From that spiteful 50p tax to Harriet’s mad sex war, Labour is blasting Britain back to the dark ages

A particularly gloomy take on current events this morning from Melanie Phillips:

“For with the economy in far worse shape than even the most pessimistic among us had imagined, we appear to have entered a time machine which is blasting us back to the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis.”

There are instantly problems with this comparison – to take the obvious, it’s only really the banking sector the state has started moving into, and you’d be hard pushed to say that it ‘controlled’ banks when it can’t even get those it owns to lend money to small businesses. The idea of the machine ‘blasting us’ towards a point where it’s not just the banks the state controls is scare-mongering – the state has no money to take over anything particularly impressive, we still remember things not working so well the last time it tried, the government is currently trying to offload the state-owned postal service suggesting little appetite for further state expansion and the likely candidates to form the next government are opposed to any such expansion. It also misses the way we got into this mess in the first place – through historically lax state control leading to a necessary take-over of the banking sector. Although there is some comfort to be gained from seeing current events through the prism of history, we shouldn’t let superficial similarities scare us into believing the two are the same – this focuses our fears on the wrong things, meaning we miss the real issues while paranoidly waiting for unrealistic evils to befall us. For example,

“The 50p tax rate has left the out-manoeuvred Blairites aghast for the very reasons that the fossilised Left is triumphant. By singling out the wealthy as scapegoats for the failure of government policy, it implicitly classifies as the enemies of society people whose efforts are essential to its prosperity.”

There are a few things to note about this. Firstly, the Mail was, not so long ago, leading a witch-hunt against the well paid (eg.), which arguably does more to mark out the well-off as enemies of society. More crucial though, the duties on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol all went up in the budget – these all disproportionately affect those on low incomes, making them at least equal targets of the Chancellor’s disapprobation.¹

“It punishes them for the crime of achievement and acts as a powerful disincentive to others to seek success or advancement, thus ensuring the stagnation of the country. It is a throwback to a primitive era of class prejudice and economic illiteracy. It is the dogma of political and economic cavemen.”

This is debatable – one could easily argue that they are being rewarded for high achievement by being offered the opportunity to contribute mote to society, adding additional incentive to succeed. On this argument, the problem here is not the tax, but the ideology pushed by the mainstream media that defines success in terms of materialistic self-aggrandisement. Possibly more compellingly, a 50% rate of tax (rising to 60% with various alterations to personal benefits announced at the same time) on £150,000 leaves the earner with 50p in the pound for every pound over £150,000. Although this is 10p less than they used to get, they still have 40p’s worth of further reasons to strive.² Unlike a salary ceiling, tax brackets do continue to offer incentives to earn, they merely make it slightly more difficult to do so.

“It is also, as the rest of us can clearly see, a fruitless act of cynical spite. Far from increasing tax revenues, it may even mean less money comes into the Exchequer as people resort to various tactics to offset their losses.”

It’s worth considering, at this point, the raft of steps the Chancellor announced in the budget to make it harder to avoid paying tax. More than this, however, is the general point that the Chancellor has to do something to increase the money coming in as the economy tanks. He’s not going to be coining it from corporation tax on the banks any more, what revenues came in from the employment of low earners will be eroded by rising unemployment, a new source must be found. So up go cigarettes and alcohol, increasing incentives for people to source them on the black market to offset their losses. It’s not an option everyone will take, as the costs of such evasion will, for some at least, outweigh the financial benefits – for the increase to result in lower tax-take the number of people evading, and so dropping out, would need to out-weigh the increase secured from those not avoiding. It’s a calculated risk, but to suggest that it’s a risk not taking purely because it is a risk is to say that no tax increase should ever be made as any tax increase will carry the risk of prompting evasion.

“With this huge and increasing burden of higher taxes, red tape and ruinous regulation, yet more entrepreneurs are going to pack up and leave Britain altogether for more hospitable climes.”

