Archive for February, 2006

Freedom? It’s a steal

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

The Peter Hitchens programme on Channel 4 last night was interesting – it’s good to see this issues get some mainstream(-ish) airing – but not really anything new. It was instructive, for example, to see the the country’s chief law officer, the Lord Chancellor Charlie “any pal of Tony’s can get to be a minister” Falconer, is as ignorant of what is meant by civil liberties as his boss – or cares as little for them. His suggestion that restrictions on liberty were justified if they were at some point to bring to light evidence of a possible terrorist crime was frankly mind-boggling in its inanity. Is that honestly the best argument he’s got? Here’s a hint Charlie: destroying the centuries of legal tradition that lie at the root of our way of life on the basis of a hypothetical is at the very least pretty stupid. For a trained lawyer to do so amounts to professional incompetence on an epic scale. I thought the law was about evidence – pious hope is supposed to be the province of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps he’s in the wrong job.

The case studies that Hitchens used were disturbing:

  • the train spotter harassed and searched in public (on a station platform) by transport police;
  • the Christian couple reported by a council minion and then threatened with prosecution for ‘hate crime’ for their – admittedly unfashionable – beliefs;
  • the student whose fingerprints were linked to a theft from a post box – because he had written and posted the letters which were part of the evidence – all because his prints were held on file even though he had never been charged with or convicted of any offence;
  • the schoolboy arrested, DNA-swabbed, then released – all because he was a witness to a crime – and his DNA, of course, remains on file;
  • the Labour peer (and former senior policeman) threatened by the North Wales police;
  • and of course the woman convicted for reading a list of names by the Cenotaph.

These are merely the tip of the iceberg, and there is a case to be made that this sort of thing represents a serious and worrying change in the role of the police, from being the servant of the public charged with preventing and detecting crime, to agents of the state with a role in policing what people say and think. There is also a clear indication that there are many, both in public authorities and in the various police forces (the real plods and the pseudo-plods) who just like throwing their weight around. This, in itself is nothing new. What is new is the extent of the opportunities for such abuse, and the support which it receives from government; that we seem to have a government which is more and more concerned with overseeing and controlling citizens’ speech and thought, while leaving the victims of crime increasingly unprotected; and obsessed with monitoring and recording every movement, every transaction, of every one of us. In effect, that the role of the police is gradually becoming less and less one of protecting the citizens against criminals, and more and more about protecting the state. That should worry everybody.

Give me liberty to know, to think, to believe, and utter freely, according to conscience, above all other liberties.
John Milton

Suspension of disbelief (2)

Monday, February 27th, 2006

On further reflection, I am moved to wonder whether certain Labour bloggers (many of the denizens of Harry’s Place spring immediately to mind, amongst others) would have been as outspoken in their support of the mayor of London, if said mayor had happened to be a Tory?

Whatever, I still think it’s outrageous that a board explicitly set up to investigate corruption actually ends up doing stuff like this. Ourageous, but somehow unsurprising.

But the true danger is, when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.
Edmund Burke, Letter to Sheriffs (II 249)


Monday, February 27th, 2006

…is now up and running. Visit. Register. Contribute. This country needs a new constitutional settlement to protect liberty, rescue democracy and preserve freedom – to make politics relevant by making participation have a point. And of course to breathe life back into the great British tradition of ‘just leave us the fuck alone, OK?’

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.
Thomas Jefferson

Political football

Monday, February 27th, 2006

The PM’s mendacious maunderings on the subject of liberty have been adequately picked apart elsewhere (amongst others), so I’m not going to comment on that except to say that it is surprising to find a qualified lawyer so profoundly ignorant of the basics of their profession*. Instead I want to ask what it is that keeps people who oppose a party’s central policies campaigning and voting for them.

To talk of issues being treated as political footballs is a tired and worn out cliché. But what worries me more is the tendency of political party members (and even just supporters) to treat their parties as if they were football teams. That is to say, their party will receive their support no matter how crap it is, no matter what rubbish it is putting out. This sort of tribal loyalty is all very well when it comes to supporting one sporting team rather than another – supporting ‘my team’ because ‘I’ve always supported my team’ – but applying the same sort of unthinking loyalty in politics is frankly lazy, stupid and dangerous.

Yet that is exactly how many, perhaps most, party members and supporters (of all parties) behave towards their objects of their loyalty – unthinking devotion. And I don’t mean that there is a consciously thought-out decision that “I like policies A and B, but dislike C and D, yet on the whole A and B are more important, so they get my vote.” That at least would be some kind of rational process. I mean the thinking that goes, “C and D are really important, but more important still is that no other party should win – even though the other parties oppose C and D as well.” The essentially bizarre idea that you can campaign against bad policies, but should still support the party proposing them, because your party winning outweighs all other considerations.

Well the political process is just a little more important than football (though obviously not as measured by time on TV), and it’s not who wins power that matters, it’s what they do with it. It should be treated with the seriousness it deserves.

*And even more surprising that the country’s top law officer seems equally ill-informed.

Of the tyrant, spies and informers are the principal instruments. War is his favorite occupation, for the sake of engrossing the attention of the people, and making himself necessary to them as their leader.

The Bogey Woman

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

Despite the fact that she was ousted by an internal Tory coup more than fifteen years ago, the spectre of Thatcher still haunts many on the left. This ill-remembered bogey providing a justification for many for their continuing to support the illiberal Labour leadership. It seems that as far as they are concerned the mere mention of “Thatcher” trumps all arguments about liberty and public policy. I’m sure there must be a variant on Godwin’s Law here (as in, “in any argument in a UK forum about civil liberties, the probability of “Thatcher” being presented in the belief it is an unassailable argument-clincher rapidly approaches 1″).

