18 December 2011

Dog in a manger

Yesterday David Cameron marked a rite-of-passage among Conservative Prime Ministers as he told a meeting of Church of England clergy in Oxford that a return to Christian values could counter the country's "moral collapse" and blamed a "passive tolerance" of immoral behaviour for this summer's riots, Islamic extremism, City excess and Westminster scandals. In my lifetime this same speech has been made by all previous serving Tory PMs, usually in marked contrast to the moral actions of their own supporters or backbench MPs. And right on cue, up popped Aiden Burley MP in a Nazi uniform to embarrass the PM into action, the latest in a line of Coalition casualties to come up short by this measure by their leader.

It's the sort of non-argument that the late, great Christopher Hitchens would skewer so much more eloquently than me, but I would make the simple observation that surely a morality based on rewards gained in heaven is exactly what Islamic extremists could do with less of, rather than an extra helping. But then that sort of bloviating bilgewater is exactly the sort of dog-whistle speech I expect a Tory PM to make to his party's heartlands, as someone only kept in the job by the support of a man of clay and the opposition of a man of straw.

Since the speech was made to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, Cameron probably felt obliged to declare that "Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so", which, of course attracted all the headlines. However, it was probably the least interesting part of what he said. Far more revealing for me was when he described himself as a "committed but vaguely practising Church of England Christian". This says all you need to know about the man; that this religious code is something for the rest of us, not Dave. So much for us being 'all in this together'. To paraphrase a former Prime Minister's Spin Doctor, Cameron "doesn't do God" either, but seemingly because he lacks the conviction. Instead, Dave does Christianity Lite: "I can't believe it's not Jesus".

It's the worst kind of Christianity that expects others to carry to weight of morality and faith. This is a subject on which I speak with some authority, having spent much of my formative years sat in drafty churches witnessing good, committed, decent people trying to discover what exactly it means to do the right thing. I know that it is exactly this kind of 'vaguely practising' Christian who is the biggest pain in the arse, who expects the church to act as a handmaiden in times of trouble. The sort of person who turns up to midnight mass every Christmas and expects a full "smells and bells" burial for his loved ones, but who would no more think of lifting a finger to help the church at other times of the year than he would think of streaking down Oxford Street on roller skates. Such people are quite easy to spot at this time of year, because they turn up to Midnight Mass at midnight, instead of 11.30pm when the service actually begins.

15 December 2011

Saint Nicked

Recently several friends have shared this rather cute piece of technology (below) that allows you to create a personalised video from Father Christmas. As long as Santa can get his virtual lips around the real name of your child (or your own, should you be feeling very lonely), you can create a real virtual message from St Nick himself.


As you can imagine this has been circulated with glee among parents I know, as if children need any more encouragement to get excited about the impending festival of toys. But for me this takes things a bit too far in the traditional, unwritten contract-of-deceit that exists between parents and children at this time of the year.

As a liberal rationalist, I have always been ill at ease with the collective childhood deceptions such as Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, but have been helplessly carried along on the tide of participation that starts at nursery. So far I have managed to stick with my core principle that I should teach my children how to think, not what to think; to get them to consider the evidence and to try to offer a plurality of views on the important issues of the day: the Middle East conflict, crisis in the Eurozone and why Shaggy has a taking dog.

This can come back to haunt you, as two years ago Sam grilled me mercilessly about how Santa could possibly do all he is reported to do in a single night. Inside I was bursting with pride at the relentless logic of his Questioning Funnel, while mentally scrabbling for possible plausible answers to the next question. We agreed at that point he would consider all the evidence and come to his own conclusion. The dawning of the truth was ultimately delayed by 12 months by the evidence of a half-eaten carrot and drained whisky glass on our hearth. I had become part of the conspiracy and hated myself for it.

So you can probably see why I can't bring myself to create one of these Santa videos for my children. It's one thing to tell a few white lies in order to create a sense of wonder and magic at Christmas. It's quite another to be fixing evidence to make the case. This is not the tradition of imaginative story telling to fire children's imaginations, it is fraud. If you need faked video evidence to make your story plausible, then maybe it's time to 'fess up. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Creating a fake DNA profile for Father Christmas so you can test a swab sample lifted from the whisky glass?

