Tag Archives: politics

Never mention politics or religion

Disclaimer: as it says over in the right-hand sidebar of this personal blog which belongs to me, and no-one else, the opinions stated here are my own and not those of any organisation that employs me or has done so in the past. Just in case you weren’t sure.

All a bit exciting over here in wee old Britain lately. We had this General Election, you see, and nobody exactly, well, won. That hasn’t happened for ages.

So what happened next? Well the party with the most seats (Conservative) and those with enough to give them enough to govern (Liberal Democrats) have entered into a coalition. And we haven’t had one of those for, ooooh, ages, since the War, you know. And people are jumping up and down about a) the fact that the other lot didn’t win, b) the fact that a right-wing and centre/left-wing party can’t possibly get on and c) well it’s all so surprising, you know, what happens now? and d) well none of them have any experience, it can’t work and e) the last time that lot were in power the world nearly ended and just you watch, it will all happen again, they hate people and eat babies, you know.

One of the “rules” that I often read about blogging and social spaces like microblogs and social streams is that, as in life, it’s a good idea to avoid contentious topics like politics and religion, unless you have a point to make either way and that is the core purpose of your blog. Basically that’s for fear of showing what you actually believe in and having people point and laugh, or argue and dislike you.ย That’s an adage that I’ve generally stuck to and will go back to so doing shortly. On this occasion, just for once though, I’m going to comment, and admit that I’m struggling to understand the level of upset that I’m reading on “the Twitter” and “the Facebook”.

First of all, we had an election. Those that had a vote and chose to use it, voted. Those that didn’t do so can be quiet – I’m sorry, but they can, they had a chance to express a view[1], shocking and hardline though that may make me sound. Now, let’s put to one side some of the vagaries of the UK system whereby a party with a reasonable national percentage of the vote ended up with a relatively tiny proportion of the elected MPs, and just accept that the people voted, and we didn’t end up with a clear cut result.

No matter how things had gone, you’re generally going to end up with the supporters of one or more particular colour of politicians being put out that they “didn’t win”. That’s the way that elections work. If one party gets in and spends four or five years doing things which a majority of people then feel are “bad”, then you have the opportunity to remove them at the next election. That’s the system. So I think that whichever way I may lean politically, I have to just accept what “we all decided”[2], and not expect us to go on having weekly vote-a-thons until we end up with a result that I’m happy with.

Now let’s think about the possibilities of what we actually have here. This is where I get a lot more animated, in a positive way.

Whilst Labour and the LibDems may have seemed like more natural political bedfellows, being parties of the Left, or “progressive parties” as the outgoing Prime Minister would want to paint things, putting the two of them together would have been tricky. Labour didn’t “win” in terms of numbers of seats, and I’m inclined to think that the incumbent Government had run out of steam and needed some kind of a shakeup. There would have been a whole debate about “mandate to govern” had that combination worked out, too.

So we’ve got the Tories and the LibDems. But wait! They can’t possibly work together! One is historically a party of liberal freedoms and the other is a party of… small state and liberal freedoms[3]. Actually the thing that really struck me yesterday was when I heard the BBC political correspondent Nick Robinson remark on the PM programme on Radio 4 that Cameron was a student of Vernon Bogdanor at my alma mater, and that he admired Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was probably the archetypal radical liberal Conservative who made sweeping concessions and improvements to the conditions of the working classes in the late nineteenth century, extending the vote and conducting a remarkable kind of realpolitik that had been unknown until then. This is potentially a very interesting role model for Cameron. Another point is that those people who are concerned that the Conservatives are “the nasty party” run by right wingers who hate ordinary people and want to tax them to look after the rich whilst (preferably) bombing Europe and ethnic minorities [yes yes, I exaggerate for the sake of effect] should be positively welcoming the fact that under Cameron they have now entered into what appears to be a fairly wide-ranging deal, concessions on both sides, with a party that should help to draw them close to the political Centre and moderate those supposed nasty urges. Oh, and if Cameron is prepared to offer electoral reform now, which may in the future go beyond Alternative Vote to something more… well that would be a big change, but the history of the past 300 years of British politics has been all about change. It just may not seem like it when you find it difficult to look beyond an immediate generational horizon.

I’m excited. We’ve not seen such a coalition before in the UK. We’ve got two young party leaders of the same age and generation, both of whom were impressive on the campaign trail. Thanks to the large number of discredited MPs who left Parliament after the expenses scandal, we’ve got a large number of new, younger MPs who are untainted by the past. We’ve got an apparent spirit of cooperation. We’ve got a substantial number of apparently-talented new Cabinet ministers who impressed during the last Parliament. Oh, and there hasn’t been a bloodbath with lots of backbiting in the past few days – it seems as though our elected representatives have actually had mature conversations with one another, and the outgoing leadership has left with dignity[4]. And ultimately, a majority of folks potentially on both Left and Right get a little of something they’d hoped for.