There are a few things to consider about concerns of a brain drain. One relates to the Mail‘s equivocal relationship with high-earners – by their lights, it is not just the brains that will be drained, the increase in tax-rate will rebate a certain amount from the public sector and the much demonised banking sector and possibly drive some of the ‘fat-cats’ away, presumably opening the way for thinner cats or people who aren’t cats at all. This is to say nothing about the sense or justice of the measure, but only to note that, from the newspaper’s point of view, this will do much to resolve some of its recent concerns. More pressingly, the evidence of brain drain in countries with high tax rates is equivocal – looking at research into Canada, for example, while there is definite evidence of people moving to the lower-tax regime of the USA to earn more, the numbers are low and appear to be influenced by more than just taxes. This makes intuitive sense – brains need somewhere to drain to (at bare minimum, a job market where they can gain more after tax for the same amount of job which at the same time offers a comparable or better quality of life, difficult to find in the face of a worldwide recession), and to be sufficiently mercenary to be willing to drop their current home and lifestyle to do so. Undoubtedly, some will, but the extent of this is unlikely to be overwhelming.

So the 50p rate of tax is not the obviously bad idea Melanie presents. Indeed, she herself seems confused on the import of it all:

“Indeed, since it was Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget that reduced the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent, last week’s travesty can be seen as not just burying Blairism, but reverting to the era before Mrs Thatcher came along to try to arrest Britain’s apparently irreversible decline.”

If we’re trying to conclude that Labour are reverting to type using Lawson’s budget, we must also bear in mind from the same that Thatcher was more than happy for the majority of her time in power with a taxation of the rich higher than that of the current Labour government, that this high rate coincided with the arresting of our ‘apparently irreversible decline‘ and that we’re now actually reverting to the dark days before the halcyon days of the Major government (which started in 1990). As such, we should be concluding that this is a bold return to Thatcherite tax policy, and not statism at all. In her attention to the superficial similarities, in this case that Thatcher got rid of a high tax rate, she misses the obvious differences in our situations, such as the fact that the rate of tax wasn’t Labour’s alone and it wasn’t the only thing Thatcher undid.

Nothing is ever as simple as Melanie makes this. After 12 years of Labour, we need a lot more than a 5% increase on the top-rate of income tax to herald a return to ‘the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis‘. The choice isn’t between the dark forces of socialism making us all poor and the bright Reaganomics of the future where the rich get rich and trickle it down. It’s not between a Thatcherite tax regime and a mass exodus of the long-suffering rich. At the moment, the choice is between definite lower tax revenues or possibly slightly less-lower tax revenues. It’s a gloomy choice to have to make, but not as gloomy as a time machine that only took us to the 70s would be.

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¹ The Guardian claims that “Early indications suggested the poor would still pay proportionately more than the rich because of a rise in fuel duty.” but don’t provide anything to back the statement up.

² This section is corrected as of 29th April, thanks to Ben (see comments below). The original, incorrect text, read: “with £75,000 after tax (£60,000) – this is still a fairly impressive reason to try and earn £150,000. Taking this further, the maths of the tax-bracket system also means that what disincentive there is only kicks in on a relatively small range of salaries around the £150,000 boundary – the previous 40% rate on a salary of £149,999 meant you took home £90,000; you would need to earn £30,000 more to take home the same amount at a 50% rate. This means that you have no incentive, at £149,999, to earn anything less than £30,001 more, but it would still pay you, increasingly handsomely, to aim at a job worth £180,001 or more.” As Ben kindly and correctly points out, this reading is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the tax system. Ben is too kind to call me an idiot, but he could very fairly have done so.

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Strange Ontology: Week beginning 20th April

A busy week for original research, thanks in part to the annual shindig of the AACR in Denver. Blueberries sort your colon cancer, a hormone released during pregnancy sorts your breast cancer, but having dark hair increases your risk of skin cancer, nicotine gum ups your risk of oral cancer and burnt meat increases your chances of getting pancreatic cancer.

Also interesting is the story casting doubt on soya’s “superfood” status – see also Is soya a has-bean? (May 2006), Is too much soya bad for your health? (July 2007) and No, soya ISN’T a miracle food (April 2008). Nice to have some clarity on this subject at last…

I’ve also added a new category – Stats – to cover all the numerical stuff that used to go into ’causes in brief’ but which didn’t really belong there. I need to get out more.

The paper on nicotine gum is open access.

