Urgent note regarding the election

I am writing this note at home on another Friday night that has been ruined by mountains of work, the same work that has led me to view the election through fleeting glimpses of the paper in the morning or short excerpts of speeches on the radio. And yet, my friends, instead of resting my weary head I have decided to use what little mental function I have left at this hour to implore all of you who have a vote, not to use it for Nick Clegg.

I’m not referring to the Lib Dems, most of whom like Chris Huhne, David Laws, Mark Oaten, Ming Campbell etc are basically Tories anyway (although they do have a couple of batty policies). I am talking about the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam. I am shocked and saddened at having to even discuss this vapid and silly man, but it’s clear from my news feed that some of you are seriously considering voting for him.

He represents the worst possible aspects of our political system, a cheap knock off of Blair with the same faux sincerity and hammy delivery. Tony only resigned three years ago, are our memories that short? Didn’t you get the vague sense during the debate that you’d seen those exaggerated hand movements before, those sentences completely devoid of content?

It’s the utterly shame faced nature of the man I can’t stand. I expect cynicism from politicians, it’s a dirty game, but to do it with such pained expressions of deep principle makes me feel quite ill. He’s the leader of the oldest political party in this country’s history, the ultimate machine politician bred in an underground lair in Brussels, posing as an outsider. He‘s the leader of a party that actually gave its MPs lessons on how to milk the expenses system to the fullest extent of the rules, who then lectures the others on probity.

I think the saga of the Lisbon Treaty sums the man up. Nick Clegg is a Europhile, which is an entirely respectable position (although one I strongly disagree with). But Mr Clegg had a problem; he had inherited a party which had promised a referendum on the European Constitution/Lisbon Treaty. Labour had too, but under pressure from their European partners, ditched their promise. It was shabby and dishonest but at least they looked pretty ashamed of themselves while they were doing it and had the excuse of actually being the government with a need to work with our neighbours.

Clegg chose a different route, he ordered his MPs to abstain from the vote on a referendum, effectively threatening them with expulsion from the party for keeping an election promise. The MPs did abstain, swinging the vote, there was no referendum, and the treaty was ratified.

If that were all, it would bad enough, but his rationale that the ‘real debate’ was about an ‘in or out’ referendum on EU membership left me flabbergasted. Here was a man patently ramming through something he wanted, trying to dress it up as high principle. None of the main parties advocate leaving the EU and that certainly wasn’t the issue of the day, the matter was clearly whether Britain should agree to a treaty strengthening the EU. And then, when the Lib Dems weren’t allowed to debate their amendment for an ‘in or out’ referendum, something no one else in the house was interested in, they started heckling the speaker with spurious point of order before one was kicked out and the rest followed.

Either Mr Clegg is one of the most cynical political operators of our age, or has the same sense of self righteous delusion that would make him the true heir to Blair, I desperately don’t want him to join a government and for us to find out.

And what will it do to our political system? What message does it send to our political masters when a man, looking, as one commentator put it like Peter Jones from the Dragon’s Den with a dodgy tie, can spend one evening on TV spouting platitudinous drivel, making totally baseless claims about being some kind of radical, ends up with higher approval ratings than Churchill (as one poll found)? If politicians gave us any credit in the past they certainly won’t now. Have we really sunk that low?
So do go out on May the 6th, vote Conservative, vote Labour, vote Respect, or UKIP, or if you are one of those weird breed of Lib Dem supporters, indulge in your fetish, but please for the sake of retaining what little dignity our frail polity has, don’t vote for Clegg.


So, my first week of blogging, and I averaged 60 views a day. I’ve no idea whether that is good or bad, but it certainly has been exciting. From Saturday I’ll be out of the country for a few weeks so the pace of posts may slow down, but stay tuned (is that an appropriate phrase for the online age?), because come September I should be back bursting with new ideas to satisfy your curiosity.

I’m extremely grateful for all the messages of support and advice over the last week and would encourage you to spread the word to any one you know who may be interested in reading my offerings.

Until then, have a good August.

‘Customers of the Wold Unite!’ – The Moral and Economic case against tipping

As I reflect on my time in New York, there is one aspect that burns in my psyche. A deep flaw ingrained in US society that must be expunged. I am talking, of course, about tipping. And, as it is only through consciousness that we can hope to break down the old order, I have decided to expose the myths that underpin this iniquitous practice.

