29 February 2012

Speaking in Tonges.

I like my idiots out in the open. That way you know what harm they are attempting and can do something about it. It's when idiots sink below their parapets or retreat to the margins that they become dangerous. Keep the enemy where you can see them. That's one of the things that makes less censorious societies, safer societies.

Furthermore, the overall reputation of the Liberal Democrat Party, on a list of things I care about, ranks below the following:
  • current whereabouts of the core from the apple I ate last Wednesday
  • the difference between "taupe" and "wheat" in paint colour schemes
  • the post-Public Enemy Number One career of Bobby Davro
So I will not be joining the calls for Baroness Tonge of Kew to have her Party's whip removed from her. (I wonder if she thinks that'll be carried out by a crack team of IDF organ harvesters?).

I would, however, like to ponder some of her motivations for yet again expounding against the very existence of Israel in terms that are just about as aggressive as any in a Western democracy.

Surely, I hear the assembled masses of campaigners and activists cry, it is because of heartfelt solidarity with oppressed peoples and the victims of neo-colonial capitalist aggression everywhere?

Well, possibly. Except that she's not been really all that consistent on such matters.

In 2006, George Monbiot pointed out the Baroness's rather unprogressive views on indigenous Botswanan tribespeople. (Yes. The Baroness is so idiotic she has even me favourably quoting Monbiot):
Last week the baroness (formerly the Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge) opened a debate about Botswana with an attack on the Gana and Gwi bushmen of the Kalahari. She suggested they were trying to "stay in the stone age", described their technology as "primitive" and accused them of "holding the government of Botswana to ransom" by resisting eviction from their ancestral lands. How did she know? In 2002 she had spent half a day as part of a parliamentary delegation visiting one of the resettlement camps into which the bushmen have been forced. Her guides were officials in the Botswanan government.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a man with whom I seldom find myself in sympathy, alleged that something was missing from her account: the trip, he claimed, including first-class air travel, was funded by Debswana. Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the government of Botswana, owns the rights to mine diamonds in the bushmen's land in the Kalahari.
Tonge responded, a few days later. She did not address the issue of her rather offensive remarks but did make some reasonable points about not patronising developing nations or romanticising the lifestyles of their poorest people:
In the bushmen's case, this requires huge tracts of land which may be needed to sustain the economy of the rest of the population of Botswana, who live in the towns. I hope that Monbiot is not suggesting that we should all live this way, because there is simply not enough room.
We hear about the skills of the bushmen; their ability to track wild animals and bore water holes. Their lives are held in awe by some people who treat them like exhibits in a museum; but what about the bush women and children? They have human rights too. Some want homes, healthcare and education to give them the opportunity to make the leap into another kind of life. What about them, especially if it is well-nigh impossible for a government to provide these services in a huge area like the Kalahari, and with a constantly shifting lifestyle?
It is how we achieve this and prevent the sad stories of indigenous people failing to adapt and becoming dropouts, that should be the subject of our debate.
Monbiot is right on one thing. The bushmen and all indigenous people are part of the modern world however we choose to describe them. The House of Lords is not. Perhaps he can persuade his chums in Survival International to leave the Botswanan human rights NGOs to sort this out, and concentrate their fire on the democratisation of the House of Lords, if not its abolition.
Whether you agree with Monbiot or Tonge or a bit of both, the Lib Dem peer, in this case, made a neat, well-phrased, thoughtful, and even witty contribution to a debate. She recognises certain realities and lays out the beginnings of a way to reach a resolution. 

