Wednesday, 26 October 2011

John Humphrys on the Welfare State

Loyal readers of the Sunday Times will have seen John Humphrys writing in this week's 'News Review' section, promoting his upcoming programme on the Welfare State (in something of a coup for the BBC, right alongside Andrew Marr's piece on his upcoming programme and book about The Diamond Queen).

The welfare state, the brain-child of Sir William Beveridge (Liberal), is something which has inevitably effected almost all of us over the course of the past 70 years, since his self-titled report was published. His goal? To rid society of the five great ills: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. However, is the idea of paying people not to work to alleviate idleness not the paradox that now does so much damage to our society?

With 2.57 million people currently unemployed, and similar numbers claiming sickness benefits, the case can be made. And has been. And is being made now more strongly than ever. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton launched a welfare revolution, turning welfare into workfare and taking benefits away from those who would not work in the United States. Did that work? Will it work in the UK? And is it in the best interests of all that is does?

John Humphrys' 'The Future State of Welfare' is on BBC this Thursday at 9pm.

What's happening with TPR?

TPR has had a busy couple of months - and as a result, this has been a disappointing blog. Indeed, it hasn't been a blog at all. So, what can you expect from TPR in the future?

When I first started the blog, I was hugely flattered by the reception we received. The viewing numbers were better than expected, and the opportunity to write for Huffington Post and Conservative Home, amongst others, was a great thrill. However, time simply no longer allowed to levels of reading and commitment the blog took.

So, what are we to do with TPR? From time to time, I will continue to review books, articles and make recommendations - all the things we did that brought you hear in the first place. However, from hereon in the main thing this blog will be doing is putting all that political reading into use through comment pieces. 

Whether it's discussing morality, the welfare state, how to solve the European crisis, we'll be commenting on it here on TPR. And also recommending more books and TV programmes on politics and much more besides, passing opinion on them all.

Remember to follow us on Twitter (@PoliticalReader) from which we will now be tweeting and re-tweeting much more, and highlighting the best of this and other blogs.

Fewer books. More politics. The future of TPR.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Friday Comment: Take Up Your Arms: It’s Time to Fight in the Culture War

TPR has always had a strange relationship with the BBC. In principle, it is abhorrent. Just imagine that today, in the pioneering age of the internet, a government supported agency came up to you and said “you must pay £142 a year to own a computer that can access the internet so we can produce an inexhaustive range of websites. Failure to do so will be a matter for criminal prosecution.” Many of us would be outraged by such a move and everybody from the penny-pinchers to the ultra-libertarians would be flouting the law in a principled act of civil disobedience. However, when it comes to the BBC, we accept it – willingly, in most cases. TPR himself accepts it, and uses BBC iPlayer more than any other on-demand service and whenever he comes to think of his favourite programmes, on television or radio, the work of the BBC often features amongst the best. The tension caused by the principle behind the funding of the BBC is mediated by their quality broadcasting.

However, it goes beyond quality. The BBC is tolerated – nay, supported – on the grounds that not only does it produce high volumes of quality output, it also produces broadcasts with a public service angle. For example, take the recent documentary series ‘Great Thinkers in Their Own Words’. This unashamedly high-brow series was enlightening to even those who consider themselves to be semi-experts on matters of society and psychology, featuring never before seen footage of some of the 20th Centuries' great thinkers from the BBC archive. Alternatively, we have ‘My Father was a Nazi Commandant’. Perhaps a surprise hit for both the BBC and those who viewed it, this show tracked the daughter of the Commandant of Plaszow concentration camp in Poland as she sought to meet up with the oppressed Jewish girl who served her father’s household before she was born. Or think of ‘Only Connect’, the most intellectual of quiz shows – and a major success. All of these programmes are quality and fulfil the public service remit that Lord Reith had in mind at the BBC’s foundation. All of these programmes are worth fighting for as a valuable contribution to British culture. All of these programmes first appeared on BBC4.

