The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Friday, May 27, 2005

Chirac prepares for plan B

How they all twist and turn to get their own way:

PRESIDENT CHIRAC of France is preparing to throw Europe into confusion and put Britain on the spot by backing moves to keep the European constitution alive if it is rejected in Sunday’s referendum.
French diplomats say that M Chirac is expected to urge other countries to proceed with ratification because France does not want to be seen to be blocking the European project. Any attempt to persuade other countries to go ahead will dash the hopes of those in the British Government who believed that a French rejection would make a British referendum unnecessary.

I like the sound of that. I'd love the British to have a chance decisively to kick these grandiose and archaic politicians' dreams into the long grass. But wait, what's this?

But one option being discussed in senior diplomatic circles is for candidates in the French presidential election in 2007 to promise to ratify the treaty in parliament rather than by referendum.

If the people won't vote for it, we won't ask them again. The referendum was only intended to give the whole thing a veneer of democratic accountability, but we'll make do without, if necessary.

French political students at Sciences Po would appear to share this dissatisfaction with the electorate.

Meanwhile in Holland there is reflection on what can go wrong when you ask the people:

On June 1, just three days after the planned referendum in France, the Netherlands is holding its own national referendum on the new European Union (EU) constitution. Polls indicate that the government of Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende is facing a serious defeat. A recent opinion poll showed the majority of the population is against the draft constitution, opposing the position of all major political parties in the Dutch parliament.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they would vote “no” on the constitution, just 12 percent said they would vote “yes” and 26 percent were undecided. These figures mark a complete reversal of national opinion compared to even less than six months ago. In December of last year, the Eurobarometer survey reported 73 percent in favour of the constitution. Since then, the number of supporters has decreased with each passing month.

The apparent strong support for the constitution was a considerable factor in the decision to hold the referendum in the first place—the first ever in Dutch modern history.

The Dutch referendum is not binding on government. I doubt, though, that the government could afford to overlook a very clear result.

The Law of Scientific Consensus

John Brignell isn't happy with the Royal Society's decision to pose as the modern-day inquisition in support of the scientific consensus on climate change.

From Galileo, through Darwin to Einstein, there is a clear law of scientific consensus:

At times of scientific contention the consensus is always wrong.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mother lets daughter 11 have sex then blames school for pregnancy

But the mother is not without a moral outlook.

"I have taught my children never to do anything behind my back."


Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg and holder of the rotating EU presidency, captures in one sentence the contempt that the bulk of European politicians hold for democracy:

"If it's a Yes, we will say 'on we go', and if it's a No we will say 'we continue'," he said.

Don't say you weren't warned.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

UK referendum should go ahead whatever

Latest opinion polls in Holland and France on the forthcoming referendums on the EU Constitution show a clear majority planning to reject the proposal. And if they do, what happens to the UK referendum?

LibDem foreign spokesman Menzies Campbell has said that there would be no point continuing with the UK vote. This is mischievous or mistaken. We shall not have seen the last of the Constitution and when it reappears in front of French voters I assume that some attempt will have been made to address their apparent concerns about insufficient protectionism. Here in the UK we fear the Constitution for quite opposite reasons and we should take the opportunity of demonstrating this or else when we do get to vote we will have in front of us a document more objectionable than ever, and one ratified, by that time, by all other EU nations.

I'm sure the Liberal Democrats, the most Eurofriendly party in British politics, would find it embarrassing and unpopular to rally behind the forlorn "Yes" camp. They would much prefer to take their stand when the argument from inevitability is at its most powerful. They should not be allowed this luxury.

Newcastle: the Venice of the North

Lonely Planet has opted for a favourable view of Britain's industrial cities. Cities such as Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds, it opines, are now as "unmissable" as Rome, Venice or Florence.

While urban regeneration may have made the English cities tolerable for the inhabitants, it hasn't provided them with Byzantine Cathedrals or Renaissance palaces. I suspect that the authors are attracted to lively "street culture" which, in my experience, means town centres overrun with drunken and threatening people, and which is something that Venice has mercifully avoided to date.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Viewers prefer BBC when staff on strike

As BBC staff threaten to continue their industrial action, the employers might be interested to discover this report:

An extra 400,000 people watched the pared-down Ten O’Clock News compared to last Monday, while the One O’Clock News recorded an extra 300,000 viewers.

The complete removal of Newsnight from the schedules did not dent overall viewing figures either. A corporation spokeswoman said that its subsitute, a Timewatch programme on ancient Rome’s Colisseum, drew an equal number of viewers.

For my part, I found that strike action definitely improved Radio 3: much less pointless chat and more great music.

There is a substantial risk in withdrawing your labour: your employers may find that they are better off without you.

Milk good for the heart

The medical establishment has held a prejudice against dairy products since the early days of the diet-heart hypothesis. But research announced today suggests that far from being harmful, consumption of milk is good for you and may even protect against heart disease.

The authors of the study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health conclude:

"The present perception of milk as harmful, in increasing cardiovascular risk, should be challenged, and every effort should be made to restore it to its rightful place in a healthy diet."

