Friday, 23 June 2017

Getting Away With It

Earlier this week, I read a remark on Twitter about how long it seems to be taking for the post-election Tory-DUP voting arrangement to be agreed. The poster mused that if we were in the same situation with a proposed deal between Labour and the SNP dragging on and on – leaving the country effectively without a stable government in the meantime – the press would be all over it! I think he's right, and I think the Tories are being given far more leeway on this matter than Labour would be afforded in similar circumstances.

But the implied conclusion – that our media (and our society) harbours an inherent bias towards the Conservatives – doesn't really hold water, for me. What we are seeing here is not an intentional skewing of the playing field, or weighting of the dice, but simply the potency of our own preconceptions.

Reputations are powerful things. The general perception of the Tories is that they are competent and efficient governors, and utterly heartless bastards. You have only to look at the reactions to the Conservative Party manifesto last month to see how this impacts on reporting; by and large, they get away with including no costing details for their policies at all, because it is assumed that they're Tories so they know what they're doing with money – whilst they get hammered in the press for even the slightest hint of heartlessness and bastardness, like the so-called 'dementia tax' (the intentions of which were actually rather more noble than you think – to reduce intergenerational inequality).

On the other side of the coin, Labour have so much farther to go to prove themselves fiscally responsible, thanks to an ingrained reputation for profligacy (which, it can be argued, has not always been entirely deserved). And yet, Labour politicians can get away with some things their Conservative counterparts could never hope to…

I am constantly baffled, for example, how the odious Labour MP John McDonnell has managed to remain in the senior job of Shadow Chancellor for as long as he has. McDonnell is a thug and a bully who not only makes excuses for violence and rioting, but actively praises and encourages it. He is to the left what Tommy Robinson is to the right – and I know beyond doubt that he would not be able to stay in such a high-ranking position within the party if he were Conservative, rather than a Labour MP.

But McDonnell is Labour. They're the nice ones, right? Not great with money, maybe – but they mean well, and at least they care about people… So his inflammatory rhetoric and his incitements to violence – his descriptions of recent riots in London as 'the best of our movement' – are given a pass, when they surely would not be if they came from a right-winger.

McDonnell's recent calls for a 'Day Of Rage' and for 'a million people on the streets' to force out the government are dog whistles to violence and insurrection; the term 'Day Of Rage' is even borrowed from his boss Jeremy Corbyn's 'friends' in Hamas.

Controversial right-wing broadcaster Katie Hopkins (deservedly) lost her job at LBC radio after tweeting about jihadist terrorism using the phrase 'final solution' – an expression synonymous with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But Labour's Shadow Chancellor can employ the vernacular of an organisation designated on the EU's terrorism blacklist – whose constitution, until earlier this year, explicitly called for jihad and the killing of jews – and not even be asked to apologise.

McDonnell's 'joke' about Esther McVey – 'Why aren't we lynching the bitch?' – during a former election campaign, for which he refused to apologise, was condemned by prominent members of his own party as 'atrocious' 'misogynistic' 'vitriol'. This alone would've been enough to see a Tory MP forced to resign his position; the Shadow Chancellor escapes with barely a scratch, yet again.

By any reasonable assessment, John McDonnell is a truly nasty piece of work. The fact that he is still allowed to retain a high-profile shadow cabinet job – even after all his incitements to rioting and 'lynching', and using the language of terrorists – is testament to the strength of people's perceptions of Labour politicians – even when they get things wrong – as fundamentally good, well-intentioned, kind-hearted people. And that's how he gets away with it.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

This Machine Calls Fascists

“Stop using cuddly terms like ‘alt-right’, and call them what they are! They’re Nazis! That’s what they are! Actual Nazis!”

There’s a lot of this around at the moment – referring to the current populist right-wing movement in America, which is partly to thank (or to blame, depending on your perspective) for the recent election of Donald Trump as American President.

“Call things what they are,” goes the argument, “don’t be fooled. Say the name, and you are one step closer to slaying the beast!” Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced; I don’t think it is quite as easy as that. Because, unpleasant as they are, I don’t believe that today’s ‘alt-right’ truly are Nazis, in the traditional sense.

