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New Year Update

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A few changes for 2017

Greetings from Texas. Getting the blog up and running again after a longer-than-anticipated Christmas and New Year break is somewhat harder than in previous years – or rather, I should say that it is proving difficult to spurn the joy of unstructured leisure time for the largely thankless task of ranting into WordPress.

Having taken a full fortnight away from the daily grind has been refreshing, and also revelatory. 2016 was the fifth year of Semi-Partisan Politics and by far the most successful, with a threefold increase in readership compared to 2015, helped along in large part by the EU referendum campaign and the American presidential election. But this positive trajectory has come at the cost of nearly every free moment in my all-too-undisciplined free time.

Writing a political blog (and trying to make it successful) is hard. In order to build and maintain an audience you have to publish nearly every day, often multiple times. Unless you have the benefit of establishment connections to furnish you with gossip or pimp out your work, you have to be demonically active on social media, tweeting effectively and trawling for pageviews on Facebook. And for a one-man outfit like this, time spent promoting the blog on social media is time taken away from writing and the all-important reading and research which adds value to the content, while too much time spent reading and writing at the expense of self-promotion means that one’s best work often goes largely unread.

Whatever value Facebook has as a medium for discussion and promoting this blog, it is also a black hole from which I now intend to escape. I could easily double or triple this blog’s readership in a short time by actively promoting articles on the various political Facebook groups – and indeed I did so for a time in the buildup to the EU referendum. But my time is limited, and I will no longer waste it affirming people’s current biases to a lazy applause of “likes” or posting in hostile groups only to receive endless comments telling me that I am Hitler. A well-placed Facebook intervention may draw in countless likes and re-shares resulting in a thousand additional pageviews, but too often this is low quality traffic with no loyalty or engagement. The readers I value most are the ones who stick around without Facebook nagging, and who both educate and argue with me through the Comments.

SEO is a cruel mistress. This blog’s most-read piece for 2016 was a short, throwaway piece about Tony Benn’s euroscepticism and likely stance on Brexit. Because of an inadvertently well-chosen headline and a dearth of similar articles it placed well on Google, and attracted many thousands more views than the polemics, fisking pieces or other articles of which I am far more proud and which contain much greater originality.

Meanwhile, the British media establishment continue their demented hostility toward the political blogosphere and dogged refusal to acknowledge some of the best and most original analysis out there (though fully aware that it exists) simply because it appears on a site with a .wordpress or .blogspot suffix and does not carry the imprimatur of the prestige titles which increasingly churn out so much unoriginal pseudo-analysis or breathless court gossip.

This blog has been linked several times in both the National Review and the New Republic, the premier conservative and liberal journals in America, despite the limited attention that I have given to US politics this year. Meanwhile, links from the incestuous British media are almost non-existent – though I am grateful to the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow for occasionally citing this blog in his own excellent and comprehensive political liveblogs. But the idea of sullying myself trying to attract the attention of SW1’s finest on Twitter in exchange for a mere “like” or (rarer still) a retweet no longer holds any appeal.

Then there is the constant feeling that one is only as good as one’s most recent blog post – which, if you are me, means long periods of self-doubt and wondering why I am bothering in the first place. As the email bulletins and Google alerts ping into the inbox every hour of every day there is the constant feeling of needing to go “on the record” about whatever new person or event is driving the 24-hour news cycle, of committing a hot take to public record while it is still relevant, to assimilate the latest information and latest developments, and then inevitable feelings of inadequacy when this high bar – impossible to achieve while working a full time job – is not met.

I have also been dwelling on the fact that the words published on any political blog do not hold their value for long. Sure, some articles will be blessed by the SEO gods and provide a constant stream of traffic, but generally speaking a reaction piece I write in response to a Guardian headline today will be lining the digital waste paper bin by tomorrow. I increasingly want to write words that hold their value for longer, and to some extent this means stepping back from the fray and going more in depth, which in turn requires more expertise (and a rebalancing away from writing toward reading and research).