Original research

20th April

How blueberries can help battle the bulge

Mentioning as an afterthought: Reddy et al. (2007) Novel approaches for colon cancer prevention by types of dietary fat, pterostilbene and other food components paper presented at American Chemical Society 233rd National Meeting & Exposition, 25th March

Discovery of genetic ‘brakes’ could slow development of MS and cancer

A report on: The FANTOM Consortium, Riken Omics Science Center (2009) The transcriptional network that controls growth arrest and differentiation in a human myeloid leukemia cell line Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng.375

21st April

Pregnancy hormone is new breast cancer hope

A report on: Venegas et al. (2009) Mammary cancer prevention by short treatment with human chorionic gonadotropin paper presented at 100th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, 20th April

New skin cancer warning for dark-haired easy tanners

A report on: Kanetsky et al. (2009) Candidate Risk Genes: Melanoma, Hereditary Cancer Syndromes, and Rare and Childhood Cancers paper presented at 100th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, 21st April

22nd April

How well-done meat can raise the risk of getting cancer

A report on: Anderson et al. (2009) Pancreatic cancer risk: associations with meat-derived carcinogen intake paper presented at 100th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, 21st April

23rd April

Chewing nicotine gum can ‘increase risk of mouth cancer’

A report on: Gemenetzidis et al. (2009) FOXM1 Upregulation is an Early Event in Human Squamous Cell Carcinoma and it is Enhanced by Nicotine during Malignant Transformation PLoS ONE 4:e4849

25th April

Why soya may not be such a super food after all

Mentioning: an unknown paper in the Journal of Nutrition

Mentioning (probably): Tan et al. (2006) Infant feeding with soy formula milk: effects on puberty progression, reproductive function and testicular cell numbers in marmoset monkeys in adulthood Human Reproduction doi:10.1093/humrep/dei421

Metioning: an unknown Japanese paper.

Causes in brief

23rd April

Gambler with terminal cancer wins thousands after betting he could survive the year

‘These wins are a huge incentive to stay alive,’ said Mr Mathews, who suffers from mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos.”

24th April

Britain’s kids are couch potatoes before they even get to school

“Official predictions suggest 90 per cent of today’s children will be overweight or obese by 2050 unless action is taken now, putting them at risk of heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.”

25th April

Storm over embryo ‘bank’ which could be used as a body repair kit

“Research on using [stem] cells is still in its infancy, but it is thought that within ten years it could lead to cures for degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and some forms of cancer.”

Stats

20th April

Men know more about women’s cancer than the way the disease affects men

“Each year around 31,000 men in the UK are diagnosed with prostate cancer, and around 2,000 young men are diagnosed with testicular cancer.”

21st April

ME AND MY OPERATION: My breast was rebuilt with stem cells from my tummy fat

“Every year more than 31,000 women in Britain have a lumpectomy for early-stage breast cancer, leaving a hollow in the breast.”

DR DAVID OLIVER: Elderly? Sorry… doctors just don’t give a damn about you?

“It’s the same with Alzheimer’s. The disease affects 700,000 people in the UK, but only £11 is spent per person every year on research, compared with £289 for each cancer patient.”

23rd April

Why deaths from breast cancer have fallen to a record low

“Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Britain, with 45,500 women diagnosed each year, or 125 every day – a 50 per cent rise in 25 years.

It is the second biggest cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer.An average of 300 men are also diagnosed annually, with around 90 of them dying.”

Other

21st April

The miracle survivor: I was given months to live… then my terminal cancer vanished

“Sharyn Mackay and John Pattison belong to an extraordinary club – people told they have terminal cancer only for their tumours to disappear inexplicably, to the astonishment of patient and doctor alike.”

24th April

New radiation fear over building used by atom pioneer Rutherford as cancer kills sixth ex-worker

“In a letter to Manchester University staff last month, Prof Coggan said the cluster of deaths was ‘unusual’ but added that he could not yet rule out sheer coincidence because there was no evidence linking pancreatic cancer to mercury or ionising radiation.”

Oh, dear! That was a total dog’s breakfast

A column startlingly rank in its unpleasantness today from Jan Moir, ostensibly talking about the pre-Budget press breakfast hosted by the Chancellor and his wife:

“Never mind the Budget, what about that ghastly budget breakfast? Alistair and Margaret Darling’s stagey repast on Wednesday morning was more theatrical than an end-of-the-pier Christmas panto – and slightly less believable.”

