31 May 2009

Up in smoke

For the upcoming European parliamentary elections, the voter in East Anglia is spoilt for choice. Or, should I say, the Little England voter is spoilt for choice, with a selection of rabid anti-Europeans prepared to take on the barbarians at the gates in Brussels on behalf of the good burghers of Colchester.

Passing over the BNP, whose odious presence I noted in Frinton the other week, and the even more obvious UKIP, I am being urged to vote for UKF (United Kingdom First) and their local candidate, one-time presenter of One Man And His Dog, Robin Page: "NOW is the time to free Britain from the EU, political correctness and the gravy train". From the leaflet, I can't establish whether these three constraints are, in his mind, separate issues or same thing, despite the fact that Robin "is famous for his straight talking". I would beg to differ and suggest that, actually, he is famous for explaining the nuances of dogs chasing sheep.

Robin's main policy, it would seem, is not to do anything at all - he will "only attend the EU Parliament when it's in Britain's interests". While I commend Robin on his commitment to reducing expenses, I can't help feeling he is missing the point about the most effective way to represent my interests. Maybe he is hoping the other MEPs will be shamed by his empty chair, and agree to dismantle the entire EU apparatus?

At the other end of the political spectrum the no2eu party have engaged an equally unattractive famous face to press for my vote - none other than Bob Crow, strike-happy RMT headbanger. Bob is clearly a busy man, but he has managed to find time to read the Lisbon Treaty and find something that no-one else has mentioned: that it "enshrines privatisation as legal requirements [sic] at a time when this discredited dogma has clearly failed". Being an ex-member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Bob probably knows a thing or two about discredited dogmas, though I was interested to note that in most parts of the EU, Trades Unions have supported the treaty, including in Ireland in the referendum campaign.

Something both Bob and Robin (and their anti-EU peers) seem to have missed about the Lisbon Treaty: for the first time it introduces an exit clause for members wanting to withdraw from the Union. While there has been one instance where a territory has ceased to be part of the Community (Greenland in 1985), there is currently no regulated opportunity to exit the European Union. So, ironically, all these parties should actually be campaigning for ratification of the Treaty/Constitution, which makes me question exactly how much they know about the EU in the first place.

Another thing all these campaign leaflets have in common is they made terrific firelighters for my first barbecue of the summer. No doubt the contents of the resulting meal would have offended the sensibilities of the most recent leafleteer in the neighbourhood: The Animals Count party, who are fielding candidates for "a political party for people and animals" under the incontrovertible slogan "animals can't vote, but you can!" I am not sure what it says about the upcoming political process that this is the first pro-European leaflet I have received.

A class act

Series two of The Wire has just finished on BBC Two, and it represents one of those rare occasions when a much-lauded TV series actually matches the hype. Long talked of in reverent tones by aficionados of the small screen, it marks another triumph by HBO in world-leading, original TV drama - and another nail in the coffin of that hoary old truism that the UK makes the best TV in the world.

I certainly love it for all the things it has rightly been celebrated for - plot strands woven carefully to allow fully-developed characters to emerge, rather than being forced into clumsy exposition by the need to get to an ad break; fizzing dialogue and naturalistic set pieces; complex story-telling that feels no need to patronise the audience. "True that", as several of the show's characters would probably express it. But its real brilliance for me is it the way it attempts to tell a story of America in class terms, rather than along the usual racial lines.

Series one was centred on a drug-dealing business run on a run-down housing project in Baltimore. The tenants and users are predominantly African-American, the cops largely white, yet it manages to avoid the expected cheap reductions of black-on-white conflict that a lesser series would have grasped for, in an attempt to make easy (melo)drama. Nor does it posit the familiar approach of so-called "edgy" cop series, such as The Shield, that "cops and criminals are just two sides of the same coin". The characters are wholly believable because their actions are rational given the constraints they work within; life choices are a function of social class, and options are limited. Both police and criminals make unenviable moral choices every day, where the compunction to act rationally (in economic terms) does not sit easily with any desire they might have to act morally.

Each side of the line there is a clear class structure into which people fit; some will break out of this straitjacket, but the majority will not. It is very unusual, and a bit disconcerting, to watch an American drama that does not reinforce the national shibboleths of Individualism and Opportunity being the birthright of all. The way to get ahead in the America of The Wire is either to cut corners or play the system and wait your turn - the police are not there to do good any more than the drugs racketeer is. They are pawns in a bigger game, not masters of their own fate.

Ironically, behind this lies another, very British class tale - the lead cop, a blue-collar Irish-American, is actually played by a British alumnus of Eton, whereas the thoughtful, entrepreneurial head of the crime syndicate, whose earnings outstrip a police Sergeant's many times, is another British actor from Hackney. Not only is this a cop show playing against type, but, it would seem, so are its leading men.

24 May 2009

Mullah on the Orient Express

News emerged today of the trial of Iran's first female serial killer, and much has been made of her claim that she was inspired by the novels of Agatha Christie. For anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Christie, this probably comes as a bit of a shock; she wrote 80 novels, but I can't remember the one where an old lady is poisoned at an Islamic shrine in Qazvin by a young woman offering fruit juice.