Myth 1

It improves service. This is particularly false with something like a taxi where the relationship is one time. In a taxi the tip is given after the service has been rendered and so can’t possibly affect the quality of it. I’ll accept that in other areas where there is an ongoing relationship like a bar or restaurant this does not apply. But what the tip has turned into in these establishments is a bribe to get any service at all. Try getting a second beer in a NY bar where you didn’t tip the first time and you’ll realise there is nothing discretionary about it. And no one has yet told me why service in a select few industries needs to be separately rewarded. You wouldn’t think to give extra money at a shoe shop even if the man or woman had spent half an hour helping you find the perfect kicks. Surely timely efficient and polite service is part of the product you expect in a taxi or restaurant and not an extra? They are part of the same good, you can’t consume one (i.e. restaurant food) without the other (i.e. a waiter). They shouldn’t be thought of or paid for separately.

Myth 2

They need it. This strictly is not a myth, as it is a well established fact that taxi drivers and waiters get paid next to nothing in wages. However it is a myth on a systematic level. Most countries in continental Europe do not have tipping cultures for the simple reason that people in the service industry get paid a decent wage. Also to put it bluntly it really isn’t my problem that they don’t paid decently, if businesses want to subsidise their wage bill through social pressure on their customers, that is an issue between the staff and the managers. Before you accuse me of callousness I should say that I do tip for this very reason, although I deeply resent doing so.

I am suggesting a switch to the European system where all employees get a decent wage. What I find particularly grating is the faux concern for the working man that tipping symbolises for New York “liberals”. It is as if they can forget about all the inequality and poverty in the city if they subsidize the pay packet of the tiny proportion of workers they actually have to socially interact with.

Myth 3

It is efficient. I had friends working in down market bars making $150 -$250 a night in tips for what is a low skilled job. The effect of this, as it is in all markets that fail to clear, is queuing. There are more people willing to work in bars than bar spaces available. In a normal market the wage would fall (and thus the price of the product) until the market cleared. But because these are tips and not wages the system is stuck. I know this seems to contradict what I said earlier, but there must be a happy medium between poverty and $40 an hour. Where the staff are paid decently and customers are not ripped off.

Myth 4

It is fair. This is purely anecdotal but it seems that most people have a set level of tip they leave (give or take a few percentage points) regardless of the quality of service. So for most waiters the amount of money they go home with has little to do with how hard they worked and everything to do with how innately generous the customer they happened to get was.

Myth 5

It is a pleasant way for customers to treat servers. The phoniness of any pleasant interaction between customer and server is exposed as soon as you break the rules on tipping. When I first arrived in the city and had yet to be broken by the system, I experienced waiters and taxi drivers demand higher tips, again undermining the pretence that it is discretionary (both taxis and restaurants now automatically calculate what 18% and 25% of the bill would be, just so there is no excuse). I for one find it extremely rude. “I’m sorry, was there a problem with the service?” said a waitress once in about the least sorry tone imaginable. Surely the only possible response would have been “Now there is”? Unfortunately my American fellow diners, liberal hypocrites to a man, horrified by their failure of duty to the proletariat quickly handed over a small pile of green backs. It was nothing less than a shake down.

Second tipping is just not something I want to think about at the end of the meal, having to asses the quality of the service, work out the percentages, and go through the guilt. I would far rather pay a higher price directly and let the restaurant work it out.

Third, and probably worst of all, is how patronizing it is. Paying a person and agreed price for a service is an honest transaction between equals, but when a server has to modify their behaviour to try and secure extra money, the power in the relationship becomes very clear. It is embarrassing as a young student gifting money to people old enough to be one’s parents.

The solution is as simple as it is impractical: ‘customers of the world unite’, we need a total strike against gratuities. It’ll be difficult for servers at first but eventually businesses will have to pay their employees fairly. And we will all move into a utopia free from embarrassment, pressure and unfairness. It may seem unlikely now, but every great revolution starts with a simple dream.

Obama’s poor oratory is bad for democracy

As parliament heads for its summer recess and political commentary enters its silly season, I thought I would cast my eye across the Atlantic (where I was living until this June) for some live political game. I wanted to avoid writing this particular post as I am aware it’ll be a great act of political heresy, but given the imminent arrival of the Democratic Candidate for President of the United States on these shores, I feel compelled. Compelled to break the last taboo in an age where there supposedly are none. So here goes: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is an average speechmaker, and when it comes to debating or Q&A I’d reduce his grade to ‘poor’.