Quite apart from this missing the point spectacularly¹, the meanness of spirit evident in the sentence is striking – Darling is a man derided as being almost inhumanly dull (to take an example, in his sketch on the budget yesterday, fellow columnist Quentin Letts described Mr Darling as ‘the voice of accountancy manuals made flesh‘), and yet when he does try and present himself in a more relaxed setting he’s set upon. Which way should we have him – personable or inaccessible? Inaccessible it seems:

“‘The regrettable message from this most bogus of brekkies is that the Treasury thinks we are all as stupid as a huckleberry muffin.

It is obvious Mr Darling starts the day with nothing more than a bracing glass of tap water and a frozen suppository.”

Now, there is an obvious debate to be had around the presentation of politics, how necessary it is to have photo ops of you and your wife prior to giving the Budget speech and the idea of the paradox of liberal democracy², but surely we can have it without resorting to personal attacks? Apparently not:

“I don’t mean to be rude, but I bet it’s the first time Mrs Darling has had a frock on at breakfast time since the day she got married.

In her previous life, as a journalist on a Scottish newspaper, her occasionally frowsy appearance meant she was sometimes mistaken for the office cleaner.”

It seems we can’t even avoid collateral damage.³ Somewhere in all of this mud was a point about the manufactured nature of political image, but what Jan determindly misses is her own role in it. She presents a series of caricatures, drumming home the idea of the robotic Darling, his slovenly wife and their snobbish life when they’re off-duty, people disconnected from the electorate they are trying to appeal to. Her objection is the gulf between this ‘truthful’ depiction and the depiction of the Darling’s at breakfast, without stopping to wonder whether the former has bred the latter.

“Look. Kissing babies and posing for unlikely pix may be a necessary, regrettable part of the political landscape, but please, Darlings, don’t insult us too much.”

It isn’t, it’s completely unnecessary. We could be discussing policies, but instead we’re reducing everything to a soap opera of character misjudgements and personal attacks. This column does nothing to improve matters, it just further constructs the public image which the Chancellor will need to oppose if he is to get his message across and be taken seriously. While objecting to the cheapening of politics through theatrics, the column itself cheapens it, defeating what little object it had. To do it so poisonously only compounds the fault. If there’s no place for Darling’s breakfast there should certainly be no place for this.

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¹ It’s similar to bemoaning the traditional photo op hosted on the steps of number 11 with the red box – the Chancellor would never wave it about like that if the cameras weren’t there, it’s all a sham.

² Which essentially runs that the more you tell people what you’re doing as a politician, the more likely they are to believe you’re a liar.

³ As a side point,  if you need to apologise or justify your comment before you make it, you probably shouldn’t be making it – it suggests a knowing guilt that what you’re about to say transgresses some sort of boundary.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 13th April

Interestingly this week, as story went missing in between it arriving in my inbox and my checking it out – New prostate cancer cure ‘within three years’, scientists claim (16th April). Sounds like original research, if the link is ever unbroken, which is otherwise a bit thin on the ground this week with only potential new cures for Alzheimer’s causing cancer (possibly).

Original research

14th April

Stem cell fertility hope: Scientists make breakthrough in egg production which could put an end to the menopause

A report on: Zou et al. (2009) Production of offspring from a germline stem cell line derived from neonatal ovaries Nature Cell Biology doi:10.1038/ncb1869

So long sunburn! Scientists develop early warning strip which tells you EXACTLY when to hide in the shade

A report on:  Mills et al. (2009) Flagging up sunburn: a printable, multicomponent, UV-indicator that warns of the approach of erythema Chemical Communications 2009: 1345-1346

(see also The plaster that warns you about staying too long in the sun … by going red before you do, 14th March)

17th April

Worm protein could help ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s

A report on: Mehta et al. (2009) Proteasomal Regulation of the Hypoxic Response Modulates Aging in C. elegans Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1173507

Causes in brief

14th April

Ask the doctor: How can you beat cystitis after 70 years of misery?

“We have 16,000 deaths each year from colon cancer, for instance, most of which could be avoided if colon polyps could be detected before they turn malignant.”

15th April

The 19-year-old who had a double mastectomy to beat family cancer curse

“The chance of a woman developing breast cancer in her lifetime is one in nine, according to Cancer Research UK….Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK, with around 45,000 cases diagnosed each year.”

