local, regional and national assemblies of any of the EU states), a hint of something sinister and anti-capitalist enters the analysis from the get-go.

Step Two: Ignore any concept of political philosophy or the history of ideas, ignore any concept of logic, and forget all you were ever told about that old nonsense about how the progression "All dogs are brown, Alfred is brown, therefore Alfred is a dog" makes no logical sense.

To wit: Now that we have "established" that the EU is effectively Soviet, that means it must be Marxist (which is obviously bad and with no redeeming features).

So now we claim that "The philosophical root of Marxism is found in Hegel," which - in itself - is a moderately fair over-simplification of an incredibly complex philosophy of political economy.

Next, we claim "So is the philosophical root of racism [found in Hegel], and so too is the root of totalitarian nationalism," thus heavily implying that "because we claim x and y have the same root, z, this means that a - which we claim also to have the same root as x and y - will necessarily follow the same paths as x and y. Even though x and y did not follow the same paths, and a neither has the same root nor is actually related to either x, y or z."

Step three: Introduce an "if" factor which has no basis in current reality, and combine this with your implication based on a flawed over-simplification, from step two, to predict a worrying course of events.

To wit: "If the EU/NSU [I think they mean "New Soviet Union"] bans the nation-state, it risks leading either to the anarchy, the gangsterdom, of class, race, tribal, linguistic, or religious self-interest or to the authoritarian imposition of empire."

Because after all, the EU is "Soviet", and because "Soviet" means "Marxist" and because Marxism was rooted in Hegelian philosophy, which was also - we claim (based on very little actual fact) - the root cause of racism and totalitarianism, therefore the EU must inevitably lead to racism and totalitarianism.


Of course, the only relationship any of this incredible and turgid rubbish has to either Hegel or Marx is that it, like both of those political philosophers, swallows whole a teleological, linear approach to history which presupposes that there is some kind of overarching, unchangeable destiny controlling all events. It is on a par with a medieval peasant assuming the crops failed because God was angry, rather than because he forgot to water the bloody things.

I hereby declare The Bruge Group to be populated either by ill-educated morons or by devious bastards deliberately trying to distort the debate over the constitution with calculated and flagrant misrepresentations of the facts. If pushed, I'd probably opt for the former.

Constitutional debates and justice

Via The Transatlantic Assembly, a link to an interesting new blog, The Fundamental Principles of the European constitution. Don't know how this one kept below the radar, but it looks to be trying to provide an overview of the various debates over ratification throughout the EU. The danger for us UK-based EU-watchers is that it is very easy to assume everyone else will approve the thing. Not necessarily so. This new blog could be a very handy resource.

Elsewhere, Publius takes a look at justice and the EU constitution, which follows on nicely from my last post, and actually gives both pause for thought about some of my (entirely theoretical) claims and something approaching confirmation about some of my contentions of the legal protection against the state that the constitution may provide:

"depuis le traité de Maastricht, c'est-à-dire depuis que des objectifs politiques ont été assignés à l'Union européenne, la collaboration en matière judiciaire est un des objectifs de l'Union.... [mais] Tout cela n'est pas changé avec la constitution européenne, qui respecte donc la liberté interne des Etats-membres...

"Il y a toutefois une nouveauté importante : la deuxième partie de la Constitution prévoit une "charte des droits fondamentaux de l'Union". Les articles II-107 et suivants viennent élever au niveau européen des droits qui existaient déjà dans un autre ordre juridique, celui de la cour européenne des droits de l'Homme : présomption d'innocence, tribunal impartial, règle non bis in idem... Rien de très innovateur, mais l'existence de ces droits dans la Constitution est évidemment un plus, parce que progressivement, ils pourront être sanctionnés au niveau européen : on s'approche (à tout petit pas) de l'unification entre cour européenne des droits de l'Homme et cour de justice des communautés européennes.

"Le texte est porteur de promesses, et non de décisions. De nombreuses choses seront constitutionnellement possibles, mais cela ne suffira pas à vaincre les réticences des Etats, qui disposeront de moyens légaux importants pour différer ou empêcher l'adoption d'une loi d'harmonisation... néanmoins, il y a des choses très intéressantes, et la possibilité, à long terme (à mon avis, au moins 20 ans) de voir se constituer quelques bases, en procédure civile, en droit et en procédure pénale, d'un "droit européen" commun à toute l'union."
Roughly translated:
"since the treaty of Maastricht, i.e. since political objectives were brought within the EU's remit, collaboration on issues of law is one of the objectives of the Union... [but] each State maintains its own rights and its own legal organisation. None of that is altered by the European constitution, which thus respects the internal freedom of the Member States...

