Month: May 2011


Left and Right


A commenter accuses me of “basing the whole of my political philosophy on the seating plan of the French Revolutionary Parliament” because I described someone as “not a lefty”.

Twenty years ago, I was happily drawing Nolan charts, representing social liberalism and economic liberalism as orthogonal, and all sorts of other issues as being capable of being decided independently.

Back then, I saw politics as an intellectual pursuit, and policy positions as the result of analysing the justifications and effects of policies.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, actual politics was going on. Politics is about who has power, and you don’t get power by being on the fringe. You do it as part of a dominant coalition. If you are serious about politics, you support all the positions your coalition holds, whether you really believe the arguments or not. Anyone who is not with the party is against it.

Therefore whether any given idea is placed on the left wing or the right wing may well be arbitrary from an intellectual point of view, but it is an ineluctable necessity from the point of view of a politician. If you are a left-winger in Britain or America today, you’d better support renewable energy and oppose nuclear. Maybe in a couple of decades today’s left-wing policy will be a right-wing position, but that doesn’t matter today. Also, you must only take as strong a position as the main left coalition does, because if you take a stronger position than them, you’re an extremist, which is always bad. Again, an extreme position today may be moderate in ten years, or vice versa, but there is a moderate-left and a moderate-right position on any issue, defined by the two coalitions competing for power.

If you really have strong policy views of your own on a particular issue, you can try to change your coalition’s position on that issue, but if you don’t hold with your coalition, you’re not doing real politics.

For that reason, there always are just two sides that matter, and those two sides each have a position on everything. So it makes perfect sense to describe politics in terms of “left” and “right”, in the eighteenth century, the twenty-first century, or arguably even, as Alison Plowden does, in the sixteenth. Any given policy position might be left-wing in one country or one generation and right-wing in another, and the main axis of left-right opposition might be social policy, economic policy, or foreign policy, but there have to be two sides.

Related: Fascism: Right or Left

What a Shame

7th May 2011

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Well, this is embarrassing.

Only weeks after explaining that I didn’t care about the AV referendum, I now find that I’m really pissed off with the result.

I haven’t actually changed my position, that “I think AV would give voters slightly more influence than they have now. I am quite unsure as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing”. I think what really has me upset is that it would have have been so interesting to see how party politics would have developed under AV.

Would any of the major parties have split? Would we have got a lot of independents running, and some of them winning? Would the total vote of the three main parties have dropped to about 50%, with several outsiders each picking up 10-20% of 1st preference votes in most constituencies? Now we’ll never know. It’s like having a favourite TV programme cancelled half way through.

In case that sounds shallow, I should point to a few old posts, where I developed the case that the entertainment value of voting actually outweighs any political value. Because this was back in 2007-8, it applies even if, unlike me today, you do believe that voting has some political value.


One Man One Vote

4th May 2011

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Sometimes the way to get to a good explanation is to start with a bad one.

The opponents of AV make the claim that it means that voters for fringe parties get their vote counted more than voters for major parties. This seemed a stupid objection, but I couldn’t quite explain why, clearly and simply.

Yesterday I read John Humphrys’ complete failure to explain why (via Matt Ridley), and it became obvious:

Yes, in AV, your vote can be counted more than once — whether you vote for a fringe party or a winner or runner-up. If there are only two rounds of counting in a particular example, then the person A who votes for the eliminated candidate gets their vote counted twice: for their first choice in the first round, and for their second choice in the second round.

The voter B for any other candidate also gets their vote counted twice, for their first choice both times.

So in the last round, the one that actually decides the winner, voter A gets counted for their second choice and voter B for their first.

That doesn’t settle the larger argument of course: you can still argue whether AV has a tendency to produce centrist coalitions and whether that is a bad thing. But there should be no argument claiming that AV is less fair than FPTP, for what that’s worth.

(Disclaimer: I argue about this out of habit, not because I think it matters)


Goings-on in Kakul


Guess I picked the right day to write about extrajudicial state violence

In fact, yesterday’s principles apply very easily. The rule of law is a good thing, but it is an instrumental good, not a transcendental imperative. Every state will defend itself from enemies, and if that applies to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, it applies also to the United States of America. And if the line beyond which the government needs to abandon the rule of law and impose order winds through Stokes Croft, then there is no doubt which side of it Bin Laden was on.

As it happens, I do not advocate an immediate Jacobite rising to replace the rotten Whig parliament and restore God’s anointed. But if I did, David Cameron would be quite justified in launching a cruise missile at my house.

Update: In the comments, newt0311 suggests “All sovereign entities are above the law”. Above, yes, but I would like to see the sovereign choose to act according to law. That’s closer to law in the scientific sense than the political sense, in that the essence is that society works better if the state’s actions can be predicted, rather than the sovereign being answerable to some oxymoronic super-sovereign body.

But in comparison to keeping order on the streets, that’s a luxury, as I described here in 2009.


Charlie Veitch


There are accusations that the police illegally detained various malcontents who were intending to carry on public demonstrations of various kinds in London on the day of the Royal Wedding.

That seems on the face of it to be a good thing. If the police can’t keep the peace for a Royal ceremony, then there really isn’t much point in having them.

Having said that, the rule of law is actually important. If the police are acting with impunity beyond their legal powers, relying instead on popular support, then they are indeed, as the malcontents claim, moving in the direction of fascism. And I am on record as being opposed to fascism, even in comparison to our crappy democracy.

While as a matter of principle I think opposition to any given regime ought not to be tolerated, because such opposition serves to encourage politics, within a democracy like ours the existence of legitimate public protest is a key part of the political formula which maintains the valuable but illusory legitimacy of the regime.

The problem with illegally suppressing protest, therefore, is that it is self-defeating: it undermines the justification for the existence of the regime itself.

There have to be limits, though. It is of little value that the rule of law is observed by the authorities, if there is violence on the streets. If the choice is between order and law, we must have order first.

Really we should have both. The inability of the authorities to lawfully keep the peace, in Stokes Croft or Soho Square, is one sign among many, that our system of law is broken, strangled, like so many things, by bureaucracy and empty ritual, most importantly in the sheer inefficiency of the legal process.

Charlie Veitch ought to have been legally arrested, tried, convicted, and fined a couple of hundred quid. It may be that there was no law that actually applied, or it may be that it was simply too much work to go through that whole process; either way, the practical alternative was to arrest him (possibly illegally), hold him for 23 hours and 45 minutes, then release him. Any attempt to act against the possibly illegal arrest is subject to the same handicap of the unusable legal system. This situation benefits nobody.

Peter Hitchens blames the Scarman Report. That may indeed be the most significant step in the hobbling of the legal system, but it is just an example of the senescence of our institutions, which mean that ultimately, even with its bullshit “democratic legitimacy”, the present system of government cannot last. And when it falls, it will probably, as Charlie Veitch has seen, decay into fascism rather than being replaced by something better.






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