Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Why we can't just invade everyone we disagree with.

It has been said that invasion of foreign countries for regime change, such as Iraq, is morally justified. In light of recent unrest in Egypt and Libya, this issue is coming to the fore once again. In the example of Libya, the case is put forward that Gaddafi is committing humanitarian atrocities worthy of foreign military intervention. However, Gaddafi is not likely to give in easily. A Colonel, his military prowess and honour are clearly important to him. No doubt this would lead to a long, drawn out conflict involving the destruction of much of Libya's infrastructure, healthcare, education and social order. Many people would die, and an entire generation would be scarred by war. It may well lead to lasting damage to relations with Western countries, as well as accusations of whichever countries invaded behaving as a global bullies or imperialistic thugs. In short, the situation would have to be extremely, extremely bad and intervention would have to have a high chance of success for an invasion to be justified. The problem is, there are no examples where this has happened.

I am strongly of the opinion that countries need to arrive at Liberal Democracy through there own progress. Revolution from within has worked in many cases, such as France, but a foreign force imposing a system on an unwilling people never works. This will, no doubt, lead to accusations of moral relativism. However, I wouldn't say for one second that living in a monarchy or dictatorship is fine for other people, just that imposing democracy does not produce strong and stable government. At best a puppet regime of the invading nation(s) is installed, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at worst a tyrant (Zimbabwe) or terrorist organisation (Palestine) is elected. And what happens then? The people have had their say, but it has led either directly or indirectly to a government we do not approve of and the problem is unresolved, despite all the above mentioned damages war does. Let us look at the most stable democracy in the world: the UK. The reason British Parliamentary Democracy has been so successful is that there have been hundreds of years of progress. Institutions can be changed over night, but minds take much longer to change. Many people 100 years ago thought the idea of women voting was preposterous, but now, as far as I know, pretty much no-one in the UK thinks women should not vote. If the UK had had votes for women imposed by a foreign power, the institution of voting would have been altered, but the minds of many Brits would not have been. It would have taken a long time to convince people, if the change was not reversed in the meantime. Instead, the emancipation of women came about organically and gradually within  the UK, so everyone had time to get used to the idea, and the progress will (hopefully) last forever.

Another problem is who we invade. If we invade any countries that don't agree with our view of democracy we have a problem: there is no truly objective measure of the best and worst systems of government. The government of Iran, and much of the population, believe their theocracy is the best system, and is supported by a deity. If we believe we have the right to change governments we disagree with, it's hard to say that others do not also have this right. Saying that our system is so good we need to invade other countries to share it with them stinks of imperialism, and has caused many of the world's current problems.

I suppose my next argument is a kind of slippery slope. If we are prepared to invade one country for regime change, for example Zimbabwe, why not also invade China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. And how bad do they need to be to require regime change? These examples have committed various human rights abuses, true, but so have the UK and USA, making it hard to hold the moral high ground. If it's a question of democracy, we also have a problem. British democracy is far from perfect. We still have more than half of the members of our legislature unelected. Again, it is difficult to hold the moral high ground, and would a more democratic nation, such as the USA or France be justified in invading the UK? We should try to perfect our own system of government before we impose it on others.

Some people would advocate foreign invasion only in examples of genocide, and this is certainly a much more persuasive argument. The most common example given by those who support so-called 'principled intervention' is World War Two. "Would you," they say, "not have intervened to stop the holocaust?" and certainly this is a difficult question to answer. Personally I am of the view that British involvement in World War Two was justified, but only for self-defensive reasons. If Hitler had not showed any interest in his neighbours' lands, Britain should not have become involved. The number of deaths within Germany from general repression was up to 3.2million, and the deaths from the holocaust were almost 6million. Shocking as these figures are, the number of military deaths as a result of the war was some 25million, including over 10million Soviet soldiers, and civilian deaths were as high as 50million worldwide. Furthermore, if Hitler had not invaded any other countries, fewer would have died as a result of his actions as many of the victims of his lunacy were Polish and Czech. This demonstrates how war often simply exacerbates the situation. In fact, the Nazi high command had not conceived of the 'final solution' until the war had started and they felt forced into finding a quick and extreme way of dealing with what they viewed as a problem. This is not to try and put the blame for what happened on anyone other than the Nazis, but war certainly did not help the matter.