Therefore, it is of particular concern that the Guardian is reporting that BBC4 is set to be streamlined to “arts and repeats” in the BBC’s attempts to find 20% cuts in their budget. Times are hard and friends are few, and I dare say the BBC ought to find opportunities for budget cuts and greater revenues from selling commercially their broadcasting around the world, yet they must never stray away from their main focus in providing quality public service broadcasting. And arguably, BBC4 fulfils this remit better than any other BBC station - even if its quality is not always reflected in its ratings. When budgets need to be cut, we must all see the appeal in cutting that which receives the fewest viewers. However, this must be mediated by the extent to which BBC4 helps the BBC fulfil the reason why so many of us acquiesce in funding it year after year: quality, public service broadcasting. BBC4 is worth fighting for.

You can join a FaceBook campaign here (I do not know how official the campaign is, or who runs it, and I certainly don’t endorse any of its comments beyond “Save BBC 4”).

Thursday, 18 August 2011

UPDATE: A Speaker in Order?

Yesterday, I highlighted an article by James Macintyre on Speaker Bercow. This article caused quite a bit of interest - as anything about Speaker Bercow usually does. So...

TPR has great pleasure in recommending a book by Bobby Friedman on the Speaker called 'Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party'. Friedman (website here) is a familiar face from programmes including the Daily Politics and BBC News 24. Whilst I haven't read his book on the Speaker, I'm sure it has much to recommend it as the first book on the most divisive holder of the chair in living memory.

You can purchase the book here.

TPR Recommends... The House of Cards

TPR was once told that up to 90% of plots originate from Shakespeare. At first, this seems unbelievable and somewhat disappointing. Indeed, one is often led to ask "what happened to imagination in the near four centuries since Shakespeare's death?" Well, the themes of Macbeth and Richard III throughout this series of books and TV series give significant cause to celebrate the continuing dominance of Shakespearean plots and helped make this perhaps the most celebrated political fiction of all time. I speak, of course, of the most amoral of political figures, in the most Machiavellian of plots, in The House of Cards.

The original series of books, written by former Chief of Staff at CCHQ Michael Dobbs, were a remarkable bedrock for the format in which we later came to know the character of Francis Urquhart MP. With enough underhand tactics to make every wannabe-Machiavelli jealous, Urquhart begins the book as a Chief Whip that would make current MPs feel they are treated mercifully by their whips. By the end of the book, he is Prime Minister. An essential opening to the trilogy. Purchase here.

Dobbs second book centres on one of the more peculiar relationships at the heart of the British constitutional system - that of the Prime Minister and the Monarch. Published at a time of significant controversy for the monarchy, this book has remained as apt now as it was then. And the antics of Prime Minister Urquhart mean, as before, that this is gripping stuff. Available here.

I dare say this recommends section have become a little predictable, but it would be amiss of me to highlight two thirds of the trilogy and not mention the final book. Purchase here.

And finally... many book-lovers often feel than the dramatisation of books ruins them, typically failing to express the full depth of the plot. TPR, not wanting to be a philistine, doesn't always go along with this theory. And I'm delighted that the House of Cards TV series is a case of mastery in words and on screen. Treat yourself this summer - and remember, it could always be worse at the top - here.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Essay in Focus: A Speaker in Order?

The original article on which this is based first featured in Prospect Magazine and can be read here.
Loyal readers of TPR will now how much I dislike the work of James Macintyre, and how much I feel that Prospect Magazine's political coverage has gone down in quality since he was appointed Political Editor. As a reminder of my feelings, here is an extract from a recent short biography I posted of Macintyre before reviewing his first book, Ed:

"Truth be told, TPR's heart sank when he saw Macintyre was one of the joint authors of this book. Whilst he has had a fairly illustrious career (working at The Independent and New Statesman) much of his work has been of grave disappointment. Beyond his style, which I do not find favourable, he could easily be portrayed as part of the media arm of the Labour Party and consequently biased to a journalistically embarrassing point. After all, who can forget his predictions of a Labour majority in the 2010 General Election (here) or when he had the New Statesman sued by accusing the Conservatives of institutional and Dan Hannan of personal racism (here). Oh, and his speculation of a Diane Abbott win in the Labour leadership election (here)."