It is absolutely correct to look at Donald Trump and his alt-right followers and see more than just echoes of the European fascist movements of the 1940s. There are big similarities there, it would be totally wrong to deny that. But there are also some interesting differences – which those who claim to prize truth and transparency over kid-gloved euphemising somehow never mention.

In an excellent article for, Dylan Matthews interviews five experts on fascism, and explains why the label still doesn’t quite fit Trump and his cadre. Although plenty is ‘borrowed’ from fascism by the exponents of the new alt-right movement, notably absent (so far, at least) has been any desire for palingenetic abolition of society’s democratic institutions (I believe the contempt in which ‘the establishment’ is held in alt-right circles is a nod to this, but certainly nowhere near fascistic enough as to count). Similarly, there is a definite lack of what Matthews describes as a Sorelian "valorization [sic] of violence", in which violence for its own sake is considered virtuous or life-affirming.

I also think there are marked strategic differences. Nazism, in the old sense, had a particular way of doing things; the alt-right have adapted to a world where – thanks to the internet, social media, twenty-four-hour rolling television news, etc. – the media is unrecognisably different from when Hitler’s Nazis were on the march. It is not possible to be an old-style Nazi in a world like this; even when there is a crossover with true Nazis in the beliefs or the aims of today’s alt-right, their approach to realising those aims is very un-fascist.

Roger Griffin, author of The Nature Of Fascism, and professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University, is quoted in Matthews’ article as saying “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.” This, for me, sums up Donald Trump and the alt-right; they may be appalling far-right populists, but they don’t quite fit the definition of actual Nazis.

What’s interesting to me, however, is how insistent some people seem to be that we do call them Nazis.

There is a compulsion to define everything in our world by what we already know. To look through our history books, and say “See? This is like that! These people are those people. They must be…” But this is not like that; our societies and our understanding have changed beyond all recognition from the fervour of the 1930s and the 1940s in which fascism thrived. And even if they share some of the same aims, these people are not those people. They have a different approach to the world. That is not to say that they are not dangerous people, or that we do not live in turbulent and troubling times – but it is not the same.

If the alt-right movement – despite certain similarities with ‘old-school’ Nazism – is a new phenomenon, then it is right that it should have a new name. Possibly ‘alt-right’ still isn’t the best term to use, since it seems to sanitise and normalise the repugnant attitudes of the sect – but then, neither is an ill-fitting descriptor from seventy or eighty years ago, and half a world away.

Whatever we call the movement, it would help if we could try to define it fairly soon. The alt-right is in the ascension, emboldened by Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, and the accompanying increase in media coverage. Is it not possible that the rise of the alt-right could be at least partly due to the fact that they are looking forwards and forging something new, whilst the rest of us look back, rifling through history texts in the hope of finding the correct nomenclature?

Yes, language does matter. So why make do with an historical term which only sort-of fits, to describe a new political faction which has its own distinctive characteristics? The alt-right isn’t just Nazism with a new haircut; in fact, it isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. Personally, I think we need to acknowledge that, if we are going to defeat it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On the prospect of a Trump Presidency…

I think I started to drift off to sleep around half-past-four this morning – just as it was starting to become clear that it was looking like Donald Trump's night, in the US Presidential Elections.  I woke again a few hours later, still half expecting to see that results had swung back to Hillary Clinton, who had just edged it after a very narrowly-fought race.  And then I checked my phone…  Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.

I'm not sure the initial shock of the result has worn off, yet (as I write, this news is barely twelve hours old, after all).  When Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, just a few months ago, the result took a while to sink in; the prospect of a Trump Presidency is orders of magnitude more frightening than 'Brexit' could ever be.  People today are feeling nervous, anxious, worried and scared.  They have every right to.

There are also people trying to calm everybody down, of course.  They say that Trump won't enact the more extreme things he has said he'll do; that he will 'soften' as a character, now that he doesn't have to chase votes any more; that the enormity of the responsibility he now has will change him…  I'm afraid these soothing words do little to quiet my concerns.

