Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The British Labour Party deserts the British working class

Wibsey Working Men's Club in Bradford was the focus of the opening film in the BBC's new season of programmes about white working-class Britain. Pinch yourself, and the documentary could have been mistaken for a Play for Today from the late 1970s or the 1980s - one of those searing dramas, beautifully made, about being poor and left behind.

Time and tide have bypassed Wibsey, and with it the members of the club, all of them tough northerners who in their prime were the engine room of Britain. Their way of life is endangered. The heavy industry that gave them status has gone; their sons did not choose to join them in the club; and their city, one of Happy Eid and unhappy ethnic tension, is now an alien place to them.

The men, most of them unemployed or retired, held futile committee meetings to discuss their financial crisis, and faced the fact there was little that could be done to keep the club open. Not enough people came any more. It was as simple as that. "We're oop shit creek," muttered one. And it struck me, as they sat in the gloom, rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, that one of the ironies of Britain today is that if these white working-class men were an ethnic minority group - Asian elders, say, or Polish unmarried mothers - their club could have applied to Bradford council for a support grant and had ethnic minorities co-ordinators swarming around them immediately.

If we provide Muslim women-only swimming clubs, Asian football groups, or Ukrainian festivals, then surely we could also spare some local authority cash for a group of relics from our industrial past. Living history, isn't it? Social cohesion. Shoulders of giants, and all that. Give them a grant at once. It's only fair. Now the whole point of this poignant film, of course, was precisely that: to suggest unfairness. Remember the title of the BBC theme: White. To make it apparent that in the rush to multiculturalism, someone forgot to remember that white working-class males are disenfranchised and discriminated against too.

Thus the BBC season, which continues this week, makes a brave leap. It theorises that immigration is to blame for the plight of the working class; for its sense of alienation within its own heritage. Multiculturalism, that state-sponsored form of ethnic diversity, has created dangerous inequalities and segregation.

But is it true? I wonder. Much as I find the BBC's theme fascinating, I think perhaps it is chasing the wrong hare. Many things have made life difficult for the working classes, but most of them relate to global economics, snobbery and the death of heavy industry, rather than to skin colour. That is not to say that we do not discriminate. Of course we do. We are ruder, in public, to the white working class than we would dare be to ethnic minority groups. We call them chavs, or - in Scotland - neds, and we award TV comedy such as Little Britain that eviscerates them. We simultaneously neglect and romanticise them. But this is not new.

For the old white men of Bradford, with no jobs, no money, no future, disempowered in bleak surroundings, the parallels with the political landscape of the 1980s were obvious. In the ultimate act of discrimination to the working class, Britain's engine room was shut down. Steel, coal, textiles, shipbuilding, carmaking and almost every part of the heavy manufacturing sector disappeared; lives and jobs and communities folded. It happened in Ayrshire, Fife, Wales, the Midlands, Newcastle, Yorkshire, Lanarkshire.

And here's news for the BBC: there are sad, emasculated, iron-faced older men, just like those from Wibsey, sitting in rundown bars in every former industrial area in Britain, bemoaning that they're not selling enough beer, that Labour has deserted them, just like every other tosser, and no one wants to come to their karaoke nights any more....

I suspect the answer to the kind of divisions we face lies in lack of recognition. Immigrants have not denied the white working class jobs and houses - the ones they got were the ones the whites didn't want - but what they have denied them is political love and attention. The old working class, you might say, is simply fed up with being ignored.


Controversial blog is axed


"A civil servant who wrote an anonymous blog about the inner workings of government has taken down the site after it attracted widespread publicity. The blog, Civil Serf, which was mentioned in newspapers and used by Tory politicians to criticise the Government, made frequent references to welfare policy and to Peter Hain, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. The Department of Work and Pensions declined to confirm whether the blogger had been identified. Her profile states that she is a 33-year-old fast-stream civil servant.


