Thursday, August 28, 2008


It’s been a bad few days for outsourcing. Today the Police Federation has denounced the neighbourhood wardens scheme as “half-baked”, a pretty devastating dismissal. This scheme empowers selected members of the public – there are now over 1,400 of them in England and Wales – to carry out certain low-level law enforcement duties, including the imposition of on-the-spot fines. The wardens are identified only by a lapel badge that describes them as Community Safety Scheme Accredited. They are not recruited by, not trained by, not financed by and not answerable to the police.

Did you know there were such people in our midst? Neither did I. Have you ever seen one of these badges? Nor have I. Would you take orders from or hand over money to somebody in the street who claimed to have special powers, just because they had an enamel badge on their tit? Neither would I.

On Tuesday, it emerged that an IT manager in Oxford had bought on eBay a computer that he found contained account and personal details of several million customers (probably including you and me) of American Express, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the NatWest. The computer had been part of the equipment of an archiving firm that stored the information on behalf of the banks.

Did you know that your bank franchises your personal details to other companies for supposed safekeeping? Neither did I. Have you ever been told this by your bank? Nor have I. Would you agree to your details being outsourced were the bank ever to have the courtesy to ask you? Neither would I.

Last Thursday, we learned that a computer memory stick holding personal data on every prisoner in Wales and England – some 84,000 convicts – and a further 10,000 or so prolific offenders presumably still at large has been mislaid by a private consultancy working for the Home Office. I do not have a prison record – I do not even offend very prolifically – so I am not plagued by easily-answered questions about this matter.

But the common factor here is that these questionable practices are being committed not by a public body, a national institution or government department or by a representative thereof but by a private enterprise or an untrained individual paid out of public funds. This is the fruit of the lamentable post-Friedmanite dependence successive Labour governments have flourished for what they have called Public Private Partnerships, a wretched betrayal of Labour’s historic commitment to public ownership. Those few of us left who still do not believe that capitalism is the answer to every one of the world’s problems have watched this slide into liberal economics with growing gloom.

Of course all organisations of whatever stripe are operated by human beings. And human beings, whatever their particular politics or loyalty or training or Weltanschauung, are fallible, vulnerable, corruptible. But we take it as a given that national bodies, ‘official’ concerns, public utilities and traditional companies (even banks) are visible, answerable and largely dependable. They suggest a philosophy of WYSIWYG, as the computer people put it. So when, for instance, it transpires that your local water company is actually part of a French conglomerate, you feel obscurely let down. When what used to be a perfectly dull but unobjectionable local independent restaurant changes over to buying in all its meals pre-packed and portion-controlled – so that the only skill required of the restaurant is to put it in and take it out of the microwave and bring it to the table without falling over – you retire hurt from going out to eat.

It’s hard to understand how it can be more cost-effective for the prison service to contract out computing tasks, especially when the security undertakings that the contractor would have been required to give turn out to be worthless. It’s hard to understand why the education service pays an incompetent American outfit millions of dollars to screw up royally the marking of the annual examination papers, a task performed perfectly adequately by the education service itself for generations. It’s a mystery to me why the phrase ‘in-house’ has become deemed excess baggage to every public enterprise from the BBC to the NHS.

But if you think that these crass instances of cavalier incompetence with confidential data on the part of unqualified free market cowboys are going to end any time soon or lead to a reverse of the mania to outsource, well … don’t hold your breath.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales has delivered himself of a tirade against the continuing experiments in genetically modified agriculture. Needless to say, the journalistic commentators have taken the opportunity to diss the Prince as, more or less, an in-bred moron. “Does it matter” enquired Rod Liddle rhetorically in The Sunday Times “that Prince Charles is talking magnificently ill-informed bollocks once again? Only, I suppose, in that it makes irrational people like myself wish to rush out of the house and consume a genetically modified tomato before dusk, on the principle that if Chazza says something, it must be wrong”. Irrational? You said it, Buster.