16th April

Asbestos in schools will kill pupils, warns teacher dying of skin cancer

“Children are at risk of dying from cancer in adulthood after being exposed to asbestos in schools, teachers warned today.”

Also mentions: Rake et al.  (2009). Occupational, domestic and environmental mesothelioma risks in the British population: a case-control study British Journal of Cancer DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6604879

17th April

It’s no one else’s damn business what we middle classes drink in the privacy of our own homes

“Whether you are a moderate drinker of red wine or you have another chosen tipple you are not only less likely to have a heart attack or a stroke but also less likely to suffer hypertension or high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, bone fractures and osteoporosis, kidney stones, digestive ailments, stress and depression, poor cognition and memory, Parkinson’s disease, hepatitis A, pancreatic cancer, macular degeneration (a major cause of blindness), angina pectoris, duodenal ulcer, erectile dysfunction, hearing loss, gallstones, or liver disease.”

A (potentially lethal) day in the life of a sunbed

“Experts last week blamed sunbeds for soaring rates of skin cancer among women in their 20s, with almost one woman a day now being diagnosed with the disease. Despite this, an estimated three million people in Britain still use them.”

18th April

The creams skin doctors use on their OWN faces

“They point out that low levels of the vitamin [D] are linked to breast, bowel and prostate cancer.”

19th April

‘I had the songs picked for my funeral and everything,’ says Ronan Keating on his cancer horror

“More than 2,000 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer every year in the UK. It is genetic and most common among white men aged between 15 and 40.

Before 1970, under five per cent of sufferers survived the disease but, since the introduction of combination chemotherapy in the Seventies, survival rates have steadily risen and are now 95 per cent, one of the highest survival rates of all cancers.”

Other

15th April

The mother of invention: The amazing array of health aids dreamt up by patients

“Prostate disorders affect 50 per cent of men over 40, so this device could help seven million men and prevent some of the 10,000 prostate cancer deaths a year, while saving the NHS £56million annually.”

17th April

Treatment that zaps prostate cancer cells developed by scientists

See press release here.

We CAN turn back the clock and make our schools places of excellence. Here’s how…

An extraordinarily wrong-headed column on education today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“All the solutions to all our problems are obvious but shocking.”

Which is reassuring, as I had previously thought that the complexities of life from which our problems arise would lead to equally complex solutions. I for one am quite glad that our fixes will be quick, and can only hope that the solutions ‘Peter’ suggests will also be effortless and painless with regard to me.

“Teachers need to be given back the power to use corporal punishment. We should leave the European Convention on Human Rights and other treaties which prevent the operation of commonsense British laws.”

One of the things which is interesting about the argument for corporal punishment in schools is that it’s never made in other areas – for example, if we take that most disciplined of institutions, the British Army, no one suggests that it needs to add slapping its recruits around a bit to its roster of punishments. Even in terms of convicted criminals, the debate tends to revolve more around making prisoner’s lives more difficult through enforced labour and harsher imprisonment conditions than it does around physical violence¹. There seems to be something special about schools and children that renders violence a useful solution to their discipline problems. Were this the case, it would be fascinating, as it would overturn the large body of psychological research that finds that positive punishments are less effective than either positive or negative reinforcement. ‘Peter’ seems to be unaware that research in this area (eg.) in fact suggests that this is not the case, and that corporal punishment is not helpful in putting children on the straight and narrow. We should be careful about enacting commonsense measures which the evidence suggests are ineffecatious.

“The school-leaving age should be reduced to 15. Secondary schools should be divided between the vocational and the academic, with selection on merit.”

This falls short of ‘Peter’s previous calls for a re-introduction of the grammar school system, but suffers from the same problem – its ahistoricity. If we assumed that everyone were the same and started from the same point, the segregation of children’s futures at 11 might not be so objectionable. However, in the world as we live it we have children who are naturally advantaged by supportive parents, nurturing home environments and access to stimulation and a culture of intellectualism at home, while we also have children without such advantages and with positive disadvantages such as family histories of academic non-achievement. To expect schools by 11 to have ironed out these advantages to such a degree that stupid rich children get the vocational education that they ‘merit’ while their intelligent poor counterparts are groomed for the life of intellectual activity that they ‘merit’ seems a bit fanciful. However, should schools not be able to do this we are left with a system which confirms educational and class divides, making them generational. The taxes of the underclass will go to confirming their status in the underclass, which is not so much a restoration of “order in our State” as a further corruption of it.