It seems to have been a great blog but they have done a very thorough job of taking it down. There is nothing in the Google cache and the Wayback Machine has nothing either. There are a few excerpts here and here and here and here. If anybody can find more of it, let me know and I will see about getting it posted somewhere. Below are some pretty good bits:
"- [Former minister] Peter Hain 'can't answer a question without looking confused (if you asked him for his name he'd have to really think about it)'

- 'Ministers only take decisions at the weekend [probably because they have their spouse and/or political adviser do it for them]'

- 'The civil service loves bright young graduates with poncy backgrounds and floppy, golden hair'

In case not everyone gets British slang, "poncy" translates as "pretentious"

I thought only ICE was this crazy

Three illegal immigrants have been arrested after they were caught trying to get OUT of Britain

The Afghan men had sneaked into the back of a Polish lorry leaving Dover for France. They were discovered when it braked suddenly, causing its load of timber to fall and pin one of them down. The driver went to investigate after hearing noises from the back of his truck. The other two men, who were also injured, were seen trying to run away.

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the pressure group MigrationWatch, said yesterday: "It seems crazy to stop illegal immigrants leaving the country of their own free will. "We would like to see an amnesty of departure so any illegal immigrant could leave, providing they were not wanted by police, as soon as they wish." Sir Andrew added: "We do not need them here and we certainly do not need to pay for their removal."

Charlie Elphicke, 36, the Tories' prospective parliamentary candidate for Dover, said: "The Home Office is a complete shambles. Why are we stopping them from leaving? "If they want to go, let them go. Why are we spending valuable resources in this way? "We should be making sure our borders are secure against people who are trying to enter our country illegally and helping those who are here illegally to leave. "It is ludicrous to prevent those wanting to leave to do so. The immigration system in this country is truly mad....

A Home Office spokesman said: "The men were taken to a holding room to be processed. "If they are failed asylum seekers we will be able to find their immigration background and there is a possibility of removal from the country. "Our border controls are very strong but this is not a case of the controls not working as the men were going in the other direction, out of the country."

More here. See here for the equivalent ICE [U.S. Immigration] insanity.

The King of 'Climate Porn'

A new book by the UK government's former chief scientific adviser sheds yet more heat than light on the global warming debate - despite its promises of balance

In The Hot Topic, Sir David King and Gabrielle Walker promise to `unpick the entire essential story of global warming - what we humans have done, how we have done it, how we will need to prepare for the changes we can't stop and how we can prevent the even worse effects that will otherwise follow'. Determined to avoid both `pessimism' and `denial', they vow to pick their way through `the blizzard of information and misinformation about global warming, explaining each point in the most straightforward way possible'.

That would indeed be a great book to write; and given the authors' credentials, a truly comprehensive discussion of `how to tackle global warming and still keep the lights on' would be well worth a read. Unfortunately, The Hot Topic adds about as much cool science and clarity to the global warming debate as the celebrity chef wars add to our understanding of nutrition.

The authors of The Hot Topic assure us that we can trust them, that despite their `considerable experience in the worlds of media and politics' they `have no personal axes to grind'. Sir David King is the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, and Gabrielle Walker is a freelance writer and broadcaster and former climate change editor at the prestigious science journal Nature. They have wielded significant influence over the global warming debate to date: the book begins by reminding us that it was King who caused a furore in 2004 by describing climate change as `the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism', and, by implication, who began the process of placing climate stage centre stage on the political map.

Indeed, in December 2007, in his last interview in post as the chief scientific adviser, King told The Times (London) that raising government consciousness of climate change was his key legacy. He recalls how Ian Coon, a director of British Petroleum, `made a speech in which he said that before Al Gore was Dave King' and points out how he was sticking his neck out on the issue `certainly before Gore started making those speeches'. It is nice to know that King has no axe to grind against his rival eco-worriers, who have heaped his book with praise: among them Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers) and James Lovelock (Gaia and The Revenge of Gaia).

King and Walker try to stand out from the crowd of global warming consciousness-raisers by claiming that their book will not only challenge climate change `deniers' (whom they dismiss as either having a `vested interest in ignoring the scientific arguments' or `they are fools'), but challenge the doom-mongers on the green side, who `see disaster around every corner and indulge in gory scenarios that have been labelled "climate porn"'. In January 2008, King told the Guardian that he now thinks that some parts of the green movement are in danger of going too far, and that `the risk is that people feel the problem is being so overstated that it simply can't be true'.

