Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday 31 December 2011

In which I disagree with Ewan Hoyle on alcohol pricing

My friend Ewan Hoyle has posted a piece on Lib Dem Voice arguing that Cameron's minimum alcohol pricing idea could be the government's first evidence based drugs policy.

His basic thesis is summed up in the final part:

Once we demonstrate that the harms caused by legal drugs can be effectively diminished through evidence-based policy, we can then take the fight to the criminals and terrorists of Big Illegal Drugs. It is a fact the government urgently needs to confront that we can only ever win the “War on Drugs” if they are legal. Only then can the policies of government have a significant moderating impact upon the market.

Ewan has done fantastic work within and without the party pushing the case for liberalisation of our drugs laws in his role as head of LDDPR but in this case I am afraid I disagree with him.

I should first point out that his argument is the best stab I have seen at defending Cameron's idea and a good attempt to look at the potential positive side. Unfortunately from my point of view it overlooks too many of the negatives and there are too many hopeful assumptions about what may need to happen to underpin the policy.

Numerous commenters below his piece have taken issue with his approach, although to be fair there are some supporters too. The objections range from it being an "illiberal" policy (Mill is even rolled out to back this up at one point of course!) through to it not being likely to work and that the evidence is not there.

Whether something is "illiberal" or not is always the source of much contention in any debate like this and there often seem to be nuanced arguments on both sides so I will leave that to one side for now. However I want to briefly tackle whether the policy is likely to increase or decrease harm. In order to do that I am going to reference what us drug policy reform campaigners love to do, the period of prohibition in the USA during the 1920s.

One of the strongest arguments in my view for legalising drugs is that when alcohol was banned we saw a massive increase in crime and harms associated with alcohol consumption. The inherent harms that alcohol consumption can lead to were hugely exacerbated by its very illegality. It encouraged people to distill their own spirits or buy them on the black market or at "speakeasys". The illegal liquor was often of variable and unpredictable strength and sometimes mixed with all sorts of other substances to increase the effect more cheaply. Many people died or suffered horrendous effects such as blindness during this period as a direct result of the legal change. Indeed within a few short years the Americans reversed the policy, so disastrous had it been.

Now I understand that Ewan is not advocating banning alcohol but instead imposing a minimum price. But given that as he rightly points out alcohol can be available for as cheaply as 12p per unit, moving to a situation where the cheapest alcohol is instead quadruple that price or higher is very likely (I would argue inevitably) going to lead to a large increase in the amount of home-made and illegally manufactured spirits. And I would be very surprised if in turn this did not lead to wider harm with the sort of effects that were seen during prohibition in the USA.

Whenever I have been arguing about drug legalisation with someone and they try to argue that there would still be an illegal market in drugs even if they were legalised (look at cigarettes and booze they say) I always respond that the illegal tobacco and alcohol markets are very small in comparison to the legal variants. And I am right about that, the evidence backs me to the hilt. I then counter by suggesting that were drugs legalised we would need to make sure that the scope for a remaining illegal market was vastly reduced by ensuring we made the illegal variants highly unattractive through  ensuring taxation was set at the right level.

So if we erode that argument by increasing the size of the illegal alcohol market then we could end up doing the exact opposite of what Ewan intends by giving succour to those who argue substantial illegal markets would remain so "what's the point".

In my view alcohol pricing should remain roughly where it is now. I do not see the case for a big increase being made convincingly enough without account being taken of the potentially major downsides.

However where I do very strongly agree with Ewan is where he calls for "effective investment in outreach and treatment services" in order that for vulnerable people such as impoverished alcoholics "life doesn’t suddenly become an intolerable struggle.". There is no reason why we can't have a big push for investment in that area.

We don't need a minimum price for alcohol in order for that to happen though. It should be happening anyway.

Friday 30 December 2011

How did I do on my 2011 predictions?

The short answer is it's a mixed bag.