“The law permitting ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawsuits should be repealed. So should the Children Act 1989 and the other social workers’ charters which have robbed sensible adults of authority for two decades.”

Here I believe ‘Peter’ is referring to The Courts and Legal Services Act (1990) which opened the way for conditional fee agreements. The particularly interesting thing about these is that in the first few years since 2000 when Legal Aid was abolished for personal injury claims the number of people claiming compensation for personal injury fell suggesting that, rather than making it being easy to seek compensation, things are actually harder. It’s also worth remembering that ‘compensation culture’ isn’t about whingers getting money they shouldn’t, but about the realisation of a legal and social right which, in many cases, will largely go towards the costs of incurring an injury. Schools owe a duty of care to their pupils, and this will remain the case if it is harder for pupils to seek compensation for injuries incurred while at school. Making it harder merely introduces injustice into the system while simultaneously removing the incentive for schools to ensure that appropriate standards of care are met. Quite how abolishing the Children Act (1989) – with its seemingly sensible provisions insisting children are educated and protected from ill-treatment or neglect and that local authorities seek to reduce the need for interventions and, where possible, enable the family home to be maintained – will help the education system is unclear. This is somewhat weak – if ‘Peter’ is really proposing genuine solutions, he should at least explain how these solutions will resolve genuine problems, rather than just listing things he dislikes.

“Then we should embark on a Restoration Of The Married Family Act, which would end the many-headed attack on stable married families and restore the lost position of fathers in the home, one of the major causes of bad behaviour by boys.

Divorce should be difficult. Every social institution, every law, tax-break and benefit, should discriminate clearly and unapologetically in favour of those parents committed to each other by the marriage bond.”

Given the obvious benefits which already flow from being in a stable relationship if you have children, not to mention the unpleasantness of relationship breakdown and divorce, it is hard to see what difference tax breaks will make. Divorce is not easy, especially if you have children, representing as it does the failure of a common project with someone who was a major source of support and an independent arbiter of your self-worth. It would be interesting to know who ‘Peter’ is aware of who is having a happy and painless divorce but would have equally happily stayed together were there a little more money in it. Equally, while the incentivisation of stable relationships is understandable, how many people would actually marry for the money? It seems more likely that this would not disincentivise having a child out of wedlock, but merely penalise it further than in its natural state (and being a single parent is hardly easy), meaning further hardships for the child to cope with ensuring further difficulties in school.

“There are plenty of people still living who can testify that when such rules operated, millions of British people lived free and happy lives, learned useful things in orderly schools, did not need to be under police surveillance, pass through metal detectors on their way to classes or be watched by CCTV cameras.”

‘Peter’ is here confusing correlation with causation – the fact that things were different in the past does not mean that these differences are the causes of our current difficulties. For comparison, when such rules operated the Soviet Union held sway over the whole of Eastern Europe, but it is unlikely that the discussion and enactment of the Children Act brought about the end of Communism. Factors such as rising inequality, the generational compounding of such inequality, the lack of access to recreational facilities in our inner cities, changes in diet and  erosion of communities will have played a part. Simply making things harder for children and families on the margin, be it through punitive beatings, restriction of access to legal rights or financially penalising them will not improve the situation.

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¹ Although, if you can find a copy, Smith (1934) Corporal Punishment for Cruelty The Howard of Criminal Justice 4:15-18 gives an interesting view on the state of the debate at a point where people were still suggesting that flogging prisoners would do some good.

Why CAN’T Gordon say sorry?

Interesting consideration of the nature of apology and of agency today from Stephen Glover:

“One questions whether this is the letter of a normally functioning human being. He [Gordon Brown] could, and should, have written that he was sorry that Ms Dorries had been hurt by the repulsive email sent by a man whom he had chosen to employ. That would have been the kind and honest thing to have said. But such sentiments are not even hinted at. And because the Prime Minister was at pains to disassociate himself from the activities of his feral sidekick, he was unable to bring himself to apologise.”