For those of us who have long argued the need for a more sober, rational debate about global warming, a bit of climate-porn busting from somebody with the status of Sir David King would be very welcome - if rather disconcerting, given the chief scientific adviser's own history on this matter. King's attempt to place himself in the territory of opposing both denial and alarmism, and to claim the mantle of a neutral reporter of what `the science' says, seems somewhat ironic given his past willingness to make bold statements about climate change in the name of awareness-raising. In 2004 - having established that global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism - King also told the Independent on Sunday that Antarctica is likely to be the world's only habitable continent by the end of this century if global warming remains unchecked. Strangely, this is not a claim that features in his newly balanced book.

In the same month, following a screening of the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow - a preposterous fantasy in which the ice caps melt, causing a shutdown of the Gulf Stream followed by all manner of disasters leading to a new Ice Age - King admitted to the BBC that `the film brings events together into a highly unlikely or even impossible scenario'. But, he added: `[W]hat's good is that while my colleagues and I have just spent half an hour presenting you with the scientific understanding of climate change, the movie gets the basic message across in a few sentences of dialogue. It's a beautiful piece of script-writing.'

King expressed his `hope' that US audiences would see the film, as `it's very important that we all take cognisance of what science is saying, and that includes American politicians'. The fact that no real science would ever `say' the scenario etched out in The Day After Tomorrow is presumably beside the point.

But anyway, given that the world now has watched the movie and we are all very well aware of global warming, is the `awareness-raising' King of old prepared to discuss the issue in more sober and balanced terms? Hardly. As soon as you go beyond the jacket of The Hot Topic, King and Walker seem less interested in promoting understanding and reasoned debate than in foisting a one-sided account of climate science, coupled with narrow and constraining policy prescriptions, on to their readers. It's a beautiful piece of script-writing, but does nothing to tackle the misleading alarmism over global warming. Indeed, as Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, pointed out in his review of The Hot Topic for the UK Independent, the authors are happy to indulge in some additional climate porn of their own:

`[T]he 15 pages of chapter 5, "Wild Cards", offer enough material to keep even the most optimistic of us lying awake at night. In 4,500 words we have 37 separate depictions of climatic fear, one for every 120 words. We have climate change that is "frightening" six times and "alarming" twice, four "disaster scenarios", four "tipping points", three "collapses", two "abrupt dramas", not to mention the "bleak outlooks", the "catastrophe" and the three "grave dangers to our civilisation".'

It is striking the number of times King and Walker lapse from sober science into the trite language of therapeutic policymaking, instructing us that it is time to `kick' our `carbon habit'.

However, what is probably most irritating about The Hot Topic is the way in which one particular response to global warming is promoted as the only sensible response - do everything possible to restrict climate change to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels - without providing any sense of the substantial controversy that surrounds such a target.

The argument posed by King and Walker runs like this: `All the evidence suggests that the world will experience significant and potentially highly dangerous changes in climate over the next few decades no matter what we do now. All things being equal, to keep the "danger" as low as possible we would pick the lowest possible rise, in other words set a temperature limit of two degrees Celsius. (In addition to the 1.4 degrees Celsius that's already inevitable, that would allow us just 0.6 degrees Celsius of leeway in which to kick our carbon habit.)' [Emphasis in the original.]

Having made the case for setting this temperature limit, Walker and King hit us with `the really bad news': that in fact `it's now almost certainly impossible to restrict warming to two degrees Celsius'. `If', they tell us, `we had started two decades ago we would have had a good chance. But in the present climate, that target looks increasingly out of range'. The problem, according to their account, is that carbon dioxide concentrations are already too high to provide a realistic chance of restricting warming to their desired level. Compared to a pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of around 280ppm (parts per million), they state that today's atmosphere is currently around 430ppmCO2eq (meaning CO2 equivalent concentration when additional greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide are also taken into account), and argue that with rapid emissions controls 450ppmCO2eq is the lowest we could hope to achieve. How this will translate into temperature increases depends on how sensitive the climate system is to changes in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

According to Walker and King, the likeliest average global temperature value to be associated with 450ppm is 2.5 degrees Celsius - if we're lucky and the sensitivity turns out to be low `we might stay below that', but if we're unlucky `we could find ourselves heading for a highly dangerous 3.5 degrees Celsius'.