It actually doesn’t matter what I think or what I believe one way or the other here – let’s all do something we don’t do very often in this country – let’s get behind the leaders and show some support. Let’s be positive and believe that this can work, at least for now. One way or another, we as a country voted for change this time around. We didn’t necessarily get the X or Y or Z party that we thought we might get, we got something different, but it’s definitely a change. Let’s go with it.

[1] … assuming that they weren’t unable to get into the polling booth on the day according to some press reports :-/ or that they weren’t Jamelia, who proudly and rather stupidly showed off that she’d never voted during Young Person’s Question Time before the election.

[2] … assuming that we accept that our system is “broadly” democratic… bear with me on that one

[3] … this is where I dust off my History degree! ๐Ÿ™‚

[4] … although I’ll still look forward to reading the history of this period and all the inside stories in 10 years’ time!

Update 13/05: thanks for all the interest, comments, and tweets about this entry. Glad that the post seems to be resonating with folks – which just goes to show that “rules” about what to blog about can be bent to advantage every now and then ๐Ÿ™‚ Really enjoying all of the feedback, thank you.

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Historical perspectives and propaganda

I work in the IT industry, and it often surprises people when I mention that my academic background is as an historian. Looking back on my school career, when I came to choose options for A-levels I had a fairly open choice between “arts” and science subjects, and I just went with my strongest interest – history. That extended on to university, where I studied Modern History.

When I was visiting my in-laws in Poland recently, they unearthed a couple of fascinating booklets – fascinating to me, anyway, since one of the the countries I specialised in during my academic studies was Russia and the Russian Revolution, covering the early 19th century through until Stalin’s death in 1953.

Krupska Lenin - 01
Kononow Elektrownia - 01
 
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF
Click the image to go to a Flickr set containing images of each page, or download a PDF
 

The book on the left (published in the same year I was born!) presents a version of Lenin’s life, in the voice of a father talking to his child. It’s a highly and unsurprisingly romanticised account, talking about his struggle to free the poor, and how very hard he worked… ending with a note about how sad everyone was when he died, but how his ideas are remembered – “work and life are organised according to the new system”. The booklet on the right, published a year later, contains a number of stories. I’ve not had all of them translated to me, but one story involves Lenin getting a Christmas tree for all the poor children!

This portrayal of Lenin as the hero of the poor working classes, friend to children everywhere, is classic stuff – I’d read about the way in which his image was manipulated in order to romanticise and legitimise the Communist system, particularly under Stalin and his successors, but here I had two booklets which were being used as recently as 30 years ago to teach my wife and her siblings (although not all of them remember it so vividly, given that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Poland is now celebrating 20 years of democracy). The back pages of each booklet contain the publishing information noting that they were printed in “ZSSR”. The Communist themes, symbols and colours are prevalent. Of course, it also elevates Lenin to an almost religious position of reverence, ironic given the Marxist opposition to religion, but convenient for Stalin’s purposes in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. I felt very strongly that it was worth preserving them, so I engaged in a little digital archaeology / restoration with the aid of a scanner and Apple’s Pages 09.

Talking to my wife, she remembers these books being read to her as a child… she told me that she remembers her mother not seeming exactly sure about them or keen to tell the stories, but looking back she can see that it was because it was not the done thing to speak out against the materials – if her child had gone to school making comments against comrade Lenin it would have been a problem!

I do have to wonder just how many of the portraits of Lenin can ever have been legitimate. I particularly like the images of Lenin the worker and Lenin the family man. Absolutely fascinating.

It’s absolutely true that my own initial views of Poland were based on the grey news footage of Solidarity strikes in the 1980s, and when I first went to the country in 2002 I was astonished to find how “modern” and vibrant a place it is – of course, I can now see that I was just seeing the place through the filter of 15-year-old news coverage of a period of unrest and hardship, in a particular region of a large country. What I know now about the way people lived is based on memories which are fast slipping away. I can talk in very broken Polish to my wife’s grandmother who lived through the war and remembers it; to her parents about the hard times they lived through; and get the occasional remark about my wife’s childhood. Materials like these books make it much more real. I hope you’ll find them as interesting to think about as I did, even if you don’t understand every word written inside.

EU to restrict Internet access?

Blackout Europe

For the past week my avatar image has changed to show one of the logos of the Blackout Europe campaign.

“What’s that all about?”, many folks have asked me in the past few days. Well, as I understand it, this is the situation: the European Union is debating a set of measures called the Telecoms Package. This package is set up such that ISPs will in future be able to parcel out Internet capabilities to consumers in much the same way that satellite and cable TV companies do today – so, for example, there is a possibility that in future you will not pay a flat rate fee and have access to “everything” online, but you might have “starter package” with a certain range of sites plus, say, Skype access, and a “gaming package” which would give you access to various online games services, and a “pro package” which enabled all sites plus any services you wanted. Basically, they will be able to filter what you are doing based on site or protocol – those are just some examples I thought up rather than anything known to be in the works.