Even if all the calming words are true – even if Trump himself is nowhere near as bad a President as we had feared – he has unleashed something in this campaign, something which cannot just be put back in its box.  The people who cheered Trump's incendiary speeches and divisive rhetoric at his rallies and campaign events haven't formed those views overnight – such prejudice and unpleasantness has been around for years – but in the President-elect, they realised they had found a mainstream focal point for their anger, hate and bitterness.  He was a figure around which to unite.

Trump's candidacy emboldened all manner of racists, misogynists, anti-semites, homophobes and the pedlars of paranoid conspiracism and small-minded victimhood.  They felt their opinions – once widely recognised as being unacceptable – becoming legitimised. They were on the up, and they grew in confidence, making more and more outrageous demands and sounding more and more bloodthirsty with each passing day.  They are still in the ascendancy now, and growing bolder than ever.

Even if Trump 'mellows' once he gets the keys to the White House, these people won't just go away.  They won't just stop shouting.  And having been promised policies which ban Muslims, remove gun-free zones in schools, and build border walls with Mexico, their anger won't simply dissipate if Trump fails to follow through on these promises; it will intensify.

I worry that a President Trump who doesn't do all the extreme things he has said he'll do will be as dangerous as a President Trump who does do those things.  He has legitimised bigotry by stoking these flames, and he has sent a message to his supporters that it is OK to think that way.

Even if he backtracks on the wilder points of his policy proposals now, those ideas don't just disappear.  The rage, and the hatred, won't just disappear – it will grow.  That genie doesn't go back in its bottle in a hurry.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

#F1 – Radio blah-blah

Last weekend's Mexican Grand Prix will be remembered more for what happened on the radio, and on the podium, than what happened on the track.

For those who didn't see it, in the closing laps of the race Sebastian Vettel in fourth place was closing down Max Verstappen in third, and in trying to keep the Ferrari driver behind him Verstappen pushed too hard and ran wide, cutting the corner.  Verstappen had clearly 'gained an advantage' by running outside the limits of the racetrack, and even his own team boss came on the radio advising him to give the place up to Vettel – but Verstappen did not yield the position, and no official instruction came from Race Control telling him to let Vettel through.

Verstappen crossed the line in third, but was retrospectively penalised, before he had a chance to stand on the podium.  Sebastian Vettel was belatedly award third place – but, by this point, Vettel himself was the subject of heavy criticism, for his angry outbursts over team radio after Verstappen had refused to give up third place to him on track, and particularly his use of foul language.

Personally, I have no problem with a driver swearing on the radio.  In the heat of battle, when you're giving everything to beat the next guy and bring home points for your team, your emotions pour out of you; when you are frustrated, you show it.  We've all done it.  I'm not a global superstar in a multi-million pound arena, but I compete in local sports leagues – and I do get exasperated when things aren't going my way, and in the heat of the moment I sometimes let those feelings out…

What I can honestly say I've never done, though, is to aim that at anyone in particular – be that a competitor, a teammate, or a match official.  Vettel was out-of-line in what he said; he went beyond simply venting his frustration, and he directed his tirade at both a rival driver and race director Charlie Whiting.  That's not on – and he, too, was rightly punished.

But for me, these events have thrust the issue of broadcasting team radio communications back into the spotlight once again.  It's a fascinating part of watching racing, and it lets us see another side of drivers who, in interviews, are always so composed and 'rehearsed'.  But it can also be a double-edged sword, in that respect…

I have remarked before on the difference between Lewis Hamilton's language in interviews and his demeanour over team radio.  Out of the car, Hamilton is always careful to say all the right things – always thanking his engineers, paying tribute to 'the team', and so on.  But in middle of racing, with a hundred other things going on around him at two hundred miles-per-hour, he isn't thinking of maintaining his carefully polished media image, and we sometimes hear him snap at his engineers on the pit wall, getting cross that they're either not giving him enough information, or that they are distracting him by talking when he's trying to race.

And it isn't just Hamilton.  I often feel that the way drivers speak to their engineers over the radio differs markedly from the pro forma lip service they pay the team in interviews and press conferences, when they know the eyes of the world are upon them.