Having befuddled the reader with statistics, Walker and King reassure us that this is not a counsel of despair but rather a call for prompt action. The `good news' is that `we do still have a chance of keeping greenhouse gases to that 450ppm limit' but `we have to act fast'. They are not kidding! `Fast' means that global greenhouse emissions will need to `peak within 15 years, and by 2050 they will have to have fallen to half their current levels'. They accept that this `sounds like a lot to ask, especially when you consider that much of this change will have to come from developing countries that are currently much more focused on improving the wretched lives of their citizens'. Yes, it does sound like a lot to ask.

Set against this hopelessly unrealistic target, and the further impoverishment of the developing world that would be required even to attempt to reach it, the `good news' bit - that `many of the technologies that we will need to curb greenhouse gases are already available or in the pipeline' - does not seem particularly reassuring.

All this might be less objectionable if the book's stated aim were not to pick through `the blizzard of information and misinformation about global warming, explaining each point in the most straightforward way possible'. For there is nothing `straightforward' about a target of two degrees Celsius; and while the EU has also adopted this target, it is a controversial one that could very well be based on some `misinformation'. For example, the economist Professor Richard Tol, highly regarded and widely cited in the climate change literature, has critiqued a two degrees Celsius target as being `supported by rather thin arguments, based on inadequate methods, sloppy reasoning, and selective citation from a very narrow set of studies'. In an examination of the literature supporting a two degrees Celsius target, he points out a number of problems with many studies, such as the lack of attention paid to mitigation costs and, most importantly, the failure to take account of the scope for adaptation especially with regard to risks such as malaria and water shortage.

Tol points out that `a number of "cost-benefit analyses" of greenhouse gas emission abatement have been published' and that the `technically sound amongst these studies (for example, Nordhaus, 1991; Peck and Teisberg, 1992; Maddison, 1995; Manne et al., 1995; Tol, 1997) argue that it is not in our collective best interest to stabilise concentrations - unless there happens to a cheap, large-scale, carbon-free energy source - let alone at the levels needed to meet the 2oC target.' Tol concludes, therefore, that even though the `growth of greenhouse emissions has to be slowed if not reversed', that `deep cuts in emissions will only be achieved if alternative energy technologies become available at reasonable prices'.

Tol is not an insignificant figure in the climate change debate, and nor are the other authors he cites, but nowhere do Walker and King deem it necessary to explain or discuss in any detail alternative positions to their own. Meanwhile Bjorn Lomborg, who has achieved widespread coverage for his argument that adaptation to the effects of climate change is generally a more sensible response to global warming, especially given the far greater opportunities that will inevitably become available to future generations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions more cheaply, doesn't even merit a mention in The Hot Topic - let alone any engagement with or rebuttal of his ideas.

For Walker and King to disagree with these perspectives is one thing, but to essentially ignore them is quite another. While they do devote five-and-a-half pages to the work and criticism of the economist Nicholas Stern and a superficial discussion of debates about whether `to pay now or pay later', they conclude that `there's little need to worry about how much climate change might cost us in the future, when its effects are already being felt today'. But weighing up the potential impacts of climate change against the scope for human adaptation and the costs of emissions reduction in the future is central to any reasoned response to climate change as opposed to chastising humanity for having an impact on the planet.

Ultimately Walker and King appear to regard their trump card as the threat of the Greenland Ice Sheet melting, which they state is expected to begin when temperatures increase to around 2.7oC. Though they accept this process would likely take many centuries, they point out that sea levels would eventually rise by seven metres - which is undoubtedly a significant amount. But is this argument the show-stopper they seem to regard it to be, necessitating expensive and drastic action to reduce carbon emissions now? Again, the authors seem to be shy of providing a full and accessible account of the current substantial gaps in our knowledge of climate change processes.