The soul example I can think of where foreign military intervention may have been for the greater good is Rwanda, where the might of NATO forces would have met with relatively little resistance and the mass-extermination may have been stopped. However, there is still no certainty this would have been better overall as it could have caused many more deaths, and resulted in an equally unstable country. Essentially this line of thought is too hypothetical to pursue.

Wishing to avoid foreign military intervention can lead to accusations of 'not caring' or failing to act responsibly. However, I have explained why I believe that not intervening is almost always the best solution by all measures. There are also other ways to act, without resorting to violence. International pressure and sanctions can be effective, for example.

To sum up, I believe that as a general rule foreign military intervention for regime change should always be avoided, as it has never been successful and probably never will be.

Friday, 18 February 2011

William Hague and AV

On 17/2/2011 I received the following email from William Hague:

Dear Alex,

Without your help, Britain's traditional voting system could be ditched for something that is unfair, expensive and allows candidates that finish third to win elections.

On May 5th, there's a nationwide referendum on whether to replace the system of First Past the Post with the 'Alternative Vote' - or AV. The Liberal Democrats demanded this referendum as part of the Coalition agreement - but the Conservative Party are actively campaigning for a 'No' vote. Here's why:
AV is unfair. With First Past the Post, everybody gets one vote. But under AV, supporters of extreme parties like the BNP would get their vote counted many times, while other people's vote would only be counted once.
AV doesn't work. Rather than the candidate with the most votes winning, the person who finishes third could be declared the winner.
AV is expensive. Calculating the results is a long, complicated process, which would cost the taxpayer millions.
No-one wants AV. Even the 'Yes' campaigners don't actually want AV - they see it as a convenient stepping stone to yet more changes to how we vote.

Go to the No to AV website and sign up to receive emails
Ask your local Conservative Association how you can help their campaign against AV
Join the NO to AV group on Facebook or follow them on Twitter
Forward this email on to 5 friends.

Together, we can win this referendum and save our voting system.

Thank you,

William Hague

Foreign Secretary

Unsurprisingly I disagreed with much of this so I replied:

Dear Mr Hague,

I received an email from you yesterday asking for my help in the 'No to AV' campaign. You stated your criticisms of the system. However, it seems that you misunderstand several key elements of the Alternative Vote electoral system as a number of the claims you make are inaccurate. Obviously a man of your stature would not deliberately mislead people, so perhaps I can show you where your errors lie and help you understand how the Alternative Vote works.

The first point you make is:

"AV is unfair. With First Past the Post, everybody gets one vote. But under AV, supporters of extreme parties like the BNP would get their vote counted many times, while other people's vote would only be counted once."

This is not the case. Smaller party candidates drop out after the first rounds, so votes for them are then counted according to second preference. As their first choice is no longer in the running it is difficult to argue that their vote is being counted multiple times. Furthermore, the way you have written it appears to imply that the BNP will get more votes as a result. Even if their votes were counted 'many times', these votes would not be for the BNP, they would be votes for a (presumably more moderate) second preference. Perhaps you should make this more clear, as at the moment you appear to be implying that AV will mean more votes for the BNP.

Your second point:

"AV doesn't work. Rather than the candidate with the most votes winning, the person who finishes third could be declared the winner."

Again, you appear to have misunderstood the system. It is true that the person who receives the fewest votes in the first round may go on to win, but this would only be if they are preferred over their two strongest opponents by 50% of the voters. Clearly this means an MP needs more support from their constituents than they do under FPTP, which is surely fairer. Perhaps in future communications you should clarify this, as at present you appear to suggest that AV gives a seat to the person with the third most votes, which is obviously untrue.


"AV is expensive. Calculating the results is a long, complicated process, which would cost the taxpayer millions."

Expense seems to be a peculiar criticism, as your government regularly points out that £110m is spent every day servicing the national debt. This demonstrates that the 'millions' you talk about is clearly a relatively small sum. Furthermore, elections generally take place only every 5 years, so the additional cost seems negligible. Price also seems a bad way to choose an electoral system. It would be cheaper to have no elections at all. This point also seems particularly ironic as your party for several years demanded a referendum on the Lisbon treaty for no apparent reason. Also, you put the high cost down to counting being a 'long, complicated process', but this probably would not be as expensive as you say as the counters will hopefully have a better understanding of the system than you.