The longer answer:

  1. Labour will win the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election but the Lib Dems will be a close second.
    • CORRECT. They did indeed win and Lib Dems did indeed come a fairly close second. Certainly by the standards of later by-elections!
  2. All 3 main party leaders (Cameron, Clegg and Miliband_E) will still be in post by the end of the year.
  3. The AV referendum will be (narrowly) won.
    • WRONG. I could not have been more wrong really. We were trounced 68% to 32%. Polls in the months before really did make it look like it would be close but in the end it was not to be.
  4. Sarah Palin will do something that will effectively end her chances of being a serious candidate for the 2012 US presidential election.
    • CORRECT. Although there are various things she has done I think the "cross hairs" thing and the "Blood libel" comment in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting torpedoed her chances within a couple of weeks of me making the prediction. This Guardian article here from back in January pretty much sums it up.
  5. A Lib Dem MP will resign the party whip to either sit as an independent or join another party.
    • WRONG. Not even close. In fact despite lots of problems it looks like the coalition is determined to hold together without this sort of upset.
  6. England will win the Rugby World Cup.
    • WRONG. They deservedly got knocked out in the quarter-finals.
  7. For the third year running I predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of BBC Question Time.
    • WRONG AGAIN! I think I might stop predicting this now although it's become a tradition and I might not be able to resist...
  8. Liam Fox will no longer be a cabinet minister by the end of the year.
    • CORRECTAMUNDO! I am extremely pleased with my predictive skills here! He is the only cabinet minister from the start of the year who was not in post by the end. And when I predicted it it was far from likely he would go. Indeed the bookies had him way down the list of likely casualties. To be fair I could not have predicted the nature of his downfall but the reason I chose him is because he has always seemed a little bit too hubristic and I just felt somewhere down the line this would trip him up as indeed it proved.
  9. Including Old and Sad there will be 3 by-elections during the year.
  10. A petition signed by more than 100,000 people will trigger a debate in parliament about legalising cannabis.
    • WRONG. There have been several debates in parliament triggered by the new e-petitions site but cannabis legalisation was not one of them. Probably a bit of wishful thinking on my part there!
So 4/10 but the Liam Fox one somewhat redeems me I feel.

2012 predictions coming soon...

Wednesday 21 December 2011

How much does geographical accident influence politics?

I have been wondering for a while how much of a role geographical accident plays in politics.

When I first decided to get involved with politics a few years back I chose the Liberal Democrats because they were the party that most closely matched my views. In my local area the party did not have any council seats but there are a small group of very dedicated and experienced local members and campaigners who have fought a number of local and national elections with alacrity since I joined.

The situation though has got me thinking about how political careers are nurtured and developed. Through my blogging and tweeting I have got to know a lot of activists from across the country from lots of different parties. Some of them have gone from being activists to councillors and in a few cases MPs or MEPs. Some of those councillors will doubtless use that valuable experience as a springboard to further political ambitions later.

For my part I fought a council by-election here in Sandhurst in 2010 and despite putting lots of effort into it I lost very heavily to the Conservatives (I blogged about my experiences here). In this area they are very strong. I have no complaints however, they fought very well and won fair and square. I also stood in the local election this year and again lost heavily.

Realistically it would be very difficult for me to win a council seat here. That's not to say impossible of course, with enough time and dedication this party has proved repeatedly that even the most difficult of areas can be cracked. But at the moment I do not have the amount of time available that would take in this area.

But if I happened to live in an area where my party was a lot stronger, by now I may already have been elected and be getting good political experience under my belt representing people and helping to improve their lives.

One day I may have more time to be able to devote to this, but for now, where I live it is unlikely to happen. It makes me wonder how many other people like me would like to get involved in representative politics but because of geographical accident and their political persuasion (e.g. Conservatives in parts of the north, Labour in parts of the South West) it is unlikely to happen.

This post was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

Monday 19 December 2011

Ricky's too short. On ideas.

I have followed the career of Ricky Gervais since the late 1990s with great interest.