Take, for example, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reports the contribution of Greenland ice sheet melting to sea level rise between 1993 and 2003 to be 0.21 (+/- 0.07) millimetres per year and an Antarctic ice sheet contribution of 0.21 (+/- 0.35)mm - in other words, for Antarctica they don't currently know whether it is adding or subtracting to sea level rise. Projecting forward to 2100, the IPCC estimates a sea level rise by the end of the century of between 0.18 and 0.59 metres excluding future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow (see below) but including `a contribution due to increased ice flow from Greenland and Antarctica at the rates observed for 1993 to 2003'.

None of this provides a basis for alarm, as Walker and King are well aware. However, they point out that `the vulnerability of Greenland depends on aspects of its internal dynamics that are as yet uncertain' - namely whether rapid dynamical changes are likely to occur or not - and that `if these mechanisms cause Greenland to melt more quickly than we expect, sea level could rise by a matter of meters over the next century, which would cause grave danger for our civilisation'. This, they state, `is one of the most convincing reasons we have for the urgent need to curb climate change'.

What Walker and King do not draw their readers' attention to is the fact that the IPCC has excluded such factors from their projections `because a basis in published literature is lacking'. They state, with regard to the possibility of greater contributions to sea level rise from the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets: `Larger values cannot be excluded, but understanding of these effects is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.'

It would appear then, that a key plank of Walker and King's argument for their stringent emissions targets are processes so poorly understood that even the IPCC, whose projections involve large degrees of uncertainty more generally, was unwilling to include them in its future projections. Surely, a balanced account would explain this fact to the reader? Indeed, the more general difficulties and limitations of modelling climate change are not something that Walker and King enlighten their readers on much either.

So how, after all this, can the diligent reader hope to achieve a more balanced understanding of the global warming debate? Many books may pretend to give the whole story, but no single book can do it. For an antidote to the climate porn popularised by King, Gore and others, you could read Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It! (previously reviewed in the spiked review of books here), or turn to Aynsley J Kellow's recently-published Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science.

Kellow's key argument is that corruption in the name of a noble cause is facilitated by the virtual nature of much environmental science, which relies on mathematical and large-scale computer models. Using the two key examples of biodiversity and global warming, Kellow argues that environmental science is often not conducted with the same kinds of safeguards as surround other scientific research, such as medical research for example. His final chapter, which deals with science and its social and political context, looks at past examples of politicised science, notably Lysenkoism in Stalinist Russia, and the influence of ecological thought on the Nazis.

Kellow's key argument is that it is the indeterminacy of the science that permits political frames to become more prominent. This seems rather a forgiving way of looking at the problem we are witnessing with the climate change debate, where science is routinely misrepresented to suit instrumental ends. Nonetheless, in a debate where far too many questions are asked and alternative explanations given, those who hold the process up to scrutiny are far worthier of a close read than those who spend several hundred pages telling us what, in their view, `the science' tells us to do.


There is an appalling story here about how the British authorities have barred a conservative Israeli from visiting Britain -- while at the same time allowing into Britain a well-known Muslim preacher of hate and Jihad.

Amazing! British bureaucrats fall on their swords: "Most of the officials at the Financial Services Authority (FSA) who were directly responsible for the flawed supervision of Northern Rock have quit, The Times has learnt. Of the seven FSA supervisors working closely on the bank before its implosion last August, five have left, the FSA has admitted, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from this newspaper. The FSA, the body responsible for ensuring that UK banks have strong-enough balance sheets and sufficient liquidity, has come under fire for failing to spot the fatal flaw in Northern Rock's business model. The FSA is expected to admit to shortcomings in its supervision of the Rock in a report this month. Hector Sants, the chief executive, has already admitted to MPs that the FSA's performance was unacceptable and that there were failings. Northern Rock's extreme dependence on the wholesale money markets, rather than on depositors, for its funding proved a catastrophic weakness when the credit crunch hit last summer, leading to the first run on a British bank for more than a century."

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