It has been a widely discussed question as to why, when children find out Santa isn't real, they continue to trust what their parents tell them about other things. We are probably saved from being a species of Sophists both by the impracticalities of doubting everything and by coercing older children into participating in the conspiracy. But I wonder whether there isn't a collective harm being done at a deeper level.

Take the world of Conspiracy Theories and the almost child-like minds that believe the most elaborate hoaxes can be brought upon the world by the same bureaucracies who can't even manage to accurately count the number of people in its own prisons. Certainly they are people who could do with an earlier introduction to the rigours of the evidence-based approach, as opposed to wishful thinking.

22 November 2011

Leveson the playing field

Watching this week's Leveson enquiry into Media Ethics this week, I was fondly casting my mind back to the rather brilliant summer we had. It's a little hard to recall today, coming as it did before the dismal days of Eurozone crisis, Greek default, London riots and the latest John Lewis commercial, but there was an exhilarating two week period when the News of the World was in its death throes. Every day something worse would emerge, and another previously untouchable News International employee would be defenestrated with indecent haste. In that Schadenfreude fortnight, when it became clear that the Police's reluctance to investigate the phone hacking scandal had less to do with incompetence and rather more with complicity, we were forced to ask ourselves some big questions, such as "who polices the police when they're in the media's pocket?"

Watching this week's coverage, I was asking myself a not dissimilar question: who reports on the reporters? You too can watch the coverage live online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi but if you do, you may notice a bit of a disconnect between what you can see and what you can read about it afterwards. For as the phone hacking allegations spread beyond News International, the popular press coverage of events has vacillated between simply ignoring them to shrilly denouncing the participants with the sort of crude ad hominem arguments that would embarrass a guest on the Jeremy Kyle show.

The Sun has mainly chosen the former approach: the heart-breaking testimony of Milly Dowler's parents was relegated to a single paragraph on page 6. The Daily Mail has chosen to go on the attack, getting its proverbial testicles caught in the mangle over Hugh Grant's reasonable assumptions about its source for a story (his full testimony is here). The moral personal failings of both Grant and, latterly, Steve Coogan (who testified today) apparently remove from them the rights of privacy and free speech that the press so happily enjoy and abuse. Inevitably today the same old arguments were wheeled out in defence of British tabloid journalism, and will be every time someone has the temerity to complain of an intrusion, here neatly summarised by Sarah Sands in today's London Evening Standard:

"Celebrities participate in an over-the-counter trade when they have a product to sell but otherwise their lives are none of anyone else's business".

You must read the above sentence in your most withering, irony-dripping voice. Once you've done so, you may find yourself agreeing there is a certain hypocrisy in currying favour with an editor one day and spurning him when it has become inconvenient. This opinion is probably tacitly held by a reasonably large percentage of the population - probably those who seek self-justification for fuelling the activity through their daily purchase of a tabloid paper. I make this assumption on the grounds that the initial phone hacking story failed to really ignite until the catalyst of Milly Dowler's voicemail hacking by News of the World. It took intrusion into the life of the an ordinary victim of crime to set off the furious indignation of the British public. In other words, celebs were, if not exactly fair game, then not much worthy of our sympathy either.

I find Sands' argument both baffling and horrifying in its implications. It is, in effect, a reworking of the vile rapist's defence of "she was asking for it". The celebrity here has aroused the interest of the press and must suffering the consequences, no matter how far they go. And if the celebrity has, in the past, courted publicity from the press for a project or piece of work, then it's an open and shut case: a metaphorical flirtation with a showbiz reporter is an invitation to a fully invasive assault any time the press feels like it. It's part of the price of being who you are, and you love it really. Sands here is portraying the media as the helpless victim, as though they are forced to give a rising star publicity in their papers; the reduction of people's privacy to a transaction is very much the prerogative of the paper, not the other way around as Sands would have us believe.

There's something peculiarly British about this attitude that explains why the tabloid press gets away with so much. Foreigners encountering UK tabloid reporting for the first time are often shocked by its intrusion because they have heard of something called the Great British Reserve. This means an overbearing deference to people's privacy in everyday life. Contrast how open someone from, say, the USA will be upon first meeting or moving into a new neighbourhood with the UK, where the time getting to know new neighbours can be measured in ice ages. So how does the press get away with it?

