Tuesday, March 28, 2006

God, Dawkins and Medeleine Bunting

Madeleine Bunting has an article in the Guardian (27/3/06) attacking Richard Dawkins. I'm not the kind of person who has "heroes" but if I was, Dawkins would be one of them. His books - especially The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker - are wonderfully written, and well-argued. Unlike many popularisers of science Dawkins does not condescend to his readers - he writes for a non-technical but intelligent audience and takes the reader through some rigorous argument. He also has a facility for just the right metaphor or simile. Now, Dawkins is more than capable of looking after himself, but it seems to me Bunting misunderstands his argument. She claims that Dawkins view is that Dawinism "leads ineluctably to atheism". I may be mistaken but I don't think that is what he argues. What Darwinism does - so far as this agument (about God) is concerned - is to comprehensively demolish one central argument for the existence of God: the "argument from design". It does this by showing that the complex design of biological organisms does not presuppose a creator, but can be explained by chance genetic variation/natural selection. Darwinism also disproves simplistic literalist religious accounts of creation (e.g. creationism, which thanks to Blair and his faith schools is spreading here), although that had earlier been disproved by the geologists. Dawkins is also, of course, an atheist. But here he uses arguments which are not directly derived from Darwinism. For example, his reply to the "Agument from a First Cause" it that it presupposes the existence of somehing (God) at least as complex as what it is supposed to explain (the existence of the universe) and of which it offers no explanation whatever. Bertrand Russell made a similar argument: if we have to have an "uncaused cause" it might as well be the universe itself as God. This is a good argument, but it doesn't come from Darwin. Dawkins also deploys arguments in which he uses his knowledge of the natural world, but again, not strictly Darwinist arguments: e.g. that the existence of parasites who eat their host alive from the inside out shows that a creator could hardly be supposed to be benevolent (Dawkins could also refer to epidemic diseases from cholera to Aids; or to natural catastrophes from the Lisbon earthquake to the recent tsunami). He also makes the point that atheism cannot be proven since that involves proving the non-existence of something (How can you prove that something does not exist? The burden of proof lies with those who claim that it does). By the same token, one cannot disprove the existence of the "flying spaghetti monster", but there is no good reason to think it exists. The fact is, there is no evidence and no persuasive arguments whatever for the existence of God. The appeal to "faith" is simply irrational. Bunting goes on to talk about the possible beneficial effects of religious belief. It seems to me obvious that it has often had very malignant effects (this is obviously true of the fundamentalist versions that are becoming more influential). But let's suppose it does sometimes have beneficial effects. So what? The argument is not about whether religion is useful or beneficient, or about why it is that so many people believe it (that is another argument): the argument is about whether it is true or not. If someone who, lets say, has lost a loved one, seeks some comfort in religion, then (in my view) that's fine (I suppose). But what this person believes isn't true; and perhaps the world would be a better place if we valued truth more than comforting falsehoods. For the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster go to this web-site: http://www.venganza.org/
And for Dawkins go here:

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Everyone Does It

Tony Blair at Question Time on Wednesday was easily able to deflect attacks on the “loans for Lordships” front. His counter-attack focused on two points:
(i) It was New Labour who enacted the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (2000), which created the Electoral Commission and required donations of over £5,000 to be declared. For the regulations go to this web-site: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/regulatory-issues/legdonpoliticalparty.cfm
(ii) The Labour Party has now disclosed where its loans came from, but the Conservative Party has so far not done likewise. The suspicion is that the Conservatives wish to conceal that that they have been receiving money from foreign donors (sorry, lenders). Donations from foeign sources are illegal, but loans are, so far as I can make out, within the law (just).
A third argument, which Blair did not make, is that “everyone does it”. As Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times (25/3/06) puts it Blair is “hardly the first party leader suspected to have bartered baubles for booty”. Max Hastings suggests that, at least in private, this more phlegmatic view is widespread among “professional politicians” (Guardian 23/3/06). By way of a response to these 3 arguments one could say:
(i) What Blair has done is certainly contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the 2000 Act. It is utterly disingenuous to introduce an Act, and then devise ways in which it can be circumvented. It is almost as if the Act was a very Blairite PR exercise: to make it look as if politics had been cleaned-up, while all the time it was “business as usual” with Blair raising cash in dark corners with a “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” about peerages (and, so it seems – more seriously - government contracts).
(ii) New Labour has revealed where the loans came from under pressure and as an obvious (and effective) ruse to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives. Blair would not have revealed any of this if the newspapers had not got hold of it. The whole purpose of soliciting loans rather than donations was to enable secrecy (even from his own party).
(iii) It is true that both parties have always given peerages to party donors. But this is hardly a very ethical line of defence. (One of the most nauseating characteristics of Blair is the combination of heart-on-sleeve morality and religiosity with low skulduggery). And just because an abuse is a long-standing practice does not mean it is any less of an abuse.
All of this underlines the need to reform the House of Lords to remove the power to appoint peers from the party leaders. Blair, at Question Time, refused to take the opportunity to say that he believed in a predominantly elected second chamber. But making most peers elected (perhaps using Billy Bragg's "secondary mandate") and placing the nomnation of the minority of unelected peers in the hands of the Independent Commission would mean that party leaders could no longer trade in peerages and would not lead to the "gridlock" Blair fears. Perhaps something could also be done about the way in which the Commissioners are appointed. For details of the "secondary mandate" go ton this web-site: http://www.secondarymandate.org/how.html