According to the BBC: "Just like Agatha Christie's villains, she made careful plans to conceal her crimes." It's an interesting thought that, until the Poirot novels came along, no murderer in Iran thought to try to pretend he hadn't killed someone. Which must make the job of an Iranian homicide detective the easiest in the world. It also doesn't say much for the quality of Persian whodunnits.

I'd always imagined the Islamic Republic's all-powerful mullahs must control quite heavily the content of western art its subjects can enjoy, though I suppose if you relied on the works of Agatha Christie for a picture of Britain, you'd probably never want to visit the place for fear of getting bumped off. And I suppose the surprising anti-semitism you encounter in her works must also enjoy a sympathetic audience in Iranian official circles.

Just imagine what would have happened if she had read American Psycho instead.

Creative accounting

There is a pleasing symmetry when the great art you encounter runs in sync with the revelation of truths about everyday life. As the whole sordid story of MPs' expenses unravels, I have been thinking about the repeated patterns of accepted norms within groups, that reinforce their own standards of morality, as echoed in art.

In The Reader by Bernard Schlink, which I am currently reading, an illiterate former Nazi death camp guard, Hanna, goes on trial - and seems to feel a greater shame at her inability to read and write than any moral shortcomings over her wartime actions. At the risk of drawing an inappropriate parallel, I did note a Nuremburgesque quality to the MPs own mea culpas: That they hadn't done anything wrong because it was all within the rules; they were just doing what everyone else did. The way all of the "honourable members" have ganged up upon the Speaker of the Commons this week matches exactly the way the co-accused in The Reader make Hanna the scapegoat over the course of the trial. And, of course, in doing so any lingering integrity is diminished in the indecent haste to cast stones.

Similarly the second series of The Wire, the fulcrum of TV cop shows, provides not only another lesson in creating TV greatness, but further examples of the self-defined norms of behaviour and morality justifying actions. The Police Chiefs who block murder investigations if they affect clear up rates, and the drug barons who pull the strings in the ghettos, are both acting rationally within the bounds of the world as they see it. For every action and outcome there is a cost-benefit analysis, but the constraints of the system make attempts to do the right thing compromised before they begin.

This all sounds as if I am saying I accept the world of duck houses, moat cleaning and second home "flipping". Certainly not, but it is a salient lesson as old as society itself, that the privilege of elites creates rot and corruption when cut off from the fresh air of accountability. And as long as it does, let's hope art is on hand to hold up a mirror to its failings.

10 May 2009

No expense spared

The Daily Telegraph has been enjoying itself this week, watching the government squirm as it teases out revelations about its MPs' expenses. While this is heralded as a great scoop by the Telegraph, it's hardly Woodward and Bernstein - and symptomatic of the decline of investigative journalism. Rather than spend months tracking down a story, it's easier to just pay an insider for a bunch of emails and reprint them more or less verbatim. With little understanding or context provided for any of the expenses claims, it's the easiest, laziest way of generating a salacious story - but one that is, of course, ultimately of parliament's own making.

The risk here is of losing sight of why we have such systems, as much of the embarrassment relates to the provision and furnishing of MPs' second homes. No-one seems to have bothered to say that it is very important MPs should have accommodation in London, payed out of taxation, in order to allow them to do their duty. A return to Rotten Boroughs is the implication of any other system. So clearly there must be a middle ground - a way of providing for anyone to perform the duty of MP regardless of income, while eliminating the sort of expenses claims that makes Enron look like a model of probity. And I think I have discovered it.

The Palace of Westminster, to give both houses of Parliament their formal name, is a pretty large place. Large enough for 13 bars, countless committee rooms, expansive reception chambers and offices. So why not build a block of one bedroom apartments for all MPs whose constituencies are beyond greater London? This would both ensure that all MPs could have room and board to be able to perform their duties, they would be close enough to attend all the late sittings they so vigorously whine about, and miss out on a tiresome commute during the day. If I were feeling generous, I'd throw in a gym and canteen - it would certainly be cheaper than paying for fixing dry rot, private security patrols or second lavatory seats. The Palace itself is well protected, so there would be no question of added security risk.

If MPs weren't satisfied with this, of course, they'd be perfectly entitled to rent their own accommodation off-site, out of their salary. Indeed, since they would have been given Westminster accommodation, they could use their salary to pay for their normal house back in the constituency they represent, thereby getting around the problem of "flipping" benefits from their London house to their constituency house that has been widely reported. Of course the career of an MP can be risky, and for those unable to secure a mortgage on a constituency home would be entitled to receive a government mortgage to cover the cost, and even give a grace period for a "bridging loan" to allow them time to find a new job, should they be unfortunate to be voted out of office.

If you ask any MP why they chose to run for office, the stock answer is that they want to make a contribution to society. With my system we'd be able to test if this were true, and not the other way around.

07 May 2009

It grows on trees

Despite the spectre of "efficiency savings" (or cuts as they used to be known), there is a certain schadenfreude, not to say smugness, within the public sector about how prudent and wise they have been in managing their budgets (Icelandic savings accounts notwithstanding) - in direct contrast with the UK banking industry.

In this week's Municipal Journal, Mike Suarez, Director of Finance at Lambeth Borough Council, in London, wrote: "We haven't had to take hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to bail us out just to be solvent".

Hate to burst your bubble, Mike, but where do you think it comes from? Surely that's exactly what keeps you in the black?