"There is however an important innovation: the second part of the Constitution envisages a "charter of the basic rights of the Union". Articles II-107 and following raise to a European level the rights which existed already in another legal order, that of the European Court of Human Rights: presumption of innocence, fair trials, the concept of double jeopardy... Nothing very innovative, but the existence of these rights in the Constitution is obviously one more step, because gradually they could be sanctioned at the European level: one approaches (very gradually) the unification of the European Court of Humans Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Communities...

"The text is full of promises... Many things will be constitutionally possible, but that will not be enough to overcome the reservations of the member states, which will have important legal means to diverge from or prevent the adoption of harmonised, EU-wide legal rights... nevertheless, there are some very interesting possibilities, and the chance, in the long run (in my opinion, at least 20 years) to see the basis of some foundation - in civil litigation, civil rights and penal procedure - of 'European rights' common to the whole union."
Let's hope so, eh?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Via Political Theory Daily Review, a pdf article providing an interesting (if flawed) overview of the development of the concepts of "sovereignty" and "the nation state" which EU-sceptics often seem to get so worked up about, as well as the concept of international law. There's also a nice little section on Hobbes, demonstrating that his ideas about sovereignty, contract theory and the individual's relationship to the state (which seem to have been swallowed wholesale by many EU-sceptics) were very much of their time (although I'd suggest reading a bit of Quentin Skinner to get a more in-depth understanding of the pros and cons of continuing to see Hobbes as relevant to the modern world).

Anyway, I digress. Included in the article was a quote (from G. Kitson Clark's "The Modern State and Modern Society" in Heinz Lubasz (ed.) - The Development of the Modern State, New York; Macmillan, 1964; pp.94) which is worth reproducing in full:

A Soveriegn State is autonomous, it is the sole judge of its own actions, no appeal lies to anyone against it. The sovereignty of Sovereign States is most often considered in the international sphere, in connection with a State's autonomy in its relations with other Sovereign States; but it is important to remember that it exists in the domestic sphere as well. In a Sovereign State the subject has no legal right against the State at all, the power of the State is absolute. This is palpably true of the total State, but it is true of the liberal State also. It is true of Great Britain. In Great Britain the subject has important rights against the executive, he can sue the policeman, the soldier, the borough official, Her Majesty's Government itself, if he believes they have infringed his rights. But he has no rights against the law. In England, a rule which is acknowledged part of the English Common Law or the result of a statute duty passed by King, Lords and Commons, may seem to an Englishman to be absurd, unjust and generally intolerable, but he must obey it or take the consequences. there is a moral restriction on the actions which a liberal state may take against its subjects and it is very valuable, but there can be no legal restriction on those actions.
After recent developments in this country, I for one would welcome legal restrictions on the ability of the state to interfere in our lives through unjust laws. I would like there to be lines in the sand, over which no government can step. At present, there are none. A government could force us all to carry ID cards with detailed information about every aspect of our lives stored in a central database which it could then, if it passed a law saying it could, use for any purposes it so desires. A government could grant itself the power to detain any and all of us without trial. All it would need is a sufficient majority in the House of Commons, and then to wait around for a couple of years if the Lords refuses to pass its legislation before using the Parliament Act to override all objections.

If we ratify the EU constitution, we ratify a document which firmly binds us to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights - out of which the British government has currently opted to enable it to do things which all other signatories of the Charter consider, by definition, to be violations of fundamental rights.

If we ratify the EU constitution, in future no government would be able to deny any of us a trial. No government would be able to pass a law allowing its agents to torture us. We would be legally free from tyranny.

If we ratify the EU constitution, for the first time in this nation's history the state would ACTUALLY, rather than merely theoretically, have certain definite responsibilities towards its citizens. We would no longer need seventeenth century theories about some mythical "original contract", nor would we need to continue to repeat - albeit using different terminology - seventeenth century complaints about "the Norman yoke" and various pieces of abject nonsense about the rights granted by Magna Carta (based on yet another seventeenth century misinterpretation of what that document actually means) whenever the state gets out of hand.