The letter below appeared in the Guardian on March 23. It requies no comment:

I have never been to Guantánamo. I have never been in jail either. I have, however, been a soldier for nearly 20 years, in Her Majesty's Royal Regiment of Artillery. In that time, I attended lectures, presentations and talks about the consequences of encountering civilians, refugees and guerillas in combat. On no occasion, did I ever hear the phrase "illegal non-combatants". On no occasion did I hear that such persons, or anyone else, could be held overseas, incommunicado, in a place described by your own country's supreme court as a stateless land. On no occasion did I hear that detainees could be tried without legal representation.
Lastly, and worst of all, on no occasion did I hear that prisoners of war could be denied the right to be seen by the Red Cross, unsupervised, as demanded by the Geneva convention, to which the US is a signatory.

Daniel Tanzey Thornton Cleveleys, Lancs

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Polly's "crafty lawyers"

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian (21/3/06): "... the Chancellor tries to keep up with the latest scams cooked up by the crafty lawyers of the grossly overpaid to find barely legal ways round the tax law". Might this, perchance, be a description of David Mills? Perhaps Brown should ask "poor Tessa" for advice?

Carter and Palestine

The former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, in an article in the Guardian says that between September 2000 and March 2006 a total of 3,982 Palestians were killed and 1,084 Israelis; and that this figure includes 708 Palestinian children and 123 Israeli children.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Who are the House of Lords Apppointments Commission?

The House of Lords Independent Appointments Commission was established in May 2000 as a non-departmental public body independent of government. It is staffed by civil servants and funded by the Cabinet Office. It normally has 7 members (6 currently) , 3 representing the political parties and four independents. The four independent members were selected by a panel chaired by the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson. The Commission is chaired by Dennis Stevenson, a crossbencher in the Lords. Its most high profile member is probably Douglas Hurd, the former Conservative Home Secretary. Its job is to recommend non-party-political peers and to vet the nominations made by the political parties (since March 2005 it has also vets individuals added to the honours list by the Prime Minister). But the Commission does not have the power to veto applications (despite the reportage last week that it had "blocked" the nomination to the peerage of several candidates who gave secret loans to the Labour Party). Its role - according to its web-site - is to "draw any concerns" it has to the attention of the Prime Minister ("Prime Minister, we are concerned that this chap has been secretly giving you - sorry, loaning you - large wads of cash..." Of course, the Commisioners were not informed by Blair about these loans, they had to read about it in the newspapers). In other words, the Commission can recommend that a candidate should not be nominated, but not veto the nomination. However, Blair has indicated that he will take their advice - clearly calculating that to overule the Commission would be politically damaging. Back in September 2000 the Commission invited nominations for independent peers. These were labelled in the press as "People's Peers". But when the Commission made its nominations it was pretty much the same dreary list of "the great and the good" - including Sir Herbert Ouseley, who was a member of the panel appointing the 4 non-political Commissioners (In the British wa, he helped appoint them, they helped appoint him).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Secret Loans and the Conservatives

