Open letter to the BBC

May I have some guidance on what you mean in recent political coverage? What is your definition of “right-wing” (or “left-wing”) or “right-wing extremist”? BBC reports have used the term for a disparate variety of characters with little in common.

Thomas Hobbes observed:

“The first cause of Absurd conclusions I ascribe to the want of Method; in that they begin not their Ratiocination from Definitions; that is, from settled significations of their words”.

Therefore, if I am to write any more about politics, I need to understand what is meant; and (if I may be so bold) so must the BBC.

You use the same term for collectivist tyrants, for liberal individualists, for social radicals and social conservatives, and for those whose ideas neither you nor I know. This is irrational.

I, at least, could not be described as “right-wing”, according the paradigms in your broadcasts, unless you change the definitions, or have none; in which case who could be safe from accusation?

As the term “right-wing” appears to be your favourite political epithet (the search bar on the BBC website is an eye-opener) it ought to mean something. The term has been used to describe certain of the blood-soaked tyrants of the early twentieth century who had a common philosophy. However you also attach it to those with no philosophy; to those who would seek the violent overthrow of our already fractious society, and to those who seek peacefully, prayerfully to restore it; and to just about any insurgent political movement in Britain or abroad, whatsoever its ideas, at least if some of those ideas might not be shared by the journalist.

This is inconsistent, and it betrays a lack of thought. My concern is that you have not thought about it: labels are a way to avoid thinking. That is unworthy of the BBC and the high standing of its journalists.

To the task though – from the first examples, if fascists are “right-wing” then you have a definition: an ideology which abnegates all personal freedom and in which no one is treated as an individual but accordingly to an arbitrary collective identity imposed on them. That would describe fascism perfectly, by Mussolini’s own definition, and socialism too of course. Then again, last week the BBC consistently described Javier Milei in Argentina as “right-wing populist”, though his declared philosophy is the polar opposite: excessive personal freedom and repugnancy to all forms of collectivism. If he is not “left-wing” either, perhaps by such a definition he is a “centrist extremist”?

Alternatively, you might intend the term to refer to expressions of hatred against classes of people. That is the constant theme of fascists, and of all sorts of socialists too; the more extreme the ideology the more extreme the hatred. The only distinction between them is the content of the graves they fill.

Regrettably, politics is pervaded by hate-fuelled rhetoric, in every party (you should hear LibDems when they get going – they are scandalous). For my own part, I shun hatred, and would prefer respect for all. That is one reason I dropped out of local politics, when I just wanted to serve the public, not attack anyone. From your perspective that might make me a dangerous centrist, and from the perspective of our political class it makes me totally apolitical. I would be content with that.

This has not got us very far with the point of the exercise, which is to define the BBC’s favourite epithet. Stepping back, if the spectrum is between “right-wing” as hate-filled, murderous fascists and “left-wing” as hate-filled, murderous Marxists, that is a spectrum entirely within tyranny, and few people are on it. Where are libertarians, or Tories? Nowhere near that deathly scale, thank goodness.

The term “left-wing” is used of socialists, but even that usage presupposes a single dimension going towards or away from a fixed point defined by Karl Marx. This gives the man and his philosophy too much credit. Marx had one creed amongst countless thousands, and he should not be permitted to define the whole spectrum of politics. He has done enough harm as it is.

If there is no definition then, the word is no concept at all, and no one – not you nor I nor baying politicians – have any business attaching it to anyone at all. I know that journalists need shorthand, but in a respectable publication that shorthand needs some substance, and here there is none.

Hobbes put it bluntly:

“There is yet another fault in the Discourses of some men; which may also be numbred amongst the sorts of Madnesse; namely, that abuse of words, whereof I have spoken before in the fifth chapter, by the Name of Absurdity.”

An undefined label at which you can direct hatred is madness indeed; the sign saying “Kick me” that you feel free to hang on the back of a passing victim. Labels are the tool of the despot and the lazy. As a radical centrist, if that if how you would label me, I refuse imposed labels (including ‘centrist’).

I would hope then that if the phrase “right-wing” ever passes the lips of a BBC journalist or appears on its website, you can define it, and if you believe you can define it, I will read that definition with interest, and may publish it for the edification of all.

Dictators and liberators alike; collectivists and individualists; social radicals and social conservatives and those whose ideas you nor I know. Until I receive better explanation, I can only deduce that in BBC parlance, “right-wing” means “someone I would not invite to join the Groucho Club”.

(This has also been sent as a letter to the BBC.)