A number of claims to unpack here: that Gordon Brown could have written to say he was sorry; that he should have done so; that this normative claim is due to the fact that he had chosen to employ the person who caused the suffering; that this would have been the kind thing to do; that this would have been the honest thing to do; that Gordon Brown wanted to distance himself from Damien McBride; that this was the reason that could not bring himself to apologise. Now, one of these is uncontroversial – Brown could have apologised; one probable – that Brown was trying to distance himself from his employee; one is speculative – that he couldn’t apologise because of this desire for distance; the rest are dubious or incorrect.

Let’s distinguish here between two senses of being sorry – sorry for and sorry that.¹ Only one of these two senses is the apology which Stephen expects. I can honestly say I’m sorry that emails were sent, or that offence was caused – I think the whole affair is thoroughly lamentable. However, I can’t say that I’m sorry for sending the emails, or for causing offence, because I am in no way connected to their sending or the offence they engendered. Gordon Brown has said the second sort of sorry, the letter of his which so disappoints Stephen expressed ‘great regret’ not only for this particular bad thing, but for all bad things of the type that ‘affect the reputation of our politics’. Just so you don’t think this is mere vapidity on his part, he backs up his words with a letter tightening up rules on political advisers, doing, in his words, ‘all he can to avoid this happening again’.

This is an expression of sorrow rather than an apology and that this is insufficient for Stephen’s purposes suggests that he is gunning for the first sense of sorry, being sorry for having done something. Now, Gordon didn’t send the emails and Stephen doesn’t suggest he endorsed, condoned, solicited, commissioned, devised or so much as knew about the emails. As a result, he is seemingly expecting Gordon to apologise for something someone else did.² How meaningful would we find such an apology?

Stephen seems to suggest that Gordon is in some way culpable because he employed the person who sent the emails. It’s worth remembering at this point that Damien was breaking the rules which governed his job and doing something that Gordon regrets. It’s one thing to criticise a man for knowingly employing someone who does regrettable things, it’s another to blame him for actions his employee has done on the sly knowingly contravening the guidelines which are in place to prevent it. It’s like blaming him for funding an employee’s drink problem when that demon is exercised only after work hours – it’s true that the funding is enabling the fulfilment of the addiction, but this is neither known nor foreseeable.³

In light of this then, where do we stand on Stephen’s earlier claims? Would an apology from Gordon been the kindest, most honest thing to do, or would it have been false and inappropriate? Is the lack of apology due to Gordon trying to distance himself, or is there actually a genuine distance there? The reason this matters is Stephen’s climax:

“And now? Mr Brown may have a more developed sense of morality than Mr Blair, yet he employed as a trusted lieutenant a man who disseminated scurrilous emails that would have brought a flush of shame to the face of Richard Nixon.

Mr Brown’s character is writ large in that short, disgraceful letter to Nadine Dorries. It is a terrifying thought that he can employ a man like McBride, while continuing to reassure himself that he has a finely developed moral compass.”

This is a distraction. Stephen’s drawing conclusions on a man’s morality from the actions of an underling and a letter he sent not apologising for employing that underling. Meanwhile, the economy, schools, hospitals, transport, two wars, any amount of international development, communities, agriculture, the regions, the environment and any number of other things rage outside. While Stephen is constructing intricate orreries of political figures reputations, the world goes on. The moral character of the Prime Minister is not what should be concerning us – the spin and evasion that reduces accessibility of our elected officials, the struggle for power rather than the debate of ideas, the fact that a government employee considered this a worthwhile use of their time, these should be concerning us. The fact that this has become a morality play only further confirms in the minds of the average individual the fact that politics is completely disconnected from their lives. Even if he were responsible for the emails, the problem would not be Gordon’s character, but the fact that he wasn’t doing what he’s paid to do. The longer we waste our time on this, the more important decisions will pass by unnoticed and the more solvable social problems will be overlooked. Let’s judge people on their actions, but do so on the ones that actually matter.

—————

¹ I’m ignoring the sense of being sorry on behalf of, which would only really apply where the person who did the bad thing is unable to form an apology themselves (we apologise on behalf of children, for example), partly because I doubt Stephen wants Gordon to apologise on Damien’s behalf (I think he’d prefer it if they both apologised) and partly because there’s a fairly large debate to be had on the meaningfulness of an apology for something done by someone who isn’t actually sorry themselves.