It is all rather pathetic. After all, even if Thatcher had been as evil as Hitler, and her Tory government as wicked as the Nazis – that still wouldn’t make the current government any better. It’s rather like Dunbar being allegedly the driest place in Scotland (rainfall-wise – it has a lot of pubs) – one’s immediate reaction is, “So what? That only puts it on a par with being the wettest place in the Sahara.”

But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by thir vices brought to servitude,
Then to love Bondage more then Liberty,
Bondage with ease then strenuous liberty;
Samson Agonistes, John Milton

Suspension of disbelief

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

Now I know that Ken Livingstone is a bit of a prat. Well, maybe quite a lot of a prat. But suspended for four weeks for being rude to a tabloid journalist? Ridiculous.

It’s another example of mission creep in the application of laws. When the Standards Panel system was set up under the Local Government Act 2000 I suspect that most thought it would be dealing with serious accusations of financial misdeeds and such like. After all, that’s what the government said at the time. Instead it has been used as a means of harassing political opponents. Or bizarrely persuading people to harass themselves (I do find this very odd).

Meanwhile, some at least in the Labour Party have realised this is all frankly crazy. In response the standards board went into Scottish child mode (as in “It wasnae me – he made me dae it”).

I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking.
Woodrow Wilson

The penalty of inattention

Friday, February 24th, 2006

I do find it kind of depressing that while everything good this country has ever stood for is being dismantled in the twin names of ‘modernisation‘ and ‘terrorism‘ that so many politicians and political activists, as well as the vast bulk of the general public are still obsessed with the small change of political life. It’s like people living in a house by the sea arguing over the right colour for the paintwork and the pattern on the wallpaper while the sea has undermined the cliff on which the house stands*.

I know these smaller issues are important, especially to the individuals involved, but by their concentrating on those sorts of issues the government is being given a free ride with yet more illiberal legislation. It’s the other side of spin really. The shiny side is where stuff which isn’t new, or hasn’t achieved what was intended is ‘bigged up’ to be much more than it really is; the dark side is where bad, ill-thought-out, illiberal measure are presented as if they were just some dull administrative correction or actually a liberalisation.

Well ‘eternal vigilance is the price of liberty’ (as Jefferson probably didn’t say – it was Wendell Phillips apparently). Hell, at the moment I’d settle for a couple of weeks vigilance.

*Note how I cunningly avoided mentioning ‘re-arranging the deckchairs on the Ttanic’.

I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.
James Madison, speech, Virginia Convention, 1788

Double or quits

Thursday, February 23rd, 2006

It’s been a long day, and it was damn cold in the office (10 degrees for goodness sake! with the heating on full), but I wanted to set down my first reaction to Millibands ‘double devolution’.

As far as I can see, it consists essentially of cutting out local democratic control of spending, services, resources, in favour of a direct relationship between central government and local ‘volunteers’ and activists, who will, no doubt, be selected by the government (who else will do the selecting anyway?).

This is neither democratic nor decentralising. Indeed it amount to a further increase in central control and a further reduction in democracy and accountability. As a consequence I now look at the proposed school reforms in a new light. Rather than schools being merely removed from the ‘shackles’ of LEA control, they will instead be controlled directly from DfES (there’s a phrase about pipers and playlists that springs to mind). And no individual school will be in a position to stand up to the dictats of the minister of the month. Freedom is slavery, eh?

The contest for ages has been to rescue liberty from the grasp of executive power.
Daniel Webster

Missing the point (again)

Monday, February 20th, 2006

Neil Harding, I’m afraid, is almost the blogosphere’s very definition of cluelessness (as in ‘could not get a clue if he smeared himself in clue pheromones and stood in a middle of a field of horny clues in the clue mating season’). And briefly admitted as much on his own site (a genuine screenshot). He really still (despite repeated explanations by people who, frankly, are a lot more patient with him than he deserves) does not understand what is meant by civil liberties. He is a hopeless case. Unless of course he’s really just some sort of joke blog intended to discredit Labour supporters?

And despite his claim to ‘remember fully the whole authoritarianism of the Thatcher/Major era’, he quite clearly doesn’t really understand what is meant by authoritarianism, nor does his memory of that period seem to be particularly accurate (indeed downright inaccurate would be a better description), relying more on remembered slogans and the usual tactic of ‘if you don’t know something, just make shit up and hope no-one checks’.

Well I do remember, and I am over forty, and if anyone wants to talk about history – the assault on our freedom by this Labour Government are unprecedented in the last 350 years (I am not however 350 years old…). You may have disapproved of Thatcher’s economic policies – I did myself; you may have disapproved of the hectoring moral tone – I did too; but for all her personal and political faults neither her government nor John Major’s contrived to undermine the basis of our entire legal system or to tear up the fabric of our constitution, and all in the name of a narrow, short-term, media-driven political advantage.

That in the end is what is most despicable about this Labour government – that it does these things, not out of a sense of ideology or moral purpose, but for the sake a few good headlines and to outflank their party political opponents. That it should do such damage to our democracy so casually and so thoughtlessly, with such patent lack of understanding is what both astonishes and appals.

The end of the law is, not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.
John Locke

Nothing to fear…

Sunday, February 19th, 2006

BTW, I really will slap the next person I hear say, “But if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”

I’m seriously considering carrying a web cam round with me so (after they recover from the well-deserved slap), I can go round to their house and install it in their house so I can keep an eye on them. After all… they’ve done nothing wrong… so…

Meanwhile back at the quote library:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed – and thus clamorous to be led to safety – by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
H.L. Mencken

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