Actually, HRH has the advantage over this particular thought policeman – or Rozzer as I shall henceforth call him – in that he is a farmer and Rozzer, as far as I am aware, is not. The environment editor of The Guardian – whose special knowledge also renders him a more reliable guide than Rozzer – subjected the Prince’s Daily Telegraph interview to careful scrutiny and found that nothing he had said was out of step with various United Nations agricultural agencies, “authoritative farm analysis groups” and other experts and NGOs or indeed the G8 itself. Perhaps Rozzer knows better.

The Prince reckoned the prospect of continuing GM experimentation would “guarantee the biggest environmental disaster of all time”. He scorned the agricultural future “all run by gigantic corporations … the classic way of ensuring that there is no food in the future … What we should be talking about is food security, not food production, that’s what matters and that’s what people will not understand”.

The Telegraph’s recording of the interview (available on its website) suggests that the Prince was talking off the cuff and that the paper’s business editor, Jeff Randall, may have taped him opportunistically. At any rate, the recording begins in mid-sentence and is abruptly curtailed and there is no questioning. You might say that the Prince ought to know better than to talk unguardedly to a journalist and that he ought to know that it is always better to present a complex and controversial argument in a carefully considered piece of writing (an article or a speech) than in an unstructured interview.

All that being said, I find myself broadly in sympathy with the Prince’s view. If he fulminated intemperately – well, as I say, that’s the nature of loose talk. At least he didn’t drop the dreaded name of Frankenstein, as those with a supernaturally based objection to genetics are apt to do. For my part, I am generally inclined, as one professional to another, to credit scientists with intellectual honesty and as keen a desire to do good in the world as any layperson may possess.

But scientists are as susceptible to manipulation as anyone else. Those psychologists, whose purely speculative testimony condemned to jail as child-killers the mothers of young children who had otherwise unaccountably died, carry a heavy burden of guilt for cruel misuse of the authority that their vaunted expertise bestows. And the question mark that hangs over the geneticists who are interfering with the DNA of crops is the one that the Prince raised in his phrase “gigantic corporations”. These scientists are owned by global capitalism. The food journalist Felicity Lawrence (whose book Not On the Label should be compulsory reading for the Rozzers of this world) remarked to The Guardian that the Prince’s talk of “corporate control” is “not exactly left wing but it is radical. I would place him in that tradition of philanthropic, experimental landowners like Robert Owen, who does things in a patriarchal and paternalist way but genuinely wants to leave the world a better place”.

There is a great non-conformist tradition in Britain, of which the Owenites were a significant part, and, if the heir to the throne identifies with such non-conformism, so much the better for his future subjects. There is no evidence that the likes of Monsanto have any interest other than yielding the biggest possible profits for its shareholders (of whom maybe Rozzer is one; I think we should be told). What the GM companies certainly want to do is to tie up the agribusiness and drive out the smallholder. Their terms for those farmers prepared to permit GM crops in their fields are notoriously rigorous and self-serving.

We are entitled to be sceptical about genetic manipulation. Like all research, it is an attempt to discover whether a theory works in practice. The trouble with intervening in natural processes and own-pace evolution is that it may upset delicate balances that even experts do not perceive, just as an extinction in nature can have far-reaching effects on other species of flora and fauna, way beyond any naturalist’s ability to anticipate. This is chaos theory, the proverbial beating of a butterfly’s wing in a rainforest leading to the collapse of a civilisation on the other side of the planet.

GM is a genie out of a bottle. However “controlled” the experiments are, the spores and seeds will get into the general crop population so that we can never be sure that any produce really is, as billed, “GM-free”. And the only way to determine what will be the effect of a genetic mutation over the course of, say, a century, is to let it loose for a century. If the effect proves baleful, what can then be done to reverse the invasion?

Friday, August 08, 2008


There is nothing in the contemporary world thicker than the skin of George W Bush. On his way to Beijing to become the first sitting US president ever to attend an Olympic Games staged on foreign soil, Bush stopped off at Bangkok to deliver a lecture over the head of his uncomplaining host, Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej, to the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.

