Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

First Lord of the Rings0

Posted by JJ in Once-Sceptered Isle (Thursday September 7, 2006 at 6:15 pm)

In Tolkien’s contribution to English mythology, the demon Sauron invests a magical ring with his own power. So long as he wields it, his power is strengthened; but when separated from it, both risk destruction.

In Tony Blair’s contribution to British politics, the Prime Minister invests his office with his own charisma. So long as he stays in it, the power of his office is strengthened, but if he might be separated from it, both risk destruction.

Unlike some, England’s Parliamentary democracy was long characterized by relatively weak Prime Ministers. Powerfully embedded local party committees diminished the Prime Minister’s ability to intimidate MPs through control of party nominations while the MPs sheer numbers made it difficult to bring a majority onside through Cabinet appointments (explaining the endurance of long-obsolete sinecures).

Tony Blair changed that. Invigorated by the combination of a compelling majority, a party eager for power after a lengthy drought, and bucketloads of personal appeal, he began a restructuring of the government which concentrated power in the Prime Minister’s office. From subtle, well-known changes to internal structure to the mindblowing, scarcely discussed power to amend legislation, the Prime Minister’s office has come, more and more, to resemble that of a President, displacing Parliament as the political centre of the country.

This process has not gone uncriticised. While the recent cooperation between Blair and US President George Bush has increased public attention to the increasing similarities between their executive styles, the situation was discussed before that became an issue. And some, Cassandra-like, predicted exactly this turn of events:

Like Thatcher, Blair will follow Thatcher`s demise at the hands of his own party unless there are changes in both the organization and attitude of his office. . .

But as the Liberals in Canada found to their loss, that kind of centralised power is a poor breeding ground for future leaders. Without the opportunity to meaningfully participate in government, would-be successors rarely have the opportunity to hone their political skills on the right stage. If this latest putsch is, as has been suggested, a manoeuvre by an anxious contender, the party may find him, as he may find the prize itself worth less than it seemed.

Much of the political capital needed to so dominate the political scene came from Blair’s popularity. With that in decline and on its way to irrelevance — without its source of power — the Prime Minister’s Office will be unable to maintain the same kind of grip. Blair’s successor, whomever that may prove to be, will have to make do once more with merely being First Lord of the Treasury, without the power to rule them all.

What’s the Plural of Anecdote?0

Something very special has been threatened with the rise of weblogs, but don’t be worried. It’s simply the natural order of truth and common sense.

One of the most difficult parts of producing online material, as the Frigid Wonk well knows, is properly representing facts. It takes more than merely linking to the source of a particular reference — you must provide context and fairly represent what is said. Leaving it to the reader to discover that the context is deliberately or completely skewed can’t be easily excused.

That’s why a recent report on a serious claim merits fuller investigation than has been given it.

Jurist, a respectable and serious purveyor of online information, has recently run a report on a purported increase in desertions from the British army.

According to Jurist, this increase, reported by the BBC, has reached 1,000 total deserters since the beginning of the campaign, as annually recorded:

A total of 134 deserted in 2003, 229 in 2004, 377 in 2005, and 189 so far in 2006, up from 86 in 2001, and 118 in 2002.

Which looks like a significant change.

The problem is that the numbers aren’t the total desertions, but the total number of deserters still missing, as stated here by the BBC — the very report to which the Jurist piece refers.

The difference is highly significant. Deserters don’t just wander back home and resume a normal life — they have to go on the run. Consequently, one would expect them to be found over time. Hence, a simple application of common sense dictates that if desertion rates remain roughly constant or even drop slightly, the number remaining at large would be higher in later years than in earlier ones.

But ignore that, as well as the fact that war seems likely to increase desertions anyway, because there’s sounder evidence than either common sense or properly labelled statistics. There’s purely anecdotal evidence by interested parties:

An increase in Iraq-related desertions is nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence from Iraq war resisters in the UK and their associates, including the lawyer for former Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith [JURIST news archive], recently dismissed from the military and sentenced to eight months in prison [JURIST report] for refusing to return to service in Iraq, and former SAS member Ben Griffin [JURIST report], who told the BBC that “There’s a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality of war and concerns that they’re spending too much time there.”

As an old colleague of the Wonk’s once put it: the plural of anecdote is not data.

But surely, a cry goes up, the government, too, is an interested party; and they have an interest in providing false statistics as surely as the war protestors have one in falsely interpreting statistics.

Only too true, but aside from providing a slightly different (and perhaps even unjustifiedly alarmist) headline for the daily dose on the conflict in Iraq (government still defensive, protestors still opposed, if you’re not caught up), the story reveals no new salvo for either side. Morale and recruitment were already known to be down, and the army (an interested party, and the same one denying an increase in desertions) admitted the decline was due to the campaign.

What to do, then? Forget that “pinch of salt” nonsense — it’s not a guideline, it’s a glib line. Use a bit of common sense and realise that there’s nothing new added to the debate by this story.

If you’ve already chosen a side, this story wasn’t that likely to change your mind (if you’re pro-war, it just doesn’t seem likely that you’re swayed by army rebels). If you hadn’t, the story might persuade you. But should people be persuaded by shoddy research? Opponents of the war might suggest that what got the UK into it might just be the best way to get it out (Michael Moore, anyone?) But repeating a mistake-making process just doesn’t square with common sense.

The Frosty Wonk has a different perspective. Bull is bull, no matter how purely intended; and the plural of anecdote is urban legend.

All the Time in the World, Gentlemen0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Once-Sceptered Isle (Thursday November 24, 2005 at 12:21 pm)

Just when you think the glories of Britannia have faded:

Last Call Ends in England and Wales

Oh, Puritans may scoff (as they often do), but then, that’s partly why they left the place — they weren’t cool enough to hang around.

Some will have cause to complain — a reasonable cause I think. Won’t longer hours increase the chances of drunk drivers, alcoholism, and other dangerous side-effects of available liquor? Don’t these problems harm others?

Personally, I’m for liberty in a case like this. Smoking bans make sense because smoking will necessarily injure others (unless we have voluntary seclusion of smokers and offer servers the choice of whether to serve smoking patrons or not). Alcohol doesn’t; and the off-chance that, in combination with other factors, it could, isn’t good enough to establish fairly arbitrary rules against it. Let’s fight those factors, not alcohol. They tried prohibition in the movies, remember, and it didn’t work.

Whatever else may be, I say ‘Cheers’ to our good friends across the way on the spread of freedom in society, however plain or venal it may be. Please join me in raising them a glass in congratulations.

After hours, of course.