So, perhaps it is strange so soon after publishing this to be focusing on an article written by Macintyre. However, Macintyre has done a somewhat better job in his most recent piece for Prospect Magazine, and the sheer interest caused by its topic made it an irresistible choice.

Speaker Bercow's election did not take place at a celebrated time for the House of Commons. In the aftermath of a Speaker's ousting, Bercow ascended to the Chair of the House at a time of public disgust with MPs. More controversially for him, he ascended with minimal support from his own party. The controversy surrounding both Mr Speaker and his role in the Chair has not subsided since. Many Tory MPs, whilst contented to him fulfilling the role for the immediate future, still think he parades around like Royalty whilst acting like a sanctimonious dwarf (attributed to Conservatives Mark Pritchard and Simon Burns respectively). But despite his ongoing polarising effects - a divide Mrs Speaker frequently encourages through her Twitter account - how successful is Bercow in achieving his objectives in the Chair?

In one sense, Bercow is doing remarkably well. I have little doubt that his number one objective is self-promotion, and as a speaker who frequently interrupts the Prime Minister during PMQs and gives more speeches than many previous speakers, his profile is certainly high - both in the Westminster bubble and outside. In his secondary objective, of raising Parliamentary standards and championing back-benchers, he is having some success, too. Bercow frequently speaks of wanting to make the House of Commons matter again (something much more down to electoral arithmetic than the role of the Speaker on most occasions). While the outcome of the General Election often puts the relationship between the legislature and the executive beyond the Speaker's control, progress has been made with the setting up of a backbench business committee along with the greater use of Urgent Questions from back-benchers. The election by all MPs of the chairs of the select committees, too, is a step towards achieving his goals. However, at times one is led to wonder whether Bercow's championing of back-benchers in scrutinising the government is a means by which he can attack Cameron and his government by proxy, a relationship in which no love is lost, rather than exclusively championing back-benchers for their own sake.

Throughout this piece, Macintyre does a satisfactory job of charting Bercow's first two years in the role. He begins by highlighting some of the key themes of his Speakership. And he is right to assert at the end that Bercow's position is now safer than it has ever been. Let us not rejoice too soon that Macintyre is a reformed man. For that, he would have had to miss out the silliness of mentioning the unsubstantiated rumours that the reason some Tory MPs dislike Bercow is because his is Jewish. Remember Michael Howard, Mr Macintyre? If journalists were leopards, the metaphor would hold.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

TPR Recommends... The War in Afghanistan

Next Sunday, our review will be of 'Tommy this an' Tommy that' by Andrew Murrison, an exploration of the case for the military covenant. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 next month, and consequently the beginning of the War on Terror and conflict in Afghanistan, let us consider the best books for understanding the conflict which, along with the conflict in Iraq, has come to define the military in the past decade.

Perhaps the most high-profile Afghanistan-focused memoir to date, Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007-10, arrived on the scene after his retirement last year. In many respects, this was the most important time for the mission in Afghanistan since the initial invasion itself; the withdrawal from Iraq shifted focus onto the Afghan mission whilst the NATO forces failed to achieve a lasting peace there. John Simpson said this book is ‘The clearest, best informed, and most honest account yet of why and how Britain was drawn deeper and deeper into the Afghan war' - broadly speaking, I trust him on these matters. Purchase here.

Peter Tomsen is another former ambassador to Afghanistan, this time from the United States. However, Tomsen was Ambassador at the end of the conflict in Afghanistan involving the declining USSR, a conflict which eventually ended in withdrawal for the second-placed superpower. This book brings together that conflict along with the most recent escapade in Afghanistan in the most holistic analysis of the attempts to conquer the Afghan people and their terrain I've read yet. A fascinating read for an essential insight. Purchase here.