It's because the Great British Reserve is trumped by something even greater, called Not Getting Above Yourself. Success in the UK is both celebrated and despised, and for every Lily Allen there's a Julie Burchill ready to knock them down a peg or two. This is the role the tabloid press performs and I'm sure there are sections of it who genuinely believe that, by reporting on Steve Coogan's latest affair, they are performing some kind of public service - as do, no doubt, those who read it.

There's a deep-seated psychological flaw in this attitude that is very ugly. The passive-aggressive sneer of every Liz Jones hatchet-job in the Daily Mail suggests that somehow these celebrities are getting away with something. How dare they enjoy the trappings of fame with no downside. The idea that long-lensed paparazzos are an important counterweight to the excess of celebrity, in the same way investigative journalists are to Executive power, is as unquestioned as it is laughable. Press reporting of Leveson is truly the rage of Caliban seeing his face in the mirror. Or, in this case, the Daily Mail.

20 November 2011

The way a cookie crumbles

Is advertising an art or a science? It's one of those facetious questions sometimes asked within advertising circles, and the answer largely depends on the department you work within, or what you are trying to get the client to pay for. Though officially a 'suit', I lean more towards the former: advertising is, fundamentally, about persuasion, and persuasion, as we all know, is an art. This also allows practitioners to keep a certain mystery around its practice; Lord Beaverbrook famously once remarked "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don't know which half".

This was the accepted way of things in the 20th century, in the dark, pre-digital days when advertising was channeled through the relative anonymity of a TV, newspaper or billboard. But in this era of digital media dominance, we now have the specter of Advertising As Science. Forget the uncertainty of knowing whether your audience sits rapt in front of your ad or disappears to make a cup of tea, now we can measure exactly who sees your ad and what they do once they've seen it. What started with "hits" on a website that became "unique visitors" has culminated in the phenomenon you must have noticed that is known as "remarketing" through the all-conquering Google.

If you've searched for a product recently - say a pair of Chelsea boots - you may have noticed, as you surf through unrelated, random websites, multiple ads showing you umpteen Chelsea boots. Maybe they even suggest trousers that would go well with this mythical pair of Chelsea boots? This is remarketing - where a website you have browsed places a cookie on your computer that allows it to serve advertising to you, via the Google display network, should you fail to convert the browsing into purchasing. This is Advertising As Science; we no longer need to persuade you why our Chelsea boots are the best because WE KNOW YOU WANT THEM! And we will continue to batter your eyes with ads for them until you give in, because we know we are right. We have statistical proof. Quite simply, you are wrong, because our science has proved it.

I recently visited thetrainline.com to find out prices of tickets from London to Manchester. Ever since, I have been served not just manifold web advertisements for thetrainline.com, but ads quoting me the latest prices for London to Manchester, repeatedly. This is despite the fact I have already purchased tickets on their website for Manchester, and travelled using them more than a week ago; apparently there is no satisfying my appetite for train tickets to Manchester. This is not so much targeted advertising as 'Terminator' advertising - the relentless pursuit of the consumer, like Arnold Schwartzenegger in the eponymous movie, advertising you to death.

Apart from the obvious fact this is incredibly annoying, not to say spooky, I think it also true to say that agencies and clients are missing a trick in the relentless pursuit of greater targeting. The Advertising As Science dogma has it that the more personalised an ad becomes, the greater its effectiveness: it cuts out the waste of talking to people who don't want a product to reach only those who do. This approach, presented as fantasy in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, is fast becoming reality. Apart from its incredible presumptuousness, it also fails to grasp the complexity of human beings.

If I only try to reach those people who have shown an interest in buying my Chelsea boots today, where does tomorrow's customer come from? I still have hard-wired into my brain advertising slogans from 30 years ago for consumer goods that couldn't possibly have been aimed at my infant brain or unwaged pocket. Many of them are for consumer brands that I now purchase as an adult, who have inveigled their way into my affection over the years through exposure and persuasion when I couldn't possibly have been the target audience. The need to renew an audience and market through persuasion means the 'purity' of a fully targeted approach is as misguided as the 'purity' of a gene-pool; it is through cross-fertilisation, serendipity and, frankly, randomness that success is rewarded. Sometimes the best breakthroughs in creative thinking happen when you need to take a chance. The alternative vision of the future, to paraphrase George Orwell, is of a Chelsea boot stamping on a human face - forever.