Let's recap. The diet-heart hypothesis claims that a diet rich in animal fat raises serum cholesterol which raises the risk of coronary heart disease. Yet those that drank the most milk had virtually the same cholesterol readings as those that drank the least. Something wrong here, but don't expect official dietary advice to change in the near future.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Seven reasons to sell the Euro

Whither the Euro? The Morgan Stanley view is negative. They offer seven reasons to sell.

1) The euro is expensive
In terms of purchasing power a level close to parity with the dollar is suggested.
2) European growth continues to underperform
Europe is experiencing feeble growth with structural problems unaddressed.
3) Interest rate differentials should benefit the dollar
Higher US interest rates will support the dollar while European rates are held low.
4) The ECB’s credibility is eroding
It expresses concern about credit growth but appears unwilling to risk monetary tightening.
5) Fiscal deficits on the rise in Europe, declining in the US
The stability and growth pact is a dead duck and without its constraints Italy and Germany in particular are letting spending rip.
6) Europe is heading into a political crisisProtectionism is on the rise and the constitution is in peril.
7) A rise in global risk aversion will favor the dollar
Recent shocks in the credit markets are likely to result in greater risk aversion with the dollar seen as the safe haven.

Though it's fair to say that not everyone reads the runes the same way...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

A bright time of the year in Cardiff

In January, Dr Cliff Arnall, a psychologist at Cardiff University, came to our attention - "Miserable day, Miserable research". Arnall's thesis: January 24th is the most miserable day of the year. Some felt it lacked the elegance of Newton's laws of motion but there was a formula underpinning it so we felt it better not to raise awkward questions.

Now Arnall has surpassed himself with his second thesis: May 18th is the best day of the year for making resolutions.

There it is. Truly 2005 is an annus mirabilis for Cliff Arnall. He must feel like Einstein in 1905 when, in the same year, he published his revolutionary papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect and Brownian motion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Climate Change Inquisition

In the week that saw David Bellamy's environmental credentials attacked because of his refusal to accept the global warming orthodoxy, the Royal Society, no less, is putting frighteners on the science media to avoid the "distortions" of climate change dissent.

Neil Collins in the Daily Telegraph reports receiving a letter from the vice-president of the Royal Society with these choice passages:

We are appealing to all parts of the UK media to be vigilant against attempts to present a distorted view of the scientific evidence about climate change and its potential effects on people and their environments around the world. I hope that we can count on your support.

There are some individuals on the fringes, sometimes with financial support from the oil industry, who have been attempting to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change.

I should have thought that the Royal Society would have understood the need for constant challenge to the consensus. As a child fascinated by the liberating power of science I attended a lecture at the Royal Society to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus. As I recall, the lecturer did not revile Copernicus for having attempted to undermine the scientific consensus of his time.

The NumberWatcher can hardly contain his dismay.

Difference between the tragedy of war and the outrages of terrorism

A thought from David Guberman over at Harry's place which many are too confused to see:

In the muddle linking terrorist suicide bombings with, variously, Soviet and Japanese pilots ramming military targets during the second world war and Christian and Buddhist martyrdom that risked no one else's lives, Ms Bunting misses the reason why such suicide bombings are morally revolting - namely, the intentional slaughter of people who are not legitimate targets of war. Our feelings of horror and moral revulsion do not arise from the means employed, but the targeting of the innocent.
David Guberman
Newton, Massachusetts

Very nicely put too. Were the people of Dresden legitimate targets of war, I wonder? That one still troubles me.

Monday, May 16, 2005

David Bellamy under fire for heresy

The Sunday Times reports:

PROFESSOR David Bellamy is likely to lose his role as the figurehead of two leading wildlife organisations because of his refusal to believe in man-made global warming.

Can't have that, can we? To make matters worse, the man's a Eurosceptic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Preserve us from Tory modernisers

Best Tory strategy: sit tight, make a measured case for a smaller public sector with a lower tax burden, and wait for the wheels to come off New Labour.

Worst Tory strategy: change the name of the party, apologise for Thatcherite past, promise to make a better job of running what is left of the economy after the death of British manufacturing and the outsourcing of the service sector.

When everyone is heartily sick of New Labour; when the pensions crisis is really beginning to bite and the only people with secure futures are employed by the state, the electorate will be looking for a different way of doing things. I doubt they will then find much attraction in Brian Sedgemore's radical anti-war, high tax Liberal Democrat party. So they will be looking closely at the Conservatives. And if they find there a pale immitation of New Labour, they may very well stick with the real thing.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Euroscepticism and the Nazis

The threat of a return to Nazi horrors was invoked yesterday by Swedish EU commissioner, Margaret Wallstrom.

A senior European Commissioner marked VE Day yesterday by accusing Eurosceptics of risking a return to the Holocaust by clinging to "nationalistic pride".

Margot Wallstrom, a Swede and the commissioner who must sell the draft constitution to voters, argued that politicians who resisted pooling national sovereignty risked a return to Nazi horrors of the 1930s and 1940s.

She blamed the Second World War on "nationalistic pride and greed, and … international rivalry for wealth and power". The EU had replaced such rivalry with an historic agreement to share national sovereignty.

