For those of you who haven't been following, this is how it goes: government appoints James Caan, a self-made millionaire and former judge on Dragon's Den, to be its "social mobility tsar". In his first public statement Caan makes the bold and admirable assertion that parents should resist the instinct to help their children up the career ladder:
It immediately transpires that Caan's two daughters both work for him. Cue a joyful and for once quite justified bout of jeering from the press.
Having said that, let me tell you where I am. Caan is clearly being foolish. It's not that he was hiding anything - his daughters' employment was public knowledge. He just appears to have a massive blind spot when it comes to seeing any inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. That is, he appears to be a stranger to cognitive dissonance, which perhaps explains that unruffled demeanour. His subsequent attempts to justify himself have made things worse:
Yes, James, but the day before you were suggesting that parents ought to resist this innate feeling. That's a hard position to take when you're incapable of doing so yourself.
The self-delusion is staggering. But then, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be self-deceiving than the rest of us. You need massive over-confidence to start a business which rationally you know is likely to fail. People who rise to the top in highly competitive fields are those who most adept at pretending the world is just the way they want it to be (or that if it isn't, they can make it so). That mindset, when combined with genuine talent, is great if you're in business or sport, but it's less useful in government, where cool analysis and patience are more important.
Mary Portas was another "tsar". This fatuous term, borrowed from America (and before that, imperial Russia), is meant to sound impressive but only points to the powerlessness of the position. Appointed to fix Britain's high streets, Portas came up with a scheme that, whether because it's innately impractical or because the government failed to support it, has failed. But so what - she's on to the next thing. Her career was never at stake. I say this not to criticise Portas, but to demonstrate the utter futility of giving someone a government role, knowing that they have neither the right abilities nor the motivation to see it through, just because their face is familiar to readers of Heat magazine.
The real problem the Caan affair exposes isn't nepotism. It's celebism.
“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
I have no particular interest in defending Mr Tillerson, or to engage here in a weighing up of how many billions of poor people are suffering or will suffer from the effects of global warming versus how many would suffer from a global economic slowdown. But I do think that this statement, on its own, is not enough to condemn him. That some people think it does points to a rhetorical confusion at the heart of the environmental debate which doesn't do supporters of action on climate change (of whom I am one) any favours.
Tillerson is right in this sense: it's the future of humanity that should matter to us, not the future of what we call the Earth. We are not, and nor should we be, on a mission to save the planet.
Let's remind ourselves of what this relationship - the one between us and the planet - is based on. Our planet came together from leftover bits of sun about 4.5 billion years ago. In its hot, molten youth it was covered in volcanoes and had the unfortunate habit of smashing into other planetary bodies (one particularly violent collision left the planet tilted to its current, rather louche angle, and blew out the lump of shrapnel we know today as the moon). After this early trauma, the planet cooled down, chilled out, crusted up, and got wet. At about a billion years old, the first microscopic cells of life appeared on the earth; a billion years later, photosynthetic cells started "giving back", as they say in Silicon Valley, pouring oxygen into the atmosphere, making the planet safe for yuppies, otherwise known as multi-celluar life forms, which really only got into their stride about half a billion years ago. A tiny proportion of these life forms became charismatic animals like lions and dolphins - and one of these new arrivals is known as homo sapiens (though only homo sapiens know this).Now, it turns out that this particular newcomer has very bad habits and appears to be intent on screwing up the biosphere that enabled it to exist in the first place. So it may very well be that it causes its own demise, possibly along with the demise of a lot of other species, including many of the charismatic, cuddly animals it professes to care about. But think about this from the planet's perspective: you've only barely got used to the idea that life exists on your surface (perhaps it's slightly uncomfortable, like having nits). You've seen different life forms, mainly germs, come and go. Then very recently, just now in fact, one particular species turned the heat up a bit. They ought to be careful, those guys. Can't be good for 'em. Oh well, yawn, time for a cosmic nap.
The point of this brief and unreliable history is that the planet doesn't want or need saving. It doesn't care what we do. It was here long before we arrived and it will be here long after we've gone. We've given it a narrative, a name ("Earth") and even a sort of hippy-dippy personality, sometimes known as Gaia. But the fact is, it's just a rock, in a gassy wrapper.