² Imagine Gordon took this further, and tried to make amends and ask for forgiveness – would it make sense for Nadine Dorries to offer him forgiveness for Damien’s emails?

³ To Stephen’s claim that this was foreseeable  (“In other words, Mr Brown knew the kind of man he was employing. He was drawn to him. He picked him out.”), there are two obvious rejoinders: that you can legitimately hire someone for their desirable aspects even when these have undesirable flip-sides and that one would expect better from a PR guru than to be caught gossipping in writing.

Strange Ontology: Week beginning 6th April 2009

The story about the new drug which can shrink ovarian tumors has gone in ‘other’ as I can find no evidence of a published report of the trial (if anyone can point me in the right direction, I’ll happily upgrade it to ‘original research’, but until I’m happy that people with scientific knowledge have reviewed the research to be sound and agreed to put it out in an academic journal because it will be valuable to other academics I’ll carry on treating it like a press release).

However, the ‘oral sex linked to throat cancers’ is included in ‘Original research’, despite being 2 years old – note the similarity with this BBC story from 2007.

Anyway, in summary, this week a genetic flaw causes skin cancer, brocolli can prevent stomach cancer, yoga can help you deal with the depression that comes with knowing you have breast cancer and oral sex causes oral and throat cancers.

Original research

6th April

Discovered: The genetic flaw that triggers skin cancer

A report on: Dhomen et al. (2009) Oncogenic Braf Induces Melanocyte Senescence and Melanoma in Mice Cancer Cell 15:294-303

7th April

Eat broccoli every day for two months to help prevent stomach cancer, scientists claim

A report on: Yanaka et al. (2009) Dietary Sulforaphane-Rich Broccoli Sprouts Reduce Colonization and Attenuate Gastritis in Helicobacter pylori-Infected Mice and Humans Cancer Prevention Research 2:353

How yoga can help you cope with breast cancer

A report on: Danhauer et al. (2009) Restorative yoga for women with breast cancer: findings from a randomized pilot study Psycho-Oncology 18:360-368

8th April

Men look away: Oral sex REALLY does cause some throat cancers

A report on: D’Souza et al. (2009) Case-Control Study of Human Papillomavirus and Oropharyngeal Cancer New England Journal of Medicine 356:1944-1956

Causes in brief

6th April

Theme Park Britain – Courtesy of the BBC

“DDT, which completely ruined the reproductive system of the otter (as it is also linked to Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer etc)”

7th April

Severely burned man, 30, gets new face and hands in world-first operation

“Heavy use of immunosuppressors also boosts the risk of cancer.”

8th April

‘I was hooked on sunbeds twice a day. Then my skin fell off and I needed chemotherapy’

“In fact, the cash administrator had the deadliest form, a malignant melanoma, which is the most common form of cancer affecting women in their 20s.”

The tanorexia timebomb: Sunbeds blamed as skin cancer soars in young women

“Damage from UV builds up over time. Every time young people use a sunbed they are harming their skin and increasing their risk of cancer.'”

11th April

New vaccination fears over plan to give hepatitis jabs at eight weeks old

“The virus is commonly spread by unprotected sex and needle sharing among drug addicts, and is 100 times more infectious than HIV. The disease can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.”

Other

6th April

How safe is the cervical cancer jab? Five teenagers reveal their alarming stories

“It has been hailed as the wonder jab that will prevent thousands of young women suffering the same terrible fate as Jade Goody. But as parents across Britain rush to have their daughters vaccinated, others are adamant that it has triggered alarming side-effects…”

7th April

Tumour-shrinking miracle drug gives fresh hope to women suffering ovarian cancer

“A drug developed by British scientists could offer fresh hope to women with ovarian cancer.”

9th April

Agonising hip pain is not just for the old… it could be triggered by a virus

“The difficulty for doctors is that a child’s limp can be a sign of far more sinister conditions such as cancer or septic arthritis in the hip which, without urgent antibiotics or surgery, can eat away at the joint.”

‘Wi-fi networks must be removed from schools to stop children getting cancer,’ teachers insist

“The Association of Teachers and Lecturers called for classroom wireless networks to be suspended immediately until research has properly considered the threat to health.”