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What are MP’s priorities? August 22, 2009

Posted by musingsofbilly in Point of view, Politics, U.K..
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In the U.K. at least (and I imagine most other countries too) members of parliament (MP’s) usually belong to a political party – there are very few independant MP’s (I believe that there was just one voted in at the last general election). Given that MP’s are elected to serve their constituents, I found myself wondering a few days ago just how MP’s would define their priorities. Don’t know why I started thinking about it now (no particular event in the news springs to mind), but it intrigues me. The following are just a few of my own thoughts.

For the sake of argument, here’s an incomplete list (in no particular order) of those things which an MP may have to prioritise:

  1. Personal beliefs and/or drives/motivations
  2. His/her constituents and constituency
  3. His/her political party
  4. His/her family
  5. And if this MP is called upon to be part of the government, then there would be small matter of the good of the country

Of these, I’m mainly most interested in points one, two and three (and five a little later on). I can’t really assume that these are independant – I would assume that personal beliefs (by which I mean that which drives you, your ideals, morals, etc) have a strong influence on what political party they join (though I’m sure that’s not the case more often than is good for politics – this seems to be a perfect illustration).

Now presumably (in an ideal world of course), the electorate in a particular area would decide on their MP according to their policies, and possibly also their ideals/motivations, which would be heavily influenced by the political party of which they are a member. The answer would then be that would be no conflict between MP policy and party policy, so the question of priorities wouldn’t arise at all. Unfortunately, that’s highly unlikely isn’t it? I may be overly damning of politics and politicians here, but it seems to be more the case that the electorate chooses their representative on the basis of public visibility and perceived popularity (personality based that is). I’m getting slightly off track here, but the point is that if politicians are chosen in such a manner, then that would surely make it more difficult to assess where their priorities would lie, particularly the relationship between points 1, 2 and 3 in my little list above.

Consider a very simplistic scenario where the official party policy is to construct a housing development in a particular part of an MP’s constituency which is considered by many to a pleasant green space (while not exactly a place of outstanding natural beauty). In the regional scheme of things, this may be a perfectly reasonable and even necessary suggestion, but what should the MP do in this scenarion. His/her duty to represent their constituents views (which would more likely than not vociferously opposed to the development) would conflict with the party line. This situation would be even more acute if the party concerned were also the government, and the MP concerned formed part of the cabinet. Balancing the good of the country as a whole with personal views on use of green space, with opposition from your constituents – where would the priorities be? This example is probably too simplistic, and falls apart a little easily (when one takes into account the role of local coucils in planning application issues for example). I’m sure that there are more subtle and realistic scenarios than this one, but I hope that it demonstrates what I see as a complex system of balancing priorities.

I wonder how MP’s see this issue, whether it actually forms a question of importance for them, and what (if pressed on the matter) order they would place their occasionally conflicting priorities.

My respect for parliamentary debate July 7, 2009

Posted by musingsofbilly in Point of view, Politics, U.K..
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Yesterday evening, I was watching a debate in the House of Commons on an amendment to the bill on ID cards. The details of the proposed amendment, and the debate which was held, are unimportant to this piece, but it was proposed by the Conservatives, and from what I gathered, had the broad support of the Liberal Democrats too. I can’t say that I’m a regular or avid watcher of live debates, but there was one thing in particular which struck me immediately: which involved aspects which both increased and decreased my respect for parliamentary debate and process.

 It was the manner of debate. Watching only prime ministers questions (and occasionally also Scottish first ministers questions for some reason unknown to even me), you become very quickly accustomed to the hostile manner of the arguments which storm back and forth across the front benches. It’s not what I would call debate, there are no points actually discussed (by any party, even if that is what they profess to be doing), and it seems to me boil down a quick-fire quote and anti-quote session, with the usual aim of undermining the opponent and his/her party). Success or otherwise in these events is then determined by political commentators based on personal appearance and nimbleness of word rather than anything important for the country (or issue at hand) – much as I guess a comedian would be reviewed in a local paper. No, what struck me about the debate this evening was that it seemed to actually be a debate. Points made by back-benchers of all parties (with the notable exception of the SNP MP who seemed unnecessarily combative) were made with clarity, and actually addressed the issues underlying the debate at hand. Disagreements between individuals (either between those of the same or of different parties) were probed and expounded in a non-hostile way which fostered a discussion of actual issues rather than a descent into mud-slinging contests. MP’s were acting as intelligent individuals, rather than the mouthy yobs they seem to currently be portrayed as. I was impressed, simply because I had forgotten that this was the process that is responsible for so much good, and which is now all too often hidden from general view (I suspect because it is too mundane for the sensationalist news reporting culture we seem to live in).

