Archive for May, 2010

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

Meet the new project, everyone – reporting on our new Stable and Principled government, especially its unstable and unprincipled bits. I have just broken my duck.

There’s also a twitter feed, facebook group, so on and so forth. It comes with Tom Boriswatch and Naadir Random!


Yr Viktorfeed. I fixd it agin. Kthanx fr fiting evul strukturd html!

In other admin, I finally found out what the mysterious referrals were. London Fixed Gear and Single Speed, indeed. Maybe I should get a new haircut?

Well, ha ha. But I do think we should note that David Cameron’s appointment as Prime Minister was greeted by the markets with a dramatic spike in the price of gold, not usually seen as a vote of confidence. Here’s the data, at Felix Salmon’s; as he points out, trying to map events in consensus reality to market charts is a sucker’s game (although I did once have to explain that the giant V-shaped downspike in MTN stock on the chart was the day when half the management team died in a plane crash).

In other post-election cleanup, YouGov did some polling about the public’s preferences. The only group of people not to be consulted about the coalition – that’s us! – broke 20% Tory, 33% Unholy Alliance, 39% Lib-Lab. Anthony Wells, like a good Tory, points out that this means 53% of the public wanted Tories in government, but doesn’t mention that by the same token, 72% wanted Liberals in government. Ah, the times when we were the nation’s least despised option. Also, how many people would have wanted a Labour minority government?

Hopi points out that the key lubricant in the coalition is money, and that both parties have agreed to give money to each other’s pet clients. Interesting contributions in comments from Alan Beattie and Dan Paskins, babbling idiocy from others.

Computer Weekly is interesting on the future of the NPfIT debacle. Also here.

Healthcare volunteers in Kenya: it doesn’t work. Turns out you need to “pay” people to “work” in “jobs” if you want to achieve anything lasting.

Whatever the coalition does, I’ve a feeling this story will determine how it ends up – on China’s property bubble, banks, and the coming blowout of the government deficit as it inevitably bursts and lands on the government’s books. As Doug “always up to no gooood” Henwooood would say, he believed in the collapse of capitalism until he realised the power of a good bailout. When the Chinese banks blow up and get bailed out, will American right-wing nuts blame that on black people?

Well, that was grim, wasn’t it? I refer, of course, to the new government. Having read through the coalition agreement, I’m almost convinced by Charlie and Jamie‘s argument that it’s really not that bad. Almost. I’m not particularly worried by the supposed 55% thing either, for reasons well explained here – it’s fairly obviously an attempt to self-bind, a costly signal of commitment to cement the deal, and it’s probably content-free.

On the other hand, there’s the NAMELESS DREAD. It’s pre-rational, emotional, Lovecraftesque…political. And look at some of the gargoyles and Queen’s bad bargains in the government. Also, Vince Cable at the Mandelsonministerium is a reasonably good idea, but couldn’t we have got at least one real job? Obviously, the Tories couldn’t have worn a Liberal foreign secretary for ideological reasons.

What went wrong with this post? I think the key unexamined assumption was that the Labour Party could be treated as a united actor for negotiating purposes; I didn’t take into account that significant numbers of backbench MPs wouldn’t support a coalition or wouldn’t support an electoral reform bill. I still believe that significant numbers of Tory backbenchers will rebel, but the coalition whips have more leverage over them with the Liberals as a reserve pool. Obviously, it’s telling that the Labour whipping operation would pick this moment, rather than – say – March 2003, to break down.

It’s also telling just who was lobbying the Labour backbenches; David Blunkett, John Reid, and Charles Clarke! The three monkeys of Blairite authoritarianism, a sort of negative triumvirate of failed home secretaries. Because, after all, as I said about identity cards back in 2004, we are going to win. That is, in fact, the only good thing here; the achievement of NO2ID and Phil Booth is that all political parties except one went into the 2010 general election pledged to abolish the National Identity Scheme. And, crucially, the civil service gets it – I hear that IPS is actively looking at contingency plans as to what to do with its officials when the NIS shuts down, how to cancel the contracts, disposing of office space and kit, that kind of stuff.

Hilariously, my dad spent quite a lot of time trying to get the IPS to give him an identity card, in order to demonstrate various flaws in the process – he was eventually issued one after the intervention of the chief of identity cards. He’s now trying to decide whether to sell it on EBay or frame it. Does anyone have suggestions as to what to do with an British National Identity Card?

So, no ID cards, no NIR, no ContactPoint. Home Office junior ministers have swung from people like Phil Woolas to Lynne Featherstone. I should be delighted. But then, yes, nameless dread. I agree that it wasn’t so long ago that it looked like we’d get Dave from PR with a majority of 100, so I should be pleased that the damage control exercise has been a success. But, no. Perhaps I should concentrate on MySociety stuff; perhaps I should concentrate on London politics. I have no idea if I’m going to stay a Liberal member.

One thing that will be happening is a new blog patterned on Boriswatch that will be covering our Stable and Principled new government, especially the unstable and unprincipled bits. Check out our statistical model of coalition survival, which is currently showing them sticking it out for the full five years…yup, nameless dread all right.

ContentFree Comment has been turning up some real nuggets just lately.

a politics lesson

Back to the politics, although of a different kind. Here’s the Guardian‘s piece on Alfie McKenzie, the 14-year old socialist who succeeded in voting on Thursday. What strikes me as politically interesting here isn’t that Alfie’s a socialist, or that he pulled it off, or even that he refused to speak to the Daily Hell on principle, but this bit from the news story:

He went home, changed into his uniform, and got the bus to St Aidan’s school, where he made the fatal mistake of confiding in a few friends, and telling a teacher in strict confidence. “The teacher went straight to the head, and the head called the council – but I don’t think the council had a clue what to do about it in the beginning.”