I suppose you don't get to be an EU commissioner unless you're pretty keen on the project, so it is to be expected that Ms Wallstrom would be broadly in favour of it. However, she completely overlooks the case for scepticism. Is nationalistic pride such a bad thing? Must it always lead to war? If it were replaced with "supernational" pride, would that be very much better? Is the pooling of sovereignty a sure way to avoid future conflict? Why should historic rivalries and suspicions vanish with national boundaries?

Ms Wallstrom makes the mistake of imagining that those who are unpersuaded by her vision of an integrated European state are xenophobes with a latent desire to genocide. She does not grasp that it is precisely in the huge unaccountable monolith of a European superstate that we see the seeds of totalitarianism

The end of a decent man

I don't think there are many decent people in politics but David Trimble was one. Following the disastrous performance of the Ulster Unionists he had to go. Under his leadership the party has declined from the majority voice in Northern Ireland to an irrelevance.

I suppose Trimble must take the blame for this, but his main fault was to trust that Blair would press the IRA to disband its private army in compliance with the Good Friday Agreement. The Protestant majority was very sceptical about this. They were persuaded by Trimble who used his considerable personal authority to assure them. They are persuaded no longer and they feel cheated.

Trimble had eloquence and integrity and was a steadfast worker for a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. He was hung out to dry by Blair whose promises we have all learned to treat as empty.

Friday, May 06, 2005

More on disproportionality

While reflecting on the injustice of an electoral system which builds in a substantial bias in favour of one political party, I came across this passage on Yahoo:

The Tories are forecast to win 198 seats, some way short of Labour's 1983 total of 209 seats, which was seen by some as a benchmark of success.

In the 1983 Thatcher landslide, Labour polled only 27.6% for their 209 seats. In this year's election more than 33% was required by the Conservatives to gain 198 seats. In the last election a similar vote only yielded them 166 seats!

I have a confession to make: as well as being one of the sensible 33% of people voting Conservative yesterday, I was one of the poor befuddled Labour 27.6% in 1983. Oh, what it is to be young!

English votes

With 619 of 646 results in I thought it would be worth looking how things would have turned out if these were elections for an English parliament based on the existing English constituencies.

I don't have teams of researchers so I added up the figures myself. The results are as follows:

Labour 283 seats
Conservatives 191 seats
LibDemocrats 45 seats

In terms of votes cast:

Labour 7,859,479
Conservatives 7,986,393
LibDemocrats 5,110,807

There are a number of things to observe. First Labour won a seat in England for every 27,772 votes, while the Conservatives averaged 41,814 votes for each seat won and the poor Liberal Democrats needed 113,573. We already knew about this disproportionality. But I wonder how many people realise that the Conservatives actually won the popular vote in England while Labour walked off with a thumping majority of seats. Those boundaries need to be redrawn as a matter of urgency.

Those election predictions

I concede that my election predictions (35% Lab, 35% Con, 22% LibDim) were a little generous to the Conservatives. If I were a polling organization I would point out that the results were within the standard margin of error. This is more than can be said for the woeful Populus tracking poll that has been scaring us for weeks every time we passed a copy of the Times.

Their eve-of-election shocker got the Liberal Democrat vote spot on, but gave 41% to Labour (actual vote 36.3%) and a ludicrous 27% to the Tories (actual vote 33.2%). The actual difference between the parties was 3% instead of the anticipated 14%. A predictive performance that can only be compared with Zogby's.

Post-election blues

A little bleary-eyed this morning. I got up at about 2 a.m. to see how things were going and was very encouraged. After that point things never looked quite so good, though there were a few pleasant surprises.

The electoral arithmetic so massively favours Labour that it can win an unassailable majority with 36% of the vote. This state of affairs is scandalous and brings our electoral system itself into disrepute. It is the way in which the constituency boundaries are drawn which provides this imbalance, not the disproportionality due to the first-past-the-post system.

In truth, the Conservatives have not done very well. Their 33% share of the vote is unchanged from the last election and they have only won seats as a result of the Liberal Democrats bleeding away Labour votes.

I'm sure that the Liberal Democrats have not done as well as they expected either, whatever they may say. The "decapitation" strategy took the head of Tim Collins but otherwise failed miserably. Against the Conservatives, they were net losers, and, though they managed to make a few gains from Labour with anti-war votes, they hardly look likely to make the breakthrough they are always talking about.

For Blair the result is a near disaster. His personal unpopularity has clearly weakened his party and it cannot be too long before he hands over to the night's big winner, Gordon Brown, perhaps after the referendum on the EU Constitution.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Election Predictions

Conservatives 35%
Labour 35%
Liberal Democrats 22%

Labour win by a landslide as a result of the distribution of constituencies which ensures that working class votes count more.

It must appear strange to outsiders that a party can command a huge overall majority with little more than a third of votes cast - and with the support of little more than a sixth of the electorate. The first-past-the-post system does NOT of itself produce inequalities on this scale. They are the result of the ludicrous provisions of the Representation of the People Act which entail that consituencies be smaller where there are greater concentrations of population.

If Mugabe could retain his grip on power with such slender support the whole world would be howling about the electoral injustice.