 So all’s well and good. But then, the front-benches came into the fray to put their respective party positions forward, and to sum up the arguments presented, pro and con the proposed amendment. And it descended back into the somewhat farcical (by comparison anyway) verbal battle we are usually presented with. The contrast in tone to the debate was immediate and stark. It struck me that it seems as though to get onto the front bench, you have to be able to suspend the intelligent debating skills you must have demonstrated as a back-bencher to get there. It became a case of trying to undermine the opponent by trying to find inconsistency in wording or possible differences of opinion with colleagues rather than a structured debate of the problem at hand. As I said, it was a stark contrast with the debate proper which preceded it.

 I was also struck by the numbers of MP’s present. During the debate itself, there were maybe a dozen MP’s present in the chamber at any one time (a few entered or left during proceedings). However, when it came to the vote, the house was packed. Now I understand perfectly that it isn’t possible to have every MP present at every debate as there are numerous select committees, meetings and (heaven forbid!) constituents to attend to. However, I would have expected a few more MP’s to actually attend the debate. If it’s important enough to vote on, then surely having some knowledge of the arguments resented would be beneficial. Of course, the party line as enforced by the whips usually tell MP’s how to vote along party lines – but that to me begs the question: if the main parties take a particular stance and whip their members into towing the party line in the vote (as decided by the leadership), then what is the point in having a debate in the first place? Don’t debates then only really have a place on those few issues where a free vote is allowed?

 This is another gripe I have with the parliamentary politics, but that is another story for another time…

Anonymous blogging – but now not guaranteed June 18, 2009

Posted by musingsofbilly in In the news, Personal belief.
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I’m an anonymous blogger. As such, I thought it appropriate to comment briefly on the recent case of the police officer who blogged anonymously on his experiences in the force and who recently failed in his court attempt to keep his identity from being revealed by a newspaper journalist.

I’ve got to make it clear that I’m in no way a similar position – I’m not a public servant, I’m not discussing stories of actual importance ‘from the inside’ as it were, my views are not particularly extreme in any manner or thought (that I am aware of anyway), and I certainly can’t claim to have the huge following that this gentleman has (or possibly had).

The consequences of the verdict however mean (in my non-expert opinion anyway) that in any case where someone (most likely a journalist) decides for whatever reason that something published anonymously by a blogger on the internet may be in the ‘public interest’ (whatever that means – probably just ‘whatever takes a journalists fancy’), then the anonymity of that blogger is not protected.

Given that the terms ‘public interest’ could be described, argued for, or demonstrated as being virtually anything by anybody with half an imagination, this doesn’t imply much protection for anonymity does it?

In cases where criminal activity is being conducted, then anonymity I don’t believe should be able to be used as a mask, but I do believe that in general, like that human right ‘right to privacy’, right to anonymity should be the default position, which ‘public interest’ should not easily dislodge.

Of course, every case should be considered on its individual merits. In this case, I don’t know whether personal or specific case details were revealed on the blog, or whether there was a case of the blog interfering with the officer in questions’ professional duty. Maybe. But I guess not – and I suspect (on the basis of little evidence) that this is a case of a journalist having a over-inflated sense of self-importance (and there seems to be a lot of that floating around…) going off on one.