The argument shouldn't be about saving the planet versus saving humanity. It should be about the best way of saving humanity. We need to make it all about us.
If for any reason you regret Boris Johnson's victory over Ken Livingstone a year ago, just be glad that it's only a former mayor of London who issued this statement today:
First, why didn't he make this point after the 7/7 bombings, when he was mayor? I mean, it would have been stupid then too but it might have had a little more resonance as our troops were still engaged in Iraq. Who knows? Perhaps a residual sense of proportion and decorum, long since abandoned.
Third, why accept the stated motivation of people like the perpetrators of this act at face value and, in doing so, lend it legitimacy? Why treat them as serious geopolitical actors? That's what they long to be. Future terrorists may read into statements like Ken's all the justification they need. Why should we let them define our foreign policy?
The simple reason is that most Muslims, like most everyone, are not potential terrorists just waiting to be activated by the action of a government. It takes Ken-levels of parochialism and self-obsession to imagine that they are.
I hate to say I told you so (actually I love it, like everyone else) but when the twittersphere was exploding at news of swivelgate on Saturday I predicted that it would soon come to be seen as a storm in a wine glass.
So it has proved. After Cameron's solid Today programme interview this morning, the wagons have moved on. Nobody has been shot.
That's not to say that the affair hasn't left rancour and bitterness in its wake, among the press - whose members have been called liars - and possibly among Tory activists (I don't know any so can't comment, although I suspect they are more exercised about the horrifying prospect of a future queen getting engaged to lesbian corgi). But it's of the low-level, non-flammable kind.
One reason this didn't go far is that there was no tape, and hence no proof and no pictures or audio to go with the story. Another reason is that asking the public to judge who is more likely to be lying, politicians and journalists, is like asking a farmer to say which is more bovine, a bull or a heifer.
A third reason was the affair bore too close a resemblance to the Andrew Mitchell affair for it to be taken seriously. While I understand that it must be enraging to be unfairly accused of lying, the press rather dug their own hole when they led the public to believe that the allegations against Mitchell were almost certainly true, by reporting it with a heavy skew that way and penning endless editorials protesting that stout-hearted members of the constabulary would never tell lies, as had been shown beyond doubt in the Leveson and Hillborough inquiries, oh wait.
Over the weekend I saw a lobby journalist explaining that Feldman was in big trouble because this was just like the Andrew Mitchell affair, where "the perception" was that he said it, and the perception is all that counts.
He was, of course, missing the point (while blithely ignoring the role that he and his colleagues play in creating such perceptions), which is that insofar as they noticed, the public did clock that Mitchell turned out to be unfairly traduced. So now they think, well, if cops can lie, journalists can definitely lie, and who cares anyway, I'm off down the pub with Nigel Farage.
It is to Mitchell's credit that he successfully cleared his name, but it is Cameron who turns out to be the beneficiary.
Years ago I attended a talk given by the MORI pollster Bob Worcester, who told a story about a briefing he gave to the Labour shadow cabinet in the 1980s. Worcester explained to the assembled politicians that most of the time, they were wasting their time.
The majority of voters were already committed to one party or the other, and so it didn't make sense to target all voters with the party's messages. In fact, the UK's first-past-the-post system meant that only a few voters within a few constuencies really mattered - a number in the tens of thousands.
Worcester said that when he reached this part of his presentation, he heard someone around the table splutter. It was the shadow chancellor, John Smith. "If it's that few, can't we just bribe them?".
It's an axiom of modern politics that, at any one time, only a small number of voters are persuadable. Mitt Romney, speaking in private to an audience of, presumably, the already-persuaded, famously declared that 47% of the electorate would never vote for him. He also said that there were only 5-10% of voters who were open to moving across the partisan divide. Although candidates aren't supposed to speak this way, Romney wasn't actually saying much that a political strategist would find controversial.
But are voters really as locked into their views as modern political professionals assume? The political scientist Morris Fiorina has proposed that the polarisation of America's electorate is a myth. What's really happened, he argues, is that America's political parties have become more partisan and more extreme, and voters have had no choice but to choose between them, even though most retain a high degree of ambivalence and open-mindedness on the issues.