13 November 2011


Yesterday, squashed between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, like a burp between dinner courses, was an international football match. This being a friendly game that no-one gave England much chance of winning, the news instead focused on whether Our Boys would be allowed to wear a poppy commemorating Our Men on their football shirts. "No" said FIFA, citing their law forbidding the wearing of political symbols by member countries' teams. Ever quick to spot a bandwagon, our Prime Minister thought it a worthwhile use of his time to plead for flexibility from FIFA. Eventually a compromise was reached that satisfied everyone's sense of self-importance: FIFA could save face, The FA got its chance to appear respectful, and the Daily Mail got three days of foreigner-baiting headlines.

Two things struck me about this wholly manufactured story. First, if I were the Royal British Legion, I'd be desperate not to talk about it - and the rather cool statements issued by the RBL rather back this up. If you think of the values of the poppy: honour, sacrifice, selflessness and duty, it would be hard to think of a less appropriate group of brand ambassadors than those over-indulged, feckless popinjays: English professional footballers. The sight of alleged racist, serial philanderer and user-of-disabled-parking-spaces John Terry braying at his mates on the bench with a poppy on his chest is a toxic brand association.

The second, more important point is the whole issue of the poppy as a political symbol. Of course it is, and why are so many people so horrified to admit it? For David Cameron to claim there is no political link between war and remembrance might be charmingly naive in someone more charming.

One simple proof of its potency as a political symbol among many I could cite is the furore caused in their native Ireland by talent-dodging pop stars Westlife, who were used to promote the poppy in 1999. Whether you agree with the interpretation is irrelevant; the interpretation, as with beauty and goal-line clearances, is in the eye of the beholder.

I believe it should be embraced as the ultimate political symbol, understood in the context of the noble exercise of politics, as opposed to the less noble politicians it is sometimes tainted with. Politics is the attempt to resolve conflict without resort to war. It's the evolutionary triumph of the human brain. War is when politics breaks down. In that sense war and politics are two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked - so to call the commemoration of the consequences of war apolitical is disingenuous.

The poppy is the symbol of politics gone wrong, and the impact that has on millions of people when elites too proud, mad or deluded consider risking the lives of each other's children is a price worth paying. Sometimes it is, mostly it is not. The poppy serves to remind us what happens when politicians of all colours on all sides fail to do their job. So when a politician tries to tell you remembrance is not political, he's trying to get off the hook.

07 November 2011

Good offences make good neighbours.

Last Saturday I took part in the most exciting piece of participatory democracy in my area since the General Election: a public meeting hosted by a local councillor to decide on a local issue affecting my street. There was a sum of money to be spent on local improvements to an area of greenery, to make play provision for the neighbourhood’s children. Except the neighbourhood’s parents rather like the green area as it is, thank you very much, and feared the erection of gaudy swings would attract an Unwelcome Element into our midst, to sit, after dark, swigging cider, smoking fags and generally Being A Nuisance. Teenagers, in other words.

From the neutrality of living in a house not directly affected by such a prospect, it was vaguely amusing to see the mix of articulate NIMBYism and misdirected bluster as people who had lived comfortably side-by-side for nearly a decade were forced to get distinctly uncomfortable by expressing a public opinion in full view of their neighbours, the political equivalent of getting undressed with the curtains open in our sleepy, ordinary street. Having laid the issue of the swings to rest, the subject of the deeply unpopular New Bus Route suddenly resurfaced unexpectedly, like cider from a teenager’s gut, and just as unpleasant. It had been in the local paper that the council had changed its mind yet again and re-routed the bus through the same neighbourhood, but not after it had spent many thousands of pounds erecting bus stops on a different stretch of road. A separate meeting was needed for this fresh challenge, and so a date was timetabled, and everyone left with a renewed sense of vigour.

To the outsider this might all look like a terrific waste of money in times when that is the one thing no-one can afford: money earmarked for a park no-one wants, bus stops installed for a road with no buses, and a social club rented for an hour for the hoi polloi to collectively mutter to their elected busybody. And yet it may well be the best money spent in the area. In that hour I met more of my neighbours than I have ever done before and felt a real sense of common purpose. Ours is a typical modern British street, with houses built within walking distance of some amenities, but a drive away from others, a collection of castles for Englishmen to hide in. Though well connected and served by facilities, it is not built around anything – it has no heart in any sense of the word. And yet, by its fumbling incompetence, the local council had engendered a sense of purpose to the place for the first time in a decade.