"No-one wants AV. Even the 'Yes' campaigners don't actually want AV - they see it as a convenient stepping stone to yet more changes to how we vote."

The criticism that 'no-one wants AV' appears to be a bad one as the Liberal Democrats have campaigned for electoral reform for decades, and an AV referendum was in the manifesto of the Labour party, demonstrating that clearly there is some appetite for the system, and democratic legitimacy for a referendum. Also, I don't know if you're aware but there's a rather rigorous 'Yes' campaign with members nationwide who are terribly keen on the system.

I hope I have managed to clear up some things for you, and that you will take care not to accidently mislead people in future. If you want me to proof-read any future communications I would be more than happy.


I'll keep you posted when I get a reply.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Controversial No.10 Appointment


15 Febraury 2011
In an effort to distance himself from Labour, the Prime Minister has enlisted Larry the Cat to help with Number 10's rat problem.

With this controversial new appointment, David Cameron has risked comparisons to the Major government of the 1990s. Larry has previously avoided showing political allegiance so this move comes as a surprise to many commentators.


Labour Party leader Ed Milliband has criticised the move, describing government policy at PMQs on Wednesday as a 'cat-astrophe'. Although when questioned, he refused to specify his party's policy for rat catching, stating that it was 'under review'.

It is thought that Larry's main role will be at Number 10, in an unofficial capacity as rat catcher. In the past, Prime Ministers have hired a 'rat Tsar' to deal with the issue, but problems arose in 1979 when then Prime Minister James Callaghan tried to appoint his feline rat Tsar to the House of Lords, causing the constitutional crisis that led to the election of Margaret Thatcher.

Special Door

It is hoped that Larry's appointment will avoid the levels of controversy recently seen around Press Secretary Andy Coulson. According to Number 10 insiders, a move to minimise controversy has seen a special small door installed in the building so Larry can come and go unnoticed. This is a break with convention as Number 10 employees are usually required to declare their arrival at the official entrance.

It is hoped that this appointment will help the government to reach its 40% rat reduction target set under Labour to be achieved by 2012.

The last cat to live at the PM's residence was Humphrey, who left following a damaging public disagreement with Cherie Blair in 1997.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Meaning of Life

I'm slightly worried that my posts may have become trivial of late, and could even be accused of 'dumbing down' so I thought I'd tackle the big one.

As an atheist I don't think there's any 'higher purpose' to life beyond the instincts of reproduction and survival, so in that sense I suppose there is no 'meaning of life', but what is more interesting is the value we place on the life we have.

On the one hand, the number of humans who have ever existed and will ever exist is so vast as to be, to the human mind, infinite, or near infinite. This renders our own actions and existences infinitely meaningless in a relative sense. And even if our actions were somehow meaningful to the human species as a whole, in terms of the universe the human species is infinitely meaningless in terms of the size of the universe and the impact we can have on it. The universe wouldn't notice if we nuked the entire planet, or all perished from human-caused climate change any more than it cried for the extinction of the dinosaurs or and of the other 99% of species that have gone extinct. The planets will keep turning regardless, and even if they didn't would it matter? The universe existed for 14bn years before humans, and will exist for billions of years after humans. Its complete indifference to human activity, and the fact that all human endeavour will ultimately count for nothing, is good reason to argue that life is meaningless and pointless.

However, you could also take the opposite view. Each person has a finite amount of time which sooner or later will come to an end. If life were a resource available on the market, it is so finite that its value would be extremely high, so while time itself may be worthless, time alive is extremely valuable, if only for its own sake.

