Archive for the 'Freedom' Category

Well informed

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

I realise that all countries have their share of nosey parkers and busybodies all too eager to keep an eye on and interfere in the lives of their neighbours, and that indeed there is a long and ignoble history of folk like this in the UK. But it has always been looked on by the vast majority of people with a mixture of disgust and contempt – a despicable habit, and the words used to describe it heavy with disappobation.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the New Britain is the constant encouragement of this behaviour – the government, both at local and national level, is eager that we should all turn the unpaid informer, spy upon our fellow citizens and report to the authorities any suspicion of officially-forbidden behaviour. Not only that, but instead of feeling ashamed of our nosey-parkerish actions, we should instead feel a glow of pride in the accomplishment of our civic duty. After all the ultimate aim of any authoritarian state is to have the population police themselves – to atomize society, creating a non-community of mutually-suspicious individuals: don’t use that hose-pipe, you don’t know who may be watching. It’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s petty and it’s making Britain a more unpleasant place in which to live.

So what brought this on today? Following on from the Scottish smoking ban, we’ve just been sent a load of (temporary) signs to put up in all our premises. Not just ‘No Smoking’ signs, but ones which spell out that smoking (or allowing smoking) on the premises is an offence, and which have a telephone number to call to complain about anyone found smoking. So, instead of remonstrating with a smoker, people are asked to phone an informer line; instead of dealing with a situation on a personal level, it becomes a matter of state enforcement.

I could point out here that all our premises have been non-smoking areas for years anyway (decades in fact). They are museums, after all. But nothing must stand in the way of the need for the state to pry into every corner of our lives, to break down our personal relationships and reduce everything to a transaction betweeen the powerless individual and the all-powerful state…

Sorry about that. I’ll calm down now. What annoys more than anything about this sort of thing is the complete absence of any necessity for it. It’s not because they must; it’s certainly not because they ought; it’s simply because they can.

Remember to inform on your neighbours... it's your civic duty!

NB: I may have made a little change by adding the words ‘Informer Line’. And changing the phone number. By the way, in case anyone’s wondering, I don’t smoke.

The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.
John Stuart Mill

Harry, hassle, hound him…

Monday, April 24th, 2006

Many other have already commented on this, but once more the Dear Leader speaks out on crime and civil liberties:

“I would impose restrictions on those suspected of being involved in organised crime. In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country.”

So how about making a start with those who are suspected (on quite strong grounds, I might add) of having engaged in the organised selling of Honours (a criminal offence). Yeah, go on Tony – do us all a favour. Harry, hassle and hound yourself till you give up or leave the country. And while you’re at it could you arrange for the police to seize all the assets of the Labour Party until they can prove that they came by them honestly. Or is this just another set of proposals that apply to everyone except you?

This guy is supposed to be a trained lawyer – do you think Cherie did all his exams for him? He certainly seems to have only the vaguest grasp of the fundamental principles of British Law. And he still doesn’t know what civil liberties are.

Meanwhile the deeply unpleasant Charles Clarke continues to find new ways to appal. I was especially intrigued that in all the discussion (and this included the journalists) everyone involved managed to avoid the word ‘innocent’ – as if the mere fact of having been put on trial were somehow evidence of some form of guilt (‘no smoke without fire’, etc.). Can someone explain to me why ’21st century crime’ (whatever that means) has to be fought with 16th century methods? And where did ‘Not proven’ spring from? I’m sure he just makes stuff up on the hoof.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that one of the prize possesions in the National Archives in the next century will be the collection of envelopes on the back of which New Labour policy was developed.

“Having escaped restraint, they were, like some people we know of, afraid of their freedom, did not know what to do with it and seemed glad to get back into the old familiar bondage.”
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Letter from America

Friday, March 31st, 2006

25th March 2005
I won’t pretend that I don’t want to seem melodramatic. But I want to echo Thomas Paine and say these are the times that try men’s souls. I am here in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state which is itself one of the fruits of early American imperialism. Yet when I consider developments in the UK and in the USA, it is surprising how often I am brought back to the writings of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the writers who inspired them.

It is all too tempting to see the American rebels as just that – American. Yet they based the justification of their revolt on the liberties and rights they felt they possessed as Britons. And in the face of those liberties and rights being ignored or overridden, they reacted as Britons would – they rebelled against the King’s Government.

So now we find ourselves in the USA faced with laws, in the form of the Patriot Act (and what a despicable give-away name that is), that are prima facie unconstitutional, yet somehow unchallenged as the pygmies who comprise the political elite fear to appear ‘weak’; and in the UK with laws that effectively strip away all the protections of the citizen against the might of the state apparatus, and laws that aim to enhance the power of the executive to a level unknown in the whole of British history.

In a sense it is impossible to be melodramatic about this – the reality outstrips any hyperbole I might attempt. But in defence of our liberty, for ourselves and for our children, we need to affirm, in Jefferson’s (still striking) words, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”; that no government can have any legitimacy which seeks to undermine, limit or curtail these rights; and that whether these acts are motivated by ignorance or malice, we will be swift to condemn and slow to forgive.

We are a free people. The state should be our servant not our master. Britons, strike home!*

*Tim sums the reasons up as ever more thoroughly and intelligently than I ever can.

Update: I am now in California and Internet-connected again. In the meantime, the House of Lords appear to have fallen for a trick that a school-child would have seen through. It’s the database, you fools. Sigh.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

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.

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

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