1) Editor’s note; 2) political geometry; 3) climate change; 4) science news; 5) antique principle
From the Editor. There were privately circulated pre-launch editions of Cold Salad, and it has been suggested that those could now be posted for the wider audience. This would smack of ‘filler’ journalism as currently popular in the alternative universe of the ‘media’ (in fact often the main component even in news broadcasts, on channels stoically cutting costs like the BBC). However three items in particular have been cited, so we shall use them and thus get a little more spare time to practise scrimshaw on the bones of shipwrecked sailors that lie scattered all round the coasts of this island. (Tourists queue up to buy the stuff, though to tell the truth we usually just buy bones from a local butcher.) With apologies to the privileged few who have seen them before we add one of those items at the end here, with the others proposing to re-appear later.
Before pressing the starter button, though, it occurs to me that cost-cutting in the media very often seems to succeed in sparing that vital administrative layer at the upper end. ‘We are all in this together’ would of course be a disastrous principle to follow when trying to make a business – or a country – more efficient, and it is a relief to see it discarded not merely in the media but right across the whole range of activities in all modern developed economies. I’ve been ruminating on a possible ‘Cold Salad Law of disemployment’: other things equal, the chances of losing one’s job are inversely proportional to d, one’s distance from the base of the hierarchy, while d is directly proportional, other things equal, to the chances of doing the actual work. Might be worth running that past my audience at my speech to the Women’s Institute next week.
One of the humbugs that the collective British psyche likes to suck on from time to time is the idea that Britain has the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy. There are reasons why this sweetmeat should not be swallowed whole; for one, it is not true – both the Isle of Man and Iceland have older independent parliaments (insofar as any political entity other than a state at the top of the current international foodchain can be said to be independent.) Another problem is the strange aftertaste, namely a belief that Britain’s arrangement, with ‘our side’ against ‘the opposition’, is the world’s best system of government. Now the capacity to believe one thing while standing in front of its diametrical opposite is one of the more bizarre human traits that nature may not have foreseen when she allowed the first crossopterygian to flop out of the steaming oceans onto the Devonian mudflats. Nonetheless it is there now, along with more predictable qualities such as altruism, hatred, dishonesty, and greed. (Surely a little more effort could have anticipated bankers, and devised some predator to take care of that problem.) If you want evidence of the capacity, remember that tribe in the Amazon who are reported to believe in all seriousness that they are (perhaps in some clintonian sense) a species of red parrot. Nevertheless the conflict between belief and reality in this matter of British parliamentary excellence is so acute that even the most governable citizen may spot the problem if somehow able to view it at a distance great enough.
In fact the British parliament, is like the twin heads of a monster. Below the neck the two competing sides are so similar that grosso modo they might be treated as one, and often are. But no matter what ideas are forced by whatever means into one head, in nearly every case some obscure hydraulic fault in the political physiology results merely in the exhalation of vapours of an exactly countervailing composition from the other head. If anything is ever done with the ideas, it is done elsewhere at another time, and in the main by other actors. That is, the noise in parliament may be an echo of the roaring and grating sounds as the country rumbles along, but the motive forces operate elsewhere.
The odd thing is that the pundits who agree that a two-sided parliament, both reflecting and encouraging conflict, is not constructive often assume it is one of only three possible arrangements. One of the two others is to abolish the adversarial system by getting rid of the adversary, in other words install an autocracy in which case the way that a parliament – if any – is conducted becomes immaterial. But the trouble with this approach to making the trains run on time is that they tend to run over human and social rights strapped to the rails not far up the line. The other popular solution is to replace the two-sided asylum by a more or less semicircular chamber as in France with seating arranged according to where members see themselves in the political spectrum. The idea here is that members will appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong, because they sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details. And there is no visible yawning pit at any point beyond which the inhabitants are clearly too alien to wear white hats and must therefore be enemy forces, and if they are too far away round the circumference verbal and physical combat becomes impracticable anyway.
The semicircular chamber is certainly heading in the right direction. What is wrong with it is the seating fixed according to political beliefs, and it is really quite easy to overcome this. One rather attractive idea would be to group members by the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance. Or we could simply place them in an alphabetical order. Or we could arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right, shortest on the left. This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway. But the idea which we like best is the one which follows what you do with children at some birthday parties, where a number is pinned on each guest as they come in, and that gives them their seat when the bunfighting begins. This way the members of a parliament would get a different seat each day. Sooner or later they would be almost bound to meet most of the other members close up, and could hardly avoid coming to see their neighbour for the day as a human being. They would then be so taken up with observing his or her personal habits – cleaning ears with a pencil, nose-picking, carrying a briefcase full of garlic sausage sandwiches, breaking wind and so on – that there would be little time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of one of the more repellent forms of political wickedness. A disadvantage of this system is that it might lend itself to manipulation; the more cunning among the politicians might lurk around the entrance so that they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member. This, however, could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software.
But if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it is superficial merely to allocate seats in the chamber by lottery. An idea which must naturally occur to us, and we dare say many would agree, is `Wouldn’t it be better to go the whole hog and choose the members by lottery in the first place?’
Climate change. The question is ‘What effective action can be taken against global warming?’ The answer is ‘None’. There will be no effective action against climate change, because the great majority of those who would have to take it are politicians in countries with elections. Their primary goal is winning at the next election, at most four or five years away. (If they were to propose sensible measures their opponents would get in by promising the opposite.) Action against climate change would not produce useful results within a period of at the very least fifteen years. Precisely analogous considerations apply to autocratic rulers except those blindly confident of staying in power, who are consequently likely soon to lose it, and be replaced by some ruler of the other varieties.
Quod est desperandum.
The lengths to which some governments will go in order to get rid of their research budget are marvellous to behold. Recently scientists in Idaho announced that they had discovered that Prozac leads fish to develop symptoms of autism. It is true that there is not much else to do in Idaho except grow and eat potatoes. Nevertheless we are impressed. What next? Dosing chickens with diphenhydramine to see if it induces dyslexia? Mandelic acid in the feed for goats as a factor in attention-deficit disorder?
Principles of the past
Simple Simon [our unpaid office intern reading from a scrap of paper on the notice board]:
The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government
Who said that? Some sort of wishy-washy softy leftist, I suppose.
The Deputy Editor [irritated]: Not in the least. Absolutely not.
Simon Well, OK. But not in a position where he could actually face that sort of situation.
Dep. Ed. On the contrary, in a position of the highest responsibility for lives and deaths.
Simon But obviously not in a crisis when he might really have to act on his principle.
Dep. Ed. That was Churchill, British prime minister, November 1943