One of the reasons I've not taken to the relatively recent development of having a 'celebrity' interviewing the drivers on the podium after the podium ceremony is how staged and 'fake' it all feels.  They don't talk about racing; they rattle off some prepared jokes, and repeat the same platitudes about 'atmosphere' and 'fans' that we've all heard a thousand times before.

But I, and many others, want to see real people and real racing.  And real people get angry.  Team radio has given us some memorable racing moments, and not just this last weekend – who remembers "Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!" for example? – but I do worry that maybe it results in putting drivers under a microscope a little too much.

In these situations, it is almost as if we are broadcasting the driver's internal monologue to the whole world.  Other sports don't do this – sportsmen might get angry, but their thoughts and words are not broadcast live, 'in the moment', like that.

I don't want to 'sterilise' drivers, in pursuit of the perfect image, or because teams are worried about offending people.  I don't want every last drop of passion and emotion wrung out of them, in case they say the wrong thing.  Bland automatons in shiny race suits are the last thing this sport needs.  I don't think that's what anyone wants – but too much scrutiny of radio communications could mean we end up there, all the same.

The stewards were right to punish Sebastian Vettel for his outburst.  He crossed the line, and that behaviour cannot be acceptable in F1.  But I very much hope this won't lead to yet another area of racing feeling too 'scripted'.  Let's keep racing – and drivers – real.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

Garbage once sang “I’m only happy when it rains”. A sentiment Norwich City fans seem to have coopted as their own. An unofficial slogan for the club’s perennially downbeat supporters, who stalk the internet looking for reasons to be miserable.

Relegation at the end of last season was a bitter pill to swallow; this season, by contrast, seems to be going quite well so far. So why does that feel like such a controversial statement to make?

A situation which has played on my mind for some time was crystallised by a conversation I overheard at the gym a few weeks back. The day before, Norwich has gone to Goodison Park to play an away fixture against Everton in the League Cup; we won – and won fairly comfortably – but the manner of the win was also very encouraging. It was our first victory at Goodison for more than twenty years, in a cup competition (which we traditionally don’t perform well in). At that point Everton were sitting in second place in the Premier League. The much maligned Steven Naismith got himself back on the scoresheet, and one of our brightest young talents, who has come up through the club’s youth academy, Josh Murphy scored a brilliant solo goal as well.

So, I was surprised at the conversation I heard. A conversation in which two people clutched at ant straw they could find to diminish and undermine this result. A conversation in which everything good about the game was explained away and loftily dismissed, while tiny errors were magnified and fixated upon.

“Oh, but Everton didn’t put out their strongest side…” “Oh, but Naismith was fortune to get his goal…”

I’m not going to say that supporters have no right to complain when they see disappointing results, sub-par performances, or feel let down by the club. But this was a performance worthy of praise, and a result which saw us progress to the next round of the cup. Is it so hard just to enjoy that? There will be plenty of legitimate reasons to be unhappy in the future – there always are – without seeking them out now.

The Everton game is not an isolated incident. After every victory (yes, victory) I will read comments about how we were “lucky”, we “scraped by”, we “didn’t deserve it”… When players make mistakes, or when the manager doesn’t get his tactics spot-on, fans are on their backs for it no time – sometimes for good reason. And yet when we win games, it is dismissed as “luck”, or treated as though it’s some sort of anomaly (even when we have – at the time of writing – an 83% unbeaten record in the league this season, having failed to score points only twice so far since the beginning of August).

Why are we – as a club, as supporters – so keen to minimise success, and to find a reason – any reason at all – to downplay good results and act as thought they somehow don’t count? While at the same time amplifying and parading our failures around as vindications of our own malcontented narcissism?

Why do some fans feel they can only celebrate winning with a caveat attached? We are we so keen to seek out the negatives in any situation?