What a wonderful human being that teacher must be. There’s a political lesson for you – if you tell them anything in confidence, they’ll rat on you. Alternatively, the behaviour of responsible adults is to snoop and betray confidences. Obviously, which lesson is learned will depend on the pupil.

OK, something other than a relentless focus on politics for a moment. I mentioned on my facebook profile – which is showing worrying signs of developing into a permanent fixture, at least for elections-related stuff – that my boss’s band was supporting the former singer of this lot at what turned out to be her new band’s first gig. Turns out there’s a blog. And there’s video.

what hits?

My favourite election moments, in no particular order: Posters go viral. Donal Blaney gets disavowed. David Vance decides to test the ripcord on his suicide vest before going on the mission. Tory candidate quotes TheyWorkForYou on his leaflet; DemocracyClub volunteer gets tasked to document local campaign; uploads leaflet to TheStraightChoice; rejoicing and LotsOfInterCapping on MySociety DevelopersPublicMailingList.

A quick lesson in political plane-spotting: we observe, about 2.25pm today, a small business jet type, with minimal wing sweep and a tail about half-way up the fin, in an approach profile heading northwest over North London. Conclusions? It’s an RAF Hawker 125 heading into Northolt, and Gordon Brown is probably back in London.

This article, meanwhile, is one of the most factual I’ve read so far.

Something I think is worth pointing out: Labour plus the Liberals, plus the sister parties who take the whip automatically, only need three seats to reach the 322 mark (don’t forget the Sinn Feiners). Plaid Cymru would do. And it’s not a question of forming a three- or four-party coalition. You can have a coalition with the Liberals and a toleration agreement with Plaid (or the SNP, or whoever). Arguably there are constitutional issues with Scottish, Welsh, or NI parties having ministerial posts with UK-wide responsibility – I’m on record as saying that no-one has ever been killed as a result of the West Lothian question, but it’s a point.

Also, Labour has leverage on the Scots and Welsh parties; Labour did well in Scotland, and could only do better campaigning against an SNP that put Tories in national office. The Tories did unexpectedly well in Wales, and a similar effect might be expected for Plaid Cymru.

Another point is that the bargaining payoffs are quite interesting (I finally get to use my International Relations MSc!) – the Tories must get Liberal support to get Labour out, so they have an incentive to bid high. Labour can stay in office to the wire, and then dare the Liberals to vote in a Tory government – because of the King-Byng Thing and the Senex letter, there is no requirement for a second election in the event that the government is voted out on the Queen’s Speech, so this would make Nick Clegg into a suicide bomber. Therefore, they have an interest in starting the bidding low (although not so low as to risk insulting the Liberals).

On the other hand, the Tories probably think they are still winning, so they have an incentive to cheat, making a high offer to the Liberals without any intention of carrying it out, rather than calling an election at the first opportunity. As significant numbers of Tories are potential rebels against electoral reform, the Tories’ bid incentives are high offer but low credibility. Labour’s are lower offer but higher credibility.

In classical IR theory, we’d be looking at this point for a costly signal, as described so well in Diego Gambetta’s classic book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. The reason why the Tories and Labour can try to obfuscate their credibility is that talk is cheap. For a signal to be credible, it has to cost the signaller something. This could be either general or specific; whatever the cost is, the fact it exists lends greater credibility to the signal, but signals can also be “cost-discriminating”, when it costs someone who is telling the truth less than it would a liar.

Labour has apparently already hoisted a costly signal – offering the Liberals a referendum on strong proportional representation and several cabinet seats. The cost here is that Labour might lose out from PR, and that offering cabinet seats to Liberals means sacking existing cabinet ministers.

But the Tories’ offer is startlingly puny. Offering a Speaker’s conference real-soon-now pretty much defines the concept of a cost-free and therefore worthless signal. Perhaps they are trying to signal that they don’t think they need the Liberals, so as to bargain us down? If so, they’re very close to the point of making an insultingly pathetic offer. Of course, there’s no reason to assume the Tories are competent, or that they have an accurate assessment of their own capabilities – the Dunning-Kruger effect will be playing a major role here, especially as no Tories have ever operated in coalition since the time of Winston Churchill. The “Tory coup” strategy, which is the Tories’ bargaining threat, seems to be going the way of the Schlieffen plan – once it starts losing time, it’s doomed.

And von Schlieffen famously wanted to keep the right wing strong; Tory unity is far from given.

What’s the Liberal position in signalling terms? Obviously, the more Labour thinks it can count on Liberal votes, the less it’s going to offer – if they are certain we won’t vote with the Tories, their optimal strategy is to sign up Plaid or the SNP, form a minority government, and take it to the Queen’s Speech. The Tory position is similar, but marginally less so – they don’t have the option of simply digging in on the high ground.

So, we need to signal Labour that they have to make us a real offer. We also have to make an opposite signal to the Tories that a centre-left coalition is a serious prospect. And the signalling has to be costly to be credible, although obviously the least costly signal is to be preferred. The simplest way of doing the first of these is to let the Tories keep talking. It keeps the press hanging on, but it doesn’t involve any actual policy commitment. And, if they act rationally, the longer they wait, the higher they’ll go. It pisses off most of the party, which would appear to be the cost of the signal.

So I suppose I agree with Nick. That leaves a question; what should the corresponding signal to Labour be?