The upshot of all this introspection is that the thought of returning to the fray – spending the bulk of my free time hunched over the laptop, only to be studiously ignored by those who drive the national conversation – has been less than appealing, especially while I am still enjoying the company of my American family and have easy access to some of the best tacos and Tex-Mex food that money can buy.

Fear not, though. Or don’t start celebrating, if you are a fire-breathing SJW who hates my guts. I’m not going away. This blog will continue. But I have taken a long, hard look at my priorities and there will be some changes afoot.

I am not yet at liberty to discuss the most significant change that I will be making from a personal perspective. Suffice it to say that I have decided that being taken seriously without some serious form of credential is almost impossible, and that it is time to bow to this inevitable fact. At present, I am neither a politician nor a lawyer, nor an accredited expert on the constitution, the European Union, healthcare reform or any of the other subjects on which this blog touches. Over time, this will now change. The focus of this blog may therefore shift and be refined slightly over time, though there will be no immediate change.

The fruits of this work may not be visible for some time, but I hope to be able to provide more detail in due course. In the meantime, here’s what you can expect:

  1. Slightly less frequent updates (I religiously posted nearly every day in 2016; this tempo is now likely to decrease)
  2. More short reaction pieces or flags (bringing other worthy articles or videos to your attention with only limited commentary from myself)
  3. Fewer “fisking” pieces (taking apart and critiquing articles and speeches line-by-line)
  4. Hopefully a few more longer-form, ruminative pieces on certain subjects close to this blog’s heart (Brexit, free speech, identity politics, healthcare reform and the NHS)

And one thing will not change. This blog will continue to be stridently independent, and I will at no time “sell out” to raise my profile through artificial means. If I happen to be published, linked or quoted elsewhere in the coming year, it will not be the result of modifying my positions or moderating my tone. Likewise if by some chance I end up back on the BBC as the token “anti-social justice” guy.

I will still be in Texas for the next couple of weeks, but activity on the blog will now slowly start to ramp up again. Please accept my apologies if I am slow to approve or respond to comments, emails or tweets – the backlog is long, and I am still very much in holiday mode.

I wish all my readers a very happy and prosperous 2017.

Sam Hooper.

 

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Deep In The Heart Of Texas

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Back to the ‘Heart of the Rio Grande’

Well okay, way down at the southern tip of Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border, to be more precise.

I’m off to Texas to spend the Christmas and New Year celebrations with my American family. Blogging will continue (I hope to resurrect the Postcards from America series started last year and have the chance to write a few more reflective pieces) but will be at a slightly slower tempo, with occasional hiatuses on those days when we are either travelling or making merry.

I am currently seeking recommendations for good places to eat in Austin, Houston and Las Vegas – if you have any inspired ideas, please do get in touch!

Many thanks as always for reading, commenting, cheering and arguing with me here at Semi-Partisan Politics. Stay tuned!

 

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Postcard From America: Adult Education Is Key To Future Prosperity

I’m currently back in the United States to celebrate Christmas in Texas. These short “Postcards from America” will document a few of my thoughts as I escape the political whirlwind of Westminster and look back at Britain from the vantage point of our closest ally

In America, not everyone waits passively for government to improve their life circumstances. Aided by a thriving community college sector, people take their futures into their own hands

While sitting in the cinema waiting for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to begin, I was struck by the number of local advertisements for regional schools, community colleges and universities which were shown.

By my reckoning, at least 40% of the commercials screened over a fifteen minute period were promoting some kind of educational service. Contrast this with the United Kingdom, where local commercials of any kind are a rarity, and most national commercials these days tend to be for banks, fast-moving consumer goods, the EE mobile phone network (featuring Kevin Bacon) or one of the limited number of other companies able to afford a national cinema campaign.

An example of the type of commercial screened at the south Texas cinema I attended is shown above. Typically, they feature personal testimonials from ordinary people who explain simply and positively how going back into education has helped them in their careers, how the various modes of study fitted in around their existing home and work commitments, and how easy/affordable it turned out to be.