A recently published study from Sweden offers fascinating evidence that voters aren't as fixed in their attitudes as is commonly assumed. Like the U.S., the Swedish electorate is regarded as one of the most polarised in the world, albeit a step to the left overall. In 2010, when the Swedes (like the Brits) last held a general election, pollsters estimated that only about 10% of voters were undecided between the two coalitions competing for office.
In the run-up to the election, the researchers asked people in the street if they would fill in a questionnaire concerning their views on political issues. Participants were asked to indicate how certain they were of their political views, and their current voting intention, from extremely certain social democrat/green, to extremely certain conservatives.
They were then asked to indicate their positions on twelve salient political issues on which the coalitions held opposing positions. For example, "Gasoline taxes should be increased" or "Healthcare benefits should be time-extended". In collaboration with the participants, the researchers then tallied an aggregate score, indicating which political coalition the participant favoured, based on their responses to the policy issues. Finally, the participants were asked to indicate, once again, their voting intention for the upcoming election.
All reasonably straightforward. But here's the clever bit: one group of participants were tricked. While they were filling out the questionnaire, the researcher surreptitiously filled out another form with a pattern of responses that you would expect from someone of the opposite political affiliation, mirroring the skew of the respondent's answers but from the other direction. Using a sleight-of-hand, the researcher then attached this manipulated profile on top of the participant's original answers.
So when it came time to explain and justify their answers, the participants were doing so off a sheet that showed answers that were different to the ones they actually had given. If they previously thought the gasoline tax should be raised, they might be faced with explaining why they had indicated that it ought to be lowered.
The researchers' overall aim was to shift the participant's entire score into the opposite column, so that a left-wing coalition voter would end up with the profile of a right-wing coalition voter (imagine a confirmed Tory ending up with a political profile that indicated she was a strong Labour voter).
During the discussion stage, the participants were free to change their answers if they felt they didn't reflect their original opinion, and sometimes they did so (they would assume they had misread the question or marked the wrong end of the scale). If they did so consistently, they would nullify the the researcher's effort at shifting them to the other coalition.
Remarkably, however, the participants subject to this trickery didn't, for the most part, notice the apparent inconsistencies in their answers. Nearly half didn't correct any at all and most only corrected a few. Instead, many accepted and even justified, with apparent sincerity, opinions which were the opposite of the ones they originally held, or close to it.
Most strikingly, most participants ended up endorsing overall political profiles that put them in the opposite camp to the one they thought they were in, and many changed their voting intention. 19% went from expressing certain support for one coalition to becoming undecided. A further 10% moved across the full ideological span, from firmly right wing to firmly left wing. In total, almost half of these participants were willing to consider a shift from one coalition to the other (compared to the 5-10% that are usually thought to be persuadable). In a few minutes, the researchers had achieved what political leaders spend every day of every year trying to effect.
In one sense, that voters accepted a political profile putting them in the opposite camp wasn't surprising: after all, they thought they were looking at a summary of the answers they had just given. In another sense, it is extraordinary that a person's political identity can be so easily manipulated.
The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued convincingly that political affiliation is primarily about tribalism. Voters align themselves with the parties to whom they feel an emotional attachment, and are adept at inventing policy-based reasons for that attachment after the fact.
The Swedish study is a clever way of circumventing that attachment, because it moves in the opposite direction: it starts by asking voters to reason about policies and builds from there towards party affiliation. That this method can create such radically different results tells us something important about how voters relate to politics.
Politics is a more fluid business than it can appear. As the researchers put it, "the polls can be spot on about what will happen at the vote, yet dead wrong about the potential for change." Voters hold more nuanced positions, and are more open to reason, than the polls suggest or than politicians and the media tend to believe. It's not that voters have their minds firmly made up on the issues that they think their party has got right. It's that they choose their party label and assume that the issues will take care of themselves. But when they are forced to actually the consider the issues, they can be persuaded to change sides. Even without a bribe.
You can read the full study here.
"So you got someone lined up?"
"Yes, we do, and we're very confident in-"
"We heard the Real Madrid guy is on the market. Two European championships, two Premierships, Spanish and Italian leagues. He's the guy, right?"
"Er, no. He's going to one of our biggest rivals."