A bit of follow-up. The beeb has compiled few bloggers views on the ruling, which (if you trust the beebs attempts at neutrality and objectivity) indicates widespread discontent, and worry at the implications – can be found here. Also, there’s a piece written by the journalist in question, in which he attempts to justify why he did it, and how he did it. To my mind, he raises some interesting points concerning a possible interference of the blog with procedures of justice – which is obviously (to me at least) of worry. However, his argument is fairly poorly constructed, and seems to be more interested in revealing how he found the name behind the anonymous blog – and to be honest, it didn’t really seem to require the greatest of investigative minds…

Overbearing nannies, or just common sense? June 18, 2009

Posted by musingsofbilly in Health, Personal belief, Point of view, Politics.
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In the latest installment of the BBC’s health column “Scrubbing Up”, the new president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Terence Stephenson, proposes that smoking be banned in all cars where children are also present. He bases this view on a few scientific studies, and provides examples of places where this policy has already been implemented with success (e.g. California and Cyprus).

There is however another thread to his article, one which I think is more important to consider (on the basis that I personally view his proposal on smoking to be something which ought to have been done, or at least actively encouraged, long ago…). That is his (albeit brief) discussion on the trade-offs between explicit control by the authorities to alter peoples behaviours (the nanny state) and an obligation on the governments part to protect its citizens (thus particularly emphasising health and safety – which are those tenets central to the nanny state idea).

Whichever position the government decide to take (be it explicitly or otherwise), there will be justified critics – because it’s a matter of personal opinion, perspective. I imagine that most would see the best way of dealing with things to be a balance between the two, depending on the circumstances. For example, as Prof. Stephenson points out, cases involving children are more readily accepted as situations where legislation is required.

In other situations however, even on a health-related issue, there is a great deal more reluctance for such prescription from a government. Take the smoking ban in pubs and clubs, its implementation, and the what may be described as high-spirited debate which occured around it. Those on both sides of the argument had perfectly valid points: points which were completely opposed. In this case, whatever the decision taken would be hailed by one side as common sense, and the other as either nanny state style imposition, or neglect through inaction.

My point here is basically that any legislation from the government may be interpreted as being interfering some, but merely common sense by others – and the lack of legislation will be seen as neglectful by still others. My view is that these views can never be completely reconciled, but that a Labour government would be more prone to these accusations than a Conservative one, even if this may not actually be the case (reputations and stereotypes being strange beasts). At the end of the day, a decision on a subject such as this is better than hesitation, and the manner of implementation (the details of the legislation, such as how it will be policed) arguably even more important.

My personal view on the smoking matter is it probably is a good idea to ban smoking in cars with children in them. Not just for the childrens sake, but also for the sake of the drivers attention: if mobile phone use is banned for being a physical distraction, then surely smoking should too. More generally, I feel that the smoking ban in public places is justified, for the following reasons. Taking as a given that second-hand smoke is not good for your health, I don’t see why other people should be subjected to it in a public place. Private clubs is for me a completely separate matter, and should have been excluded. For those who say that drinking should then also be banned in public places, since people who are drunk cause greater damage and harm to others, I would point out that those who do cause harm are prosecuted (well, ideally anyway), whereas those who smoke are not penalised in this way since the damage caused to those in their vicinity (often through no fault of their own) cannot be quantified in the short-term. Where drinking in public causes only immediate damage to the individual doing the drinking, for smoking, there is no such inherent confinement to the individual. Having said that, I view smoking to be a choice for the individual – where that choice doesn’t interfere with that of others.

The first effort of the new poet laureate June 15, 2009

Posted by musingsofbilly in In the news, Politics, U.K..
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The post of poet laureate as a formal post of royal issue has a long history. An outline of the role and history may be found here. Carol Ann Duffy is the latest incumbent, having been appointed in May of this year. On Saturday, she published her first poem penned in this role, which is published in the Guardian.

As a short excerpt, here’s the final sentence:

How it says this – politics – to your education education education; shouts this – Politics! – to your health and wealth; how it roars, to your conscience moral compass truth, POLITICS POLITICS POLITICS.

Being a non-poet, I’ve not paid any attention to the line breaks, as their specific placements don’t mean anything to me, but anyways… As a critical reflection on politics, it’s a striking first publication. Seeing as the appointment for the post is made by the Queen on advice of the Prime Minister, the choice of words in this last sentance in using the notorious utterances of PMs Blair and Brown to criticise rather than praise is indicative of a feeling of dissapointment (and even anger) with politics in general, and those at the top in particular.

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