These degrees and diplomas provide a springboard into skilled, middle class jobs, many of which are well paid and non-outsourceable. Dental nurses, IT engineers, electricians, car mechanics and many other such career opportunities. Recognising that not everybody can be – or wants to be – an elite lawyer or doctor, these institutions equip people with tangible skills which actively help them in the labour market, ensuring that their career options are far greater than the prospect of 40 years working at the 7-eleven, or some other minimum wage drudgery.

This emphasis on adult education is one sign of a more active and engaged citizenry, of a people who understand that their self advancement and personal destiny is in their own hands, not those of the government.

To be fair, some British politicians are also coming to realise the importance of adult education to keep our own workforce skilled, adaptable and capable of commanding high wages rather than minimum wages. During the Labour leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn floated his plan for a National Education Service to do for lifelong learning what the NHS did for healthcare.

From the Conservatives, however, there has been nothing. Not a squeak from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who supposedly has future leadership ambitions of her own and therefore might be expected to have a substantive policy or two up her sleeve. What are the Conservative government’s bright ideas for a more market-oriented, privately delivered solution to the adult education gap?

Banging on about apprenticeships is all very well, but what of adults over 25 who cannot take an apprenticeship under the current schemes, or who want to work in a field where none exist? What of the 55-year-old steelworker made redundant with few other transferable skills?

A conservative government worth its salt would look at Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for a National Education Service, balk at the more nakedly socialist aspects, but then consider how a smaller and leaner government might be able to promote the education of the adult workforce in pursuance of the national interest. But of course our current Coke Zero Conservative government is not worth its salt.

If Britain is to prosper in this globalised age – and if our poorest, most disadvantaged fellow citizens are to be spared from a harsh life of minimum wage drudgery – we need a learning revolution in the United Kingdom, a British Apollo Program for education.

What party, what future leader will rise to the occasion and propose a solution equal to the task at hand?

Community College

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Texas Spares No Expense To Kill

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In Texas today,  there is apparently no expense too great when it comes to efficiently killing people, and no expense too small to be called unaffordable and cancelled if it preserves or improves quality of existence for the living.

This has nothing to do with the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, or the ongoing and contentious argument over abortion; those battles are raging on their own elsewhere.

Rather, this is about the eagerness of the state of Texas to go to any expense and any length to continue dispatching prisoners on death row with clockwork efficiency and regularity, under a veil of secrecy and unknown cost, while any other state expenditures are castigated as a sign of ‘big government’ and pared back – even as those who have (rightly or wrongly) come to depend on that government support suffer grievously as a consequence.

The Guardian reports on the extraordinary lengths to which the Texas state government – which takes every opportunity to position itself as staunchly pro-life and legislate based on the ‘sanctity of human life’ – is willing to go in order to continue performing lethal injections once its current supply of lethal injection drugs runs out at the end of March:

Texas has obtained a new batch of the drugs it uses to execute death row inmates, allowing the state to continue carrying out death sentences once its existing supply expires at the end of the month.

But correction officials will not say where they bought the drugs, arguing that information must be kept secret to protect the safety of its new supplier. In interviews with the Associated Press, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also refused to say whether providing anonymity to its new supplier of the sedative pentobarbital was a condition of its purchase.

It should be noted that Texas is not the only state to go above and beyond in its zeal to continue killing inmates – Ohio also recently switched to a new cocktail of lethal injection drugs after it found itself unable to obtain new supplies of the original formula.

The fact that no international pharmaceutical company is willing any longer to supply drugs to be used for barbaric executions was a mere obstacle to be overcome for Ohio, who found a new drug and a new supplier, and subsequently botched their first execution using the new method. One eyewitness, a priest, reported:

I was aghast. Over those 11 minutes or more he was fighting for breath, and I could see both of his fists were clenched the entire time. His gasps could be heard through the glass wall that separated us. Towards the end, the gasping faded into small puffs of his mouth. It was much like a fish lying along the shore puffing for that one gasp of air that would allow it to breathe. Time dragged on and I was helpless to do anything, sitting helplessly by as he struggled for breath. I desperately wanted out of that room.

For the next four minutes or so a medical tech listened for a heart beat on both sides of his chest. That seemed to drag on too, like some final cruel ritual, preventing us from leaving. Then, at 10.53am, the warden called the time of death, they closed the curtains, and that was it.