The Times reports that the Conservative Party secured loans of nearly £20 million (including £3.5 million from Lord Ashcroft, whose "business interests" are mostly in the central American republic of Belize. But only a proper charlie would speculate as to what these "business interests" might be). Conservative Central Office has apparently ordered its MP's not to go on the attack over Labour's "secret loans" scandal and - like Labour - it refuses to give full details of individual lenders and the terms of repayment (if any). Meanwhile questions about Labour's secret loans multiply: To who were the loans made payable? (To the Labour Party or a separate account? If the Labour Party how could Jack Dromey have been kept in ignorance? Ian McCartney said this morning on Radio 4 this morning that "every penny" was spent on getting Labour MP's elected. How does he know? Has he seen the books?). How exactly was the money spent? Has there been a proper accounting procedure to keep track of expenditure? Who decided how to allocate the money? What are the arrangements for repaying the loans? (If there is no such arrangement then they are not loans but donations and Blair has broken the law. The same is true if repayment was "in kind" i.e. in the form of a peerage). It now turns out, as reported in the Finacial Times, that Labour raised around £17 million in secret "loans" - and is refusing to say where the bulk of the money came from. It is all very dodgy and both parties are culpable. (Both Gordon Brown and John Prescott claim they knew nothing about the secet loans - on Radio 4 this morning John Reid seemed unable to say whether he knew or not. But it looks like a Levy-Blair operation.)

Friday, March 17, 2006

The balance of parties in the Commons

In the General Election on May 5 2005 Labour won 356 seats and the Conservatives 197 (The election in the constituency of Staffordshire South was postponed until June 23 due to the death of the Liberal-Democrat candidate. The Conservatives won this seat raising their total to 198). The Liberal-Democrats won 62 seats.

However, the Speaker and his three assistants normally do not vote in the House of Commons. This reduces the number of MP’s to 642. The Speaker is Michael Martin (Labour), and the Assistant Speakers are Alan Haselhurst (Conservative), Sylvia Heal (Labour) and Michael Lord (Conservative). This reduces the Labour total to 354 (356 minus the Speaker and an Assistant Speaker) and the Conservative total to 194 (196 minus two Assistant Speakers).

There have so far been three by-elections since the General Election:
(i) A by-election was held in Cheadle (Cheshire) on July 14 2005 due to the death of the Liberal-Democrat MP Patsy Calton. The Liberal-Democrats held the seat.
(ii) A by-election was held in Livingstone (in Scotland) on 29 September 2005 due to the death of the Labour MP and former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. The seat was held by Labour.
(iii) A by-election was held in Dunfermline and West Fife on February 6 2006 due to the death of the Labour MP Rachel Squire. In a surprise result the Liberal-Democrats won the seat. This increased the number of Liberal-Democrat MP’s to 63 and reduces Labour’s total to 353.

In addition there are 5 Sinn Fein MP’s. These MP’s do not attend the House of Commons. This effectively reduces the number of MP’s from 642 to 637.

So in effect Labour has 353 out of 637. The MP’s of all other parties (excluding Sinn Fein) number 284. The Government has an overall majority of 69. If all other parties voted against the Government a backbench rebellion by 35 MP’s would cause a Commons defeat. There are 24 Labour MP’s who are members of the Campaign Group who are frequent backbench rebels (they are sometimes called “the usual suspects”). It takes only 11 more disgruntled or overlooked MP's, or embittered ex-Ministers to reach the "magic figure" of 35. Of course, if Opposition MP's support the Government (as the Conservatives did in the vote on the Second Reading of the Education Bill) it is a whole different ball game. But relying on Opposition votes has its own perils...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Vote on the Education Bill