I first recall seeing him playing an obnoxious character on Channel 4's 11 O'Clock Show where he seemed to be deliberately trying to offend as many people as possible. Not long after this there was an attempt at a parody of a chat show called Meet Ricky Gervais which is now largely forgotten but I thought at the time was a brave attempt to extend the "obnoxious persona" into the field of chat. Not least because again he retained his actual name rather than making it clear he was playing a character like Alan Partridge or Mrs Merton who were clear antecedents.

I probably don't need to go into detail about Gervais's most famous creation The Office which followed soon after and which in my view is one of the greatest sitcoms of the last 20 years. He also produced another hit sitcom, Extras which although not achieving the same level of accolades as its predecessor was nonetheless very good and ensured he would not just be remembered as a one-trick sitcom pony.

So I had high hopes for his latest sitcom creation Life's Too Short starring Warwick Davis. It is supposedly a fly on the wall documentary about "the life of a showbiz dwarf". Sadly it has not lived up to my expectations.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the underlying concept. I imagine that done well this could have been a good way of highlighting the sort of prejudice that people with disabilities can encounter. The problem is it has not been done well.

The character of "Warwick Davis" played by Warwick Davis is clearly a caricature. He is vain, self-serving, grasping and regularly gets himself into traps of his own making where he ends up embarrassed and looking stupid. Does this remind you of anyone. That could have been a  verbatim description of the character of David Brent from The Office. Even some of the mannerisms and asides that Davis employs are textbook Brent. It's almost as if he has studied Gervais's previous creation and used it as a basis for his performance here.

So we've seen it all before. Which means that many of the scenes are groaningly predictable. Davis goes on a date arranged through an agency and feels that he has been misled by the picture of his date not making it clear she is also a dwarf. Perhaps this is supposed to be ironic but it is almost identical to a scene from the final Christmas special of The Office where Brent goes on a date with a woman he has met through the internet and also feels he has been misled about her looks. Davis muscles into an interview with the head of an activist organisation he is involved with and says a load of politically incorrect stuff which, surprise, surprise ends up being edited out of the broadcast interview. Davis offers to make a speech at the wedding of someone who has hired him because he and his wife are sci-fi fans (Davis has starred in a number of such films) and he makes an idiot of himself by making a terrible and insulting speech. Etc. etc. etc.

Life's Too Short is not just derivative of the Brent character, it also purloins what was probably the best character from Extras. In that sitcom Stephen Merchant (Gervais's writing partner) played Darren Lamb, Andy Millman's (the main character's) agent. He was completely clueless and regularly made comments that made it clear he didn't know what he was doing. Merchant's performance was superb; he managed to find just the right balance between likability as a wide eyed ingenue but also doing enough to screw up Millman's career at every turn. Davis's character in LTS has an accountant (Eric Biddle) who is clearly based on the Lamb character, useless at his job, having landed Davis with a massive tax bill through his errors but has none of the charm of the Merchant performance. And Davis even goes on to use Biddle as his solicitor in his divorce even though he is terrible and is not even legally qualified. I know it's only a sitcom but the universe for these things need to be a bit believable.

But what's worse is that the whole thing seems to be exploiting Davis and those with dwarfism more generally. The scenes where Johnny Depp has Davis dancing along to a flute while he shouts at him and separately standing in a toilet, all the while Depp appearing to be bizarrely excited by his height are difficult to view as anything other than distasteful, however many layers of irony we are supposed to be filtering it through. And the scene where he gets locked in a bathroom whilst house viewing because he can't reach the handle and ends up throwing his shoes at the window followed by falling off the toilet when his assistant comes to rescue him are in a similar vein. I expect we were supposed to be laughing at the thoughtlessness of those who locked him in but whichever way you look at it it ends up being "dwarf falls off toilet".