In Alex Neil, we have a promising young manager who has won a Play-Off final, who has just been awarded Championship Manager Of The Month for September, and who has (at the time of writing) an overall 86% undefeated record at the Championship level.  And yet, a non-trivial number of fans frequently describe him as 'clueless', 'out-of-his-depth', and so on…  He 'gets lucky'; he's not 'proven'; 'the jury's still out'.  He'll always be blamed for losing a game, yet it seems people will go to extraordinary lengths not to give him credit for the good results which, statistically, are actually the norm.

That’s not say that there aren’t negatives in games, that the manager never makes mistakes, or that we can’t improve as a team. Several times this season, we seem to have ‘switched off’ towards the end of the game when we’re in the lead, and let in goals late on – we got away with it against Cardiff and against Wolves, but not against Newcastle. We’ve been awarded penalties which we haven’t converted into goals – whether that’s down to poor penalty-taking, or good goalkeeping on the part of the opposition ‘keeper (the latter of which we have no control over) is maybe up for debate, but we can’t afford to let it become a pattern of missed opportunities.

Fans have every right to be concerned about these issues – particularly if they happen more than once. I have flagged up both of these things on social media. I know we’re not perfect. Besides, part of sport is that no matter how well you’re doing, you’re always trying to improve.

But when you dominate a game, score good goals and win comfortable, and supporters’ comments after the match appear to fixate only on the minor details which could have been better – seeming to ignore completely the huge bulk of positives in the game – that strikes me as a little odd. Having high standards is one thing; being determined to look for the bad points, while chalking up anything good to luck or opposition errors is just bizarre.  Sure, it's completely understandable to point out what needs improving – but how is it so difficult also to acknowledge that, generally, we're doing pretty well right now?

Even if we were to register a ‘perfect’ performance in the league – playing well, dominating possession, scoring four or five goals, keeping a clean sheet, not even allowing the other side to register a shot on target – I would expect to see negative comments… We were lucky; the opposition were weak; that level of performance won’t be good enough if we get promoted…

This season is far from over; there is still an awfully long way to go. Our early results have put us in a very strong position, but we haven’t been promoted yet – and yet already I have seen people predicting another relegation from the Premier League next season… For me, this speaks to mindset of far too many supporters; even acknowledging a fairly self-evident fact – that we are clearly one of the early promotion contenders this season – is couched in negative terms, seeing it simply as a gateway to future disappointment rather than anything to be excited about in itself.

Trying to predict football results two years into the future is a fool’s errand, and yet for some there seems to be something cathartic about looking for any excuse to do the club down, make the worst of every situation, and seek out reasons to be unhappy where there ought not be any. They cannot, and will not, ever be satisfied; the idea of giving the team, or the manager, any credit for their success is so alien to them that they simply cannot bring themselves to do it. They’re only happy when it rains.

To me, that doesn’t sound like ‘support’ at all.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

#F1 – Championship in the balance

As we reach the mid-season break in the 2016 Formula 1 racing calendar, I think it's fair to say the pendulum has swung emphatically back Lewis Hamilton's way.  Although Nico Rosberg's early dominance left Hamilton 43 points adrift in the title race – as Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle described the German as a man "who cannot stop winning" – the incident between the two of them in Barcelona seems to have been a tipping point, allowing Hamilton to seize the momentum and precipitating a run of rotten bad fortune for Rosberg.

But such changes of fortune are, to an extent, to be expected in sport.  Any rivalry will ebb and flow – and although Hamilton has now overtaken his teammate to pull 19 points ahead as we go into the summer break, this year's World Championship still hangs very much in the balance.  Rosberg can fight back.

What he can't fight is an uneven playing field, and I fear that inconsistency in the way the rules are applied, and the way drivers are penalised for breaking the rules, is having too much of an impact on results.  Whoever ends up becoming the World Champion this year, that should not be because of discrepancies in the stewards' decisions, or slapdash application of regulations – as in any sport, the rules must apply equally and fairly to all, and every effort must be made to ensure that every driver is treated the same by those who decide what is fair racing and what isn't, and who hand out punishments when it is not.