And finally... Ross Kemp on Afghanistan. Just kidding - don't buy it.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Next Week's Sunday Review

In the aftermath of the riots, attention has turned from one group of sacred public servants to another. Yet, as the ongoing commitments to Afghanistan and Libya continue, attention will no doubt shift once again to how the civilian government treats its armed services. This book, by Andrew Murrison, is an exploration of one of the coalition government's biggest commitments to our service men and woman - the military covenant. The review will be published next Sunday and you can purchase the book here.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Sunday Review: Sandel's Justice

TPR is delighted to present our first guest review, this week submitted by Zoe Molyneux. Enjoy.

Who said philosophy was dead?

(Sandel, Michael J., 2010. Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? London: Penguin.)

In 1984, Michael Sandel wrote: “Political philosophy seems often to reside at a distance from the rest of the world… [E]ven our best efforts to ‘live up’ to our ideals typically founder on the gap between theory and practice”.[i] His words criticised some of the discipline’s most beloved philosophers – particularly John Rawls – for keeping principles and political reality entirely separate, as if the two have no bearing on one another. 25 years later, Sandel is still arguing against philosophical vogues.[ii] In Justice, he suggests that we ought to take stock of the kind of society in which we want to live, and what principles we might use to justify our chosen way of life.

The central mission of Justice is to take the reader on a philosophical tour of highly controversial debates including affirmative action, paid surrogacy and abortion. Early on in the book, Sandel suggests three ways of evaluating such contested issues: welfare, freedom and virtue. He then attempts to achieve this by touching upon the theories of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant through to Rawls and Robert Nozick, finally taking us back in time to Aristotle’s Ancient Greece. It is an amiably written, unintimidating primer for those who are new to the study of moral philosophy, not least because so many important philosophers are covered in such a concentrated manner. But it should not be dismissed by those who are well-versed in debating about justice, because Sandel’s ultimate proposition is more important than ever. In a world that is ever divided by national, cultural and religious interests, with such divisions occurring even within states, does it still make sense for governments to insist upon the seperateness of public and private morality? Or should we admit that, for its tendency to neglect the people who give political life all of its purpose, this approach to public policy has failed?

Sandel’s journey begins with a critique of utilitarianism, and this move is important. Though liberalism turned it into a pariah theory for the best part of the previous century, it has enjoyed a revival at the hands of Peter Singer, J.J.C Smart, Bernard Williams and the like. It is also, on the face of it, a plausible way to approach questions of right and wrong. Sandel first picks up on the case of R v Dudley and Stephens, an 1884 case where three shipwrecked sailors killed and cannibalised a cabin boy. It is famous amongst trainee lawyers as key to understanding the necessity defence in legal practice. Yet even more importantly, it provoked a huge demonstration of public sympathy towards Dudley and Stephens, who were both on trial for murder. Utilitarian reasoning seemed to be prevalent even in untrained philosophers. In Justice, it is presented to us as a litmus test for our utilitarian tendencies and while Sandel makes no judgement as to whether the actions of the sailors were truly reprehensible, he seems uncomfortable with this state of affairs. He suggests that we might want to ask bigger questions about the extent to which human life is sacred and whether we really have any inalienable rights. This is all very well. It is frustrating, however, that Sandel never truly reveals his hand on this or any other of the controversies featured in the book. He seems to be suggesting that individuals have intrinsic value that must preclude them from becoming fodder for starving sailors, just as elsewhere he displays unease at governments placing a dollar value on human life and personal happiness. At each instance the conclusion seems morally repugnant, and therefore damning of utilitarianism. But committed philosophers will ask for more from a justification for abandoning utilitarian theory. Moreover, while Sandel provides the requisite tools for us to think about right and wrong like philosophers, he is constantly reluctant to take his reasoning to the point of producing definitive judgements.