"Uh huh. So who you got?"
"He manages Everton."
"Small club. But big ideas!"
"What's he won?"
"Well, he hasn't exactly won anything..."
Personally I think the choice of Moyes is a good one. You can't read this without being tremendously impressed by Moyes's dedication, intelligence, creativity and (relative to resources) success. But boy, it's brave. It feels very much like Fergie's choice, and I wonder if one of the factors pressing him to retire now was so that David Gill, the retiring CEO and Ferguson's closest ally on the board, was still in the driving seat when the decision on succession was made.
But I'm interested in the wider question of why a company like MUFC might choose one kind of manager over another.
From a business point of view, Mourhino would have been by far the safer choice, at least on the surface. You could walk into a meeting with any shareholder and they'd be convinced he was the right guy before you sat down. A proven track record of success at the highest levels, a global reputation, no period of adjustment to the top level necessary: Mourhino would have been the closest thing to a guarantee of success and revenue growth over the next three years. If running a football club is about getting good results quickly, you want the guy who done the most winning in the last ten years.
But a successful business, according to another point of view, depends on more than than short term results. It depends, for its long term health, on something more intangible: call it values, or culture. Ferguson called it history. Whenever a challenger threatened United's dominance, or a player threatened to take a higher offer elsewhere, Ferguson would make reference to his club's history. He returned to it insistently. It was a way of saying, this club is about more than a chequebook, or one season's results, or a balance sheet. It's about values, memories, ethos: things that can't be bought or quickly produced.
It could have seemed old-fashioned and archaic, this insistence, in a world of global brands and profit projections - capitalism has a manic focus on the future, not the past. But Ferguson's focus on history turned out to be good for the business, and good for the club. That shouldn't be a surprise: many studies have found that culture matters. There's a strong link between a company's values and its long term performance. Barcelona and Bayern are examples of clubs whose strong cultures have enabled them to overcome the brutal logic of the market and achieve consistent success on relatively low wage bills. But because it's hard to measure and difficult to create, culture is often forgotten or ignored.
By choosing Moyes, MUFC plc are choosing a culturally based business strategy. Mourhino wouldn't have take as much pride in the club's history or care over its ethos as Ferguson did and Moyes will. Mourhino never really fitted in at Real Madrid, another club with a grand sense of its history, because he is too big a character not to clash with a club with a strong character of its own. He takes his own cultural ecosystem with him: buy Mourhino the manager, and you buy in the Mourhino worldview.This works well at a club at Chelsea, which long ago lost any sense of its own identity. Where there is a cultural void, Mourhino, and perhaps only Mourhino, can fill it.
But that's not the problem at Manchester United. The problem is finding someone talented enough to run the world's biggest football club, and humble enough to know that the club's values are more important to its success than he is.
I am generally quite sympathetic to our politicians, or at least I try to be. First, because it's too easy to blame one group of people for all the world's problems, or to assume that you would behave much differently if you were in their predicament. Second, because the pol-hating game is self-destructive. The more we tar and ridicule our elected leaders, the fewer talented people will want to enter politics, the worse we'll be governed, the more we'll hate our politicians...
Politics is hard. But there are some days when I think, no, there's excuse for this. We deserve - or at least, we need - better leaders than this.
Yesterday, two incidents, both relatively trivial, brought out the bottle-thrower in me.
The first was David Cameron's appointment of an old chum and St Paul's boy to Number 10. Now, there's nothing wrong with a politician wanting a few old friends and colleagues around him; most Prime Ministers and presidents do the same (those who don't, like Margaret Thatcher or Harold Wilson, never really had close friends to begin with). But Cameron takes it to a new level. When I picture Cameron's Number 10, I see a cramped, fetid male locker room full of chaps boasting about bowling figures and attacking each other with wet towels. Unfair, I'm sure: I'm not doubting that Christopher Lockwood and Jo Johnson are committed and talented. But you might have thought there are some people of similar calibre who didn't go to St Paul's or Eton, and who aren't men. You might have thought the PM would actively seek out people who are different from him. But no. Cameron's defence of his decision is abysmal:
"I judge people by what they can do, what they can bring – by the quality of their brains and the passion in their hearts, not which school they went to."