In the same way people exhort the government to stimulate economic recovery through investment in public schemes, I’d suggest there is a social bonus to such spending that has mostly gone unnoticed. If a local authority wants to foster better community relations in tense times – and this summer’s scenes in London would suggest it might be worthwhile – there is a cheaper way of doing it than building another youth centre or commissioning trampoline classes for the under-privileged. Every council ward should announce the most outrageous planning scheme it can think of: nuclear power stations next to the school, digging up a football field to build young offenders’ institutes, a combined uranium mine and refugee crisis centre upstairs from ASDA. Before you could say Section 106 Agreement, you’d have neighbours chaining themselves together to block the street, organising cake bakes and raffles for lawyers’ fees, exchanging emails and maybe even smiles.

20 October 2011

It's not you, twitter, it's me.

For a free service that opens up the world to people, twitter attracts an awful lot of moaning. Not the untutored Daily Mail whinge that puts all the ills of the modern world at the door of every new piece of technology, but huffy exasperation from sometime and longtime users, who want to flounce away. With that in mind I wanted to spend a little more than 140 characters explaining why I was leaving Twitter, so people wouldn't think I was a flouncer.

Twitter is not just a remarkable tool, it's an eco-system that routes information, news, gossip and terrible jokes with lightning efficiency across the globe. And for all its exasperations - and there are many - it remains truly a wonder of the digital age. Twitter has allowed me to share insights, information, joy and tears with a remarkable community of similar misanthropes. Truly lovely, creative, thoughtful and funny people, all looking for a niche, acceptance and entertainment. But lately I have realised this is a double-edged sword for people like me.

I have somehow collected over the last two years some 1,200 people who, while maybe not hanging on my every word, at least don't find me irritating enough to unfollow. I have done this through dedicated arsing about, glib remarks and the facetious reflex of looking for the joke in every situation. While this can stand you in good stead on something like Twitter, these same qualities can also hinder your success in the world outside twitter in which most of us must live and earn money. I have always taken a joy in the exchange and banter of twitter, and the giddy thrill when something you post is retweeted. I started on twitter after I had been made redundant, and took some comfort in the detached voices shouting in the void, and the validation a growing audience brings. It continues to provide that sense of self-worth, but can also mask those all-too-real deficiencies that I went on to twitter to avoid confronting.

I started to realise I was living a dual life: the surface reality I was skidding across and the underlying life of the imagination, where every event, confrontation, news story or advertising typo was a tweet waiting to be written. Those times when I wasn't tweeting, I was thinking of things I could tweet. The narcotic boost to one's self-confidence by a RT would make the hours daydreaming about the next nob gag worthwhile; I wasn't bunking off work to write tweets, but I also wasn't spending time working out why I needed that audience approval. I could have conversations about work, shopping, the kids and proposed changes to the LBW rule while running a simultaneous stream of thought about the next wry 140-character observation. I have recently realised I liked real life less and less, and was seeking refuge in twitter rather than companionship. Unfortunately real life has an annoying habit of being quite important.

In truth, I don't think I'm dealing with being 40 very well. I become exasperated at my own imbecilities, lack of focus or career drive. The necessity to live one's life day-to-day is an inescapable responsibility, according to Sartre. I might have known that if I hadn't been on twitter instead of reading. My responsibilities are things that can't be dodged or compensated by a neat gag about David Cameron being a cunt. Currently I have an opportunity to develop myself professionally, and I think I need to take it, rather than consign it to the Bin Of Missed Chances that is overflowing in my hinterland. It's not something I do joyfully, but then how much of real life is?

It's au revoir rather than goodbye; I'm not closing my twitter account, because I hope one day I might find space for it when I like myself again. I'm just covering things in dust-sheets. In fact, I continue to use it professionally on @MikeHoffman1. Don't bother looking - it's the most fucking boring twitter feed in Christendom. Well, except for @conservatives of course.