He is equally dissatisfied with John Stuart Mill’s revised form of utilitarianism, which uses “higher pleasures” such as liberty to evaluate utility. Mill saves utilitarianism from becoming a “crude calculus of pleasure and pain” but, in Sandel’s eyes, these higher pleasures easily collapse into a defence of individual rights independent from utility. The next, most voluminous part of the book considers the very concept of individual rights, via the work of a few very different philosophers. His suggestion that this part covers “freedom” as the basis for justice is a misnomer: Robert Nozick’s libertarianism, Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and John Rawls’ liberal equality have many differences, but their greatest similarity is that they are all rights-based theories. What is more, the rights upon which they insist must be universally applicable. This is crucially important since, if we are to believe Sandel, the search for universal values may represent an overwhelming wrong-turning in the course of our collective moral reflection.

In assessing these different conceptions of universal moral principles, Sandel provides a string of real-life stories and ethical questions that test just how squeamish we are with respect the logical consequences of those principles. If we believe in rights to self-ownership and individual freedom, are we willing to extend this to allowing women in India to rent out their wombs? Equally, should we accept that German software engineers can consent to be killed and eaten by one another? Our answer is of little importance, since Sandel knows that he has backed the universalists into a corner. What matters is that each of these debates shows how, when politicians pick a single criterion on which to base policy that is neutral to any one person’s conception of the good, they often lose sight of what matters to anyone.

The third and final section of Justice focuses on what might be missing from this picture. Aristotle, Sandel explains, saw that the just distribution of a good must be determined by the purpose or telos of that good. The best flutes should therefore go to the best flute players in order to produce the most beautiful music. If we extend this, the purpose of politics is to pursue the good life in Aristotle’s sense of the concept –citizens must strive to cultivate virtuous character traits, those which strike a balance between excess and deficiency on every level. One such positive attribute is active participation in political life. Therefore, goes Sandel’s reading of Aristotle, political rights and freedoms must be distributed to this end.

Sandel leaves his prescriptions until the final chapter, which turns out to be the most thought-provoking part of all. While all of his anecdotes are engaging, there is an obvious sense throughout much of the book that Sandel’s personal judgements have been missing. If he is dissatisfied with Kant, Rawls, Nozick and the rest of them, we wonder, then what does he suggest is the right way to think about justice? What we eventually receive is a wonderfully apt treatise on the value of civic engagement. This may not be a cure-all for eradicating injustice. But encouraging community cohesion, which in turns promotes democratic debate, is surely an important step in the right direction. None of this argument is new – Sandel has been making the case for communitarian moral and civic renewal for most of his career and his ideas are obviously inspired by those of Aristotle. Sandel’s truly imaginative step is to reiterate his case as a progressive solution to our generation’s unique political problems. His solution seems more relevant than ever as globalisation has taken hold and the world’s economic and religious divisions therefore become increasingly marked. And he is right to argue that any attempt to find a politically neutral solution to this situation seems to have made the problem worse.

The cynics amongst us might find Sandel’s tone to be a little too saccharine; some might too-quickly summarise his method as simply telling the world to talk about its problems more and hoping that this will make them go away. Anyone that watched Sandel’s recent BBC series will remember how fascinated the philosopher was with David Cameron’s Big Society project – that which now seems so fraught with controversy yet aligns quite neatly with Sandel’s communitarianism. In light of this, I hope most readers of Justice are not so quick to dismiss his ideas. The scale of the book gives Sandel little time to fully elaborate upon his project, which I imagine would be a Theory of Justice-sized endeavour. And even Sandel’s detractors must engage in a debate about how political life must proceed without becoming irrelevant to current debates about morality and religious conviction. If nothing else, Sandel is part of a vanguard attempting to save political philosophy from its fate as the preserve of a privileged few.

[i] Michael J. Sandel, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self”. Political Theory 12:1 (1984): 1. Accessed 4 July 2011,

[ii] Though he may find some company in UCL’s Jonathan Wolff. See Jonathan Wolff, Ethics and Public Policy. London: Routledge, 2011.