“America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said, flashing that trademark smirk that evidently betrays no intended irony. “We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly and labour rights, not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential. And we press for openness and justice not to impose our beliefs, but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs”.

Even while Bush was speaking, a military tribunal in the United States was holding a sentencing hearing for Salim Hamdan, who has been incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for 61 months by the US’s reckoning (though he was apprehended in 2001). This poor shmuck was found guilty earlier in the week of “supporting terrorism”, which crime he perpetrated by being driver to Osama bin Laden. He has been given five years in military custody, including the time he has already served, but the Pentagon have made it clear that they do not intend to release him at the end of his sentence.

As the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, John Wesley Hall, drily observed, “the Pentagon must be very proud of itself today … it convicted a truck driver of being guilty of driving a truck”.

Washington does not pretend that torture is not used at Guantánamo, which, it should be remembered, is the facility that we know about. There are doubtless others operating in secret on American soil and it is known that there are yet more controlled by American authorities dotted around the world, operating under the quasi-judicial aegis of friendly or beholden governments. So Osama bin Laden’s luckless former driver will have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment over a considerable period before he achieved the distinction of being the first military prisoner from Guantánamo to be brought to what passes for justice in Bush’s America.

Along with a willingness to flout international law governing the use of torture upon political and military prisoners and the terms under which such prisoners can be tried, the Bush administration has also introduced the term “extraordinary rendition” to the language. This is the practice of transferring war prisoners out of formal American jurisdiction to such nations as Syria, Egypt and former Soviet bloc satellites where torture is a way of life. Through CIA contact and control, America’s historic expertise in torture techniques is refined by personnel who have no responsibility to American law.

If the Bush administration has anything to teach the Chinese government about human rights, it will be news to all but the most partisan neocons. But China is an easy target for everyone just now. A couple of callow Brits may unfurl a ‘Free Tibet’ banner on a lamp-post outside the Bird’s Nest Stadium and suffer nothing worse than deportation because their images are available from every news agency in the world for 24 hours. I guess the London authorities will go no harder on, say, a handful of Moslem protesters who stage some trivial event ahead of the Stratford East Olympics in 2012.

I make no claim on the Chinese regime’s behalf. I have never been to Tibet, nor indeed to China. Like other viewers of television news bulletins. I have seen the smuggled footage of the brutal putting down of dissidence. Indeed – and like practically every other nation on the planet – China has a bloody history: at times, it has inflicted dictatorship and privation on its own people and sought and sometimes achieved genocide against the peoples of other nations, tribes and sects.

Britain’s human rights record is hardly blemish-free – if nothing else just now, we are complicit in the illegal use of torture and violation of other nations’ sovereignty practised by the States. It is idle, of course, to imagine that the Olympics could take place in some pure state untainted by the corruption of the world. After all, the modern Games is, as much as anything, a pageant of globalised capitalism. But if the Games becomes an ideological battleground for politicians and protesters, alike drawn by the spotlight already shining on the spectacle, it will be tough on the athletes, for whom the sporting events themselves really are the focus of attention (save, of course, for those participants whose primary focus is on getting away with the illicit enhancement of their performances). I have suggested before that a permanent Olympiad home on a site declared neutral and independent like Vatican City could avoid the difficulties inherent in bestowing the prestige of hosting the event on successive participants in the eternal jockeying between nation states. Nothing that has occurred during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics has altered my view.

Friday, August 01, 2008


I finally caught up with the first of three new programmes on BBC1 under the title The Making of Me. In each, someone in the public eye explores, as far as is feasible, how her or his particular personal make-up came to be formed. These being contemporary documentaries, such material can only be filtered through the medium of what are claimed to be ‘celebrities’. Whatever the viewers may actually want or be open to, broadcasting executives believe that no pill can be administered without a coating of stardust. So, if you happen to abominate the chosen ‘celebrity’ (and such abomination – like its opposite, adoration – is entirely subjective and even wilfully absurd), you will be deterred from taking your pill.