24 June 2011

My so-called life

I indulged in a little vanity exercise earlier this evening, allowing the Sunday Times to award me a fatuous ranking in its list of Social Media importance. The fact I came anywhere near the top 2,000 in the UK is a mark of its worthlessness as any kind of barometer of influence, unless making silly jokes on Twitter is the sort of thing that turns heads these days. But it does show the difficulty in deciphering the meaning behind the multifarious ways we use online platforms.

Take Fousquare, for example, which this week passed the 10 million-user mark (story here). For those who don't know, FourSquare is a mobile phone application that lets users "check in" to various locations around the world - restaurants, offices, airports or even public conveniences. This in turn appears in the timelines of your friends' Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn applications, while you get awarded virtual "points", and a ranking for that location. To someone like me who grew up before the age of portable telephony, it seems odd that, having attained majority, the first thing you would do is tell everybody where you were and how late you were staying out, like saving 10p for the phone box to call a surrogate parent.

More sinister was the website that was created in response, called http://www.pleaserobme.com/ that nicely highlighted the flip-side of this apparently wanton declaration of openness: that telling people where you were also told them where you weren't, namely, at home. Although never really intended as a serious tool for burglars, its point was clear: how much information is it healthy to give away to any tom, dick or Bill Sykes who was online?

So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see the next escalation in this Social Media arms race, via a story tweeted by my friend @PhilWoodford: Fake Facebook updates. Apparently there is a company offering to manage your Facebook updates while you are on holiday to give the impression you are still at home. According to its founder, Gary Jackson,

"Many people set their lights and radios and TVs on timers when they are away so why not extend this into the Internet as well and have a virtual presence on social media to make any would-be thief think twice?"

This sounds an interesting idea at first, certainly for the light user of social media. But for someone with a more profound addiction who, say, finishes 2,212th in the Sunday Times Social Media List, it's quite an undertaking. My surrogate would need to go to the office to "check in" everyday (can't have anyone usurping me from the 'Mayor of Clerkenwell' FourSquare status), trawl the web for stupid links to post to Facebook, not to mention dream up cretinous comments to apply to all my friends' postings. When that is done, there's the terrible puns and political ranting to be done on my non-professional Twitter account (+1,000 followers who demand their daily fix), not to mention my work-related Twitter stream, blog updates, and manage the LinkedIn requests, referrals and status updates. They'd also need a supply of pictures of my children painting/dancing/falling off trampolines to intersperse the links on Facebook. The list goes on...

When I sat down to work it out, I wondered how I managed to find the time to document all the things I claim to do to my friends and contacts online. Much easier to stay at home instead and create a virtual online holiday from the comfort of my living room. It's the perfect vacation that the recession can't spoil.

29 April 2011

The Bride and Womb

Surely the dullest of all the dull prenuptial conversations conducted in the media this week has been the Royal Wedding attendees list. Would the Syrian ambassador's invitation be rescinded? How come the North Korean ambassador will get to pocket a couple of vol-au-vents but not Tony Blair? Would the King of Tonga get an invitation +8 for all his wives? When the real question for William and Kate should have been: "Who the blue blazes are any of these people and why are they coming to my wedding?"

I didn't watch any of the Royal Wedding today, but not because of any antipathy toward the British royal family. I am a republican but, as far as I am concerned, that was actually beside the point. I don't think any of the guests should have been there who weren't known to the couple, and they should have kept the cameras outside; not because I don't want to see it (I'm fairly adept at not watching TV), but because, frankly, it's none of my business. Or yours.

The decision to make the wedding of the second in line to the throne a state occasion is at once baffling and revealing. It's strange because Prince William getting married is no more a public occasion than his graduation, first communion or passing out from Sandhurst. By making it into a state occasion, where politics and diplomacy guide the invitations as surely as kinship, it reveals the event as, ultimately, a medieval throwback.

Once upon a time, the new Duke of Cambridge would have had little say in who he married, and would have been unlikely to have known his bride before the wedding ceremony. It wasn't a match made for love, but for political strategy - to forge alliances with other countries, to strengthen their mutual lines of succession. We can now take comfort in changed times, and even celebrate the fact that Prince William was probably the first royal heir in history to have enjoyed an uncoerced and leisurely courtship. But by putting the wedding on a footing with a coronation, we are tacitly acknowledging the base meaning behind the feathery hats and polished carriages: in a political system based upon genetics not public election, you've got to grow your own. And here's where it gets down to brass tacks; I'm surprised broadcasters didn't ask to carry on transmitting fly-on-the-wall style through the honeymoon. Or at least demand to see the bedsheets as proof.