As it's Valentine's Day, I'll also look at the idea of love and 'soul mates'. There is no evidence for the existence of soul mates, and I would say that the fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce is good evidence against them. If everyone is pre-designated to one other person, is it then an interference with some higher plan to have children with the wrong person? Obviously, if there was some sort of divine plan it would be impossible to interfere with if it was created by an omniscient being, who presumably knew what was going to happen and would have incorporated it into her/his/its plan. I wonder if those who believe in soul mates would condemn those born to couples who eventually separate as against God or fate. Regardless, if a couple has divorced, it implies that they chose the wrong person to get married to. As a child of separated parents, this creates the peculiar situation where if my parents had realised that they would not get along for the rest of their lives, they may not have got married, and I wouldn't have been born. Not believing in fate and soul mates is very comforting in this situation, as it doesn't suggest I, and many others, go against a diving plan. As is the logic that if I hadn't been born it wouldn't have mattered at all and I would never have known. In all probability many of the people who marry the wrong person would have married someone else, so those born to separated parents deprived someone else of existence. But that person can never know or care. This is comforting because if it was the other way round I would be in their situation, it wouldn't matter to me either. Pitying the unborn is pointless.

You may find some of these conclusions depressing, but comfort can be found in reason. Be grateful for the time you have, but don't beat yourself up if you don't make the most of it. No-one's going to care.

P.S. Scared of death? There may be hope yet...http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4003063.stm

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Is the government's bark worse than its bite? The forest sell-off examined...

I don't understand.

Like many I was mildly annoyed in a British sort of way about the proposed sell-off of the forests, so jumped on the lightly-irritated bandwagon of the slightly disgruntled and signed 38 Degrees' petition.

You may think I'm labouring the moderateness of my disapproval, but there is a reason. I'm not quite sure why I'm supposed to be angry, as neither side of this dispute seems to make a coherent case.

On the surface, headlines like 'Evil Government sells our forests to foreign paedophiles' are shocking, but no-one has really explained why. The government claims that if the forests are sold off (which is not yet final, apparently), they would still have the same ecological and rambling laws they do at the moment, meaning it would make no obvious difference to average Brit. This is partly because the average Brit probably never goes with in 100 acres of a wood. But it also means it would make no difference to the average forest-using Brit. Dogging is already illegal anyway. Now I don't know how true the argument that usage of forests won't be affected is, but I think it's fair to say that the forests won't be felled by angry orcs leaving a barren wasteland after the sell-off. The vast majority of Britain's forests are already privately owned and no-one seems that bothered or restricted from doing things they want to do by this fact. But the question is, if all forest-owners are permitted to do is manage and maintain their forest in accordance with government regulation, under the watchful eye of the forestry commission, why would anyone buy a forest? Obviously, the government's pawns are giving it the whole 'big society' spiel about communities getting together to buy and run a forest. And, to be fair, I think this could happen, right after the revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering of the state and the establishment of an anarcho-communist society. Then the communes may well try  to collectively buy and run a forest. But frankly, the government has somewhat  distanced itself from orthodox Marxism, and until communism happens, I can't see neighbours who won't even take a parcel for each other, or refrain from disposing of each others' pets, deciding to buy a forest for no apparent reason. Which leads neatly onto my next point...

The government's own estimations indicate that they would lose money from the sell-off. This could be something to do with the fact that clearly, if what they say is true, no-one will want to buy a forest. If they will lose money, and it makes no difference to the practical running of things, why on earth would you bother to sell off the forests? The government's answer is that the forestry commission is not good at running forests. Their gift-shops are understaffed and the height of their trees cannot be compared to those in the private sector.

So on one hand we have the problems with the sell-off:

  • No-one wants to buy a forest
  • It won't make any money
  • Waffle about the private sector being better at running forests (eh?)
And on the other hand there doesn't seem much point in criticising it:
  • Something like 90% of the forests are already privately owned: no problemo
  • It won't make any difference to the general public if the same regulations are in force
If anyone can elaborate on either side of the argument for me it would be greatly appreciated.

Tnx xx

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Do Peas belong in a bowl?

I just watched the superbowl. Ok, so I only watched the half-time show. I don't know the rules, nor had I heard of either team, so it would have been a waste of electricity. But I did watch the half-time show, because the Black Eyed Peas are something of a specialist subject of mine.

Afterwards, Twitter was ablaze with the opinions of nobodies like myself on the performance, pretty evenly split between those who thought it had been conceived in the fiery bowels of Satan, and those who thought it was alright, and frankly I can see where both lots were coming from. On the one hand, it was an undeniably spectacular show, with what appeared to be oompa-loompas at Christmas prancing around, and what's not to love about Usher descending from the sky like a hip-hop angel?