At the moment, we are not seeing this.  We frequently see a driver penalised for a move a carbon copy of which another driver previously got away with.  And we are seeing the rules change from one weekend to the next; on track limits, radio communications, etc., the goalposts keep being moved.  This makes for race weekends where focus is being taken away from the action on track and diverted to lengthy discussions about the latest tweaks to the regulations – and it results in wheel-to-wheel racing where drivers are hesitant to make an overtaking move, as they cannot be sure whether their racing instinct will be applauded, or saddle them with a time penalty.

Uncertainty, inconsistency, and a completely lack of clarity – if you wanted a masterclass in how to ruin great racing, this is it.

Today at Hockenheim, Nico Rosberg was awarded a five second time penalty for an overtake on Max Verstappen, where it was deemed he "forced Verstappen off the circuit".  If those are the rules, then I suppose that's fair enough – but we have all seen other drivers make overtakes almost identical to Rosberg's, and not be punished in any way.  Perhaps most notably, Lewis Hamilton on Rosberg himself in the USA last year – the race at which the British driver clinched his third World Championship title.

One of these moves resulted in a five second time penalty.
The other warranted no action from the stewards.  Fair?

And speaking of Lewis Hamilton, a very interesting thing happened in Free Practice this weekend.  Hamilton was deemed to have been involved in an unsafe release from his pit box during the practice session; his punishment for this was a fine.  The only other time when a driver has been penalised with a fine for unsafe release in Free Practice – as opposed to being given a grid penalty or formal reprimand – was at the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix, when the driver in question, Jolyon Palmer, couldn't be given a grid penalty because he was only a test driver doing a practice session and wouldn't be competing in the race anyway.

So why wasn't Hamilton given the same penalty that every other driver in that situation in recent years has been given?  Were the stewards just being soft on him?  Hamilton already has two reprimands this year; a third is serious – a guaranteed ten-place grid penalty.  But if other drivers got reprimanded for the same transgression, then he should too – otherwise, it simply amounts to special treatment.

I guess my big concern is that something like this will end up being the deciding factor in who gets the be World Champion this year – that the allocation of penalties is so random (and so completely baffling at times!) that a driver will end up being denied a race win or a Word Championship title because of shonky, off-the-cuff stewarding.  If we reach the end of this season, and we can look back and say "decision x was what meant that so-and-so won, or did not win, the title" that will not be in any way good for the sport.

It is time for transparency in rule-making, clarity of meaning, and consistency in application.  That is the only way we can ensure a level playing field for racing hard, but racing fair – and the only way we can ensure that the World Championship winner truly deserves his crown.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Disgruntled Liberal Democrats, have a word with yourselves

Plenty of this going around at the moment.  As David Cameron steps down as Prime Minister after six years at Number 10, his one-time coalition partners are clearly feeling a little left out.

In one sense, of course, this is entirely understandable; these things were Liberal Democrat manifesto promises, which were then delivered in government – they absolutely should take credit for making these policies happen.  But so should David Cameron.  After all, how far would these policies have got if the Lib Dems had tried to implement them on their own?

I have written before that I think the Lib Dems were very unfairly treated at last year's general election, and that history will generally be a lot kinder to Nick Clegg and his party's time in office than were the confused and angry public who seemingly couldn't get their heads around what 'coalition government' was actually all about.  But now, it is those same Lib Dems who seem to want to claim sole credit for government achievements between 2010-15; this is also not how coalition government works.

Ultimately, Cameron was the Prime Minister whose (coalition) government enacted policies like same-sex marriage.  It happened under his watch, and with his backing.  His actions as the leader of a coalition government will form a part of his legacy as Prime Minister; they will also form a part of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats' legacy, too – after all, the same thing can appear in more than one legacy.  Trying to take credit away from Cameron for a policy like same-sex marriage is as churlish as to try and take credit away from Clegg – it would not, after all, have happened without either of them.

Another 'achievement' of the coalition administration was the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011.  Another Lib Dem policy enacted by Cameron.  Maybe Lib Dem activists and politicians who campaigned for this piece of legislation would like to stop agitating for new Prime Minister Theresa May to call an immediate election to seek her own mandate for a second, and consider that it is their actions (or, at least, their Act) which have made this a whole lot less likely?