Yesterday (Wednesday March 15) Tony Blair was forced to rely on Conservative support in the Commons vote on the Second Reading of the Education Bill. The Bill won its Second Reading by 458 to 115, a Government majority of 343. There were 52 Labour back-bench rebels who voted against the Bill and another 23 did not vote. Some Labour MP's who did vote for the Bill are thought to have had their "arms twisted" by the whips. The Conservatives had imposed a two-line whip and, although no Conservatives voted against the Bill, 19 did not vote. The 63 Liberal-Democrats voted against the Bill. This is not the biggest back-bench rebellion on the Second Reading of a Government Bill that Blair has had to face: in 2004 72 Labour rebels voted against tuition fees, and in 2003 65 Labour rebels voted against foundation hospitals. However that was before the 2005 General Election, when Labour's overall majority in the Commons was larger. Blair also relied on Conservative support in the 2003 Commons vote on the decision to go to war in Iraq; on that occasion there were 139 Labour back-bench rebellions. Following yesterdays vote William Hill the bookmakers have reduced the odds on Blair leaving office before the end of the year from 2/1 to 6/4. The comparisons with Ramsay MacDonald seem a little overdrawn, however. In Macdonald's case only a minority of Labour MP's followed him when he split with the Labour Party in 1931 (some "big names" like Snowden, to be sure, but still a minority). After the 1931 election there were only 13 "National Labour" MP's and although it was a disastrous election for Labour they still had 52. In Blair's case 274 "New Labour" MP's voted for the Bill (many reluctantly, presumably, but they went into the "Ayes" lobbly just the same).

Monday, March 13, 2006

Jack Straw on Today

Jack Straw sounded terribly uncomfortable on the Today programme this morning, challenged by John Humphreys as to how it is that every single person who has given £1 million to the Labour Party has recieved a peerage or knighthood, or to justify Labour concealing party donations as loans ("big bungs in the shape of loans", Humphreys called them). Straw claimed ignorance. Humphreys also thought it a "rum do" that poor Tessa is excluded from Cabinet discussions on Iran (as was extensively reported in the papers over the week-end). But, then again, she is the Secretary of State for Sport and Culture. That's one step up from Secretary of State for paperclips. If Cabinet has discussions on Iran her role would be to shut her mouth and nod agreement; and outside Cabinet - if pressed on the subject - to mindlessly parrot Blair.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Barry Sheerman and New Labour Sleaze

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield and chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills, is clearly a peculiarly unobservant or amnesiac individual. He made the risible claim on Radio 4's "The Week in Westminster" this morning that he "hadn't seen much evidence of sleaze" since New Labour swept into town in 1997. He has obviously never heard of, inter alia, Ecclestone, Mittal, Blunkett, Mandleson, Vaz, or Jowell (or Iraq). My own view is that Labour sleaze is far more serious than the sleaze we saw under John Major. Whatever made Al-Fahed think that the way to get things done is to bribe an MP to ask questions in Parliament? It seems almost charmingly naive. Ecclestone showed how to get things done, he went right to the top. And no one suggested John Major was himself implicated in the "cash-for-questions affair"; but Blair was certainly implicated in the Ecclestone affair and clearly lied about the second donation. Mind you, John Major is not such an innocent. He is on the Board of the Carlyle investment group, although I imagine this is a supernumary position. In my view one of the worse New Labour scandals involves the flotation of Qinetiq (the defence research service) which gave Carlyle a huge windfall: they paid £42 million for a 31% share of Qinetiq in 2002 which after flotation was worth £351 million (an increase of around 840%). On the Today programme John Reid tried to defend this by arguing that Carlyle, with its private sector "know-how" had raised the value of the Qinetiq, a claim John Humphrey rightly treated with incredulity. (The religious fervour with which New Labour worships the market matches any fundamentalism in its cretinous devotion). For more about Qinetiq see the article by George Monbiot at http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2006/02/14/a-good-model-for-a-mugging/
My own view is that the Qinetiq privatisation is the sort of thing that the Serious Fraud Office ought to be investigating.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Tessa Jowell

It is all very New Labour isn't it? Mills earns his living advising rich people how to avoid paying tax (which, I suppose, is only for "little people"); he - like Blair - is pals with Berlusconi (a right-wing populist who has a fascist as his Foreign Minister and has links with the mafia); he appears to have taken a bung from Berlusconi (that's pretty much what he says in his letter to his accountant); he argues with the Inland Revenue because he doesn't want to pay tax on the bung (!); and of course there are all those mortgages and hedge funds. Poor Tessa didn't bother her pretty little head about any of this although when she signed the second application form in March 2002 she must have known one of the loans had been repaid, because she said there were no loans outstanding. The constant refrain is that she "has done nothing wrong". It does seem that she - as distinct from Mills who may soon face a charge of perjury in Italy - has done nothing criminal. But is it really the case that if you have done nothing illegal it follows that you have done nothing wrong? Is that what is mean by "traditional values in a modern setting"?