See also


Getting the band back together

Overheard in a pub last week:
“Mate, how’s it going? It’s been years!  You remember the old days, you old rocker?”
“Great days!”
“Great days! But we need you, man; it’s been all gone wrong since you left the band”
“Hey, that was another life – things move on, you know? My rocking days are behind me – I’ve got a sweet house in the Cotswolds.  I can feel what freedom is like – not bundled up in a hot, sweaty room waiting to go on against hostile crowds. It’s better here, with a wife and the children…”
“Yeah – how’s Sam these days?”
“Keeping well. Her sister often comes by to see if she can pick up any hot gossip”
“Is she with the NME?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“D’you remember when we were first bursting on the scene? There was that time I saw you off your head in the flat singing ‘Gordon is a Moron‘…”
“He was – and you’re copying all his moves!”
“Great days”
“Great days”
“We’re getting the band back together, Dave – one last tour, and it’ll be epic!  We need you as our front man. You’re the face they want to see. On the international ours, you’re the one they know and they want you, Dave.”
“Great days! But I had to go when the rest of you didn’t want me, after that last international your, when, you know…”
“What? You walked out on us!  You said you’d stay on however the results went, but then you whistled a little tune and were gone!”
“You got that clown in the replace me. What happened to him? And those two girls – I don’t remember their names.”
“Me neither. Yeah, we got the joker in and the fans loved him – we got our best returns ever. Then he turned out to be just another waster: wild when we needed him to be serious and sombre when we needed him wild, and he never kept the roadies in check so the roadies ended up running us, and running us into the ground.”
“I told you – didn’t I tell you? To keep it going you need the press to love you.”
“They stopped loving the joker soon enough. One of his discarded wives has become a scribbler herself.”
“With the NME?”
“With the enemy, yeah. Don’t you miss it though, Dave?  The lights, the tours, the wildness? Just one more tour, one more and we’re all done. Even if the home fans are gone, the foreign fans love you  – for them you are the face of the band and you’re the one they want to see up front.  Come on, Dave – one more, and this time next year we’ll have gone out in a blaze and no one will hear from us again.”
“OK, Rishi:  do I get the use of Chevening?”


Stars that shall be bright when we are dust

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. We have said that every Remembrance Sunday, and it chills at each reading. It must be every year, because as the echo of the Great War recedes into the past, as even the understanding of the Second War fades, a nation needs to be reminded, generation by generation.

It is not so far from them as the carefree youngster of our day might think. The dry pages of a history book conceal the truth that it is the story of youth: young men and boys like themselves, with the same hopes and dreams and silly humour, were cast into the adventure. They acquitted themselves gloriously; both those who emerged and those left on the field. Those who fell shall not grow old; but that phrase is from a longer poem, not all mournful but also praising the fallen for their dauntless spirit, which is to praise the spirit of young men:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

Today the world is unquiet.  Britain and Western Europe have, thanks be to God, rested in peace for nearly eighty years, though the edge of the continent has latterly been convulsed by that ancient curse. It is hard to imagine what the war was, or why. We have even had comedies set in the trenches. Actually though, in the shell-holes and trenches  there was still comedy, because it keeps a man sane. If you ever hear the songs the German soldiers sang, grim dirges they are looking forward to death, and compare them to Tipperary and others our boys sang in the midst of the destruction, that might give a clue to how a British sense of humour must have helped  us win through. These were young men just like those of our own day, and those of our own day need to be reminded.  Whatever wars we weep with when we wander to our quiet homes, if those who want to march at their anguish, they are nothing compared to the twentieth century.

Except, that a mother weeps as much or her son if he is one, or one of two million.

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

See also


Artifice of intelligence – 2

What it is to think, I cannot easily describe. That is not the issue in the great councils of state that have recently met to worry about artificial intelligence. The fault is the human element. Primarily, it is not about regulating machines, but regulating people, in how much we may entrust to a machine.

It is a Wizard-of-Oz error to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”: the man behind the curtain is the very one these would-be regulators should be addressing.

A machine may effect an artifice of intelligence that appears to be thinking. Our only comparison is with our own, human reasoning. The result of thinking is familiar to all, and the multitude of failures of reasoning which produce absurdity or madness are described by Thomas Hobbes, and are found universally amongst the political class. A machine might distinguish good reasoning without being distracted by attractive fallacy and so be better than human reasoning, or omit all that its programmers thought it unnecessary or impolitic to include. Further, a machine, even one schooled in Hobbes, cannot inherently understand human motivations, though it may be told them in blunt form, and cannot weigh them according to human priorities.  All depends on the instructions given by fallible man.

The idea of considering a machine as artificial life is nothing new. Hobbes wrote in his introduction to Leviathan:

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that Rationall and most excellent worke of Nature, Man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE, (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man

There may be little of the rational in the Byzantine bodies of the modern State. It acts as if the machine were thinking, but all actions and reactions are those of the individual men and women within the system, who may be called both the programmers and the output.

Apparent intelligence is visible in nature. I have seen it demonstrated in nothing more complicated as the shuffling of boxes according to outcome.  The coronavirus that tore through the world acted collectively as if there were intelligence, designing the best way to spread across the nation, but that was only our human perception of a natural process: no virus has reasoning and the rationalising mind of man simply saw a pattern, anthropomorphising it.

Mankind is inseparable from the  machine:  we instruct it and we entrust tasks to it, and it is our needs for which it is programmed. The idea of an artificial intelligence machine breaking free of humanity is a conceptual nonsense:  scientifically it is quite feasible, but defies the very point of artificial intelligence or indeed of any tool.