How might such arguments work in the Israel-Palestine conflict?:
In the Israel and Palestine cases, this requires recognised tracts of land which may be needed to sustain the security and economic activity of their populations. I hope that no one is suggesting that the current situation is how they should continue to live, because there is simply not enough time.
We hear about the resilience and resistance of the Palestinians and the power of the Israelis. Their lives are held in awe by some people who treat them like exhibits in a museum; but what about ordinary Palestinians and Israelis? They have human rights too. Palestinians want homes, healthcare and education - and Israelis want peace and security - to give them the opportunity to make the leap into another kind of life. What about them, especially if it is well-nigh impossible for both their governments to provide these things with a constantly shifting conflict?
It is how we achieve this and prevent the sad cycles of violence postponing the two state solution, that should be the subject of our debate.
Perhaps we can persuade the Israeli and Palestinian human rights NGOs to sort this out, and concentrate our own rhetoric on getting people talking to each other rather than constantly provoking them in to addressing our own self-indulgent and destructive commentary.
Now I am not comparing the dilemmas that modernity and economic growth throw up in sub-Saharan Africa, to the conflict over three very specific issues that continues to dominate the small coastal plain of the Middle East's western boundary.

But why, Jenny, why, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, do you find it so hard to discuss the issue with anything even approaching the tact, diplomacy, nuance and intelligence that we expect of our Parliamentarians and which, even more importantly, Israelis and Palestinians deserve, too?

07 February 2012

Odds-on, there's a better way to deal with this.

Betting shops, it seems, are the latest target for those concerned about our high streets:
I'm a councillor in Southwark where there are already 77 betting shops. As small shops shut in the downturn, bookies are opening in their place.  And this story is being repeated across the UK. 

But at the moment, local councils can’t control the number of betting shops in their community because they’re classified in the same way as banks, estate agents and restaurants.

We have a rare chance to change that. Mary Portas (also known as Queen of Shops) recently published a review of the high street and recommended giving local people new powers to limit the number of bookies in their communities. I'm campaigning for the Government to accept the recommendation.

Right now, the Government is deciding how to respond, promising to report back by May. If enough people speak out, they will be forced to reclassify betting shops. 

There’s nothing wrong with responsible gambling, but too many bookies encourage poverty traps and crowd out other small businesses. Changing the classification would let local residents decide if they want more betting shops in their area. 

Like the charity GRASP (Gambling Reform & Society Perception), I believe it's critical that the Government reclassify betting shops so local people can control the number in their area. I hope everyone that agrees will add their name to the campaign.

Local democracy should be a principle, not a gamble. Our high streets don’t deserve anything less.

While the local democracy principles invoked here are noble ones, which I fully support, I can't help thinking that a major point is being missed.

This is the key part of the argument above: 
"local councils can’t control the number of betting shops in their community because they’re classified in the same way as banks, estate agents and restaurants."
If shops and restaurants face the same (lack of) barriers to establishment as betting shops, then why aren't there "enough" of the former, if there are "too many" of the latter?

Even though I'm familiar with the inside of a betting shop or two, I can't claim expertise on bookmaker business models. However, I'd bet that their overheads are nowhere near those of retail or hospitality units, and that their red tape is considerably less as well.

If we think that bookies have too many negative externalities (which, personally, I'd dispute) then one solution is, indeed, to allow regulation against them to rise. Alternatively, if shops and restaurants have positive (or at least more welcome) externalities, then we could reduce regulation on them.

The question that local councillors are asking should not be "why oh why are there too many bookies?". It should be "why oh why aren't there more cafes/delis/artisanal hessian cobblers/etc?".

Remember, the High Street Bookmaker is under the same pressures as any other business: mainly (though not limited to) the economic downturn and competition from internet-based alternatives. Yet, according to arguments such as those above, they are thriving and "crowding out" other businesses.

The belief, then, is that if you stop bookies setting up shop then other, "better" businesses will automatically take the space, physically and economically.

But what is stopping the supposedly more welcome traders and outlets from doing this already? 

Local councillors' time should also be spent talking to local would-be entrepreneurs about the barriers they face, and then doing something about those. That will no doubt expose a clash between market entry and issues such as high business rates, draconian parking regimes and other costly (both in time and money) regulations. But it would lay out a more (#BannedList klaxon) sustainable pathway to diverse high streets* than trying to pick winners before the fact.

*Let's not also forget that 'diversity', when applied to high streets, can just mean 'more expensive' and 'worse service'. Shops that poorer people use don't face local competition and prices are not driven down, while the appreciation of custom falls. And, yes, that's true of bookies as much as shoe shops, through the use of refund mechanisms and other conditions in bets.