The episode I wanted to see was certainly for its pill – the subject matter – and not its sugar coating. John Barrowman is an actor and singer who specialised in musicals until he gained a wider audience through acting in Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood. He has also regularly appeared as a judge in the series of musical audition shows that BBC1 has favoured for Saturday night prime-time fare. Barrowman was born in Scotland of Scots parents but his family moved to Illinois when he was eight and he now sounds like – and comes on like – an American. His parents, still US residents, remain resolutely Scottish and, in their company, Barrowman’s accent joins theirs, though he reverts when talking in their presence to his American nephew. There’s an interesting question hovering in the air as to which persona is his ‘correct’ one.

The other significant aspect of Barrowman’s make-up is that he is gay. Even in these liberated times, it is relatively rare for actors to be ‘out’, believing as they do – and there is some evidence that they are not wrong – that being tagged as gay will do harm to their job prospects. This fear is especially rife in Hollywood where movie and television actors are quite as closeted as gay sportsmen everywhere. The difference between the worlds of sport and drama is that the latter is, in everyday practice, highly tolerant of omnisexuality and indeed tends to attract people of unbuttoned sensuality. As that charming old thespian Alec McCowen once told me: “all actors are more or less gay …” [exquisitely timed pause] “… with the possible exception of Jack Hawkins”.

So I take my hat off to John Barrowman. He has always been upfront about his sexuality. And indeed the burden of the programme here under consideration was to explore and try to determine the source of that sexuality. Personally, I am not very interested in Barrowman’s sexuality qua the sexuality of this particular person. For my taste, he is too much the cardigan model in looks, too much the always-on performer in behaviour and too much the class show-off in style (“less talking” crisply advised one of the scientists who examined him in the film). His predictably elegant civil partner appeared in the film, their ceremony cheesily preserved in Barrowman’s screen-saver (he in his kilt, Scott in a dapper suit, the two dogs oblivious to the fuss). Way too self-conscious for moi.

And I fear that there is a large and largely unexamined question mark over the wisdom of the quest. Barrowman declared his starting-point boldly enough: he believes that sexuality is a given and that he couldn’t alter it even if he wanted to, which he certainly doesn’t. He hoped his quest would reinforce this conviction. But as Johann Hari notes in a related article in the current issue of Attitude, “there is a dark possibility we will end up wishing we hadn’t asked the question in the first place”. I agree with Hari. I have always feared that a conclusion will be reached in the struggle between nature and nurture for the recognition of responsibility for determining our sexuality. While the matter remains in doubt, the enemy cannot select its weapons. Once science has made a definitive pronouncement, the bigots will begin to prepare their means for eliminating homosexuality once and for all.

If science finds for nature – the elusive ‘gay gene’, the event in the womb, the chemical balance brought about by a succession of male foetuses – geneticists will move in to eliminate the gay gene, biologists to ‘correct’ the flow of testosterone and parents will sign up for the abortion of foetuses that are thought to be potentially gay. If science determines for nurture – learned behavioural patterns, social influences, the enduring nexus of accounts first put forward by Freud – behaviourists and moralising busybodies will launch a re-education programme to ‘save’ parents from unwittingly ‘making’ inverts of their children. Either way, it’s bad news for the gay community.

There is a great deal to be said for science’s interventions in the structure of human cells. The prospect of pre-empting the onset of deadly diseases or inherited disabilities is not lightly to be passed up. As in many other fields of human quest, the dangers arise when vested interests, particularly those driven by supernatural superstition, begin to make demands on the uses to which such research and development is put.

There is of course a fundamentally homophobic basis to the whole field of research and, sadly, to Barrowman’s attempt to answer his personal question. “What makes you gay?” presupposes that being gay is some departure from the norm and is therefore itself questionable. We might just as fairly ask “what makes you straight?” or – a better question still – “what makes you sexual?” Such a question would not, I hope, carry within it the implication that the answer will furnish the means by which it can be stopped.