In other words, the only people of merit went to a small number of public schools. Perhaps he should start considering where people went to school, instead of reverting to innate laziness and unexamined prejudice. A hundred historical examples and social science experiments have demonstrated that even a group of brilliant individuals will make stupid decisions when they suffer from a lack of diversity. How can Cameron not grasp this point, or the secondary one that he is sending entirely the wrong signals to an electorate that already thinks of him and his cabinet as a group of comfortably secluded toffs?
So, to the alternative Prime Minister. Yesterday Ed Miliband gave an interview to Martha Kearney on the World At One that was widely and rightly regarded as disastrous. Partly this was a question of tone. Here's Peter Kellner writing in The Times (£):
The Labour leader sounded shrill when he should have been statesmanlike, tetchy when he needed to be calm, lightweight not mature. As a result his carefully thought-out arguments will have made little or no impact.
I would agree with all that. Sometimes, you can really tell that Miliband was raised in an academic household, in which complex intellectual issues were thrashed out over Corn Flakes. At one point, he asked Kearney a question as if testing her (Kearney waited for a second before replying, coolly, like a teacher to an over-excited sixth form student, "You tell me"). At another he cried, "You don't understand, Martha". And pass the milk.
If Cameron is surrounded by an overly homogeneous clique, so is Miliband. In the latter's case, I suspect the problem isn't that they went to the same school so much as his advisers all come from a similar intellectualising milieu, in which an ability to wield airy abstractions is over-valued and the consensus is that if an interviewer or a voter isn't agreeing with you it's because they just don't understand. Perhaps we will all catch up. Perhaps not.
Then again, how clever do you have to be to see that since you are going to be asked the same question again and again, you'd better have an answer ready? Kearney asked Miliband thirteen times if he intended to borrow more, and every time he evaded the question, mumbling something about "the medium term". Kellner is actually being too kind when he refers to "carefully thought-out arguments".
Miliband and his team must know that until they have a way of dealing with this question, then everything else they have to say will be ignored. I realise it isn't easy. "We're going to borrow more in the short term so that we're borrowing less in the longer term" is a mouthful. But it, or something like it, is the least bad alternative. Until he and the other Ed agree a line, then Miliband is walking out to every crease with his bat broken.
Now this, I really don't understand. How, after three years to think about it, can you not have an answer ready?
Politics is hard. But Cameron and Miliband are making it look impossible.
The FT's "Lunch with..." column is one of the finest feature series in British journalism. The format is simple: take someone interesting or noteworthy to lunch, get them talking in an informal way about their work and life - food is a great disarmer - and report on the conversation, weaving in the details of the meal. Much can be revealed about a person by the manner in which they address a waiter or a plate of pasta. You will have your own favourite examples; mine include Robert Caro and Esther Duflo.
The FT's latest lunch is with Nick Candy, of the absurdly successful Candy brothers, two lads from Surrey who have become rich and (in certain circles) famous by developing property for millionaires and billionaires.
This particular 'Lunch' has been feted on Twitter as a subtle takedown of its subject. In fact, it's anything but subtle (if it really was subtle, there wouldn't be so many people proclaiming it as such). A hatchet rather than a stilletto is used to make Candy look like a pushy, shallow, boastful spiv.
But if you subtract the interviewer's evident animosity and scrape away the spin he puts on everything, it's hard to see why we should judge Candy as harshly as he clearly wants us to. The Candys didn't come from a rich or well-connected family. They made their fortune by the application of effort, energy, ingenuity and chutzpah, and as far as we know they haven't harmed anyone or bent any laws along the way. They have built a solid business: when the crash came, they came through.
Nick Candy has married someone who is by all accounts a strong-minded woman, and he is, as even this interviewer feels compelled to note, smitten by her. Though clearly a hyper-busy guy, his interactions with the waiter seem polite enough (real arseholes don't say, "Just excuse me one second..." when a call comes in). He acknowledges that a large part of his success is down to luck, rather than his own brilliance. Put it this way: Candy is no Donald Trump. (And if you want to hear about some really shitty interpersonal skills, read the Steve Jobs biography.)
