What we won’t learn from the Shannon case

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You know, I can’t help feeling that some of the reaction to the Shannon Matthews case has been a little over the top. Don’t get me wrong, Karen Matthews is clearly a very bad woman who deserves what’s coming to her, but from the papers you would think she was Dennis Nilsen or something. Then again, maybe the public would have been more satisfied if there really had been a murderous psychopath on the loose. That’s what we’re conditioned to expect when a child goes missing. A simple kidnapping scam by an abusive parent feels a bit of a let-down.

There are of course other motivations here. The most obvious is that Karen Matthews, who is good enough to walk straight into an acting career when she’s served her time, played everyone for suckers. The police were conned into staging an enormous – and enormously costly – manhunt. The media relayed Karen’s pleas for her little angel to come home, and in the case of the Sun, were opportunistic enough to offer a £50,000 reward. No wonder these guys are spitting blood.

And now the axe-grinding comes in, and the attempt to shoehorn all sorts of agendas into the big news story. For David Cameron and the Daily Mail it’s another example of “Broken Britain”, although it’s hard to imagine a news story that the Mail couldn’t cite as an example of “Broken Britain”. And for New Labour it’s another opportunity to have a go at the “benefits culture”, as if being on benefits automatically destroys your moral fibre. This was the big theme of the Newsnight discussion, which illustrated not only Kirsty’s heroic ability to miss the point, but that she and her interlocutors seemed to think that Shameless was an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of working-class life.

And, following on from the backwash of the Baby P case, there is the demand that institutional heads must roll. Actually, I thought the best contributions on the news were from a couple of working-class women, friends of Karen Matthews, who insisted that it was Karen to blame – not the police, the social services or the council. And rightly so.

It’s very easy to pick on the social services, but worth remembering the constraints they work under. These are not only in a lack of funding and training, or stifling bureaucracy, but most importantly legal constraints. And those legal constraints are there for a very good reason. They’re there because the public demanded them twenty-odd years ago after a whole series of scandals, perhaps most notably the Orkney scandal. These typically involved over-enthusiastic social workers who were removing children from their families on scanty evidence, and dumping them in care homes where they also ran a serious risk of abuse.

The result is, as any social worker can tell you, that just about the only thing they can do on their own recognisance is to pay home visits – and even they have to be arranged ahead of time with the parents. If you want to do anything beyond that, you’re entering a legal minefield. Whether you act too soon or too late, you’re damned either way. It may be that the legal restraints should be re-examined, but they definitely shouldn’t be scrapped precipitately in response to screeching headlines.

In the end, while it’s easy to talk about the state failing vulnerable children, we can surely see the limits to what the state can do. I thought the most sensible contribution from a politician on the Baby P case was from Nicola Sturgeon, who said that government could provide the best possible safety net, but government could not stop bad people doing bad things.

We could also see the Matthews case as an example of how robust many working-class communities are, in spite of everything. The people of Dewsbury joined in the search and it was a tip from neighbours that found Shannon. Quite simply, in many cases like this, families and neighbours and communities can do things that the state can’t. So much for the sneering of Carole Malone or Melanie Phillips or Bea Campbell, who seem to think it’s the job of the state to forcibly civilise the great unwashed. Maybe they aren’t in all that much need of civilising?

More on this from Jamie.

The case for shrinking Stormont

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Whilst we’re waxing Ludwig von Mises, let me direct you once more to the estimable Newton Emerson, who eloquently makes the case for limited government. Let’s recall, as mentioned on these pages before, that the current Stormont Assembly has 108 representatives, where the old Stormont got by with a mere 52. (And the Scottish Parliament, more powerful and with a population three times the size, has only 129.) On top of that, you’ve got the first and deputy first ministers, ten departmental ministers and two junior ministers in the OFMDFM, plus each department being shadowed by an Assembly committee. Not to mention Assembly members double- or triple-jobbing as Westminster MPs or district councillors, with their wives and children on the payroll.

Newt approvingly cites the example of Sir Basil Brooke, prime minister of the North between 1943 and 1963, who got all his business at Stormont done on one morning per week before returning to his Fermanagh estate. Bearing in mind what our political class is like, that’s a pretty good record. And yet, the punditocracy (itself under threat of downsizing, as Newt points out) is grousing about the current Assembly’s two-day week, and demanding more political product. No, a thousand times no! Can you imagine the damage these bozos would do working a five-hour week?

Peter Robinson keeps talking about the need to reduce headcount in the public sector. Our elected representatives would be a good place to start.