I came out of that room feeling that I had witnessed something ghastly. I was relieved to be out in the fresh air. There is no question in my mind that Dennis McGuire suffered greatly over many minutes. I’d been told that a “normal” execution lasted five minutes – this experimental two-drug concoction had taken 26 minutes. I consider that inhumane.

But let us return to Texas, so often the protagonist in these stories. The reason given by Texas state officials for not releasing details of where their shiny new supply of lethal injection drugs came from – in response to an entirely justified request by the AP – sets a new standard for cognitive dissonance and Orwellian doublethink:

The decision to keep details about the drugs and their source secret puts the agency at odds with past rulings of the state attorney general’s office, which has said the state’s open records law requires the agency to disclose specifics about the drugs it uses to carry out lethal injections.

“We are not disclosing the identity of the pharmacy because of previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process,” said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

It is already well known that Texas’ supposed devotion to the sanctity of life does not apply to those on death row, just as the state that held a prayer event to ask God to intercede and end a long-running drought is also quite happy to ignore Jesus’ teachings about mercy and forgiveness.

But now it also appears that the state of Texas is acting in this opaque and clearly antidemocratic manner because of fears for the safety of those people who are involved in producing the deadly drugs.

Imagine, for a moment, that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had instead released their statement with the following revision (amendments in brackets):

“We are not disclosing the identity of the [people and organisations involved] because of previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided [services] used in the [abortion] process.”

Pigs would fly and snow fall in hell before the state of Texas would ever consider withholding the names and details of people involved in providing abortion services out of a desire to protect their safety, even though there are many real, tangible examples of such people being subjected to harassment, intimidation, physical harm and assassination. By contrast, anti-death penalty campaigners have shown no signs of wanting to intimidate or harm those with whom they disagree.

The key difference (and reason for the massive divergence in treatment of the two groups) is that as far as those in power in Texas are concerned, anyone ever involved in facilitating an abortion is inherently evil and deserves whatever comes their way, but anyone who facilitates an execution is doing their God-fearing, patriotic duty.

And this dichotomy exists because the governing majority in Texas, from Rick “Oops” Perry on downwards, do not see the execution of an incarcerated inmate by the all-powerful government as a violation of the commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill.

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One of the indispensable functions of government?

 

At this point, two disclaimers:

1. The purpose of this article is not to elicit sympathy for murderers, or even to debate the merits of the death penalty – though this blog will go on record as being resolutely against the death penalty, viewing it as a barbaric practice from a bygone age best relegated to the past.

2. Nor is the purpose of this article to debate the issue of abortion – though this blog will go on record as believing that life begins at conception, but that there are various times and circumstances (rape, incest, catastrophic developmental anomalies, risk to the life of the mother) when two equally terrible choices must be weighed and the resultant answer may come down on the side of terminating the pregnancy at the earliest opportunity; and that in these terrible, heart-wrenching circumstances, no one is better placed to make the awful decision than the mother, least of all government.

The purpose of this blog is to ask a very simple question of the Texas government: where the hell are your priorities?

Why, when Texas struggles with shameful rates of illiteracy, teen pregnancy, teen births, adults in correctional facilities, adults under probation, citizens without health insurance and food insecure children, is the state government rummaging for spare change and wasting precious time and resources in order to continue funding executions, of all things?

Why, when life is so difficult and wretched for so many Texans, is their state government more interested in preserving its ability to smite the guilty (or not guilty) than help the needy?

When conservative Texans are not threatening to secede from the United States in protest of the Tyrannical Kenyan Socialist Marxist Fascist Community-Organising Gun-Confiscating Traitor unlawfully occupying the White House, they often like to pledge their love and respect for the Constitution. Section 13 of Article 1 (Bill of Rights) of their own Texas State Constitution has this to say on the matter of punishing the guilty:

Sec.13. EXCESSIVE BAIL OR FINES; CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT; REMEDY BY DUE COURSE OF LAW. Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted. All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him, in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law.

“Nor cruel or unusual punishment inflicted.”

In Texas, it appears that selective reading is not limited to the Bible.