Yes, Candy is flash - the interviewer uses the phrase "wide boy". He has the temerity to be wearing an expensive suit. He offers a long list of the cars he owns, namedrops like crazy, and (perhaps) overplays his relationship with the FT's editor. He's unforgivably vulgar too, ordering a glass of white wine for his lunch companion even though the interviewer ordered steak (although if the interviewer didn't want white wine, presumably he might have said so). None of this, of course, is evidence that he's unpleasant or morally degenerate.
What this really comes down to is that Candy doesn't possess, and hasn't felt it necessary to acquire, the manners and sensibility of the educated middle class. That makes it easy to despise his success, a temptation that we in Britain are always prone to - even journalists at the FT. In the week of Mrs Thatcher's death, this interview, and the reaction to it, are a useful reminder that in this country class still trumps money.
NOTE: It's not that I don't like takedowns, it's just that they have to be genuinely subtle to work, so subtle that you can imagine the subject reading it and nodding in approval, like this lunch with the conservative sociologist Charles Murray. Or take this, with Sean Parker. Do you come away from it thinking Parker is a prat? Maybe. But you may also think he's rather likeable, or a mix of the two. Either way, you don't feel the interviewer straining to impose his judgement on you. What both of these pieces do very successfully is convey a vivid impression of their subject's presence, which ought to be the highest aspiration of any interviewer. The reader should feel he has been sitting across the table from the interviewee. Pulling that off takes a high degree of almost novelistic writing skill. Hatchet jobs are easier.
I've avoided much of the Thatcher coverage, not because I have particularly strong feelings either way (in short, I agree with Hugo Young that the changes she wrought were, on balance, more good than bad). But one of the best pieces I have read was a personal recollection from Ferdinand Mount, a former aide to Thatcher who went on to become a journalist and author. It's unashamedly affectionate but Mount is a perceptive observer and a good writer, and he gives us a vivid sense of the Thatcher presence.
He also makes you think about how important was Thatcher's attention to the minutae of her job. Politics is often presented as if it's all about the exciting stuff: big ideas and strategic maneuvers. But much if not most of it is about attention to the dull detail, as this government has repeatedly discovered to its cost.
One of the things I admire about Thatcher is that she grasped the importance of the mundane. She's often presented as a "visionary" leader and she certainly had one or two big guiding philosophical principles (she was a classic hedgehog in that respect). But she wasn't really interested in political philosophy. She was interested - tenaciously, ferociously interested - in the details of everyday life: from the hem of a dress (her mother was a dressmaker), to the price of milk, to how people paid their rent.
This translated to a vice-like grip of the kind of policy details that other politicians would find boring or beneath them and leave to civil servants (which would leave them terribly exposed if they were picked on in cabinet or ever found themselves sitting next to her in the Commons dining room). Actually she was less of a visionary than a geek (chemistry at Cambridge [UPDATE - talking of detail, it was Oxford, as Erin points out]) - a geek with attitude.
In an increasingly complex world, we need more geeks in power; more politicians who enjoy sweating the details. For all that I remain an admirer of Tony Blair, I kind of wish it had been Thatcher chivvying the Americans, during the build-up to the Iraq war, for details of their post-invasion plans.
Anyway, here's Mount, who manages to make you think a little differently about not one, but two of the great world leaders of the last century in one unprepossessing paragraph:
When I came to work for her again 20 years on, as head of her policy unit, I am afraid I took an unholy delight in watching her chew up a junior minister who had not done his prep and could not explain the difference between the powers and the duties of a drainage authority. Curiously, the only time I ever met Ronald Reagan, he talked in mind-numbing detail about an equally down-to-earth subject: garbage disposal in California. The alliance between this odd couple, one a humourless workaholic, the other a notoriously relaxed charmer, was not only based on ideology but on attention to the realities of life.
Philip Collins, in The Times (£), has written one of those columns that ought to be handed to the relevant party leader with the words, "Just go and do what it says here". The leader in this case being Ed Miliband (actually, if Mr Miliband wants to win the next election he could do a lot worse than treating PC's collected columns as an instruction manual). I can't liberate the whole thing from behind the paywall but the key paragraph is this one:
The first thing Labour has to do is to counter Mr Osborne’s argument that these welfare cuts are “inevitable”. This is the line of a man who has thrown you out of a balloon and told you it is inevitable you will hit the ground. But Labour has no plan and so nobody listens. If Mr Miliband had even a rudimentary account of the cuts he was prepared to make then there might be an audience for his protests at the cuts that he thinks are unjust.
