Author Archives: Third Avenue

Terror stalks Britain. Terror stalks much of the Western world. According to journalist Anthony Browne, whose pamphlet ‘The Retreat of Reason‘ has been making considerable waves over the past couple of weeks, this terror is political correctness. A scourge of modern life that has poisoned public debate. Worse, since 1997 Britain has been run ‘by a government largely controlled by politically-correct ideology’. Scary. What does this ideology entail? Well:

people who transgress politically correct beliefs are seen not just as wrong, to be debated with, but evil, to be condemned, silenced and spurned.

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Regular readers of The Sharpener will remember that back in the spring I dedicated numerous column inches to the arcane issue of the West Lothian question: How can it be justified that Scottish MPs have the right to vote on English issues that do not concern their constituents, while English MPs do not have the same right to vote on Scottish issues?

In my previous posting I argued that, personally, I did not think that the West Lothian question was so big an issue that it required further constitutional change. Very many disagreed with me. Some pointed to an English parliament as a workable (if, in my view, hugely expensive, complex and disruptive) option tied to UK-wide federalism.

A totally unworkable solution, one betraying a deep ignorance of and contempt for the British constitution, was the one chosen by the Tory party at the last general election. This is how I described it then: Read More

Tradition. The glue that holds societies together. That defines the change of the seasons, the ebb and flow of years. And is there a country on earth where tradition holds sway to a greater extent than Britain?

This time of the year sees one of my favourite British traditions. Like most traditions, it is highly ritualised and varies remarkably little from year to year. But small changes are allowed, as the British know instinctively that freezing a tradition will inevitably result in its atrophy and decline. For the benefit of any foreign readers to this site, here is how it works.

This tradition goes under the general title of the ‘Turner Prize’, and functions as follows:

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Washington, DC is abuzz today with the fallout of a momentous week’s news. Harriet Miers is toast. Lewis Libby suddenly finds he has a lot of time on his hands. And Karl Rove is still left sweating.

And who frames this debate? Who to a large extent drives it, shapes it, boosts it? The blogs. Blogging in the US is huge. To take one example, the Daily Kos, one of the leading liberal blogs, gets a daily readership of nearly 850,000. Well over three quarters of a million. Adjusting for population, a UK blog would need to get a daily readership of around 200,000 to compete. And yet how many British blogs get even one percent of that figure? Even half of one percent? Precious few.

What is the matter with us British bloggers? Where are we going wrong? Is it that:

  • we are just not as clever as the Americans?
  • we are stymied by the Official Secret Acts?
  • we spend too much time trashing each other or writing posts on the lines of: ‘X wrote this in a newspaper today, X is an idiot, hurrah’?
  • the British mainstream media does a better job than its US counterpart, thus reducing the need for blogs?

Or is there some other, deeper national malaise that we need to crack?

Answers please.

As Thomas Hobbes almost said, the lives of many of our ancestors were nasty, brutish and short. While nastiness and brutishness may still be making the rounds, the duration of life in modern Western society has expanded beyond the wildest dreams of our forefathers.

We now laugh in the face of the infections that only a few generations ago would have carried us off to an early grave. More and more people are surviving, and surviving for many years, the types of cancer that even a decade or two back would have proved fatal. We are pushing death ever further away, and are likely to continue doing so. But death still claims all of us in the end, even if our manner of approaching it, fighting it or welcoming it is increasingly the subject of painful debate. Read More

I knew this would be a night to remember soon after leaving the subway stop. Less than a block away, the queue started. From the entrance to Mason Hall, it twisted down 23rd Street and onto Lexington Avenue. Its sweaty torso, dripping in the clammy heat of a September evening, reached all the way down to 22nd Street, before snaking back almost as far as Third Avenue.

Mounting expectations

This was not the queue for people looking for tickets. No, those sad souls were soon put right as to the hopelessness of their cause. It was not the queue for people wanting to pick up their already-reserved tickets from the box office. That queue had its own, separate path. The queue that brought in mind Soviet food shortages from the early 1990s was merely the queue of ticket-holders waiting to get into the hall.

A rather desperate-looking young woman was offering $100 for two tickets (face value – $12). Leaflet-wielders made their rounds up and down the queue. Did I know that 9/11 was a conspiracy cooked up by the US government? That the workers should rise up and overthrow the evil cabal of Washington? That Galloway, the ‘toad of Damascus’, was a tool of vile dictators? Pavement debates about the merits of the war, the failures of Bush, and the anticipated entertainment, sprang up all around.

I joined the queue at 6.20pm. The event was due to start at 7pm. Such was the pressure for seats, so overwhelmed were the door staff, that the first words were not uttered until it was almost 7.45pm.
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Few weeks in modern US history have been as momentous as this last one. It saw two events that are likely to have a huge impact on the way Americans see themselves and how they are governed.

First, there was Katrina. The whole country, the whole world, has watched in disbelief as a great American city seemed to go the way of Atlantis and the mightiest superpower appeared unable to do anything about it. Federal, state and local authorities were all found to be lacking, and the billions invested into homeland security since September 2001 seemed to have added little to the nation’s ability to cope with a predicatable and predicted disaster.

But for this post I want to concentrate on the second event of the week, one that will have repercussions for decades to come, in all likelihood long after the Gulf Coast has recovered from the ravages of Katrina.

I write of the death of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, and of the subsequent nomination of John Roberts to be his successor.
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Was there once a better time to be British? A time when life was sweet and untroubled? When we were a more moral nation? In other words, was there a Golden Age for Britain, which we have now squandered with our descent into crime, aggression, family breakdown and ethical laxity? Many think there was, others claim such an age was a myth, while yet others claim that it is this myth of a Golden Age that is the myth.

But what would it be like if we could recreate a lost moral order? How much sweeter would life really be? Let me send a fairy godmother to an average British street. Let her fly down a fictional Acacia Avenue, working her magic to re-establish our lost Golden Age. Let’s observe the results.

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It is one of those undisputed tenets of faith of many right-wing commentators that Europe is a hot-bed of anti-Americanism. That Europeans instinctively reject anything that comes from the States simply because it has an American tag attached to it. The war in Iraq, Bush’s refusal to sign up to the Kyoto agreement, the Republican tax-cutting agenda, MacDonald’s and Starbucks – opposition to all these things is frequently portrayed as emanating from an knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Uncle Sam and all his works are fundamentally evil.

But is anti-Americanism really that widespread? And where precisely does legitimate criticism of the USA stray over the line into blatant anti-American sentiment?
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Constitutional issues have a curious ability to excite those with a particular interest in them to a near frenzy, while leaving the rest of the population at best bemused, at worst somnolent.

One such issue is voting reform, a subject already dealt with in some detail on this site. Another, and one with the potential to put an even more ferocious cat among the pigeons, is the West Lothian question.

Much has been written over the years about it, and a lot of that has had only a nodding acquaintance with actual facts. So, at a risk of sending some to sleep, I want to try to get to grips with what the West Lothian question is, and how, if at all, we should try to answer it. Some of the following posting is taken from articles I have written on my own site over the past few months.
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