breaking news from the world of ideas

by Paul Embery
Tuesday, 10
September 2019

Where are our unions when we need them most?

If this week’s TUC Annual Congress has so far passed you by, you aren’t alone. It probably hasn’t registered with most of Britain’s six million trade union members either.

There was a time when the annual gathering of Britain’s trade unions was seen as a key event in the political calendar. Labour correspondents (remember them?) would devote vast column inches to the goings-on inside the conference hall.

Leaders like Jack Jones were known in every household

Images of gnarled old union bruisers holding forth at the rostrum would be beamed live into the nation’s living rooms via the BBC. Leaders of the movement would be sent up by Mike Yarwood on prime time TV. The names Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon – the ‘terrible twins’ – were known in every household. ...  Continue reading

by Ed West
Monday, 9
September 2019

Extreme? On all issues but one, the Tories have never been softer.

There’s an old joke in which a man laments how all the achievements of his life are overshadowed by a single act of gross sexual perversion, for which he is forever known. “Do they call me MacGregor the bridge-builder? No!”

The moral of the story is that, however much you achieve, you will always be remembered for your most extreme and eye-catching behaviour.

According to a poll in yesterday’s Sunday Times, the two main political parties in Britain are now regarded as “extreme” by half the population. Some 46% of voters said they felt that way about the Tories and 52% about Labour.

“Extreme” is in the eye of the beholder, but the general understanding of the term is of dangerous political ideas that lie beyond normal parameters. We regard as extreme those things we hate, and so the population viewing mainstream political opponents as “extreme” could just be a symptom of growing partisan hostility, as in the States, where 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believe their rivals “so misguided that they threatened the wellbeing of the nation”. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 9
September 2019

What has the EU ever done for us?

REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

XERXES: Brought peace.

REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

So … what have the EU ever done for us? Remainers like to pose this question (google it, they really do) because it is supposed to remind us of that famous scene from Life of Brian. And, as with that scene, they imagine a long list of basic things that we have taken for granted and which we really ought to be grateful for.

Monty Python, ‘The Life of Brian’ (1979)

But a new book coming out later this month tells a different story. And it turns out that Reg may have been right all along. The best thing the Roman empire ever did for us was to collapse. For without the fall of Rome, European culture would not have flourished. ...  Continue reading

by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 7
September 2019

Yale’s real problem is not free speech

If you’re tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 6
September 2019

Would you clone your dead cat?

Mr Yu’s cat died of a urinary tract infection. The cat’s name was Garlic. Mr Yu buried him in the park. A few hours later he dug him up and put it in the fridge. He had remembered something about a new company that had started to clone pets.

A man came over from Bejing and took skin samples. $35,000, and seven months later, Mr Yu is now the proud owner of his new version of Garlic – according to the press, China’s first cloned cat. Garlic mark 2 was born in the lab using a surrogate mother. It has been called “a feline version of The Handmaid’s Tale”.

China’s first cloned kitten, Garlic.

China is the wild west when it comes to cloning, with no regulations applying to cloning animals. So far the company called Sinogene has cloned more than 40 dogs, at a cost of about $53,000 each. “There is market demand,” says the man from Sinogene, “so where is the problem?” ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Friday, 6
September 2019

Why we need to remember Martin Weitzman

Terrible news about the death of Martin Weitzman, a brilliant economist best known for his groundbreaking work on the risks of climate change.

He went against the conventional approach, which is to calculate the so-called social cost of carbon, based on what we think we know about the most likely climate change scenarios. The idea is that this social cost then determines how much we spend on mitigating the risks – preferably by means of a carbon tax to put a price on each unit of carbon emitted.

Martin Weitzman

That all sounds very rational – but Weitzman urged us to think again. What we should be most concerned with is not what we know, but what we don’t know; and furthermore we should act in accordance not with the most likely scenarios, but the more extreme possibilities. Statisticians call these the “tail risks” because in a normal bell curve of probabilities – the most unlikely (but highly consequential) outcomes are described not by the hump in the middle of the curve, but the long, flattish bits at either end – i.e. the tails. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 6
September 2019

Harry Potter can be a sacred text

I was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts recently, which had the cheery theme of Apocalypse. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is presented by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper Ter Kuile, two non-religious Harvard Divinity graduates, who discuss the Rowling books as though they were sacred texts. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

For them, it is how a text is read that makes it sacred, not its literal content. So if we can read a book expecting it to help us get better at loving — with rigour and within a community —  it can be sacred. Their podcast provides a space where, they hope, a generation of millennials — millions of whom know which Hogwarts house they belong to but feel no affiliation with organised religion — can find a way to make meaning.  ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 5
September 2019

Toryism is not conservatism

I agreed with most of Ed West’s brilliant defence of the 21 rebel Tories. Indeed, I have an interest to declare: I used to work for one of them, Greg Clark. Greg, as well as deserving his reputation as the “nicest man in Westminster”, is also one of the most intelligent and principled. He wouldn’t have voted the way he did if he didn’t believe it to be in the best interests of the country.

Nevertheless, there’s a narrative settling around the 21 that I have to take issue with. It’s the idea that the Conservative Party is divided between swivel-eyed libertarian revolutionaries on the one hand, and a beleaguered remnant of pragmatic, traditional Tories on the other – and that furthermore it’s the latter that keep the flame of true conservatism alive. ...  Continue reading