How does that differ from Internet packages in Europe now? Well, right now there’s no real differentiation between the services and sites that can be accessed, although there are often speed limits and download caps. This is potentially a fundamental change to the way in which access to the ‘net might be regulated and controlled.

It’s all a bit technical, but for more detail see this page on the Blackout Europe blog and look under section 6 for a set of annotated PDFs which discuss the measures in detail. You can also read the open letter already sent to the EU Parliament.

It’s a hypothetical situation, and as several folks have pointed out to me over the Twitter stream, it might be pretty difficult to actually implement. Other people have pointed out that the site itself “looks unprofessional”, which I suspect is more a factor of translation and time than anything else. I don’t think either of those two issues should really stop people from registering their discontent at these proposed changes. There are forms available on the site to enable people to contact MEPs. I’m late in blogging this, as the deadline is really in the next 24 hours – frankly, I’m surprised that the site, Facebook page and other social networks haven’t attracted more attention.

The press release about the Telecoms package makes it all sound very reassuring and good for the public, but as ever, the devil is in the detail.

Computerworld UK has published a great article on the issue today – here’s an extract:

Unfortunately, it’s an openness that is fairly subtle for non-technical people; above all, it’s not at all obvious to politicians, who seem to assume that apparently minor tweaks won’t change things much.

At least, that’s the most charitable explanation for the fact that European politicians are on the brink of passing legislation in the current Telecoms Package that will destroy a key part of that openness, by allowing telecoms companies to discriminate in the way that they handle IP packets according to their type.

(via @glynmoody)

One of the issues that still exists with the EU is the visibility of the institutions and processes at a national level. As a supranational organisation, it’s commonplace for people not to be aware of what is going on in the Parliament, even though in my experience, the EU’s web presence actually provides a great deal more transparency and insight into what is happening in Parliament than many national governments. People tend only to respond to EU legislation once it has been enacted and then re-enacted within their own national context. So, there are a whole bunch of things going on at an EU level that most people in European countries pay no attention to unless they are picked up by the media, and even then only if enough noise is made about the issues at hand.

It’s not too late to take a look at the site, and contact your MEP to let them know how you feel about freedom of access to the Internet – get the amendments that neutralise the offending clauses in “the Telecoms package” passed.

Update: another good article on the detail of the package, again via @glynmoody

Some thoughts on openness and trust in government

One of the things I’ve been taking an interest in lately is the slow progression of Internet technologies into UK politics – or should that be the progress of UK politicians onto the web?

We have a small number of Members of Parliament on Twitter (you can find them at Tweetminster), and a few have their own blogs too. Sadly some of the initial government moves to use social media were a bit of a disaster (remember David Miliband’s efforts in this area?). Things have improved as the individuals themselves are more savvy (increasingly true as new generations of MPs come into politics) – Tom Watson is a good example and I was delighted to be able to contribute to the open discussion he invited on the proposed Internet site classification idea.

Recently I was particularly pleased to hear Jo Swinson defend her use of Twitter on Radio 4’s Any Questions. I was also impressed with the tech-savvy she showed in a defence of Wikipedia, and her willingness to respond to people who are not even her direct constituents during a subsequent discussion on Twitter. I don’t want MPs on Twitter so that they can lecture me or send out press releases on their politics; and actually, I don’t see it as a gigantic waste of their time. It’s an excellent way to build relationships, and it can also make them seem more human too. Blogging and twittering encourages the use of more conversational language, and that is important particularly in the political sphere.

In an age of increasing distrust and apathy in democracies around the world, I’d like to see more of this. I’d like to see it extend to both the local level, and the international level, too. Local councils in the UK should be encouraged to make more use of social media. Larger bodies like the EU should be making better efforts in this space too – it’s all very well for them to stream proceedings online, but without a level of human interpretation of the jargon and dense documentation that comes out of the European Parliament, it’s very difficult for ordinary citizens to make sense of what goes on.

Pop quiz: does covering up a significant budget scandal in an intergovernmental body give opponents of that body less, or more, to complain about? Thanks to Google Translate I’ve been able to read a Swedish MEP’s blog entry on the subject

One of [my colleagues] argued for example that I should propose to discharge only to “avoid giving boost to European opposition before the European elections”. A hair-raising way of arguing, I think! This is exactly the opposite. If we do not take problems seriously and sweep justified criticism under the carpet, then we give arguments to the EU opponents!

I have to say that I agree – and more open attitudes like this would do a lot to improve public trust in the institutions that work for us.

Parental Guidance advised

200px-BBFC_PG_2002.pngAs per the UK Government’s somewhat bizarre suggestion that websites could be given ratings for content, I thought I’d pre-empt the idea.

Seriously, how can this even work? The minister seems to think that he can implement this through negotiation with the incoming US Administration? Hmm!

So, anyway, I’m awarding my site a PG rating. Hope that’s reasonable. You never know what I might say around here, after all…

Update: check the request for comments by Tom Watson MP – at least one MP is demonstrating a little tech-savvy.