The crisis leaves our leaders without a convenient paradigm

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Yes, yes, I should be doing more on the economic crisis. If I’ve been reticent, one very good reason is that I’m not an economist and, apart from generalities about the system, I don’t have any easy answers. It’s a little comforting, though, that nobody seems to have any easy answers. The political classes of the world appear to be navigating without a compass, having lost their framework but without acquiring an alternative one. You see this in the way that every government seems to have a completely different recipe for dealing with the crisis. The overwhelming impression is that they’re making it up as they go along.

The latest exemplar of this has been the big plan mooted by Barroso, at the behest of Brown and Sarko, for a massive EU-wide stimulus package. This lasted as long as it took Boss Merkel to say to Barroso, “No you don’t”, on the not unreasonable grounds that Brown and Sarko could come up with whatever plans they liked, but they needn’t expect the German taxpayer to foot the bill. Meanwhile, the Bush administration seems to be nationalising everything in sight, which will shock some leftist analysts but not those of us who always knew that the neoconservatives were never conservatives in the first place, least of all fiscal conservatives, but really big government liberals. Meanwhile again, the Chinese government has launched an enormous Keynesian stimulus plan, having obvious not got the memo about the death of Keynesianism. We’ll see in practice, I suppose, how this works out.

The cluelessness is evident across the spectrum. While Brown still claims to hove to Friedmanite orthodoxy, his big idea at the moment seems to be to encourage yet more consumer spending, while pump-priming the construction industry. I can’t see this working, for the very good reason that he’s recycling the essential elements of his voodoo economics over the last dozen years. And yet the Tories lack any credibility – a mere six months ago, Osborne was complaining about the onerous amount of regulation in the financial services industry, while Redwood argued that mortgage lenders shouldn’t be regulated at all. And to this day, Rankin’ Dave Cameron seems to believe that cutting interest rates alone will do the business. None of this is very convincing.

On the more prosaic level, we have Éamon Gilmore rowing back from his plan to thoroughly Blairise Irish Labour. Say what you like about the Sticks, they’re good at sniffing the wind.

It’s at times like this that I do enjoy going back to the Austrian economists, whose big beef – that most politicians are economic illiterates – is demonstrably true, and who do have an endearing tendency to say the unsayable. Their view is that the main cause of the crisis is cheap money, which is true, especially when you bear in mind that for the last few years the Fed has been printing dollars on an enormous scale – we don’t know how many, because Bernanke won’t say. These guys reckon the best thing for the economy would be a short, sharp recession, maybe lasting a year or so, where unsound businesses would be allowed to fail and a lot of the bad debt cleared out of the economy. Trouble is, a politician would need balls of steel to go down that road. The sharp and painful dislocations it would bring – especially in terms of unemployment – would look suicidal for anyone hoping to gain re-election.

On the other hand, the Austrians critique government attempts to provide a soft landing on the grounds that it will just prolong the downturn, especially as the underlying causes are not being addressed. There’s something to that, especially if you look at Gordon Brown’s attempt to reflate the housing bubble. I would actually argue the housing market is still grotesquely overvalued and needs to sink a lot further, but Gordon can’t say that. That would fall foul of the Brits’ attachment to the house price cargo cult, in lieu of an economy that makes stuff.

More and more I notice that the Old Right and the unreconstructed left do overlap, at least in terms of diagnosis. It’s when it comes to the cure, of course, that the divergence comes. I still believe that there is a serious role for intervention, and the main task should be to divert the economy away from the parasitic financial services sector and towards rebuilding a productive economy. That’s why the Germans have much stronger fundamentals.

This would be bad enough for the Brits. For an Irish economy that has close to zero industrial base, a massive overreliance on inward investment and a European Commission hellbent on destroying Irish agriculture… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Not to mention Robbo and Marty on yet another tour of the States, trying to drum up investment for the North. Lord, they do pick their moment.

Cowell’s festival of kitsch

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Maybe it’s just me, but I always get the feeling the late Nicolae Ceauşescu would have enjoyed X Factor. There’s something about it – the booming voiceover, the yelling audience, the names flashed up in lights, the overblown arrangements (including backing vocals!), the massive chunky desk the judges sit behind – that irresistibly brings to mind the sort of pachyderm bombast old-style Stalinist regimes used to go in for. And it’s all terribly, terribly kitsch, of course.

What X Factor has going for it is that there’s none of the ambiguity that’s plagued Strictly this year. Nobody really disputes that this isn’t a contest to find the best singer, it’s about finding money-spinning acts for Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh. And we know by now how the voting goes. It helps to have a sob story. It helps to have a regional voting bloc. A combination of the two is hard to beat. But, in the last analysis, it’s all about saleability. And the very democracy of X Factor does provide a rough guide to saleability.