But on the other hand, I think it's fair to say live vocals are not da Peaz (yes, I'm gangsta. What of it?) strong point. Despite criticism, I thought Fergie sounded, well, Fergalicious, and managed to hold her own vocally. And the older numbers like 'Where is the Love' and 'Pump It' sounded good, but the problem is, songs from the E.N.D and The Beginning tend to have been auto-tuned so much that the original sound is completely lost,  so even if they give a strong vocal performance it sounds nothing like the original song. 4 mediocre vocalists trying to imitate R2D2 at the opera is not going to produce results that are easy-on-the-ear. Having said that, Will and Apl didn't give strong vocal performances by any standard, and managed the difficult feat of rapping out-of-tune. To be fair, there were, apparently, some technical difficulties, but you can't deny that they should probably stick to the recording studio, where their voices can be regulated before being inflicted on unwitting viewers. Problematically, the person who booked them obviously didn't do their research. Watch any live BEP performance and it sounds like that. It's should have been expected.

Whoever is in charge of the BEP Twitter account had a tough job retweeting positive comments, because I'm guessing they had to sift through the less positive ones first. In the name of unbiased media I will now share some of my favourite...less positive comments:

I'm afraid if the Superbowl is being broadcast into space, aliens will interpret this Black Eyed Peas performance as an act of war.

If mubarak was smart he'd have gotten the Black Eyed Peas to empty out Tahrir Square two weeks ago

The Black Eyed Peas had the worst half-time show ever. I think my ears are still bleeding.

If fergie yells in the microphone one more time my face will explode into a million pieces


Can fergie have a technical malfunction and lose her microphone?

After the ' halftime show performance, all 4 members have been arrested and charged with Cruel & Unusual punishment

This one takes the biscuit:

I'm not sure who has caused more damage to America; BP orBEP?

Edit:I forgot this one:

This is like a Nazi rally but with worse music. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Is Nick Clegg working hard enough?

Perhaps this bothers me more than it should, but the idea that Nick Clegg shuts his box at 3pm Monday to Thursday and noon on Fridays is worrying. http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9382000/9382234.stm
Of course, there may be more to this story than meets the eye, for example he presumably spends a lot of time away speaking or meeting foreign leaders, so on ordinary office days likes to keep his workload to a minimum. I'm also, of course, not against politicians having a personal life and spending more time with their families, and having a cut-off point so they can do that, it's just that 3pm seems a little early.

I'm guessing he doesn't start work much before 9 in the morning, which means his working hours are significantly lower than the average person, which is clearly wrong. Also there are some, a lot, of jobs where doing out-of-hours work from home is expected and necessary. Using the example of my Dad; as a teacher he is in school from 8am to usually around 3.30 to 4pm, already more hours than Clegg, and on top of that has a large amount of marking and lesson planning to do in his own time. This is nothing unusual. Deputy Prime Minister should be, one would assume, a job in which a bit extra is expected. That doesn't mean Clegg should not be able to spend time with his family, but it appears, if this story is true, that he is taking advantage of the flexible nature of his job to work a minimum number of hours.

In Clegg's defence, as Deputy Prime Minister, he is technically responsible for all government departments, but does not have the staff or resources of the Prime Minister to provide the same level of scrutiny, but surely this would make him work harder?

This is particularly problematic in a coalition. If John Prescott had worked short hours it wouldn't have really mattered as he was more of a token Deputy to keep the traditional side of the party happy, given a job without a department to create the illusion of power. However, Clegg has a much more important roll. For a lot of people, myself included, our faith in the coalition is based on the idea that the Lib Dems are constantly battling behind the scenes to get every single possible compromise out of the Conservatives. A big part of this is Clegg's responsibility in his overseeing roll. But if he doesn't put government policy up to the scrutiny he should be, how can we be sure that the government is not the least Conservative it can be? And what's to stop the Tories from taking advantage of Clegg's apparently relaxed attitude and sneaking policy in which Clegg shouldn't be agreeing to?

I don't want to tell people how to organise their time, but it seems that if you want to be a stay-at-home Dad, don't become Deputy Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg says he is working hard enough. Obviously you can't believe everything a politician says, but I think that even the laziest MP probably works later than 3pm, so I'm inclined to believe him on this one. Also, the memo was just about submissions to his box, not about going home early like the BBC implied originally. What do you think?