Labour needs a plan on public spending that goes beyond "Don't let those heartless Tory bastards cut everything," which is basically where they are. Right now, the voters are in the mood for a government run by heartless bastards, as long as those heartless bastards are considered more competent (or less incompetent) than the other lot. The next election won't be won on who is nicest.
Collins goes on to suggest a couple of policy postions that Labour might adopt to prove it's taking the responsibilities of governing in austere times seriously. One is to limit child benefit to the first two or three children. The other is to lift the exemption that NHS has from the cuts. The drastic cuts to other departments are only made necessary because of the commitment Cameron made, to get elected, not to cut the NHS budget, which represents 40% of public spending.The exemption is a crazy policy, in policy terms. Politically, it was smart.
Labour has a different political problem than Cameron did, of course. As Collins puts it, Labour could "create more room for its anger" by taking tough positions like this. Of course, lifting the NHS exemption would enable the Tories to point at Labour and say, "They want to cut your beloved health service." But this kind of attack would only redound to Labour's benefit. It is the perfect example of a policy that works for one party but not for another.
Policies are never just about policy. They are signals - and the meaning of a signal depends on who is sending it. The signal that this kind of policy sends about Labour would be a very powerful one. It would kill the Tory claim that Labour hasn't got a plan to deal with the debt. It would vaporise the perception that Labour only wants to spend and borrow.
Even better, it's good policy.
Along with The Economist and The Telegraph, the best obituaries can regularly be found at the New York Times, particularly those written by the brilliant Margalit Fox (read everything by her). This week she tells us about the life and work of John Gumperz, a professor of linguistics. This is how the piece opens:
The conflict hinged on a single word: “gravy.”
The place was Heathrow Airport, the time the mid-1970s. The airport had recently hired a group of Indian and Pakistani women to work in its employee cafeteria, and trouble had arisen between them and the British baggage handlers they served.
The baggage handlers complained that the servers were rude, and the servers complained that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither group knew why the other felt the way it did.
Fox goes on to tell us that Gumperz was one of the first linguists to get interested in how people used language in their every day lives; at how we routinely encode layers of subtle social and cultural meanings into our conversation while barely realising we are doing so. This is how she closes out the piece:
Summoned to Heathrow that mid-’70s day, tape recorder in hand, Professor Gumperz discovered the following: when diners ordered meat, they were asked if they wanted gravy. The English women who had previously worked behind the counter had posed the question with a single word — “Gravy?” — uttered, per cultural convention, with rising intonation.
When the Indian and Pakistani women joined the staff, they too asked the question with a single word. But in keeping with their cultural conventions, they uttered it with falling intonation: “Gravy.”
Professor Gumperz played the recorded exchanges for diners and staff members. His explanation of the subtle yet powerful difference in intonation, and the cultural meaning it carried, helped the groups achieve a mutual understanding.
“He pointed out that the rising intonation versus falling intonation made it a very different statement, even though the word was the same,” Professor Tannen said. “So rising intonation sounded like, ‘Would you like gravy?’ And falling intonation sounded like: ‘This is gravy. Take it or leave it.’ ”
This is Io (pronounced "Eye-oh" - Greek nymph, mistress of Zeus, Queen of Egypt, moon of Jupiter - it's quite a resume for one so young).
Less than a month old, she does very little except sleep, cry, and excrete. Yet somehow, despite this limited repertoire, she is utterly, irresistibly loveable. One can read all the evolutionary biology one wants and still find this a mysterious and beautiful thing.
We begin our lives convinced of our own omnipotence. Io is a chubby tyrant: driven, hedonistic, imperious - and constantly, violently disappointed in her staff (that is, her parents). I love how impervious she is to her own helplessness - a little Napoleon, marooned on Saint Helena, commanding armies in her mind. She hasn't remotely come to terms with the way things don't happen exactly when and as she wants.
Even if I could, I wouldn't tell her that this is about as good as it gets.