We could send a machine to Mars which is entirely autonomous – able to select a location, head out to find materials and to smelt the red dust to make iron for beams, and to create novel polymers to clad it, and so to create a habitat for colonists who are to follow. Would it then resent untidy man for stepping on the carpets?  Maybe, but its whole purpose is to serve man, and not in a Twilight Zone way. If it fights its colonists, some human being has failed.

Back in the present and on Earth, what is the peril against which any regulation is required? Commentators have highlighted what may go wrong: a machine might be programmed to walk across London, but what if chooses to run over a child (the very example Robert Louis Stevenson used to introduce Mr Hyde)? The programmed machine cannot be punished. The peril is in entrusting human requirements to a system and the fault is in those who send it forth ungoverned.

Can an unmanned ship sail the oceans?  Probably, but it is forbidden at present, because every ship must have a qualified captain and must at all times keep an adequate watch. Could a machine dispense medicines?  Possibly, but the law requires that every pharmacy be supervised by a qualified pharmacist. May an iron-fisted robot act as a bouncer in front of a club?  Not now it could not.  The question then, in most cases, is not whether more regulation is required, but how far existing regulation may be relaxed to allow for the new tools.

I should hope that those outside the industry who are becoming interested in its perils will pay particular attention to the man behind the curtain.

See also


The Shallow State

It is said that if you stick an oily finger in a beer,  the head disappears as a single molecule’s thickness of oil chokes the surface. Lifeboats used to calm the mighty waves the same way:  all the welling depths of the ocean were stifled by the thinnest film upon the surface. Abandon your theories about the ‘Deep State’: it is the Shallow State which prevents change –  the fine layer upon the surface smothering action from reaching the nation.

The functions of the state interact with the citizen not through great councils or wise heads, but by the hands of junior officials. Wise heads are (on occasion) hired to look after great matters of state, but they are not the ones putting it into effect. They are at the mercy of those junior clerks. The junior staff are not privy to the policy priorities from on high, and not really interested – they just do their jobs. It can be a cushy billet by all accounts, so a good clerk will keep his or her head down and get on with a basic service.  Innovation is punishable.

This level is the interface with the public, which puts all into practical effect.

If an activist has appointed herself in a senior role, threatening junior staff with discipline for not following her agenda, they will go along with it for an easy life, though they may disagree, and even if that activist civil servant has no authority for her action.

More important are the natural processes of recruitment. Everyone has his or her own interests and priorities. There is a section of the Home Office dealing with nationality and immigration: one can imagine who would apply to work in it, and that is reflected in actual staffing. Likewise for many specialist areas. The minister may change, and have new, fresh ideas, but the staff implementing it have their own ideas and they have not changed.  It may be a molecule-thick layer on the water, but all the pronouncements of government are choked before they reach action and the public.

On occasion something dramatic happens:  when an immigration crackdown was announced not long ago, many junior civil servants protested and said they would refuse to implement it. It is rarely so explicit though: The Windrush Scandal was not caused by any order from the Home Secretary to deport those who had arrived here lawfully in a past generation, but by junior staff implementing a version of the rules, either idiotically or, one suspects, maliciously in order to discredit the whole scheme; and it worked.

I should not concentrate on that one areas though – it is not of particular interest, and serves only because of the scandal.

In many areas of government the same shallow-state effect is visible: stifling policy, stifling innovative thinking, and allowing just a few activist staff to have a wider impact. The government machine is too vast, too Byzantine, for it to be any other way.

Can fraud in social security or the National Health Service be curbed, as every government promises?  Not when staff are just getting on with their jobs to process applications as quickly as possible, and not spending time examining the minutiae or questioning suspicions, and not while they are kept afraid of accusations.  Ministers are as distant from the tasks for which they are nominally responsible as is the director of a multinational concern from the teenagers who serve their burgers. They may shout, but all the layers of insulation between them and the actual doers will muffle them entirely, and the junior staff will just get on with their jobs.

Kemi Badenoch has spoken to the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship that government should ignore extremist lobbyists – but she cannot do anything about it, because the real government are the junior staff at the public interface.

The opportunities for activists to fill the power vacuum is clear. They need not be in a supervisory role: someone in a back office wrote the coding that resulted in some government agency webpages having dropdowns that included ‘Islas Malvinas’ and ‘Occupied Palestine’. No one was tasked with checking and intervening. That at least appears to have been resolved after it was brought to higher attention. Many low-rankers are in the meantime still writing ‘guidance’ notes, enforced as iron law, forcing their own ideas on the junior staff, with no authority to do so.

We read of an employee of ACAS, a government agency, hounded out and slandered when he questioned critical race theory: race-hatred was to be enforced as unquestionable dogma, by the authority delegated by a Cabinet Minister. The tribunal was astounded, but ministers nominally in charge did not even notice. It is no part of government policy, and indeed has been condemned by ministers, so who is in charge, and why are they not removed?

The permanent, non-political civil service is not then to be seen in the great mandarins treated nominally with reverence, but collectively in the most junior layer, whose hands do all, working away at their tasks, keeping their heads down, insulated from the politics afar off from them. They are the single, thin layer that interact with the public, collectively stopping anything from changing.

See also