The second point is less contentious, Obama failed to outdebate the decidedly uncharismatic Hillary Clinton time after time. If you listen to him take questions from the press, as I did yesterday, the umming and ahhing is pronounced, Obama answers each question with a light sprinkling of words that don’t seem to lead anywhere before arriving (internally) on the point and then sharing it with the audience. Obama’s natural aura of cool distracts well from the lack of clarity in many of his answers. This compares unfavourably with, wait for it, George W. Bush. Before you close the blog in disgust, ask yourself this, have you seen Dubya at a press conference recently? Take the recent Bush-Brown conference at Downing Street; Bush gave a clear and thoughtful exposition of his views on international security threats without hesitation, repetition or deviation. At this point I’d like to make it clear I am discussing purely rhetoric and not substance.

Bush has had, of course, much more practice than his would be successor. He also benefits from what all politicians crave, low expectations. In his case they are so low it would be almost impossible for them not be exceeded.

“Fine”, I hear the more open minded of you saying, “but what about his speeches?” The much vaunted ‘soaring’ rhetoric? Well, maybe it’s just personal taste, but I am not a big fan. Let’s start from the 2004 Democratic Convention, ‘the speech’. I had heard so much about it I decided to sit through the whole thing on YouTube. It was OK, not brilliant, his improbable family history is certainly both interesting and one of those stories Americans like to believe ‘can only happen in America’ (Obama’s words). But he had nothing of Clinton’s instant empathy (Bill that is) or Blair’s ability to persuade; indeed his rapturous reception may have more to do with having a preening Edwards and zombified Kerry for comparison.

So why does he have such a fearsome reputation as an orator? Partly through a lack of competition, in a political class devoid of good characters, being able to convey a degree of personality on stage is a big plus. The ‘post racial’ appeal is also undeniable, “liberal” Americans (much as they would be loath to admit it) are a patronizingly pleased that there is an eloquent candidate who is black. Note he is not a ‘black’ candidate i.e. one who represent that community, but an American candidate with black skin. So when he says palpable falsehoods like “there is no black America or white America but the United States of America” the delirious crown reaction has little to do with the quality of the phrase (it goes from naff to grating when you hear him repeat it for the squilionth time) but because of who it is saying it. “I’m black and I’m not angry with you” is the rough translation.

Does it really matter? Well I would argue that his weakness in interactional situation and speeches both matter but for different reasons. The massive hyping of Obama’s speeches led to many more experienced candidates being denied any media publicity in the primary process and thus suffering slow political suffocation. This must be bad for democratic process, as the Democrats and Republicans have a virtual duopoly over the top job.

The stuttering performances in Q&A, however, may be more serious. His credentials indicate that Obama is on a far higher plane than Bush in terms of intellect. Indeed they say becoming President is the second hardest job to get in the US after editor of the Harvard Law Review (a position Obama has held), so the stuttering does not reflect a lack of horse power between the ears. What it may reflect however is a man who lacks a clear sense of what he believes and is desperate not to say the wrong thing and thus blow his chances of being elected.

The world has had a US president getting on the job training both in Policy and Politics for the last 8 years, and it hasn’t gone so well. The quiet assumption among Obamaphiles seems to be, while their man may be a bit green; he can make up for it with raw intellect. I’m not sure this is the case; Presidents simply don’t have the time to think through every problem from its roots. A well honed instinct is non-substitutable and can only come with experience. And the more lunatic McCain’s fiscal plans become, the more I wish the Democrats had seen this at the time.

Zorba and the Acropolis

I recently had the rare pleasure of finishing a foreign book in the country in which it was set. ‘Zorba the Greek’ may be largely set in Crete whereas I was in Athens, but I thought I would be close enough to set a feel for the spirit of the novel. Strangely the effects of the book and the city were totally at odds with each other. The contrast was so stark I felt compelled to choose between two very different, very Greek, attitudes to life.

Athens is a sweaty, packed city. Typically Mediterranean yet lacking the beautiful architecture or coast line that normally redeems such places. What it does have is the Acropolis – literally high city – which no picture or written description can fully prepare a person for. The rough yellowy orange rock, on which the acropolis and its structures – known as the Parthenon – sit, juts out violently from the ground. This makes it both highly visible and, more relevant at the point of construction, highly defensible. The effect is that over much of the unpleasantness in Athens looms a structure of exquisite and ancient beauty. The age of the structures has an effect analogous to standing next to a sky scraper; whilst the sky scraper reinforces one’s insignificance in a physical sense, the Parthenon is a constant reminder to tourists and Athenians alike that our time on this planet is equally insignificant. The age of the structure (around 2500 years) seems almost incomprehensible but can be contextualised when you consider that, not only was built on the site of an even earlier temple, but when the Roman Emperor Hadrian built his famous additions to Athens the Parthenon was already 700 years old.