There are flickers and glimmers of what this programme could have been. Gervais and Merchant actually appear in multiple episodes as "themselves" (i.e. parodies of themselves trying to get Davis out of their office as quickly as possible and clearly finding him tiresome). In one of these scenes in "Gervais's" "office" Liam Neeson walks in unannounced and demands to be trained in improvised comedy but has some preconceived ideas about how this should work which as a dynamic worked very well and there was a payoff line at the end of the scene that had me laughing for several minutes. Another scene which starts off in a rather embarrassing way with Davis trying to get out of giving a child with a tumour a free signed book ends amusingly with his prediction of "everyone is going to be saying that" coming true immediately. But there are far too many misses for these little moments to make up for it.

Gervais clearly has lots of talent as The Office, Extras and his sell-out tours as well as his widely admired radio work shows but overall it is a disappointing effort from him this time round. I wonder if he now needs to move outside his sitcom comfort zone of deliberately un-PC fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries as he essentially now just repeating himself for rapidly diminishing returns.

This post was first published on Dale & Co.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Aidan Burley should not have been fired

I realise this is unlikely to be a popular blog post but yet again I find myself compelled to stick up for a politician who has done something highly inadvisable in their private life and who has paid for it with their political career.

Aidan Burley, the Conservative MP for Cannock Chase has been fired by David Cameron as a PPS to Justine Greening because he attended a stag do where some guests were wearing SS uniforms and during which there was a toast to "the ideology and thought processes of the Third Reich". The story broke last week but he seemed to be weathering the storm claiming he was merely an attendee and should have left when he realised what was happening but in the last day or so it became apparent that he had hired one of the SS suits, hence he had clearly been deemed part of the organisation of the event and therefore fired.

Now I fully appreciate that some people will have been offended by what he did. The problem from my perspective is that the reporting of the event and the subsequent sacking take no account of nuance and the highly likely fact that the participants were doing this in a totally misguided attempt at irony. I do not believe that any of them actually do agree with the thought processes and ideology of the Nazis. If evidence emerged that Burley actually did hold these beliefs then it would be a different matter. Instead he went on a stag do where a few people wore distasteful fancy dress costumes and made a few comments almost certainly for shock effect in an attempt at humour. And for that he has now likely paid with his political career.

The reporting by the Mail on Sunday today also tries to show a pattern of behaviour by Burley. They have gone through his history as a student and dredged up the fact that he was kicked out of halls of residence because of an "undisclosed incident" involving a female and a dance floor, that he once stole a sign from outside a dentist's surgery and that he once dressed up as Timmy Mallett and was pictured licking a woman's face.

I've no idea what the "undisclosed incident" was, but until it is substantiated in some way it is frankly immaterial. Stealing a sign from outside a dentist's is stupid of course but how many graduates have done similarly stupid things involving traffic cones etc. when they were students? As for the Timmy Mallett thing, that is where the MoS's agenda becomes crystal clear. They had him on the ropes because of the stag do so they are just pouring as much shit over his head as they possibly can to try and smear him to the point where his position becomes untenable. And they seem to have succeeded. If it had not been for the main story, these other elements would never have been deemed newsworthy as of course they aren't.

Burley did a very stupid thing. He should have known that attending a party like that could easily come back to bite him. His apologies should really have been enough though. I am sure he will not do anything like that again. But to have to pay for it with his career seems disproportionately harsh.

Sadly it is par for the course. We've seen time and again how any transgression can be fatal for political careers. And then we wonder why we so often end up with automatons as MPs who struggle to relate to ordinary people and often seem to have had a sense of humour bypass.

Saturday 17 December 2011

The logical endpoint of drugs policy

The government has signalled it is to ban all forms of skydiving in the wake of more than a dozen deaths in the UK linked to the activity in recent years.

"It is a dangerous thing to do and we need to send a message to people that is is not acceptable." a government spokesperson said. "There is no such thing as a safe way to skydive and we need to protect our children and communities from its potentially deadly effects".

Ministers have asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Sports to review the category that skydiving is placed in in order to determine the appropriate penalties for people found indulging in the activity including mandatory prison sentences for anyone caught supplying parachutes.

A senior placed source also indicated that they were looking into potentially banning other sports where people have died in recent years including bungee-jumping, horse-riding and table-tennis.