Of course I can understand the public interest in the event. I'm not saying that it's wrong for people to have enjoyed today's ritualised squiring - it's natural, human curiosity, like rubbernecking a car crash. But, equally, if William and Kate had wanted to get hitched in a Las Vegas drive-thru in His 'n' Hers Elvis outfits and let the glossy mags treat for the rights to their pictures, that would have been fine with me. Even if I didn't get the day off work as a result.

27 March 2011

Census Sensibility

I filled out my Census form today, thankful that my son's recent headlice episode had not re-occurred, which would have forced me to register several hundred overnight guests. I was pleased with my efforts, and I'm quite confident I got most of the answers right, though I was disappointed there wasn't a tie-breaker; 'In 10 ten words or fewer tell us why the maker of the Hellfire II missile system was chosen to count this year's Census'. With 25 million households involved, how on earth will they decide who's won otherwise?

Had there been such a challenge, it wouldn't have been the daftest question on the form. Not even the part where the government demands to know the number of rooms in my house excluding bathrooms, or the method I use to heat them. Although voluntary, Question 20 asked what religion each member of the house was. When I quizzed my 4-year-old daughter, her explanation of transubstantiation was so hopelessly wide of the mark I started to look for a box marked "Scooby Doo". She couldn't even understand the concept of Confirmation Bias that will ensure a skewed result in favour of organised religion in this census, despite dwindling numbers of church attendees.

I think my form must have been incomplete, because there wasn't a corresponding question asking for my political affiliation or that of my children. We've been told in the run-up to this year's Census that it's really important, because spending decisions will be made upon the data revealed. If this is true, you'd think it would be more interesting for the state to know our general feelings towards ideas of state control and freedom, or self-reliance and collective responsibility. How declaring your belief in Middle Eastern prophets should shape the redistribution of state spending is anyone's guess - you might as well ask people if they believe in the infallibility of Nick Clegg.

So despite the protestations of the likes of Anne Atkins, in the eyes of the state, religious beliefs rank higher than anything else you might believe. Though not as important as whether or not you have an outside toilet, which is a compulsory question and probably just as instructive about our British cultural heritage.

22 March 2011

What's the Alternative?

I consider myself to be reasonably well informed. I watch the news not just to laugh at the macho reporting conceits and overblown graphics. I can not only pronounce Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary without slipping, I could probably pick him out of a line-up. In fact, I'd have a stab at it for all members of the cabinet - if it weren't for that ASBO. Yet I suddenly realised this week I had absolutely no opinion on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, nor which way I shall vote in the upcoming referendum on the subject.

Obviously, as a consumer of modern news 'content', I would expect both sides of the debate to frame their arguments in a patronising publicity stunt that involved at least one minor celebrity, yet nary a Sian Phillips nor Alex Reid have I seen. No campaigning, no leafleting, little TV coverage. It's as though they are expecting me to actually look things up and read about it. And having done so, I think I've gotten to the bottom of it: no-one actually wants it.

If you look at the position of all major political parties, and quite a few smaller ones, not one of them is actually in favour of this happening. The Conservative Party self-evidently doesn't want it, but even among those supposedly in favour of the change, they mutter it cautiously under their breath. New Labour looked at the idea back in the 90s before they realised how to win an election with only 35% of the popular vote. Even among Labour and Liberal Democrat members who favour the change, most would actually choose the Standard Transferable Vote system over AV. But having asked for steak and got a burger, they feel they have to swallow it in case yesterday's leftover liver and onions is served up instead. The Scottish Nationalists can't even be bothered to formulate an official position on the subject.

The supreme irony would be if a system of government that requires 50% of the vote to be cast for the winning candidate were chosen by less than half the electorate, assuming turnout is at the usual levels of local government elections. Maybe this is somehow appropriate: a government nobody chose asking us to decide on a voting system nobody wants and may well get, despite nobody voting for it. If you should be careful what you wish for, that goes double for something you don't.