Apart from being very beautiful and very old, when I walked around the Acropolis and the exhibits at the National Archaeological Museum I realised something else that sets them apart from typical ruins. All of us, from the sexy French students to the unmistakeably garbed American tourists, were somehow connected through these relics. Ironically the connection has nothing to do with pots, or statues, or even temples being viewed. Yes Athens was for a time the centre of a powerful Empire but what truly distinguished it was what was happening while the pots and statues and temples were being built and wars were being fought. Namely that a group of men started to ask questions about the nature of the world, about what we should and shouldn’t do, how we should rule ourselves, what beauty is. The effect of these people was not felt through pots and temples but through what they wrote and said. It seemed standing on the top of the Acropolis that whatever branch your culture was on, ancient Greece was the trunk.

It is perhaps ironic then that Zorba, the dancing, drinking, widow bedding, eponymous hero of Kazantzakis’s novel, should be given the title ‘the Greek’ and yet spurn reading entirely. Surely the novel’s philosophical, academic narrator rather than Zorba is the true Greek?

ZORBA: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die, tell me?
NARRATOR: I don’t know.
ZORBA: What’s the use of all your damn books? If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?

Sometimes even talking is too much for Zorba, and he resorts to dancing to express what he wants.

It is impossible not to be compelled by Zorba in the way he lives life without any sense of constraint. He has, as he would say, ‘cut the rope’. He is not a Raskolnikov, putting himself above the moral order, he simply lives each moment without regard to the past or future.

“A fresh road, and fresh plans!” he cried. “I’ve stopped thinking all

the time of what’s going to happen tomorrow. What’s happening

today, this minute, that’s what I care about. I say: ‘What are you

doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Well, sleep well.’

‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m working.’ ‘Well,

work well.’ ‘What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?’ ‘I’m kissing

a woman.’ ‘Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while

you’re doing it; there’s nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get

on with it!’”

The narrator on the other hand had previously fantasised about setting up a ‘monastery’ of intellectuals totally cut off from the normal lived experience, an idea that Zorba predictably derides. The two become friends after the narrator hires Zorba to help manage a mine he has recently acquired as a means to break free from the constraints of academic life. This allows the novel to contrast two ways of living over a crisp Cretan canvas. I am told that Nietzsche discusses this issue – labelling the two approaches Apollonian and Dionysian respectively – if you’re interested in a fuller discussion of the topic.

Kazantzakis does push the argument a little to far occasion. The narrator’s constant commentary on how ‘free’ and exceptional Zorba is, is not only unsubtle but seems to put an undue burden on Kazantzakis’s descriptive powers.

The meaning of the words, art, love, beauty, purity, passion, all this was made clear to me by the simplest of human words uttered by this workman.

Lines like the above, for example, could never be fully sustained by any words or deeds of Zorba. A generous reading would be that Kazantzakis is also expressing the narrator’s naivety but this is undermined by Zorba’s undiminished status at the novel’s close.

Despite its short comings ‘Zorba’ is a great antidote to the flights of fancy Athens provokes. And yet as I left Greece I was in two minds, was the best life an Apollonian-Platonic existence of thought and reading, or a Dionysian one of Zorba-esque intensity? I landed in London with the depressing realisation that between Excel, Powerpoint, Pay As You Earn and other delights; I’d be lucky to experience either.


I must confess I don’t normally read blogs and the ones I do (on bbc.co.uk), irritate me. It seems like an excuse not to craft a proper story but just to leave tit bits of information; one of those cases of progress taking us backwards. So I’ve resolved in this blog to write full entries making arguments that are brief but well rounded, at least that’s the aspiration. I don’t expect to write much about myself, or at least write with me as the principal subject. Not that I lack the requisite narcissism, but more because I am not comfortable putting myself ‘out there’ as a look at my ascetic facebook page would corroborate.

I used to write in print when at University, principally about politics, and really enjoyed the experience. I avoid labelling myself too much in this introductory post, partly as I’m not sure how I would go about it. I’m hoping, if anyone reads my posts, that together we might be able to help find a suitable description of my views. I also intend to write on a wider range of topics than just politics, but let’s see how things go.


P.S. I am new to this so please be understanding with regard to any errors. Advice will always be warmly received.