If we ratify the EU constitution, the British state - and every state in Europe - would be bound by international treaty never to oppress its people. Considering Europe's turbulent past, and considering the way Britain currently seems to be headed - surely the state's sovereign right to persecute its citizens is a sovereign right well worth losing?

Monday, February 14, 2005

"This exercise in obfuscation and suppression"

A few days old, but blogging Eurosceptic Labour MP Austin Mitchell raises some very good points (as well as a few suspect ones) about the way the government is treating the constitutional referendum.

It does, it must be admitted, rather appear as if the government is trying to prevent a proper parliamentary debate about the constitution. A proper debate should, considering that the government claims that people are anti-constitution because they don't know about it, be a great opportunity to raise public awareness. So what are they playing at? Over to Austin:

"The carefully stage managed Maastricht debates look like a festival of free democratic debate compared to this exercise in obfuscation and suppression...

"To facilitate this Bum's rush we are being deprived of essential information. Government promised a commentary on the Constitution as a Command Paper in advance of Government's second reading to be available to key opinion formers. As of now the paper hasn't emerged. Merely 500 photocopied pages from the Commons Vote Office. Most people, even most MPs, won't see this.

"The Constitution itself is an enormous, almost unreadable, document of 448 articles, 36 protocols, two annexes and 50 declarations, all with the excitement and intellectual coherence of cold porridge. Yet government hasn’t yet given us its own analysis or its views on the many new provisions which have been smuggled in."
I disagree with many of Austin's conclusions about the contents of the constitution, but it is very hard not to agree with his fundamental point:
"[the government] should listen to the views of Parliament and people and allow full and free debate in Parliament before any referendum... You can't win wholehearted consent by confidence tricks, half truths and closing down debate."

"Its ambitions exceed its reach"

Via Vodkapundit, a similar take on the EU / US relationship to mine from the other day (the basic point of which seemed, judging by the comments section, to have been missed by some readers). Interesting stuff and worth a look:

Take the "Greater Middle East" and imagine Europe and the United States working in tandem rather than vying with each other for influence. Imagine a well-choreographed "good cop, bad cop" tack on Iran, with the United States providing the muscle, lack of which has consistently stultified the Europeans as they tried to sweet-talk Tehran into abandoning the bomb. Or Israel/Palestine. In the past, the United States and France have worked at cross-purposes, with Paris keener on competing than on collaborating with Washington in the Middle East. Together, the European Union and the United States could ensure that this promising post-Arafat moment does not vanish once more in the roar of terrorist bombs.

Reasons to be cheerful?

I was stuck on a rail replacement coach on my way back to London yesterday, which left me in the unusual situation of reading the Observer from cover to cover, including this rather interesting piece by Will Hutton.

His argument seems a solid one, that there are many reasons to think the current bout of opposition to the EU constitution won't carry over to the referendum itself. What is interesting is not that he praises the constitution as such (he takes its general desirability as a given) but rather that this is a no-nonsense riposte to the somewhat whiny argument that the referendum would be overwhelmingly "anti". Instead Hutton envisages the gradual build-up of institutional momentum as the, currently non-existant, "pro" campaign gets off the ground, boosted by "pro" votes in the other countries to hold referenda.

It's rather optimistic (especially his assertion that, in a poll based on the refererendum question, the "pros" are only 2 percentage points behind and his belief that the British press would change its hostility to the EU) but his basic theory seems sound: that dialogue and debate over the actual constitution (rather than half-baked conspiracy theories) and a growing understanding of what it actually means will lead to acceptance.

Which does mean I'll have to read the bloody thing. Bugger.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

What does it mean to vote "no"?

Eulogist is back at Reflections on European Democracy, and he's returned with a nicely thought-provoking prost - "it is clear what happens if a majority votes ‘yes’. But is it equally clear what it means to vote ‘no’? Hardly".

For other reading - Does Israel belong in the EU and NATO? And a bit more on Israel and the Middle East power-play. And - just for the hell of it and even though I know it'll probably only attract more Americans accusing me of being anti-American - a bit more on the perceived EU/US split of recent years.

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