So it was that, last Saturday, the Spanish girl with the bazongas went out while the wee lad from here, despite a weak performance, stayed in. There’s a nice symmetry to it. It means each of the four judges has one act in the final four. Had the wee lad from here gone out, Cowell would have been left with no act in the quarter-final, and as the owner of the show, that just wouldn’t do. Traditionally with X Factor, disgruntled viewers whose favourites have gone out mutter about rigged voting, but there’s never been firm evidence of it. Nor does there really need to be – if it’s all about saleability, these things tend to work themselves out.

You just have to look at who prospers in the final stages and ask yourself who’s going to download their single. I can imagine that the Spanish girl with the bazongas might sell a few calendars, but her speciality is the big shouty power ballad, and that’s probably not as big a niche as it used to be. I suspect the next casualty might be the blonde girl. Her quirky delivery might conceivably be appealing to the kind of people who like Kate Bush or Tori Amos, but those people aren’t likely to be looking for the next Kate or Tori on X Factor. What you’re left with, then, is the black girl, the boy band and the wee lad from here, all of whom are very marketable and could be presumed to be competent at whatever Cowell gives them to do.

Vance Packard might have got a lengthy essay out of this, but let’s be honest, we don’t watch it for the singing. I know every year I say it’s the worst yet, but Cowell does spoil us. It comes to something when easily the highlight is the guest performance by Hannah Montana.

Anyway, I do sense that the format is a good bit past its peak. For one thing, Cowell looks bored, as if he can’t wait to get back to American Idol. What’s perhaps more important is that, post-Will Young, he still hasn’t established a track record of breaking a performer with real stamina. There’s been no Kelly Clarkson coming out of X Factor, and there doesn’t seem likely to be. Getting the festive Number One is one thing, but it doesn’t compensate for a failure to follow that up.

I think one big problem is a basic lack of coolness. I don’t just mean in the sense that Paul Morley disapproves of it, I mean a sense of the whole event being a bit of a joke, and maybe this relates to the American public being a bit less cynical than the Brits. The Christmas Number One, let’s remember, is heavily based on sales to rugrats and grannies. The rugrat demographic is not to be scorned – viz. Hannah Montana – but are you going to appeal to the 17- or 18-year-olds? Because that’s where the gold is, and where you’re going to need to appeal for your act to get some momentum after January.

It’s a good job that I stopped caring about what was in the charts about 25 years ago, to the extent that I ever cared. Because if I was a music critic with aspirations to seriousness, I’d be as scornful as Paul Morley is. As it is, it’s nice to just contemplate the ridiculousness of the thing. And, actually, it’s a little bit comforting to know that it will all be exactly the same next year. I envision Cowell in a Zimmer thirty years from now, still judging bland boy bands with the same scripted put-downs, as much part of the seasonal furniture as Slade.

Ant and Dec, now, that’s something else. If there was a Celeb trial based around skinning and eating Ant and Dec, you might actually persuade me to watch…

Bread and slippers

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A wee contrast from last Friday. The West Belfast Economic Forum were launching their latest big idea for regenerating the area. And impressive it was too. In fact it was like Space 1999, only without Martin Landau being chased across the galaxy by a giant squid. The centrepiece was to be a massive gleaming space-age complex to be built on the slope of Divis Mountain. It could hardly have been more eyecatching had Norman Foster been involved.

A thoroughly impressive line-up of support, as well. Even the Orange Order had signed on. There was just one little snag to inject a note of bathos. These ideas, as it transpired, were just ideas and there was no money to back them up. Still, if you’re thinking of getting a slice of that £900m windfall from Gordon, it does no harm to get your ambitious plans in first.

On a more prosaic scale was the stall at the Dairy Farm whereat community workers were giving out free slippers to the over-50s. They were pretty good slippers too, not your cheapo slippers from Primark. What was the inspiration for this, the Lord only knows, but it was a welcome little boost for the older generation of Poleglass.

Now, I like to think of this as a heartwarming example of the Yuletide spirit. On the other hand, I’m sure some curmudgeonly cynics will detect a subtext in the form of “Here’s your free slippers, and don’t forget to vote Sinn Féin.” For shame!

Even if that were the case, a lot better people than Gerry have gone down the road of handing out goodies to the proletariat. Hugo Chávez does it. Vladimir Putin does it. In Pakistan (Mr 10% prop.) it’s quite the venerable tradition, and helps explain the devotion of the Sindhi poor to the magnates of the Bhutto family. And why not, say I. The working class should be out to get whatever it can out of this system, and a pair of slippers is better than a kick in the arse. And if it’s good enough for Poleglass, it’s good enough for the whole community.

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